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Architecture in Uniform

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 6, 2011 12:26 AM

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Look around almost any city in the Northern hemisphere and you'll notice a difference between pre-war and postwar architecture. In Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War, Jean-Louis Cohen, a professor of the history of architecture at NYU, offers a fascinating account of how the war changed architecture. Normally, we think of the war as a time when buildings were destroyed, not built. But in fact, Cohen argues, the frenzy of construction and innovation the war unleashed is what made "modern" architecture mainstream. Before the war, architecture was mostly traditional; after the war, Cohen writes, it was "a modernized profession."

The war forced architects to innovate and improvise, and its scale meant that, postwar, the results were spread across the globe. Look around the world today, and you can see the legacy of the Second World War everywhere. During the war, military manufacturers needed huge, windowless buildings large enough to hide aircraft manufacturing; today, the same sorts of structures are used for "big box" stores and factories everywhere. During the war, buildings often had to be prefabricated; today, prefab houses and sheds are in nearly every American town. Inspired by the Jeep -- an off-road vehicle first built for the war, in 1941 -- postwar auto designers moved away from the heavily-ornamented, luxury aesthetic of the prewar automobile, and started designing simpler, more utilitarian-looking cars. "Domestic interiors," Cohen writes, "were influenced by the compact spaces created in vehicles, airplanes, and ships."

The war made its architectural influence felt in less obvious ways, too. "Surplus" materials left over from the war, from aluminum munitions boxes to camping equipment, would, for generations, put their aesthetic stamp on schools and summer camps. Architects who had learned to work with camouflage used their newly trained eyes to work with tones and textures in understated, subtle ways, emphasizing minimal shapes and smooth lines. The war had galvanized the large-scale manufacture of new materials and parts, which now found their way into the home: think plastic dishware, Tupperware (invented by Earl Tupper, who had worked on airtight gas masks during the war), and fluorescent lightbulbs.

Perhaps the war's greatest legacy, Cohen argues, was a new, more scientific approach to architecture. During the war, architects learned to think in terms of tasks, processes, and workflows. After the war, they started designing homes and offices with high-tech efficiency in mind. At home, this meant kitchens ready for frozen food (a wartime invention); at work, it meant offices with modular workspaces. Architecture, Cohen writes, was "mobilized" by the war -- and today it's still animated by the same industrial, scientific spirit.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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