Architecture in Uniform

From “On the Natural History of Destruction”

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War is part of our continuing effort, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, to critically investigate both the premises of contemporary culture and society and the assumptions underlying the design fields and how they relate to the natural and built environment. The study of these themes via exhibitions and books has expanded our field of vision, as we work within the neglected “gray zones” of the discipline. Architecture in Uniform draws on the curatorial expertise of Jean-Louis Cohen to explore the consequences of the Second World War on the built environment and to reveal architects’ responsibility for the destruction and annihilation as well as for the rebuilding that followed.

Harry S. Truman’s inaugural address, in 1949, prefaced one of the 20th century’s major transformations: the world’s shift from a system of production to a system of global consumption. After half a century of world wars, Truman foresaw that the global middle class was ready to be “liberated” through the production — and implicit consumption — of “more food, more clothing, more materials for housing and more mechanical power.” 1 His campaign for scientific and technical progress captivated the public’s attention and pocketbooks while shifting aesthetic sensibilities as citizens readied themselves for the “good life.” Modern architecture followed the manufacturing industry in switching from producing and distributing the means of warfare to offering peace-time commodities to consumers.

But architects’ prominent role in the postwar reconstruction owes much to their involvement in military efforts during the war, for which they bear great responsibility. As Cohen shows in the exhibition, architects, with their technical knowledge and competence, “proved to be as strategically indispensable as did the scientists and engineers.” The clashing visions of the Axis and the Allies redefined the field of architecture; its “primary methods were now to be employed to new ends.” The Axis quest for subordination and occupation was translated into urban renovations and projects that “traced out the outlines of a future based on oppression and sometimes extermination,” while the “reconstruction” efforts of the Allies were “part of a process of modernization intended to be both technological and social.” 2

Architects and designers, like most citizens, “did not escape mobilization and conscription to the fighting forces or to the direct support of the war.” In Cohen’s view, “even in uniform, they did not interrupt their own thinking processes.” The militarized organization of society forced the design fields to address the emergence of new “forms of conflict,” including new territories, new construction methods and new materials — all yet to be designed. 3

The development of new technologies required architects and designers to design not only buildings and objects, but also the manufacturing processes and construction methods that would bring them to life. As Cohen illustrates, laminated wood, plywood, aluminium, plastics, reinforced concrete, Plexiglas, vinyl, new types of rubber, and the many other innovations of this period can be considered the “best residuum of wars.” 4

Camouflage design is one of several new fields that emerged from the world wars which Cohen examines in Architecture in Uniform. In this excerpt from the exhibition text, and in the accompanying slideshow, Cohen highlights architects’ role in advancing the art and science of camouflage.

— Mirko Zardini

Left: Camouflage artists at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, from Robert P. Breckenridge, Modern Camouflage: The New Science of Protective Concealment, 1942. [Courtesy of Jean-Louis Cohen] Right: Data on Bombardment, from Konrad F. Wittmann, Industrial Camouflage Manual, 1942. [Courtesy of the CCA]

From “Camouflage, Or the Temptation of the Invisible”

During the First World War, the creation of camouflage was largely the work of artists. They were responsible for the vivid colors of the “dazzle painting” applied to ships of the Royal Navy, first conceived by the painter Norman Wilkinson. 5 But artists were primarily employed in the concealment of land forces. The link between camouflage and modern art could not have been stated more clearly than in Picasso’s memorable reaction to seeing a camouflaged vehicle on the Boulevard Raspail with Gertrude Stein: “Yes, it is we who made it, that is Cubism.” … 6

During the Second World War, architects almost completely supplanted painters in the field of camouflage. Studies into the technique had continued uninterrupted since 1918, and camouflage departments now occupied an important place in all the armed forces. … In Great Britain, the Air Ministry set up a Directorate of Camouflage, under the direction of Captain L. M. Glasson, in 1938. Its principal task was to prepare camouflage for the most exposed industrial targets. Quartered in 1939 at Leamington Spa under the auspices of the Ministry of Home Security, the team consisted primarily of artists and sculptors. Physicists were added to strengthen the scientific component of the projects; 7 advanced experiments were conducted in an ingenious “vision chamber,” making it possible to study the various proposals under different lighting conditions, as well as in a “moonlight vision chamber” for nocturnal views.

There were individual initiatives, as well. In London, the architect Ernö Goldfinger added a private “industrial camouflage unit” to his office at 7 Bedford Square. He became the technical advisor to a team of four Surrealist painters — Bill Hayter, Roland Penrose, Julian Trevelyan and John Buckland Wright — and used a heliometer to study the effect of natural lighting on buildings. Given the lack of commissions — the main one was the Imperial Tobacco cigarette factory in Bristol — the principal results of this cooperation were, on a practical level, the charming Home Guard Manual of Camouflage, illustrated by Penrose, who had become an instructor at the War Office School for Instructors to the Home Guard, 8 and at a more theoretical level, the analyses of Trevelyan on “The Technique of Camouflage,” which would be published by The Architectural Review in a special issue in 1944.

For Trevelyan, who served in the Camouflage and Training Centre of the Royal Engineers at Farnham Castle, camouflage was “visual warfare” practiced “at once as an art, a craft and a science.” He pointed out that the perception of camouflage depends on one’s point of view: “To the soldier, it is the ubiquitous set with a few pieces of scrim tied to the corner which he is supposed to throw over his truck when parking; to the architect it is the lozenges of green and brown paint that obliterate the features and symmetry of his buildings. To the ordinary citizen it is something between a sort of magic cloak of invisibility and a bad joke in Punch.” Although it has to be perfect to fool photographers, camouflage can be more approximate if the sole aim is to confuse pilots. “In the last instance, the whole subject is bound up with that faculty for visual awareness that it is now recognized our society has lost to such a dangerous degree.” In every case, Trevelyan insists on “the most neglected principle of camouflage: siting to conform to the pattern of the country,” and hence on the importance of reading landscapes. … 9

Architects were called upon because they had the ability to read the built landscape, as well as the geometric skills — perspective and shading — and graphic and pictorial techniques required. As early as 1919, Homer Saint-Gaudens, head of the American Camouflage Corps, claimed that “our best officers were architects. They not only understood the principles of form and colour, but they had been faced with clients who would have the linen closet, the stairs, and the chimney all in the same place.” … 10

The demand for camouflage even reached teaching institutions, from the most conservative to the most innovative. As opportunistic as ever, the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris devoted the Prix Labarre of 1939 to the theme “A camouflaged city” and gave its seal of approval to the fogged watercolours of its students Roland Sonrier, Alexandre Colladant, Michel Oberdoerffer, Félix Le Saint and Pierre-Georges Lozouet. 11 The British Percy Johnson-Marshall taught camouflage in India and Burma as part of an engineering program. 12 Louis I. Kahn, at the time a young professional in Philadelphia, attended courses in camouflage at the University of Pennsylvania and became particularly interested in decision theory, which seems to have influenced his postwar vision of urbanism. 13 Jean Labatut, a French architect who had been teaching at Princeton since 1928, conducted a course in camouflage in 1942-1943 that included experiments in painting the students’ faces, as well as retrospective reflections on the transformations that had occurred since 1914. 14 The epidemic raged on, and in 1942 The Architectural Forum announced that both Yale University and New York University (under the directorship of William A. Rose) were starting courses in camouflage for architects, engineers, industrial designers and factory managers. … 15

In addition to these training programs, the armies also recruited architects directly. Some were given honorific positions; others were entrusted with delicate missions. … The use of camouflage in large cities remains to this day one of the most extraordinary chapters in the implementation of this strategy, for it dealt with the perception of a landscape of infrastructure, blocks, monuments and streets that was more complex than any countryside or desert. Camouflage started at the most basic level, at the very sources of information, with the organization of ignorance. It started with pure and simple censorship of city plans and aerial photographs. For example, two overhead views of the port of Marseille were censored in the last issue of L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui in 1940 and replaced with white spaces. 16 Another technique, the systematic alteration of city plans, was widely practiced in the USSR, where every plan was a trick. On the ground, urban camouflage aimed at producing large-scale illusion. It was not simply a matter of ambiguity in the perception of a factory, some hangars or a landing field. Its goal was rather to erase or displace an extremely recognisable sight, as the French had thought to do twenty years previously with their “faux Paris.” …

In a number of German cities, from Berlin to Munich, similar measures were taken to disguise the most characteristic urban elements: the streets, squares and monuments. The most discussed visual manipulation of the urban landscape during the war took place in Hamburg, where a large-scale operation was undertaken during the winter of 1941 to visually “displace” a very distinctive part of the city. The primary aim of the operation was to protect the main railway line from bombing. To this end, a part of the Aussenalster, a lake extending to the northeast, was covered with almost ten acres of false islands built on floats in order to simulate the nearby lake Binnenalster. The Lombardsbrücke and the railway bridge were also replicated 600 metres further away in order to disguise their true location. The main railway station itself was disguised by painting large motifs simulating streets on its glass roof. … None of these ingenious measures bothered the British airmen, who successfully destroyed the city centre during Operation Gomorrah in July and August 1943. 17

— Jean-Louis Cohen

Editors' Note

Architecture in Uniform was on exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture from April 13 through September 18, 2011.

The texts presented here by Mirko Zardini and Jean-Louis Cohen are adapted from Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War, published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Hazan Editions, Paris, 2011. We are grateful to CCA senior web editor Lev Bratishenko for assistance in preparing this feature for publication.

  1. Harry S. Truman, inaugural address, 20 January 1949, in My Fellow Americans: Presidential Inaugural Addresses, from George Washington to Barack Obama (Florida: Red and Black, 2009), 296.
  2. See “The Interplay of Institutions” and “Troubled Futures,” Architecture in Uniform.
  3. See “Professions and States” and “Figures and Forms,” Architecture in Uniform.
  4. Richard Neutra’s expression as quoted by Jean-Louis Cohen in “Recycling, Recalling, Forgetting,” Architecture in Uniform.
  5. Albert Roskam, “Dazzle Painting: arte come camuffamento, camuffamento come arte,” Casabella, no. 557 (May 1989), 24–26.
  6. Gertrude Stein, Picasso (London: B. T. Batsford, 1938), 11.
  7. Guy Hartcup, Camouflage: A History of Concealment and Deception in War (Newton Abbott, London and Vancouver: David and Charles, 1979), 51ff. Henrietta Gooden, Camouflage and Art: Design for Deception in World War 2 (London: Unicorn Press, 2007), 22–23.
  8. Roland Penrose, Home Guard Manual of Camouflage (London: George Routledge & Sons,1941).
  9. Julian Trevelyan, “The Technique of Camouflage,” The Architectural Review, vol. 96, no. 573 (September 1944), 68–70.
  10. Homer Saint-Gaudens, “Camouflage and Art,” Art Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 1 (September 1919), 26, cited by Roy R. Behrens, Camoupedia: A Compendium on Art, Architecture, and Camouflage (Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2009), 30.
  11. École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, architecture student drawings, LAB 96–99.
  12. Percy Johnson-Marshall Archives, University of Edinburgh.
  13. Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania, Folder 030.II.A.68.16. See Andrew Shanken, “The Uncharted Kahn: The Visuality of Planning and Promotion in the 1930’s and 1940’s,” Art Bulletin, vol. 88, no. 2 (2006), 310–27.
  14. See the documents held at the Princeton University Library, Jean Labatut Papers, 1915–1983, subseries 3D. See Jorge Otero-Pailos, Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 27–32.
  15. The Architectural Forum, vol. 77, no. 3 (September 1942), 194.
  16. “L’aménagement du port de Marseille,” L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui, vol. 11, no. 3–4 (1940), 16–17.
  17. Davide Deriu, “Between Veiling and Unveiling: Modern Camouflage and the City as a Theater of War,” in Endangered Cities: Military Power and Urban Societies in the Era of the World Wars, ed. Marcus Funck and Roger Chickering (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004), 15–34.
Mirko Zardini & Jean-Louis Cohen, “Architecture in Uniform,” Places Journal, May 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Javier Zeller

    05.10.2011 at 20:04

    From the excerpt provided, this show seems a bit critically "bloodless". I know this is a historical survey, but the language comes across as a bit too casual and breathless in its enthusiasm. It's good fun to remark on camouflage techniques and their capacity to reconfigure perception etc., but this topic, and this historical moment, demand a more pointedly critical and blunt assessment of the “strategic indispensability” of architects to war. What was the consequence of an explicitly architectural approach, and capacity for organizing, when unfettered by (presumably un-aesthetic) concerns of morality or politics?

    The Axis powers indeed "traced(ed) out the outlines of a future based on oppression and sometimes extermination," but the ability of Albert Speer to prolong the war and the accompanying suffering and genocide was due in no small part to the “technical knowledge and competence” he possessed as an architect.

    If “even in uniform, (architects) did not interrupt their own thinking processes” it’s a lasting indictment of our profession. If anything architecture and architects need to position themselves explicitly against war and the elements in society who promote and profit from it, regardless of the technical goodies and formal possibilities that project promises. In this respect Eisenhower might prove a more relevant source for quotations than Truman.