Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War at the Canadian Centre for Architecture

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) presents the major exhibition Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War. On view from April 13 until September 18, 2011, the exhibition investigates the consequences of the Second World War on the built environment and reveals the immense development undertaken and responsibility carried by architecture during these years. Until now, few studies have analyzed the breadth of research, innovation, and building conducted by architects during the war years. Curator Jean-Louis Cohen fills an important historical gap by investigating the work and achievements of the architects and designers active during World War II across the political battle lines and demonstrates that the war served as an accelerator of technological innovation and production that would lead to the supremacy of Modernism in architecture.

Architecture in Uniform is the first in-depth study to analyze the modernization of architectural theory and practice during the period spanned by the German bombing of Guernica in 1937 and the Japanese surrender following the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. While many architects were called to serve as active combatants, others were able to pursue their professional work in the service of an intensified industrial production. The war drew upon every aspect of architectural expertise and led to significant design innovations and advances in technology and production. As a result, architects were almost as strategically indispensable as engineers and scientists in contributing to their respective countries’ war efforts.

“The war was a process of transformation involving all components of architecture in its mobilization. This militarization of the field forced the pursuit of the new in order to meet the demands of war production: new materials needed to be implemented in new ways, and new technologies needed to be put to new uses,” states exhibition curator Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Professor of History of Architecture at New York University.

Among the defining characteristics of World War II were its total industrialization and the elimination of the traditional combat front as aerial attacks brought the war to cities far removed from the front lines. Architects were involved in defining new offensive and defensive tactics, planned and built factories to realize unprecedented production pressures, devised urban schemes for civilian housing, as well as concentration camps, and influenced the occupation, destruction and reconstruction of cities. Based on a comparative principle, the exhibition is organized thematically and constructs parallels of wartime activity between the main fronts of war, dealing with architects and projects in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, the United States, and the USSR.

The exhibition is part of a broader project by the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Its title, inspired by the work of W.G. Sebald “On the Natural History of Destruction,” describes its objective to investigate the different roles of architecture from the Second World War to the present. The project includes the exhibition A Paper War: Pictures and Words, 1939-1945, which displays publications and catalogues of exhibitions, produced during the war period as means of propaganda and reflection on the war and its consequences. This wider initiative also comprises the exhibition The Good Cause: Architecture of Peace that analyzes the spatial and social implications of the peace missions in contemporary conflicts. This show is produced by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) and will be on view at the CCA in summer 2011.

CCA Executive Director and Chief Curator Mirko Zardini adds: “The CCA’s exhibitions and programs investigate often overlooked ideas that can inform and advance the contemporary architectural debate and practice. Architecture in Uniform tackles a large grey zone of our discipline and offers new perspectives; the war served not only as an accelerator of technical innovation, but also implicated architects in a military structure with precise social, political and moral responsibilities the effects of which are still felt today.”

Earlier CCA exhibitions such as 1973, Sorry Out of Gas (2007) or Actions: What You Can Do With the City (2008), examined the role of architecture in transforming contemporary society at large. Similarly, the aesthetic and technical innovations of the war years presented in Architecture in Uniform were not only critical in serving the war efforts of the moment; notions such as creating prefabricated or mobile structures, developing new applications for recycled materials or implementing standardized production on an architectural scale created a deep shift in the general understanding of how cities and homes could be conceived, constructed and used.

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War is the result of extensive research by curator Jean-Louis Cohen and features drawings, photographs, posters, books, publications, models, historical documents and films from all sides of the conflict. The global dimension of the war is reflected in the materials, with items from the CCA Collection shown alongside loans from important international institutions including the Akademie der Künste, Berlin; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Deutsches Architektur Museum Frankfurt; Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Nederlands Architectuurinstitut, Rotterdam; the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Shchusev Architecture Museum, Moscow; the Wolfsonian – FIU, Miami Beach; and others.

The exhibition content is structured along specific themes including Home Front, War to Cities, Producing War Production, Mobile Architectures, Fortress Europe, Camouflage, Macro-Projects and From War to Peace, among others. They guide visitors through key aspects of wartime activity and innovation such as the extensive territorial systems conceived for defense and production, but also, on the Nazi side, for mass murder and extermination; the pursuit and application of new materials and fabrication processes; and visionary aesthetic thinking applied to projects such as architectural camouflage, the dramatic recreation of Pacific theatre battle scenes using scale models by Norman Bel Geddes, or the staging of the Nuremberg trials in a courtroom designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley.

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