Research Project
CIAM 4. The Functional City

Research Project
Bruno Maurer, Gregor Harbusch (Project manager Zurich), Daniel Weiss in cooperation with Prof. Dirk Frieling (†), Dr. Kees Somer, Evelien van Es (Project manager The Hague), Dr. Michelle Provoost

The research and publication project entitled «CIAM 4. The Functional City» is a co-operative venture of the gta Archives in Zurich and the EFL Foundation in The Hague. It is to evaluate this fourth meeting of the Congrès internationaux d‘architecture moderne (CIAM), held in the summer of 1933, for the first time in terms of systematic historiography. Astonishingly, although this congress became a legendary point of reference in subsequent decades – for both supporters and critics of functionalist urban planning – such a study has never been done before and is highly desirable.

The congress was conceived by a team led by Sigfried Giedion, Le Corbusier and Cornelis van Eesteren. Except for a few events in Athens, the conference was held mainly on the cruise liner Patris II on the way from Marseille to Athens and back. After the previous two congresses on «The Minimum Dwelling» (Frankfurt/Main, 1929) and «Rational Land Development» (Brussels, 1930), «The Functional City» represented an ambitious project to apply modern methods of architectural analysis and planning to the city as a whole. In subsequent decades, the subjects discussed during this congress became the canonical point of reference par excellence for both modernist urban planners and critics of modernist planning. The central tenets set up by the fourth CIAM conference, e.g. the paradigm of strict functional division and its guiding statements published by Le Corbusier in the Athens Charter in 1943, have been either appreciated or rejected to this day. The congress also became legendary for the unique atmosphere in which the discussions took place on board the liner, and for the visits to ancient Greek monuments and vernacular buildings.

With is universal programmatic agenda the fourth CIAM conference represented a climax of architectural modernism. Given the rise of totalitarianism in Europe at that time, it also marked a break in the history of modern architecture in between the two world wars. This can be seen not least in the unusual meeting place. Originally, the congress was to be held in Moscow as the Soviet Union seemed to offer special potential for large-scale urban developments. However, due to the political situation in the USSR, the venue had to be changed at short notice. It is no coincidence that it was moved to the Mediterranean, as this reflects a shift in architectural modernist view to what was seen as the peripheries, the tradition of antiquity and Mediterranean vernacular building.

The research project not only intends to revise the harsh, and partly short-sighted, criticisms of the congress, but also to question how the organisers, as well as others, evaluated and presented its results as a historic «concentration point» in modern urban planning. It will discuss the different ideas, debates and intentions of the participants and it will study their methods of working against the background of contemporary and later discussions on the phenomenon of the city and the question as to whether it can be analysed. The project does not intend to discuss CIAM‘s impact on the reality of urban planning – rather, it concentrates on the methods of comparative urban analysis and mapping as modern ideas and tools for understanding the city!

The main object of the proposed project is to discuss a representative selection of the 34 urban maps which the delegates of the then 18 CIAM member countries had drawn up with great personal commitment and put up for extensive discussion on board. Using contemporary mapping and illustration techniques, these plans represented attempts at the comparative analysis of cities from an international point of view. Examples ranged from Baltimore, Los Angeles and Detroit to a great number of European cities and the two «colonial« cities of Dalat and Bandung. Evaluating these plans took up most of the time. However, the delegates were unable to agree on a binding planning and design agenda. Though they decided to develop a synthesis later on, and despite efforts to do so, this never materialised. The «Athens Charter« published much later mainly reflects Le Corbusier‘s particular notions and cannot be taken as the jointly agreed congress «proceedings».

The discursive and material conditions for urban planning debates on board the Patris II, the conceptual differences between the protagonists with their specific national traditions, and the comparative study of city maps on the basis of modern cartographic techniques – all this forms the focus of the present research project, based on the studies of CIAM documents held by the gta Archives at the ETH Zurich carried out in recent years by a number of Swiss and foreign researchers. The project will combine their approaches and conclusions and will publish the 34 original city analyses pasted on over 230 plywood boards, which form one of the gta Archives‘ most important holdings.

Based on these catalogue texts, four essays will be written in the project‘s second phase. The essays will discuss CIAM 4 with special emphasis on the history of knowledge generation through comparative studies; graphic mapping and representation techniques in modern urban planning; criticism of the fourth CIAM conference by post-war modernists, and the lines of tradition from classical modernist urban analyses to present-day ones.

The catalogue section of the planned publication is to evaluate the CIAM city studies conclusively, whilst the text contributions will discuss them in their historic and international context. The book will be edited jointly by the two institutional project partners and published in English, by NAi Publishers in Rotterdam, together with gta Publishers in Zurich. For the first time ever, the book will make important original sources accessible for further systematic research and thus hopefully initiate a new discussion of CIAM 4.

The research and publication project entitled «CIAM 4. The Functional City» is a co-operative venture of the gta Archives in Zurich and the EFL Foundation in The Hague. Project team: Dirk Frieling (†), Gregor Harbusch (Project manager Zurich), Bruno Maurer, Michelle Provoost, Kees Somer, Evelien van Es (Project manager The Hague), Daniel Weiss

Authors of the catalogue: Tamara Bjažić Klarin, Enrico Chapel, Konstanze Domhardt, András Ferkai, Helen Fessas-Emmanouil, John R. Gold, Gregor Harbusch, Eric Jennings, Espen Johnsen, Martin Kohlrausch, David Kuchenbuch, Eric Mumford, Paolo Nicoloso, Pauline van Roosmalen, Josep M. Rovira, Rainer Schützeichel, Kees Somer, Klaus Spechtenhauser, Iwan Strauven, and Daniel Weiss.

Further Information

Van Eesteren-Fluck & Van Lohuizen Stichting, Den Haag


Gregor Harbusch