Architecture in Uniform at the CCA

Investigating the role of designers during World War II, curator Jean-Louis Cohen fills a crucial gap in the history of architecture.

The Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture presents an extensively researched investigation into a largely overlooked part of 20th century architectural history. The exhibition addresses World War II, which has often been treated as a sort of interregnum in architectural history, as lying between the interwar period on one hand, and the postwar, on the other. As curator Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Professor of History of Architecture at New York University, more than ably demonstrates architects were involved in many capacities in the years leading up to and throughout the conflict.

The exhibition is also premised upon an even bolder thesis. Cohen is not only interested in showing the ways in which architects participated in the war effort but argues that their contributions to mass industrial production were integral to the advance of modernism, paving the way for its absolute authority in subsequent decades. As Cohen asserts in a press release statement, the war served as an "accelerator of technological innovation and production that would lead to the supremacy of modernism in architecture." This claim sees the intensification of industrial production for the war as galvanizing experimentation and advancing expertise that would radically change ways of living at the end of the war.
Ford Motor bomber factory, Willow Run, Michigan, by Albert Kahn Associates, view of
the drafting room, 1942. Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing. CCA Collection. Gift of
Federico Bucci. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. © Chicago History
Museum, HB-07074-G.
Ford Motor bomber factory, Willow Run, Michigan, by Albert Kahn Associates, view of the drafting room, 1942. Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing. CCA Collection. Gift of Federico Bucci. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. © Chicago History Museum, HB-07074-G.
The exhibition evidences a wide-ranging pursuit of materials that set the context for and document architectural involvement in the years preceding and during the conflict. Although the exhibition focuses on Europe as the main theater of war the contents crisscross the lines of conflict representing the Allies and Axis alike through projects from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, the Netherlands, Spain, and the USSR. The contents are arranged thematically over seven gallery spaces, introducing the viewer to various topics and artifacts through categories, such as the Home Front, Producing War Production, Mobile Architectures, Fortress Europe, Camouflage, and Macro-Projects and From War to Peace. These categories identify key aspects of architectural activity from the domestic and small scale like planting a victory garden or installing a backyard bomb shelter to the large scale, including the planning of territorial systems of defense and concentration camps; and from the experimentation with materials such as plastics to innovations in camouflage techniques.
"Guideline for an Air Raid", Tokyo, 1943.
The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson,
Jr. Collection, XB2002.07.26.034.
"Guideline for an Air Raid", Tokyo, 1943. The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, XB2002.07.26.034.
Perhaps most dramatic is the scale of mass industrialization as seen in the design of buildings and assembly lines producing the machinery for the war. With this came innovations in worker housing and, of course, the need to protect the sites equipping the war by either submerging buildings below ground as in the European context or through decentralized planning strategies in North America. The Second World War was marked by total industrialization in civilian life and in conflict. And in the aftermath of the war the materials, technologies, and planning strategies would be recycled for new markets and to new effect.
The Second World War was marked by total industrialization in civilian life and in conflict. And in the aftermath of the war the materials, technologies, and planning strategies would be recycled for new markets and to new effect.
Bruno Zevi in the uniform of the British Army, 1944.
CCA Collection.
Bruno Zevi in the uniform of the British Army, 1944. CCA Collection.
Flanking the entrance to the exhibition are two large photographs depicting the ruins of Cologne following an Allied aerial raid. The photographs by August Sander set the tone and identify major conceptual threads at play throughout the exhibition: the scale of war and the menace, as never seen before, of aerial bombardment. The latter, the shift in combat from field to air, had been anticipated immediately in the aftermath of WWI. The change in scale plays across several conditions including the planning of cities and industry to protect from aerial bombardment, the mobilization of workforce and the degree of destruction.
Chrysler tank armory, Warren Township, Michigan, by Albert Kahn Associates, 1941. Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing.
© Chicago History Museum, HB-06539-C
Chrysler tank armory, Warren Township, Michigan, by Albert Kahn Associates, 1941. Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing. © Chicago History Museum, HB-06539-C
Scale is evidenced in Albert Kahn's work, such as the Ford Motor Bomber Factory at Willow Run, Michigan or the Chrysler Tank Arsenal in Warren Township Michigan. The photograph of the long façade expanse of the latter and the seemingly infinite interior of the drafting room of the former (both depicted on the exhibition poster) point not only to scale in the sense of structural span, size of enclosed space or the workforce contained within, but in terms of environmental control, of technological reach. For the interior climate, the maintenance of consistent quality in air and lighting answered the demand for controlled twenty-four hour working conditions to produce the war. The emergence of scale—in all senses—but particularly in the isolated industrial landscape would continue into postwar planning.
"Plant a Victory Garden", poster, 1943.
The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, don de Leonard A.
Lauder, 2007.12.45.
"Plant a Victory Garden", poster, 1943. The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, don de Leonard A. Lauder, 2007.12.45.
This scale of planning in response to fear of aerial attack had of course been imagined well before the beginning of the war and here one need only consider Le Corbusier's preoccupations in proposals such as La Ville Radieuse. And the viewer learns, as Cohen contends that, "The war was a process of transformation involving all components of architecture in its mobilization. This militarization of the field forced the pursuit of the new in order to meet the demands of war production: new materials needed to be implemented in new ways, and new technologies needed to be put to new uses." The claim that the architectural contribution to the war and to industrialization secured the success of modernism in the postwar period is unassailable on this account.
"Atlantic Wall; 1943 is not 1918", German poster printed in the Netherlands, 1943.
The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson,
Jr. Collection, XX1990.2907.
"Atlantic Wall; 1943 is not 1918", German poster printed in the Netherlands, 1943. The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, XX1990.2907.
The exhibition features drawings, photographs, posters, books and other publications, models and films. The materials are drawn form the CCA Collection as well as loans from many international institutions.
Mary Louise Lobsinger

The exhibition Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War , curated by Jean-Louis Cohen, is on show through 18 September 2011.
A team of camouflage artists at work at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, illustration in Robert P.
Breckenridge, <i>Modern Camouflage: The New Science of Protective Concealment,</i> 1942.
McGill University Library, Montreal.
A team of camouflage artists at work at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, illustration in Robert P. Breckenridge, Modern Camouflage: The New Science of Protective Concealment, 1942. McGill University Library, Montreal.

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