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Building a defence: Architecture in Uniform

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Wartime architects faced unique challenges – and opportunities – during WWII. A book explores the architectural legacy of the conflict, writes Adrian Forty

Architecture in Uniform, Designing and Building for the Second World War by Jean-Louis Cohen, Yale University Press, April 2011, £40

What did architects do in the war? Although Paul Virilio long ago argued that the mobile nature of the Second World War did not lend itself to conventional, static architecture, Jean-Louis Cohen’s book shows that for at least a few architects, the war provided some remarkable and unlikely opportunities, the likes of which were never to be encountered in peacetime.

Compiled to accompany an exhibition at the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal this summer (transferring to the NAi in Rotterdam in December), Architecture in Uniform is the first ever attempt to make a global assessment of the entire extent of architectural activity in the Second World War. Only a scholar with Cohen’s experience and international range of knowledge could have pulled this off.

What is even more impressive is that he manages to balance all theatres of war more or less equally, drawing together axis and allied material, from Russia and the United States, Europe and the Far East.The quality of the visual material and of the documentation, collected from such a diversity of sources, is a major achievement.

Organised around a series of themes – air raids, temporary structures, prefabrication, fortifications, camouflage, scale, propaganda, reconstruction – each section looks at an activity within both the allied and the axis camps. Some of the comparisons are instructive, in particular the much greater willingness of the allies to put architects to work alongside scientists, compared to the axis tendency to make use of architects for ideological purposes. But it is the sheer variety of the episodes and anecdotes that Cohen recounts that make the book fascinating.

There is the case of the ‘invisible’ town, built to house the 75,000 workers of the A-bomb project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, planned by SOM and constructed in two years. If this was a conventional architectural project in everything but its speed, the same could not be said for the macabre construction of replica Japanese and German villages in the Utah desert at Dugway, carried out with meticulous attention to construction detail and materials by Antonin Raymond, Erich Mendelsohn and Konrad Wachsmann, in order to test the effects of napalm bombing on enemy targets.

In Architecture in Uniform, the boundaries of architecture blur, and it is often difficult to distinguish between a political or military strategy, and an architectural one. Take the case of the Generalplan Ost, the policy of moving Germany eastwards into newly conquered territories, cleansing them of their existing inhabitants and appearance, repopulating them with native-born Germans and building German-style houses and villages. Whether the plans drawn up by architects following Himmler’s instructions are to be considered ‘architecture’, or ‘politics’ is hard to say.

Equally, Architecture in Uniform does not confine itself to buildings. All sorts of other objects – Jeeps, beds with wooden springs – are included as ‘architecture’. Perhaps this is the nature of war; things lost their distinctness, and categories cease to matter. On the whole, the military, as Cohen points out, did not employ architects. When architects were involved, the scale of operations and resources far exceeded anything in their peacetime experience. The colossal aircraft factories built by Albert Kahn, or the research and testing facilities at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast where the V-2 rocket was developed, gave architects opportunities that bore no comparison to even Albert Kahn’s pre-war commissions.

The command economy also changed the relation between architects and contractors. Ove Arup, designer of the Royal Navy’s underground command bunker at Northwood, observed that it was possible for designers and contractors to co-operate and share their knowledge to an extent rarely possible in peacetime once the constraints of a commercial relationship had been removed.

What did the war do for architecture? Mirko Zardini, the director of the CCA, writes in his foreward that the war ‘redefined architecture’. However, although the war created unprecedented work opportunities for architects in the decades to come, any actual changes were temporary and the results short lived.

Perhaps the sole exception was the entry of research into architecture. Prior to the war, there had been ‘building research’, but not ‘architectural research’. Following the war, research became an accepted component of architecture partly on account of, at least amongst the allies, the way that architects and scientists had been put to work together. That research took many forms, but the one that seems to have most affected architecture was what was known as ‘operational research’, or the process of incorporating user experience and feedback into design development, widely adopted by the allies in the production of military hardware.

For a generation after the war, ‘operational research’, a dialogue between designers and users, became the talisman of progressive practice. Cohen mentions this, but too briefly. If the war had an effect on architecture, it was surely in normalising the role research plays in architecture.

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