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Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War

A new show at the Canadian Centre of Architecture examines the effects of the Second World War on Architecture

Any number of museums tell stories of the Holocaust, and our theatres and bestseller charts are routinely occupied by works about the Second World War.

If you read Primo Levi or WG Sebald, Anne Frank or Hans Fallada, you may convince yourself that no other subject is even possible, let alone necessary.

But more than half a century since the conclusion of hostilities, only now do we have our first comprehensive analysis of the War’s profound implications for architects and their profession.

That the War shaped the practice and direction of architecture is the operative principle of Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War, an exhibition of exceptional scope and depth on view at the Canadian Centre of Architecture (CCA) in Montreal.

This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but as curator Jean-Louis Cohen notes in the show’s catalogue, a landmark in its own right, the War has until recently been essentially absent from serious histories of the discipline.

Arranged in thematic rather than chronological order, Cohen’s corrective is an object lesson in the efficient organisation of resources and materials, like much of its subject matter.

Gallery walls painted in shades of cool grey accentuate an almost clinical recitation of events, with Allied and Axis projects placed side by side. (A paucity of materials from Japan is a weakness.)

Although the display can appear haphazard, given its reach and the limits of the museum’s floor space - a flaw rectified by the encyclopedic catalogue - it is controlled throughout by Cohen’s rigorous intellectual and moral authority.

The architect’s role in the orchestration of overwhelming systems of rational management - whether in the service of national defence or irrational malevolence - emerges as the central theme of the show.

For Cohen, the great maestro of this technocratic revolution was Albert Kahn, whose Detroit office was a model of integrated industrial production.

‘Architecture is 90 per cent business and 10 per cent art,’ he said. A diagram of the ‘Kahn Organisation’ - a tiered chart of administrators, designers, engineers and functionaries - commands a full wall.

Kahn’s principles were applied worldwide - his office designed a tractor factory for Soviet Chelyabinsk - but it was in the US that they achieved almost transcendental realisation.

Some 25,000 tanks were assembled at the office’s Chrysler Tank Arsenal, a massive bar with glazed windows. No detail was left to chance in the Kahn system. For the Ford Willow Run bomber factory, a vast facility that produced the B-24 Liberator, Kahn’s standard linear plan was given a dogleg shift to avoid it crossing into union territory.

Hitler’s grim campaign of aggression, enslavement and extermination demanded its own feats of infrastructural organisation. The architect Albert Speer was among the Führer’s most notoriously efficient administrators.

Kahn’s dark mirror, however, was the largely forgotten Herbert Rimpl, who ran an immense firm building for the Reich, with outposts throughout the occupied territories.

Like so many others who compromised themselves during the War years - among them, Auguste Perret and his pupil Le Corbusier - Rimpl emerged virtually unscathed during the aftermath.

In this exhibition, special attention is given to four megaprojects that would shape the War and the technocratic future of the architectural profession: Auschwitz (presented, chillingly, as an urban design problem with no sign of its victims); the Pentagon; the American atomic bomb factory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and the Nazi rocket-production facility at Peenemünde.

Cohen demonstrates that it was the architects who controlled the complex bureaucracies required for such projects who would rise to dominance in the post-war years, along with the form of corporate modern design that they practised.

For the most part, however, architects found their position diminished in the mobilisation for War, and were faced with the daunting task of proving their relevance in a world dominated by the engineer.

Camouflage, which drew on the architect’s combined artistic and technical competencies, became a significant if somewhat reduced outlet for professional energies (the AR dedicated an issue to the subject in September 1944).

Cohen devotes considerable wall space to camouflage design, and in particular to the British architect Hugh Casson, a brilliant practitioner and theorist of the form.

His charming watercolours were quite literally disarming, with factories, gas tanks and airfields disguised by patterned landscapes and overlapping foliage.

Casson noted the conflict in the design of camouflage for a modern architect, who was inclined to bold, unadorned forms. Now, however, he was charged with creating ‘ornament of the most boisterous and sensational kind’ and this was ‘not to emphasise structure, but to destroy it’.

Destruction of the literal variety was the object of another programme that was dependent on architectural falsity. At a secret American installation in the Utah Desert, Erich Mendelsohn, Antonin Raymond and Konrad Wachsmann and designed reproduction German and Japanese buildings and villages to test American munitions. Conversely, Cohen provides a succinct political and architectural history of the design of the safety shelter.

Of the architectural fascinations fuelled by the War, none has been so tenacious in its longevity as the interest in demountable, modular and prefabricated building systems.

Cohen grants the Quonset hut and the Bailey bridge their due attention, but his admiration extends to the geometries of the Mero node system - created by German heating professional Max Menringhausen - and the panel systems developed by Wachsmann before and after his emigration to the US.

The show all but concludes with a model of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, a metal mushroom that was to be fabricated at a converted aircraft factory. As Cohen acknowledges, it would ‘ultimately lead nowhere’.

Such was the War, which for all its rationality was also unpredictable, random and ungovernable - this was the conflict that gave us the acronyms SNAFU and FUBAR. Architecture emerged from it both augmented and reduced, but above all transformed.

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War

Where: Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, Canada

When: Until 18 September

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