ARC 331: The Great War

week of

March 15-21


Where do we locate the roots and fruits of pessimism and optimism in architectural theory?

It is a truism through architecture's history that in times of war, which is inimical to architecture, theory thrives. This is certainly the case during and in the immediate aftermath of World War I, which not only slowed (civic) construction to a halt but also fueled diverse reactions to the war, society, and cultural traditions. As you read through the excerpts written by the leading thinkers (not necessarily builders, if nothing was to be built) in each camp, consider not only their attitudes toward long-standing theoretical interests like culture, art, and materials, but also the broader mood they represent on a continuum from optimism to nihilism. Even though each of these movements was short-lived in and of itself, they sowed deep seeds that would flower by ca. 1930.

learning objectives

At the conclusion of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define terminology specific to technique, style and structure (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Explain stylistic/technical changes in design as they relate to cultural context (COMPREHENSION)
  • Summarize the main concepts in important works of theory by key writers (COMPREHENSION)
  • Visually analyze projects from this period to suggest date, place, and designer (ANALYSIS)
  • Recognize change in architectural styles by comparing their formal and technical characteristics (ANALYSIS)
  • Evaluate different theoretical approaches and defend personal preference for one or more (EVALUATE)

part 1

The (Great) War

The history of architecture is always best understood within social/cultural contexts, which help us understand why somethings were built at certain times and to look in particular ways. This section of ARC 331 (and, really, all architecture history courses I can think of) is unique in having a very different proportion of culture-to-buildings. In short, war is always the enemy of architecture, which is an investment of peace time. For that reason, we don't spend a lot of time with wars because very little is built during them (resources of labor and money are going somewhere else).

World War 1 is important to the history of architecture not for what was built during it (typically: very little), but for the aesthetic theories that were formed during it, and that had a profound impact on architectural thinking in the following decades. Before getting to this theory-rich period, let's review what this war was all about, and how historians see its aftermath (and note: even "regular" historians take note of its affects on art and literature).

  • Read: Colquhoun, chapters 3, 5 & 6
  • Review: Gelernter, chap. 7 (pp. 225-29)

For a focused look at an important but under-studied aspect of construction and technology within this era, click the image below to launch a website on trench design:

part 2

Theory and Art


An art movement formed during the First World War in Zurich in negative reaction to the horrors and folly of the war. The art, poetry and performance produced by dada artists is often satirical and nonsensical in nature. Read more.

For reasons that may be clear already, Dada has very little application in architecture, or even art. But it does reveal the greatest concentrated nihilism of the era. Its great flourishing is in poetry. Hear from one of its main protagonists how to write a dada poem:

A recitation of its manifesto by Hugo Ball, 1916. (If you like, follow along with the text here.)


An Italian art movement of the early twentieth century that aimed to capture in art the dynamism and energy of the modern world. Read more.

Futurism had great appeal across Italy, where it was founded, and throughout other avant-garde centers in Europe. You can find manifestos on Futurist music, Futurist clothing, Futurist drama ... there is really no corner of cultural production that the Futurists did not want to affect. Hear a brief invitation from the central writer of Futurism, F.T. Marinetti:

Music and costumes might be open to radical change during a war, but in the 1910s Futurism had little chance to see its ideals impact actual buildings. Still, it had a main theorist, the architect Antonio Sant'Elia, who volunteered to join the Italian army in 1915. Scan this website for a good collection of the drawings from his major project, La Città Nuovo (also 1914; one typical drawing shown to the left).


Art in which the image of reality is distorted in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas. Read more.

While proper Expressionism takes off during the 1910s, its roots can be seen in painting from the late nineteenth century: in particular, the famous The Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893). Several Expressionist architects and theorists emerged in the 1910s; their written work would be very powerful in the coming decades.

Expressionist Cinema

Especially in northern Europe (primarily in Germany and, to a lesser extent Scandinavia and France), the growth of cinema in the decades under discussion is worth its own subheading here. Film was an undeniably modern vehicle for new art theories. In particular, Futurism and Expressionism influenced the aesthetic and narrative of such films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, Robert Wiene, dir.), Nosferatu (1922, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, dir.), Der Golem (1920, C. Boese & P. Wegener, dir., also with notable sets by architect Hans Poelzig), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer, dir.), and the mother of all German Expressionist-Futurist silent films, Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang, dir.).

Russian Constructivism

A particularly austere branch of abstract art founded in Russia around 1915 in which style-free objects were products of industrial ordering. Read more.

Constructivism emphasized the "constructed" character of human-made art: compositions that were clearly the result of assembling other things--usually mass-produced and industrial things. This approach underscores the work of its central "fine" artist, Naum Gabo (see a collection of his work held by the Tate), and is probably best known in graphic arts that were used to further the political aims of the Bolsheviks, and among them, the often-reproduced poster, "Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge," (prominently featuring Lilya Brik; Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1925).

Of all the movements in this lesson, Russian Constructivism is most closely tied to a particular political moment. Learn about it here:

De Stjil

Severe Dutch development based on straight lines and geometric planes in pure hues, black, and white. Read more.

De Stjil ("the style") is the movement as well as the journal published in Leiden starting in 1917. Led by painter/theorist/architect/typeface designer Theo Van Doesburg, it aimed for the universal and abstract, scrubbing "art" (and all related productions) of references even to the materials of their own making. Van Doesburg, whose painting of 1917, Composition VII (the three graces) is shown at the left, )tried hard to get a job at the Bauhaus, but was unsuccessful. Still, his ideas would be highly influential there--eventually.

Watch this short video that explains Mondrian's contribution to the development of De Stijl within the context of Dutch art history:

Source for definitions: Tate Art Terms


  • How well do you know your early Modernist theory? Take this quiz to find out. Due: Monday

part 3


As stated above, most of these theories were left to simmer while the war waged. With few exceptions, no major building was going on during the war, and architects were left to be satisfied (or not) with drawing their ideas or maybe achieving them in an ephemeral form as backdrops for movies (although it's arguable that this is one of the best ways to preserve architectural ideas that could not be actualized in real construction). Even in times of peace, not every country could manage bold new ventures in architecture: in particular, Italy and Russia lagged behind northern Europe, although the latter had great dreams for new monumental architecture (none grander than

Only one of the movements noted above had immediate success in terms of being realized in actual projects. Can you tell which one it is? Here are some of its great monuments (all in Germany; how about that):


Directions: After reviewing all of the theory in this lesson, fully absorb one outlook, based on the chart below. You will then participate in a group critique of a famous building, in the character of a true believer. Due dates:

  • By Monday, make a first post of no more than 100 words that indicates your overall assessment of the building's quality. Your assessment should clarify the theoretical values that you represent; those values should guide your assessment of the building's design. Direct quotations from leading critics in your field will definitely support your assessment! (Note: Dr. Amundson will approve only sound critique thoroughly based in specific theory. If your ideas need greater/different focus, I'll notify you by email.)
  • Between Tuesday noon and Thursday's class, return to the forum and respond to two of the other theorists' assessments. Do their ideas have any merit? Respond to them. Choose another forum and find your cohort. Support them (as best you can).
  • By Saturday, return to both forums to read, make final comments, and round out the discussions.

IMPORTANT: Stay in character through this whole exercise, and make sure to sign your comments with your name and affiliation.


Dada Futurism Expressionism Russian Constructivism

De Stjil

1 Chloe  Desmond Aaron Max Connor
2 Caleb  Abacuc Jordan Andrew Grant
3 Emma  Adaliz  Monica Gabe Elizabeth 
4 Adam Jacob Parker David Diana
5 Joanna Jarod Taylor  Tim Brooke

In the list below, click on your "Group" to launch the discussion forum; click on the building name to launch a video or link to an article for a refresher (or introduction).

part 4

The (Next) War

As we will see, in the decades following this flowering of diverse Modernist theories, a more cohesive approach to rationalist design was developed; at the same time, utopian ideals vanished under pressure of growing clouds on the political horizon. The Great War would turn out to not be the last one, and architecture would have its role in one of the ugliest chapters in human history.

Click the image below to enter a website devoted to the architecture of concentration camps. As you read through its pages, think about the degree to which architecture can be weaponized: in what ways can design be made to assist genocide?

additional resources

Additional Resources

  • A quick introduction to Marcel Duchamp:

    Zaha Hadid and Russian Constructivism