El Lissitzky’s “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture” (1925)
From El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts.
Translated by Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers.
In the Old World — in Europe — the words ‘America’ and ‘American’ conjure up ideas of something ultraperfect, rational, utilitarian, universal. All these notions are alien to the old artists of Europe. What has any European ever sought in America in respect of art or culture or anything else — apart from dollars? Only when both victors and vanquished found themselves, as a result of the war, at the American pawnbroker’s did Europe discover America a second time: and once the Americans themselves had swarmed over to Europe, they saw their own country with new eyes. Harold Loeb, the editor of Broom, wrote ‘For a nation to create art, it must have its ideal, its god. America’s god is the dollar: so its architecture has produced skyscrapers, its sculpture produces machines, its pictorial art is the cinema.’ Matthew Josephson discovered the great anonymous poetry of America — the verses and advertisements written in lights in the night sky of Chicago and New York.
Meanwhile, Europe was lacking the specialists she required to repair the ravages of war. Since the time of the Renaissance she had fostered a guild of master craftsmen known as ‘artists’, who have survived up to the present time. These men did not know how to meet the requirements of the day, and it was precisely in America that Europe discovered a new guild of men who were working to fulfil the day-to-day, the hour-to-hour, demands of the present time — the engineers. Thus to the European mind New York became the new Athens, Manhattan the Acropolis, and the skyscrapers the Parthenon. It is true that New York itself knew nothing of this discovery. There they continue to build their temples to the Greek gods over subway stations, with the firm conviction that they are more beautiful than the original ones because they are ten times bigger. In New York and Chicago, engineers invented and constructed the fantastic steel skeletons of skyscrapers fifty storeys high, but the artist-architects, trained at the ancient Paris academy, clothed this living skeleton so skilfully with ostentatious embellishments that it was twenty years later before Europe recognized the crux of the matter.
It was where work went on without the architectonic embellishments, where the engineer clearly defined his task, conscientiously observed the conditions imposed by his material and fulfilled the requirements of his construction, in the grain-belt of the Western States and Canada, that there appeared these elevators and silos which so astounded European architects. And there in the West originated the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s only architect, who dared to discard all text-book precepts and to create a new type of dwelling, which has revealed him as the father of contemporary architecture.
Before the war the most intense architectural activity went on in Germany, but this architecture was either a la Iron Fist or a la Gretchen. Both were swept away by the war. The prolonged standstill in new building, and the unprecedented growth of the towns, produced a housing crisis in Germany. Germany had destroyed Belgium and Northern France; all this had to be rebuilt. The neutral countries — Holland, Denmark and Switzerland — had for a time profited from the war and made tremendous progress in their building development. These vast requirements compelled people to reconsider all the problems of architecture from a new viewpoint.
The new generation of architects began with the basic principles of construction. Up to this time a house had been built by the same methods that were employed in Babylon and Egypt. Here the mortar is mixed on the building-site itself and the bricklayer erects his wall by sticking the individual bricks together, like a needlewoman embroidering a towel with cross-stitch. This method served its purpose well enough in the days of princes and potentates, whose portraits were painted by an equally primitive method. Nowadays when a man requires a portrait of himself he goes to the photographer and has a dozen photographs produced without delay. This man must also have his house built in a different way. After all, a house is a device for living in, just as a car or an aeroplane is a device for travelling in. For this reason building norms and construction times must be worked out, so that building can be transferred to mass-production factories and houses ordered from a catalogue.
Prefabricated parts, which only need to be fitted together, should be delivered to the site. America was the first to solve this problem in a practical way. The present record for erecting a small one-family house is eight hours for assembly of the parts, and the house is ready to be occupied within two days. The new generation in Europe is now struggling to adopt these ideas. The ideological campaign which has been waged for several years is already bearing fruit: at the building-exhibition in Dresden this summer, the architect Lüdecke built a prototype of the prefabricated house for industrial mass-production. Mass construction methods require these large, smooth slabs of wall, the rectangular shapes, the flat roofs — in fact, everything that is characteristic of the new geometric style.
Inseparably linked with the method of construction is the question of the material used in building. To construct a brick wall by machine at the factory and then transport it to the site to erect it there would of course, be absurd. Our age has created a new structural material — concrete. Houses can be cast from it as statues are cast from bronze, but as far as dwellings are concerned it has a number of disadvantages. Experiments are now in progress everywhere, to try and invent new materials, which will be light, easy to mould, provide good heat insulation, and so on; and in this field Europe is beginning to outstrip America. In solving this problem the main effort lies in the creation of a new form.
As a result of new methods and new materials, a new kind of construction is emerging. ‘American’ techniques have opened the eyes of European architects to the fact that the new material has to be assembled in accordance with new principles in order to withstand strains and loads imposed on it. The new architects, in striving to create a new form, have realized the necessity for showing its basic construction openly and honestly. In formulating and solving these problems Europe today is more American than America itself.
In the new constructions the main achievement has been to free the walls from having the sole responsibility of supporting the weight of the superstructure. The walls have the function of a casserole; they serve  merely as a protection against the weather; apertures are simply cut out of them for the windows, but the entire weight is borne by the special skeleton. European architects, striving like all artists to achieve simplicity and clarity, have devoted their whole attention to these basic principles. Highly intricate compositional patterns are fairly common, but modern man, travelling by tram, road or railway, goes past them without even noticing them. Large masses, clear and unequivocal, serve as key-points for finding one’s bearings inside a town. In this respect the design for an office-block by the Berlin architect Mies van der Rohe is a characteristic example. Starting off with his material (reinforced concrete) and his design, he proceeds to create a house in which walls – in the original meaning of the word – do not exist. We see only large horizontal strips — unbroken stretches of filing-cabinets on the inside, alternating with unbroken stretches of window above. Even more powerful and more direct is the impression made by the reinforced concrete airship-hangars at Orly, near Paris. These are not the work of an artist-architect, but of an engineer-constructor, Freyssinet, a man possessed of that same French spirit which inspired Eiffel. In a hangar of this size there would be room for a whole row of St Basil’s cathedrals.
We can see how special types of buildings have been conceived. They are result of the swift growth of modern towns where three segments have clearly crystallized: (1) the commercial quarter, the ‘City’, which is teeming with several million people by day, while only a few score watchmen remain there at night; (2) the industrial quarter, the factory districts, where work goes on uninterrupted round the clock, and (3) the residential quarter. Each of these areas has produced its own type of house: skyscraper, factory and apartment-block.
Europe is adopting American principles, developing them in a new way. From this point of view it is interesting that of the huge number of entries submitted to the competition for a skyscraper design, organized by the Chicago Tribune, only a few European architects, for example, the Dane Lundberg-Folm, and the Germans Gropius, May, and Bruno Taut, attempted a form suited to American construction. America herself had covered her steel skeleton with endless metres of Gothic and rosette-like ornaments.
Europe is ahead of America in one respect, namely in dealing with the housing problem, and more particularly with workers’ housing. In this field Holland has surpassed other countries. Model complexes can be seen in Rotterdam; very modest, almost austere as seen from the street, open along their whole frontage to the courtyard at the back, which is thus transformed into an enclosed space with little playgrounds for the children and gardens for relaxation. Europe adopts the organized, practical ideas of America, but clarifies and defines them. This process must be applied not only to exterior architecture, but also to an even greater extent to interior design.
The truth is that here Europe makes it her aim to meet the demands of economy, strict utility and hygiene. Architects are convinced that through the new design and planning of the house they are actively participating in the organizing of a new consciousness.
We had occasion to meet a number of great masters of the new architecture in Europe and were convinced of the difficulty of their position. They are surrounded by a chauvinistic, reactionary, individualistic society, to whom these men, with their international mental horizon, their revolutionary activity and their collective thinking, are alien and hostile. That is why they all follow the trend of events in our country so attentively and all believe that the future belongs not to the USA but to the USSR.
From Krasnaya Niva, No. 49, 1925