The Earth that Modernism Built

Book forthcoming in summer 2024 | 2014–2024

Kenny Cupers

Starting from conflicts over land in colonial Africa and imperial Germany, The Earth that Modernism Built rewrites the history of architectural modernism for an age of rising global inequality and deepening environmental crisis. It demonstrates how approaches to modern housing, landscape design, and infrastructure planning are indebted to colonial, and thus racialized, understandings of planetary inhabitation.

Cupers argues that to understand the planetary purview of architectural modernism we need to radically shift the terms of analysis. As opposed to describing how new designs traveled and transformed places and peoples across the globe, his book interrogates the politics of life and earth underpinning this process.

Drawing from a body of both canonical and unknown sources and archives in Germany, Namibia, and Poland, the book traces the colonial logics of reform experiments, and the ways in which designers made these logics sensible. This shows how ambitions to root people in the land fueled—rather than countered—modernist beliefs that the human and earthly environment could be molded by design. In this context, planetary design emerges as the outgrowth of an intellectual project of soil, settlement, and race.

Germany is no longer an unlikely context to examine how colonialism shaped architectural modernism. This book shifts the analytical focus from representation and experimentation to race and ecology. It situates architecture, urban planning, landscape design and related fields in an expansive imperialist discourse about humanity’s earthly constitution. This recontextualization shows intricate connections between colonial officials planning agricultural hinterlands, garden designers proselytizing geopolitical theory, soil researchers turning to folklore, and Bauhaus architects designing modern communities according to functionalist principles.

German colonial prison in Swakopmund, Namibia © K. Cupers 2014