The Corporeality of Post-War Architecture
The role played by corporeal metaphors in post-war architecture may perhaps have been too little researched. First, we could judge it from the vantage of the functional/organic analogy. Among the ideologies of functionalism that Benjamin Handler identified (1970, 5), organicism was by far the most encompassing and equally theoretically radical through the fertility of the analogy. In Handler’s opinion Sullivan’s slogan undergoes a process of anamorphosis: it becomes the “identity between form and function” (Handler, 9), where form is understood as a result, an outer expression of an interior process of operation. According to the theory of systems that underlies Handler’s theoretical scaffolding, shape would be the functioning of the whole (ibid.).
In the late 1960’s, “civic centers” became the answer as to how to entrench the new central power through identity symbols. The community spirit, dislodged by the eradication of built-up tradition in the centers of “municipalities” would get its eulogies from monuments dedicated to it. Something similar had already happened in western cities where “grotesque civic monuments with compulsory piazzas (...) an elephantine tendency” had cropped up (Curtis, 1982:349). These monuments devoted to something already missing – the civic, community spirit – obviously drew inspiration from the last works of Le Corbusier.ix The party county seats and the county/municipal people’s councils displayed façades with bi/tri-dimensional structural grids. Their “heroic” part of supporting an evidently massive building was visually celebrated. Thus “the grid” became the symbol of control. Even if these concrete grids – designed to play a decorative rather than structural part – seldom turned autonomous in relation to the façade/building, their display makes up perhaps the most important feature of official eastern European architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. Similar constructions – belated, trailing behind the trend – continued to be put up in the 1970s and even in the 1980s (Vaslui, Galați, Brăila, Satu Mare).
Major edifices and ensembles – sufficiently ambiguous visually not to allow a precise depiction – were erected in Bucharest in this style, emerging in Romania in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Polytechnic Institute (1962-1972, chief-architect Octav Doicescu; P. Iubu, C. Hacker, S. Lungu, P. Swoboda, I. Podocea and team) was such an early post-Stalinist ensemble, in quest of monumental expressions, freed from classicism. Brutalist fragments and hints can also be traced here though they fail to account for a consistent Smithsonian design concept. Grids and massive, rough volumes, “plugged in” the ensemble, were often masked by finishing touches applied to the concrete. The “sincere expression” eulogized by Gheorghe Curinschi-Vorona (1981:344) was often undermined by the camouflaged exposed bricks, the various coats of painting, the ceramics and even the stone. A concept more consistent with brutalist principles yet staying within the limits of a modern monumentalism proper to Eastern Europe can be perceived in the Ștefan Gheorghiu Academy (chief architect Ștefan Rulea). Its auditoriums are compact masses standing out from the concrete grid of the façade as major elements of the front giving to the boulevard.
Eastern Europe, drained by uniform standardization and the prefabs of social housing, represented the perfect ground for the total(itarian) variant of the megastructure. Territorial planning was an efficient manner of control over the environment and implicitly over its population. Similar things, triggered by fallacious construction and investment policies, occurred in the West, too. Starting with the 1960s extensive areas of the centers of historic cities were demolished in the name of development (Curtis, 1982, 349). Tradition was slowly vanishing in order that modernism should entrench “a simple and architectonic order on the layout of human society and its equipment” (Banham, 1976, 199).
This interpretation of post-war architecture intends to prove that despite the absence of a critical, self-reflexive dimension, the architecture developed in Eastern Europe managed to echo many of the major concepts of the architectural discourse. With significant lags behind, naturally. The socialist-realist episode meant a freeze on the overall becoming of European architectures. After 1954, the pressing need for social housing, the obsessive industrialization of construction technologies, going hand in hand with the dramatic drop in craftsmanship and execution, still did not stunt the growth of architecture in communist countries that followed similar paths with Western Europe.
All this poses again the question of how efficient are the intrusion of various ideologies, and political manipulation when architecture is involved? Certainly, it was difficult to upturn the sense of its becoming completely and (above all) finally. Absolute control over the theoretical discourse did not engender a similar effect on practice. In East-European constructions we detect reflections, copies (be they warped) and even equivalents of the innermost prime movers of western architecture. Whether these are immanent and pertain to an internal logic of becoming over which the political holds limited sway is not the purpose of this text to demonstrate. Similarities do exist and they can provide additional proof in favor of the autonomy of the aesthetic.
We can also speak of areas proper to East-European architecture or of areas where this architecture evidently led the way. Yet in Romania, buildings contemporary with their coevals in the West are not explained by the architectural phenomenon but by deviations from the rule. When Bolshevik ideology came again across modern design – following Khrushchev’s speech – the two merged practically in an instant, and for good. Some aspects of modernity found a fertile milieu in the East and consequently amounted to top performance. To mention only mass prefabs of minimal collective housing, total remodeling of the environment or inventing new ones under the action of the malignant instance of the megastructure: “the planning of the national territory”.
The communists eventually understood the benefits of architectural modernism that proposed to hold sway over the built-up environment. It remains to be discussed to what extent the architecture of the Stalinist era shares the same blood with the aesthetic-political plan for the rephrasing of reality once put forth by the historical avant-garde. After 1954 all doubts cleared: the communist East provided the place where modernity – translated into architecture and urban planning – had its social-utopian ideas mass tested.
ix These buildings are described as “rough concrete piers, heavy crates of brise-soleil and rugged overhangs” (Curtis, 1982, 349).
Augustin Ioan, 2017