Early in 1924 a small Viennese publishing house began printing copies of a lavishly illustrated fable entitled Der Kaiser and derArchitekt: Ein Marchen in funfzig Bildern. Set in Peter Behrens’s severe Antigua typeface, accompanied by plates rendered in an ink wash technique of astonishing lucidity, and produced under the close supervision of its author, the book presents something of an enigma.
Long neglected and readily misunderstood, it is ostensibly the story of an emperor who is haunted by the dream of a wonderful but evanescent heavenly city, and who turns in perplexity to his architect. Over the course of the narrative the architect builds thirty-three cities of astonishing architectural creativity, each more extraordinary than the last—but none lives up to the memory of the emperor’s vision. Finally, despairing of success, the emperor calls an end to construction. But the architect refuses to surrender. On his own initiative, he builds a tower, a thing of immensity and beauty, an enduring monument to the architectural project. It is the fate of this tower that shapes the conclusion of the narrative.
It is clear that Uriel Birnbaum’s story can be read on a number of levels—historical, political, philosophical and theological. But it is articulated, first of all, in a vocabulary that is explicitly architectural. Conceived in the years during and immediately after World War I, Birnbaum’s cities bear close comparison to the fabrications of Expressionism, which provide a primary point of reference. But the argument of Birnbaum’s narrative also exposes architecture to broader intellectual claims. It suggests not only that the architect must grapple with problems far beyond the limits of the building site, but also that the outlines of those problems may themselves be more clearly discerned through the shadows that they cast over the project of architecture. And if architectural introspection has often been precipitated by provocations external to the discipline, Birnbaum’s narrative is not alone in adopting the dominant central motif of the Tower of Babel, understood as an archetype of the architectural project. Presented at the time of its creation as a reformulation of the Genesis account, the text contributes to a body of work by writers for whom Babel serves a clarifying function, establishing a landmark around which to organise critical thought.
Birnbaum’s book fell into oblivion almost immediately, and has left little trace in architectural consciousness. Speculations as to the reasons for this forgetfulness yield several suggestions: the book’s publication—costly, delayed and incomplete—contributed to the failure, that same year, of its publishing house; its appearance coincided with the fading of an already moribund Expressionism, to which it seemed inextricably tied; its author found himself increasingly out of step with contemporary enthusiasms, despite having tasted, not long before, of the fruits of critical acclaim; and his opportunities for exposure soon suffered the effects of growing anti-Semitism before being extinguished altogether under the rise of Nazi power. The few assessments that do exist have tended to consider Birnbaum’s work either in retrospective relationship to the Expressionist tendencies of which it offers such a clear critique, or as the predictable product of a conservative mind, a retrogressive artefact that is therefore readily swept away by the currents of modernity. In both cases, Birnbaum’s text is placed at a dead end that leaves little room for further exploration.
This dissertation approaches it instead as an articulation of problems that, ninety years later, have not yet been resolved. It studies Birnbaum’s text not only as a critique of those assumptions that shaped the Expressionist consciousness—assumptions infused with a particular enthusiasm for Nietzschean aphorism—but also as an argument with continued relevance to those architectural preoccupations that soon replaced the interests of Expressionism. Since those preoccupations have not yet been dismissed from among contemporary architectural anxieties, the critical force of Birnbaum’s book remains intact.
This focus also permits an engagement with the Tower of Babel as a recurring paradigm in the architectural narratives of modernity. Devoting particular attention to Babel’s extraordinary resurgence during the early decades of the twentieth century, this dissertation tests the hypothesis that the Tower can stand as a marker of the predicament of the architect who must build in a self-consciously modern, godless world. It proceeds on the contention that the explication of this predicament may be traced not only through the fabric of twentieth-century architectural thought, but also through the narrative of Birnbaum’s fable, offering a carefully articulated contribution to a long-standing discourse that has not yet reached its conclusion.
Kyle Dugdale has practiced architecture in London, Chicago, and New Haven. His research has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography, the John Hay Whitney Fellowship, the Harvey Fellows Program, and awards from the Society of Architectural Historians, the Bibliographical Society of America, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Dugdale’s work has been published in journals including Clog, Perspecta, the Journal of Architectural Education, and Utopian Studies. His first book, Babel’s Present, was published in 2016. In 2016 Dugdale was selected by the graduating students to be awarded the Professor King-lui Wu Teaching Award. He received a B.A. from the University of Oxford, an M.Arch. from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. from Yale University, where he was awarded the Theron Rockwell Field Prize.