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Reading the signs

<strong>Otto Neurath: the Language of the Global Polis</strong>

Nader Vossoughian


Few outside the fields of philosophy or graphic design remember the name Otto Neurath. This is an historical injustice. Anyone since the 1940s who has used an atlas, oriented themselves with the help of the signs at an airport or on the motorway, deciphered the statistics in a newspaper graphic, or peered at an illustrated school textbook will have encountered his legacy. In the interwar years, this itinerant philosopher developed a pictorial language known as the "Vienna Method" and subsequently, Isotype (International System Of Typographic Picture Education). Made up of clear, stylised figures, this system gradually spread after Neurath's death to the point where greater or lesser imitations can be found practically everywhere. So why is this man so obscure, when we all rely on a language he helped to invent?

Nader Vossoughian's The Language of the Global Polis does not try to answer this question, but it does offer a précis of an extraordinary life. Neurath (1882-1945) was an enthusiast for the new discipline of sociology, and after his PhD worked on planning the war economy of the doomed Austro-Hungarian empire.

By 1919 he was planning a wholly new economic system for the chaotic and short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. Before his proposals for the abolition of money could be implemented, the republic was bloodily suppressed at the behest of Weimar's Social Democrats. Neurath escaped to Vienna, where he initially worked as a propagandist for the self-help squatters' movement. In the 1920s he was active on the one hand in the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists, who disdained metaphysics and attempted to merge philosophy and science; and on the other, with a "Museum of Society and Economy", where he pioneered the graphic methods that became Isotype. He fled Vienna in 1934 after its social democratic city government was violently suppressed in turn. Neurath eventually ended up in Britain, as postwar planner for the Midlands town of Bilston.

Vossoughian readily admits that before beginning his work on Neurath, he "was mostly just fascinated by those cool little pictograms that have become incredibly fashionable in art and architecture magazines in recent years". Although these pictograms are very well-represented indeed in this beautifully illustrated book, the vastness of the subject (and as the pictures prove, Neurath was a vast man) here necessitates a tight focus, centring on his various contributions to the understanding and planning of cities, principally in the 1920s and 1930s. Starting off from the question, "What would Neurath do were he alive today?", the book is divided into three sections on differing kinds of urban intervention. It argues that Neurath avoided the clichéd dichotomy between "top-down" and "bottom-up" planning, conceiving instead a more complex relationship between Gesellschaft (modern, technological society) and Gemeinschaft (organic, close-knit community). As the title implies, this had truly global implications, albeit extrapolated from some very local experiences.

It begins with a study of the squatters' movement that emerged in the immediate aftermath of war. Vienna in 1918 found itself in a similar position to the teeming slum-cities of today's developing world, with the urban poor building shantytowns on the outskirts, without sanitation, without services and riddled with disease. Neurath's reaction to this was to become its public champion. Arguing for the importance of these informal modes of settlement, he edited a journal of advocacy (Der Siedler, or The Settler) for the "gypsy settlers", for whom he enlisted the unlikely assistance of that most urbane of architects, Adolf Loos. Together they produced with the squatters a series of designs and prototypes that fused the modern and the rural, privileging the spontaneity of this emergency movement.

Nonetheless, their designs proved too expensive for many of the squatters, and Red Vienna embarked on a very different resettlement programme - the series of decidedly urban "superblocks" that culminated in the famous Karl Marx-Hof. Although Neurath continued to work closely with the reformist municipality, his next major intervention was, the author argues, as far from allotment gardens and temporary shacks as it would be from these monuments to municipal socialism.

The Museum of Society and Economy was an early attempt to educate a population formed in the age of art's technical reproducibility. Neurath argued that "modern man is spoiled by cinema and illustration. He receives his education in the most comfortable of means, partly during his periods of rest, through optical impressions." The response was to fight the mass media on its own terms - rather amazingly, this Marxist modernist cheerfully declared: "The modern advertisement will show us the way!" The museum repudiated the "cabinets of curiosities" of its predecessors, making sure that its exhibits were worthless in monetary terms and easily reproducible, preventing them acquiring what Walter Benjamin called "aura". The principal exhibits were facts and statistics, presented in such a manner as to make them visually attractive.

The book includes an early effort depicting the amount of alcohol-fuelled fights in Vienna over the course of an average week. The picture looks like something out of Viz; quantitative bars made up of meticulously detailed brawlers. The museum's distinctive aesthetic only emerged when Neurath hired Gerd Arntz as graphic "transformer". Arntz's images were as sophisticated as they were standardised, with deft touches revealing their polemical implications, like the doleful posture of the Isotype figure for unemployment statistics.

Finally, the book charts Neurath's dealings with the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne, the Le Corbusier-led group whose "Athens Charter" on town planning became a dubious orthodoxy after 1945. Neurath was a dissenting presence at its formulation, attacking their political naiveté and fetish for the "master planner" - a reminder that these ideas could be opposed without retreating into kitsch reproductions of the old city. The Language of the Global Polis profiles, fascinatingly if laconically, an unfinished project. In terms of mere signage, Neurath's ideas are everywhere - but as a rare fusion of planning and self-organisation, they picture a clear, technologically savvy approach to aesthetics and argumentation that the left has long since abandoned, and would do well to reacquaint itself with.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas