Backing into the Future

Backing into the Future

Andre Lurcat’s Karl Marx School in Villejuif, Paris, 1933.
Courtesy RIBA Library Photographs Collection

The Future of Architecture since 1889: A Worldwide History
Jean-Louis Cohen
Phaison, $75

Given the provocative ambiguity of the title, one is tempted to see the author as standing in for Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, who, driven backwards into the future by the storm of progress, sees the wreckage of the past pile up ever higher at his feet. Unlike many other accounts of modern architecture culture in the late 19th and 20th centuries, Cohen regards the ever-escalating process of modernization as a techno-economic apocalypse that transforms everything in its wake. Against this never-ending surge of creation and destruction, the practice and theory of contemporary architecture is seen as a series of quixotic episodes of varying intensity and effect; at times individually based and highly aesthetic; at other times collectively committed to social reform and political revolution. In his re-reading of this messianic trajectory, Cohen assumes the role of the materialist historian who here, as elsewhere, has been able to eschew the various tendentious accounts of modern architecture to which we have been subjected in the past. Since he was directly touched by the violent political turmoil that Europe suffered between 1914 and 1945, the author’s knowing demeanor carries the narrative forward, like the voice-over to a kinetic documentary.

This effect is to some extent produced by the way in which the book has been illustrated; one has the sense of a critical sensibility at work recasting the rhythmic impulse of history so that by way of panoramic double spreads and full-page images, certain works are highlighted as being of greater seminal consequence than others. In this way Benjamin Baker’s Firth of Forth Bridge of 1889, Tony Garnier’s Cité Industrielle of 1904, Eugene Freyssinet’s airship hangars at Orly of 1916–23, and Max Berg’s Jahrhunderthalle, Breslau, of 1915 seem to presage by way of the demiurge both Bruno Taut’s Alpine Architektur of 1919 and Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, Dornach, of 1925. One could perhaps account for these often surprising emphases as being nothing more than the superimpositions of the publisher, combined with the indifference to content commonly displayed by contemporary graphic designers, since there is often no necessary correspondence between the line assumed by the text and the sequence and size of the accompanying images. André Lurcat’s Hotel Nord-Sud in Calvi of 1930 is a case in point in as much as it is given a double spread, whereas the more dynamic and politically consequential Karl Marx School in Villejuif, Paris, of 1933 by the same architect, appears to merit no more than half a page.


Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology Alumni Memorial Hall site, Chicago, 1945-1946.
Courtesy IIT Archives

Understandably, given Cohen’s nationality, the French Modern movement is adequately covered in this account, extending from Henri Sauvage’s rue Vavin stepped apartment block of 1912 to the canonical De Stijl exhibition staged in Paris in 1923. The next Parisian decade is fleshed out with exemplary works by Auguste Perret, Eileen Gray, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Michel Roux-Spitz, and finally Beaudoin and Lods for their Maison du Peuple at Clichy designed in collaboration with Jean Prouvé. For once, recognition is also given here to the relatively unsung high density “skyscraper” housing scheme, known as the Villeurbanne, built to the designs of Môrice Leroux in 1934.

The Franco-Suisse genius that is somewhat underplayed in this account is unquestionably Le Corbusier, to whom the book displays a certain ambivalence, so much so that the finest civic work of his Purist period, namely, his Centrosoyuz, realized in Moscow in 1936, is represented by a small unflattering shot which, coupled with the exclusion of his brilliant entries for the seminal international competitions that he designed with Pierre Jeanneret—his Société des Nations of 1927 and his Palais des Soviets of 1931—seems to sell his overall achievement rather short. Even with regard to his post–World War II career, given under the rubric of “Le Corbusier reinvented and reinterpreted,” Cohen elects to show us a hitherto unseen child-like esquisse from the archives rather than the more familiar images of Le Corbusier’s latter-day communal dwelling realized as the Unité d’Habitation Marseille in 1952.

Written in French, translated into English, and impeccably edited by Joan Ockman, this is an exceptional, erudite text, wherein the learning, worn lightly but richly detailed, conjures up for the reader the poignancy and vitality of the various creative moments, irrespective of their fleeting duration. Thus one learns that the short-lived Austrian Jugendstil movement of 1898, known as Vers Sacrum, took its title from a poem by Ludwig Uhland, or that Theo van Doesburg’s ineffable but acerbic cinema/dance hall in the Café L’Aubette of 1928 was literally constructed, hands on, by Oscar Nitzchke and Denis Honegger, both star pupils of Auguste Perret’s atelier, such was the collegiality of Paris in les années vingts. Nothing could have been more rebelliously ironic on the part of the students, since Perret, unlike Le Corbusier, rejected Neoplasticism out of hand.

The tenor of this magisterial overview, hinted at in the author’s play with Rosalind Kraus’s metaphor of the “expanded field,” is much indebted to the Annales approach of Fernand Braudel, who, in his overarching longue durée account of Mediterranean culture, employed the tectonic concept of layered planes with which, to quote Cohen, he accounted for “fleeting temporalities, in which concepts and ideals, appear and disappear only to resurface a few decades later also to play their part.” This constant rising and falling makes up much of this highly detailed, historical trajectory, which Cohen is reluctant to call a movement, despite Otto Wagner’s coinage of the term Bewegung well before World War I.  He is equally loath to have anything to do with Hitchcock and Johnson’s catchall rubric of the International Style. Instead he recognizes that, as he puts it, “resurgences of classicism and the occasionally subversive eruption of the vernacular are part of this bigger picture. Indeed far from being a rigid category and even less a sterile one, tradition—though sometimes wholly fabricated—has consistently served as an intellectual stimulant.”

Be this as it may, tradition until recently surely served as a mediating referent that maintained the ship of modernity on its course, that is to say, up until the last three decades or so, when the “vanishing points” of the mediatic present started to deconstruct the raison d’être of architecture from within. Thus amid the onslaught of the rampant urbanization that is now taking place on a vast global scale, architects no longer seem to have the capacity, neither politically nor conceptually, to provide any kind of viable solution to the ever worsening condition of the universal housing crisis. Hence we enter upon a totally dystopian state of affairs in which, as Cohen puts it, what still deserves to be called architecture would seem “to amount to little more than a handful of diamonds amid the rubble of the planet.”