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Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War

Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal
April 13–September 18, 2011

If World War II was remarkable for its blurring of the boundary between civil and military, it must come as little surprise that architecture enjoyed enormous prestige during that era. From the celebrated career of Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician and engineer, to the European architectural treatises that have for centuries divided their subject into military and civil, architecture has long been recognized as addressing both concerns. The exhibition Architecture in Uniform documents the astonishing variety of ways in which architects and their professional skills were conscripted to serve the world’s first fully industrial war and the industrial peace that followed.

The visitor enters the exhibition by passing between wall-sized photos of Hiroshima and Guernica after their respective bombings and then immediately confronts a ceiling-high silo with a broad slit running down its side. Within the silo hangs one line of portrait photos, placed at eye height and ordered alphabetically, of a representative selection of war-era architects and designers: the known and the unknown, the grizzled as well as the green, the militant alongside the artistic.

Eschewing the tired distinction between Axis and Allies, the exhibition never loses sight of architecture’s paradoxical power to ravage cities or of war’s human dimension. From Norman Bel Geddes’ marvelous scale models of naval engagements to Hugh Casson’s ingenious ideas for camouflaging buildings to Hans Stosberg’s banal economic development plan for Auschwitz, the exhibition portrays architecture as both inspiring and terrifying. Ultimately, the exhibition’s moral even-handedness, intelligent thematic structure, and elegant physical design ensure the impression of architecture as a discipline that demands respect not only for its strategic significance but also for its pervasive ethical gravity.