Wednesday, October 12, 2011

194X and 9/11: Are the repercussions really that easy to compare?

A Zurn plumbing pamphlet features men planning for 194X. An exhibit at MoMA has chosen to tackle the ways in which the post-9/11 era might mirror 194X in terms of architectural revolution. (Image from A New Era of Building is Only Marking Time, Erie, Penn., J.A. Zurn Manufacturing Company, 1944.)

Assistant professor of architectural history, University of California, Berkeley

The current MoMA exhibit “194X-9/11: American Architects and the City” uses the conceit of the temporal divide to frame an exhibition of mostly urban projects by major figures, from Mies van der Rohe to Rem Koolhaas.

194X – the unknown date of the end of World War II – was a pivotal moment in the development of architecture and urbanism in the United States, and in particular of their relationship to each other. In this moment of anticipation, after more than a decade of being beaten down by the Depression and war, architects awaited a building boom: V-Day would also be B-Day, or Building Day, when all of their forestalled dreams and desires would be unleashed in a frenzy of development. The same conditions led architects to believe that the domain and scale of practice had shifted. Henceforth, many leading architects believed, the profession would concentrate on larger planning issues. The master architect would become a master planner and the city and not the individual building would be the main focus of design. As befits the sloganeering of magazines that used the term 194X, some of the most progressive architectural and urban thinking was laminated onto consumer culture.

While the MoMA show takes its cue from one of four wartime issues of Architectural Forum that used 194X, as a group they demonstrate a shift in thinking from the house to housing to neighborhood planning and finally to comprehensive urban planning, all between late 1942 and the end of 1944. Cities, once unimaginable as objects of consumption, were placed side-by-side with lawn mowers, toasters, kitchens, and houses. The MoMA show has little to say about these realities, but they are at the heart of how architecture changed after the war.

There is a measure of bathos in celebrating the decennial of 9/11 with a show pairing it with 194X. While New Yorkers have been obsessed with the architectural ramifications of the destruction caused on 9/11, unlike 194X, it is largely a local issue – focused on 16 acres in Lower Manhattan – but given national exposure through the prominence of the New York Times and the high profile of the city. Of course, many have observed the unfathomably complex politics behind rebuilding the site and some of the world’s most famous architects and urbanists have been engaged on it. There is also a small library of writing about it. This is understandable. The wounds are still fresh, the hole still visible, the architectural possibilities still open-ended. MoMA is, after all, a museum, and it is prescient to take measure of the site at ten years’ distance.

Still, in sixty-five years – the distance we are from the end of 194X – the coupling will appear comically asymmetrical. There is absolutely no connection between 194X and 9/11. We might allow that they share the phenomenon of temporality, of a hinge-event after which the dimensions of architectural thinking and practice shift irreversibly. For 194X, this is certainly true. We shall not know for some time if 9/11, which has profoundly altered the nation economically and politically, has had any meaningful architectural or urban dimension. In this way, the show is premature, less an intellectually defensible move than a way for the museum to juxtapose compelling individual projects by the leading lights of modern architecture in a rather long string of decades.

An alternative tack would have been to take temporality more seriously as the intellectual spine of the show and propose any number of divides, including 1929, 194X, 1984, 9/11 and Y2K. This would allow an understanding of how changes in consciousness that come with pivotal dates alter the built environment. There is a rich literature on the power of dates and the temporal imagination. With the exception of a few attempts to see how this plays out in architecture, the field is still wide open.


Andrew M. Shanken is assistant professor of architectural history at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Art Bulletin, Design Issues, Landscape, Places and Planning Perspectives. He is author of 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front.

"Andrew Shanken offers a fascinating, compelling, and altogether convincing new lens for understanding the burst of creative and visionary design that accompanied America's engagement in the Second World War. Situating this ephemeral moment in relationship to forgotten economic mantras of the ‘mature economy’ and the end of frontier, Shanken provides a whole new framework for understanding American modernism and a bittersweet analysis of the country's brief faith in a planned future."
—Barry Bergdoll

"If Shanken’s book sheds light on an important moment in American architecture, it also offers a thoughtful frame for considering the state of contemporary culture."
—Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

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