World's Leading Architecture Historian on How Colonialism Shapes Our Cities

'If I had to, I would define myself as a Paris-based wandering Jew,' says historian and architect Jean-Louis Cohen in a visit to Tel Aviv

Dan Handel
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Jean-Louis Cohen, right, and Le Corbusier's Unité d'habitation in Marseille, France.
Jean-Louis Cohen, right, and Le Corbusier's Unité d'habitation in Marseille, France. Credit: AP and Dor Kedmi

He has been described as the world’s leading scholar of modern architecture, published over 30 books and taught generations of architectural research students worldwide.

Architect and historian Jean-Louis Cohen, born in Paris 70 years ago this month, is an international authority on and sophisticated investigator of the built and written history of the world in the past 100-plus years. He curated innumerable exhibitions, advised major cultural institutions and universities, and led battles for preservation. 

'What is really interesting here is the milieu that generated the architecture based of course on the colonial takeover of Palestinian land'

One thing that makes his work exceptional is the fact that he is not satisfied with one geographical context, but rather prefers to focus on the relationships between various places and to expose the passageways of knowledge that in turn influence the built-up environment.

For example, the European interpretation of American skyscrapers, French colonial architecture’s encounter with Casablanca, or the attempts by Le Corbusier (about whom he wrote several books) to build in the Soviet Union. There is something refreshing in this approach, which refuses to put the identity of the researcher first and insists on an ability to describe complex relationships among places, ideas and people.

When I met Cohen in Tel Aviv last week I found a very informal conversationationalist, speaking in a low voice with a French accent and an American vocabulary, and choosing his words meticulously. He rejects the description of himself as “a historian of architecture,” claiming that it is too limited, preferring to call himself “a historian who works on, sometimes within, architecture.” The conversation with him soon spreads to a range of places, people and ideas – entire worlds that reflect his professional path and his current areas of interest.

Fragment 015 / Bruno House, 3 Strauss st. / Architect: Z. Haller, 1935 / Preservation Architect: Bar Orian Arch., 2004
Fragment 015 / Bruno House, 3 Strauss st. / Architect: Z. Haller, 1935 / Preservation Architect: Bar Orian Arch., 2004 Credit: Yigal Gawze, 2004

When I pose the most important question concerning Cohen – what does a historian of architecture do and how does it affect the world – it is evident that this is of supreme importance to him. The heart of his life’s work, in fact, is very simple: to bring about a situation in which people will be able to talk and think about architecture just as they talk about cinema or art.

“I would first say that buildings are difficult cultural products to interpret. Trying to understand where they come from, and define what is their historical meaning is not a given. What I am trying to do in my books and exhibitions is a kind of storytelling, which helps people understand what buildings stand for, what this means historically and what is their current meaning, and in a way to help citizens to be active and conscious.

"To reconcile society and architecture, whereas their relationship is usually based on mutual misunderstanding: architects thinking that the citizens are kids who need to be treated as such, and at the same time citizens thinking that architects are not interested in them, are not paying attention and do their own things without any concern for the people who will be living in their ‘hollow sculptures.’

“What is really missing in the field of architecture is a horizon of understanding comparable to the one the audience has in the fields of theater, cinema or art. You know what exhibition you will see, or you will go see a movie because you read a point of view [about it] that you appreciate or at least understand. You might be critical toward that particular point of view, but you will go see it nonetheless.

“One needs the construction of a systematic discourse of architecture, and this has been done sometimes before: I am thinking of major critics that shaped the public opinion about architecture, and they were very often grounded in history. I would start with Lewis Mumford writing in The New Yorker in the 1950s, Bruno Zevi writing in L’Espresso, or some years ago Luis Fernández-Galiano writing for El Pais. The function of the historian is to get out his or her narrow territory and try to build an understandable narrative about buildings that are around us and that shape us.”

Casablanca. French colonial architecture encounters.
Casablanca. French colonial architecture encounters.Credit: Dr. Didier Hinz / (info@dhinz.d

Much of your work seems to stem from multiple perspectives: between Europe and the United States, the Soviet Union and France, between colonies and colonizing countries. Was that a conscious choice for you or one that followed circumstance?

“Is it autobiographical? I don’t know. If I had to, I would define myself as a Paris-based wandering Jew, so I am always returning to the in-between. I am now working on a project meant to write the history of cities using the paradigm of intertextuality, which was developed in the literary fields to analyze what is happening between texts. How each text or literary work contains fragments of other texts – quotations, condensed fragments, allusions, parodies, paraphrases, traces and the like. I think this applies quite well to cities. Cities contain pieces of other cities.

“In Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” Marco Polo finds Venice in every city he sees. There is a constant migration not only of terms but of physical fragments. If you look, for instance, at a city like Buenos Aires, you find many buildings which are an interpretation of Paris through the filter of New York which ended in Buenos Aires.

'Similar phenomena can be found in fully colonial contexts, such as Algeria and more significantly in Morocco, in which you had many Jewish developers'

“So I am interested in the migration of forms on various levels, which reflects on a very important aspect of architecture and urban design: the ideal aspiration of a city planners and designers to shape forms on the basis of what is around them. That’s why I was interested in the hegemony of America in European and Latin American culture. [In the early 20th century many non-American architects were influenced by images of the new factories and advanced construction methods used in the United States.]

“I am now working on a revisionist project on Russian Americanism: the idea that the Russians, even before the 1917 revolution, aspired to build a new new world, a new America which would be a better one, and how this happened in stages, in the early industrial revolution of Russia, in the 1920s with the discourse of the avant-garde, in the Stalinist period and after Stalin.

“They were looking to build Detroit in Nizhny Novgorod to produce automobiles; they were looking at Chicago, which was the term of comparison for Novosibirsk, called in the 1920s ‘Sibchik’ – for ‘Siberian Chicago.’ In the 1970s, they even considered Los Angeles as a potential model. They invited the inventor of the shopping mall Victor Gruen to Moscow and he said, according to his memoirs, ‘Don’t do it!’ No doubt they were shocked to hear that.”

You wrote a great deal about colonial contexts and how knowledge migrates in both directions and shapes architecture. I was wondering how you would position Mandatory Palestine, and then Israel, on that matrix.

“It is clear that in Jewish Palestine modern architecture became an official language. This is not the only case at the time: There are other countries in which it happened, probably the most obvious of the same period being Czechoslovakia, for a comparable reason, being an emerging national construction, and because they wanted to free themselves of the hegemony of Vienna and look at Berlin.

A panoramic view of Tel Aviv. 'I think that parts of the landscape of Tel Aviv are gone.'
A panoramic view of Tel Aviv. 'I think that parts of the landscape of Tel Aviv are gone.'Credit: Eyal Toueg

“But one unique aspect of Palestine here was the creation of a completely new professional milieu out of nowhere. In this context you didn’t have the usual frameworks, which are constraining: the economy, developers, but also schools and institutions. People were let loose, and were no longer under the glance of their masters, in the Bauhaus (for the few who attended [the school]), in Vienna or in Brno. What is really interesting here is the milieu that generated the architecture, as it was a very original one, based of course on the colonial takeover of Palestinian land.

“Similar phenomena can be found in fully colonial contexts, such as Algeria and more significantly in Morocco, in which you had many Jewish developers who wanted to assert themselves and show that they belonged to the modern world, and had architects who were free from the hegemony of the profession in Europe, and were ambitious, and ready for adventure. I also think that fashion played an important role here in the same manner as in the early Soviet Union or, again, Czechoslovakia.”

Pragmatics vs. discourse

There’s a certain disconnect between those involved in the actual preservation, who tend to adopt a pragmatic approach, and those who research and write history and often confine themselves to an intellectual discourse aimed at people in-the-know. Cohen has been very effective at forging ties between those worlds. It was interesting to discover how he understands his role in public discourse beyond the bounds of the academic world.

'You cannot take a city like Tel Aviv and preserve it as if it were some sort of a medieval castle or a Greek temple'

“I believe that modern architecture is very significant in the construction of ourselves and our cultural identities, which is why I am also very active on the heritage scene. I am of course supporting resistance against mutilating or aggressive projects – thinking, for instance, of the cable car project in Jerusalem, which is for me one of the most horrible projects currently in the making worldwide. It crystallizes so much ignorance and contempt and aggression. It is horrible because of its impact and the transformation of the landscape through the introduction of an artificial element, but also because what it represents, which is an ignorance toward the real city and its complexity, its multiethnicity, multireligiosity, multiculturalism. You are just flying over a city that you put at a distance.

“I am active for instance in trying to protect some 1920s’ garden cities and buildings in Paris; in Moscow I am active in heading the committee for the conservation of the house of Konstantin Melnikov, a unique vestige of the avant-garde. I was active also in a sort of diplomatic capacity trying to get everyone around the table on the site of Le Corbusier cabin on the French Riviera, a very interesting site, because before Le Corbusier built it in the 1950s, it was the site of [Irish architect and designer] Eileen Gray’s E-1027 house. So I think my role is not only to convey points of view in written form, but also to participate in the transmission of the most refined and consistent objects, which I consider a very worthwhile commitment.

“This is not simple: We live in a world of simulacra, and I still think that buildings have a meaning. I still think you have to keep in touch with buildings and sites and be able to give to the greater audience the ability to realize that buildings are not three-dimensional images, but are complex objects that have a scale, which capture light in a particular way, which smell like something, which change during the day and during the seasons, which can be appropriated in many ways.

 Le Corbusier's Unité d'habitation in Marseille, France (1945)
Le Corbusier's Unité d'habitation in Marseille, France (1945)Credit: AP

“That’s why I am also happy to be returning to Tel Aviv after 15 years, to see how things have improved to a large degree since the success of the UNESCO application [the city’s designation as a World Heritage Site]. Of course, there are some cases in which the possibility given to developers to build over these older structures has led to what I would call a sort of deadly embrace, but in the end you cannot take a city like Tel Aviv and preserve it as if it were some sort of a medieval castle or a Greek temple. At the same time, I think that parts of the landscape of Tel Aviv are gone. I am now working on a preservation plan for Casablanca, which was largely built during the same period. There’s a lot that can be learned from Tel Aviv and transferred back, acknowledging development while keeping the essentials of the urban landscape.”

Cohen is heading the committee in Moscow for the conservation of the house of Konstantin Melnikov, a unique vestige of the avant-garde.
Cohen is heading the committee in Moscow for the conservation of the house of Konstantin Melnikov, a unique vestige of the avant-garde.Credit: Alex Florstein

An unusual way of working

In 2011 I visited “Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War,” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. The show, focusing on works by architects from 1937-45, was itself a kind of bombardment of encyclopedic knowledge, not always easy to digest but with exhibits and revelations whose impressions remained for a long time afterward. This exhibition also provided a glimpse into the mind of Cohen, who was the person behind it.

The sense of discovery was also palpable in Cohen’s lecture at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last month, at the closing event of the “In Statu Quo” exhibition, in cooperation with the Architecture Department of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Cohen, the Sheldon H. Solow professor in the history of architecture at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, challenged conceptions about the influence of the Bauhaus School and of northern Europe in general on architecture in the Mediterranean area – influence that many imagine that they see in Tel Aviv, but may not really exist.

Cohen devoted an hour and a half to a survey of different cultural and political contexts, drawing a knowledge map based on the ideas and works of various architects. The slight obfuscation resulting from the bombardment of information was evident there too, as were the many insights and ideas to think about later.

He began his professional career in Paris in the years following the 1968 student revolt there, and perhaps in keeping with the spirit of those times, he has developed an unusual way of working, combining writing, exhibitions and public discussions far from the ivory tower.

Architectural historian Alona Nitzan-Shiftan of Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology says Cohen’s importance lies in his being an accurate and reliable historian, a pioneer in exposing the connections between cultures and languages. In “Architecture in Uniform” (also the title of a book he wrote), Cohen made, Nitzan-Shiftan says, “a significant statement about the involvement of architecture in a history of power and violence.”

Some criticize what they see as a tendency to write history without heroes, or to focus on European culture, but nearly everyone admires the precision of Cohen’s work, as well as its phenomenal pace.

 ‘Hollow sculptures’

Cohen came to architecture after studying science. The early 1970s was a period of radical criticism of architecture and its self-evident connections to capital. One of the focal points of this criticism emerged in Italy of the so-called Years of Lead – a period of roughly 20 years, beginning in the late 1960s, that started with a massive workers’ strike and continued with chaos at the universities and extreme political violence on both the right and the left.

Manfredo Tafuri, a historian of architecture who was active during those years in Venice, became the representative of this criticism. His ideas, particularly the claim that developments in architecture are always defined by crisis, shaped an entire generation in Italy and even influenced the growth of architectural theory in the United States. Cohen, who had begun to engage in historical research, found himself shortly after his studies in the intellectual circle of Venice, which changed the course of his career.

“At the end of my studies I started drifting toward history, beginning with the German modernists, but I knew Russian, so very quickly I went to Russia to interview survivors from the avant-garde – Konstantin Melnikov and others – and that’s how the Italians discovered me, as much as I have discovered them,” he explains.

“I was reading Manfredo Tafuri’s discussions of the avant-garde, while Tafuri and his colleagues read some little things that I had written, and we became good friends. I started going frequently to Venice, and discovered a more intellectual take on the history of architecture. Tafuri was an acute reader of structuralist theory, and was trying to connect architecture and semiotics in a rather original and thorough way.”

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