//// .... destruction and revenge, observed
by Rolf Achilles and Alan Cohen
We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind...we
live inside an enormous novel...The fiction is already
there. The [artist’s] task is to invent the reality.
J.G. Ballard’s CRASH
A Footnote to Weather Forecasts
It’s good that someone else’s memories
Interfere with your own. It’s good that some
of these figures, to you, appear
alien. Their presence hints
at different events, at a different sort of fate–
perhaps not a better one, yet clearly
the one that you missed. This unshackles
memory more than imagination–
not forever, of course, but for a while...
Joseph Brodsky's Collected Poems in English
Born in Chicago, March 30, 1922, to Italian parents, Alfonso Carrara lived on the north side of Chicago with three older siblings in what had been an Irish neighborhood. At the time, it was common for Catholics to attend their parish's school so Carrara entered in September 1928. In September 1936, he enrolled at Quigley Preparatory Seminary, whose school was modeled after the bishop's palace of Rouen; its chapel a one-to-one scale replica of St. Chapelle in Paris. Quigley, at the time, was the city's leading catholic school and attended by boys following a calling to the priesthood. After three years, and yet to hear the calling, Carrara took his senior year from September 1939 to 1940 at Carl Schurz Public High School, designated one of the great places in Illinois by the American Institute of Architects. Sensitive and aware, it is not surprising that while attending Schurz, Carrara decided he would follow his eight-years-older brother into architecture and did so. At age seventeen, shaped by the values and language of 19th century European parents, the Great Depression, the rising darkness of war in Europe, Asia and Africa, and the intellectual culture of a seductive international modernism, it could be said that the J.G. Ballard epigram could have retroactively defined the formative Carrara.
So, in August of 1939, just before he enrolled at Schurz, until September 1940, three months after graduation, Carrara was offered an apprenticeship in the Chicago based architectural offices of George Fred Keck. Keck had garnered a national reputation as a modernist buttressed in part on his 1933 House of Tomorrow and the 1934 Crystal House, both unveiled at Chicago's The Century of Progress World's Fair.
Keck gained wide attention for his work so the internship opened doors for Carrara and gave him, through Keck's guidance, a more personal learning opportunity and a less traditional apprenticeship. Keck had Carrara maintain the firm's library and so acquainted him with the profession's literature, while more significantly, Keck taught Carrara to draw like an architect. Keck likely realized that the 17-year old intern was a ready vessel for modernist thinking.
The architecture that Keck championed and shared with Carrara was strikingly new, almost not of its time, yet deeply rooted in it. Keck's Century of Progress houses were the first in the U.S. to feature furniture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Keck also admired Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, objects from the Bauhaus, as well as the new materials of architecture, and shared this vision with his intern. Keck's houses were, inside and out, not examples of indigenous American contemporary home architecture. In this most receptive moment with Keck, Carrara became fully monopolized by Chicago's transformative cauldron of modernist thinking.
At the suggestion of Keck, then Professor and Head of Architecture at the New Bauhaus/The School of Design in 1938, Carrara, the apprentice and high schooler, applied to the School of Design in 1938. He was accepted in September 1940 and was awarded a work-study National Scholarship whose work component gave Carrara responsibility for the functional operation of the photography darkroom. The School of design's radical total education curriculum was of singular importance to Carrara because it changed, expanded and nourished his life. Keck's support served him well because it gave him access to all faculty and all students and all of the projects needing photography and more — leading additionally, to significant contact with László and Sybil Moholy-Nagy in the multiple roles of student, staff and babysitter to the couple's two young daughters. Despite its nurturing opportunities, Carrara became increasingly unhappy about the School's engagement with the war effort, the curriculum's tilts toward the world crisis and the reduction of modernism's singular hold on all institutional thinking. As example Moholy-Nagy accepted and assigned to students: propaganda poster design to sustain government support for the School: the problem of landing airplanes on muddy fields; building sustainable homes without using war vital raw materials. Carrara felt that this shift toward worldly practicality led to a concomitant decline in the intense hot-house pursuit of modernist experimentation. Carrara's unbending purist fervor for the ideas and objects of modernism led him to abruptly leave the School in June 1942 at the very time he was surrounded by the giants of American modernist production and modernist thinking. This stellar group included, in addition to Moholy-Nagy and Keck, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Hungarian designer-photographer György Kepes, the Bauhaus lighting designer Hin Bredendieck, the head of the School's Modeling Workshop, Alexander Archipenko, plus photographer-product designer Nathan Lerner, and, from the Weaving Workshop, Ilse Etta Uhlmann.
Carrara then began a significant architectural apprenticeship with Los Angeles-based modernist Richard J. Neutra who was acclaimed for his rigorously geometric yet airy structures that symbolized a southern California variant on International Modernism. Carrara, in his application to Neutra, wrote that he too wanted to be a Modernist. The apprenticeship, though very brief, linked Carrara to the Nesbitt House in Hollywood and the Channel Heights Housing Project in San Pedro. The 19-year old Carrara made such an immediately favorable impression on the famed architect that Neutra invited Carrara to stay, as a member of the family, in the Neutra home and launched a correspondence that endured into the 1950's.
Carrara returned to Chicago in October of 1942, and was drafted into the U.S. Army on December 26. Though he had apprenticed and learned from modernism's masters, his skills — as both an architecture and photography student — were not of interest to the military but, as an Italian-speaking Italian-American, he was interesting. Trained by the military as a translator and interrogator, Carrara was assigned to the signal corps of the 36th Infantry Division. His division landed in North Africa in 1943 and then, after the Fifth Army landings at Salerno, Italy, he began work as a translator and scout. Carrara soon acquired a camera from a German soldier who as part of a group seeking to avoid capture by the Russian Army, surrendered to an unarmed Carrara on a highway in advance of U.S. troops. The German POW asked Carrara for chocolate and cigarettes as a barter for the Rolleiflex twin-lens camera. From this time forward, Carrara's wartime experiences propelled his self-directed and self-assigned photographic work that became, in essence and topic, an archeology of war.
With this formal, slightly inconvenient medium-format camera, neither as cumbersome nor as formal as a traditional view or press camera and not as small and rapid-fire as the recent revolutionary 35mm camera, Carrara took an unembellished look at the war. Even as his imagery avoided the blunt carnage of battle and the pathos of lawless brutality, the viewer still must confront the immeasurable destruction of the physical landscape and the certainty of social rupture and historical dislocation. Without blaming, without hectoring and with an apolitical poetic sureness, he bridged the abyss between the filtered memories of his parents and the evident molten rage of fascist ideology. These meticulous visual records fossilized for us the singular tragedy of this conflict, the fragility of the population, and the village; it was all of this that became for Carrara, the tangible graffiti of war. His images preserve momentary, imprecise and intermediate stages of battlefield ruin and, as well, signify the slow-motion demolition of Italy's idealized, premodern social tableau. Carrara lived Paul Virgilio's lament that "...Disfiguring events happened in the 20th century. Nothing but disfiguring events."
In the early Spring of 1945, with war's end evident, Europe was being devastated as all armies were thrusting toward Germany. About destruction, in Germany alone, W.G. Sebald wrote "131 towns and cities [were] attacked...many were almost entirely flattened, that about 600,000 German civilians fell victim to the air raids, and that three and a half million homes were destroyed...[and] seven and a half million people were left homeless, and there were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden."
In Italy, the occupying German army and the last vestiges of Mussolini;s army were strategically lost in a welter of conflicting commands and desires that encompassed fleeing, resisting, surrendering, punishing anyone and damaging everything in every town being abandoned. The advancing armies of the Soviet Union and the United States, confronting the damage left by the withdrawing German army, became less restrained by codes of conduct as they raced ahead to pulverize the German people and all things German inside Germany. So, with liberation from Fascism came a reign of terror against Fascism and its advocates. Across Europe, those who collaborated with the occupying German forces were publicly humiliated, physically abused, even killed without trial. Out of this reconstruction and unprecedented migration of millions of people seeking shelter or revenge, Carrara's most startling photographs were made of the dead Il Duce Benito Mussolini, Mussolini's mistress Clara Petacci, and Archille Starace, the former secretary of the Fascist Party and others. This group, fleeing toward Switzerland, had been arrested and executed in Milan. Carrara was driven to a barn in a jeep by his commanding officer who told him to photograph every corpse inside the building. The date was April 29, 1945; just hours before, the lifeless bodies of Mussolini and Petacci had been hung by their feet from a girder at an Esso gas station in Milan.
Despite his encounter with war's inevitable and consequential horror, Carrara recorded the wounds and the resilience within the desiccated continent opening before him. Europe had been living under fascist occupation for a decade. Carrara's poetry and photography make tangible what Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti described:
Occupation...interferes in every aspect of life
and death; it interferes with longing and anger and
desire and walking in the street. It interferes with
going anywhere and coming back, with going to
market, the emergency hospital, the beach, the
bedroom, or a distant capital.
Alfonso Carrara was honorably discharged on November 15, 1945, and returned to Chicago later that month to begin his next career as an architect.