The armies of World War Two represented only the tips of colliding icebergs, the belligerent nations which had mobilized and transformed themselves for a global “war of production” of unprecedented scale. Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War documents the extensive contribution of architecture to the war between the bombings of Guernica in 1937 and Hiroshima in 1945, and considers how this questioned architectural methods and construction technologies, and lead to the supremacy of modernism.
The well-publicized devastation of Guernica was an attack that announced the new scale of mechanized war and ended the distinction between front and rear as zones of violence and calm. Architects like Alvar Aalto, Normal Bel Geddes, Charles and Ray Eames, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Albert Kahn, Le Corbusier, Erich Mendelson, Richard Neutra, Albert Speer, and Bruno Zevi among others would be involved in the war at home and on the front lines.
The intensity of wartime economic development and speed of technical change had profound implications, and issues like food and material rationing, mass civilian mobilization, and concern with energy consumption emerges as entire nations underwent rapid industrial and economic reorganization. Architects continued to work within the new context of total war, but were also implicated in new ways, as designers and artists producing propaganda and applying military technology and approaches to new fields.
An unprecedented construction boom created new industrial landscapes as thousands of factories and accompanying worker housing were built with new techniques and materials that were still consistent with contemporary thought, such as Richard Neutra’s Channel Heights schemefor the US Navy shipyards in San Pedro, California.
Architects also investigated modular construction and prefabrication in attempts to resolve the problem of large-scale movement during wartime. These methods influenced projects such as Fuller’s Dymaxion Deployment Unit and Le Corbusier’s “flying schools” and produced the ubiquitous US Army Quonset hut, manufactured more than 170,000 times.
Housing and production buildings were developed alongside fortifications for the battlefields and for home, such as the German village constructed in Utah by Erich Mendelssohn, Konrad Wachsmann and Hans Knoll to test bomb effectiveness; other experiments were reproduced at different scales, such as designs for camouflage and air raid protection that involved landscape architects as well as Hollywood set designers.
Increased production meant that projects that previously might have been conceptual appeared suddenly necessary. The Pentagon was constructed in a matter of months in 1943 and contained offices for 32,000 employees; the largest building of the war, it was dwarfed by projects like the atomic facilities at Oak Ridge (75,000 workers) and enormous European concentration camps like Auschwitz.
Of similar scale were post-war reconstruction and memorialisation projects that anticipated the end of the war and tried to incorporate the better parts of the wartime experience, its technologies and techniques.
The vernissage for Architecture in Uniform is April 12, 2011 with curator Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Cohen lectures about the exhibition on April 13, 2011.
An accompanying 450-page publication, a series of film screenings and talks entitled Wartime Cinema and presented in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada, as well as the exhibition The Good Cause: Architecture of Peace, are part of a broader CCA project on the natural history of destruction.
Exhibition tours are held Wednesday to Sunday at 2 pm in English and 3:30 pm in French, until 18 September. Groups can reserve 60 or 90-minute tours tailored to their interests at firstname.lastname@example.org or 514 939 7002.