Modern Architecture’s Dark Side
There has long been a tendency to see the most important innovations of Modernism as arising directly from progressive causes. War, in this view, was considered a limiting if not wholly destructive force that stymied civilian architecture in favor of retrogressive military structures. But in his groundbreaking recent book Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War, the French architectural historian and architect Jean-Louis Cohen establishes one big, awful, inescapable truth: the full potential of twentieth-century architecture, engineering, and design was realized not in the social-welfare and urban-improvement schemes beloved by the early proponents of the Modern Movement, but rather through technologies perfected during the two world wars to slaughter vast armies, destroy entire cities, decimate noncombatant populations, and industrialize genocide.
It is hard to come away from Architecture in Uniform without the same feelings of profound horror and lingering dread that overtake readers of recent books on World War II by Max Hastings, Timothy Snyder, and other historians who continue to reveal with terrifying immediacy just how horrific that catastrophe was. And yet it also had paradoxical consequences for architecture.
High among the major misconceptions that Cohen addresses in this heroic project—which included an eponymous exhibition he curated at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture last summer—is that World War II brought the building art to a veritable halt. Although non-essential commercial and residential construction were indeed banned for the duration of the war in the US, architecture and engineering proceeded apace in the military sphere. Urgent contingencies spurred the rapid development of new synthetic materials (especially plastics of all sorts) and imaginative technical solutions (including lightweight and portable structures as well as new forms of prefabrication) that would have taken far longer to emerge under less pressured peacetime conditions.
Now a professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and the University of Paris VIII, Cohen was himself touched by the immediate legacy of the war in the French capital where he grew up. Although he recounts such inspiring feats as the wholesale retooling of American manufacturing for the all-out war effort—which spelled certain doom for the Axis once our industrially invincible country entered the conflict in 1941—darker episodes predominate. Impelled by the saga of his mother (the wife of a leading French Communist Party official), who was a slave laborer in the greenhouses appended to the Dachau concentration camp, Cohen recounts how design concepts devised for human betterment were most effectively reapplied by the Nazis to the vilest ends…