Ernő Kállai’s “Architecture” (1924)
Translated from the Hungarian by John Bátki.
From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
We need an architecture that corresponds to our lifestyle and our intellectual structures. Since the constituents from which the new architecture will have to arise are radically different from those of the time when the old buildings, churches, and castles were erected, the new architecture can not be simply an analogue of the old dressed up in new clothes.
The old architecture occupied the central position in the entire realm of art. And within this architecture there were certain types of buildings that counted as its crowning glory by virtue of their functional and symbolic significance. Such were the cathedral, pagoda, or mosque, serving the highest sacraments of religious ideology. And such, were the seats of the highest secular and temporal power, the palaces of pharaohs, sultans, and emperors.
We no longer possess such hierarchic ideological focal points that gather together the various threads of our culture. We do possess the central ideal of a human being fully liberated in both the physical and intellectual senses, living a life of maximal intensity.  But this concept requires the elimination of hierarchies and of exclusive delimitations in the economic, political, and legal, as well as intellectual spheres. The new man is to be no mere solitary figurehead, but is conceived of as a manifold type differentiated into a thousand variants answering to the multitude of practical walks of life. However, he should, even in this multiplicity of forms, retain an openness and availability to connecting into the network of social relations. He must be a conductor of life; he must be a whole man.
It is impossible to elevate this figure of the whole man to such a mythical sphere of psychophysical structuring that a single body and soul should be the bearer and exponent of every single human characteristic and type that we now see swarming around us. It is highly doubtful that the proletarian concept of the new man is capable of accomplishing this abstraction. It would require such a hazy and generalized degree of abstraction that we would not be able to find an equivalent plastic form for it — including its architectural symbol. We lack the kind of spatial concept the structural center of which could serve as a setting for the ideal of the new man as the source and ultimate justification of all arrangement into a spatial order. Since our images of man are vibrant mainly in the multiplicity of concrete types, we cannot transpose them into an arcaded synthesis of architectonic spatial conception that would be a sovereign, quintessential unification of the human multitudes, rather than just a superficial assembling ground. And it is absurd to think of erecting separate, symbolic structures dedicated to the ideas of worker, politician, economist, teacher, physician, engineer, etc.
It is even less likely that we could abstract the various life functions of the new man into architectonic monuments. Work, recreation and entertainment, love or sports — both as concepts and as actual facts of life — cannot serve as the bases for ideological centralization. Our needs and interests are far too complicated, and far too lively in their ramifications for any one of them to swallow up the rest. Neither can their intellectual precipitates be summed up in concepts that in spite of their abstraction are tangible enough to serve as focal points of their own cult. And if there is no cult formed around an ideological abstraction, there can be no architecture in the traditional sense of the word, encompassing all subsidiary forms of art and every detail.
Or let us say that, having liberated it from capitalist exploitation, we attempt to elevate the fact of labor, its essence so vital and full of human dignity, into the most ethereal regions of individual and public interest. Are we justified in expecting to devote a separate housing to this idea, with its own dedicated functionaries and rites? There can be nothing more pathetic or faltering than the sentimentalism oozing from the various “palaces of work” perpetrated by starry-eyed designers, fortunately only on the drafting table. There are plenty of roofs sheltering human labor — forced labor alas — ranging from mines to offices and workshops. But we cannot expect even the most diligent German to erect a monument to and adulate the concept of Labor.
Our concrete needs and necessities exert their effects and are dissipated within a terrestrial framework. In time, once architects are liberated from the traditions of ideological representation, they will indeed evolve the pure forms to shelter amours, entertainments, work activities, assemblies, etc. But where do we find the metabolism that could enfold into itself the thousands of concrete energies, tensions, and dynamisms that make up life, life, and yet more life? And were we to find such a central life function, it would still have a long way to go in the processes of intellectual precipitation and transubstantiation to reach the point that marks the beginnings of the transcendentalism that gives rise to architecture. Where is the society that is willing or able to envisage, faithfully accomplish, and consecrate such a journey?
Contemporary architecture also has its own central notion. We judge a building to be successful if it corresponds to our requirements of maximal expediency, materiality, public hygiene, economy, and structural functionality. Today’s architecture is governed by an extraordinary number of different purposes. Apartment buildings, factories, malls, theaters, cinemas, spas, terminals, hospitals, warehouses, etc. all serve different aims, and must therefore necessarily assume distinctive structures and forms. The same holds true for materials. On the other hand the requirements of public hygiene demand a certain degree of uniformity. For whatever kind of architecture we are constructing, it cuts off man from the open space and sunlight of the surrounding environment, and hygiene demands that these constrictions be held to a minimum. This requirement, which can be followed through an whole range of solutions starting from the present compromises that take into account contemporary economic, social, and material/technological considerations, all the way to utopian future, will be heeded by communist central planning. In any case current architectural trends include the intention to ensure within an architectonic framework a maximum of open space, fresh air, and sunshine by avoiding vast, heavy masses.
This trend is being realized in the newest plans for urban development, with their emphasis on avoiding crowding, congestion, and traffic jams, and on keeping separate the settings of activities that have special functions. The work district, the public forum for necessary and disciplined activities is one space, distinct from the architectonic environment of rest, the dwelling space. Thus in this respect, too, the end purpose necessarily determines its architectural formulation. The primary nature of organizational tasks does not tolerate in the new city or other type of human settlement the hegemony of a formal uniformity superimposed over the multiplicity of practical purposes, in the way that medieval towns were ruled by the pointed gothic arch and gable, predominant first and foremost in the cathedral. Again, the reason for this is the absence of an ideological center in our lives, the lack of an overweening abstraction arising from concrete details to become a distinct sacrament in contrast to mundane everyday life.
Contemporary life has lost the dualism of the sacrosanct and the profane. We know and live life as a single unity both solemn and lighthearted, free-flowing or constrained. We see architecture likewise as a single entity that vouchsafes an organized space to channel these currents of life; what is more, we see it as a tangible fact that is determined by the components of practical life. A diversity of aims and materials cannot prevent this architecture from being unified in its strict insistence on always documenting its own special mission and content. This requirement includes the notion of structural economy as the de facto rule restraining the autotelic proliferation of forms. The new architecture must be extremely restrained in its massiveness that would diminish light, air, and space, and equally so in the matter of forms aspiring to transcend the primary realities of human life. It must not attempt to be more than an array of inconspicuously employed props or vestments. It should not nourish the ambition to become a “Stadtkrone,” an unwieldy idol that towers domineering on the horizon, in the manner of pyramids and cathedrals, forcing to their knees the devout — and downtrodden — working masses. It is sad enough that the monumentality of factory smokestacks, blast furnaces, and tenements rules over our lives. Therefore let us not conjure additional stone monsters worshipping ideological monumentality over our heads. The evolution of life and technology will eventually bring about an architecture that will rise into open spaces beyond the massive straitjackets of stone, steel and concrete.
[Originally published as “Architektura,” in Ma (February 20, 1924)]