Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War – A Review

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War
Jean-Louis Cohen
Editions Hazan, Paris (July 26, 2011) 448 pages

This is a beautiful book that tries to examine every aspect of architecture and architects during World War II. With rich photos and drawings it shows the war in a completely different light. The book is at its best in describing the projects that were created specifically for the war, ranging from the great industrial plants of Willow Run that produced a bomber every hour at the height of the war, the design of fortifications, and the how architects worked with the military. For example, architects went to create exact copies German and Japanese homes for the American military so they could perfect an incendiary bomb, which led to the development of napalm. The homes were replicas all the way down to the furniture and the paint. That attention to detail was needed in creating the massive factories that produced war material. And the included photos of the massive plants that filled the Midwest and the West coast of the US show that powerful blend of industry and design. It could also lead to the frivolous as American airplane factories were camouflaged with fake streets and homes on their roofs, while large runways sat just to the side. I’m not sure who they were fooling.

Among the curiosities were the plans for various types of bomb shelters. The Germans had above ground beehive structures that only served to suffocate victims when the firestorms that were the hallmark of heavy bombing consumed all the surrounding oxygen. The British plans for London were equally strange and only when the reality of nightly German bombing raids be came apparent was part of the population given access to the metro system. Interestingly, only about 10% of Londoners used the metros for safety.

Cohen also looks at the roles architects played in the development of German facilities, including slave labor factories and concentration camps. Unsurprisingly, architects many from the best schools, were active participants in the design and construction of the camps. And fitting bureaucratic men were more interested in what traditions of the design of the camp buildings and surrounding facilities would draw on, than who was actually happening in the camps. Albert Speer was the highest profile of such men and Cohen points out they all tried in someway or another to justify such work with the all too common, I didn’t know what was happening.

I would have preferred more about these specific elements, especially how they shaped the war. Unfortunately, he concentrated on elements such as housing for war workers. While probably interesting for architects, non architects will find it a little tedious. The only thing that real stuck out when looking at the designs for workers is just about every example was some form of cul-de-sac, an escape from traditional grid. There was something in the generation that just couldn’t handle a square block.

The biggest draw back of the book for a non architect is he spends so much time talking about architects. One chapter is give to listening dozens of architects and what they did in the war including those who served in uniform. And while Walter Gropius is important (even I know that) his actual impact on the war seems rather small for the amount of ink he receives. It’s as if Cohen wanted to include the activities of every architect even if they didn’t do much during the war. Part of the issue is that many of the buildings described in the book were never built. Either there wasn’t any money, fortunes changed (especially true for Germany), or the military just didn’t see the utility of an initiative.

Despite these draw backs, even for the non architect the photos and the sections directly about initiatives for the war make the book interesting, one of those arcane volumes that can give subtle meaning to even over analyzed events.

Boeing Plant Seattle Camouflaged
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