The Quasi-Nomadic Cell: At the Threshold of the Collective Dwelling

Mobility is a common word within the modernist discourse, and although it represented the zeitgeist or, in other words, the spirit of the time, it was never thoroughly analyzed. How is the nomad used to describe the urban subject, is the argument which will be highlighted in terms of how the new subject and the city were envisioned by the avant-garde architects. CIAM’s innovations had historical links to many earlier efforts to reform society through architecture, and as a result its earliest conferences responded to questions like the subsistence dwelling and problems of the contemporary city.1 Before focusing on the problems of the city to their full extent, architects emphasized on the concept of the minimum dwelling unit; the living conditions of the individual and the new concepts of dwelling set the principles upon which the reformation of the society and the reorganization of the city was based. Hannes Meyer, member of the ABC group and one of the most polemical architects among CIAM, was a protagonist of this vision since 1926 with his project the “Co-op Zimmer”. Unlike other collectivist’s writings and experiments, Meyer emphasized on the importance of the autonomous individual among the collective. His work expresses a technological utopia through which one can see the transformation of man into a “semi- nomad”. The concept of Meyer’s Co-op series relied on the key factor concept of mobility, which is fundamental considering that mobility penetrated all aspects of modern life. More importantly it represents the endless possibilities of the liberal definition of freedom of modern man subject to the impersonal authority of social forces. Finally, public and private space form new relationships by constantly exchanging characteristics; new relations that will have a great impact on shaping ultimately “the new world”, as inspired by Marx and Engels long before architecture would pose political and social questions.


“The so-called housing shortage, so much talked about in the press these days, cannot be simply dismissed by admitting that the working class is generally living in bad, overcrowded, and unhealthy apartments… The term “housing crisis”, as it is currently understood, essentially stands for nothing other than the worsening of the already miserable housing conditions, caused by the influx of people into the cities…”2

Engels, “The housing Question”, 1872

The “housing shortage” or crisis is a phenomenon not only of the early twentieth century but probably of all times. As Engels states, it is a result of massive unemployment and underemployment, since the masses lack sufficient means and are forced to live on the lowest level of the so-called “subsistence minimum”, as the cities fail to offer them opportunity for decent human living.3 The situation of the crisis had reached a point by the 1920’s that required a radical reform and modernization of housing, which the architectural avant-garde had already started to focus on. As confirmed by the statistics of both central and western European cities, the greatest demand was for small-size and low-cost apartments in the cities and not the nineteenth century resettlement (Umsiedlung), which indicated a kind of “garden colonization of the countryside”.4 The settlement, as Tafuri explains, “was to be an oasis of order”, an example of how an alternative model of urban development is possible for working-class organization to propose, “a realized utopia”. But it openly set the model of “town” against that of the large city.5 In 1928 CIAM declared that, “town planning is the organization of the functions of collective life; it extents over both the urban agglomerations and the countryside.”6 The Existenzminimum, which was also the name of the second CIAM conference in 1929, or what Karel Teige calls “minimum dwelling”, became a slogan, announced and promoted by modern architects, as the most immediate problem which remained unsolved since the time Engels and Marx wrote about the housing conditions of the population.7


“Even the need for fresh air ceases to be a need for the worker. Man reverts once more to living in a cave, but the cave is now polluted by the intangible and pestilential breath of civilization… A dwelling in the light (Lichtwohnung), which Prometheus describes in Aeschylus as one of the great gifts through which he transformed savages into men, ceases to exist for the worker… As we said, man returns to his cave dwelling, but his return is in the nature of alienation and hostility… And so, he soon recognizes that the quality of his apartment is the exact opposite of a human dwelling in a world, which is supposed to represent the horn of plenty.”8

Karl Marx, Economical and Philosophical manuscripts 1844

Most likely with those words born in mind and in search for a new dwelling form, the architectural avant-garde chose “minimal area and maximal livability as the technical formula for minimum dwelling design.” This concept, as Teige states, is known as the “mini-max dwelling concept”: that is, a minimal space accommodating “maximal life” for the class of the subsistence minimum, defining a dwelling that does not fall below standards needed for biological survival.9 “A healthy dwelling” is the phrase which drove the technical definition of what Ernst May termed Existenzminimum in terms of minimally-acceptable floor space, density, light, fresh air, access to green space, access to transit, and other such resident issues. The word which describes best the minimum apartment is “cell”; “a self-contained whole, serving all the psychological, economic, recreational, and physiological needs of its inhabitants – in short, meeting all the normal requirements of the former family-household apartment at a different scale”, says Teige. It is therefore important to understand that in such a scheme the functions of the former bourgeois type of dwelling are met only partially, and the form of the minimum apartment will not be self-sufficient in the traditional sense; its form will be determined solely by the basic physiological-recreational and psychological processes of dwelling. In other words, “by dwelling as rest, reading, sleeping, and intimate personal life.”10


“The city is the most complex biological agglomeration, and it must be consciously regulated and constructively shaped by man. The demands we make on life today are all of the same nature regardless of our social sector or stratum. The surest sign of true community is the satisfaction of the same needs by the same means. The upshot of such a collective demand is the standard product. The folding chair, roll-top desk, light bulb, bathtub and portable gramophone are typical standard products manufactured internationally and showing a uniform design. They are apparatuses in the mechanization of our daily life. Their standardized form is impersonal. They are manufactured in quantity, serially, as a serialized structural element, as a serialized home… Because of the standardization of his needs as regards housing, food and mental sustenance, the semi-nomad of our modern productive system has the benefit of freedom of movement, economies, simplification and relaxation, all of which are vitally important to him”.11

Hannes Meyer, Introduction to the Co-op Zimmer, “The New World” (Die neue Welt), “Der Standard”, 1926

Hannes Meyer demonstrates, in his essay “The New World”, a concept of a smoothly traversable, nomadic space, a space for the collective determined by the imposition of new products and external “fields of force” that “operate to dissolve established boundaries within various forms of experience and cognition.”12 The Co-op Zimmer, as described by Michael Hays, produces The Zimmer is something of a misnomer, says Hays, since the project is and always had been, in fact, a photograph. It is an assemblage, a “conspicuous arrangement” as Meyer describes, of isolated objects, which together form a new contract for the dwelling space. “Meyer’s interior is a text”, in the sense of the diagram, “provided that term can be metonymically extended to such things as life habits and daily routines, means of knowing, belonging, and practicing, all fixed through chains of signification.”13 Like Magonigle, who preferred photographs instead of detailed design because they capture “ the spirit of the thing”, Meyer presents a “diagram of the present age”, which acts like all diagrams as an instrument of an alarming and fascinating range of possibilities.14 At this point we must stress that the diagram, as Hyungmin Pai underlines, “emerges as a necessary mechanism, in the gap between conception and execution, for the subject to control its object of knowledge.”15 The photograph has “the characteristic of being not only an icon but also an index”, in other words, the cause of “the photographic image is seemingly always within the image”.16 Yet in this diagram lines do not replace figures, but quite the opposite; the photograph works as a map of the individual in his absence, it implies the user and movement through the space. The Co-op Zimmer is a conceptualization of the nomadic mobility and modern lifestyle, made possible by the portable furniture, the alimentary products, and the invasion of “his master’s voice.”17


At this point, it would be important to focus our attention to Meyer’s choice of words, when describing the individual among the collective as “a semi-nomad of our productive system”. Giedion’s “modern man” or Meyer’s “semi-nomad” is surrounded by nothing but impersonal objects. Objects and modern man should be separated from one another, like the objects of a nomad in the desert. The “standard product” is what accompanies modern man; product in the sense of what is necessary for survival, from furniture to food, clothes or anything that can be defined as a human or collective need. The “serialized home” is the intimate space of the individual; an apartment of small dimensions with acceptable level of comfort, which can be realized only “by improving furniture and installations, by utilizing their potential to the limit of their functional capacities, and by rationally apportioning every centimeter of space”. The need to “economize and save space calls for strict limits on the dimensions of furniture, as well as reducing its size with folding mechanisms – for example, folding chairs, drop-leaf tables, collapsible beds, and so on.”18 Teige suggests that the furnishings of a railroad can provide the model, but Meyer goes a bit further and implies the objects of a modern nomad instead. The dwelling cell and the nomadic tent are nothing alike, but the standard product, as described in Meyer’s text, somehow alludes the nomad’s modest belongings. In order to describe how the nomad tent is set every time the women unfold it, the French “disposer” is more appropriate than “planning”. In the same manner planning the dwelling cell means to arrange, to put things in a certain order. “The architect is an organizer, not a designer of objects.” This assertion of Le Corbusier’s is not a slogan, says Tafuri, but “an obligatory directive that connects intellectual initiative and the civilization machiniste.”19 A parallel can be drawn here between the Co-op Zimmer and the beyt es- shaar (nomad tent) from Charles Doughty’s descriptions, but only as a diagrammatic depiction and arrangement of objects.

“The Aarab tent, which they call the beyt es-shaar, “abode, booth or house of hair”, that is of black worsted or hair-cloth, has, with its pent roof, somewhat the form of cottage… The booth front is commonly left open, to the half at least we have seen, for the mukaad or men’s sitting-room: the other which is the women’s and household side, is sometimes seen closed (when they would not be espied, whether sleeping or cooking) with a fore-cloth; the woman’s part is always separated from the men’s apartment by a hanging, commonly not much more than breast or neck high, at the waist poles of the tent. Upon the side of the hareem, that is the household apartment, is stored all their husbandry. At the woman’s curtain stand the few tent-cloth sacks (of their own weaving) of their poor baggage, el-gush: in these is bestowed their corn and rice if they have any; certain lumps of rock-salt, for they will eat nothing insipid; also the housewife’s thrift of wool and her spun yarn… The removing of the camp of the Aarab, and driving the cattle with them from one to another pasture ground, is called rahla… Then Beduish housewives hasten then to pluck up the tent-pegs, and their booths fall; the tent-cloth is rolled up, the tent- poles are gathered together and bound in a faggot: so they drag out the household stuff, to load upon the burden-camels… The herdsmen now drive forward; the hareem mount with their baggage; and this is the march of the nomad village”20

Charles Doughty, “Travels in Arabia Deserta”, 1888

The nomads only carry with them what is extremely necessary in order to achieve an easy rahla, and folding or unfolding of their dwelling. Quantity, therefore, is important; “less should be more, especially in the minimum apartment, where every nonessential piece of furniture becomes a hindrance.” For example, “a person needs to sit while eating, working, and resting; he or she needs a table for work; a closet for clothing, linen, and dishes; shelves or cabinets for books; and finally, a mat for sleeping. That is about all.21 As described above in Charles Doughty’s “Travels in Arabia Deserta”, the nomadic way of living indicates the mobility that modern architecture aimed to include when forming the new lifestyle of the collective. But an objection immediately presents itself when the gender discrimination and the separate spaces for man and woman, leisure and household happen in the arrangement of the tent, which are never indicated in the dwelling cell by the architects of modernity. Gropius, borrowing from the 1912 work of the sociologist F. Muller-Lyer, argued that in the new era of “cooperatives and communal law” that had opened women’s equality was also increasing, as women became able to look beyond the family and enter the world of business and industry.22 Biological considerations will determine the dwelling design; every “adult shall have his own room, small though it may be!”23


Nomads would be constantly on the move in order to find food and water; they would resettle their camp in different areas within the blankness of the desert. The organization of their dwellings and village prompts to change each time it is being set upon a new ground. Modern architects, in a similar manner, intend to form this new collectivity upon a tabula rasa or scraped tablet, including from the standardized element, to the cell, the single block, the housing project and finally the city; all are supposed to replace and not to co-exist with the existing elements of the city. As Tafuri states, a definitive solution of the housing problem can only be accomplished by the radical reconstruction of our cities, and ultimately by the comprehensive reconstruction of the very concept of the contemporary city.24 Mcleod also confirms the modernist’s vision of building the cities form scratch, by stating that solving the problem requires the “clearing of old housing districts, where, because the poorest levels of the population are warehoused in old blocks “fit only for demolition.”25 This vision of re- building and re-structuring society echoes the concept of tabula rasa, as defined by John Locke, is in Essay on human understanding. As Nicholas Petryszak explains, “Locke’s concept was built upon the combined bases of rationalism and experience in order to demonstrate that although man was imperfect, he was nevertheless susceptible to definite improvement through the application of laws of science as well as through the instituting of programs of social reform.”26 Echoing Le Corbusier, Teige also stressed that because housing was a mass need which “can only be solved by large-scale planning”, the “housing problem must be seen above all as a problem of town planning”.27 From the cell the architects had to shift their attention to the multicellular and the organization of the new city. In his Grossstadtarchitektur, published in 1927, Ludwig Hilberseimer wrote:

“The architecture of the large city depends essentially on the solution given to two factors: the elementary cell and the urban organism as a whole. The single room as constituent element of the habitation, and since the habitations in turn from blocks, the room will become a factor of urban configuration, which is architecture’s true goal. Reciprocally, the planimetric structure of the city will have a substantial influence on the design of the habitation and the room.”28

What Tafuri writes about Hilberseimer’s relation between the cell and urban organism is that works as an exemplar. In the first place the cell is the “prime element of the continuous production line that concludes with the city”. In the second place it is also “the element that conditions the dynamics of the aggregations of building structures”. The cell reproducible “ad infinitum”, represents the basic structure of a production program, from which is excluded any other standard component. The structure of the city, by “dictating the laws of assemblage”, will be able to influence the standard form of the cell. The old concepts of “place” or “space” are altered, since the conformation of the cells “predisposes the coordinates” of the planning of the new city.29 The grid would be deployed as an understructure to control the horizontal and vertical relations occurring on a plane surface. It acts as the device to map the space of the dwelling unit, apartment block, area, city, landscape and so on. Different as they are in scale and aim all the elements would abide by the grid, which emphasizes the potential of expansion and the repetition of the module. The grid in planning as in art, extents, in all directions to infinity; it is synonymous with the continuum. As Krauss again points out, “any boundaries imposed upon it can only be seen as arbitrary. By virtue of the grid the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment; a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric.”30 Another aspect of the grid is that in the flatness, that results from its coordinates, it is completely “geometricized, ordered, antinatural, antimimetic, antireal”, notes Rosalind Krauss. In the overall regularity of its organization, it is the result “not of imitation, but of aesthetic decree.”31 An aesthetic order that only the production of industrial work can create through the mode of repetition.

“The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.”32


The industrial production became part of the organization of the design and was reflected even in the way proposed for the consumption of the object, as proposed in Meyer Co-op Zimmer. As Kenneth Frampton states, that “a rigorous modern architecture must be contingent upon the broader issues of politics and economics and that, far from distancing itself from the realities of the industrialized world, architecture must depend for its future quality on the adoption of rationalized production methods.”33 The Co-op series is a work that can be characterized only as a utopia, but a technological one. What becomes prominent is the role of the architect in a disguised propaganda, which along with all the literary, artistic, or cinematographic manifestos in favor of the mechanization of the universe, it never fails to amaze. These invitations, says Tafuri, “to become a machine, to universal proletarianization, to forced production, in revealing the ideology of the Plan all too explicitly, cannot fail to arouse suspicion as to their real intentions.”34 The question of the minimum dwelling is therefore not a question for architecture alone: it is above all a social and political question. As a political agent and idealist the architect had to assume the task of continual invention of advanced solutions, at the most generally applicable level.35 “Architecture”, in the sense of programing and planned reorganization of building production and of the city as a productive organism, “rather than revolution.”36 For us now it is of interest to note that Meyer associates modern man and a nomad in order to demonstrate a particular concept of the collective life, its possibilities and freedoms. We can assume at this point that the word nomad, in Meyer’s text, doesn’t only refer to the objects or the experience of the modern man in the city, but also suggests a new political authority. Since the nomadic lifestyle has been associated with freedom and rebelliousness, the quasi- nomadic cell and life implies a new system of values for the citizen that was discussed since the late period of Enlighenment. “One of the most striking accomplishments of the Enlightenment theorists was that, in maintaining their liberal ideals of individuality, they seemed to have discovered a concept of social freedom that could reconcile a faith in the predictable, mechanistically determined operation of society with a commitment to individual liberty.”37 And that is exactly what Meyer proposed, “Co-operation rules the world; the community rules the individual.” It is enough to recognize here that even if human nature is autonomous, rational and capable of free will, there is still imperfectability and disunity within man. The “semi-nomad” is not a singular, defined individual, but rather one who can embody different identities and understand the world from multiple, heterogeneous perspectives.

1 The International Congresses of Modern Architecture (Congres internationaux d’architecture moderne) commonly known as CIAM, was formed in 1928 by an architectural collective, which deliberately intended to create an antitraditionalist modern architecture. As Eric Mumford points out, its overall inspiration can best be understood in relation to ideas first put forward by Count Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), a French philosopher and social scientist, in early nineteenth century. Saint- Simon believed that developmets in industry and in the scientific understanding of human history and society were making possible a new social system based on universal human association.Eric Mumford, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”, The MIT press, 1958, p. 2

2 Friedrich Engels, “The housing Question”, published as a pamphlet, 1872

3 What the term “subsistence minimum” means to its full extent is described best, according to Karel Teige, by the Berlin hygienist Dr. Paul Vogler: “the upper limit is the real minimum vivendi (the minimum that still allows one to survive), while the lower limit is the modus non moriendi (a condition in which one still does not die of hunger).”, Karel Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, trans. Eric Dluhosch, MIT Press, 2002, (Prague 1932), p. 42

4 Kenneth Frampton, foreword, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”

5 Manfredo Tafuri, “Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development”, The MIT Press, 1973, 119

6 CIAM declaration 1928, Kenneth Frampton, foreword, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”

7 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, 1932, p. 2

8 Karl Marx, “Economical and Philosophical manuscripts”, 1844

9 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, p. 33

10 Ibid, p. 252

11 Hannes Meyer, “Die neue Welt”, “Der Standard”, 1926

12 Michael Hays, “Modernism and the posthumanist subject: The architecture of Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Hilberseimer”, p.69

13 Ibid, p. 64

14 Harold Van Buren Magonigle, “The upper Ground 4”, Pencil Points 15, sept. 1934, p. 447

15 Hyungmin Pai, “The Portfolio and the Diagram: Achitecture, Discource, and modernity in America”, MIT Press, 2002, p. 163

16 Ibid, p. 254

17 “His master’s voice” is a trademark in the music business, and for many years was the name of a large record label. The name was coined in 1899 as the title of a painting of the dog Nipper listening to a wind-up gramophone.

18 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, p. 267

19 Tafuri, “Architecture and Utopia”, p.125

20 Charles Doughty, “Travels in Arabia Deserta”, 1888, p.p. 71,78,79,80

21 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, p. 264

22 Walter Gropius, The Sociological Foundations of the Minimum Dwelling, “Scope of total architecture”, 1956

23 Mumford, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”, p. 39

24 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, p. 270

25 Mary Caroline McLeod, “Urbanism and Utopia: Le Corbusier from Regional Syndicalism to Vichy”, University Microfilms, 1987, p. 164

26 Nicholas G. Petryszak, “Tabula rasa – its origins and implications”, Journal of the history of the Behavioral Sciences 17 (1981): p. 15-16

27 Mumford, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”, p. 53

28 Ludwig Hilberseimer, Großstadtarchitektur, Julius Hoffmann, Stuttgart, 1927

29 Tafuri, “Architecture and Utopia”, p.105

30 Rosalind E. Krauss, The originality of the Avant-Garde and other modernist Myths, MIT Press, 1985, p. 18

31 Ibid, p. 9-10

32 Karl Marx, Selected writings in Sociology and Social Philodophy, Preface 1859, ed. Thomas Bottomore and Max Rubel, p. 67

33 Kenneth Frampton, foreword, Eric Mumford, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”

34 Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, p. 76

35 Ibid, p.12

36 Ibid, p. 100

37 Petryszak, Tabula rasa – its origins and implications, p. 17

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