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CIAM (Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne)

Updated Friday, 30 August 2019
Although the CIAM would have influence over British architecture for half a century, none of the original signatories were from the UK.

Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne

(1928 - 1956)



Rethinking Architecture

CIAM was formed one year before the building of the German Pavilion in Barcelona. Its foundation marks the determination of Modernist architects to promote and finesse their theories. For nearly thirty years the great questions of urban living, space, and belonging were discussed by CIAM members. The documents they produced, and the conclusions they reached, had a tremendous influence on the shape of cities and towns the world over.

The organisation's founding declaration was signed by twenty-four architects at La Sarraz, Switzerland, in 1928. None of the signatories was British. The La Sarraz Declaration asserted that architecture could no longer exist in an isolated state separate from governments and politics, but that economic and social conditions would fundamentally affect the buildings of the future.

The Declaration also asserted that as society became more industrialised, it was vital that architects and the construction industry rationalise their methods, embrace new technologies and strive for greater efficiency. (Le Corbusier, one of the movement's founders, often liked to compare the standardised efficiency of the motor industry with the inefficiency of the building trade.)

CIAM's early attitudes towards town-planning were stark: "Urbanisation cannot be conditioned by the claims of a pre-existent aestheticism; its essence is of a functional order… the chaotic division of land, resulting from sales, speculations, inheritances, must be abolished by a collective and methodical land policy."

At this early stage the desire to re-shape cities and towns is clear. Out is the "chaotic" jumble of streets, shops, and houses which existed in European cities at the time; in is a zoned city, comprising of standardised dwellings and different areas for work, home, and leisure.

The Athens Charter

The fourth CIAM Congress in 1933 (theme: "The Functional City") consisted of an analysis of thirty-four cities and proposed solutions to urban problems. The conclusions were published as "The Athens Charter" (so-called because the Congress was held on board the SS Patris en route from Marseilles to Athens). This document remains one of the most controversial ever produced by CIAM. The charter effectively committed CIAM to rigid functional cities, with citizens to be housed in high, widely-spaced apartment blocs. Green belts would separate each zone of the city. The Charter was not actually published until 1943, and its influence would be profound on public authorities in post-war Europe.

The End of CIAM

It didn't take long for architects to question the conclusions reached at Athens, and to worry publicly about the sterility of the city envisioned by CIAM. Chief among these doubters were young British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who led a breakaway from CIAM in 1956. Three years previously they had outlined their concerns; "Man may readily identify himself with his own hearth, but not easily with the town within which it is placed. 'Belonging' is a basic emotional need- its associations are of the simplest order. From 'belonging'- identity- comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness.

The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails."

The Smithsons worried that CIAM's ideal city would lead to isolation and community breakdown, just as European governments were preparing to build tower blocks in their ruined cities.

The last CIAM meeting was held in 1956. By the mid-1950s it was clear that the official acceptance of Modernism was stronger than ever, and yet the concerns voiced by the Smithsons and their allies that the movement was in danger of creating an urban landscape which was hostile to social harmony, would rise to a crescendo in the decades to come.

CIAM succeeded in developing new architectural ideas into a coherent movement, but Modernists would spend many years defending, and often undoing, its legacy.

The Modernist Architects


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