And the individual in the 1950s”



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Prof. Annie Pedret

Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, USA

Conference: Universal vs. Individual: The Architecture of the 1960s
June 3, 2002
Representing history or describing historical reality?: the universal and the individual in the 1950s”
The issue of the ‘universal’ and the ‘individual’ found its theoretical precedent in the discussions within CIAM in the 1950s. The universal and the individual were conceived of not as mutually exclusive oppositional perspectives, but as ones that could rather coexist in a dialectic relationship. In this paper I will examine the manner in which the universal and the individual were being discussed within post-World War II CIAM, where a third generation of modern architects were thinking about these two concepts in a more subtle way than can be portrayed in conventional characterizations of this debate. The thinking of the younger CIAM members in the 1950s pushed the agenda towards recognizing the individual without jettisoning the universalizing aspect of CIAM modernism. I will argue that the fact that they held such dialectical views challenges our historiographical heritage, a heritage that has often relied in varying degrees on both polarizing and simplifying historical moments for the sake of rhetorical clarity. While such techniques are convenient for structuring conferences and papers, they fail to represent the intricacy of historic situations. As historians we need to ask ourselves if our methods lead us to simplified representations of history, or if they allow us to get closer to some of the complexities of a multifaceted history.

In the first part of the paper I will discuss how the universalist attitude toward town planning, as stated in Le Corbusier’s La Charte d’Athènes (1943), was challenged by the younger CIAM members who were looking for an approach that would take into account the individual, as expressed in their “Statement on Habitat/Doorn Manifesto” (1954). In the second part I will examine the manner in which they balanced this thinking with universalist ideal as demonstrated in the project they presented at CIAM 9 (1953) and CIAM 10 (1956). In the third section I will examine their stance against universalization as expressed in their critique of the CIAM “grid,” both as an epistemological framework and method of presentation. The protagonists who made contributions to this new way of thinking are referred to as the ‘younger members’ before September 1954 – when they were first recognized as Team 10.

CIAM and Team 10 members did not explicitly discuss the issue of the universal and individual, it was rather, played out as a debate among the younger generation who were critical of the type of planning methods that they had inherited from the founding members of CIAM. A conventional history might represent this discourse as the opposition of two absolutist positions roughly divided along generational lines, with the universalist position supported by the older members, that is Le Corbusier, Giedion, Gropius and Sert, and the individualist position by the younger members, in particular Jacob Bakema, Aldo van Eyck, Georges Candilis, John Voelcker, William Howell, and Alison and Peter Smithson. A conventional history might also not include in the membership of Team 10 and the Italian architect Ernesto N. Rogers and the young Swiss CIAM members Theo Manz and Rolf Gutmann all of whom made important contributions to the cultural shift towards the individual evidenced in postwar CIAM, but who have been excluded in the membership of Team 10 as codified by Alison Smithson in the key text about the group, the Team 10 Primer (1962, 1966). I think it is important to note that Team 10, in these early years, was comprised of a wider constituency than is attested to by the scholarly and popular perceptions about the group.

The functional city, as it was sanctioned by CIAM in José Luis Sert’s Can Our Cities Survive? (1942), and by Le Corbusier in his unauthorized version, La Charte d’Athènes (1943), defined a planning methodology whereby cities would be divided into four autonomous sectors according to the functions of: dwelling, work, recreation and transportation. A fundamentally universalist approach, the functional city presupposed the site to be tabula rasa thus ignoring existing conditions, whether man-made and natural. As Reyner Banham pointed out in his 1973 review of the English translation of Le Corbusier’s text, it was not Le Corbusier’s La Charte d’Athènes, but the very different English version in Sert’s book, that formed the basis of the discussion by the younger CIAM members. It is my contention that the younger generation have coalesced ideas from Sert and Le Corbusier. They paired the textual prescription of the functional city in Sert’s book with an image of the functional city as portrayed in a perspective drawing of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (1930), which showed a city, ordered, perfectly ventilated, and well-spaced, but devoid of any signs of life or people. Alison Smithson included this perspective drawing in the Team 10 Primer with a caption that made reference to the Le Corbusian “dream” of rationalist projects. The younger CIAM members interpreted the functional city in formal terms as an anti-urban vision of large towers in a park-like setting, in which the functions of life were segregated from one another, thus destroying life.

The younger generation did not explicitly state that they were against the functional city for its universalizing approach -- they suggested an alternative. Their alternative proposed a planning methodology that would take into account difference between things and people - social, cultural, historic, geographic, climactic, and ethnic. And it is through their insistence that modern urbanism could express a higher degree of particularity, and identity, that they argued for the individual. Doubts about CIAM planning methods had been raised even before World War II, but they began to gain new momentum at the first postwar CIAM congress in Bridgwater, England in 1947, where CIAM was coming to terms with the vastly different conditions of society in the postwar period. The concerns regarding the new situation with which modern architects were confronted, were discussed by various constituencies within CIAM with increasing intensity until the mid-1950s. At that time a group of the younger members summarized the general trend that had been occurring in CIAM in a document entitled the “Statement on Habitat.”

The “Statement on Habitat” was written by a group of the more engaged younger CIAM members – including Jacob Bakema, Aldo van Eyck, Peter Smithson, John Voelcker, Sandy van Ginkel, a Dutch architect and collaborator with van Eyck, and Hans Hovens-Greve, a civil servant in Rotterdam, who met for a weekend in Doorn, Holland after the CIAM 9 congress at Aix-en-Provence in July 1953. The purpose of their ensuing statement, originally intended as a summary of the discussions which occurred during the weekend retreat, was later distorted when it was given the more polemical title of the “Doorn Manifesto.” The “Statement on Habitat/Doorn Manifesto” began with the younger members acknowledging the value and historic role of La Charte d’Athènes which although an “adequate tool” for dealing with the chaotic conditions of the nineteenth-century city, was an inadequate one for expressing the “full potential” of the twentieth-century. The crux of their critique was implicit in the proposal that followed: instead of organizing the city by dividing it into the four autonomous zones of dwelling, work, recreation, and transportation, they thought that “human association” should be the first criteria of town planning and that planners needed to acknowledge that conditions varied. The nature of human association was, in their opinion, inextricably linked to the physical, social and occupational conditions of a particular place. The younger CIAM members had based this idea on Patrick Geddes’ premise of physical, occupational, and social differentiation. Patrick Geddes, British promoter of the newly emerging disciplines of city planning and sociology, writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, conceived of the landmasses of the earth as conforming roughly to a contour that was defined from highland to lowland. He theorized that the particular character of settlements were conditioned by their physical environment which in turn determined the “natural” occupations and social conditions that varied at different points along this topographic section which Geddes’ called the “Valley Section of Civilization.” For example, the hunter and miner and the woodsman appeared in high country; the shepherd on the grassy slopes; the peasant on the plain; and finally the fisherman, sailor, merchant by the sea.

Geddes’ ideas were most likely the contribution of British architect Peter Smithson, who came from a background in which Geddes’ ideas were current and common knowledge. The young CIAM members that met at Doorn appropriated Geddes’ “Valley Section” as the basis for their “Scale of Association” diagram that formed the core of their “Statement on Habitat” which promoted a planning method that would start by defining the specific social conditions of a particular place. The “Scale of Association” diagram represented the notion of the changing complexity and possibilities of human association that occurred in communities located along the section as it proceeded from the density city at sea level, to sparsely populated highlands. What interested the younger members most about Geddes’ theory of the development of human settlements was that he acknowledged difference or the individual, which they emphasized by replacing the word “community” with the reconceptualized term “particular total complex.” In very precise terms, they were replacing the word community as a general referent to a social groupings with shared cultural, political, historical heritage, with the very specific term “particular total complexes” which embedded within it a whole new set of values for modern architecture. The word “particular” emphasized specificity over universality; “total” implied qualities of wholeness instead of autonomy; and “complex” suggested integration and relations between things instead of the infinity inherent in a grid.

The “Statement on Habitat/Doorn Manifesto,” simplified the wide range of other ways – both rhetorical and architectural – in which the various Team 10 members believed the individual should be acknowledged. The most well-known examples is the project by Georges Candilis and Shadrach Woods whose concerns for accommodating the ethnic specificity of Arab populations in their Nid’d’Abeille and Semiramis projects for the Carrières Centrales neighborhood in Casablanca, Morocco gained them much attention at CIAM 9 and was later popularized by the Smithsons who published it in Architectural Design. As well, there were lesser-known examples. The Dutch CIAM group Opbouw led by Jacob Bakema dealt with the issue of expressing individual difference through the theoretical notion of the “visual group.” Based on the premise that what the eye could see in a single glance was instantly recognizable as an entity, the “visual group” was a basis for organizing settlements, and a way of providing identity in a situation where units were repeated and in the face of endless expansion and prefabrication. It was a tool for avoiding monotony in low-cost housing by differentiating the mass into visually identifiable units in which different types of housing and different functions, such as work and recreation, were integrated. This idea was developed by the Rotterdam-based CIAM group OPBOUW in their Pendrecht project presented at CIAM 7 and 8 (1949, 1951), and the Alexander Polder project presented at CIAM 9 and 10 (1953, 1956). Over this seven year interval, these projects moved away from the type of undifferentiated homogeneous plan that could conceivably extend infinitely, towards plans that increased the formal articulation of recognizable entities at scales from the housing unit, the neighborhood, and up to the region. Dutch CIAM member Aldo van Eyck developed his notions of specificity and identity at the neighborhood scale with his real, situation-dependent programs for neighborhood playgrounds in Amsterdam, which were exhibited at CIAM 10 in a grid he titled “Lost Identity.”

All of these projects exhibited universalizing tendencies: for Bakema it was expressed with the reiteration of a set repertoire of elements, a legacy of the neue sachlichkeit, for van Eyck through the universalism inherent in his use of formal geometrical abstractions of Platonic solids, and for Candilis and Woods, in their use of the International Style vocabulary of white buildings and horizontal bands of openings in the Semiramis building in Casablanca..

At CIAM 10, the most literal interpretation of the move towards acknowledging the individual was made by Alison and Peter Smithson, in the series of five projects that they presented at the CIAM 10 congress (1956). Each project corresponded to a different settlement along the “Scale of Association,” included in their “Statement on Habitat,” proposed a different housing type for each type of settlement. For example, their “Galleon Cottages” project proposed inserting two-storey ‘village unités’ – a scaled-down versions of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, in small villages or hamlets in a manner which respected the ‘country’ hierarchy of dwellings, gardens and roads. For towns they developed “Close Houses” which were different types of row houses with yards arranged in a linear pattern where no two stretches would be identical. As they described it, each house was “different to suit individual requirements, yet derived from same organizational principles and from standard element [sic].” Their six-storey “South Facing Terraced Houses” were intended to create a type of community sub-division suitable for filling in a pattern already existing within a larger city. Here, each living area opened onto a porch and each doorstep onto a terrace. All of these projects were universalist, in that each housing type was meant to be repeatable, and suitable for comparable settlement types, but projects were also individualist since the housing types differed with settlement type, and they were responsive to the physical conditions of an existing community.

In their theoretical arguments, the younger CIAM members were as capable as in their projects of simultaneously entertaining notion of the individual and universal. Their Scale of Association” diagram, their manifesto for a method of town planning that would address the individual, physical, social, and occupational character of particular settlements, was also universalist in that it was conceived of as a tool for comparing different communities at the same point along the section. In the “Statement on Habitat,” they did not argue for elimination of the universalizing aspect of the functional city altogether, but rather they wanted to add a layer of complexity to modern planning by subsuming the functionalist categories under the new differentiating categories of city, town, village and isolated buildings. These categories would, they stated, “induce a study of human association as a first principles and of the four functions as aspects of each total problem.”

Aldo van Eyck was the only younger member to explicitly state a theory regarding the simultaneity of two seemingly opposite qualities, and was certainly the only one to argue it along philosophical lines. Influenced by avant-gard artist Piet Mondrian, he stated as early as the CIAM 6 congress in Bridgwater (1947), that what Mondrian referred to as “the culture of particular forms” was approaching its end and was being replaced by the new culture of “determined relations” – one whereby the relations between opposing aspects of reality – such as individual-collective, subject-object, etc – existed in a state of mutual interaction. The task of the artist, for van Eyck, was to discover the oppositions underlying reality and bring them into a dynamic balance of mutual relations. This concept, for van Eyck, formed the basis for his later theoretical developments of the “in between,” the “doorstep,” and the “threshold,” but more importantly, he identified what he believed to be the development of a “new consciousness” which had been evolving since the early twentieth-century and was expressed in the work of avant-garde movements such as de Stijl, neues bauen, and La Nouvelle Realité.

The move by the younger members towards acknowledging the individual challenged the universalist assumptions of CIAM, but the younger members did not completely abandon one for the other. Instead, they attempted to bring the two ideas into a relationship with each other. The critique by the younger members of the universalist methods of CIAM were nowhere as explicit as in their statements regarding the CIAM ‘grid.’ Le Corbusier, at the CIAM 7 congress at Bergamo, Italy, in 1949, had introduced the idea of using a system for graphically organizing information for projects presented at congresses. Projects would be presented on 21 x 33 cm panels that would be categorized along the horizontal axis by themes such as the context, built volume, ethic and aesthetic, economic and social influences, finance and legislation; and along the vertical axis by the functions of living specified in the Athens Charter -- work, dwelling, recreation, transportation. The grid formed by the intersection of these two axes, Le Corbusier reasoned, would provide a “thinking tool,” a visual method that would do away with mountains of paper that impeded the work of the planner, a way to simplify the work and “help one to set down thought more rapidly or with greater precision,” and a way to facilitate comparison between projects. Contrary to the impression given by publications about the CIAM 7 congress, the grid -- which the Le Corbusian-led French CIAM group ASCORAL made the topic of the congress -- met with considerable opposition.

Underscoring the grid’s importance as an epistemological framework for organizing the city is the fact that the issue of the nature and use of the grid continued as a leitmotif within CIAM until its dissolution after 1956. As a tool, it imposed an order to the facts and solutions, a way of dealing with disorder in a rational manner with using pre-established categories that determined the way one would approach planning the city. The grid was universalist and exclusive. These categories were to be applicable to all situations, and Le Corbusier left out many things that did not fit neatly within this scheme. As a frame of reference information was selected, related and fixed and ordered in a predetermined and static matrix, that predisposed planners to think of the city in terms of the four functions and categories already prescribed at the expense of other factors that might be included and related.

Those who were opposed the grid, mainly the British and Italian CIAM members, argued that the CIAM grid inadequately represented the specific conditions within which they were working. The British MARS group contribution to the meeting at Sigtuna, Sweden in 1952, was to express their dissatisfaction an proposed the need for a simpler, less overall approach than was possible with the CIAM grid. In their view it was "no good trying to force all material into an arbitrary grid where each (horizontal) subject is treated from the same number of (vertical) angles.” “This kind of logistical tour de force” they added, “is not likely to add to the understanding of the individual schemes." The Italian CIAM members rejected the gird and any form of categorization altogether. They were against the Team 10 proposal developed in the fall of 1954 to replace the method of work by functional categories with new categories specified along the lines of the “Scale of Association.” In their opinion, dividing settlements into four categories seemed “useless and unbearable.” Instead of pre-determining any categories they proposed a more inductive and democratic alternative whereby suggestions for individual and group work would be forwarded by each CIAM group to the organizing committee who would summarize the issues in a general discussion before the congress, with the commission topics not being determined until the congress.

Historical actualities are complex and there are many realities. As I stated in the introduction, the issue of the universal and the individual needs to be characterized in richer terms if we are going to try to understand the multifarious strands that contributed to making what has been transmitted to us as the historical account. Both CIAM and Team 10 members simplified their positions for the sake of making their points. That this was done by Le Corbusier has been revealed by CIAM scholars in their accounts of prewar CIAM, and I believe that to be the case for the representations of Team 10 by Alison Smithson who, in a letter to Jacob Bakema, described how “powerful” she felt editing the galley proofs of the Team 10 Primer. Peter Smithson confirmed this opinion about Alison’s approach in a letter to Team 10 member Manfred Scheidhelm some fifteen years after the first version of the “Team 10 Primer” was published in Architectural Design. Peter recounted that in its preparation Alison “controlled everything” and in order not to “confuse the line she was trying to construct,” suppressed certain texts and pictures. Thus, histories of postwar CIAM that do not take a critical view of rhetorical techniques – whether they exist in published statements or even in unpublished official reports and congress minutes – do not accurately represent a comprehensive reflection of historical reality. Team 10 members no longer found it possible to perceive of reality in oppositional terms, thus they replaced the notion of the individual versus the universal with the individual and the universal. This paradigm of duality provided the theoretical basis for the architecture of the 1960s and added a level of complexity to its characterization from an “either/or” paradigm, to one that accepted “both/and.” Writing histories is linked to who the writers are and what agendas they are trying to promote which requires that we, as historians, examine the larger more complex discourse underlying the accepted discourse.


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