Modernism is still not a closed chapter of architecture's historiography, and Mark Crinson's latest book proves it. In Rebuilding Babel, Crinson addresses modernism from an angle little explored until now: its internationalism. Aiming to deliver a new historiographical perspective, he does so by resorting to the powerful metaphor of the Tower of Babel, which he employs not only for its evocative nature but also for its capacity to open up a more complex discussion. Such a nuanced approach is much needed, given the multiple threads that the book attempts to unravel as it constantly drifts between modernism and internationalism, superimposing and confronting the two phenomena. If this confrontation is sometimes confusing for the reader, for Crinson it reflects the very essence of the twentieth century: as in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, what is important is the idea of a common endeavor, the aspiration of a united humankind striving to build a shared ideal.
How to define this shared ideal? Crinson proposes, in his introduction, two metaphors that encapsulate its meaning and its illusory achievement. The first metaphor references unrootedness—through Adelbert von Chamisso's novella Peter Schlemihl (1814), the story of a man who loses his shadow—as the free transgression of “the borders of disciplines and nations” (2). The second unveils internationalism as a mismatch: the architectural fragments juxtaposed in the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez's sculpture U.N. (1995) compose a shimmering edifice that is nonetheless deprived of meaning.
From this twofold perspective, internationalism appears as a multifaceted notion, prone to ambiguities. Willing to clarify all possible misunderstandings but also aiming to assess the evolution of this notion since the end of the nineteenth century, Crinson offers his readers welcome distinctions in terminology. He parallels internationalism with other apparently similar terms, such as globalization, globalism, universalism, cosmopolitanism, transnationalism, and the French expression mondialisation. His discussion of these terms suggests the intricate ideological nuances behind different architectural materializations of internationalism. At the same time, it reveals the centrality of nationalism in defining a common endeavor. According to Crinson, exploring the “particular bond” between modernism and internationalism allows a new understanding of “how architecture has been employed as a means of losing or going beyond the shadow of national belonging” (2). If internationalism has not yet received the attention it deserves, this is precisely because of the damaging effects of nationalism. The latter has indelibly marked the very discipline of architectural history, itself closely related to the emergence of the nation-state. Hence, Crinson's attempt to probe internationalism as an important element for analyzing modernist architecture––unjustifiably ignored in its historiography1––is meant at the same time to challenge what he sees as an explosion of literature focused on national identity.
The book investigates the links between modernism and internationalism through six chapters covering disparate aspects of a long history of entanglements, from the end of the nineteenth century up to the 1950s. Chapter 1, “The Architectonic of Community,” looks at the birth and evolution of internationalist ideas from the complementary perspectives of the analytical thinking of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels and their architectural equivalences. Crinson judiciously outlines parallels between the edifices associated with the three Internationals (St. Martin's Hall in London, Victor Horta's Maison du Peuple in Brussels, and Tatlin's Monument, planned for Petrograd but not built) and the architectonics of knowledge, explicitly, but differently, invoked by Kant and Hegel. He completes this reading with four further examples of internationalist positions: the Rue des Nations installation at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Elisée Reclus's project for a “Great Globe” at this same event, the utopian World Center imagined by Hendrik Christian Andersen with the help of Ernest Hébrard (1913), and the suggestive title page of W. R. Lethaby's Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1892).
In chapter 2, “World Knowing: Otlet, Geddes, Neurath,” Crinson extends the notion of ordering the world through knowledge by exploring the role of architectural principles in shaping the thinking of three figures working outside the discipline: Paul Otlet, who expressed his idea of “documentation” through his Universal Bibliographic Repertory; Patrick Geddes, whose Outlook Tower in Edinburgh materialized his concept of “survey” and the entanglement of geographical scales (place/region/nation/world); and Otto Neurath, whose “isotype” advocated for “eye-consciousness” as a universal, pre-Babelian faculty (that was expected to be shared by architecture). Each of these polymaths engaged the field of architecture in ways that fueled the discipline's aspiration for internationalism: Otlet by collaborating with Le Corbusier for his Mundaneum, Geddes by dreaming to recycle several pavilions from the Rue des Nations for his “Index Museum,” and Neurath by lecturing for the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne and participating in housing projects.
Crinson then inverts the perspective in chapter 3, “Well-Ventilated Utopias: Le Corbusier, CIAM and European Modernism in the 1920s,” by considering the positions architects assumed toward internationalism through a series of significant examples of 1920s modernism. He examines iconic models of harmony and cosmic order, like Bruno Taut's Stadtkrone and Le Corbusier's Mundaneum, but he also delves into the dynamics of internationalism as expressed in CIAM meetings. Whereas in Europe modern architecture appears as a binding agent from an ideological point of view, its internationalizing aspirations suffer significant displacement in the American context. Analyzing the emergence of the long-lasting label of “International Style,” as staged in 1932 by architectural theoreticians at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in chapter 4 Crinson examines how European modernism was detached from its sociopolitical commitment to become formalized in a “Wölfflinian or even Berensonian sense” (145). In this chapter, titled “Echo Chamber: The International Style and Its Deviations,” he delivers a historiographical analysis of this “unrootening” process that set modernism free in the “global space of the ‘international’ ” (145) by comparing it with contemporaneous narratives of art history, such as Louis Courajod's Gothique international. Following the 1932 exhibition, several further manifestations opened at MoMA, like the 1937 Modern Architecture in England, that not only consolidated the aestheticized argument of internationalism but also introduced the idea of regional variations.
Indeed, regionalism was to be seen as a significant expression of modernism, one promised a durable fortune given emergent critiques of modernism's uniformity. In chapter 5, “Outwards: Lewis Mumford, Regionalism and Internationalism,” Crinson considers regionalism through the singular prism of Lewis Mumford. The implicit reason for this choice is Mumford's commitment to internationalism, conjoined with his strong belief that modernism had achieved the maturity of a “universal style” by permitting “regional adaptations and modifications” (172). This precise positioning explains Mumford's criticism of the limitations of modernism's internationalization, as expressed in his comments on the buildings that house the two major headquarters of institutionalized internationalism: the United Nations in New York and UNESCO in Paris. Mumford's criticism of the “vagueness” of these buildings’ symbolism allows Crinson to trace an undeniable evolution in the understanding of internationalism after World War II by shifting to the contributions from the peripheries that emerged with the rise of postcolonial nations, exemplified here by the Indian case. The final chapter, “Another World: Post-war CIAM, India and the Marg Circle,” looks at “post-colonial re-imagining” (201) by examining the intellectual landscape in India during the 1940s and 1950s, as reflected in the influential art and architectural journal Marg, and by shedding light on a series of architectural examples. Materializing the ideals of several famous internationalist projects (Le Corbusier's Mundaneum returns), Crinson focuses here on Chandigarh as a key example.
If Rebuilding Babel is a historiographical enterprise, it also encapsulates a militant call to arms: “I cannot exempt myself from identifying with some of the characters and projects that populate this book, and with all of them I share a sense that internationalism needs its time again,” Crinson writes (15). As a pendant to this, the book ends with a critique of today's loss of commitment to internationalism, as exemplified by the post-Babelian ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower, designed by Anish Kapoor with Cecil Balmond for the 2012 Olympics in London. However, the book's most important criticism is addressed to what Crinson describes as “methodological nationalism” (12). He asserts that issues pertaining to national identity and the nation-state are “much researched and theorised” today, “library bookshelves groan[ing] with the stuff” (13). The statement is true to a certain extent, but to put the blame on this literature is to forget that this orientation emerged as a reaction against the dominant modernist discourse. Here Crinson conflates histories analyzing national identity with the threatening rise of nationalisms and populisms today, and in doing so, he denies the contributions this literature made in offering more nuanced narratives and enlarging the geographical horizons of architectural historiography. Given the fact that Crinson strongly advocates for such multiplicity, this critique is rather perplexing. It is worth noting, in this regard, this volume's heavy emphasis on English-language sources.
Nonetheless, Rebuilding Babel is, in many ways, an intelligently crafted book. It not only brings a fresh interpretation of modernist history while introducing thrilling details that have been forgotten or ignored, but it does so with a refined sense of intellectual composition. The subjects of the six chapters may seem disparate, but they build on one another, with strong threads interwoven throughout. Thus, the architectonics of the book remind one of the central metaphor of the Tower of Babel. If internationalist ideas produced diverse architectural responses, architecture, for its part, produced diverse internationalisms. Rebuilding Babel offers its readers the opportunity to reflect on several of these strands.