Throughout this endeavor Sherwood demonstrated a remarkable awareness of the historiographical stakes. He pointedly noted that a comprehensive study of Meyer would force American historians, who had previously referred to Meyer as a “communist functionalist” and a “fanatical functionalist,” to defend their positions. Despite Sherwood’s perceptive research and his efforts at assembling a great mass of material, his professional life as an architect and educator prevented him from completing the manuscript for a book on Meyer. The publication of Claude Schnaidt’s monograph on Meyer in 1965 made Sherwood’s continued efforts redundant, as this multilingual volume set the stage for some of the first serious appraisals of Meyer’s work in Anglophone criticism.18
Schnaidt’s book was fundamental to Kenneth Frampton’s influential comparison of Meyer and Le Corbusier as representatives of alternative approaches to architecture. Frampton’s essay “The Humanist v. The Utilitarian Ideal,” published in Architectural Design in 1968 set the tone for much of the subsequent English-language scholarship on Meyer.19 Frampton’s primary objects of analysis were the entries to the competition for the League of Nations headquarters by Le Corbusier and Meyer. His comparison consistently highlighted the alleged strict utilitarianism of Meyer and Wittwer’s project. Meyer’s project demonstrated a lack of concern for nature20 while Le Corbusier sought to embed his project in the landscape, orchestrating a processional approach: the architectural promenade was anathema to Meyer. Frampton described the opposing tendencies evident in these two projects as evidence of the “schism between humanism and utilitarianism” in modern architecture,21 arguing that this split presented an opportunity to assess the subsequent development of modern architecture as a conflict between the two. It is worth noting the associations Frampton drew from Meyer’s alleged utilitarianism:
“The iconography of Meyer’s Palais des Nations clearly derives from the early utilitarian socialist architecture evolved in Russia immediately after the Revolution. The glazed elevator shafts of the Secretariat block are evidence enough, quite apart from the radio aerial and sky sign which echo the imagery of the Pravda project designed by the Vesnin brothers in 1923.”22
Here, the forms of early constructivist architecture served to indicate the radicality of Meyer’s project—or at least his radical iconography—yet there is little discussion of Meyer’s actual work in the Soviet Union. An abstract notion of Meyer’s approach to architecture, as manifest in the League of Nations project, took precedence over a clear understanding of Meyer’s actual work. Frampton would subsequently use this project as a symbol for a utilitarian impulse to replace architecture with a techno-scientific understanding of building design. In his contributions to the journal Oppositions as well as his much-read Modern Architecture: A Critical History, the League of Nations project played this role.23
Frampton’s interpretation of the League of Nations project requires qualification. In much of his later writing he maintained a healthy skepticism about the possibility of achieving Meyer’s aim of a building that “represents nothing,” insisting that Meyer’s utilitarian impulse remained caught within the demands of representation, which is why Frampton persisted in insisting upon the Constructivist origins of Meyer’s iconography. Other authors approached Meyer with less subtlety. For Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, the authors of Collage City from 1978, Meyer is a figure with little depth and dimension.24 In their now infamous division of architects according to Isaiah Berlin’s schema of the fox who knows many things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing, Meyer (along with Gropius, Mies, and Buckminster Fuller) is placed in the hedgehog camp, a caricatured modernist category in opposition to a pluralistic approach to architecture and the city where collision, density, historical forms and a lack of overall planning were celebrated. The charicature of Meyer served in Rowe and Koetter’s book as a one-dimensional representative of all that was allegedly wrong with modern architecture and urbanism.
It was precisely in response to such an interpretation that the most sustained English-language analysis of Meyer’s legacy was articulated. In K. Michael Hays’s Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject: The Architecture of Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Hilberseimer from 1992, his intention, as elsewhere in his writing, was to identify architectural practices that opposed the “cognitive project of humanist modernism.” Hays’s problem with modern architecture as a humanist project was that it “encoded the values and norms of a bourgeoisie still emergent in a market economy, providing a system of representation that exactly sufficed the sense of self, the aesthetic preferences, social habits, and forms of entertainment of that class.”25 His examples of such architecture included Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, and Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank. However, when one reads between the lines, Hays’s book appears as a critique of a much wider body of work. Given that Frampton had already defined Le Corbusier’s work as humanist in opposition to Meyer’s utilitarianism, it might be safely assumed that Hays saw much of Le Corbusier’s work as also representative of bourgeois values. Moreover, it is possible to understand Hays’s references to Charles Garnier and Otto Wagner as veiled references to the celebration of formal exuberance by contemporary postmodernist approaches to architecture. Against this background, Hays interpreted Meyer as the representative of an architectural position that could offer a critique of dominant bourgeois ideology, in which the subject’s authority vis-à-vis the systematic nature of modernization and representation prevails. In this sense, Hays’s assertion that Meyer’s architecture was “pitted against hegemony” is to belatedly claim Meyer as a precursor to the neo avant-garde projects of the 1970s and 80s by figures such as Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi.26 In this remarkable, but admittedly partial view of Meyer’s work, Hays cast Meyer as a radical alternative to the allegedly humanist modernism and postmodernism that had dominated American understandings of architectural history.