Helena Syrkus is looking at you. The glossy white, painted-steel wall behind Syrkus and her company—Sigfried Giedion on the left, Le Corbusier on the right—render the setting immediately recognizable to scholars of interwar modernism: she is on the SS Patris II, the Mediterranean cruise ship chartered to serve as the mobile site for the fourth meeting of the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne in 1933 (Figure 1).1 Helena and her husband, Szymon Syrkus, were among five architects in the Polish delegation who presented their collaborative planning for Warsaw in light of the congress's Functional City theme. The Syrkuses, who both held prominent positions in CIAM and on its executive committee, CIRPAC, are likely unknown even to those who recognize the Patris II at a glance. Helena Syrkus's steady gaze, and her centrality in the photographic frame, offers a direct challenge to the peripheral position of East Central Europe in modernist architectural historiography.
In his truly interdisciplinary book Brokers of Modernity (which features the unflappable Helena on its cover), Martin Kohlrausch seeks to rectify this geographical asymmetry in architectural scholarship by placing the new, or significantly reshaped, post-1918 nation-states of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary at the heart of his narrative. Kohlrausch has a larger goal, however: to investigate modernist architecture's group formation. It is worth stressing that Kohlrausch is a political historian who has chosen early twentieth-century architectural groups like CIAM as protagonists because their establishment and rise neatly encapsulate the installation and expansion of modernist technocratic expertise as a whole. After the two world wars, architectural groups shrewdly capitalized on urgent state-building and city-rebuilding needs to expand the profession's role in politics and society at the municipal, national, and international levels. Architects became critical brokers at the interface between the state and society, Kohlrausch argues. They made themselves into experts and seized the right to negotiate on behalf of both constituencies, promising to craft a mutually beneficial modern condition for all.
Because Brokers of Modernity crosses disciplinary boundaries to engage politics, economics, architecture, and planning in a region sorely underrepresented in English-language scholarship, it requires a lot of scene setting. The book opens with an overview of East Central European history in the first half of the twentieth century and highlights why historians of modernism should be interested in this region: for the extraordinarily fertile architectural ground that repeated acts of wartime destruction wrought. Herbert Hoover noted as much when he lamented, in 1919, that “as a result of seven invasions by different armies the country [of Poland] has largely been denuded of buildings” (38).2 Tomáš Masaryk, inaugural head of newly founded Czechoslovakia, called post-1918 Europe a “laboratory built over the great graveyard of the World War” (34). The theme of destruction as a precondition for radical innovation is a through line in this book. Later, in the sixth chapter, we learn that during World War II, East Central European cities like Warsaw, L'viv, and Minsk experienced urbicide to a much greater extent than did most Western European cities; thus renewal by radical planning was rendered all but inescapable in the region. The second through fourth chapters pull back from a strict geographical focus on East Central Europe to consider, respectively, the rise of social concerns among architects in the wake of World War I; the establishment of international groups such as the League of Nations' Committee of Architectural Experts and CIAM, which sought to address these concerns; and the communication and transfer of architectural ideas across national boundaries during the interwar period, via journals, books, and congresses. These three middle chapters will be illuminating for readers outside the field of architectural history but will likely be skimmed by experts, with the exception of passages situating East Central European architects' activities against this broader story.
Brokers of Modernity breaks ground in its final two chapters, which focus on the Polish case in the 1930s and 1940s. The fifth chapter provides close analysis of the planning effort called Warszawa Funkcjonalna (Functional Warsaw), completed and published in 1934. Helena and Szymon Syrkus, two of the plan's main authors, were active participants in the Functional City–themed CIAM IV the year before, when two clear categories of modernist urban practice—analysis and synthesis—emerged. The analytical group advocated close reading of existing urban conditions before projective work was undertaken. The synthetic group, to which the Polish delegates belonged, advocated visionary planning aimed explicitly at the future. Warszawa Funkcjonalna was thus a synthetic plan that presented future Warsaw as an urban, national, and continental center—the European crossroads of transportation, communication, and cultural infrastructures. Kohlrausch paints this plan as “an attempt to overcome the process of catching up with Western examples and reversing the situation with a radical vision not conceivable in the already ‘crystallized’ cities of the West” (233). While Western European CIAM colleagues like Walter Gropius and Cornelis van Eesteren criticized Warszawa Funkcjonalna as overly visionary, pie-in-the sky planning, the fact was that in postimperial Poland, and especially in the new capital of Warsaw, big plans were necessary to establish political legitimacy. In the East Central European states, politics and pressing material need combined to give innovative planning strategies the greatest potential for success.
The book's final chapter follows the struggles and ultimate fates of Polish, Czechoslovak, and Hungarian architects through World War II and stands out as an example of extraordinary historical scholarship. Kohlrausch combed through institutional and private archives to unearth personal correspondence between architects who remain at arm's length for the first five chapters. Groups make for difficult protagonists, and the desire among members of this particular group to be viewed as cool-headed technocrats only exacerbates the empathetic distance.3 The emergence of conservative political extremism in the mid-1930s, however, shifts the narrative to the personal realm. By 1937, Szymon Syrkus's Jewish background precipitated his loss of all professional positions; by 1942, he was sent to Auschwitz. The imperturbable Helena Syrkus—who, stunningly, continued to design innovative social housing throughout this period—moves to the center of the story. Her letters and telegrams to CIAM colleagues worldwide (Gropius, Hannes Meyer, Hans Schmidt, and others), asking for assistance, first to leave Poland and then to find Szymon, form a paper trail of desperation that also reveals true friendship on both sides. Kohlrausch finds that CIAM was not merely a professional group for regular participants—it constituted a close social network that proved invaluable to many members during the war. Despite significant efforts to get the Syrkuses out of Poland and into teaching positions in Britain, Sweden, the United States, or Mexico, their CIAM colleagues were unable to overcome the obstacle of meager immigration quotas for Eastern Europeans. Szymon did survive the war, thanks to his expertise: he served as a draftsman in the central building division of the Waffen-SS at Auschwitz. The chapter ends with a discussion of postwar rebuilding efforts in the region and the exciting period from 1945 to 1948, when it seemed that the visionary modernist plans for Warsaw might come to fruition in the devastated city. Kohlrausch's book concludes in 1948, when the East Central European states became fully integrated into the Soviet sphere and the cultural tide turned toward socialist realism. The Syrkuses, who by then had ample practice surfing the ideological waves, survived that shift, too.4
Brokers of Modernity first came to my attention as an open-access title. Socialist architecture social media groups promoted the book as soon as it was released, and interested readers were able to download the text from embedded links and engage the material immediately. Unfortunately, the images in the printed book render as gray boxes in the digital version, which makes the open-access version a poor cousin to its print counterpart. If we are to advocate for our scholarship to be released via open access as a means to reach audiences with limited access to print books—and we should—we must take the quality, and the commensurability, of open-access publications seriously. How do we do that? For starters, we can push for rights grantors to allow for open digital use of images, and brainstorm concrete ways to acknowledge and salute those grantors who support this system. Open access is the future of scholarship, as coronavirus closure of libraries and archives has made all too clear. As architectural historians committed to the intellectual performance of visual analysis, we have the responsibility to ensure our field's success as that future comes to pass.
On CIAM IV, see Eric Paul Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928–1960 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 73–91. The use of the Patris II for CIAM IV was hastily organized after plans to hold the congress in Moscow were scrapped.
The new states of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary were beset by extreme economic and political turbulence in their first years of existence, yet they had to provide responses to material shortages in housing and basic infrastructure—or fail as states.
Mumford runs into this same issue in his book on CIAM—namely, that such a large, heterogeneous, dispersed, and long-lived group makes for distant protagonists and limited empathetic connection between reader and historical actors. See Mumford, CIAM Discourse on Urbanism.
In her recent doctoral dissertation, Marcela Hanáčková focuses on Helena Syrkus and examines this ideological shift through Syrkus's famous speech at CIAM VII in Bergamo, Italy, in 1949. Marcela Hanáčková, “CIAM and the Cold War: Helena Syrkus between Modernism and Socialist Realism” (PhD diss, GTA/ETH Zurich, 2019).