Bruno Taut: The Earth is a Good Dwelling (1919)

[This is the first of a series of posts featuring short essays on and by German architect, city planner, and author Bruno Taut (1880-1938).]

In the first months of 1919 the impending failure of the German Revolution was already evident. As the process of socialization of the construction industry and its debate were getting slower and contradictory, (cft: Martin Wagner’s Die Sozialisierung der Baubetriebe, Heymann Verlag, Berlin, 1919), B.Taut writes a fierce article calling for the liberation of the earth from capitalist private property: “politics and wars – he claims – will never disappear before the city disappears”. For Taut, salvation is only in a cityless, moneyless, politics-less world. His call is directed to a precise kind of worker, the “gelernter Arbeiter“, the good and conscious man whose community B.Taut have great hopes for, as a forthcoming messiah.

The Tautian path to socialism is very religious indeed, if not christian altogether. Only in this reading the Tolstoj-ian quote “where there is content, form comes along on its own” acquires meaning. Moral myths pervade the text, such as the overcoming of the division of labour, and of the opposition between city and country (thus sympathizing with the Soviet Disurbanists Okhitovich and Pasternak). Almost contradictoy ideas are also summoned: from Kropotkin’s to autarchic production, to Leberecht Migge‘s self-reliance, a system that demanded workers to grow vegetables in their gardens and that resembles to those “Company towns” that Engels attacked on his “The housing question“. This paternalistic intervention in the worker’s domestic economy, typical in Great Britain, aims to compress the worker’s salary and lower the level of the subsistence means to buy on the market, but is shared by Taut as a “return to the mother earth“.

As Taut waited for “The stars in the sky and the stars on earth (to) greet each other” another grand phenomenon was about to take place, the one inspired by Alfred Marshall‘s scientific studies on the necessity of delocalizing the industry on the perifery, and the other -real- dissolution of the city: not the epic one dreamed by Taut, by the quite mundane reality of suburban sprawl.

It was Capital, indeed, that kept holding the structural laws of cities development.

 

The following illustration comes from Bruno Taut’s Die Auflösung der Städte (The Disintegration of the City), the subject of an upcoming post.

 

 

taut-abb023

 

 

Bruno Taut, “The Earth is a Good Dwelling”

First published as “Die Erde eine gute Wohnung,” Die Volkswohnung. Zeitschrift für Wohnungsbau und Siedlungswesen I, no. 4 (February 24, 1919), 45-48.

In: Kaes, Anton. Jay, Martin, Dimendberg, Edward. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. University of California Press, 1994. pp. 456-459

 

“People were not made to scurry around in anthills but to spread out over the land that they were meant to build upon. Fragility of the body and vices of the soul are the inevitable consequences of excessive crowding. Of all the animals the one least fit to be a herd animal is the human; people who have been cooped up like sheep soon die. The breath of man is deadly to his own kind.”

Thus wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau long ago in his Emile. People heard his call and did not follow. Today the call is being issued again, but quietly and shyly—will they follow him now, or at least take one step along the designated path? In the early days of the revolution there was talk of how the land was now free, the great estates and state-owned territories divided up, and of the people returning to mother earth through freely distributed small holdings and gardens. But what happened? Endless discussions in meetings and newspapers, a pro and con of theories, and not one step toward action. Why this failure of the will? Do people sense that every step in that direction represents a death blow to the heart of the city, signals the beginnings of the dissolution of the city and the total upheaval of our entire culture? The socialist papers cry: “Workers! Leave the mass grave of the city!” But where is the path? Where is the program for settling the countryside?

The position that adheres to what exists, to established fact, is all too rigid and tenacious. It fears giving up a state structure based on the centralization of industry, the division of labor, the separation of city and countryside, and large urban concentrations. It is hardly worthwhile speaking of the symptoms of urban dissolution—they are so evident, and already were before the war. Thorough studies had already established the increasing economic instability in real estate as a consequence of property speculation; voices had increasingly been raised in an attempt to deflect attention from the prevailing course of world trade and push the maintenance of the nation through the domestic economy into the foreground. If before the war the material interests of specific groups, particularly industrialists, merchants, and large landowners, resisted the change in emphasis, during the war material need forced the transition from demands to action (such as was possible) and lent the demands new vigor. And today as a result of the war there is no choice: the nation must be able to feed every inhabitant from its own supplies. According to L. Migge, a 1,200-square-foot garden would suffice to supply a family of five with fruits and vegetables without any reliance on the market; according to Franz Oppenheimer, twelve acres suffices for a small peasant holding, and the same scholar proves that such an allocation would allow forty million people to settle in the German countryside, instead of the seventeen million living there today. That would result in an enormous relief for industry, which would be freed from its participation in exports and world trade; industry could devote itself almost exclusively to the needs of the nation and do without the reserve army of unemployed—which it requires in boom times but just as quickly condemns to misery when a crisis arrives. Theories and interests notwithstanding, one thing is certain: given the sound and complete utilization of its land, Germany could feed its population. For the prewar population figure of seventy million inhabitants there would be approximately two acres of land per person, while in Belgium—which, according to [Peter] _’ Kropotkin, lives off of its own agricultural product—there is only a little less than one acre per person. Considering the obvious efforts of industry to settle as much as possible on the outskirts of cities (assuming, of course, access to good transport routes), as well as the frequent practice by large factories of purchasing land for cultivation by their workers, the beginning of the dissolution of the cities is clearly evident. The division of labor, with all its grievous effects, is beginning to be surpassed, and perhaps a wholly new understanding of the Taylor System is at hand, which would not base performance evaluations exclusively on hand and arm movements judged in isolation but much more on how a worker’s energies could best be extended. The point would be to make the worker more valuable by preserving body and soul in harmonious interaction with the machine for half a day, with the other half spent cultivating the soil of the earth. Kropotkin’s book, Fields, Factories and Workhops, offers us a strictly scientific investigation proving how industry is slowly moving away from monopoly consolidation and centralization, how it is spreading over the entire globe, and how the time will come when the industrial production of every nation will allow it to subsist nearly without imports and exports. Industry will then have completed its merger with agriculture; Kropotkin identifies the beginnings of this process and points out the ceaseless movement toward the transcendence of the division of labor, the fusion of city and countryside, and the establishment of a new way of life. In his book Return to the Soil, Jules Meline likewise comes to the conclusion that the old idea of nations specializing in particular branches of production is now completely out of date.

Theories and facts, experiences of the war and the present confront one another and pose unyielding challenges. And what happens? In the great French Revolution, 1792 glowed with the golden hope of rising to Rousseau’s challenge; today we are a few steps farther and our revolution inspires the same hope. Is it to remain just as vain a hope now, 126 years later?

If a revolution contents itself just with a change of regimes and the implementation of reforms, it does not deserve the name. Then it has stopped short of revolutionizing the human spirit, which, not so easily satisfied, is thunderously demanding a fundamental transformation—one going to the roots of the matter and therefore genuinely “radical” for the first time—a transformation of conditions that have become unbearable. One day that step will be taken, and it would be regrettable if the opportunity offered by the present liberalization of social relations were ignored and the chance to make the transition into a new state of affairs neglected—before that step is forced upon us as a necessity. Well-founded and firmly anchored hopes might fall silent for a while, but they do not die. And this hope, which lives as the deepest desire of humanity and which Rousseau and countless others after him proclaimed (I mention only Tolstoy, Scheerbart, [Sir Henry] Campbell-Bannermann, and [Arthur] Posadowsky-Wehner), must not be allowed to die. Only on the surface is the desire for opening up the land a material one. And it may be that the government’s recognition of the ultimate consequences is what allows it to shrink from beginning the journey—for then there is no more return. And it might be that the bourgeois strata, mesmerized by the “threat” of urban dissolution, will divert the stream into small channels.

There is, however, no point in sticking our heads in the sand like ostriches. We are already experiencing the disintegration of the city, and following it—even if only after another 126 years, as we slowly come to the end of the second millenium—comes dissolution. We must direct our gaze freely into the future and, so as not to wander aimlessly in all directions, set our sights firmly upon the distant goal on the horizon. This, the greatest of humanity’s revolutions, will overturn countless values; how many have not already been lost in the world war! But it will be the less, the sooner all have set their sights on this goal.

“Dissolution of the cities”—that is a negation, but fundamentally it is much more an affirmation. Humanity will reclaim the earth; no longer content merely to stroll about on its surface, humanity will inhabit it. It may be that this new state of affairs, still lying in the future, appears at the outset only as the fulfillment of a material desire promising a healthier life and better nutrition, but it conceals much more within itself: a new culture from top to bottom with a completely different nature than the one we know today and from the past.

What is happiness? To this question Tolstoy gives the answer: Happiness is living in and with nature. So we city dwellers today are all unhappy. For the enjoyment of nature is happiness just as little as the enjoyment of art is happiness; happiness is achieved only by living in nature. Once humans find their happiness, their inner peace, through a connection to the earth, then their soul will once more be fulfilled; it will be at peace in the world, in God. Then Europe, after a long, long time, will once again have a religion. “The steps of religion,” says Fechner in his daily column, “are large but slow. It requires millenia for one step. The raised foot of religion is hovering in the air, already on its way down. When will religion put it down?” Religion will take another step once humanity has rediscovered its dwelling on the earth. And with that, humanity will acquire content, and “where there is content, form comes along on its own” (Tolstoy). A new culture blossoms, a true culture.

Ideas are signposts, and the image of a distant future must light the way of our strivings. This image cannot be displayed to people often enough, so that they grow tired of the present and press ever more vehemently for its fulfillment. Am I as an architect not working against my own art when I demand the dissolution of the cities? The greatest buildings have risen, after all, from city landscapes, and I have myself, in Crown of the City, attempted to describe the crowning achievement of a future city. The greatest buildings of all time, the gigantic temples of Asia, Angkor Wat and Borobudur, are solitary structures; and in my Crown of the City, I also wanted to describe the isolation of the architectural structure in the midst of an expansive settlement, primarily to awaken the sense of an isolated building.

We are determined to keep a vision of the new countenance of the earth before our eyes: large estates, like we have today, but organized as cooperatives and operated so that more people than today cultivate and live from them; wastelands dotted with small holdings and gardens, in between, woods, meadows, and lakes. Then expansive settlements strewn about with small houses, cottages, and gardens. Industry adheres to this image of itself: it is also scattered among many workshops so that it can most easily satisfy the demand for its products. The process will be accelerated by new forms of transportation: large railroad lines will recede; a tightly knit network of light roads for power vehicles will replace them. Raw materials will be supplied nearly exclusively by river and canal traffic. Markets will be all but superfluous since the population will supply its needs almost on its own, living from a natural exchange of its own products. The power of money will recede, even disappear: who needs to buy much in the countryside! People will live in nature, work in nature, and conduct a harmonious way of life in a healthy balance between manual and mental activity, between the workshop and the land. Vacation trips will cease and, since people live harmoniously, they will experience solitude as an intensified togetherness with others, whom they will seek out only when an inner need, the need to communicate after a period of development, impels them to do so. Then they will be guests of the others for a few days, and also have the room at home to take others in. And people will gather as a whole only where they have forever gathered together: in places of worship.That will be the only occasion for travel, and there will be places there to spend the night. Otherwise, traveling will no longer make any sense. (Although those who want to see a distant land can make use of air travel.) The development of airplanes will greatly accelerate this movement. The rarity of trips will make them truly valuable for the first time, and, for the rest, Scheerbart’s words will be the rule: “Travel at home!”

But wait! The architectonic image of cities—what happened to it? Let us not complain about that. A wholly new one will arise. In the settlements the urban landscape will completely disappear, and individual buildings will acquire a completely different meaning, as will the isolated large building. If we rise above the earth in a balloon, what we will see below are houses strewn about like grains of sand, by now arranged in rows as well. The grains of sand will join together and the higher we rise the more they will appear like a fog, now thicker, now thinner, spreading over the green countryside. And in this fog, a few glistening spots sparkle, smaller and larger, like stars in the sky. It is the places of worship, erected in glass, illuminating the night. Everything has been loosened up; people now have their first profound understanding of the necessary isolation of architectonic works of art, and they bloom here and there like rare and precious flowers. The stars in the sky and the stars on earth greet each other.

All of the great religious prophets—Buddha under the Bo tree and Christ in the desert—found God in solitude. And the new prophet and the new people will find him in the same way. A new bond will unite humanity. Where will anyone want to draw boundaries when the earth looks like I have described it? Boundaries will be impossible, and a whole new form of union will become necessary. States will disappear and with them the violence of states; in their place will arise a new form of human relationship, which is supremely prophylactic but no longer organizational and dictatorial. There will be institutions only of a voluntary sort and effect. The city is the symbol of state power, and the state and all that accompanies it—politics and wars—will never disappear before the city disappears. If this is what currently inhibits the colonization of the countryside, then we must revolutionize the human spirit by all possible means. For what we want is love, not hate. “The raised foot of religion is hovering in the air, already on its way down. When will religion put it down?” Will the new messiah be able to come at the beginning of the third millenium?

 

 

(Confront with Ludovica Scarpa’s introductory text and translation “Bruno Taut e la dissoluzione della città”  in Casabella 442 (1978), 57-59  )

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