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Archive for July 2012
A German poster printed in the Netherlands, 1943: “Atlantic Wall: 1943 is not 1918″
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 favour 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 realised 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 industrialise 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 labourer 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:
It was a kind of sadistic radicalisation of the research on the minimum habitation that had been conducted under the Weimar Republic by architects in Berlin and Frankfurt, whose purpose was the large-scale production of affordable modern housing for large urban populations. The concentration camp version of the Existenzminimum was compressed beyond any imaginable limits.
Panstwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau
Fritz Ertl: Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, detention sheds, November 1944
As Cohen notes, one of the principal designers of the Auschwitz death factory, Fritz Ertl, was trained at the Bauhaus, the German design school we now associate with the most enlightened aspects of the new architecture. Ertl’s partner in crime at Auschwitz was the all-too-aptly named architect August Schlachter (slaughterer). Their thoroughly depraved SS boss, Hans Kammler, was an architect who had worked under the socially aware Berlin housing architect Paul Mebes during the Weimar period. Even though Hitler’s personal hatred for the supposedly un-Germanic International Style led his acolytes to reject its outward manifestations in favour of traditional Völkisch motifs (especially the pitched roof), they were all too willing to retain the internal functional improvements of Modernism and apply them wholeheartedly to the Nazi killing machine.
The author reserves special contempt for the much written-about overseer of these fiends, Albert Speer, whose talents as an architect and war-materiel strategist were far outstripped by a genius for lying and charm that saved his neck at Nuremberg. How this monster ever survived postwar justice to rewrite his own twisted version of history remains a great mystery, but Cohen will have none of it. As he concludes his terse but devastating section on the death camps:
Speer attempted to justify his actions by claiming that his “obsessive fixation on production and output statistics” had “blurred all considerations and feelings of humanity.” But in the case of the architects of the Bauleitung of Auschwitz [Ertl and Schlachter], who could not be unaware of the horror at work some meters away from their drawing board, this pale excuse cannot even be contemplated.
Unpleasant as it is to contemplate, the symbiosis between war and architectural advancement was hardly exclusive to World War II. Going back to antiquity—and particularly with the onset of the Industrial Revolution—large-scale conflicts caused new means of production to be redirected toward military ends, which in turn inevitably affected manufacturing technology in peacetime. But it was World War I that changed everything. As Cohen writes in a second recent book, his new history of modernism, The Future of Architecture: Since 1889: “Instead of disrupting the pattern of transformation in which architecture was engaged worldwide, the first industrial war in history had the opposite effect: by accelerating modernisation….”
Asigurarea Româneasca, Bucharest
The Future of Architecture is the best comprehensive history of modernism to appear in a generation. While not departing from an essentially familiar narrative, Cohen extends his sights well beyond the usual parameters of the modernist canon. Thus, in addition to such ever-fixéd landmarks as Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, we find less heralded but recently reappreciated masterworks such as Grete Schütte-Lihotzky’s ingeniously integrated Frankfurt Kitchen, Adalberto Libera’s majestically isolated Villa Malaparte on Capri, and Dimitris Pikonis’s monumental but understated pedestrian promenade on the Athenian Acropolis. And in no other survey are you likely to find off-the-beaten-path urban showpieces of the 1930s such as Kikuji Ishimoto and Bunzo Yamaguchi’s Shirokiya Department Store in Tokyo, Horia Crenga’s Asigurarea Romaneasca Building in Bucharest, and Antoine Tabet and Georges Bordes’ Hôtel Saint-Georges in Beirut.
Shirokiya Department Store, Tokyo
Cohen’s text will be closely read for his critical estimation of living and deceased architects. The most significant figures are accorded several paragraphs each, but such attention does not always signal approval. For example, the author efficiently dispenses with Philip Johnson, “who followed architectural shifts more than he generated them….[and] cast a long shadow over the American profession as well as its cultural institutions.” (He makes even shorter work of Johnson’s creature and epigone Robert A.M. Stern.)
Among today’s senior generation, Cohen focuses, appropriately enough, on Robert Venturi (though with scant attention to Denise Scott Brown), Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Álvaro Siza, Rafael Moneo, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Accorded less space and grouped in collective subsections are such perennial press favourites as Richard Meier, Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and Steven Holl, diminished allocations that I wholeheartedly subscribe to as well.
Foster+Partners: Hearst Tower, New York, 2000-2006
Cohen’s emphases seem merited in each instance, save one’s reservations about the ubiquitous but increasingly corporate Piano, Rogers, and Foster. What Cohen writes of Foster’s firm might be said of all three high-tech wizards: “The global success of Foster + Partners, which developed into a truly multinational firm in the 1990s, has led to high-quality projects, yet the conceptual power of Foster’s early buildings seems sometimes to have been lost in the transition.”
The high-tech aesthetic that Foster and his vast worldwide apparat have so skilfully marketed derives in large part, of course, from the no-nonsense engineering ethos that has been perhaps the most lasting design legacy of World War II, pacified though it may be at the moment. But just as mankind remains ever capable of slipping back into barbarism despite the horrifying lessons recent history offers, so does the destructive potential of man’s technological ingenuity seem not far removed from the terrible purposes to which it was put three-quarters of a century ago.
Jean-Louis Cohen’s Architecture in Uniform is published by the Yale Press and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, whose accompanying exhibition showed at the Nederlands Architectuur Institut earlier this year. Cohen’s The Future of Architecture Since 1889 is published by Phaidon.
New York Review of Books
Martin Filler 21.7.2012
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This week’s poem shows us a multi-faceted Ireland through the prism of the pub, and a half-interior imaginary ramble
It’s a month since Bloomsday was celebrated, but perhaps this week’s poem, “Legacies” by Peter Sirr, will help sustain us until the next one. Sirr, like many Irish writers after Joyce, is something of an internationalist. A fine translator as well as original poet, he was born in Waterford in 1960, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and has lived for spells in Italy and Holland. “Legacies” appears in his Selected Poems (Gallery Press, 2004) and was first published in Bring Everything (Gallery Press, 2000).
The wide cultural territory of Sirr’s poems includes a multi-faceted Ireland, and “Legacies” shows us two contrasting Dublins (perhaps three, if we count the speaker’s). It celebrates tradition, but not in any simplistic sense of celebration. If the legacy is dying in the 21st century (as the “nth bar” might imply) or fading into self-conscious cultural heritage, the poem subverts nostalgia by taking the form of a personal address. From a gently psychological perspective, it portrays an extrovert at ease in his ideal social setting: the pub. It’s where the sophisticated city of competing identities is banished by a village-like subculture, in which difference dissolves into noisy conviviality.
Sirr’s language is generally simple and direct. It’s not hard to imagine the addressee nodding his head at times in cheery agreement. But of course “Legacies” is the imaginary, interior half of an imaginary conversation. This corner of the snug is also a corner of the speaker’s head, and the addressee is button-holed there, but also observed and subjected to the pressures of imagination.
So, after that appealingly direct opening – “You so loved company” – the language takes a more figurative turn, and the reader/addressee is presented with an image that’s partly humorous, but also frightening and rather surreal: “an engine has attached itself to your body …” This partial metamorphosis of the happy drinker into an industrial process involving the ingestion and transformation of a quantity of disparate material allows Sirr to evoke the ruthless, pounding torrent of sounds. We get not only the songs and arguments, but that more recent decibel-raising ingredient of pub entertainment, “heavy rock”. Against the pandemonium, the poem singles out a surprising “dialect of intimacy” which also comes with the territory. The grammar is heavily garbled, and half the addressee’s words are lost – “But you don’t mind …”
The mechanical imagery is recalled in that powerful line, “it has poured down the generations” – “it” here referring to the “background roar”. The pronoun is unstable, subject to anaphoric shifts. In line 6, “it” is the engine. It’s also the place, the night, and the city itself, “refusing to sleep, talking to itself, drinking too much”. Meanwhile, the character addressed, and all the denizens hovering in the shadows, are seemingly on autopilot. This is an effect not only of alcohol, but, the poem reveals, something more powerful yet – heredity. The inexorable machine is also made of strands of DNA.
So the poem gives truth and solidity to what the outsider might misread as “romantic Ireland”. The communal, festive ritual at the end of the working day is a male tradition stretching back years. The addressee is more than rooted in this tradition. “We’re listening in the nth bar / to your great great grandfather / blurt his song, to his son urge him on, / then his son comes shambling in …” The latest son turns into the addressee, and finally there’s a delirious meltdown of identity between generations and individuals, one which also gathers the poem’s speaker into the centrifuge.
But first we’re shown another kind of life, another Ireland. The citizens are industrious and sober. The speaker seems close to them (“our friends”). In their orderly world, noise is limited: they are able to distinguish sounds, living sensibly and responsibly a life which (in Larkin’s phrase) might be “reprehensibly perfect”, but which is presented without that scathing judgment – unless we the readers wish to make it. The poem doesn’t stay long in their company. It goes back to the pub after this little interlude. Only perhaps in the almost throwaway phrase, “where the soul / grins”, is there a glimpse of something demonic or deathly in the euphoria.
The poem’s rhythm is the rhythm of talk, and the punctuation is similarly light and informal. Sirr employs the comma-splice to link separate statements, as in “But you don’t mind, / it comes with the grammar”. This device helps to keep the poem moving and underlines its character as interior monologue. Almost mimetic, it goes with the flow of the pints, the conversation, the hubbub of its setting. And its warmth is palpable: this is a poem of affection and reciprocal generosity. The speaker does not only sympathise with the addressee. He comes on in the end to share his identity and his legacy.
You so love company
an engine has attached itself to your body,
taking up the night and feeding it back
as a spill of laughter
It takes half of what you say
and chews it up, the rest it overlays
with heavy rock, with old films,
the roar of other voices, glasses
clinking and a till slamming,
someone arguing and someone
starting to sing.
But you don’t mind,
it comes with the grammar
in this dialect of intimacy,
it’s how you like to live at night.
It’s where your father lived
and his father before him;
it has poured down the generations,
loud and smoke-filled,
a background roar where the soul
grins; it is the city
refusing to sleep, talking to itself,
drinking too much.
What happens here would die in quiet,
melts at dawn, is absent from
the sensible rooms our friends
have retired to. They’ve gone
to sleep or talk, to use the language rationally,
to distinguish one sound from another:
the purr of far-off traffic, the hum
of heating and the gravity of early news.
We’re listening in the nth bar
to your great great grandfather
blurt his song, to his son urge him on,
then his son comes shambling in
to wave your hands and shout for more
in your voice: more talk,
more drink, more noise
till neither they nor you nor I can tell
whose head is starting to spin,
whose voice is telling the story,
whose life it happens in.
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The ancient Greeks had a word for it – pleonexia – which means an overreaching desire for more than one’s share. As Melissa Lane explained in last year’s Eco-Republic: Ancient Thinking for a Green Age, this vice was often paired with hubris, a form of arrogance directed especially against the gods and therefore doomed to fail. The Greeks saw tyrants as fundamentally pleonetic in their motivation. As Lane writes: “Power served greed and so to tame power, one must tame greed.”
In The Price of Inequality, Joseph E Stiglitz passionately describes how unrestrained power and rampant greed are writing an epitaph for the American dream. The promise of the US as the land of opportunity has been shattered by the modern pleonetic tyrants, who make up the 1%, while sections of the 99% across the globe are beginning to vent their rage. That often inchoate anger, seen in Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s los indignados, is given shape, fluency, substance and authority by Stiglitz. He does so not in the name of revolution – although he tells the 1% that their bloody time may yet come – but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few.
In the 1970s and 80s, “the Chicago boys”, from the Chicago school of economics, led by Milton Friedman, developed their anti-regulation, small state, pro-privatisation thesis – and were handed whole countries, aided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on which to experiment, among them Thatcher’s Britain, Reagan’s America, Mexico and Chile. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism describes how the democratically elected Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile and the Chicago boys brought in. Under their influence, nationalisation was reversed, public assets privatised, natural resources opened up to unregulated exploitation (anyone like to buy one of our forests?), the unions and social organisations were torn apart and foreign direct investment and “freer” trade were facilitated. Rather than wealth trickling down, it rapidly found its way to the pinnacle of the pyramid. As Stiglitz explains, these policies were – and are – protected by myths, not least that the highest paid “deserve” their excess of riches.
In 2001, Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank, and arch critic of the IMF, won the Nobel prize for economics for his theory of “asymmetric information”. When some individuals have access to privileged knowledge that others don’t, free markets yield bad outcomes for wider society. Stiglitz conducted his work in the 1970s and 80s but asymmetric information perfectly describes the Libor scandal, rigging the interest rate at a cost to the ordinary man and woman in the street. Stiglitz details the profound consequences not just of the current financial meltdown but of the previous decades of neoliberal interventions on the incomes, health and prospects of the 99% and the damage done to the values of fairness, trust and civic responsibility.
In the process, Stiglitz methodically and lyrically (almost joyously) exposes the myths that provide justification for “deficit fetishism” and the rule of austerity. If George Osborne is depressed at the ineffectiveness of Plan A, he should turn to Stiglitz’s succinct explanation on page 230 to feel truly miserable. Cutting spending, reducing taxes, shrinking government and increasing deregulation destroys both demand and jobs – and doesn’t even benefit the 1%.
For roughly 30 years after the second world war, the 1% had a steady share of the US cake. In the five years to 2007, however, the top 1% seized more than 65% of the gain in US national income. In 2010, their share was 93%. This did not create greater prosperity for all (myth number one). On the contrary, much of this gain was “rent seeking”, not creating new wealth but taking it from others; a modern wild west. In the last three decades, the bottom 90% in the US (figures that resonate in the UK) have seen their wages grow by 15%. The 1% have seen their wages increase by 150%. Another myth is that bloated salaries are necessary to retain high achievers. Except, as Stiglitz points out, the rewards are more often for failure. The inequality gap is becoming a chasm. Stiglitz demonstrates how, in the US, those born poor will stay poor yet nearly seven in 10 Americans still believe the ladder of opportunity exists.
Stiglitz is one of a growing band of academics and economists, among them Paul Krugman, Michael J Sandel and Raghuram Rajan, who are trying to inject morality back into capitalism. He argues that we are reaching a level of inequality that is “intolerable”. Rent-seekers include top-flight lawyers, monopolists (Stiglitz refers to the illusion of competition: the US has hundreds of banks but the big four share half of the whole sector), financiers and many of those supposed to be regulating the system, but who have been seduced and neutered by lobbyists and their own avarice.
In the “battlefield of ideas”, while governments turn citizen against citizen by demonising, for instance, benefit scroungers, what Stiglitz calls corporate welfare goes unchecked. In 2008, insurance company AIG was given $150bn by US taxpayers – more, says Stiglitz, than the total spent on welfare to the poor in the 16 years to 2006. Stiglitz is a powerful advocate for a strong public sector. He argues for full employment, greater investment in roads, technology, education; far more stringent regulation and clear accountability. Culpable bankers, he says, should go straight to jail.
Gross domestic product is an unsatisfactory measure of progress, he believes. Stiglitz wants to see metrics that include the cost of inappropriate use of resources. He illustrates the price of immiseration and unfairness. Management of Firestone tyres demanded much longer hours and a 30% wage cut. The demand created conditions that led to the production of many defective tyres. Defective tyres were related to more than 1,000 deaths and injuries and the recall of Firestone tyres in 2000. Unfairness affects lives, productivity and, ultimately, Stiglitz warns, the security of the 1%.
The Price of Inequality is a powerful plea for the implementation of what Alexis de Tocqueville termed “self-interest properly understood”. Stiglitz writes: “Paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest – in other words to the common welfare – is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate wellbeing… it isn’t just good for the soul; it’s good for business.” Unfortunately, that’s what those with hubris and pleonexia have never understood – and we are all paying the price. .
Yvonne Roberts is an Observer leader writer and a fellow of the Young Foundation
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