Heedless Oblivion and Techno-Politics in Postwar American Architecture

Claire Zimmerman, University of Michigan


The military-industrial complex of the United States began to take shape before WWI, but became an unprecedented force around WWII, both before and after the war itself. The architectural footprint of US global political and economic power in this period is generally associated with signature embassies, Hilton hotels, and large steel and glass corporate skyscrapers, all increasingly optimized by new building technology.

Yet the buildings that enabled the growth of US political power were largely industrial buildings, constructed under regimes of intense competition and rapid change throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Complimenting the aesthetic program of this period was a campaign of industrial expansion that took place largely out of sight. The invisibility of US industrial power throughout the postwar period was gradually institutionalized by a retreat from the city—either to exurban sites nonetheless within reach of an urban workforce, or within the city itself, hidden from view behind earthen berms that came to replace the street front face of the urban factory, site of strikes and protest, and part of the public domain.

This talk traces the invisibilisation of those parts of the built environment through which political domination was attained in the years following WWII. Focusing on the astonishing wartime output of Albert Kahn Associates, it nonetheless advances more general claims about the project of US politics through technology, and the failure of architects and critics to call attention to the behemoth growing around them, a case of tacit yet heedless oblivion.


Claire Zimmerman is the author of Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century (Minnesota, 2014), co-editor of Neo-avant-garde and Postmodern: Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond (New Haven, 2010), and author of a Taschen monograph on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (2006).

She co-edited the forthcoming Grey Room 71 (Spring 2018), subtitled “The Cost of Architecture,” and recently published an article in the final volume of AA Files (#75). Current projects include a book manuscript with the working title Invisible Architecture, a historical analysis of the impact of US industrialisation on architecture through the Kahns of Detroit, and continuing work on the impact of photographic architecture on producers and users of buildings worldwide. She is an associate professor in History of Art and the Architecture Program at the University of Michigan, and Director of Doctoral Studies in the latter.