Do we mourn the death of Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47, who died at 94 this week? Kalashnikov never showed any remorse for the uses to which his invention was put in the decades after he designed the original model during World War II (the “47” designates the version of 1947, which became the standard production model). He designed the gun for the defense of the Soviet Union against the Nazis, and if it wound up killing millions in the hands of countless armies, insurgency groups and terrorists, that was the fault, he said, of politicians. Guns don't kill people, people do, as the National Rifle Association likes to remind us.
What Kalashnikov did was to make a weapon that was optimized for that act not in terms of its precision (which it notably lacks) or refinement, but in its durability and adaptability. He purposefully designed the pieces in a large and clunky manner, so that they would have a certain amount of give, could be easily cleaned or fixed, and were cheap and easy to manufacture. The strategy also gave the gun its no-nonsense aesthetics. Together with equally rugged wartime inventions like the Jeep, it inspired a mechanomorphic design among cartoonists and sci-fi visualizers that is with us to this day. Someday, the movies promise us, guns and agents will meld into robots, and the question of who does the killing will be simple. Gun-like people will kill people.
Looking beyond the AK-47, the bunkers and air defense systems that sprung up across Europe during World War II inspired several generations of architects and designers. They range from the New Brutalists, who would deny the influence, to Claude Parent, who collaborated with Paul Virilio on the seminal book Bunker Archaeology. The Archigram-ers can trace a design lineage back to the war, as can a more recent generation of Dead Tech aficionados ranging from Lebbeus Woods (who drew a series called War and Architecture) to Wes Jones.
There are reasons such implements and forms are so inspiring. First, a lot of resources are invested in their creation. Second, the extreme conditions of war edge out a lot of other considerations, forcing designers to cut to the most basic and elemental shapes. Third, the implementation of these designs reminds us of death, danger, and the end of things, and thus have the same power as horror movies or momento mori works of art. And fourth—and perhaps more importantly—the designs are emblems of power.
Kalashnikov managed to answer to all of those generating principles in the design of his gun. It is forthright and clear in its purpose, menacing in its form, adapted to the human body but clearly alien from it. Since then, we have moved to more streamlined implements of death. Now such objects and structures are becoming almost invisible, hovering above us as remotely controlled drones, erupting from hidden places in the ground, or camouflaged under the clothes of a suicide bomber. Rifles have also become much more accurate and deadly, as the mentally disturbed perpetrators of mass shootings make clear all too often.
Death and war used to be present and obvious in their horrible nature. They also involved skill in the making of the implements and their use. Kalashnikov was one of prime movers of the democratization of death. Sometimes we find ourselves nostalgic for the design clarity of an earlier age. But the act of putting destructive power in the hands of so many—enabling anyone to kill, with or without rhyme or reason—is Kalashnikov's cursed legacy, and it lingers with us even after his death.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.