Thursday, December 14, 2006

Notes towards an attempted refutation of the 'Associational Fallacy'

There is just as logical a connection between clinging to traditional forms and looking backwards politically as between supporting the new architectural purpose of our age and its new political ideas
Erich Mendelsohn, 1928

There is a curious term in architectural circles: the 'associational fallacy' (closely akin to the better known association fallacy), which derives from Geoffrey Scott in his book The Architecture of Humanism, published in 1914. In brief, it is a refutation of the correlations usually made between repressive regimes and their architecture: the pyramids incarnate despotism, neoclassicism incarnates Nazism (and a particularly demented version of it, Stalinism). Naturally only an area as mind-bogglingly commonsensical and mendaciously conservative as the Edwardian architectural scene could be so offended at the really not all that extreme idea that artistic form and political context tend to have a affinity, but nevertheless it is a trope perhaps a little too easy to use, particularly as architects are a slippery lot.

The temptation to equate directly Leftist art and actual day-to-day Leftism is often a little overwhelming, although this has been a little tricky due to some current reading and watching. Specifically, reading Kathleen James' Erich Mendelsohn and the Architecture of German Modernism, and watching Dziga Vertov's Three Songs about Lenin. Now pretty much everyone with an interest in the subject knows that all the great Modernists of the International Style - most famously, the Bauhaus directors Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe - got the hell out of Nazi Germany, and presumably were then prominent anti-fascists. In fact, the migrations seemed to have been motivated simply by the fact that they couldn't get work, and were utterly unwilling to stylistically compromise. Biographism here isn't necessarily relevant (Karl Ehn, designer of Karl Marx-Hof, may have co-operated with the Nazis, but that didn't stop this workers' fortress being the antithesis of everything they stood for) but its noticeable how these German 'official' Modernists wouldn't comromise their Art: a category the Functionalists and Constructivists always rejected.

On any other issue though the future apostles of the corporate skyscraper were willing to work for whoever, where ever: Gropius jetted to the USSR to check the progress of his entry for the Palace of the Soviets contest soon after the Nazis took power, then entered in a design for the Nazi Reichsbank competition. He seems to have been surprised this made people suspicious. In Mies and Gropius' letters of the time you can find a fair bit of 'mit Deutschen Grusses' (the Nazi greeting) and occasionally outright anti-semitism: appallingly, Gropius wrote to the RIBA in 1934 to protest at their honouring fellow 'refugee' Erich Mendelsohn: 'I am no special friend of the Jew'. The only real consistent oppostion to the Nazis from the architectural profession was, unsurprisingly, from Jews like Mendelsohn, and from Communists like Hannes Meyer, the unsung 'other' Bauhaus director. While the Bauhaus refused to stick by the Communists, with Meyer and other fellow travellers being sacked by Gropius or Mies, the Communists were the only prople to vote against the Bauhaus' closure by the Nazis: this at a time that Mies, its third and last last director, was trying to court the favour of Alfred Rosenberg.

Now as Robert O Paxton points out, its a better idea to look at what Fascists did, rather than what they said. And under Nazism no Modernist architecture at all was built. That's none. Some things a bit streamlined, a few covertly daring houses hidden under pitched roofs by Hans Scharoun, but nonetheless the dominance of the Heimatstil and stripped classicism was not a retrospective modernist myth. So there was something in these flat roofs, concrete and glass surfaces and high density flats that fundamentally repelled the Nazis. Famously, they produced a postcard of the Weissenhof Siedlung with superimposed Arabs, labelled 'Arab village, Stuttgart'.

Life Caught Unawares
'Our generation has set itself the aims of working precisely in accordance with commission'
El Lissitzky, 1941

Which brings us to the interestingly different version of the associational fallacy as experienced in the USSR. Dziga Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin has a scene early on of whitewashed, boxy houses in Central Asia, which are succeeded a few shots later by similarly white and cubic houses in the new industrial towns, bearing the stamp of Ernst May's work for Magnitogorsk. Here, and in the shots of headscarfed women with microscopes that criss-cross it, is a conception that doesn't run from barbarism to civilisation, but re-inscribes the avantgardist borrowing from 'primitive' cultures as proof that those cultures were already advanced: akin to the Kodwo Eshun point that substitutes for 'roots' the notion that African music might always already be breakbeats, but never vice-versa.

However we're dealing here with the moment where the avantgarde is fully in co-operation with Stalinism, and Three Songs of Lenin is a cinematic equivalent to El Lissitzky's work on the magazine USSR In Construction, harnessing Constructivist montage and factography to a glorification of the new national state and its godlike ruler. This underlines a crucial difference between Soviet and Weimar avantgarde practice. While a Mies wouldn't stylistically accomodate the Nazis, the Soviet avantgarde morphed from a concern with the industrial object, to photomontage, to faktura and documentary according to the particular direction of construction in the USSR. The style would morph according to diktat, but avantgarde defamiliarisation and dynamism would be applied to whichever form the apparatus shunted them into. Rather than being naive aesthetes caught up in politics, the Soviet avantgarde knew what they were about, which is either more or less disturbing, depending on your politics. It's also worth noting that the only avantgardists to be killed in the purges were those who were Communist Party members - USSR In Construction contributor Sergei Tretiakov, Vsevelod Meyerhold, Alexei Gan, Gustav Klutsis.

So throughout Three Songs of Lenin there's a tension between what we see and what we know it stands for. Even though the current version, a 1969 re-edit by Vertov's editor and wife Elizaveta Svilova, cuts most of the references to Stalin, this is still a deeply Stalinist work. The first 'song' is called 'My Face was in a Black Prison', in which Central Asian women praise the party that liberated them from the veil. Its too easy to either condemn this as glorifying the oppression of the USSR's minorities or laud it as freeing women from it, but what is inescapable is how active these strident Central Asian women scientists, construction workers and sportswomen are, how much they are presented as being utterly in control.

The act of 'unveiling', displaying the face to the camera, is presented at regular intervals in the film: a recurrent shot shows different women in niqabs throwing their veils off, grinning at the camera. There is a recurrent gesture here that is paralleled in other instances of the practice of a Modernising (Stalinising?) avantgarde. The excellent current issue of October extensively documents Sergei Tretiakov's attempts to spread Factography to the Muzhiks of the new collective farms, usually presented in terms of trying to democratise the new technology, putting it in the hands of the producers: preventing them from becoming one of the 'illiterates of the future', in Moholy-Nagy's phrase. One photo from this time shows Tretiakov and two peasants. Tretiakov is clearly trying to force one of them to look at the camera, to facially acknowledge the new factographical form. To be unafraid of it. But given what this new technology was doing at the time, (eg, Rodchenko's documentary aestheticisation of the convict labour project at the White Sea Canal) his distrust of the camera is understandable. In these terms, Vertov's insistence that the subject face the camera unblinking takes on a rather less liberatory aspect.

The associational question in architecture manages to slip through in the Soviet case: the Modernist new building so beautifully shot by Vertov in 1934 was at its absolute last gasp at that point, and after the Kirov assasination and the ushering in of high Stalinism, historical eclecticism was an unavoidable diktat. A significant fact about the clean lines and classical associations of the International Style as it was developed in the USA by Gropius, Mies and Breuer and subsequently in every capital city in the world, is that it had to occlude first the Communist Functionalism of those who had fled the Nazis to the USSR, and the dynamism and excitement of the commercial Modernism developed by those, like Mendelsohn, who would (briefly in his case) escape to Palestine. The corporate style didn't adopt the forms of the Marxist new builders (fairly unsurprisingly), but the new corporate skyscrapers of postwar Imperial America had to incarnate permanence rather than the flux and force of Mendelsohn's department stores.

Finally though, what did it mean that the architecture of Italian Fascism in its Imperial Phase was Art Deco? Something like the Fiat Tagliero Building, imposed on the conquered Abyssinia: what did it signify to the colonised? Power, modernity, a Sunday matinee starring Clark Gable...?


Blogger Padraig said...

Excellent post Owen, as always.

And maybe, perhaps, its your last paragraph, with its intriguing question, all the same, that finally undermines the "associational" thesis in the post-colonial domain.

For it was the case that not just Italian architectural colonialism (I think it was there called Rationalism, a combination of Art Deco and Bauhaus?), but Western architectural colonialism that in its numerous colonies became or served as an economical gateway for Modernism and indeed continued to be used well into the 1960s (in India, for instance). Consider French art deco throughout Indochine/Vietnam (the imperial capital of Hue, drenched in art deco, from the Governor's mansion to the local cinemas), or, again, the Italian-occupied town of Lakki on the Greek island of Leros [], or the British influence on Shanghai, perhaps the most art deco-strewn city apart from Tony Montana's Miami ... Well, the formerly colonised now have all such buildings designated as listed/protected structures.

[All mysteriously very catholic: Ireland's first art deco building was a (American designed) catholic church ... first hated, later adored].

1:20 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

The Catholic thing makes a certain degree of sense I guess: Niemeyer's work on Brasilia is often seen as being part of a very Catholic sensibility...

Naturally I think a strict demarcation should be made between art deco (or 'Modernistic'), however fascinating it frequently is, and Modernism. (Italian Rationalism is interesting, but very much a footnote in my book. Maybe in my actual book) Much as I don't want to encourage a Moderne=Colonial thesis deco lends itself very nicely to being vaguely fascistic: Senate House, the BBC, Milan Station.

For Nehru, in commissioning Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh, this was very much a statement that the Independent, Modern India would be Modernist, and make no direct (though there are many symbolic) references to Indian cultural history: VERY much in contrast to Lutyens' New Delhi 20 or so years earlier, which spliced together Indian Classicism and Western neo-Classicism to suggest some sort of affinity between coloniser and colonised.

Mind you quite how successful this is might be a moot point: Chandigarh is laid out for cars, which are possessed by not that many Indians now, and certainly a lot less in the 1950s...and apparently Chandigarh has a big shanty outskirts and various historicist villas owned by local businessmen. Its also the main reason why I would ever go to India, mainly being put off by the amount of insufferable cunts I met as an undergraduate who had gone there on their gap year...Make of that what you will.

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