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Negotiating Modernities: Otto Koenigsberger’s Works and Network in Exile (1933–1951)

Dr.-Ing. Dissertation, Berlin University of Technology; School of Planning, Building, Environment; Department of Architecture; Habitat Unit: Chair of International Urbanism and Design, January 2014
Rachel Lee

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

réseau transnational

Index by keyword:

transnational network

Indice de palabras clave:

red transnacional


Transnationales Netzwerk

Parole chiave:

rete transnazionale

Index géographique :

Égypte, Afrique du Nord, Inde, Asie, Asie du Sud

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle

Personnes citées :

Koenigsberger Otto (1908-1999)
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Texte intégral

1Otto Koenigsberger (1908–1999) is best known for his pioneering work on architecture, housing and planning issues in places that, during his lifetime, were variously referred to as the colonies, the tropics, the Third World and the developing world. These contributions were made in his capacities as director of the Tropical Department at the Architectural Association (aa) in London and of the Development Planning Unit at the University College London, as well as in his positions as advisor to the United Nations (un) and the World Bank and to independent nation states.

2As an architect he is respected as an early proponent of sustainable, climate-appropriate and energy-efficient design, his research into which culminated in the Manual of Tropical Housing and Building Design: Climatic Design, which was published with T. G. Ingersoll, A. Mayhew and S. V. Szokolay in 1974 and is still ubiquitous in many architecture schools around the world. His commitment to trying to improve the living standards of the urban poor led to achievements in low-cost housing such as the “roof loan scheme” in Ghana, which was based on the principle of aided self-help, and the legalisation and upgrading of squatter settlements and slums. His groundbreaking approach to urban planning, best summed up in the “action planning” concept that he articulated in 1964, was among the first to provide an alternative to the application of the static master plan model to the rapidly growing cities of the developing world.

3Koenigsberger’s contribution to architecture and planning cannot be measured, but its significance can perhaps be summed up in the words of Prof. Lothar Götz in his successful application for an honorary doctorate for Koenigsberger at the University of Stuttgart:

  • 1 Lothar Götz, “Antrag auf Ernennung von Herrn Professor Dr.-Ing. Otto H. Koenigsberger zum Doktor-I (...)

“Um die Bedeutung dieser Anstösse durch Herrn Professor Dr.-Ing. Otto Koenigsberger adäquat darzustellen, benötigte man viel mehr Raum als in einem solchen Antrag zur Verfügung steht. Es sei nur darauf hingewiesen, daß uns auch nicht eine einzige Person bekannt ist, die auch nur eine einzige Initiative entwickelt hat, die einigermaßen der Qualität seiner Ideen entsprechen würde.”1

  • 2 From conversations with Brillembourg and Klumpner in 2011 and 2013.

4Today Koenigsberger’s work continues to inspire architects and planners, including figures such as Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner of urban think-tank, winners of the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.2

5While the work Koenigsberger undertook after moving to the uk in 1951 is well documented and has been recognised internationally—in addition to the honorary doctorate, in 1989 Koenigsberger was the first recipient of the un Habitat Scroll of Honour—it has yet to be studied in detail. What is more, the work he conducted before 1951 in Germany, Egypt and India remains largely unknown. In order to begin to frame an analysis of Koenigsberger’s contributions within the larger fields of Tropical Architecture and development aid and cooperation, as well as his influence on areas such as sustainable architecture and urbanism, critical regionalism, urbanology, informality, humanitarianism, participative planning and actor-driven urban development, it is necessary to understand his professional background and the experiences of the first and formative part of his career—a period spanning 18 years in exile in Egypt and India.

6This study aims to provide such a foundation by analysing Koenigsberger’s architecture and planning work between 1933 and 1951 within the context of exile.

7In addition to contributing to a more nuanced understanding of architecture and planning movements that were institutionalised from the mid-twentieth century, it should not be forgotten that Koenigsberger’s work in exile also spans a very significant period of world history—the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism in Germany, the Second World War and the end of colonial rule in India. So by documenting Koenigsberger’s work in exile, insights into the shifting geopolitical hegemonies and the development of the postcolonial world are gained. As well as contributing to the fields of architecture and planning history, and urban studies, this work is of interest to disciplines including postcolonial studies, exile studies, and South-East Asian studies as well as to local urban historians, cultural activists and urban heritage foundations in India.

8Following the background chapters, the thesis is organised chronologically around the places where Koenigsberger was based before and during his time in exile, progressing from his studies and early career in Berlin (1908–1933), through his first period of exile in Egypt and Switzerland (1933–1939), to three phases of exile in India: Mysore State (1939–1941), Mysore State (1941–1948) and New Delhi (1948–1951). The chapters begin by locating Koenigsberger and his work in the places of his exile, thereby contextualising his work. Questions of exile and networks are dealt with throughout the chapters with conclusions at the end of each exile phase. Through investigating Koenigsberger’s projects, each chapter examines how his confrontations and interactions with foreign, rapidly urbanising cultures led to significant shifts in his approach to architecture and planning. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of how these negotiations affected the development of the disciplines of Tropical Architecture and development planning he came to define.

9Essentially a work of interpretive architectural and planning history, this dissertation is located within the interwoven socio-cultural web of people, places and things, aesthetics, technologies, power structures and ideas. It takes a biographical approach and makes conscious use of a narrative structure. To attempt to grasp the effects of exile on architectural production, following an analysis of how writers including Edward Saïd, Hannah Arendt and Joseph Brodsky describe the impact of exile on their own creative production, a series of questions are formulated and applied to Koenigsberger’s architectural and planning projects throughout the work.

  • 3 The software consists of table2net and gephi.

10A question that accompanied this research project from its earliest stages is: how did Koenigsberger as an exiled architect with little professional experience before arriving in Mysore State become India’s Federal Director of Housing? Attempts to answer this question gradually developed into an awareness about the significance of Koenigsberger’s personal and professional networks, and a major focus of this work has been to unearth these nodes and connections, and analyse their role in Koenigsberger’s professional career. For although the initial impression of Koenigsberger’s professional life in exile in Egypt and India is perhaps one of a solitary man plunged into strange and to some degree coincidental circumstances, on closer inspection it becomes clear that Koenigsberger was embedded in robust professional and family networks that traversed continents. Moreover, he was able to build on them and use them to his advantage. In addition to a qualitative study, software3 developed by the Médialab at Sciences Po supported a quantitative analysis. It enabled me to analyse Koenigsberger’s networks in terms of the interconnectedness of Koenigsberger’s and other individuals’ networks, producing network diagrams that reveal something about the key figures in Koenigsberger’s exile. Thus, despite the inherent limitations of a historically based social network analysis, the information available is strong enough not only to reveal much about Koenigsberger’s career trajectory, but something about the workings of modern India as well.

11In order to produce as inclusive and unbiased an analysis as possible of Koenigsberger’s exilic oeuvre, and to create as firm a foundation as possible for future research, this study has taken a synoptic approach. Thus, rather than select a few case studies, I have included all the architectural and planning projects about which enough material exists to enable an examination. However, due to the inconsistency of Koenigsberger’s archive and the material available elsewhere, and because some of the projects were never built, or have been demolished or altered almost beyond recognition, the treatment of the individual works in this dissertation is uneven. Moreover, due to scale, function and socio-political implications, for example, some projects are more significant than others. Thus the examinations of the Jamshedpur Development Plan or the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research are much more in-depth than the Tiffin Mantap or the Dispensary for Women and Children.

  • 4 Following her death in 2012, the archive was relocated to the aa.

12The largest and most important source of information for this study was Otto Koenigsberger’s private, uncatalogued archive, held in London by Koenigsberger’s widow, Renate Koenigsberger.4 In addition, personal correspondence between Koenigsberger and his immediate family documenting the period between 1939 and 1951 was consulted at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. To gain a more complete understanding of Koenigsberger’s work with the archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in Egypt and Switzerland during the 1930s, further archival work was undertaken at the Swiss Institute in Cairo, Egypt. Other archival sources included the University Archive at the Technical University Berlin; the Landesarchiv, Berlin; the Baukunst Archiv at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin; the Architekturmuseum at the TU Berlin; the India Office Records at the British Library, London; the Special Collections and Archives at the University of Liverpool; the aa Archives, London; the riba Drawings Collection and Archives, London; the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge; the Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris; the gta Archives at the eth Zurich; and the Albert Mayer and Cora Du Bois papers at the University of Chicago. In India, where accessing material proved to be quite challenging, I visited the Karnataka State Archives, Bangalore, the Tata Center for Excellence in Jamshedpur, the Bhubaneswar Development Authority, and the nascent Archives and Publications Cell at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and received valuable information from the Tata Central Archives in Pune and the tifr Archive in Mumbai.

13Because of the incomplete nature of the archival material, one of the objectives of my research was to find, visit and document as many of Koenigsberger’s buildings as possible, the majority of which he built between 1939 and 1948 in Bangalore, South India. The result of these efforts is a List of Works, an important tool in the analysis of Koenigsberger’s exilic projects. In addition to the archival sources and field visits, I also had the privilege of interviewing some of Koenigsberger’s family, colleagues and students. Renate Koenigsberger’s contribution was of course pivotal, but conversations with Koenigsberger’s cousin Gustav Born, colleagues Patrick Wakely and the late Dennis Sharp, as well as students such as Simon Pepper, B. S. Bhooshan and Thoma Thomas contributed to my understanding of his personality and his work.

14Through the investigation of the sources and the application of the methodology outlined above, the study produced a diverse range of intriguing findings, which cannot be discussed in any depth here. And, although there is no architecture of exile, but only architectures by exiles, this examination of Koenigsberger’s exilic works and networks opens up avenues for further research in the field. On the basis of the findings, the concluding chapter ends with a discussion of “spaces of negotiation,” arguing for a more nuanced conceptualisation of the institutionalisation of tropical architecture. As a transnational figure in post-World War II London, Koenigsberger’s exilic experience put him in a unique and powerful position. His deep understanding of architecture and planning in India set him apart from his so-called “tropical” expert contemporaries, who had worked in the former colonies as “agents of empire” and were, as the empires crumbled, following a neo-colonial agenda. In contrast, Koenigsberger dedicated the rest of his career to improving the standard of living in developing countries and, after years of Western colonisation and domination, as he articulated it, “restoring the balance of power.”

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1 Lothar Götz, “Antrag auf Ernennung von Herrn Professor Dr.-Ing. Otto H. Koenigsberger zum Doktor-Ingenieur Ehrenhalber der Universität Stuttgart” (July 10, 1979). Translation: In order to adequately present the impact of Professor Dr.-Eng. Otto Koenigsberger’s ideas, one would need much more space than is provided in this application. Suffice it to say that we do not know of a single person, who had developed even just one initiative that can even partially match the quality of his ideas.

2 From conversations with Brillembourg and Klumpner in 2011 and 2013.

3 The software consists of table2net and gephi.

4 Following her death in 2012, the archive was relocated to the aa.

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Rachel Lee, « Negotiating Modernities: Otto Koenigsberger’s Works and Network in Exile (1933–1951) »ABE Journal [En ligne], 5 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2014, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Rachel Lee

Senior Researcher, Habitat Unit, Technische Universität, Berlin, Germany

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