Communities of Consumers? Social-Democratic Spaces in the Age of Postwar Mass Consumption

German Historical Institute 1
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Grace Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
Jan Ludwig Logemann, German Historical Institute

Session Abstract

In traditional accounts of twentieth-century economies, social planning and mass-consumerism are often regarded as contradictions. This panel aims at differentiating such interpretations by considering urban spaces and residential architecture during the second half of the Twentieth Century from a transnational perspective, generating new insight into the interrelated histories of consumerism and planning. What appeared from the American perspective as a tension between welfare-state spending on the one hand and private consumption on the other, was often reconciled more easily within postwar Europe. Ideas of consumerism very much pervaded discourses on spatial structures even in societies that did not fully embrace free market capitalism. Even outright Socialist developments as in East Germany had to contend with consumer demands. The anticipation of consumption practices certainly shaped "social-democratic spaces" – as in Swedish neighborhood planning or in European public housing projects of the boom era. As much as planners strove to build communities and community spaces, consumerism left its mark on floor layouts and housings schemes, on urban centers and public transportation.

The papers in this panel will explore similarities and differences in Swedish, American, as well as East- and West-German planning and consumerism and thereby complicate common distinctions between public and private consumption. They will also consider the entangled histories of architecture between those countries, their mutual perceptions and manifold exchanges. Robust transnational and transatlantic networks of architects, social experts and planners existed during this time-period, which were especially heavily influenced by the influx of European émigrés to the U.S. during the 1930s an 1940s. Conversely, American re-education-practices and other influences impacted European spatial planning during recovery after World War II and into boom-era prosperity. Still, for all these entanglements and transfers, discernible differences in European and American planning and building persisted and the “social-democratic spaces” that became so characteristic of Europe’s postwar affluence remained the exception in the United States (as well as a hard sell to consumers).

To consider the ranch house next to the social-housing flat, the shopping mall next to the planned community center, or Levittowns next to New Towns, this panel proposes, allows an appreciation for the postwar variety in forms of mass consumption which inform our every-day-experience up to the presence. It also allows for us to ask about broader questions regarding differing notions of the ideal consumer among commercial entrepreneurs and social-democratic planners as well as about the consequences of such conceptions.