Blueprints for War

TEXT Michael McClelland

The recent CCA exhibition and its accompanying book, Architecture in Uniform, examine the role of the architect in wartime. Jean-Louis Cohen, curator of the exhibit and author of the book, has collected material that is almost overwhelming in its impact, painting a picture of the Second World War as a major turning point in modern architectural theory and practice. This is an unusual perspective, as the war is more frequently portrayed as a time when architects put down their drafting tools and went to serve their countries in other ways. Cohen very persuasively demonstrates that the war and the profession of architecture were inseparable.

The exhibition starts with images of devastation, aerial images of Hiroshima and Guernica, and the extraordinary photographs by August Sander showing the ruins of Cologne after the bombing. These images are followed by a succession of galleries, each one exploring a specific theme or set of ideas about architecture–some appearing tangential at first, but ultimately revealing the complex processes by which architecture was inexorably transformed by the war.

Throughout this incredibly researched exhibition, familiar faces appear in unfamiliar contexts. For example, Cohen has included drawings prepared by Dan Kiley for the courtroom in Nuremberg, where the famous post-war trials were to take place. Kiley would later become a key figure in 20th-century American landscape architecture. And Eric Mendelsohn’s relatively unknown wartime work is also documented in this exhibition. Mendelsohn had been one of the most prolific of modern architects practicing in Europe, but in 1943 he was in the Utah desert helping to design test sites for American incendiary bombs by building full-scale replicas of traditional German houses, with their pitched roofs and over-furnished living rooms.

Albert Kahn’s designs are used to show the complexity of the architect’s role and the immensity of the war effort. Kahn’s factories, like the Ford Motor Bomber Plant and the Chrysler Tank Arsenal, were mammoth in scale, much larger than the plants he had constructed earlier in his career in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. One image shows the Dodge Chrysler Plant of 1943 superimposed over an aerial photograph of Lower Manhattan. The plant encompasses this portion of Manhattan and extends out into the harbour. In Architecture in Uniform, Cohen describes one of Kahn’s plants as “the most enormous room in the history of man,” and he cites the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh who had stated that the acres upon acres of space in the plant were “a sort of Grand Canyon of a mechanized world.” The war introduced the idea of unprecedented scale in architecture with a coordinated mobilization of forces and tremendous momentum towards rapid mass production. In the exhibition, the organizational chart for Kahn’s office covers an entire wall, and it aptly demonstrates that the restructuring of architecture was not only in the finished product but also in the process by which architecture would now be created. Architects like Kahn played a major role in marshalling the forces for an accelerated war production. This indicates a larger, more central role for architects in the war effort than is usually recognized.

Cohen carefully balances his research and shows that the same transformation of the profession was happening on both sides of the battlefield. Kahn is counterbalanced by German architects like Herbert Rimpl, who was engaged in the production of manufacturing plants for the war effort, just like Kahn. Rimpl had as many as 700 draftsmen working in capitals throughout occupied Europe to produce plants for the German military. He only closed his Paris office hours before the arrival of the Allied tanks in August of 1944. This new scale of the architectural project is further illustrated by single projects like the construction of the Pentagon (1941-43). It was six million square feet in total, and the Architectural Forum at the time stated, “perhaps the greatest lesson of the Pentagon is here: as building approaches the scale of the technically feasible, the distinction between architecture and city planning vanishes.” Efficiency being its hallmark, the Pentagon could boast 26 kilometres of corridors, but because of the plan configuration, no trip from one office to another would take more than seven minutes.

In a chilling parallel, a different type of efficiency was built into the economic development plan for Auschwitz, laid out by architect Hans Stosberg. Cohen compares the scale of the Pentagon to the scale of Auschwitz. Auschwitz was planned as meticulously and thoroughly as any new town and by the end of the war it had become one of the largest industrial enclaves in Europe. Stosberg restored the original town hall of the existing Silesian community and used the theoretical principles of Stadtlandschaft to propose a much larger community that would have urban and country zones, carefully landscaped and ecologically managed. Cohen documents many of the architects who worked on the plans, including Fritz Ertl, who had been educated at the Dessau Bauhaus and who drew up several plans for the Birkenau camp. Among the architects held in the camps, Szymon Syrkus, a pioneer of Modernism in Poland, designed the greenhouse at the Rajsko camp while he was a detainee there. After the war, Stosberg became the head of town planning in Hamburg, Ertl was found not guilty after a trial in Vienna in 1972, and Syrkus was one of the authors of the reconstruction of Warsaw.

This is not an anti-war exhibition. Cohen is clear to state his opinion in the preface to his book–that some war is necessary and that the Allies had little choice but to engage in the conflict. His concern has been that the war years were “a blank space in historical accounts.” He describes his frustration that histories of 20th-century architecture, “without exception, all omit the war years, or consider them only in the light of the reconstruction of destroyed cities.” Why was this period so overlooked? Cohen’s sober assessment of this neglected period suggests that the answer is neither simple nor over-reaching. His interest is in detailing, as has never been done before, the profound impact of war on the production of architecture. New approaches to materials, production, urban planning, representation and modelling, and even memorialization, all flowed from the war. This exhibition tells us that the complete legacy of 20th-century Modernism is still being written. But Architecture in Uniform also reveals issues of complicity, responsibility and wartime production. In visiting the exhibition and in reading Cohen’s book, the question of what architects did do during the war becomes all the more visible and open to examination. Some architects were exceedingly brave, others were opportunists. For contemporary practitioners, this exhibition underscores that the issue of social responsibility for architects in a time of war should remain a crucial and open question for all of us. CA

Michael McClelland is a principal of ERA Architects in Toronto.