Prof. Axel Fisher, Université libre de Bruxelles / Technische Universität Berlin

Dr. Aleksa Korolija, Politecnico di Milano


Espen Johnsen, University of Oslo
To Subordinate, Unite or Confront Architecture with Nature? Knut Knutsen’s Regionalist Strategies and Their Impact

Sarah M. Schlachetzki, University of Bern
“Architecture, in the Sense of Prewar Times, is Dying.” –– Ernst May’s Housing Schemes in Weimar’s Rural East

Sabrina Puddu, University of Hertfordshire / Leeds Beckett University
Agrarian Penal Colonies and the Project of Modern Rurality in Italy

Kristof Fatsar, Writtle University College
“Only Human Tirelessness Built on Science Can Conquer the Desert”: Planned Agricultural Communities in Early 19th Century Hungary

The introduction to the session and the abstracts of all contributors have been published as:

Fisher, A., & Korolija, A. 2018. “Modernity and Rurality: Mapping the State of Research”, in A. Kurg & K. Vicente (Eds.), Proceedings of the 5th International Conference of the European Architectural History Network, Tallinn: Estonian Academy of Arts: 183−189.

A thematic session chaired by MODSCAPES researcher at the EAHN2018 conference in Tallinn (13-17 June)

Following the Call for Papers launched in May 2017 for this thematic session, we received more than 30 proposals, out of which 4 were invited to submit a full paper.
Here are the chairs’ introduction to the session, as well as the papers’ abstracts:

A. Fisher & A. Korolija

Modernity and Rurality: Mapping the State of Research

Session introduction.

Rurality appears as an emerging frame of reference in European discourses around the built environment, upsetting the longstanding lack of interest for rural areas of both the design disciplines and their histories. While some modernist architecture has sought, throughout its development, to find inspiration in vernacular and rural architecture, as a presumed source of authenticity and rationality, it was in the cities that this movement identified its preferred field of operations. Similarly goes with the development of modernist urban planning and design, where the importation of countryside’s environmental and social qualities to the urban sphere was meant to reform and cure the ill-perceived large industrial cities.

This session deals with an overlooked topic in architectural history – modernist design and planning in and for the countryside –, addressing the relation between experiments in designing the physical environment and rurality at large.

Examining the works of prominent o r lesser-known modern ist heroes, as much as those of obscure engineers active at the European periphery, it unveils unnoticed episodes in architectural history, spanning across key moments the modern era, disciplinary approaches, and scales. In doing so, this session offers an outline of different modernist attitudes towards rurality.

Among the transversal issues raised across the session, one finds:

  • Alternately progressive and reactionary ontologies of the rural and nature: from more romantic, individualistic and subjective attempts to reconcile humans and nature, to the invocation of the rural’s alleged moralising influence on individuals or collectivities; from escapist to merely functional uses of the countryside;
  • Uneven architectural boldness, oscillating between the imitation of the allegedly authentic vernacular,efforts to root emerging modernist styles in tradition, and the introduction of radically new architectural languages in the countryside, whether or not in connection with quests for national identity or even with totalitarian rhetorics;
  • An inclination towards the dissolution of architectural design in favor of growing concerns for village design, regional planning, landscape, and even social planning and engineering;
  • The autonomy or adherence of design stances to the underlying agrarian systems.

The extremely diversified range of the discussed case studies, while suggesting an expansion of architectural history’s boundaries, sparks a potentially promising debate around the most appropriate conceptual frameworks and methodologies to approach the entanglements modernism and rurality.

Additional considerations by the session chairs

The Call for paper for this session yielded a clear success. More than 30 papers were submitted (apparently one of the most successful themed calls for papers, according to the organizers), out of which the 4 shortlisted papers make up for a very diverse, yet consistent panorama. The papers have been scheduled in a sequence to suggest a slow drift away from conventional architectural history.

First, Espen Johnsen analyzes a selection of Knut Knutsen’s works from the perspective of “the critical relationship between modern architecture and landscape”, framed within the wider Second Modernity in Scandinavia. The central issue is that of Regionalism, and Knutsen’s relationship to the rural realm somewhat reduces it to a generic and more or less idealized nature epitomized by the self-standing tree, and the rural landscape is mainly understood as mere topography and landform.

The second paper, by Sarah Schlachetzki, builds upon Ernst May’s Silesian oeuvre to question the different understandings of Modernity in 1920s’ Germany, depending on wether it is debated in the rural or in the urban context. To this aim, the relevance of conventional interpretative categories such as style or the protagonists’ individualities is challenged by that of wider strategic issues (national economy, population dynamics, frontier settlement, land ownership…), revealing the necessity to read architectural works dealing with the rural within a contextual framework whose terms of reference are different from those occurring in the urban realm.

Third, Kristof Fatsar looks at Witsch’s plans for ideal villages in early 19th-century Hungary. Fatsar’s argument unfolds the planned villages’ functional program to reveal the underlying social structure imagined by Witsch, but also shows how the green belts to be planted among fields addressed –differently from green belts in later urban utopias and schemes– issues of environmental engineering: stabilizing the surrounding sandy soil and counteract its erosion from wind.

Finally, Puddu’s reading of experiments of penal colonies in rural Sardinia, from the mid-19th century to the immediate post-WWII decades, claims a substantial continuity of both objectives and means throughout 3 radically different historical periods and political framework. Here, the main issue stands in the way these schemes attempted to introduce major changes in the structure of land ownership.

As an afterthought, this session might just as well have been entitled, we’d like to claim today, “Rurality as a modifier to architectural history”, with the following dominant themes emerging as relevant conceptual frameworks to approach the topic:

  1. Regionalism and references to the vernacular as more or less convincing attempts to bridge the ineluctable gap between the architect’s expert knowledge and the disappearing local building traditions;
  2. Political and ideological agendas of nation-building, in terms of social engineering, frontier settlement, population and ethnic control;
  3. Village planning, as yet another field of knowledge and experimentation in town and country planning, with sub-dominant themes:
    • The ideal/utopian city;
    • Community-making through the provision carefully programmed collective facilities;
    • Integration of agricultural and environmental concerns;
  4. Land ownership, land tenure, dissolution of the commons and of pre-modern property laws.

Espen Johnsen (Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo)

To Subordinate, Unite or Confront Architecture with Nature?
Knut Knutsen’s Regionalist Strategies and Their Impact

Knut Knutsen: Summer House, Portør, Kragerø, Norway (1949), sketch, The National Museum – Architecture.

This paper discusses architect Knut Knutsen’s regionalist strategies around 1950, regarding the relationship between architecture, the human factor and nature, and how this was expressed in the modernization of the Norwegian countryside throughout his own projects and their impact on younger architects. In Norway, architects in the post-war years were not involved in the planning of villages or “total” rural landscapes. However, they designed buildings for the welfare state in, or near, rural settlements, as well as single-family houses and cabins located in nature.

In the late 1930s, Knutsen turned towards an architecture adapted to the site, to nature and the use of natural materials. After years of intense work (1946–51), that includes his project for the District Council Houses in Vågå (1947) and his own Summer-house (1949), Knutsen published his radical views on architecture’s ecological, social, cultural, historical and artistic responsibility. He attacked the contemporary modernist practice (by Mies and his followers) of producing self-sufficient, visible architecture. According to Knutsen, modern architecture should be subordinate to nature and slip almost invisibly into the landscape.

Knutsen’s architectural thinking falls in the transition to the Second Modernism (as described by Pallasmaa) by being more oriented towards the situational, the unique, the historical, the inclusive and the pragmatic. From the late 1950s onwards, he became more interested in creating a “synthetic landscape”, a dialogue between ecocentrism and anthropocentrism , that combined impulses from nature as well as from modern and anonymous architecture. Studies of nature should inspire formal variations, and the house could also create an enhanced expression of the landscape. His layout for the Council Houses in Askim (1958) and for a Humanist City (1967-68) will be included in this discussion.

Finally, the paper will discuss Knutsen’s impact and how A. Vesterlid and S. Fehn used different architectural strategies in their thoughtful dialogue with nature, either by means of subordination, unification, or subtle contrast.

  • Paola Giardiello, Gennaro Postiglione, Nicola Flora (ed.), Arne Korsmo – Knut Knutsen: due maestri del Nord, (Architettura Progetto: 20), Rome, Officina, 1999.
  • Christian Norberg-Schulz, Modern Norwegian Architecture, Oslo, Norwegian University Press, 1986.
  • Juhani Pallasmaa, “Tradition and Modernity: The Feasibility of Regional Architecture in Post-Modern Society”. In Vincent B. Canizaro (ed.), Architectural Regionalism. Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition, New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2007, p. 129-145.

Sarah M. Schlachetzki (University of Bern, Institute for Art History, History of Architecture and Preservation of Historic Monuments)

“Architecture in the sense of prewar times is dying” – Ernst May’s Housing Schemes in Weimar’s Rural East

In the interwar period, Berlin-based Martin Wagner was elaborating the idea of his “city-countryside-city”; Socialist intellectuals such as Alexander Schwab aimed at a future balance between city and rurality by combining industrialism and re-agrarianization “in a new, higher form”. Creating settlements for the hinterlands always mirrored social policy, economics, and, for the case of Weimar’s East, plans for national consolidation alike. Only for the political left, however, architectural modernism was the salvational symbol of a one-way street into a better future.

Throughout his career, architect Ernst May tackled the problem of modernism and the rural in more than one way. Whereas of his large-scale projects for the Soviet Union in the 1930s only very little was realized, and while his Frankfurt period earned him greatest international renown, it was his position in Silesia between 1919 and 1925 that had challenged the young architect and his team to develop immediate, cheap, yet sustainable housing schemes for Breslau’s countryside. It was also his achievement there (the creation of more than 3000 dwellings) that won him his job in Frankfurt.

Given historiography’s focus on the metropolis, it does not come as a surprise that May’s Silesian work has either been ignored altogether, or considered an ‘unmodern’ predecessor to the full-fledged modernism of his Neues Frankfurt . My paper will focus on May’s and his team’s Silesian housing schemes in the underdeveloped countryside with respect to the colonization efforts vis-à-vis the border shifts of the time and with respect to the greater economic policies behind them, setting them in perspective with his later work, including his activity in East Africa. I argue that the formalist rifts between his work in Silesia, the USSR, Africa, and West Germany elucidate larger historiographic pitfalls in the conceptualization of ‘modernism’ and provide an apt example for a debate on the interconnection of architecture and the rustic.

Kristof Fatsar (Writtle University college)

“Only human tirelessness built on science can conquer the desert”
Planned agricultural communities in early 19th century Hungary

One of Rudolf Eickemeyer’s designs for an agricultural settlement (Eickemeyer, 1787, Tab. VI)

A dominant economical and political theme in late 18th and early 19th century Hungary was the colonisation of its southern and largely infertile regions. This was in large part due to the earlier Ottoman occupation of the central parts of the country, a historic circumstance which had still not been overcome by centrally organised systematic colonisation, mostly by German-speaking settlers, as late as a hundred years later. Another factor in the slow development of the southern regions was the unfavourable soil conditions, namely the drifting sand.

One of those who seriously thought about remedying this situation was the almost entirely forgotten Coblenz-born engineer and landscape designer Rudolph Witsch (Fatsar, 2016, 178). He had been experimenting with dune control in Hungary when creating a public park in the City of Pest in 1799, and was later employed by the military that governed the southern strip of the country after its reconquest. He wrote a treatise on the subject (Witsch, 1809) that was not only concerned about turning the region to profitable agriculture, but also proposing the layout of an ideal village as the core of the newly acquired agricultural lands.

His proposal was not in the genre of Ledoux’s utopian industrial (at Chaux) or agricultural (at Mauperthuis) settlements of grandeur (Vidler, 2006, 47 and 129). Rather, it followed Rudolf Eickemeyer’s (1787) very utilitarian approach to planning villages.

His ideas to colonise the infertile southern ends of the country with land melioration methods and planned villages was eventually undertaken although it is yet unclear whether his publications played a role in this process at all. This paper investigates the international context of Witsch’s theoretical work and reflects on the contemporary success of many Hungarian landowners to turn barren lands to fruitful agricultural estates around their country houses and naturalistic gardens, some of which designed by Witsch himself.

  • Eickemeyer, R. (1787), Uiber die Erbauung der Dörfer: eine Abhandlung welcher die Königliche Societät der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, im November 1786, den Preiß ertheilte. Frankfurt: Varrentrapp und Wenner.
  • Fatsar, K. (2016), “European Travelers and the Transformation of Garden Art in Hungary at the Turn of the 19th Century”, Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes 36, 3: 166–184.
  • Vidler, A. (2006), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Architecture and Utopia in the Era of the French Revolution. Basel: Birkhäuser.
  • Witsch, R. (1809), Praktischer Vorschlag, wie das auf dem Reichstage 1807 zu Ofen im zwanzigsten Artikel sanctionirte Gesetz, betreffend die Urbarmachung des Flugsandes in Ungarn, auf die leichteste Art realisirt warden könne, Ofen.

Sabrina Puddu (University of Hertfordshire; Leeds Beckett University)

Agrarian Penal Colonies and the Project of Modern Rurality in Italy

Reclamation scheme of the Nurra plain in Sardinia, 1930s

Between the 1860s and 1930s, seven penal colonies were founded in the rural territory of Sardinia. Following the transition from Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to the unified Kingdom of Italy, they were instrumental to the latter’s goals of enforcing penal reform, and modernising remote rural areas. Penal colonies were, in fact, planned to facilitate the birth and acceptance of a new, modern rural order imposed by the State. They impacted on the local farmers and shepherds’ secular habits, substituting the feudal Dominium Divisum and land use right of Ademprivium with an enforcement of absolute ownership that was codified by the institution of the Cadaster . Besides, they added another dimension to the European discourse on penal regimes that was then focused on the architectural model solution of the prison. In this respect, Robin Evans has shown how the establishment of a penal colony in Mettray in 1839, at the time when the prison was being perfected as a building type, evidenced uncertainty about the latter’s efficacy in reforming human behaviour, and asserted the need for new para-carceral institutions. Renouncing the strict confinement and central supervision of urban walled prisons, and promoted by social scientists, these institutions asserted the reformative power of a work routine on inmates, and argued for a rural context as the ideal setting for such purpose.

Established some twenty years after Mettray, the Sardinian colonies followed this same penal philosophy, although their spatial structure was not a linear descendent of the French precedent. In line with other examples – like Merksplas in Belgium – they expanded their reformative scope towards the domestication of large-scale territories. Their scope was also extended in time, planned as they were to develop over two stages: after the initial colonisation and land reclaim, civilians were meant to take over the colonies and their territory and turn them into modern agrarian settlements. The colonies of Castiadas and Cuguttu-Tramariglio are particularly explicative of this staged process. The first, built in 1875 on wetland affected by malaria, was implemented as a civilian settlement under Fascism and through the agrarian reforms of the post war democratic state. Cuguttu (1864) was followed by a more elaborate architectural project – the settlement of Porto Conte-Tramariglio (1938), an instance of Italian architectural rationalism of the 1930s – to kick-start the fascist agrarian ambitions of a territorial system of farms and urban settlements. My paper will provide an analysis of the two colonies framing them within similar experiences in Europe, and will elaborate on the role that large-scale spatial reasoning played at some crucial moments of political transition in Italy.

    • Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison, Gallimard, Paris 1975.
    • Robin Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture 1750-1840, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982.
    • Anthony Vidler, The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment, Princeton Architectural Press, Princeton, 1987.
    • Mario da Passano (ed.), Le Colonie Penali nell’Europa dell’ottocento, [Proceedings] Atti del convegno internazionale organizzato dal Dipartimento di Storia dell’Università di Sassari e dal Parco nazionale dell’Asinara, Carocci Editore, Rome, 2004.
    • Aldo Lino (ed.), Le città di fondazione in Sardegna, CUEC, Cagliari, 1998.
    • Ministero dell’Interno, La Colonizzazione Interna nelle sue applicazioni col mezzo delle colonie penali agricole, Rome, 1912.
    • Gian Giacomo Ortu, Ager et urbs: trame di luogo nella Sardegna medievale e moderna, CUEC, Cagliari, 2014.