Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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BOOK REVIEW: Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War

Publication Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War (2011). © CCA / Hazan


Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War
by Jean-Louis Cohen
Canadian Centre for Architecture/Hazan ($50)  

As a scholar of modernism Jean-Louis Cohen has few rivals and Architecture in Uniform may be his most important book to date for it provides a broad-ranging account of a blank space in architectural history. It serves as a companion to an exhibition of the same name that was based on Cohen’s research and is on show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal through September 18. Book and exhibition chronicle the preparations for war, the devastation of aerial bombardment, and the ways in which architects and designers helped devise new forms and techniques of construction, ranging from bomb shelters to prefabrication. The Allies and the Axis mobilized their entire societies for total war, while planning for peace; Cohen shows how radically different those visions were.


An unprecedented emergency spurred invention and improvisation. America lagged far behind the Axis in preparedness when Pearl Harbor was struck, but it reacted at lightning speed to transform the economy, in order to prevail in Europe and the Pacific. The British pioneered many tools of victory—including radar, Bailey bridges, and the Mulberry floating harbors--and the Soviets provided the brute force that turned the Nazi tide, but America was the arsenal of victory. Cohen explores the quantum leap in the scale of construction—the Dodge Chicago plant was as expansive as lower Manhattan, and the Pentagon (which was constructed in less than a year) was the world’s largest building. European exiles joined their American peers in devising temporary shelters and new kind of camouflage, designing posters and exhibits to boost morale; even replicas of enemy towns on which to test incendiary bombs. Still more chilling is the sweep of the Nazi effort—from the meticulously planned concentration camps to the underground factories constructed and sustained by slave labor, and the new towns that would have housed German settlers in the subjugated East.


The story ends with the Allied victory and plans for a brave new world of rational housing and humane settlements--a promise that was swiftly frustrated by entrenched interests and a sentimental attachment to the past. Case Study houses, Konrad Wachsmann’s panel construction, and Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house offered no competition to the tradition-bound tract home builders. The energy and organization that America summoned for war was swiftly dissipated. But, as Cohen observes, “Instead of being a parenthesis, the Second World War, whose shadow reaches into the third millennium, crystallized and accelerated both history and architecture.” The book is a must-read and it builds anticipation for Cohen’s magisterial survey of the 20th century, which Phaidon will publish next year.

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