Oscar Niemeyer's futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia
Monday, 26 June 2017 08:41

Architecture and socialism

Published in Architecture

This section of Culture Matters is about architecture, including its role in shaping our collective future. Chris Guiton offers a foundation essay on achitecture and socialism.

Architecture is an expression and a reflection of human society. It has evolved over human history in response to our changing needs, innovation in building technology and design, and changes in the way we view the world around us. Part response to society’s functional needs and part creative expression, it offers the scope to shape our environment for either better or worse.

The practice of architecture provides us with a built environment where buildings function as places of work, as homes and as public spaces. The need for shelter from the elements in early human society took on greater significance as nomadic existence was replaced by a more settled, urban society. The simple requirement for shelter evolved into something that might be a place of work as well as a home, with different rooms developing specialist functions, and where people developed relationships with their family and community.

Hagia Sophia Church

Hagia Sophia Church

We can trace architecture’s lineaments through human history as it provides us with a way of looking at and understanding the past. Monumental structures such as the Giza pyramids, the Parthenon, Athens, the Hagia Sophia basilica and mosque in Istanbul, Il Duomo in Florence, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Chrysler Building in New York all tell a story about the economic and social forces that produced them. And about how that society wished to project its image into the future. This process is also represented in the more ordinary dwellings that were built for people and work, as well as in the public spaces and infrastructure that underpinned the development of cities, and in the very design and layout of those urban spaces.

As a profession, architecture has provided many socialists and progressives with the opportunity to help construct a better future. William Morris, the great designer, novelist and socialist activist, was very conscious of the role of architecture in society. As he put it: "the untouched surface of ancient architecture bears witness to the development of man's ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what we may hope for in the time to come."

He appreciated the importance of simple beauty in things, where architecture was an expression of handicraft as well as “a work of cooperation. The very designer, be he never so original, pays his debt to this necessity in being in some form or another under the influence of tradition; dead men guide his hand even when he forgets that they ever existed. But, furthermore, he must get his ideas carried out by other men; no man can build a building with his own hands”. In other words, it isn’t just about the building of a house, but also, at a fundamental level, about the act of construction itself.

The German architect Walter Gropius, inspired by William Morris, but also by the emerging modernism school, established the Bauhaus in Weimar in Germany in 1919. The movement was hugely influential on modern design, with its simplified forms, harmony between an object or building’s function and its design, and focus on mass production. During its relatively short ascendency it produced some remarkable housing, schools and other buildings. Gropius, claimed it was apolitical but also said that his aim was to "to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist."

His Marxist successor, Hannes Meyer, felt that the Bauhaus had lost its purpose and sought to move away from aesthetic considerations towards building designs based on the “life processes” of its future users. His new slogan was: “The people’s needs instead of the need for luxury!” Unfortunately, his politics led to his expulsion and he moved to the Soviet Union, but not before he had designed (with Hans Wittwer) one of the finest examples of functional architecture, the school of the ADGB (Federation of German Trade Unions) in Bernau near Berlin.

Less well known internationally, but no less significant, was the Vkhutemas, the Russian state art and technical school founded by Lenin in 1920. Both it and the Bauhaus were remarkably similar in their focus on modernising design and architectural education to reflect modern needs, under state sponsorship, merging craft traditions with modern technology. Unsurprisingly, the major artistic influences on the Vkhutemas were the constructivist and suprematist movements. Vladimir Tatlin's superb Monument to the Third International is a testament to their vision, with its futuristic ethos and revolutionary symbolism setting the tone for later projects.

CL Tatlins Tower 1919

Tatlin, Monument to the Third International

In the USSR, the ideological drive to forge a new socialist society, allied with rapid industrial development and accompanying migration from the countryside to the cities, combined to create a synthesis between radical art and architecture. The Constructivist movement created a number of highly innovative, large-scale housing developments, public buildings, leisure facilities and power stations, which were designed to create new forms of communal living, with shared spaces for eating and recreation.

A classic example is the Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow, built in 1930, which actually combined self-contained flats and integrated shared living spaces, reflecting the transitional nature of the times. It’s astonishing to reflect on how Constructivist architects created a new visual language in the face of material shortages, under-developed technology and a rapidly evolving political environment. Eventually, Constuctivism and similar experiments were abandoned when they were considered too advanced for the conditions that prevailed at the time. But this shouldn’t detract from the very real sense of energy and innovation that these movements expressed.

CG architecture image002

ADGB Trade Union School

What became known as Modernism synthesised many of these traditions at an international level and is the single most important new approach to architecture and design of the 20th century. It offered an analytical approach to function, innovation in structure and the elimination of ornament. It has produced many visually striking, and diverse, buildings, ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, beautifully integrated with the surrounding forest; Mies van der Rohe’s wonderful Barcelona Pavilion; Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia, which aimed to contribute to a new sense of collective identity and hope for the Brazilian people; Le Corbusier's government buildings in Chandigarh, India; the artistic complex developed over two decades on the south bank of the Thames, the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and National Theatre; and Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton’s delightful Penguin Pool, London Zoo.

But if these buildings were realised in capitalist societies, what might architecture look like in a future socialist or communist society? Karl Marx was part of a western European cultural tradition which reflected a general optimism in the future of mankind, a belief in progress and the scope to build a better world. However, he said little about the actual shape such a society would take. He did not offer a coherent theory of architecture. But his writings reflect his understanding of the relationship between the country and the city and the effects of industrial urbanisation:

It [the bourgeoisie] has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put into the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cites, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and thus rescued a considerable part of the population from rural idiocy. - The Communist Manifesto.

The development of human society is inextricably linked with the development of the built environment. Walter Benjamin famously wrote in the The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
"Buildings have been man’s companions since primeval times. Many art forms have developed and perished . . . [But] architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art."

In one his conversations with Brecht, Benjamin said, “As a system of connectivity, the metropolis is formed by a boundless maze of indirect relationships, complex mutual dependencies and compartmentations.” The individual’s dialectical relationship with the society around him means that we have to understand modernism, and subsequent developments in architecture, not just in terms of the emergent materials and technologies which enable new forms of architectural expression, for example, reinforced concrete, steel frames and strengthened glass, but also with regard to the rapid urbanisation of populations across the world, which is one of the driving forces of capitalism. This suggest that architects have a clear responsibility to consider how the performance of their role impacts upon the structure and operation of future society.

In his Memoirs, Oscar Niemeyer, a key figure in modern architecture and a lifelong member of the Brazilian Communist Party, said, “Our concern is political too – to change the world...Architecture is my work, and I've spent my whole life at a drawing board, but life is more important than architecture. What matters is to improve human beings." The string of major works he produced over a long and productive life demonstrate how a progressive political vision can be combined with architectural boldness and radical urban planning.

We all have a fundamental right to urban spaces that work for our interests rather than against them. This includes efficient and low cost public transport; access to decent schools and hospitals; plenty of public spaces for recreation; effective distribution of good quality food and other necessaries; andaffordable, good quality housing. To deliver this means taking control over our lives, reclaiming cities for ourselves and implementing radical political changes which enable ordinary people to influence the shape of their urban environment.

This battle for ‘urban space’ is, of course, itself a product of economic and historical circumstances. Self-evidently, this is a class struggle as working class communities find themselves pitched against rapacious landlords and developers. Well-intentioned but often authoritarian and paternalistic attempts to clear slums and create model communities bump up against working class communities’ fight to assert their democratic rights and define urban space according to their needs. The continual search for profit and the capture of land value leads to ‘social cleansing’ as lower income communities are forced out of cities by the ongoing process of capital accumulation. Cities are explicitly redesigned in response to the threat of revolution, as in the rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann, or according to the demands of planners, bureaucrats and architects representing the interests of capital.

Marxist intellectuals and geographers such as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, have made a significant contribution to the discussion of the relationship between capitalism and urban space. Lefebvre coined the term, ‘the right to the city’ in 1968. He summarised it as a "demand...[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life", where people exercise collective power to re-shape the very process of urbanisation in a way that underpins self-determination, the appropriation of social and physical spaces and the establishment of meaningful social relationships. For Lefebvre there was a dialectical relationship between urban reality and everyday activity (eg work, leisure, education and housing). By contrast with what are sometimes considered to be rather cold, modernist urban visions represented by architects and urban planners like Le Corbusier, his thinking offers a bottom-up approach based on the lived experiences of individuals which offers some useful pointers for the way forwards.
As David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun say in ‘’Marx, architecture and modernity’:

It is useful, therefore, to consider briefly what might be described as the three distinct tasks placed upon architectural knowledge in capitalist modernity. The first is to act as technicians of spatial development. Under capitalism, this is primarily the task of commodifying space. This is what the vast majority of architects spend the vast majority of their time involved in. The second task is a ‘poetic’ or artistic one, and is to do with somehow dealing with, expressing, intensifying or ameliorating the spatial experience of modernity. The third task is an utopian or avant-garde one, and is to do with imagining alternative socio-spatial futures. Although all three are always present in each other to some degree, there have been moments in the struggle over social space and its modes of production where the third task, imagining alternative socio-spatial futures, becomes an urgent part of defining the first task—the work to be done by everyday technicians of spatial development.

In a nutshell, aesthetics married to functionality has to be the cornerstone of a future architecture, where building for human needs and use, in harmony with the earth and not for profit, is the main objective. So, as we seek to advance the struggle for socialism, this leaves us with the following questions. How does architecture respond to global challenges such as population growth, climate change, growing inequality and environmental degradation? How can it embrace social activism and help tackle poverty in the urban environment? How do we ensure that it is not misused by the wealthy and the powerful to erect structures unrelated to the built environment and the social needs of the community as they seek to build monuments, and create icons, to their power?

We hope this article will stimulate further articles on architecture and socialism.