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Moral Dilemma of Architecture

Commentary: LACMA's 'Exiles and Emigres' raises the question of the place of authoritarianism in Modern buildings.

March 28, 1997|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Aesthetics can provide a devious shelter from responsibility. Great beauty can be nurtured under the shadow of great evil. During the years of the Holocaust, some architects retreated into their work to avoid the brutality of truth.

We know now that complicity was more pervasive in 1945 than the world was willing to admit at the time. During the war, Americans closed their borders to Jewish immigrants. French militia hand-picked Jews for the German camps. Each performed a seemingly detached--almost innocuous--role. It was the ability of the Nazis to implicate everyone in their crime--to make it seem both acceptable and legal--that made the Holocaust possible.

"Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler," currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, focuses on artists and architects who fled Hitler and hints at the ease with which some modern German architects also were willing to work for the Nazi cause.

But the moral ambiguity of many Modernist architects obscures another point: The work they created was just as morally complex. Buildings, in fact, convey the values of their builders, whether those values are authoritarian or not. What shocks us is that many fascist buildings were uplifting, while sometimes the most innocuous projects can reflect a language of power and oppression.

Architects have always had a Faustian relationship to power: Architects cannot build without a patron. Many compromised themselves in search of work. Mies van der Rohe, one of the centerpieces of the architectural section of this show, entered Nazi-sponsored design competitions--the Modernist language of the Bauhaus was seemingly as easily applied to Fascist as to Weimar buildings.

Others were just as susceptible: In 1941, the great French Modernist Le Corbusier unsuccessfully courted Marshal Henri Philippe Petain in a quest to build megalomaniacal urban schemes for Vichy France. We are reminded of one of former Nazi-sympathizer Philip Johnson's ugliest remarks: "I'd work for the devil himself if he'd let me build."

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Nonetheless, what is hard to comprehend today is the faith these architects had in the ability of their work to reform, even in the most horrendous context. If Johnson was content to retreat into the realm of aesthetics, Le Corbusier and Mies believed that architecture could actually reform man--and that good architecture could be a positive force anywhere. Misguided or not, their motives were not always so clearly self-serving.

As Marcel Breuer--one of the show's architectural emigres--put it: "In spite of the undeniable influence of politics on every sphere of life and thought, no one can deny that each of these spheres has a highly important unpolitical side to it."

In fact, some architects were able to create humane--even uplifting--spaces under the Fascist banner. In 1984, a small show of Fascist children's colonie--state-sponsored summer camps for children--at London's Architectural Association made that exact point. One of the best, the 1938 Colonia Elioterapica is a building designed as a series of screens: Children pass through the solid mass of the entry pavilion to an open refectory to a free-standing bar of terraces for sleeping. Once children reach the open field, they shower in the open air and nap under straw-covered shelters. With each step, they pass into a more natural world.

Years after the war's end, the colonia evokes a hopeful innocence, not images of phalanxes of children with stern faces doing perfectly synchronized jumping jacks. Why can't needy children today live in such hopeful monuments, one wonders.

The fact that architecture is a tool that can serve evil or good seems undeniable. Look at the architecture of the death camps--a conveyor belt of work and death modeled on the assembly-line techniques of Henry Ford, once so popular among planners. (Hitler, in fact, hung a full-length portrait of the anti-Semitic Ford in his Munich headquarters.) The total banality of the camps adds to their horror.

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What, then, defines an authoritarian architecture? A classic image is found in a scene from Bernardo Bertolucci's film "The Conformist": a lone man stands behind a desk in a vast marble hall; behind him, slick, massive stairs lead up to a dark opening. The language of authoritarian power insists on the insignificance of the individual.

The key is not in the decor--the Nazi paraphernalia--but in the language of the architecture itself. Many have held Giuseppe Terragni's Casa del Fascio--the Fascist headquarters built in Como, Italy, in 1932--as a masterpiece of Fascist art. In fact, the Casa del Fascio is an elegant composition in marble. Balconies and terraces are carved into the block-like structure in a severe grid, lightly framing the activity inside. One side of the facade is a vertical blank plane of marble. From the street, the entry is completely transparent.

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