Architecture and Revolution: Contemporary Perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe

By Neil Leach | Go to book overview

8

Architecture or revolution?1

Neil Leach

'Architecture ou Revolution?', wrote Le Corbusier in 1922. 'It is the question of building which lies at the root of the social unrest of today; architecture or revolution.' 2

Le Corbusier, in common with many architects of the Modern Movement, was convinced of the social role of architecture. In an era of great social and political change, Le Corbusier perceived architecture as a crucial instrument in addressing the ills of contemporary society. An appropriate architecture would combat social unrest. Architecture could prevent revolution.

While Le Corbusier saw architecture as a way of avoiding revolution, the architects of post-revolutionary Russia saw architecture as a way of supporting the aims and ideals of a Marxist revolution. Architectural theorists, such as Alexei Gan and Moisei Ginzburg, looked to architecture for a means of resolving the particular problems of post-revolutionary Marxist society. Buildings should not simply reflect passively changing social conditions; they should be active instruments of change. Thus for Gan and Ginzberg, buildings themselves were to be 'revolutionary', and were to operate as active social condensers. 3

On the face of it, Le Corbusier's position seems diametrically opposed to that of Gan and Ginzburg. Yet an alternative reading is possible, and it could be argued that Le Corbusier spoke of avoiding political 'revolution' not because he was opposed to the concept of revolution as such, but rather because he recognised in architecture the possibility of a 'revolution' that would go beyond the political. As Fredric Jameson has observed, 'he saw the construction and the constitution of new spaces as the most revolutionary act, and one that could "replace" the narrowly political revolution of the mere seizure of power.' 4 Thus, far from being against revolution, Le Corbusier could be seen as a supporter of reform in its most radical and far-reaching sense. It is clear that both Le Corbusier and the architects of the new Russia recognised in architecture the same potential, the possibility of alleviating social problems and of creating a new and better world. Architecture for the pioneers of the Modern Movement had a role as a democratic force within a democratic society. Architecture was to be a force of liberation, overtly political and emancipatory in its outlook.

At the other end of the twentieth century, in the light of the recent 'revolutions' in Central and Eastern Europe, the relationship between architecture and

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