The provocative anti-art movement is 100 this year, but it still has a surprising amount to teach architecture
In the summer of 1916 a group of exiles established a nightclub in Zurich where they performed nightly exorcisms of a continent that had descended into bloodthirsty madness. The club’s name, Cabaret Voltaire, was a provocative debasement of the supposedly enlightened civilisation that had led to chemical experiments being conducted on barely living men in the trenches of Ypres. Rather than formulating their critique as conventional political discourse or in cultural forms that they felt had been irretrievably compromised by such consequences, these artists sought ‘to rub humanity’s face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror’, as JG Ballard later described his own Dada-inflected experiments. Or as Tristan Tzara put it at the time: ‘Dada remains within the framework of European weaknesses; it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours.’ In other words they would counter idiocy with idiocy, and although the political efficacy of their protest might be questionable, at the very least Dada has the virtue of being the most merciless form of Realism ever ventured in art.
One of the group’s central members was cabaret artiste and poet Emmy Hennings, who had spent a brief stint in prison in Berlin before fleeing Germany with her partner, the writer Hugo Ball. Hennings was the star turn of Cabaret Voltaire. She would sometimes begin her act by singing a familiar tune – ‘This is how we live, this is how we live / This is how we live every day’ – but the words quickly became strange and disturbing: ‘This is how we die, this is how we die, / This is how we die every day / This is how we murder, this is how we murder, / This is how we murder every day / Our comrades in a dance with death.’ Ball, on the other hand, uttered pure nonsense – ‘blago bung blago bung bosso fataka’ – attacking the communicative potential of language itself.
‘Their smart suits and monocles were camouflage worn in a guerrilla war against bourgeois respectability’
As well as performing, the Dadaists made photomontages – a form they claimed to have invented – and produced sculptures, paintings, ‘readymades’, writings, magazines and installations, in Zurich and several other cities around the world. Dada was especially virulent in Berlin, Paris and New York, where Duchamp threw his urinal in the face of the art world (as he later put it). Dadaist events were shut down by the police and its protagonists prosecuted for obscenity, which was all part of the programme: their smart suits and monocles were camouflage worn in a guerrilla war against bourgeois respectability.
This extended to the bourgeois subject itself and to its art, with the latter seen as both the manifestation and factory of the former. But they were equally keen to position themselves against the other manifesto-led tendencies in avant-garde art. Tristan Tzara wrote ‘anti-manifestoes’, and Hugo Ball declared – in a parody of the art-world jargon of the day – that ‘Dada is the world soul’. This was a sarcastic comment on the senselessness of the contemporaneous political situation, but, ironically, it has turned out to have an element of enduring historical truth: while idiocy remains ascendant so too does Dada.
Although the activities of its founders faded around 1924, there would have been no Surrealism without Dada, no Theatre of the Absurd – no Beckett, no Artaud. The neo-avant-gardes of the postwar period were Dadaist in derivation, especially Situationism. And although the Punks and Young British Artists, both inheritors of Dada in their day, demonstrated how easily extreme forms surrender to the market, the spirit of Dada is imperishable.
‘Dada is that which is beyond the pale, the not-yet-art’
This is not just a matter of its relation to historical context but also of the inner workings of art’s own history. For Dada is that which is beyond the pale, the not-yet-art, and while the market will always catch up – the avant-garde is in some respects the R&D department of the culture industry – there will always be a space beyond the frontier for pioneers with strong stomachs and no shame. And in that ever-receding space, something utopian happens: a glimpse of a momentarily unspoiled world, forever being created and forever corrupted, forever out of reach and yet – barely, momentarily – tangible.
But what has Dada got to do with architecture? Considering the ephemerality of its gestures, more than might appear possible. There was even an in-house Dada architect, Johannes Baader. Baader – who called himself the ‘Oberdada’ – was a friend of Raoul Hausmann’s, and together they formed the nucleus of the more political branch of Dada in Berlin. In 1906 Baader had designed a ‘World Temple’, a 1,500 metre tall multi-denominational place of worship, and he contributed a model for a ‘Great Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama’ to the Berlin Dada Fair of 1920. This three-dimensional montage was constructed from typographic fragments and found objects, and had five storeys, the fourth of which was titled ‘The World War’, and the fifth, ‘World Revolution’.
The ambiguous combination of utopianism and satire in Baader’s works was typical of Dada, but the postwar moment in which it thrived was subsumed by a Neue Sachlichkeit, ‘New Objectivity’, by the mid 1920s. When Baader offered his services to the Bauhaus, proclaiming his credentials as President of the Earth and the Universe, Gropius declined.
‘Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau transformed the domestic realm into something strange and shifting’
Meanwhile in Hanover, Kurt Schwitters was creating more substantial examples of Dada architecture. Schwitters, who had briefly trained as an architect, was a successful graphic designer and a maker of collages and magazines (in which Hilberseimer’s ‘Großstadtbauten’ essay was published), activities he subsumed under the name ‘Merz’: a personal brand with excremental overtones that can be considered a comment on early consumer culture.
Schwitters’ Merzbau was a constantly fluctuating installation taking up several rooms in the artist’s house, bringing home the avant-garde integration of the spheres of life and art and transforming the domestic realm into something strange and shifting. The structure was composed of angular forms, niches and grottoes (one of them dedicated to Mies), and incorporated found objects and works by other artists. Schwitters worked on the Merzbau from 1923 to 1937 when he fled Germany. The project was destroyed by British bombs in 1943, but Schwitters made two further Merz environments in exile, one in Norway and another in a barn in Cumbria. The latter was partly relocated to the University of Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery in 1965.
The greatest impact of Dada on architecture came through Mies, as Martino Stierli, chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, has observed. Mies was present at the Berlin Dada Fair in 1920 and shortly afterwards he abandoned his early Classicism in favour of unprecedented forms produced via photomontage. He had already made collages with drawn elements fused to photographs, but his post-Dada photomontages abandoned this naturalistic approach in favour of fragments arranged to shocking effect, most famously in the case of his 1921 Friedrichstrasse tower project.
The relationship between Mies and Dada continued in the pages of the magazine G (for Gestaltung, ‘design’ or ‘forming’), where their ideas mingled with the influence of Constructivism. G lasted from 1923 to 1926 and was edited by erstwhile Zurich Dadaist Hans Richter, with regular contributions from Mies and Hilberseimer. Theo van Doesburg – who later founded De Stijl – also set out as a Dadaist. These transitions from negation to construction demonstrate that Dada was not essentially nihilistic but in many cases an attempt to clear the ground for new work.
‘It was in Mies’s adoption of montage that Dadaism had the most enduring effect on architecture’
It was in Mies’s adoption of montage that Dadaism had the most enduring effect on architecture. Le Corbusier later employed a similar strategy in visualisations of his Plan Voisin (1925), and Mies followed him to the urban scale with his 1928 proposal for Alexanderplatz, which tears out a junction of the Wilhelmine city to replace it with huge, smooth, yet still irregularly disposed blocks. Hilberseimer would go even further with his Vorschlag zur Bebauung der Berliner City (1929), in which a huge portion of Berlin was supplanted by blocks arrayed as a sublimely implacable grid. This ambiguous statement can be seen as as a Dadaist provocation, both a working out of the essential logic of capitalist development and an attempt to jolt the viewer into an attentive attitude towards the irrationality of the existing city.
Hilberseimer’s shocking image was ultimately built in Pruitt-Igoe, aerial photographs of which look strikingly like the Vorschlag zur Bebauung. The question of whether such provocations should ever have left the page, especially at this magnitude, was raised when the strategy was resurrected by Superstudio, albeit with a polar critical intent: instead of spurring the viewer to question the context into which the abstract forms of modern architecture had been inserted, Superstudio sought to highlight the problematic nature of the insertion. However justified the critique, it should be noted that a Dadaist technique – shorn in this instance of its ambiguity – becomes reactionary and postmodern.
Since then, shock effects of juxtaposition have also been employed in the service of spectacle and the quasi-avant-garde doctrine of creative destruction, as in the later works of the dubiously named Deconstructivists, especially Gehry and Libeskind, and Patrik Schumacher’s world-historical justification for Parametricism, surfing the peaks and troughs of the market as it unfurls its ineffable trajectory.
‘Today we need more of this criticality’
This is not the necessary fate of Dadaist strategies, however. Critical architectures such as the earlier works grouped under the name Deconstructivism can also be understood as falling within this tradition – a lineage that becomes explicit in the writings of K Michael Hays. Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and Eisenman’s houses, for instance, attempt to undermine the bourgeois subject by throwing its habitat into disarray.
Likewise, the employment of the readymade in architecture mirrors the Dadaist use of consumerist fragments to unmask the anachronicity of the coherent work of art. This can be seen in Mies’s own, jarring abutment of old and new, chrome and onyx; in the presentation of unaltered industrial materials in Hannes Meyer’s Bernau trade union school; in Brutalism’s ‘as found’ aesthetic; and more recently in David Adjaye’s Stephen Lawrence Centre. The latter building’s unmediated presentation of commercially available products has much in common with collage, and with the intent of Dada as a confrontational reaction to a trauma.
We need more of this criticality today – an architecture that jolts free from the spectacularity of the icon builders, the acquiescent austerity of the so-called biscuit boys and the affirmatory technophilia of the Parametricists. An architecture that does not subscribe to any of these forms of capitalist realism and yet does not relapse into conservativism or Luddism (neither of these necessarily follow, as Adjaye has demonstrated). What would this architecture look like? In a situation of resurgent idiocy, Kurt Schwitters’ dictum takes on fresh relevance: ‘it is possible to scream with rubbish’.