I am choosing to repost a reply I wrote in answer to a good question Ren raised over at my blog. I hope that it is informative for everyone.
There is no truly socialist architectural movement today. This can be seen in two different lights — one positive, the other negative.
On the one hand, I believe that there is no socialist architectural movement largely because we don’t inhabit a revolutionary moment. There are significant events taking place throughout the Arab world and in some of the poorer parts of Europe. Even the major economic powers of the world are reeling from crisis. The world is experiencing more upheaval now than it has felt in decades. But all-out social revolution is not imminent. I understand, as you do, that revolutionary transformation is a process, but history requires certain spasms or events to trigger such processes and set them concretely in motion.
So from this perspective, it’s perfectly understandable why there should be no socialist architectural movement — any such proposals or designs would be hopelessly utopian in our present situation. Architecture can have a social mission, and modernist architecture was certainly committed to such ends in its time. But as Le Corbusier and others realized, an emancipatory architecture can only take place at the level of a generalized process of global social planning. Only then could such ambitious schemes be undertaken and implemented. And so for this to take place, a social revolution must have already laid the groundwork for revolutionary architecture and urban-planning.
On the other hand, however, this all can be seen in a tragic light. The failure of the Russian Revolution to spread to Central and Western Europe left most of the world outside the pale of truly transformative social change. Still, the ideology of modernist architecture sought initially to rationalize building practices across borders, to create a universal language of spatial organization. The modernists wanted to lay to rest the arbitrary, capricious, and anachronistic methods of traditional construction throughout the world. Furthermore, the European and Russian avant-gardes were deeply concerned with the shortage of workers’ housing, the continued antithesis between town and country, and the general anarchy of design in a world where the architect was forced to seek out private, individual contracts, and satisfy their patrons’ every whim and fancy.
It was for precisely this reason, I argue, that European modernists pinned their hopes so strongly on the socialist experiment taking place in Russia. Even though modernism — in both Russia and abroad — practically worshipped technology, with its cult of the machine, the members of the avant-garde saw in the Soviet Union the opportunity to realize their visions on an unprecedented scale. Occupying approximately a sixth of the terrestrial globe, the Soviet Union represented to them a sort of spatial infinity, where they could plan not only individual structures or neighborhoods, nor even just individual cities. Wholeregions could be moulded through the efforts of unified, centralized planning. Thus, with the disappointment of the League of Nations’ choice opting for a neo-Renaissance design for its headquarters, and the global crisis of capitalism in the midst of the Great Depression, the European avant-garde flocked to Russia in staggering numbers. From Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland, and even the United States, architects of the “International” style were eager to participate in the building of a new society.
To name just a few: Le Corbusier, André Lurçat, Victor Bourgeois, Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, Bruno Taut, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Erich Mauthner, Arthur Korn, Hans Schmidt, Mart Stam, Cornelis van Eesteren — joining the dozens of capable modernist architects already working in the Soviet Union (Moisei Ginzburg, the three Vesnin brothers, Nikolai Ladovskii, El Lissitzky, Konstantin Mel’nikov, Il’ia Golosov, Nikolai Krasil’nikov, Georgyi Krutikov, Ivan Leonidov, etc., etc.)
And this is why the Stalinist betrayal dealt modernism such a crushing blow. With the decision for a grotesque neoclassical style for the Palace of the Soviets, the entire “mystique of the USSR” (as Le Corbusier called it) faded swiftly. Those who had dared to dream of a better future now found themselves hopelessly disillusioned. I maintain that this is where the social mission of modernism died its final, miserable death, and gave way to a more or less complete opportunism. Le Corbusier flirted with fascism in Vichy during the war before collaborating on the UN Building afterwards. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who in the 1920s had designed the official Monument to the communist heroes Karl Liebneckt and Rosa Luxemburg, was now commissioned to design the ultimate symbol of swanky corporate capitalism, the Seagram Building, in 1958. For architectural modernism, the form remained — but its substance had forever vanished. Thus, this accounts for the present lack of an international socialist movement in architecture as well.