Arms race, Architectural

Arms race

The continuous increase of military power by two or more states, based upon the conviction that only by retaining an advantage in such power can they ensure their national security or supremacy. What is essential to the concept of an arms race is that the relationship between opponents is never stable, it is an ever-changing system of relationships that is decided as much on the numbers as on the characteristics of weapons. So, there is a quantitative and a qualitative aspect (i.e. explosive power, accuracy, penetration, etc.).

The idea is to not only keep up with the race, but to be always ahead of the other – as soon as one system is falling behind, it has to reload. It is a principle or policy of deterrence. The momentary win of one presents a crisis for the other. Across a symmetrical axis there is continual tension between two systems. Any moment of balance, or equality has to be surpassed immediately – or the other way around: any advantage of the other has to be if not surpassed, at least reached in equal quality, or quantity. So, paradoxically, as long as the arms race is running, as long as more and improved weapon systems are developed and produced, the more an outbreak of war is prevented.

Architectural Arms Race

The question is how a particular configuration of space can ignite such a continual tension, such state of a never resolved conflict. Architecture in some ways always represents conditions of conflict in space, and partakes in the transformation of the built environment as the consequence, the very tool of politics. The concept ‘architectural arms race’ represents a particularly aggressive form of architecture that has become the essence and very means of a war. But how does an arms race with architecture, bricks and mortar look like? How can architectural categories like the shape, size, position, the function, use and look of a building become munition, designed to deter the other side from using its own arsenal of ‘weapons’? The analysis of a particular historical situation might clarify some of the questions and could help in formulating the entry for the dictionary.

One of the most pronounced architectural arms races occurred in the Cold War. The Cold War was a period of East-West competition and conflict characterized by mutual perceptions of hostile intention between military-political alliances or blocs. Here, the process of building up larger and more sophisticated strategic forces in which each side simultaneously threatened to destroy the other became the principal shield against the outbreak of nuclear war.

The military arms race created a complex landscape of byproducts: missile silos, military bases, atomic test fields, nuclear bomb shelters, etc. Most of this machinery stood, or still stands silent and unused on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. These fortresses of the atomic age tell of a time in which there was neither war, nor peace, in which both sides were in a continuous defense condition. In his book Survival City Tom Vanderbilt describes the Cold War atmosphere such: ‘Battlefields were everywhere and nowhere, an abstract space on wall-size screens in situation rooms, prophesised in emanating-ripple damage estimates on aerial photographs of cities, filtered down to backyards where homeowners studied government-supplied plans for bomb shelters. Attack was instantaneous, with no spatial component …’ And yet, it was not only that every field of culture was affected by an invisible and omnipresent need for protection, but there are even moments in which art, design and architecture that have played a central role in the political conflict.

In her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe Susan Buck-Morss speculated about the borrowing of images such as the coincidence that the first King Kong movie appeared in 1933 America and that only a few months later the winning entry for the competition for the Palace of the Soviets was the one in which a gigantic statue of Lenin was to top the intended highest building of the world. Others analysed how the pejorative depiction of the ‘Soviet Bloc’ helped to simplify the complexities of Cold War antagonism and filter them into western public consciousness. In fact, one of the most famous participants in the celluloid propaganda war was Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, released in 1966. As always, Hitchcock was obsessed with colours and lighting. Frida Grafe’s Filmfarben describes how Hitchcock wanted Torn Curtain to be the first of his films to have a realistic setting. This was to be achieved through a twofold strategy: better quality of film, and the use of original locations. In 1966, the Cold War was at its peak and the second of these objectives proved impossible to realise. The GDR simply did not give filming rights to Hollywood productions, so Hitchcock was forced to re-create the GDR indoors. Hitchcock was desperate to find the ‘right’ colours to ‘paint’ the GDR. To get the desired effect, he placed a spectrum of beige filters in front of the camera and dressed his actors in a variety of greys. He also specified extra rouge on the cheeks of his policemen to give the viewer a feeling of ‘the cold coming from the pallid colours.’ Hitchcock even doctored the German agfa-colours in an attempt to achieve the watercolour tones he wanted. The colours in the film were designed to set the mood of hostility and malevolence that characterised the regime in Western eyes. Its storyline, unrealistic by modern standards, presents the East as an evil bureaucratic machine; one that could only be defeated by the heroism of the American scientist (dressed in blue) and his lover (dressed in green) – who were both spies.

But also objects of the everyday became an issue of debate between the nuclear powers. One of the most famous encounters was the so-called ‘kitchen debate’. In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, the USA and the Soviet Union agreed that their respective ideologies should be tested against each other in a manner that could not escalate into global warfare. The proposed ‘exchanges’ involved ‘science, technology and culture’ and allowed the sides to compete on the added value that their respective systems provided for the ordinary citizen. In June 1959, the Soviet Exhibition opened in New York City. The following month, the American Exhibition opened in Moscow. For the Americans, this meant showing off the latest streamlined, ultramodern and luxurious objects that could be found in America’s suburban homes. The overwhelming variety of consumer goods, which included televisions, dishwashers, cookers, refrigerators, fully automated kitchens and even a life-size model of a supermarket – from which the Soviet audience, and some dignitaries, could not resist pocketing souvenirs – was ranged against a Soviet display which comprised the launch of the Sputnik satellite, plans for future space travel and recently developed technologies for increasing factory production. The exhibition neatly captured the essence of the competing ideologies: the American way of life was represented by middle class suburbia, with its appetite for luxury and creature comforts; while the Soviet experience focused on the state and its epic projects.

At the Moscow Exhibition, Vice President Nixon and Premier Khrushchev met in front of a showroom of an American kitchen for the so-called ‘Kitchen Debate’. Nixon may have been slightly embarrassed at being reduced to the role of a salesperson, trying to – as Karen Ann Marling claimed ‘arouse envy and discontent at a basic level of appetite, haptic pleasure, and sensory overload’ over the petit-bourgeois trivia of suburban domestic luxuries. However, Nixon exploited the power of America’s consumer society when he claimed that, by showing these appliances, he ‘hope[d] to show ... [American] diversity and … right to choose’. For his part, Khrushchev was not pretending when he dismissed the American appliances as ‘mere gadgets’: the Soviets had focused their efforts on ‘serious scientific displays’ and were dismayed at what they saw as America’s avoidance of the key issues. Although the modern conveniences of the US housewife were superficially impressive, and assured Nixon of victory in the debate, Khrushchev was careful to concede nothing. In a typically Soviet boast, he blustered: ‘In another seven years, we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave at you’.

But this text shall be concerned with the conflict that was fuelled by the means of architecture over the border territory between the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), formerly known as West Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) formerly known as East Germany. Here, it seems, the Cold War antagonism and brutality has been most visible. What I have also called ‘the war of streets and houses’ was not designed to physically fortify the two states through the creation of military strongholds. Rather, it was a way for the leaders of the competing ideologies to broadcast intimidating and threatening rhetoric. It was city planning as propaganda. Cultural convictions and amorphous ideologies came together in a form of ‘gesture’ architecture to project their messages where their people could not go – ‘over’ and across the Wall. At the centre of this battle was the divided city of Berlin. Here, the cultural confrontation was played out in remorselessly competitive urban planning – an East versus West ‘arms race’ of avenues, housing estates, public buildings and tall towers, each standing as the material embodiment of the economic might and ideological strength of their respective side.

In the early fifties, a bizarre kind of ‘secret war’ was fought in the underground of Berlin. Still today for many operations like ‘Operation Gold’ – a joint operation conducted by the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service – authoritative information is limited. Some of those stories might turn out slightly embarrassing for the respective side. In 1954 ‘Operation Gold’ was launched to tap into a landline communication of the Soviet Army headquarters in Berlin using a tunnel into the Soviet-Occupied Zone. While the construction of the 450 meter long tunnel running from Neukölln in the American Sector to Treptow in the Soviet Sector represented an exceptional engineering challenge, the KGB decided to let Operation Gold go on, seeing its potential for disinformation. Eleven months after the tunnel went into operation, Soviet and East German soldiers broke into the eastern end of the tunnel; calling it a "breach of the norms of international law" and "a gangster act."

Around the same time, the conflict was further fuelled by the construction of the Stalinallee – a massive parade avenue – in the East and the ‘retaliation’ (in 1957) of the Hansaviertel – an ‘innovative’ housing project – in the West. The Hansaviertel attempted to negate almost all of the main design characteristics of the Stalinallee: to contrast with the Stalinallee’s hierarchically organised and monumental axis, the Hansaviertel offered a flowing, green, asymmetric urban landscape, accentuated with individual solitary buildings.

In 1957, the Federal Republic and the West Berlin Senate – supported by leading Berlin businessmen – announced the ‘Capital Berlin’ competition to promote the return of the German government to Berlin. The competition was designed, in part, to embarrass the GDR, which had been trying for years to produce a master plan for the centre and could not even agree on the form and style of its central tower. Already unhappy, the GDR forbade its architects from participating in the competition after one of its jurors was rejected by the Western committee. But the main provocation was still to come: at a time when the Federal Republic was using international diplomacy to repudiate the existence of a second German state, it emerged that the competition brief specifically directed entrants not to exempt East Berlin’s territory from their plans.

While many architects, including many acclaimed architects of the time, drew on existing ideas and what they knew about Berlin’s politics and urban history, the fiction of Berlin as the centre of a reunified Germany and as a world metropolis encouraged others to produce some of their most radical urban statements. Some Western architects, probably less aware of the political ramifications of their projects, designed skyscraper fantasies of such excessive height that they would be able to accommodate almost half the city’s available housing and office stock. These gargantuan structures – which ranged in size from a single, 720m (Cartiglioni) tower to a grid of five 222m ‘Cartesian towers’ (Corbusier) – were not only grotesquely tall but also demonstrated a complete disregard of every aspect of urbanism in East Berlin.

In return, on the 7th of October 1958, four months after the end of the competition for ‘Capital Berlin’, the government of East Berlin launched its own idea competition for the re-organisation of the centre of the capital of the GDR, inviting exclusively architects from socialist countries, and rejecting the overture the west had just displayed. But it is not until May 1960 that Walter Ulbricht, then head of the state, addressed architects personally, declaring that the GDR was reaching the period of the ‘victory of socialism’, and that therefore pressure should be kept on West Germany and no feelings of inferiority should be allowed. West Berlin’s planning of high-rises, he insisted must be immediately responded with visual markers of higher quality representing the ‘workers-and peasants’ state”. Instead of a gigantic party building a year later, in 1961 the construction of the Berlin Wall charged with new tensions and energies the conflict between the two city parts.

The Wall, in all its naked aggression and power, was arguably the biggest gun in this arms race and it was unparalleled in its emblematic realisation of the political use of architecture. Its construction promoted yet another phase in the ideological battleground, in which architecture did not serve only as the physical fortification of the two rival states, but rather as symbolic instrument in a war taking place on the level of ideological propaganda. Construction served as a continuation of an intimidating and threatening rhetoric of the leaders, projecting their messages, over’ and across the Wall through the purely visual domain that could penetrate the other’s hermetically sealed off space. The ‘battle of the skyline’, was indeed a rivalry played out in city-silhouettes and panoramic postcard-views through the production and projection of each side’s latest arsenal of monuments.

In 1964 the GDR government decided for the construction of a TV tower. Already since 1959, West Berlin had planned to build a TV tower, but its realisation always failed for legal, financial and political reasons. When the East completed its TV tower first, the GDR won a great victory in the ‘battle of the skyline’. Their satisfaction added to the euphoria over the exploits of cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn, the first German in space. As a bizarre aside, Peter Müller points out that the jagged roofs of the TV Tower’s pedestal seem to echo a prototype space shuttle. And the TV Tower wasn’t just a distinctive icon for the capital city which symbolised the GDR’s perceived superiority; it was also able to interfere with communications systems at West Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. The architectural battles of the Cold War had begun in earnest.

Things took a more hostile turn in 1966, when Axel Springer threatened to project news written in light onto the exterior walls of his nineteen-floor-high Springer-Hochhaus publishing house. This would be visible on the other side of the Wall in East Berlin. Although plans for what would have been the world’s first digital screen came to nothing, the propaganda war proceeded apace. The Springer-Hochhaus played a key role in this war, and not just with projection equipment. Even the laying of the corner stone in 1959 was seen by Cold War propagandists as an intimidating gesture. At the time, politicians, including Willy Brandt – who then was the Governing Mayor of West Berlin and a good friend of Springer – supported the provocative gesture of building a high-rise publishing house and deliberately sited it next to the dividing line between East and West Berlin. The original plan to clad the building with information – a novel concept, which anticipated the fashionable façade screen of post-modern architecture – was eventually rejected in favour of a plan to cover it with gold-tinted glass, a move designed to project a sense of Western opulence into the East. Whether the original idea was dropped due to East German pressure or to the eventual withdrawal of Springer is not clear. The only dissenters were Springer’s employees, whose view over the Wall to East Berlin was spoiled by the orange tint. For the East however, the presence of hundreds of journalists and the ubiquitous eyes of the world hidden behind Springer’s mirror glass was not unlike the gaze of the guard in the panopticon. By constantly monitoring the Wall strip and reflecting its dystopian panorama back into East German society, the building succeeded in exercising a subversive form of pressure on the GDR.

To enhance and celebrate the East’s discomfort, when the building was inaugurated, Springer invited the well-known Viennese painter Oskar Kokoschka to take up temporary residence on the top floor and paint the view over East Berlin. For Springer, it was not enough to photograph the ‘human crime of the neighbouring regime’ as journalists did: he wanted to indict the East with the slowness, intensity and passion of a painting. Kokoschka’s style of painting, renowned for its expressionistic violence, was well-suited to the task. In rough, angry, blurry lines, Kokoschka depicted the Wall with its watch towers in the foreground and the fragmented, deserted city of Berlin in the background.

Leipziger Strasse

The tensions of the Cold War demanded that the East retaliate in kind. Buildings near the Wall were henceforth designed to be at least nineteen storeys high and mirror glass was to be used for façades. The state also chose to locate its taller tenement blocks, such as those on Leipziger Strasse, in such a way that they would work as a ‘second wall’ which – inhabited by conformist party members and bureaucrats – would block the images coming from the West, or at least hide their content from the new state’s more discontented inhabitants. In contrast to the soulless office buildings of the capitalist city centre, Leipziger Strasse was planned as a public centre where the functions of housing and culture coexisted for the benefit of the citizen.

The completed project included a series of 8–14 storey buildings and four 22 storey buildings. In spite of the relative luxury enjoyed by residents along the Wall strip, some of them took advantage of their position to flee the country on self-made hang-gliders. The construction of Leipziger Strasse in the early seventies represented an immense urban undertaking, whose size and importance could be compared with the construction of the Stalinallee in the 1950s. It had to be the tangible fruit of the division, the visible new reality of German socialism. Freed from the polemics of Russian neo-classicism, Leipziger Strasse moved back into the abstractions of classical modernism. So one of the last re-loading of the arms race over the Berlin Walls took the very form which has remained so characteristic for socialist planning.

The ‘war’ between the global superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union and their alliance partners, that took the form of an arms race involving nuclear and conventional weapons, networks of military alliances, economic warfare and trade embargos, propaganda, espionage and proxy wars, did not bring about direct fighting. Hence this ‘war’ was called the Cold War. In view of the most recent grand-scale urban demolitions in Berlin and the rest of East Germany, the question whether the invisible tension of the conflict finally broke the relative peace the ‘architectural arms race’ had secured remains still disputed.

Arms race, architectural
An architectural arms race is a competition between two or more countries for supremacy through the means of architecture and urbanism. Each party competes to produce architectural imagery or concrete built form to achieve a relative gain over the other. Such gain could be accounted for either symbolically, or physically interfering with urban practices in the country of the opponent.

Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City, p.15
Frieda Grafe, Filmfarben, p. 91
Beatriz Colomina, Enclosed by Images: Architecture in the Post-Sputnik Age, in Thomas Levin (ed), CTRL Space, pp.324-325
Karal Ann Marlin, Nixon in Moscow: The Kitchen Debate, in Ben Highmore, The Everyday Life Reader, p.103
Ibid., p.103
Ibid., p.106
Ibid., p.105
Bruno Flierl, Hundert Jahre Hochhäuser, p.194
Peter Müller, Ein Fernsehturm für Ost-Berlin. Die ersten Versuche, in Holger Barth, Projekt Sozialistische Stadt, pp.227-233
See Kokoschka malt Berlin, Berlin: Springer, 1966