Americanism (and Technology, Advertising, Socialism) in Weimar Architecture
To introduce this paper I'd like to point to the differences between these two images. This building was originally built in 1912, as a factory in what is now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, near Alexanderplatz in eastern central Berlin. In 1926 it became 'Karl-Liebknecht-Haus', the headquarters of the KPD, the Communist Party of Germany. After suffering severe bomb damage during World War Two, it was restored to its current state. It is currently the headquarters of Die Linke. As it now stands, we see a minimal, rather Beidermeier-esque urban block, sober and traditional, without any extraneous detail bar some minor political advertising on the façade. In the earlier photograph, taken in 1930, the entire surface of the building has been taken over by slogans, proclaiming opposition to Fascism, the SPD, the Young Plan and so forth, culminating in the slogan 'for a Soviet Germany', with poster of Lenin added accordingly – other contemporary posters show Liebknecht and Luxemburg along with him. The significance of these two images is as follows. Within these of the same building is the promise of a polemical architecture, a socialist aesthetics that bases itself on the techniques of modern advertising. The KPD headquarters here is a slightly more low-technology version of the famous illuminated facades of the Kurfurstendamm, a Communist's spin on the 'Reklamarchitektur' or 'advertising architecture' of commercial architects such as Erich Mendelsohn. It is a fragment of something which never quite came to pass – a Communist Weimar architecture, as opposed to a reformist or consumerist architecture, which makes its form all the more interesting, particularly seeing that it derives, after one or two degrees of separation, from a particular idea of the American city.
It's notable that façade's interaction with the architecture is blaringly loud and aggressive. It is not minimalist, but makes the form of the building itself completely subservient to propaganda and sloganeering. Yet the particular approach taken at Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, where the advertising forms continuous strips of sans serif text, running in bands along the building, is indebted to the approach of commercial architects. Mendelsohn and others explicitly attempted to rationalise American advertising, stripping away its kitschy crassness into an almost – but not quite – abstract play of lights, in which the chaos of signage of a Times Square would be reworked into sheer lines and planes of neon. In this it would seem to be in opposition to the lack of ornament and lack of aesthetic 'noise' in the architecture of Weimar Modernism, the highly advanced and influential movement then known as the 'Neues Bauen' and retrospectively, dubiously rebranded by American critics as The International Style. If there is a definable Social Democratic architecture of the Weimar Republic, then it is the one constituted in the 'siedlung' low-cost housing estates planned under the SPD architect and planner Martin Wagner. These estates, part of a mass housing programme memorably described as 'built ideology' by the architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, exemplify a particular received idea of Modern architecture, with their ornament-free surfaces, their blocks dispersed across landscaped greenery. They are not wholly suburban entities, with the architecture of Bruno Taut in particular displaying a garishly artificial use of colour which would not feature in the version of this modernism that would eventually become 'the international style'. Nonetheless they do not appear metropolitan, do not partake in the onslaught of advertising, traffic and spectacle that are central to the Metropolis. If they are indebted to an American source, it is not the delirious USA of skyscrapers, jazz and neon advertisements, but rather the upper-crust architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the apparently 'enlightened' capitalism of Henry Ford.
At this point it's worth digressing into Tafuri's theories of the city and modernism, and their relation to the class compromises that marked urban planning in 1920s Berlin. Tafuri is in English-speaking scholarship the best known thinker associated with the Venice school of architectural historians, of the 1960s and 1970s, whose Workerist-inflected Marxism was shared by the architect Aldo Rossi. Their stance can be summed up in a sentence from Rossi's 1966 book The Architecture of the City - 'there is no such thing as an oppositional architecture'. Similarly, Tafuri would write 'there cannot be founded a class architecture, but only a class critique of architecture'. Nonetheless, his project, and that of his collaborators such as Francesco Dal Co and Massimo Cacciari, would return frequently to the experiments in municipal housing of the 1920s, if only in order to argue for their essential uselessness as a political instrument, as a means of achieving serious reform within the capitalist city. Although unlike their postmodernist successors, both Rossi and Tafuri appeared to believe that 'the socialist house' was at least possible, and Rossi actually identifies it in the monumental workers flats of 1920s Vienna. Nonetheless, they relegate its achievement to an 'after the revolution'.
In Architecture and Utopia, his short study of the links between the avant-garde, social democratic reformism and the rationalised metropolis, Tafuri discusses the estates on the outskirts of Berlin and Frankfurt as an example of an alliance between social democracy and rationalised capitalism, in which an attempt is made to solve capitalism’s contradictions under the conditions of a mixed economy. Tafuri lists these as
'the virtuous linkage of mass production techniques, mass consumption and advertising, based on the nuclear family household, Taylorist work organisation, collective wage bargaining, the hegemony of the large corporation, Keynesian demand management, the welfare state and the mass production of standardised housing'
Although Tafuri leaves out from his list the workers' organisations and co-operatives who were very much a part of this compact, and the analysis appears to describe post-1945 capital more closely than post-1914, the general thread is sharp enough. The estates are ‘partial utopias of the plan’. They are invariably at a remove from the Metropolis, they are pure suburban enclaves which try to cut themselves off from Metropolitan chaos and contradiction, while partaking in its networks of transportation and employment. Aesthetically, this results in an urban form that has often been considered standardised, rectilinear and stark – although it should be pointed out that this is based on a misunderstanding, via black and white photos of luridly coloured buildings – and an urban form which is essentially indebted to the garden city and the garden suburb, that Edwardian, publess emblem of arts-and-crafts reformism. It is a kind of idealised Americanism, where Fordist management, rationalised technology and the avant-garde’s mutation of industrial aesthetics is placed in the service of the dispersed, verdant enclave of the garden city.
So these estates try to have it both ways – to be both socialistic and capitalistic, to build a new city while the old continues to multiply its contradictions and inequalities. Tafuri's critique of this is distinctly similar to that of Walter Rathenau, the German industrialist and politician who was a noted thinker and planner of the rationalised, compromised capitalism that would become known as 'Fordism'. Rathenau wrote of the garden cities in his The New Society (1920)
'it is tacit lying and deception to act on the tacit assumption that thoroughgoing socialism means something like a garden city idyll, with play-houses, open-air theatres, picturesque raiment and fireside art. (...) the requirements of the population are not medievally simplified – they could not be, in view of the density of the population and the complexity of individual and professional vocations. They are many and diverse, and they are moreover intensified by the spectacle of extravagance offered by the profiteering class and the licence of social life. The traditional garden-city idyll of architects and artists-craftsmen is a Utopia with about as much reality as th pastoral Acadianism of Marie Antoinette.'
Ironically enough, after Rathenau's assassination an AEG company garden city would be named after him, but this remains a critique decidedly close to Tafuri's, although with rather different aims. The attempt at medieval simplification and the production of non-metropolitan space is critiqued in favour of the large city with all its inequalities and exploitation. In Architecture and Utopia Tafuri briefly sketches some examples of architecture that actively participates in these contradictions – we will mention here Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes Meyer, Hans Poelzig and Ludwig Hilberseimer. Erich Mendelsohn's expressionistic functionalism, to use an appropriately contradictory compound, is particularly important. Tafuri refers to Mendelsohn’s work as ‘inebriating’. It’s an architecture which, rather than sitting calmly and Platonically on the outskirts, employs all the potentialities of the metropolis in its architectural organisation. Corners are glazed, dynamic angles employed, clashes with previous architecture are accentuated, advertising is integrated, and electric light becomes a central architectural feature.
This was described as Reklamarchitektur by the critic Adolf Behne, literally ‘advertising architecture’. Tafuri appears to offer this up as the delirious, dreamlike, dynamic, somewhat seamy underside of the Neues Bauen, and one which unlike the social-democratic ‘built ideology’ of the estates on the outskirts, is entirely sanguine about an embrace of rationalised, Americanised capitalism, without illusions. However the other examplar of a politically realist architecture for the Venice school is the work of Ludwig Hilberseimer, a planner and later collaborator of Mies van der Rohe, whose urban plans are notoriously, relentlessly stark. These gigantic, repetitious city-districts, organised and designed on as standardised a principle as possible, are notable particularly for their lack of ‘signs’, whether architectural detailing, advertising, slogans, colour, and so forth, making this work, at least aesthetically, the diametric opposite of the advertising-architecture of Mendelsohn. This bareness and obsessive order gives the work a strangely classical appearance, and its deliberately blank and inhumane anti-aesthetic led Tafuri and Dal Co to call it, after Robert Musil, ‘the city without qualities’, and a repentant Hilberseimer to retrospectively call it a 'necropolis' in the 1960s. Hilberseimer considered himself a socialist, and always described his city plans as embodying the (at least implicit) logic of capital. In Groszstadtarchitektur he writes:
'The present type of large city owes its birth above all to the economic form of capitalist imperialism, which in turn is closely connected to the evolution of science and of production techniques. With the maximum concentration and an extensive and complete organisation it achieves a superabundance of intensity and energy (...) the large city appears primarily as the creation of omnipotent large capital and therefore is imprinted with anonymity...(and he goes on) at the same time the maximum isolation and the greatest crowding together of its inhabitants. In it, an enormously intensified rhythm of life very rapidly represses every local and individual element'.
It is here deeply unclear whether Hilberseimer's Metropolis is a critique of this by holding up to it a distorted mirror, or whether it attempts to rationalise still further. So while he talks about energy and intensity, his images remove all aesthetic charge, all dynamism or potential jouissance from urban architecture, as if to classicise, eternalise the repetitious forms and constant transit; while the anonymity is amplified rather than leavened. This is the inverse of advertising-architecture, in that it strips the pretty electric dressing from the skyscrapers and department stores, leaving only strips, boxes, of empty floors. If Weimar modernism was enormously indebted to images of the steel frames of American skyscrapers before their ornament was applied, Hilberseimer takes this to the extreme of there being no visible goods inside either, nothing to sell, no content in the interior no advertising on the exterior - only the system of distribution and organisation in its most abstract form is visible.
What unites the radically differing approaches of Mendelsohn and Hilberseimer, other than their immersion in the Weimar Republic’s American-funded capitalism, whether directly or ironically, is their shared roots in wilfully distorted images of the United States, the emblem at the time of a rationalised capital, of megacity metropolitanism, and of alleged dehumanisation, and also of an inadvertent assault on traditional ideas of aesthetics. So, Hilberseimer frequently reproduced, in books such as Groszstadtarchitektur, images of American skyscrapers at their most repetitious, such as the towers of General Motors Headquarters in Detroit, or McKim, Mead and White's Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City. These became, when stripped of their ornament by Hilberseimer himself, depictions of totality, of a society run entirely on the basis of the principles of Fordism. Meanwhile, Mendelsohn published Amerika in 1926, a documentary record and an architectural critique of a journey round the USA, in the company of Fritz Lang among others, who used his impressions of the trip as the basis for Metropolis. Mendelsohn admired much in American architecture, but attempted to transform it into something less mythic, less irrational, and considerably less tawdry. One of the most telling juxtapositions in the book is of two images of Broadway – one where it is glittering at night blurred into an image so abstract that El Lissitzky would later use it as the basis for this collage; followed by the same scene the morning after. While the first shows an electro-mechanical show where individual advertisements can barely be distinguished, so you can no longer see what is being sold to you, an 'ad without products' in Giorgio Agamben's phrase, the other is merely shrill, crass and obnoxious, and perfectly clear. The response to the evident irrationality of rationalised American capitalism can either be to abstract its techniques further, in the case of Mendelsohn, or to strip it completely, leaving only the outline of total organisation, in the case of Hilberseimer.
Another, equally extreme response to that of Hilberseimer was that of Hannes Meyer. K Michael Hays' study Modernism and the Posthuman Subject aligns him with Hilberseimer as a sophisticated anti-humanist thinker, but seems to miss the striking aesthetic contrast between Hilberseimer's city-planning and some speculative proposals by Meyer himself. Meyer was the avowedly Marxist second director of the Bauhaus, sacked after donating the school's money to a Miners' Strike, but before that was an architect and planner for the Swiss co-operative movement. Before becoming Bauhaus director he composed a series of works all named 'Co-Op' – linocuts mostly, abstracting his housing co-ops into suprematist compositions – the most interesting of which were the 'Co-Op Vitrines'. These are arrangements in glass cases of standardised products from co-operative stores, into what resemble miniature model cities, cities literally made out of commodities, in a dreamlike taking literally of advertising's role in architecture. While we may ponder whether Hilberseimer's city was satirical or not, the Co-Op city was meant wholly sincerely as a representation of the liberating possibilities of mass production, and Meyer was straightforward in his praise of neon lights, mechanical advertisements, traffic, and so forth. At the same time that helped politicise the Bauhaus, he also introduced an advertising department – both his Marxism and his praise for department stores and neon signs were utilised in opposition to the idea of a pure art, and both involved the use of technology as an architectural element. Meanwhile, he claimed that prospective buildings, such as his Constructivist Peterschule in Basel, would work not merely as a critique of the surrounding buildings, but would actively work for their destruction - an architecture of aesthetic war, which at least aimed to be an instrument of class war.
There is another potential architectural response to metropolitan spectacle, mass organisation, ubiquitous signage, technology and advertising which limits itself to one building, and that is in the cinema, where Mendelsohn again attempted to abstract and rationalise his image of America. This is is the Universum Kino, which Mendelsohn designed for UFA in 1926, as part of a luxury housing development in the Kurfürstendamm. In the advertisement at the top of its tower, there is a proclamation of the building's integration of light-advertising and dwelling. On the cinema's opening, Mendelsohn published a poem, which essentially argued that his cinema was more American than the Americans. While they had a cargo-cultish approach to cinema design, in which modernity and ancient or national architectural styles were mixed together to create an effect, imitated in early Weimar cinemas, that was memorably described by Siegfried Kracauer in the essay 'Cult of Distraction' as a 'pseudo-totality' which works against the radical two-dimensionality of the films themselves, attempting to return the mass, aura-free act of going to the pictures into the mythic, Wagnerian space of the gesamtkunstwerk. Consciously or otherwise, the Kino Universum was an attempt at answering Kracauer's critique – a streamlined, rationalised picture palace, with light architecture integrated into but not distracting from the film programme, working instead as a kind of city crown for the surrounding area. The Universum Kino would, he wrote, entail 'no rococo palace for Buster Keaton, no wedding cake for Potemkin'.
The 'Lichtberg' Kino in the solidly Communist district of Wedding took a similar approach, adding a floodlight for even more dramatic effect; but it was at the centre of a deliberately Americanised development of similarly streamlined rental flats called, in a combination of Rathenau's objections and his solutions, the 'Atlantic Garden City' – a speculative scheme, not one of the social democratic estates. To finally bring this back to where we started, there is another modernist picture-house built at this point, which seems to sit between the American Moorish palaces and the upright, stark approach of the Universum Kino – the Kino Babylon, designed by occasional film set designer Hans Poelzig, which was built next to Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, again as part of a housing scheme. Unfortunately I'm unaware what the KPD thought about this building, but the similarity of its strips of advertisement to that of their headquarters may have given them pause. Nonetheless, the examples I have outlined here, in the cases of Meyer's Co-Op City and the decoration of Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, are an attempt to show how an urban form traditionally opposed by left aesthetes, most obviously of late in the form of Adbusters, was once taken as a model for a left architecture, while its absence, as in the plans of Hilberseimer, was felt as a loss rather than as political progress. It suggests another form of modern architecture which Tafuri hints at, a left modernism which, rather than setting up a purism on the periphery, engages fully with the metropolis on the basis of a technological anti-aesthetic.
I'll end, however, with an excerpt from a film by Buster Keaton himself, where he erects a building which is itself far from a rococo palace. It shows what is missing both from Tafuri's urbanism and from the social democratic siedlung - the idea of a ludic architecture, of an architecture which could be self-created, a non-metropolitan but high-tech building which could entirely destroy the very idea of the permanence of architecture, and the profession of the architect, by exploiting its lines of transport and communication rather than being determined by them. If it suggests any 'radical' architecture, it is that of the 'Workers' Council For Art' of 1919, with their exhibitions of architecture by the untrained and anonymous, or the disurbanist cities of Mikhail Okhitovich. Yet it also appears as an architecture of disaster, erected and destroyed with equal carelessness.
This is excellent. But one thing, and it's going to sound a wee bit egotistical, but the phrase is mine - a sort of condensation of Agamben, but he never says "ad without products." Rather, he says the following in The Coming Community:
"But the absurdity of individual existence, inherited from the subbase of nihilism, has become in the meantime so senseless that it has lost all pathos and been transformed, brought out into the open, into an everyday exhibition: Nothing resembles the life of this new humanity more than advertising footage from which every trace of the advertised product has been wiped out. The contradiction of the petty bourgeois, however, is obstinately trying, against all odds, to make their own an identity that has become in reality absolutely improper and insignificant to them. Shame and arrogance, conformity and marginality remain thus the poles of all their emotional registers."
We are curating an exhibition called 'The Stones of Menace' at a Brutalist church in Poplar. We will make a small publication as part of the one day event and would like to invite you to write something for it. You can find info about our event at www.scareinthecommunity.com.
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