Oculus Book Review: “Architecture in Uniform” by Jean-Louis Cohen

Mid-way through Jean-Louis Cohen’s lecture at the Center for Architecture regarding his most recent book Architecture in Uniform, he dropped his notes. With a gallant flourish of the hand he pronounced, “It’s okay, I know the story.” And that he does. Cohen’s text is an impressive account of the missing entry of architectural history – the Second World War. Cohen adeptly fills this gap with account after account of not so much the impressive architecture or engineering that went on during the mobilization on all fronts, but the architectural thinking that was manifested during this time. Architects were in all facets of the conflict, at the top, bottom, and in-between. After a number of dormant years for building during the Depression, the act of war seemed to unleash architects’ imagination.

In his introduction and at the talk, Cohen revealed that this empty column in architectural history is his life. His mother was a French Resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor, and his father was in the Resistance as well. It’s remarkable with this so personally close that Cohen maintains his trademark journalistic style while discussing both Allied and Axis building programs. In fact, the historic density of his text is astonishing. His take on Auschwitz and other building projects like the Todt Battery is impressive and gets to the mindset of the Nazi strategy: vast and impenetrable first and foremost. An aside during his talk, when mentioning a young Bauhaus-trained architect who was in the Auschwitz camp drafting office, was “What? You would choose the trenches or this office,” gets to the heart of the shifting moral compass of the war. He also deftly handles the work of another subject: Le Corbusier, who was intellectually active during the war years, for better or worse, and Cohen allows him a drawing and radical idea about every 20 pages through the first part of the book. But Cohen’s focus stays on the background buildings of the war years, and he interrogates their prowess as architectural ideas.

Cohen’s written description of the planning and design of the Pentagon was intriguing: concentric corridors traversing the flanks of the building with color-coded hallways and, in a description that completely balances the narrative, the designed second and separate cafeteria, washrooms, and water fountains for African Americans. Cohen also points out that the building was built to be temporary, and then house an archive – the function of military omnipotence never was to be continued into the 21st century.

Cohen is not heavy-handed in his analysis, but many of his headings and topics read like a list of contemporary challenges; the ideal and mindset of waste and recycling, the genesis of the big box building type, derived from round the clock working schedules, and air raid blackout criteria. And the urbanization of the rural landscape – initially all fronts moved their industry away from city centers to protect the populous, but with the massive mobilization these factories became towns, and with that the debate of urban verses rural density begins. The evolution and promise of the prefab construction is articulate and should be revisited by current practitioners.

It is hard to summarize a book of this depth, but Cohen is a top-tier historian, and while his style is more research- than narrative-based, he manages to tell evocative stories of the human condition. At the start of the book, he has a picture of Dan Kiley as a very young landscape architect in his U.S. Army Corp of Engineers uniform. Deep into the book he reveals that Kiley, at the end of the war, was commanded to design the courtroom at Nuremberg. A citation like this would be interesting enough, but accompanied by the photograph of the courtroom model, you are suddenly inside the mind of the young architect and his earnest resolve to spatially orchestrate this event in an attempt to architecturally resolve the evils that had just occurred. Cohen’s book weaves the pragmatic yet dramatic aesthetic of the war years into a story of the human spirit.

The book, published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) was also presented in Montreal as a CCA exhibition. That show opens imminently in Paris, as was indicated by many of those attending as a result of the renewed cooperation between AIANY and NYU’s La Maison Française.

Annie Coggan is a principal with Coggan and Crawford Architects, and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Jean-Louis Cohen, Architecture in Uniform
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.11.14
Speaker: Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Chair for the History of Architecture, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
Organizer: Oculus Committee and La Maison Française of New York University