Designs of Destruction: The Making of Monuments in the Twentieth Century, by Lucia Allais

Book of the week: James Stevens Curl is impressed by a marriage of modern architecture and monument preservation

December 6, 2018
So-called Monuments Men inspecting a destroyed monument
Monuments men: during the Second World War, building inventories were made as a way to protect cultural property in war areas

The 20th century saw urban destruction on a massive scale, mostly through warfare, but also because of modernism’s insistence that almost everything created in the past was worthless. Reyner Banham (1922-88), for example, in 1965, would have nothing to do with the preservation of any building whatsoever. Walter Gropius (1883-1969) supported the demolition of one of the finest architectural works in the US, Pennsylvania Station in New York (1902-11). It was only through governmental procrastination (not unconnected with costs) that London’s Whitehall was not wrecked in 1965-70. This would have involved the demolition of almost every building south of Downing Street and Richmond Terrace, except for the original block of New Scotland Yard and Central Hall. The Palace of Westminster was permitted to survive, as was Westminster Abbey, which could easily have ended up marooned on a vast traffic island.

Specimens of venerable architecture of quality, in the 20th century termed “cultural monuments”, have always been significant for many reasons. Think of the Norman destruction of the great buildings of Anglo-Saxon England, such as the Royal (or Old) Minster in Winchester, flattened and replaced by the Romanesque cathedral, or the havoc wreaked on the sites of antiquity, such as Palmyra, by Islamic State. Such obliterations are, and aways have been, deliberate, to erase the memory of a civilisation that existed before the conquerors took over. The pulverisation of Ieper/Ypres during the 1914-18 war led to the determination of the King of the Belgians to have the great Cloth Hall and other structures rebuilt once peace came, and the Poles resurrected the Old Town of Warsaw which had been deliberately destroyed by the Germans in 1944. And in Germany too, ruined Nuremberg and other towns have had their historic centres recreated. Why? Because old buildings represent continuity, national memory, history and times when towns were agreeable places. Sadly that perspective has been missing from policies concerning the urban fabric in the British Isles, where widespread destruction occurred after 1945 without the help of the Luftwaffe.

During the Second World War, it began to be realised that it would be necessary to make inventories of buildings at risk from aerial bombing or ground attack in order to attempt to ensure their survival, and to this end lists and maps were prepared, identifying what was regarded as worth preserving. Such an exercise omitted the fact that often grander monuments needed the humbler historical fabric with which they were surrounded, in order to give them appropriate settings and even meanings, so after saturation-bombing of continental towns the maps began to resemble the tabula rasa demanded by modernists. The American architectural historian and archaeologist William Bell Dinsmoor (1886-1973) very much feared that, “unwittingly”, he and his colleagues at the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas had “been engaged in a city planning program”, for some of the most severely damaged towns began to resemble the maps that the commission had prepared, “with only the marked protected monuments” left standing.

This is hardly surprising, as some of the advisers responsible for drawing up the lists and maps held narrow views about the value of what might be preserved – and, in any case, often military objectives overrode considerations of trying to save any man-made fabric. Lucia Allais points out in no uncertain terms that monuments were recast as much to justify the obliteration of the old 19th-century and earlier buildings around them as to manufacture support for the post-war theories of urban design based on supposed universal modernist values. She therefore very cleverly brings together the histories of modern architecture and of monument preservation, hitherto somewhat disconnected. She also states that we “should not diminish the importance of [the] turn of phrase, ‘unwittingly engaged in city planning’, or its evident reference to modern urbanism with its history” of destruction.

This book describes how diplomats, art historians, architects, archaeologists, intellectuals, lawyers and bureaucrats created mechanisms to make policies for the survival of designated “cultural monuments” in an age of destructive scenarios. Conflict, it makes clear, played a huge part in the reshaping of the urban fabric when architecture and politics, internationalism, bureaucracies and abstractions based on misguided theories and false teleologies combined in a powerful brew and led to a new orthodoxy. Allais argues persuasively that initial protective intentions often assisted enormous agencies of destruction, from the bombs and shells of the military to the bulldozers sent in by bureaucrats who accepted modernist theories and aims, integrating them into governance. As an account of an aspect of cultural diplomacy, a revealing chapter in the history of the battered built environment, it succeeds brilliantly, but it is also a revealing meditation on causality and resulting designs during a period of immense change.

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), writing in the 1930s, proclaimed the death of “obsolete” monuments, stating that the very idea of a modern monument was a “contradiction in terms”. One of the difficulties, of course, has been that, in using a very poverty-stricken and incoherent language, stripped of all symbolism and ornament, the creation of a monument with meaning becomes very difficult, if not impossible. What is now called “heritage”, however, is sought after by millions, because it is supposed to mean something. And that, in turn, brings over-use, and therefore a different kind of destruction, less immediate and obvious than that in warfare, but nevertheless very damaging.

It is significant, and perhaps surprising, that three modernists – the Swiss Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968), the Frenchman Fernand Léger (1881-1955) and the American (of Catalan birth) Josep Lluís Sert i López (1902-83) – argued for the creation of a “new monumentality”, with the “average man” both client and consumer of the new modernism, in which the monument would become modern again if it were “re-functionalized” and accepted as part of a global aesthetic, something that did not in the end happen. The yawning chasm between the two branches of supposed “functionalism”, the architectural and the political, proved too immense to bridge, because architectural modernism, being a complete break with the past, had no connection at all with historical paradigms.

Rarely does one come across a book as novel as this one. It covers immense tracts of ground, including the “restorers” who “restored” ancient buildings to within an inch of their lives (for example, the Greek Nicolaos Balanos [1869-1943], who not only patched up bits of the Parthenon with cement, but used iron to join old and new work that rusted and expanded, thus inflicting huge damage to surviving fabric); fantasists in search of a “new monumentality” that was nothing of the sort; well-meaning people who identified pathetically few “cultural monuments” not to be hit with bombs (but, given the inaccuracy of bombing raids generally, these were usually damaged, sometimes very badly); and the unfortunate connections between the barbarities of carpet-bombing and modernist town planning.

Anyone fascinated by collective memory, post-1945 architecture and planning, and cultural artefacts should read Allais’ work (although Leo von Klenze was not “Van”).

James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism was recently published by Oxford University Press.


Designs of Destruction: The Making of Monuments in the Twentieth Century
By Lucia Allais
University of Chicago Press
432pp, £34.00
ISBN 9780226286556
Published 16 November 2018


The author

Lucia Allais, associate professor of architecture at Princeton University, is Italian by birth, grew up in France and moved to the US for a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and architecture at Princeton, followed by a master’s in architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design and a PhD from MIT. She recalls finding “mentors who encouraged the pushing against disciplinary boundaries, especially between historical analysis and theoretical work, and between architectural history and history tout court”.

She has herself practised as an architect in both Europe and the US, something that Allais claims has illuminated her research in a rather unexpected way: “This may seem counter-intuitive, but training and working as an architect teaches you that spatial designs don’t always proceed through explicit architectural tools such as drawings, models and master plans. So when I approached an archive such as the one on monuments in the Second World War or the decolonisation of museums, I was especially careful not to assume that just because there weren’t drawings prescribing the destruction, its spatial effects were not deliberately ‘designed’. Often, the diagrams I made early on in my archival research to keep track of data and visualise its spatial consequences eventually became illustrations for the book.”

Although “told as an architectural history”, Allais believes that Designs of Destruction also has more general relevance for us now.

“There are sadly so many instances of large-scale environmental and urban destruction today”, she explains, “that we tend to forget there is a history to destruction. Even as technologies and policies evolve, there are specific techniques for calibrating destruction’s scale and ensuring that cultural markers remain – in other words, most designs of destruction do not result in a tabula rasa.”

Matthew Reisz

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Print headline: Guarding history amid destruction

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