Architecture in Uniform | Jean-Louis Cohen

Bruno Zevi in the uniform of the British Army, 1944, CCA Collection

Jean-Louis Cohen
Architecture in Uniform
Designing and Building for the Second World War*

The Second World War, which set four continents ablaze between the years 1939 and 1945, affected citizens in the military and civilians alike, and drew on every human resource of the warring nations. The discipline of architecture also entered the fray and was mobilised in all its components. Despite what most histories of the discipline still claim, it experienced a concentrated period of research and transformation.
Between the destruction of Guernica by the Nazis in 1937 and the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, many architects became active combatants. Others pursued their professional work in the service of an intensified industrial production or in response to the requirements of the front. The technical modernization that had been undertaken in the 1920s was continued. Whereas the Allied powers developed new types of pre-fabricated and mobile constructions, the Third Reich set up a methodical scheme of enslavement and extermination, with its own architecture.
More broadly, the war drew upon every aspect of architectural expertise: knowledge of construction, which was useful for building bunkers and reinforcing shelters; visual skills, which were indispensible for camouflage and relevant to the frenzy of propaganda during that period; and the organizational competence needed to advance industrial and territorial projects unprecedented in their scale.
Mobilized as a group, architects were faced with personal choices as well, especially those called upon to take part in the criminal policies of the Nazis. In this sense, the war also tested their moral fibre: some were complicit in the policies of extermination, while others were among their victims.
Within the vast inventory of experiences, the themes that illustrate the diversity of architectural activities are rooted in national contexts, from the United States to Japan, as well as in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Deeply committed to the Allied cause, Canada sent troops to faraway fronts, while the country was transformed at home, as can be seen in the films that punctuate each gallery of the exhibition.
After 1945 the supremacy of modern architecture remained unchallenged, except in the Soviet Union, and there, only for a short time. In the end, the war transformed not only ways of building, but also ways of thinking, and after the six years of conflict, architects would apply broadly to peaceful purposes the methods developed under the pressures of war.

Architects in Uniform
The distance that divides the Nazi minister Albert Speer, sentenced at Nuremberg in 1946 for war crimes, from Szymon Syrkus, a member of the Polish Resistance who was imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, is an indication of the war’s broad impact on human destinies.
Between the extremes of these two figures—on one hand, a government official committed to the suppression of minorities and to extermination, and on the other, a victim of these same policies—are to be found tens of thousands of situations in which architects were borne off by the war.
Mobilized, deployed on the fronts, killed, wounded, or prisoners, Resistance fighters, or refugees — architects shared the fate of all citizens in the warring nations. But the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects would also call upon its readers in 1939 to “fight as architects in the fullest sense of the word.” They found themselves en-trusted with a very wide range of tasks that made them into far more than simple enlisted citizens. Their professional involvement in the war effort would permanently mark the fate of those who escaped a tragic end.

The industrial architecture of Albert Kahn
In its June 1942 issue, The Architectural Record focused on the activities of the Detroit-based agency Albert Kahn Associates, which it called a “producer of production lines.” The journal described the “magic formula” of the office of 600 employees: the “coordination of experienced experts.”
As the architect of Ford and General Motors since the beginning of the century, Kahn constructed steel-framed single-storey volumes lit from above and from the sides. Secondary or service spaces were located in the basement in order not to hinder further expansion and to serve as shelters.
Kahn constructed the Chrysler Tank Arsenal in Michigan, Warren Township between 1940 and 1942. Inside its glazed envelope 400 m long and 100 m wide, the different stages of production were laid out in a linear arrangement. Another project similar in size was the Ford Motors bomber plant, built between 1941 and 1943 at Willow Run, in the same state. This single building of 100,000 m² was capable of “turning out” one airplane per hour. The aviator Charles Lindberg had no hesitation in calling it “a sort of Grand Canyon of a mechanized world.”
While the Austin Company was advocating “windowless” factories, Albert Kahn commented that “they require artificial lighting all the time, as well as mechanical ventilation and air-conditioning”, which he judged unacceptable under future peacetime conditions.
The factories that Kahn built in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1932 were put to similar use, and his tractor plant in Chelyabinsk became the central unit in the complex known as “Tankograd.”

The inaugural work of Mies van der Rohe
In 1943 Ludwig Mies van de Rohe constructed his first American building on the campus of Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, whose master plan he had laid out in 1939.
Mies was able to realize the Minerals and Metals Research Center only because it was tied to the war effort. Since IIT was working for the military, he obtained an allocation of steel for the framing, unusual at that time in the United States.
Kahn’s first factories had a considerable impact in Germany even before 1914, and it is instructive to compare this first building of Mies van der Rohe with those of the Detroit architect, whose work he knew well. In contrast to Kahn’s Chrysler Tank Arsenal, Mies’ building differed in the elegance and geometric perfection of its openings, and by the precise layout of its brickwork. Despite all the urgency bearing on the project, he nonetheless exerted complete mastery over the structure and proportions of the building, which would subsequently extend to the rest of the campus. The project finds an echo in the modular factory built in concrete by Ernst Neufert, a former assistant to Walter Gropius, in the annexed Alsace.

Dugway, or the architect as expert in destruction
In 1943 strange buildings were constructed on the firing range of Dugway, Utah. Lined up side by side, the “German” and “Japanese” villages had only one purpose: to be consumed by fire.
They were meant to serve for combustion experiments with bombs filled with naphthalene combined with palmitate, or napalm, that Louis Fieser, a Harvard University and Standard Oil Company chemist had recently invented.
Architectural experts were called in to make the experiment realistic. The “German” village was designed by Erich Mendelsohn, a leading figure of the Berlin architects, who studied its exterior volumes and roofing materials, by Konrad Wachsmann, who selected the adequate types of wood, by the furniture dealer Hans Knoll, and by German members of Hollywood’s RKO Pictures Authenticity Division, who selected the furnishings.
Antonin Raymond, who had spent twenty years in Japan, designed the prefabricated wood structure of the “Japanese” village, and furnished it with the relevant domestic equipment and corresponding bedding. In this way, architecture served the destructive purposes of aviators.

Teaching camouflage
The war directly affected architectural education. Many schools suspended their activities, while others switched to more immediate tasks, such as camouflage.
As early as 1939, the École des Beaux-arts of Paris had proposed as a theme for one of its com-petitions a “camouflaged town”, in which students attempted to convey foggy atmospheric effects with watercolours. But it was in the United States that programs became widespread after 1941. Architects took courses in camouflage, like the one Louis I. Kahn developed at the University of Pennsylvania.
Among the programs set up at the time, the courses of László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes at the Chicago School of Design stood out because of the teachers they recruited—military men, engineers, and psychologists—and because of the quality of the work (some of which would be published in the journal Civilian Defense). Moholy-Nagy, who had formulated the theory of an analytical “new vision”, became preoccupied with how to manufacture illusion.
At Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, Konrad Wittman was working on an extremely practical manual of industrial camouflage, whose pages came to resemble a comic book.
All of these programs were the sites of a productive encounter between architectural thinking and the notions of the psychology of form that had been introduced in the United States by Wolfgang Köhler, who was keenly interested in “making objects disappear”—the very basis of camouflage.

The controversy over shelters in London
In London, the issue of civilian protection against air raids became a highly charged political debate towards the end of the 1930s, discussed by politicians, architects, and intellectuals.
The policies of the Conservative governments, supported by Winston Churchill up to the end, focused on individual shelters in gardens, leaving workers living in denser blocks without protection. Drawing on the lessons of civil defence in Barcelona, and based on research trips under-taken during the Spanish Civil War, architects on the left called for the creation of public shelters instead.
With the support of highly respected scientists—such as the physicists C.P. Snow and John Desmond Bernal, the biologist Julian Huxley, and the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane—the architects of the Tecton group, led by Berthold Lubetkin and the engineer Ove Arup, proposed underground shelters for the London borough of Finsbury that could accommodate as many as 7,600 city residents on their spiral ramps. The project would be blocked by the Conservatives, who preferred to distribute the individual Anderson shelter, in steel sheeting, and the Morrison shelter, for use inside the house.
Nevertheless, after the experience of the London Blitz in 1940, a policy for deep-level public shelters linked to the stations of the Under-ground was finally undertaken, and a network of tunnels would be built to that effect.

Germany: bunkers beneath the bombs

Realizing that bombs could just as well fall on German cities, Adolf Hitler launched in 1940 a Sofort programm—an emergency program with the aim of constructing shelters for the civilian population.
They were to complement the cone-shaped Winkel towers, which had been the most widespread shelters until then. Competitions were held throughout Germany to develop these constructions, many of which would assume the reassuring exterior forms of older buildings.
In Hamburg, Konstanty Gutschow built cylindrical shelters topped with a conical roof that evoked windmills or medieval fortifications. Elsewhere, the shelters proposed for Bavaria or Austria by Roderich Fick, or for the Rhineland by Fritz Becker, were disguised as granaries, with high walls and sloping roofs.
These buildings would be very limited in withstanding the Allied carpet bombings that devastated German cities after 1942. The occupants of these crowded shelters would often be asphyxiated from lack of oxygen during the incendiary bombings.

The secret city of Oak Ridge
In 1945 the world would learn about the “birthplace of the atomic bomb” in the heart of the United States. The Architectural Record revealed “a secret city of 75,000 people busily working on they knew not what,” which turned out to be “one of the largest construction projects of the war”: Oak Ridge.
Chosen for its plentiful supply of electricity, the complex included three major facilities: the X-1 nuclear reactor, the Y-12 isotope separation factory, and the gigantic K-25 plant for separating out uranium hexafluoride by gaseous diffusion, which went into operation in February 1945. The factory was housed in a U-shaped building, 735 m long by 135 m wide, covering a total of 18 hectares.
The nearby city built to accommodate the workforce extended over a rectangle measuring one mile by six miles (1.6 by 10 km) drawn up by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Some 3,000 houses were constructed of Cemesto panels that combined asbestos-cement cladding and cane-fibre insulation. Others were trucked in from Dallas in room-sized sections, and still others came from Indiana and West Virginia. By 1945, 10,000 single-family houses had been constructed, along with 13,000 units in well-equipped apartment blocks and in dormitories. There were also 5,000 trailers and 16,000 “huts” or shacks, the only dwellings provided for the African American workers.

Auschwitz: industry and extermination
Auschwitz, in Polish Upper Silesia, was undoubtedly the site of the implementation of Nazi barbarism not only in its most radical, but also in its most rational form. Here, the creation of a centre for the chemical industry, owned by IG Farben and intended to produce synthetic fuel, was combined with setting up a concentration camp, whose initial purpose was to work Soviet war prisoners to death.
After the Wannsee conference of January 1942, which set out the fully planned extermination of European Jews, or “final solution,” the creation of the Birkenau concentration camp enabled the industrialization of genocide. Architects were part of this undertaking. While the traditionalist Hans Stosberg drew up the overall plan of the area that included the camps, the picturesque housing estates of the SS and German managers, as well as the large chemical plant at Monowitz, Fritz Ertl, a former student at the Bauhaus, designed the plan for Birkenau. In their cynical exploitation of every skill, the SS in charge of the camp selected prisoners. As a result, Szymon Syrkus, a pioneer of modern architecture in Poland, who had been arrested as a Resistance fighter, worked for the camp’s building office and designed greenhouses.

Drancy: From the Housing estate to the concentration camp
In 1942, José Luís Sert included in Can our Cities Survive?, the La Muette housing estate in Drancy, a Northern suburb of Paris, as a model example of the new kinds of housing that could be expected after the war. Designed in 1934 in Drancy by Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, and built in collaboration with Jean Prouvé, the project was experimental in form—five fourteen-storey towers and parallel buildings—and in technique: it was built with precast concrete panels attached to a steel frame.
And yet at that very time, it had become a principal station for the deportation of Jews from France. Its transformation into a camp was made possible by the fact that in 1940 a large U-shaped building was still unfinished and would be simple to recast into a place of detention and surveillance. Almost 70,000 Jews would be held there, guarded first by the gendarmes of the Vichy regime and later by the SS, before being transferred to the extermination camps. Published in 1945, the book Drancy la Juive, written by Jacques Darvillé and Simon Wichené, narrated the sufferings of the prisoners held in a place whose destiny had been transformed by the war.

Air raid protection
Although felt on a relatively moderate scale during the First World War, the threat of air strikes took on new dimensions during the 1930s, with the Japanese raids in China and Nazi bombings in Spain. It would not be long before modern architects became interested in this new set of architectural and urban issues.
As early as 1930, Le Corbusier had raised the spectre of a future air war in order to justify the urban scheme of his “Radiant City”: On the higher levels “the inhabitants [take] refuge above the gas and behind the shielding”, since “the entire ground plane of the city is free (pilotis) [and] the winds easily disperse the gases”; and that underground “the production of pure air continues to work behind its shielding and to supply the inhabitants.” Le Corbusier would constantly refer to the analyses of Paul Vauthier in order to spread his own ideas.
During the first years of the Nazi era, when Hans Schoszberger published a systematic treatise in 1934 on the “technical means for the anti-aircraft defence of buildings,” he considered the urban plans of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and even the linear cities of the Soviet Nikolai Miliutin to be the most effective approach, since they all broke with the dense concentration of existing cities, where crowded populations made such tempting targets.
With war approaching, architects like Ernö Goldfinger, made studies of camps for the evacuation of civilian populations. They evaluated the strength of existing buildings and their below-ground areas, in order to transform them into shelters, even going so far as to imagine the creation of artificial caves for larger crowds. And finally, through a combination of optics and bricolage, they proposed solutions for the blackout that had been imposed on cities, such as the curious luminous belt imagined by Norman Bel Geddes.

Four macro-projects
In 1944, the German city planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, who was teaching in Chicago at the time, referred to “Bigness and Its Effect on Life,” affirming that “the main trend of our time is toward the great dimension.”
This tendency was particularly evident in industrial production, logistics, and the conduct of the war. The productive and administrative tasks at hand required massive forces of productive workers and employees, whose movements needed to be controlled. The rational assembly and dispersal of large crowds became one of the basic elements of wartime logistics, both at the front and in civilian zones, whether the human fluxes consisted of workers, employees, the military, or prisoners.
The large buildings themselves were inserted into extremely vast territorial networks. In Washington, for example, the Pentagon is the central point in a wide system of highways and parking areas. The atomic facilities at Oak Ridge were made possible in this location only by being tied to the hydroelectric facilities of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The same holds true for the Soviet industrial projects east of the Urals, and especially of the Nazi projects: the Auschwitz concentration camp was only one element of a large industrial area located at the intersection of railways linking it to the rest of Europe.
In order to develop these schemes, expanded teams of architects were assembled. They operated within the civilian and military administrations or as private firms, such as the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, whose unstoppable growth began with the project for the town of Oak Ridge.
Alongside these macroscopic projects expanded to the territorial scale, another practice, that of microscopic projects, or rather, of constructions reduced to their minimal dimensions, emerged in the domains of housing, barracks, shelters, and, of course, in places of detention. The most extreme compression of human bodies inside buildings took place in the Nazi concentration camps.

Imagining the Postwar World
Few moments in history have been as eagerly awaited as the end of the Second World War. Aside from the liberation so hoped for by those the Axis armies had enslaved—which would unfortunately turn out to be only a short reprieve for the inhabitants of territories reconquered by the Ussr—expectations for a more just and democratic society were shared by millions of civilians and demobilized soldiers.
The postwar period opened with projects for social reform aimed at defining the features of a welfare state that would last several decades. The Labour government in Britain and the new regime in France that emerged out of the Resistance within and outside the country created a powerful public sector and reformed education as well as social security. In the United States, the GI Bill of Rights, signed by Roosevelt in 1944, enabled millions of veterans to attend university and to buy their own homes. In Germany and Italy, an in-depth process of democratization swept away the oppressive structures of Nazism and Fascism, although the beginnings of the cold war limited political change in Japan.
But the world imagined for the postwar period also took on an architectural profile. Projects were soon developed for the devastated cities. These plans not only addressed the demands of reconstruction, but also allowed a complete rebuilding that the clean slate of destruction sometimes makes possible.
The British plans for Coventry, Plymouth, and London went ahead immediately. On the other hand, plans for the reconstruction of Rotterdam developed under the supervision of the occupying forces, and plans for French cities drawn up under the Vichy regime would be revised after 1945. The prospective energy of urban planners and architects was also expressed in extreme conditions: in occupied Warsaw, Helena Syrkus directed a clandestine workshop that prepared plans for reconstruction, while Franco Albini, Pietro Bottoni, and a group of Milanese architects worked in secret in 1944 on the “ar” (Architetti Riuniti) plan for the capital of Lombardy.

*Selection of texts,  with agreement of the author, from the Exhibition Catalogue “Architecture in Uniform” edited and written by Jean-Louis Cohen.


Jean-Louis Cohen
Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture, Institute of Fine Art/New York University.

Architecture in Uniform | Designing and Building for the Second World War
Exposição | CCA | Montréal
13.04 – 18.09

+ info : CCA