Founded in 1928, the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (in French, Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne—CIAM) was the chief propagandist of avant-garde notions of architecture and urbanism—the voice of the Modern Movement—from 1930 to 1934 and again from 1950 to 1955. CIAM contended that architecture was inextricably linked with politics and economics and encouraged architects to turn from purely artistic endeavors to engage in social-engineering experiments with new urban and architectural forms—especially in housing. It was a principal milestone in the evolution of Western architectural thought.
The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier unsuccessfully took part in a 1927 design competition for a new League of Nations center in Geneva and submitted a design that was not in a historical revivalist style. Rather, it responded to function and zeitgeist—the spirit of the age. Although his entry was rejected, ostensibly because it was not drawn in ink, it is most probable that conservative jury members conspired against the modernist proposal. The consequent scandal propelled Le Corbusier into the limelight, identifying him with avant-garde architecture. Some historians believe that an immediate outcome of the incident was the birth of CIAM. More positive impetus was given by the international acclaim for the Deutscher Werkbund’s Weissenhofsiedlung (1927) in Stuttgart, Germany.
In Europe, the second half of the 1920s witnessed an interchange of the radical notions of contemporary architecture, largely effected by the modernist control of journals. Through publications and conferences (and by their contributions to Weissenhof), many German, Russian, Dutch, and French architects showed themselves eager to meet the “demands of industrialization” as great changes occurred in social structure. Acting together, architects could apply unified pressure to bring about the urbanistic and housing reforms they all believed to be urgently necessary.
In 1928 F. T. Gubler, secretary of the Swiss chapter of the Deutscher Werkbund, suggested to Madame Hélène de Mandrot that she offer her chateau at La Sarraz, Switzerland, for a meeting of twenty-five of Europe’s leading architects. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland were represented. At a three-day gathering in June, facilitated by Le Corbusier and the Swiss critic Siegfried Giedion, CIAM was formed. The group was unanimous that rationalization and standardization must be priorities if the urbanistic and housing problems that each faced at home were to be humanely solved. The creation of CIAM, in an attempt to impose an international order on the varying aspects of the “new” architecture, established Modernism as a unified movement, complete with a manifesto and statutes. It even had a committee and an official address in Zurich—that of Giedion, who was elected as the founding secretary. Another Swiss, the architect Karl Moser, was CIAM’s first president.
The La Sarraz meeting, really a clearinghouse for ideas, was dominated by Le Corbusier. But the Dutchman Mart Stam and the Swiss Hannes Meyer composed the closing declaration, simply restating the “best aspirations” and “fashionable fetishes” of the day and railing against academic conservatism. The second congress at Frankfurt (1929) dealt with more substantial issues, and discussion centered around Giedion’s notion of existenzenminimum—low-cost residential units. As its deliberations were focused on urbanism and housing policies, CIAM was obliged to enter the political lists. Giedion argued that, in the same way that the individual living unit leads to the organization of construction methods, those methods lead to the organization of the entire city—a materialistic doctrine that ignored the complex social interactions, especially of the industrial city. City planning was therefore simply “architecture writ large.” CIAM formed the Committee for Resolving the Problems of Contemporary Architecture (French acronym CIRPAC).
At the Brussels congress of November 1930, the Dutch architect-planner Cornelis van Eesteren was elected president, an office he held until 1947. The appointment flagged CIAM’s shift toward rationalist urban planning policies, and the theme for the 1933 congress—the first of a planned series—was “The Functional City.” After a conference planned for Moscow was canceled, members took a “working cruise” between Marseilles and Athens aboard Patris II. The outcome was the provocative Athens Charter, published anonymously in 1943, which reviewed earlier discussions, restated the capitalistic barriers to acceptable urban renewal or design, and identified the new problems of regional planning and urban contextuality. The charter was the closest CIAM ever came to a definitive credo. But it offered no specific solutions except the familiar generic one: modern technology. It called for balance between individual and community requirements; for dominance of the landscape over buildings, including generous urban green areas; for due consideration of physical environmental factors; for the conservation of historic buildings; and for separation of the main urban functions (living, working, recreation, and a carefully designed transport infrastructure). Moreover, housing should take priority among the urban planning. Legislation should ensure the provision of all these qualities. In it can be seen a legacy that persists in present land-use planning and zoning. The Italian historians Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co offer the following criticism:
To it probably belongs the credit for having founded a large measure of the predominant ideology of modern architecture, endowing architects with a model of action as flexible as it was already out of dale…. It was also the most extreme demonstration of the radical diversities and the profound fragmentation of experiences that marked those early heroic years of contemporary architecture. Attempting to synthesize experience in large measure mutually contradictory, the Charter flattened out their originality, ignored their defeats, befuddled their tracks
(Tafuri and Dal Co 1980, 219).
Reviews and revisions would be incorporated during the 1951 conference. The Athens Charter was republished, signed by Le Corbusier, in 1957.
The fifth CIAM congress, held in Paris in 1937, dealt with housing and leisure. When CIAM was overtaken by war in Europe, Giedion, Walter Gropius, Jose Luis Sert, Richard Neutra, and Stamos Papadaki sustained the group in the United States under the name CIAM, Chapter for Relief and Postwar Planning. Following World War II, some younger members envisioned other ways of considering the role of building within the context of urban design. The first postwar conference, organized by the British section of CIAM, the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS), at Bridgewater in 1947, was followed by others at Bergamo, Italy (1949), Hoddeston, England (1951), and Aix-en-Provence, France (1953). The Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck had been a delegate at the Bridgewater meeting. He responded to what he heard there with the “Statement against Rationalism” and in 1956 at Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, where CIAM was dissolved. He became a founding member of an international group—“a loose association of friends” of the Modern Movement—calling itself Team Ten, independent of CIAM and with a new agenda. Other rebels included Jan Bakema, Shadrach Woods, Giancarlo de Carlo, Georges Candilis, Alexis Josic, and Alison and Peter Smithson. Team Ten set its “own goals for a new, more humane system of public housing” and demanded a fresh comprehension of architecture, particularly within urban social life, in the context of rebuilding European cities. At the 1959 conference, the old regime was replaced by the new.
CIAM’s urbanist ideals were realized on a massive scale in much of Europe’s emergency reconstruction following World War II, when industrialized prefabricated building systems were applied to urgent needs for housing. The new dwelling type was also widely adopted in developing countries where revolutionary governments claimed to establish socialist societies. Almost without exception, these vast housing estates, wherever they are, evidence the failure of the Modern Movement’s well-meaning ideas about mass housing. They have become concrete jungles, insecure, vandalized ghettos fraught with crime. Urban plans are sterile because of the strict adherence to functional zoning, and the massive housing blocks lack individuality and character. The overwhelming task now facing architects and urbanists is their rehabilitation.