the sixth congress of the International Union of Architects, attended by 1,898 delegates from nearly 60 countries, met in London in July to discuss the theme “New Techniques and Materials —Their Impact on Architecture”. Considering that for the last fifty years one of the tenets of the Modern Movement has been the application of industrial and mass-production techniques to architecture, it might seem a little surprising that this subject should still be thought suitable for an IUA Congress. However, anyone looking at the state of building and architecture will readily understand that this is a problem with which neither architects nor their clients—the
In terms of formulating new ideas or even achieving a synthesis of existing thought on the subject, the Congress achieved nothing. This was mainly attributable to two factors. Firstly, as international goodwill and peaceful co-existence were the order of the day, the delegates refrained from mentioning, let alone discussing, the social and political factors which are the crux of the problem, for it is these much more than materials and techniques that in the end dictate architectural developments; secondly, the differing stages of development of the countries represented made the pretence of any universally applicable answer to the question ridiculous: for the backward countries the application of industrial techniques to building is not only impracticable but undesirable in view of the resulting unemployment. The Congress did, however, succeed in recapitulating some of the salient points of the subject, such as the role of the architect, the place of new materials and, very broadly, the principles on which a solution should be based.
When confronted with the reality of the situation, architects as a group are overcome by acute status worry; they realise that they are simply not equipped to fulfil their task, and that furthermore in some parts of the world the architect has already accepted a position where, in the words of Lewis Mumford, “he has become little more than an expert in packaging, giving a superficial finish to the outward aspects of a building whose apparatus and structural form are no longer subject to his design”. Before the architect can participate in a rationalised and integrated building process, his training must take account of his new role, and must equip him with an understanding of technical and scientific methods hitherto considered outside his scope, while not losing sight of the human and social purposes of the buildings he is to create. Similarly with new materials: these should be created at the architect’s demand, to satisfy ascertained needs, and not as at present, where, in the West at any rate, the architect is subjected to pressures from manufacturers to find uses for any new materials they happen to introduce; consulting architects being often employed solely for the purpose of presenting these materials to their colleagues. As such materials often have no values superior to traditional alternatives, they fulfil only an artificially created demand, which results in the establishment of short-lived architectural fashions, thereby ensuring that the market is never satisfied, and incidentally adding to the existing confusion of taste.
It is interesting here to digress and to note the extent to which the Congress itself was subsidised by the British building industry in various ways, not only by the provision of free materials and labour for the Congress buildings which were erected on the South Bank for the occasion, but also through lavish entertainment and by meeting the cost of the printing of all Congress documents and papers. A conservative estimate of the value of this subsidy is of the order of £60,000, a sum on which a handsome return is no doubt expected.
Finally, there remains the major question of how the generally agreed need to harness the new materials and techniques is to be met. It should be remembered that not all architects accept their new role. There are those who blissfully believe that they are merely artists, that they must have free rein for their imagination, and that therefore the rigours of mass production are not for them; that if these are to be applied on a wide scale—which they may concede to be necessary—the architect should merely return to designing public and one-off buildings, as was his role in the past, while the builders (and engineers) get on with the mundane problems of mass housing, as they did in the 19th century. This attitude surely accounts for some of the ever-increasing extravagance of the forms of some of the most widely acclaimed buildings.
To a certain extent one got the impression, reinforced by the recent Russian Exhibition, that this separation of the architect from mass housing has occurred, if for entirely different reasons, in the Soviet Union. There the architects became involved in arid academic discussions on such subjects as style and formalism, while the engineers made fabulous strides in production techniques which have enabled the Russians to prefabricate whole dwellings in multi-storey blocks. These, while cheapening and accelerating the provision of accommodation, have the disadvantage of being inflexible in site layout, monotonous in appearance, and consequently create a sterile environment. In fact, although they are clearly very much more advanced technically, these dwellings present the same problems and are as unsatisfactory as the prefabricated houses with which we were familiar in this country after the last war. The alternative,