A defunct site housing papers, articles and lengthier disquisitions by Owen Hatherley, now blogging only at
Architecture or Revolution: the Congres International d’Architecture Moderne, 1928-33
Ribbon City Proposal for Magnitogorsk, Sovremennaia Arkhitektura, 1930
(Some of this might be familiar from the garden cities piece: this is a paper given at the Building Centre on 19/5/07)
Perhaps the key question for the purposes of town planning today is an old problem that has occupied architects and theorists for around a hundred years now: what to do about the antithesis between city and country. Whether to urbanise, deurbanise or suburbanise. Outside of Britain and the relatively privileged global North this question is taking on a more bitterly ironic form. In Planet of Slums
Mike Davis outlines how neo-liberal policies of ‘structural adjustment’ - the emasculation of civil society and the state in favour of multinational corporations – has created an entirely new form of ad-hoc, low-rise, insanitary and extremely poor urban development, where planning is all but unimaginable. As opposed to the cul de sacs and suburbs of Britain or the skyscrapers of China, the urban model of the future might equally probably be the tin shack in the favela. In this context, the role of architecture and planning seems almost non-existent. However, in an earlier period of cities riddled with slums, of widespread overcrowding, dilapidation, inequality and disease – the Europe of the Great Depression – architects and theorists were extremely vocal about proposals for its alleviation, or in some cases, for outright revolution.
This is the context in which we should consider the CIAM, the umbrella group set up in 1928 to promote Modern architecture and town planning, which lasted until 1957. The CIAM’s history is intricate and complicated: it would eventually be destroyed by the younger theorists of Team 10, who are worth discussing on their own. Here I’m going to focus on the organisation’s first five years, from its first conference in Switzerland in 1928 to its formation of a fixed body of theory in 1933. In this period there was an extraordinary density of politically charged debates between the Le Corbusier, the CIAM’s most famous exponent, and the German and Soviet architects and theorists over what kind of urbanism the CIAM should favour. Many of the more controversial ideas would later be forgotten as the CIAM’s 1933 ‘Athens Charter’ became town planning gospel after 1945. We will find a diffuse organisation much more contested, more polemical, and a great deal stranger than either the official histories and the Jane Jacobs-style denunciations.
First of all, it needs to be said for the historical record that the idea of an umbrella organisation encompassing all radical architects comes not, in fact, from the famous grand old men of the International Style like Walter Gropius, Sigfried Giedion or Le Corbusier, but from the Soviet artist El Lissitzky, who proposed in 1924 such a group to Corbusier, who turned him down on the grounds that it would be politically risky to associate with the Soviets. Corbusier’s town planning ideas from this time are best seen in Towards a New Architecture
, the 1923 book in which he fairly demands that enlightened industrialists adopt an antiseptic Modernism in order to avert social unrest in the rotting slums. The closing chapter, ‘Architecture or Revolution’ concludes, famously, ‘revolution can be avoided’. Naturally this was taken rather differently by the Soviets, for whom revolution was to be encouraged. 1924’s Style and Epoch
by Moisei Ginzburg was their equivalent of Corbusier’s book, and it proposed we find ‘poetry and romance’ in ‘the sounds and the noises of the new town, in the rush of the boisterous streets’.
Between then and CIAM’s formation in 1928, national organisations of Modernists had formed, like the Ring in Germany and the OSA in Soviet Union, and the decision was taken at the Weissenhof Siedlung
to set up an international body. At the first international conference at Sarraz in Switzerland any ructions were kept under control. The attendants at this conference included, as well as Corbusier, Ernst May (the socialist Frankfurt town planner whose suburbs were the largest scale Modernist developments in the world at that point) and the ABC Group who described themselves as ‘Functionalist-Collectivist-Constructivist’: Hannes Meyer, the second bauhaus director, along with Mart Stam and Hans Schmidt. The theorist and historian Sigfried Giedion was elected secretary of the organisation. Although the invited Soviet delegates – Lissitzky and Moisei Ginzburg – were refused visas, the political radicalism of Soviet Constructivism infused the founding declaration, which is reckoned to be mostly the work of the ABC group, and states: ‘town planning is the organisation of the functions of collective life, as it extends over both the urban agglomeration and the countryside…the chaotic division of land, resulting from sales, speculations, inheritances, must be abolished by a collective and methodical policy’: this was essentially a demand for land nationalisation, and needless to say, such a policy was not exactly sympathetic to laissez-faire capitalism.
A glimpse of what such a policy might produce was shown by the Frankfurt developments, and accordingly the next CIAM conference held there in 1929: the picture here is of the special issue of the magazine Das Neue Frankfurt
that promoted it. Thousands had been rehoused in Modernist garden suburbs, partly due to extremely economical construction methods and space standards, and nationalisation of land by the Social Democratic administration. Accordingly, the theme of the conference was ‘the dwelling for the existence minimum’ – that is, low-cost social housing: although if this sounded rather forbidding there were also Dadaist performances by Kurt Schwitters and a performance of George Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique as entertainment, as well as strolls round the New Frankfurt. The minimum dwellings were low-rise, surrounded by green space, linked by infrastructure and provided with community facilities. However some, such as the theorist and designer Karel Teige, criticised them for their lack of collectivism, seeing as they were mostly single-family houses. By this point CIAM members in Moscow like Moisei Ginzburg had been experimenting with collective apartment blocks that were like mini-towns in themselves: the most famous of these was the semi-collectivised house, the Narkomfin, under construction at the time of the conference, in which a block of flats contained a library, a canteen a gymnasium as well as duplex flats. This shows a more extensive proposal by the OSA group’s Mikhail Barsch and Vladimirov, with yet more extensive collective facilities. These blocks were to be dispersed in parkland, and housework was to be abolished by the collective facilities.
At this point I’ll digress a little into the forms that city-planning and architecture had taken at that point in the USSR. As well as the collective flats that were being experimented with, factory districts and working class areas were provided with workers’ clubs: here’s the plans and photographs of a couple, which as El Lissitzky wrote, would not be places where people passively consumed entertainment: ‘the important thing is that the mass of the members must be directly involved. They themselves must find in it the maximum of self-expression.’ So while this provided for leisure, more mundane problems were solved by the communal kitchens and laundries: these three provided for districts of St Petersburg. The idea that united all these interventions, whether the communal flats, clubs or kitchens was the ‘social condenser’: collective facilities that ensured that nearly all space in their conception of town planning would be public space.
All these were, nevertheless, essentially urban solutions in what was an overwhelmingly rural – if you will, ‘developing’ – country. In 1930 a competition was held which would overshadow the next three years of CIAM activity: the ‘Green City’ contest, for a sort of station between the urban and the rural. The contest here highlighted two competing town planning ideas among the avant-garde. The first was ‘urbanism’, led by one Leonid Sabsovich. Despite the name, this was basically a version of the garden city on a massive scale, with huge collective blocks dispersed across the countryside. Extending the ‘social condenser’ idea to whole cities, this was a particularly utopian kind of urbanism, in which marriage and property would be obliterated, with rooms of one's own for men and women, irrespective of marital status: as Sabsovich put it, everyone in the dom-kommuna was a potential 'bachelor', 'husband' or 'wife', and 'divorces' could be achieved by the sliding of the partition-like walls. But more important for the CIAM were the proposals for disurbanism. The sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich had converted Moisei Ginzburg, a member of CIRPAC, the CIAM’s central committee, and most of the OSA Group, to a radically dispersed notion of city planning. This was a response to a situation in which the city and country were virtually at civil war, and huge primitive accumulation led to cities acquiring favela-like makeshift outskirts. Instead of designing new cities or expanding the old, Okhitovich wanted them exploded into vast networks connected by advanced transportation networks, stretching all the way across the countryside.
Meanwhile, many leading CIAM activists, such as Ernst May, Mart Stam, Andre Lurcat and Hannes Meyer had moved to the USSR to plan what Nikolai Milyutin, in a widely read book, called the Sotsgorod
: an acronym for ‘the socialist city’. Accordingly the CIAM was in 1930-31 mainly concerned with Soviet developments at the time of the first Five Year Plan, as well as with responses to the depression in Western Europe. Le Corbusier, whose Centrosoyus building in Moscow was then under construction, even changed his slogan at this point to ‘architecture and revolution’, and critiqued the German minimum dwellings for their lack of Soviet style ‘social condenser’ facilities. At two CIAM ‘special congresses’ in 1931 in Zurich and Berlin the poltical atmosphere was charged enough to make more apolitical architects like Mies van der Rohe decidedly uncomfortable, with Corbusier himself under attack for building private villas and for his Plan Voisin, where the skyscrapers of big business occupied the centre of the city.
At this point it’s worth looking closely at the disurbanist proposals, as these are in many ways the most atypical of what would become famous as the CIAM town planning style of slab blocks and open space. While Le Corbusier’s aesthetic was Platonic, designing huge edifices, disurbanist theory was based on fluidity and changeability. In the OSA group journal Sovremennaia Arkhitektura
the architect Pasternak wrote that the fixed house was an ‘anachronism, apathetic and out of place, no longer an active participant in an active and fast moving life’. The houses being developed by the OSA at this time were prefabricated, both easy for people to assemble and dismantle, and were intended to be provided by the state to individuals who could do whatever they liked with them: this diagram here shows one of Moisei Ginzburg’s prototypes. It can, as you can see, be added to to make two linked houses, or put together to make a communal block if the inhabitants so wish. SA declared that the notion of a building built to last was henceforth over: this picture, from shows another prototype: cylindrical pods placed in untamed countryside. There was here an extreme of collectivism, with a total abolition of private property and extension of communal facilities, and at the same time an extreme of individualism, with each person having their own single dwelling, whether male or female, in a couple or not: a ‘pod of one’s own’, as it were. The plan of these settlements was in the form of interlinked ribbons, each one representing a strip of industry, agriculture, transport, cultural facilities and housing.
These proposals, when put across at the 1930 Green City contest, elicited an immediate response from Le Corbusier in his Response to Moscow, later retitled The Radiant City
. The final form of this book dwells often on the follies of Soviet disurbanism. Private letters between himself and Moisei Ginzburg from 1930 showed that this was a debate in which Corbusier was the collectiviser and the Soviet architect the individualist. Ginzburg wrote that ‘you want to cure the city, because you are trying to keep it essentially the same as capitalism made it’. While the Response to Moscow eulogised the Plan, seeing it as a despotic force, a Napoleonic ‘tribune of the people’ the Soviet disurbanists eulogised a kind of democratic planning in the tradition of council communism, in which when the collective networks of industry and transport were provided and property was eliminated, then people could live wherever they decided to put their pod. Okhitovich wrote that ‘the stronger the collective links, the stronger the individual personality’. This is a conception far from the familiar opposition of on one side the fixed, monolithic plan, as in the CIAM’s postwar outgrowths, and on the other the capitalist anarchy of leaving the free market to remake the city in its image. At the same time it suggests an approach to the divide between city and country that has been resolutely untried.
This is mainly because history would soon catch up with the CIAM, and particularly its radical German and Soviet sections. Unsurprisingly, the next CIAM conference was planned to be held in Moscow in 1933. However the Palace of the Soviets competition of that year showed the direction that the rise of Stalinism was taking architecture and planning – a huge, monumental city centrepiece, although most CIAM architects took part anyway, with Corbusier’s megastructural entry being particularly stunning. But concentrating on the big city was the opposite of the OSA’s suggestions, where in Okhitovich’s words ‘the network would win, the centre would die’. Okhitovich and Ginzburg had advocated demolishing much of Moscow, which would revert to a giant park filled with monuments. Yet here was the capital stamping its authority on the country: the ‘cult of hierarchy’ that Okhitovich had warned against. The CIAM did have one small conference in Moscow in December 1932, with CIAM general secretary Sigfried Giedion and others meeting Ginzburg and the OSA group, yet the game was obviously up: the winner of the Palace of the Soviets competition was a huge neoclassical edifice. Giedion actually sent a telegram and a photomontage in protest to Stalin, which perhaps fortunately he never received. In a letter to Corbusier, Giedion outlined the contradictions of the CIAM’s position: opposed to untrammelled capitalism, yet forced to suppress their politics in order to get work. He asked: should we be technicians or politicians? If the latter, it would be ‘impossible to have an influence with anyone important at the moment’, especially after the rise of Hitler in Germany cut off the other centre of Modernism.
And rather than being held in Moscow, the 1933 CIAM conference would be held on a cruiseship on its way from Marseilles to Athens, with both the Soviets and most of the Germans absent. Here the ‘Athens Charter’ was composed, enshrining tall blocks rather than the houses proposed by the Germans or the pods and social condensers of the Soviets, and fixed zoning as opposed to the more fluid models that were in the air only a couple of years before. And this is the CIAM we know, providing a brilliant but deeply flawed model of town planning which would transform cities in the 1950s and 60s, often without the social and collective facilities that were such an important part of the original idea, reflecting the compromised social democracy of the postwar period. Nevertheless, in its first five years, the CIAM was at the centre of a much more dynamic and contradictory debate over town planning, and one in which the total demands of both big business and the state were put into question. And if there is a lesson from the first five years of the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, it is that planning and a conception of fluidity and change are not mutually exclusive: plans can be much stranger and more romantic than the mundane chaos of capitalism.