Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige
Meet Karel Teige.
Karel Teige was the major figure of the Czech avant-garde movement Devětsil in the 1920s, a graphic artist, photographer, and typographer. Teige also worked as an editor and graphic designer for Devětsil’s monthly magazine ReD. The internet has taken a fancy to his surreal collages. Here’s one of my favourites – just the thing to spice up a post on 1930s mass housing in Europe. We may today see some incongruity between this image and mass housing but that’s because we’ve forgotten that trying to find a solution to the problem of mass housing was exercising all of the avant-garde architectural brains at the time – some more than others, as time told.
Teige is important for many other reasons – not least of all because he was an articulate and knowledgeable architecture critic, an active participant in CIAM, and friends with Hannes Meyer, the second director of the Bauhaus. Teige and Meyer both believed in a scientific, functionalist approach to architecture, grounded in Marxist principles. In 1929 he famously criticised Le Corbusier’s Mundaneum project (planned for Geneva but never built) on the grounds that Corbusier had departed from rational functionalism, and was on his way to becoming a mere stylist. Teige believed that ‘the only aim and scope of modern architecture is the scientific solution of exact tasks of rational construction. Good man.
Below are elevations and a section of the Mundaneum and a link to its description on the Fondation Le Corbusier site – where it has always been! The year was 1929, the same year Villa Savoye was completed. Here’s a link to Karel Teige’s article ‘Mundaeum’ about what the thing meant, or was supposed to have meant.
However, the whole conception, as we can read from the site plan, gives a puzzling, archaic impression. The museum building in the shape of a pyramid has no functional justification and produces an effect of an old Egyptian, or rather old Mexican atmosphere. The spiral organization of spaces, giving ever-increasing areas of space to more recent periods, is achieved at the cost of ending up with a dark interior hall (the Sacrarium makes a virtue of this necessity) and at the cost of extremely difficult access from the top, by means of long ramps, and inadequate elevators.
Teige seems to be Le Corbusier’s only contemporary critic that we know about but we only really know about Teige because his writings have just recently been translated and published in English.
Teige’s is an actual voice from the past, contradicting the constructed narratives of historians. Can you imagine if Le Corbusier’s Mundaneum (a sort of internet-like repository of knowledge) had been built? We get to hear much about other Le Grand C’s other unbuilt work of the time such as the League of Nations Headquarters (1927) and the Palace of the Soviets (1928-1931) but never Mundaneum (1929) – perhaps because it’s just awful? If it had been built, how would we now reconcile those extra new facts on the ground with Villa Savoye, the historians’ favourite? How could Le C have conceived something so horrible AND at the same time as Villa S?
The common belief that architects mimic the artist myth and have artistic periods or phases is also a myth.
In late 1920’s Europe, one didn’t have to be a communist to see there was a major lack of adequate housing. In France alone, about 300,000 dwellings destroyed during the war had been rebuilt by 1927 but there was still a shortage of 1,000,000. Using few resources to design and construct humane yet minimal dwellings for people was a really really useful thing for architects to do. This is what Paris apartments were like in 1930.
Berlin ones weren’t any better.
The plan on the left below, has stairwells with two and three doors off a landing. The plan on the right has stairwells with three and five. Stairwells have windows because the corridor would be unlit otherwise. Kitchens have windows because cookers were either coal- or gas-fired.
These building configurations and the apartment layouts they contain are the logical result of the desire to provide maximum rentable area without regard for daylight or amenity. (See Cold Logic vs. Warm Logic.)
Teige argued for ridding architecture of the ‘accumulated accretions of outdated concepts and to use the functional requirements of a building primarily as a means for perfecting, refining, and improving life and for opening new vistas to a new life on a higher ‘level of existence’. His functionalism was not the irresponsible caricaturizations of Hitchcock and Johnson. For Teige, functionalism ‘would cancel out the old dualism between art form and technical form ‘not by denying art and embracing machine technology but by synthesising …. technological, sociological and psychological factors of life.’
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Generations of architectural students have been taught to think of Le Corsbusier’s villas at Garches and Poissy, Loos’ villa in Prague, and Mies van der Rohe’s villa in Brno as the height of architectural invention and progressiveness. Teige saw them as manifestations of ‘modernist snobbism and the ostentation of a millionaire’s lifestyle for bankers and factory owners.’
All these houses with all their technical luxury and radical design devices, with all their formal originality, are really nothing other than new versions of opulent baroque palaces, that is, seats of the new financial aristocracy. A machine for living? No, a machine for representation and splendor, for the idle, lazy life of the bosses playing golf and their ladies bored in their boudoirs.
Great stuff, Karel – how right you were! Oh how we need you now!
A flat roof or steel furniture can never be regarded as the ultimate goal of avant-garde architecture.
These too are words worth remembering, especially now when we have parametric roofs and swooshy furniture presented as the ultimate goal of avant-garde architecture.
What follows are the cover notes to Teige’s book,’The Minimum Dwelling‘, originally published in Prague in 1932 but only translated into English in 2002!
Karel Teige (1900-1951), one of the most important figures of avant-garde modernism of the 1920s and 1930s, influenced virtually every area of art, design, and urban thinking in his native Czechoslovakia. His Minimum Dwelling, originally published in Czech in 1932, and appearing now for the first time in English, is one of the landmark architectural books of the twentieth century.The Minimum Dwelling is not just a book on architecture, but also a blueprint for a new way of living. It calls for a radical rethinking of domestic space and of the role of modern architecture in the planning, design, and construction of new dwelling types for the proletariat. Teige shows how Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and others designed little more than new versions of baroque palaces, mainly for the new financial aristocracy. Teige envisioned the minimum dwelling not as a reduced version of a bourgeois apartment or rural cottage, but as a wholly new dwelling type built on the cooperation of architects, sociologists, economists, health officials, physicians, social workers, politicians, and trade unionists.
Today, in 30 sqm studio apartments and microflats, we can still see oversized kitchens, a space for a sofa opposite a flatscreen, a balcony off a living space, and an extractor hood above a full-size cooker. Notice how 0.6m x 0.6m x 0.7m is given over to the extractor hood – it is an oddly important symbol of home. Teige has much to say about how the minimum dwelling should not be a watered down imitation of bourgeois values
for such apartments symbolise the aspiration to traditional values rather than their rejection. (See The Microflat.)
The book covers many subjects that are still of great relevance. Of particular interest are Teige’s rejection of traditional notions of the kitchen as the core of family-centered plans and of marriage as the foundation of modern cohabitation. He describes alternative lifestyles and new ways of cohabitation of sexes, generations, and classes. The detailed programmatic chapters on collective housing remain far ahead of current thinking, and his comments on collective dwelling presage communal living experiments of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the communal facilities in contemporary condominium buildings and retirement communities.
For what is a retirement community or nursing home but a collective dwelling with shared kitchen, dining and living facilities? What Teige proposed then from the standpoint of communism, we now have as a consequence of capitalism. Funny old world eh?