“Forgotten Architects,” and some thoughts on the creative class

by Yule Heibel on April 1, 2008

Here’s a great blog post by BLDGBLOG‘s Geoff Manaugh, Forgotten Architects, where he details Myra Wahrhaftig‘s research project on German Jewish architects who were suppressed and banned from practicing in Nazi Germany. Some of Wahrhaftig’s work is now published by the Pentragram Papers (and here); there is also a German-language lexicon with 500 biographies, Deutsche juedische Architekten vor und nach 1933 — Das Lexikon.

In his commentary (and do surf over to BLDGBLOG to see the fabulous illustrations), Geoff Manaugh nails it when he writes “…frankly, it seems impossible not to look at these images and judge 20th century Germany in light of the catastrophic stupidities that led to its murderous exile of the creative classes, whether those were physicists, novelists, abstract expressionists, or even architect members of the Bauhaus.”

Invoking the phrase “creative classes” conjures Richard Florida, who we might think “discovered” the creative class as a slightly more recent phenomenon. But clearly there’s much to learn about the “creative classes” and their role in society by studying the consequences of Nazi Germany’s actions, too.  In effect, it modeled for the world what it really means to squeeze the creative class from a country’s economy and culture. “Purity” (in Nazism’s case, “Arian” purity) is the opposite of all those vital “Ts” that Florida advocates for (talent, technology, tolerance). To aim for a “purely German” architecture or science or math is as absurd as to label any architecture, science, or math “Semitic,” yet that’s what the Nazis tried to do. Stalinists of course also believed, like Nazis, that there could be Soviet technology or art. Absurdly, they all thought they were being creative in some “new,” virile way.

These histories teach the need for a more complex approach: we can’t get out of having to evaluate, case by case, whether something contributes or is creative …and it involves choices and judgments as to what individuals and societies believe is worth contributing to. As someone who intensely dislikes Nazi-style “purity” (or ideologically prescribed “correctness” of any kind), I (like so many others) have sometimes not been disinclined to court the opposite view: namely, that anything fun and freaky must be (should be?) good or creative. But sometimes fun is just …well, fun. And sometimes freaky really is a freakish temporary blip that doesn’t deserve sustained attention. (Tell that to the attention economy, though…) In other words, the opposite of Nazism (to use an umbrella term) isn’t “anything goes,” but understanding — of creativity, of what works, of tolerance, talent, and technology.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Werner Bahlke April 1, 2008 at 3:22 pm

This reminds me of the story when the great German mathematician David Hilbert was asked by a Nazi official: “So Herr Professor, are you happy that mathematics at the University of Goettingen is now German?”. And Hilbert replied: “There is no mathematics in Goettingen any longer”.

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