• or: the Case of Idealizing History/ Architecture

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine came back from a field trip to Dessau and other Bauhaus sites he visited with his students. As I understood, they are doing a research studio with the students on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Bauhaus. We hadn’t seen each other for some time and so we met one evening with the kids, had dinner and he tried to update us. I was keen to tell him about the planning process of the publicly funded housing project I am currently engaged with and basically occupies me 24/7. It is my first substantial commission since I decided to engage in the production of space a few years ago, after realizing that being a lone parent to a little girl, and aiming to establish a stable and secure environment for her, the expected flexibility of an academic career would not fit. I really needed some discussion about what I was doing, aiming to verbalize and reflect on the tight space to maneuver the designing and, especially, the organizing of the housing project.

I needed to clear my head in order to understand what I was doing at that very moment. Since it is not only the restrictions of the zoning map, it is not only the industrial norms and standards, not only the juridical framing of state funded housing, and not only the tight budget that, from the beginning and to a high degree, already anticipates the outcome of such a design process. It is also, more generally speaking, the ideas spread across society, the housing associations, housing developers and politicians concerning how we should live together.The idea of housing a homogenous and heteronormative society of nuclear families does not leave space for other concepts and alternative ideas of life. And the question of course is, what my design could contribute to the very situation, or how I could intervene in a valuable and sustainable way.

I was about to pour my heart out, on all the thoughts that would occupy me, when my friend interrupted me quite sharply, starting to tell me about one Bauhaus housing project he had just visited. With utter enthusiasm he would tell me about the solution of the layouts, the way it was made in such an intelligent and knowledgeable way for the daily use of the units (or was it row houses?). He would meticulously describe the custom-made furniture fitting into the units. How practical and, at the same time, how aesthetically perfect their design and realisation was. And he would express his disgust about the way people still living there, and currently even renovating it, would treat such a treasure. How it is literally being destroyed just by the use of different window-frames.

I silently listened to his narrative, a bit confused, though. Maybe since, still the moment before, I had been totally immersed in my own problems, that it was hard for me to follow him and his narrative. Sure, he also spoke about housing. There was an associative connection. But then again, I had the feeling he would not speak about housing at all, but about something else: about a certain – let’s call it – ‘mythic moment’ in architectural history; about an idealized time and about an idealized object of architecture. About an aesthetic that we have come to know and have learned to love. An idea of pure architecture, in all its whiteness (with all its meanings), that was so important in my and certainly also in his education. He spoke of a knowledge of architecture that seemingly is being lost, or is at least disappearing.

Soon our conversation drifted away from the topic of housing and architecture in general, and we ended up planning a hike with our kids in the weeks ahead. But what my friend had said, kept me occupied. I have been researching and writing about housing for the last couple of years,approaching it as the mirror-element of the factory. I constantly insist on how housing and the organization of its cells - the apartments - are only a construct. That, at least over the last 100 years, on a massive scale, (European) society at large has learned one way of dwelling that is based on functional differentiation and the implementation of distance that has been so brilliantly explicated by CIAM’s ‘Functional City’. I have come to understand housing, including contemporary forms of co-housing and its emphasis on participation, as a tool of governance. And in my own writing I am interested in the question of a possible future organization of housing, that arises out of the increasing disappearance of the factory, or the crisis of wage-labour and the uncertainty of future work.

For sure, architecture is a form of knowledge that devolves from one generation to the next. And with this it is constantly evolving and altering, including generational conflicts and misunderstandings. Yet, a knowledge that, if we follow Manfredo Tafuri, became bereft of its utopian teleology through capitalism. I could understand my friends narrative - of the astonishing handicraft, and of the Bauhaus architect’s deep understanding of daily life – that understood the design of this housing project as a critique of the alienation of the current profession from the ‚‘real’ problems and solutions of life. While I can apprehend such a trail of thought, I would argue that this is too easy an escape from what is at stake, and leading instead to nostalgia and the romanticisation of a historic context, its protagonists and architecture more generally.

I am not an (architectural) historian, and I know much too little about the interwar years in Germany, its (building) industry and the business models behind it, let alone about the Bauhaus, to be able to contribute anything valuable to its discussion. Yet the contrast between my friend’s narrative about the 1920s housing and my own design challenges suggests an alteration in the production of space that we have to realize, in order to be able to intervene in a valuable way today.

In my friend’s narrative, as I am remembering it and re-telling here, it seems that there is no industry and no mass production involved yet. Which of course is not true. Many of the objects developed by Bauhaus were aimed for mass-production. And (without being able to prove my argument here with empirical data) my hunch is that the tailor made cupboard, as well as the organization of the apartment my friend would describe, represents an early form of mass-production, and with that, already some kind of alienation of what had been conventional or common at that time, surpassing and altering an economy that was based on craftsmanship. Something that has not been told, or has become camouflaged, by the well-known narrative that Modernist housing solved the housing shortage, providing, for the first time in history, humane conditions of dwelling for the masses flushed by sun, light and air. And it was a time, it seems, when it was not yet suspicious for (leftist) architects and designers to collaborate with industry.

Today the tailor-made cupboard and other furniture is obviously part of a consumerist industry. Most prominently this kind of furniture, installed in today’s housing, gets displayed by German advertising agency Jung von Matt in a showroom since 2004. Each year, Jung van Matt would install a part of their office in Hamburg as the ‘standard living room’, in which the average citizen and his or her family would feel comfortable in. They do this by using data provided by the Federal Statistical Office Germany and GfK (Society for Consumer Research). The obvious goal of this quantitative exercise is to visualize the average citizen’s taste and environment the advertising agency is targeting with the commercials they are producing.

Idealizing the canonical architecture of the 1920s, we could claim that its endeavor was to produce mass housing that involved some kind of (top down) pedagogic idea of how people should live on an equal basis. This involved, of course, to think through each and every knack (maneuver) in the daily routine, providing clearly functionally defined spaces and furnishings that represented that pedagogy. Yet in this idealization we do not ask here whose ideal was represented in these Modernist layouts. And then, there is this shift, or alteration, of that pedagogy, bereft of the Modernist ethic of the architect. It is today’s industry, through the channels of advertisement, mass- and social-media, that establishes a powerful free-floating pedagogy telling people what to desire and how to live and organize one’s life, by using an all-too-modernist idea of the standard by calculating the statistical intersection of society. This said, it becomes clear that we, along with our desires, are rendered similar, yet not equal.

I understand the Bauhaus housing project my friend was telling me about as an event in history that opened up a certain emancipatory trajectory to intervene in a specific situation and its societal, economic, political context. Yet it is just a swift moment in history that we cannot cling onto, or even repeat (as it would be industry’s logic of production). The intervention into a situation already altered the very context and its relational setting. We can claim that it was a structurally open moment in history in which architecture intervened in a valuable way. The industry it collaborated with was not yet on track, but was in a search mode to develop and to place its products in a still rather limited market.

Another such emancipatory moment I see in a not-so-canonical design, as the Bauhaus project represent. The first office-landscape (Bürolandschaft) installed for the mail-order business of Bertelsmann in 1959 intervenes into yet another significant moment in history. It is a moment that I claim to be formative for our contemporary situation. Looking closely into the office-landscape designs, these vast soccer-pitch-sized, chaotic looking interiors, one can deduce early principles of the organization of contemporary economy, ideas of how we relate to each other and the effect of new technology in our lives.

Early on office-landscape designs explicate the Cybernetic ideology of a flat hierarchy, the implementation of calculating machines (today known as computers) and informational technology’s logic of functioning. Initially developed not by architects, but by management consultants, mathematicians, information scientists and artists, office landscapes establish an organization of space whose teleology was to create a highly flexible closed environment that easily and creatively could react to changing conditions (of a given market, and a company’s goal). The focus thereby was to solely establish seamless information flows, ultimately aiming to fully automate administrative work.

In this moment, information-processing machines (at that time punch-card machines) could only automate informationally simple and repetitive tasks. Yet the whole work-flow was organized in such a way that all work-processes complied with quantifiable and countable decisions, and that later on, when technology was able to handle more complex calculation, could be coded as software. In order to guarantee this, workers were teamed up in small groups and had to deal with a given problem through a strictly formalized decision making process. In this moment, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, workers became rhetorically upgraded, being addressed as ‘specialists’, ‘scientists’, or as ‘creative’ and, were granted an unprecedented freedom in the way they wanted to work, not anticipated or practiced up to this moment in work organization. Yet this newly granted freedom was linked to the imperative to actively participate in the work-process.

This moment of alteration in the organization of work has found its way into a broader narrative. Generally, the cataclysm of and in society that started in the Post-War years is understood as a chance for the singular individual to gain more self-determination and (creative) freedom. Such a discourse assumes a immanent societal development that has an implicitly progressive and emancipatory teleology. Yet, it is a matter of fact that to date the only three stability factors of Western industrialized societies in relation to the projectablity of life become ever more undermined and fluid: (1) the permanent work contract, (2) Gender- and/or matrimonial agreement that guaranteed a shared existence of a household in economic terms, and (3) the right of abode.

In this sense the radical alteration weakens and unsettles people in our societies. The increasing divergence of income, as well as the advancing precarization of society through the weakening of work-contracts, the tendency towards a society of singles, but also new forms of households, as well as the economization of housing, are just the first in a series of effects that coincide with the restructuring of post-war labour processes and the decay of the above mentioned stability factors.

One needs to realize that the prominent figure of the self-entrepreneur, as well as the creative industry is still only feasible for a minority of society. The current economic system only allows a very small percentage to make a stable living and the disintegration of the nuclear family has, to date, rather led to a society of singles rather than fostering social experiments of communal living on a grand scale. In this sense, these respective new lifestyles are statistically not representative. The masses of the not-privileged can only experience these alterations and shifts with more or less traumatizing uncertainty. As long as no new social norms and securities have been developed, and as long as politics and their institutions consciously realize them, and as long as legislation is not adapting and reacting to these new realities, the masses will (be forced to) stick to the known structures, norms and securities.

For the practice of architecture this implies a specific function: architecture is prompted to work on seismographic experimental solutions for how we can live together. Architecture needs to envision future proposals for new forms of living and not just mirroring the existing and (statistically) visible lifeforms and their ‘desires’. Such solutions will need to be aesthetically and organizationally advanced forms for already existing, but currently unrealisable, desires.

In searching for and formulating these new democratic and social (and socialist) solutions it is of importance to consciously and value-neutrally analyze and reflect on all the idealisations of the(architectural) discourse, in order to propose a vision that will work for all of society on a pragmatic plane, and, as such, can operate as a stabilizing factor for society. This is not to say that idealizations and desires should be cut off. On the contrary. But we must to be aware of them and see how these idealizations also block us from intervening in a substantial way. In a first step, it is important to draw all the desires and fantasies one has, like my 8-year old daughter drawing her future room. Yet in another step, it is crucial to understand that in a 10 sqm room with a ceiling height of 2.55m one never will be able to implement a tree-house-like reading platform, or cave. Which is not to say, that something like this cannot be realized. The question is just how.

  • published in:
    Alter Production ...