Monday, 14 May 2012

Ernst May & a different story of modernism

[a longer version of a review published in ICON 106 March 2012]

It is significant that as we see practically a murder of public financing and social housing policies worldwide and the death of the idea of the welfare state, the more we get exhibitions and publications on the heroic age of modernism, which was encouraging all of them. The magnificent survey Ernst May 1886-1970 - accompanying a thorough exhibition that took place in Deutsches Architektur Museum in Frankfurt am Main last year, the place where Ernst May left his enduring landmark legacy in planning and building – perfectly inscribes into the trend for 21st century-end of times nostalgia and neoliberal fatalism. May, with his immense scope, is one to go to when yearning for the function architecture once had, and lost. He reinvented decentralized city planning and a new type of dwelling – together with Bruno Taut and Hannes Meyer. The fact this is the first English-language book on May is a result of the complicated history of modernism. As someone who didn’t attend the crucial Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne in 1933, but went to work in Soviet Russia instead, he missed the proclaiming of the Athens Charter and a different idea of modernism by Le Corbusier, Giedion and Gropius, who went to work in America soon after. May, Taut, Meyer with their interest in collective, socially managed housing, were for years obliterated by the international style stripped of any ‘red’ complications that triumphed during the cold war.

Such commemorations emerge probably against growing misuse of modernism: either as an ideology that ‘failed’, as we’re told, or that has become a luxurious hobby for middle classes, who now live in privatised social housing. This son of a wealthy Protestant factory owner got his professional break in Britain, studying under town planner Raymond Unwin, then involved in Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, the pioneering development founded in 1903 by Ebenezer Howard, father of the Garden City Movement. Despite similar examples of ‘Siedlungs’ (settlements) like Hellerau near Dresden and Falkenberg near Berlin, it was the British new ethos – of urban decentralization, ecological conservation, communal land ownership, and humane scale - that shaped him. His various realizations in German cities, including Breslau and New Frankfurt, realised between 1925 and 30, emerged as a part of the post-WWI reconstruction of society: enticing political stability, equality and stable workforce. Within 5 years New Frankfurt contained 15,000 houses, which won May international attention also in the Soviet Union, then in the middle of  its Five Year Plan.

Initially May shared early modernist humanist presumptions. His striving for modernity seemed something natural, characterizing himself as “culpably indifferent to political matters”, left simply with no other choice but to flee Nazi rule. He and his by then famous “Brigade” (among them Mart Stam)  left Germany in 1930 for the Soviet Union, to complete “the biggest task for an architect ever”: building the lands of “enthusiasm”, as Dziga Vertov called it, the new cities on the Siberian end of the world, masterplans for Magnitogorsk, Novokuznetsk, Tyrgan, Leninsk, Kemerovo, Danube Basin and Moscow and at least ten other places (here a fragment of his "City Building in the USSR" from 1931) – something firmly denied under Stalinism. Until the post-1956 Thaw, the investigation on May’s real role in the USSR, as well as a reassessment of his political positions was difficult. At some point his activities in Standartgorproekt (Standard City Project) between 1931/2 included being in charge of over 800 employees and a leader of important governmental organisations. Later he explained his decision through a fascination for the revolutionary Soviet avant-garde. The failure of modern style, or ‘Neues Bauen’ in Russia and its abandonment for the sake of classicism and historicism had more to do with the presence of a modernist faction in the government, which was subsequently purged, as Stalin expanded his power. The austere Siedlungs still remain scattered around Russia, badly kept, looking like messages from  a better future that never happened.

Siedlungs were innovatory not only because of their functional, simple, basic form, but equally importantly because of their rejection of ownership for the sake of rent. This is visible in the design itself, in the equality of the buildings and a huge amount of the communal spaces. “This architecture derived from the idea of living in solidarity, and its realization was based on non-profit housing cooperatives. The type of ownership and architecture formed an inseparable unity which is what accounts for the epochal achievement and value of these Siedlungen,” writes DW Dreysse in the book. After work in Kenya, where the conflict between the British Army and Mau Mau left him disillusioned in the social potential of architecture, he decided to go back to West Germany in 1954, unusually for German architect of his caliber. Here he continued his work in spectacular postwar urban reconstruction for the Wirtschaftswunder. He worked as chief planner for several cities, including Hamburg, Mainz, and Wiesbaden. This amazing life, spanning three very different regimes, is a new, unknown story of the modern movement. It demands to be studied.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up, Agata! I found the survey of Ernst May's work you mentioned quite helpful as well, not least for the numerous rare photographs of Ernst May in the Soviet Union. I'll be posting those pictures soon if you're interested.

    You're right that many of these retrospectives revel in the idea of modernism's collapse as somehow being a foregone conclusion. They glimpse the tragedy of the movement's eventual demise, but treat it as if it were doomed from the start. Modernism did not seal its own fate, however. Its fate was sealed for it by the political failure of 1918-1923, the abdication of International Social-Democracy, and the violent pacification of revolution in Europe. This international crisis in politics (which may even mark the death of politics) was reflected only later in the international crisis in architecture in the 1930s, after which modernism could only echo faintly the radical utopian project it once proclaimed.