Neurath’s open-source urbanism

Stroom De Haag recently staged an exhibition on the work of Austrian economist, sociologist and philosopher Otto Neurath (1882-1945) entitled After Neurath – The Language of the Global Polis. Under the motto ‘better late than never’, here follows an introduction to the grandfather of open-sources.

After Neurath is an event that seems to grow as spontaneously as the urban development envisaged by Neurath. For two years now – one year longer than planned – Stroom has been programming activities about this idealist. I visited the most recent exhibition after attending a lecture by Klaus Overmeyer on the temporary use of empty spaces in the city, particularly Berlin (see the report by Chris Woltjes on ArchiNed). The link between Neurath and Overmeyer is striking; both argue for more spontaneity and freedom in urban planning. Neurath focuses both on the organising framework and the free space within it – to order disorder. Overmeyer’s lecture could therefore be viewed in an interesting historical perspective. What makes the work of Neurath so interesting is that his studies and themes are still so relevant.

Out of a huge pile of photos, newspaper cuttings, films, original letters and unique museum items, curator Nader Vossoughian and designers Project Projects (all from New York) compiled a clear exhibition made up of three acts that follow the development of Neurath’s work more or less chronologically. The first section – The Communal City – dealt with the self-organising squatter communities in Vienna after World War I. Soldiers returned home from the front either unemployed or injured to a disorientated city of hunger, poverty and housing shortages. The only way to survive was to build your own home, preferably outside the city where there was space to grow vegetables. The city functioned as a place of gathering and a market place for bartering goods. In Berlin, which was then growing explosively, Neurath had just learnt about the development of a modern metropolis. Although he welcomed the new technologies, he saw society becoming more individualist under the influence of the free market and capitalism.

Both during and after the war he saw in the do-in-yourself settlements how people lived with one another in a much more social manner when they governed themselves collectively and the economy was based on barter. To support these groups in particular and later the entire world community, he set up various magazines, societies, guilds, unions and institutes. Initially, he was interested in practical matters such as a model for expansion districts with collective vegetable gardens and a ‘building kit’ for a house that could be extended in five phases. This model dwelling, designed by architect Margarete Lihotzky, was presented in 1923 at a building fair attended by 200,000 visitors. But because the economy was recovering, house hunters opted in large numbers for the new social rental homes built by the city and no longer for the self-organising lifestyle advocated by Neurath, which people apparently resort to in emergency situations only.

Disappointed but with undiminished enthusiasm, he turned his attention to the emancipation of workers, ’the masses’. Based on the conviction that society can only change if everybody understands what society genuinely amounts to, he developed a method to translate intangible data into images that can be understood at a glance without language. Departments were set up in New York, London, Moscow and also in The Hague to use this open-source philosophy in translating and disseminating information. The power of this International System for Typographic Image Pedagogy, or ISOTYPE, is largely down to its designer. The German graphic designer Gerd Arntz drew 4000 universally recognisable and distinctive symbols.

In the second act – The World City – the work of these international enterprises was shown. Among them was the ‘world museum’ or Mundaneum, a museum about the development of society, which according to Neurath’s innovative concept was not based in a building but, instead, could travel the world in specially designed suitcases. Part of the Mundaneum was a 1930 atlas whose hundred pages are bound loosely for pedagogical purposes so that they could be leafed through in bed in the evening or hung on the wall as teaching or exhibition material, as was the case in Stroom. It forms a datascape, with images of eco-footprints and diagrams that make you wonder what the extrapolation to now might look like.

In the third act – The Functional City – the work became increasingly charged politically. Neurath joined CIAM. With it he shared the need to develop a ‘city science’ based on statistical data, and an interest in developing the universal cartography necessary for that. But to Neurath, Van Eesteren and his friends made a mess of things with their unclear and limited way of making maps. According to Neurath, maps had to do more than indicate functions. In order to use them as a basis for urban development, they also had to include social and economic data. Moreover, despite his failed attempt in Vienna almost twenty years earlier, Neurath still worked on the basis of a participatory democracy and urban development, while Van Eesteren, Le Corbusier and others viewed themselves as ‘masters of the profession’. The divergent views meant that collaboration within CIAM became increasingly difficult. In the end the ‘Historical Diagram’, which showed ‘how modern cities dominated the global economy by means of organised capitalism’ (shown in 1935 in the exhibition The Functional City), led to the split between Neurath and other Marxists with CIAM.

Stroom began the After Neurath project with an exhibition about a number of artists following on the heels of Neurath. Only later and in response to this came an exhibition about Neurath’s own work. Nader Vossoughian, a researcher from New York, delved into the work of Neurath and contacted Stroom. His research formed the basis for the exhibition and has also been reworked into a book issued by NAi Publishers. The book is thorough and extensive but rather dry. Between the lines you get a sense of Neurath’s turbulent life, his amazing successes as well as intense disappointments, his disputes with Loos and Le Corbusier, and his attempt to set up a revolutionary Prussian state without money that ended with a prison sentence. Who was this man? I hope the sequel to this exhibition is a film about his life.