Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"Ideological Mildew"

Against ideological mildew, from Z (dir. Costa Gavras, 1969) (Source)

In the opening moments of his political ciné-roman, Z (1969), director Costa Gavras shows us a room filled with uniformed government officials. All are listening to a lecture concerning the proper maintenance of crops. The speaker, an elderly, knowledgeable-looking fellow, shows an image of a blighted olive leaf—a portent if ever there was one, an indication that things are not what they seem. This lecturer then steps aside to introduce a stern, mustachioed General (Pierre Dux) who quickly elaborates on the political significance of the mildew. He addresses his enraptured, epauleted audience:

An ideological illness is like mildew and requires preventative measures. Like mildew, it is due to septic germs and various parasitic agents. So the treatment of men with appropriate solutions is indispensable ... Air-dropped leaflets are telling our peasants of a new kind of ideological mildew beginning to ravage our land ... we must preserve the healthy elements of our society and heal those that are ill ... we must fight all diseases of both the vine as well as of Society.

The significance of this statement lies not so much in its obvious metaphor, but in its reference to mass communication as a way to fight societal ills and other threats to the establishment. Aircraft spread propaganda leaflets in the same way as herbicides or defoliants. Communication, as a mean of societal control, must therefore have a hygienic function.

Ernest Hèbrard and Hendrik Christian Andersen, World City of Communications, 1913-14 (Source)

Strangely, such ideas recall an early collaboration by French architect Ernest Hébrard (1866-1933) and American sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen (1872-1940) called the "World City of Communications" (1914). The French art critic Jean-Paul Alaux gave a general description of the project in a March 1914 issue of the American Institute of Architects Journal:

The city is divided into three distinct groups: First, the scientific group, composed of the palaces of the sociological sciences, of medicine, of agriculture, of pure sciences, with, besides, a large bank, a temple
of religions, and a large library. These are placed around a public square, the center of which is occupied by a gigantic tower, the Tower of Progress, three hundred and twenty meters high. From this square starts a mall, decorated with gardens, along which are built the palaces of the nations of the world. The mall leads to the second group, made up of the Temple of Arts, used for temporary or permanent exhibitions, the School of the Fine Arts, the conservatory of music, the museum of natural history, and the zoölogical garden, all of which are so disposed as to provide an imposing monumental expression. On the same axis is built the group of the sports, with a stadium rivaling the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome, a natatorium, and two palaces for physical culture. this monumental part of the future city is completed by the residential section, planned on the type of the garden cities.1

The images of Hèbrard and Andersen's proposal, however, show a heavy Beaux-Arts inclination. This is most evident in plan, where the giant center axis dominate. The center of the City is much more biaxial. An elevation of the project's dominating central feature—the Tower of Progress—also shows some Beaux-Arts flourishes. To call the building monumental is to give it short shrift: it was an overscaled, polystyled collection of triumphal arches, columns, pilasters, and apertures culminating in a lantern that is part-Bramantian Tempietto and part-Christmas ornament (and perhaps even an anticipation of Socialist Realism).

Ernest Hèbrard, Tower of Progress, 1913-14 (Source)

This, however, was to be a temple to communication. Hèbrard and Andersen describe the Tower's program and purpose:

This Tower of Progress was conceived to be of practical utility to men of all nations: to record their requirements and to plead their causes, to protect the inventor and the worker and to look after their essential economic needs, to be the intermediary between the capitalist and the laborer, to protect their rights and to plead their case before the world, to increase the development of hygiene, to make possible more elevated social conditions, and above all, to uplift the oppressed and to harmonize all human efforts.2

As anthropologist Paul Rabinow observed, Hèbrard's and Andersen's city would "host an endless succession of world scientific congresses, provide an archive of advances in all scientific domains, and facilitate the greater good of humanity through the centralization and rapid dissemination of information."3 All relied on a very nuanced theory of communication: if the tower was supposed to be a building dedicated to communicating the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs, it followed that such communications must be "undistorted", or to put it another way, clean. Again, Hèbrard and Andersen: "It is in the power of science to purify the world, to exterminate destructive germs from every fibre and nerve, to give strength and precision to all mental and physical efforts. Science in the near future will provide for all man's essential requirements."4

The connection between politics and hygiene, especially when mediated through discourses concerning the built environment, became pronounced in France through further work by Hèbrard, Tony Garnier, and even Adolphe Augustin Rey. The trend would continue in other countries as well. For example
Barcelona’s incipient urban problems were spotlighted in the pages of A.C. issue number 25 at the height of the Spanish Civil War. Published by G.A.T.E.P.A.C. (Grupo de Artistas y Técnicos Españoles para el Progreso de la Arquitectura Contemporánea - Spain's delegation to C.I.A.M.), A.C. became the primary media organ for the discussion of urban issues in Spain as well as a base for promoting ideas about modern architecture. Issue 25 issue had an alarmist tone, and according to A.C.’s editors, the goal was to understand “the influence of the environment over the individual” as well as the “urgent transformation” of Barcelona’s “unsanitary neighborhoods.”5 A.C. demanded that “urbanism be treated from here onwards in a rational manner, like a science.”6 The issue continues with dozens of photographs by Josep Sala and Austrian-born Margaret Michaelis, as well as with C.I.A.M.-style infographics by Josep Torres Clavé. The point of these images and diagrams is indisputable: they serve to highlight the sanitation and hygiene issues in various Barcelona neighborhoods. The publication also features a polemical bent. A series of diagrams on pages 20-21 depict the history of Barcelona in a series of stages: “Maquinisme” (“Industrialization”), “Importació de la Gent del Camp” (“Influx of Rural Populations”), “Superpoblació” (“Overpopulation”), “Insalubritat” (“Unhealthiness”), and “Mortalitat” (“Death”).7

From A.C. no. 25

The importance of these last two phases is shown in a series of montages entitled “El Perill a la Resta de la Ciutat” (“The Danger in the Rest of the City”) and “Hem D’Acabar Amb L’Ambient de la Vivienda Insana” (“The Asphyxiating Environment of Unhealthy Living Must Finish”). The first montage features photographs of old parts of Barcelona. Superimposed on top of these images is a blown-up picture of a louse. The second montage shows an aerial photograph of Barcelona’s Fifth District. Two of the district’s unhealthiest areas are shown as being cut out, replaced by vivid, green spaces. The text reads, “The primary problem of the city’s ancient core is neither a problem of circulation nor of aesthetics. It is a problem of SANITATION. Neither the widening of streets nor the narrowing of sidewalks will resolve anything. In order to solve this problem, it is necessary to use the radical procedures of urban surgery: THE SITES OF INFECTION MUST BE REMOVED.”8 These clear images suggest a political connotation as well—the infection is political as well, for we are to understand the louse as an emblem for dangerous Nationalist elements infiltrating Spanish society.

In the above examples, science—whether in the guise of social ideals or as a basis for rational planning—becomes a message with which to communicate ideas about sanitation and hygiene. Whereas Hèbrard's and Andersen's World City of Communications emphasizes "clean" communications, issue 25 of A.C. demonstrates how media can be used to emphasize the correlation between ideological and physical health. And as the opening example from Z suggests, the city, whether idealized or dramatized via media channels, became the terrain for such protracted discussions.
This all resonates, quite uneasily of course, with Jean Baudrillard's characterization of media as "the unclean promiscuity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance, with no halo of private protection, not even his own body, to protect him any more."9 Or, put another way, more signal, less noise.

1 Jean Paul Alaux. American Institute of Architects Journal 2 (March 1914):159.
2 Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 249. For more information on this project, see Ernest M. Hèbrard and Hendrik Christian Andersen, Creation of a World Center for Communication (Paris, 1913); Guiliano Gresleri and Dario Matteloni, La Citta' Mondiale: Andersen, Hèbrard, Otlet, Le Corbusier (Venice, 1982), 12-45.
3 Rabinow, French Modern, p. 248.
4 Hèbrard and Andersen, quoted in Ibid.
5 “Influencia de l’ambient sobre l’individu … urgent transformació dels barris insans.” A.C. Documentos de Actividad Contemporánea 25 (June 1937), n.p. in Jordana Mendelson, ed., Magazines and War 1936-1939: Spanish Civil War Print Culture.
6 “El urbanismo debe ser tratado, de aquí en adelante, en formal racional, como una ciencia.” A.C. Documentos de Actividad Contemporánea 25 (June 1937), 3 in AC/G.A.T.E.P.A.C. 1931-1937 (Barcelona: Ediciones Gustavo Gili, 1975), 3.
7 Ibid., p. 21.
8 “El problema primordial del casc antic no és un problema de circulació ni d’estètica. Es un problema de SANEJAMENT. Ni eixamplant carrers ni corrent voravies no resoldríem res. Per a solucionar – ho caldrà emprar procediments radicals de cirurgia urbanística: S’HAN D’EXTIRPAR TOTALMENT ELS FOCUS D’INFECCIÓ” Ibid., p. 27.
9 Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication" in Hal Foster, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (New York: New Press, 1999 [1983]), p.132.

1 comment:

aml said...

good read. around 1946 in bogota, the proa journal would publish similar articles, claiming urban planning would eradicate poverty, crime and health problems. the common link here is sert, although he left barcelona around 1936-7 and was not involved with proa [who saw him as foreign competition for a task to be done by colombian architects].