It’s been almost a month since I arrived in Cambridge to conduct a research on the work of Martin Wagner at Harvard during his appointment as a professor at the Graduate School of Design. Wagner —an engineer and planner, head of the planning office of Berlin in the second half of the 1920s— arrived here after a brief period in Turkey in the wake of the NSDAP victory in the 1933 elections in Germany and, perhaps against his will, he remained an expatriate in New England until his death. His very well-known work in the Weimar period in the fields of social housing, neighborhood development and city renewal secured him a quasi-mythical position in the history of modern architecture and urban design for his engagement with labor unions and the Social Democrats. But after his dismissal from the position of Stadtbaurat in the city of Berlin, his subsequent theoretical models for a comprehensive reorganization of the city-country nexus and his complicated reaction to the Nazi seizure of power, he disappears from the narratives of conventional historiography. Few authors have paid attention to his subsequent work at Harvard, basically because of the lack of building activity in a period when Wagner focuses on research, teaching and writing.
The project I had in mind suggested the relations between Wagner’s work with his students and other professors at the GSD —most remarkably former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius— and subsequent experiences of urban renewal in the US, which actually kicked off three miles down Cambridge St. in Boston’s West End right after Wagner’s passing (see more information here). But after reading all the work Wagner produces in this period —books, articles, typescripts and interventions in several conferences between 1942 and 1957— I see there is a broader and much more problematic legacy for modernism implicit in these materials. Wagner’s obsession with economic and financial analysis led him to develop a veritable political economy of territorial transformation which subsumed both the creation of a new suburban pattern and the rehabilitation of existing cities under an all-encompassing fiscal imperative that anticipates later forms of neoliberal urbanism, gentrification and austerity, amongst other phenomena.
Wagner talks about capital as the real builder of cities and elaborates on his previous intuitions from the Weimar period about how consumption-power (Kaufkraft) circulates and flows through the built environment, relentlessly reshaping cities and regional configurations. This is 1940s… But what is especially remarkable —even crazy, I should say— is that he is constructing that theory and the related proposals with his students in the name of the commons. He develops earlier discourses about community —the whole Weimar period revolved around this debate, especially immediately after WWI— with an informed historical approach to common land and common right which in turn reinforces his attacks against liberal-capitalist urbanism. Paradoxically, this leads him to radical proposals to create new apparatuses of corporate real estate capital that adopt forms of socialized intervention in order to completely transform existing city centers, involving slum clearance and the eviction of tenants. No attention is paid to the actually existing urban commons that sustained these blighted areas throughout the Great Depression and beyond, of course.
I still have to figure out what to make of the material I have found so far, for certainly this can be the basis for several different pieces: the issue of Wagner’s role in the debates at the school and the city at that time, the relation to CIAM’s discourse and new approached to community development, or, more importantly, the importance of pedagogy and research in the history of planning. Personally, one of the most intriguing potentialities here is to take the example of Wagner to analyze the ‘political deficit’ of architects, using a case which is usually known for his engagement with diverse experiences of the historical Left to show how architectural ideologies jeopardize social commitment. Wagner’s work at Harvard, I think, can be used to re-read his Weimar period with a more critical edge than is usually the case, for it is here at the GSD, without the constraints and compromises of everyday management, where his previous ideas about a dynamic urbanism and entrepreneurial public management took full shape.
Apart from this, life here at Cambridge is frantic as usual, especially after Spring break. Neil Brenner has gathered a powerful group of young scholars as part of his ongoing efforts at the Urban Theory Lab and the schedule is hectic, with major events almost every week. David Harvey is visiting the school next week and there will be a number of activities with him, amongst others a workshop with Susan Fainstein. In the meantime, while I wait for the real Spring to come and color the streets with the white and pink of cherry trees and magnolias, books, friends and Billie Holiday help me to overcome the homesickness of a distant family…