WWII & the Spread of Modernism

May 9th, 2010


"I am convinced that art, since it forms the most uncorrupted, the most immediate reflection of the people's soul, exercises unconsciously by far the greatest direct influence upon the masses of the people." Adolf Hitler 1935

Hitler was not the first political head to use architecture and symbolism to denote his authoritative right to rule.  In creating a questionable link between the great Ancient Romans and the Aryan German race, the Nazi regime was legitimized through the imperial powers associated with monumental Roman Neoclassicism.  In doing so, the Nazi's created a national pride that the German's had lost with their defeat in WWI.  The unifying ideals of the International style and Modernism conflicted with Hitler's cultivated image of racial inequalities, therefore, were a direct threat to his goals.  To win public support, he portrayed modern design as 'foreign' and lacking in traditional Germanic craft or culture.  Modern design of all sorts came under scrutiny and was actively suppressed in Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet Union, and Fascist Italy.

Though many architects and designers held up hope for some time, many eventually emigrated to Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the United States.  Modernism only grew with the displacement of many its leading designers.  While much of modernist design was drawn from functionalist principles, bodily health and dimensions, or the idea of universality, the movement of designers created a cross-fertilization of approaches to regional values, historical romanticism, climates, social values, biomorphic abstraction, technologies, and the varied definitions of modernism.  The architectural vocabulary of white-washed concrete facades, flat roofs, pilotis, and tape windows was trasported internationally, yet shortly thereafter, these elements became infused with the interpretations of traditional styles from their new location.  We can see the great advancements made through this forced migration of men and ideas, but it is hard to judge what was lost with the evaporation of Utopian aspirations.  After WWII, architects and designers lost faith in their ability to greatly alter the lives of the masses.  This is not to say that the modernist values were discarded, just reevaluated and transformed to meet the needs of a post-war society and landscape.  My interpretation is that Modernism gained universal acceptance so readily after the Second World War because, after all the destruction and brutality it brought, people were now seeking the 'better life' that the simplistic designs of modernism provided. 

I realize this is an oversimplified account of a complicated time and still controversial events, but the anniversary peaked my interest to seek further readings as it may for you.

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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