Now reading

Architects and the War: "Architecture in Uniform. Planni...

Architects and the War: "Architecture in Uniform. Planning and Constructing for WWII" in Paris

What were architects working on during WWII, and how did this affect the history of their discipline? Returning to this question, the current exhibition at the Cite de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine shows both how this period inscribed itself in the long history of architecture and how it brought on consequences for the twentieth century.

What were architects working on during WWII, and how did this affect the history of their discipline? Returning to this question, the current exhibition at the Cite de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine shows both how this period inscribed itself in the long history of architecture and how it brought on consequences for the twentieth century.

Summary: "Architecture in Uniform. Planning and Constructing for WWII," the exhibit at the Cite de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine runs from April 24 - Sept. 8; Catalogue: Jean-Louis Cohen, "Architecture in Uniform. Planning and Constructing for WWII," Montreal/Paris, The Canadian Centre for Architecture/Hazan, p. 447.

From April 24th to September 8th, 2014, the Cite de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris is presenting an original exhibit on architects during WWII. A book by Jean-Louis Cohen, the exhibit curator, accompanies the exhibit and was published under the same title by Hazan and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, where the exhibit was first put on view.

In order to examine all the ways in which architects were mobilized and participated - in one way or another - in the war effort of the different warring parties, no less than seventeen themes guide the visitor through the innovations aimed at vanquishing the enemy, killing it, or defending oneself from it. Without strictly following chronological events, the exhibit covers the Guernica bombing by the Axis powers in 1937, the first act of the war that would soon ravage the world, to the atomic deluge the Americans launched on Japan in August of 1945.

Being Architects in Wartime

The first goal is to demonstrate that architects, like all the peoples involved, continued their activities "under the threat of bombs." However, they significantly redirected them toward military needs and necessities. As often happens in the history of architecture where heroes eclipse anonymous participants, the exhibit opens with a gallery of portraits of forty famous practitioners, more or less known to non-professionals. Among them, two emblematic figures in the profession's attitudes appear in opposition: the Nazi Albert Speer, who was sentenced as a war criminal by the Nuremberg tribunal in 1946, and Szymon Syrkus of the Polish resistance, who was imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp, which had an architecture office. Featured prominently are the Finnish Alvar Aalto, the Germans Ernst Neufert and Konrad Wachsmann, the Italians Bruno Zevi and Gian Luigi Banfi, the Americans Charles and Ray Eames, the French Eugene Beaudouin and Henry Bernard, as well as a single woman, the Polish Helena Syrkus. Their biographical notes hint at their diverse undertakings, work and fates.

What is relatively new is the willingness to highlight how architectural production was not only in the realm of monuments and buildings, but that it also included both reflection on industrialized production means, experimenting with malleable or different materials, and reconstruction projects and refitting for destroyed cities.

Mulberry Port, Normandy, France

Wanting to cover all the aspects of architectural production in nearly all the countries at war - from Great Britain to Italy, from France to Germany, from the US to the USSR - the documentation, rich and versatile (filmed news clips, brochures, photos, posters, plans, drawings, projects, two models, et cetera) comes to light in particular areas. Certain objects from daily life remind us that their production was subject to a break in provisions, poverty and lack of materials, and general hardship. Also, innovation perfected synthesis processes, thermal recuperation and isolation, and functional objects that today we would consider low-energy, like bikes and low-fuel ovens, but also industrial buildings, and temporary or emergency shelters through the use of light or modular materials. We can also add to this research on camouflaging power plants and the instructions given to civilian populations for setting up and using the shelters.

Military Architecture

Next is the question of military operations and aerial bombings, which were at the center of the activities of architects, engineers, designers and scientists of the era. These professionals worked toward the production of arms, tanks, airplanes and radar systems; they drew and built fallout shelters, thought about how to adapt cities to bomb threats and build up fortifications. The mark of the latter, other than the Maginot line drawn to defend France from a German invasion, remains among the two grand undertakings that made up the Atlantic walls, stretching over nearly 2,700 km from the north to the south of the western side of Europe and the Mediterranean. Intended by Germany to prevent the Allied forces from landing, they mobilized hundreds of architects and engineers, put into the works a multitude of building companies and public projects, produced hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete for building indestructible bunkers and submarine bases, which could not be demolished even by the most powerful bombs, and employed hordes of war prisoners to achieve all this. In opposition, Allied engineers and architects, while busy coming up with logistical ways to rapidly transport the troops, successfully built the artificial port Mulberry. With parts fabricated in Great Britain and transported across la Manche to the Normandy shore, despite a great loss of human life, this enabled the successful D-Day landing.

Mulberry Port, Normandy, France

If we keep to the most traditional aspect of architecture, that is to say, the construction of dwelling or manufacturing buildings, the exhibit shows a number of projects of underground plants, invisible cities, and buried laboratories, without forgetting to include refugee, prisoner, concentration and extermination camps. This allows for recollecting how during wars, horror accompanies derision, with the deported architect Szymon Syrkus building horticultural greenhouses at Auschwitz.

A second goal threads through the themes on exhibit: to show not only the continuity of scientific and architectural research begun as early as 1914 during the First World War of the twentieth century, with their implementation at the highest level during the Second World War, but also their impact after 1945. In all areas - mobile dwellings, urban planning, preparing cities for natural or human disasters, the evolution of planning techniques in architecture - these experiences were essential to postwar architectural practice. The second to last section also takes up the recycling of wartime technologies for times of peace.

Architecture and Memory

In the wake of the current historiography, which does not divorce the history of its memory, the exhibit concludes with the participation of architects in remembering the war. One of the last sections takes up the construction of memorials that ingrain the memory of a conflict that changed the world in its intensity, its geographic reach, the means employed during it, and the high level and barbarity of human-caused destruction - which killed millions of soldiers and civilians - as well as material-caused destruction.

This thorough exhibit concludes that the war cemented the supremacy of modern, industrialized, functional architecture that makes use of concrete. It's a convincing showcase, even though the 1939 to 1945 period could not have done more than speed up this trend among other factors that had already been in the works from the turn of the century. We are less inclined to believe the suggestion that the exhibit fills “a historic gap.” Because would the exhibit itself have been possible without all the works produced over several decades in all the countries in question? Whatever the answer might be, this architecture in uniform provides the visitor with key elements for reflecting on the contribution of the wars to the evolution of the societies that participated in them.

What might architecture have looked like if it weren't for World War II?

Original article, originally published in French, can be found here.

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Intern photo

Bora Mici has a background in design and online writing. Most recently, she has worked as an online contributor for DC Mud,, and, covering urban planning and visual and performing arts in the Washington, D...

Tuesdays, in your inbox.

Weekly local urbanist news and jobs. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!