Attached is some more ridiculous, outrageous, and offensive shit that Chris Cutrone wrote to the Platypus e-mail list-serve. I’m sure some of it was selectively quoted and taken out of context, but am not going to pretend that even half of what he says in here is okay. Most readers of this blog are aware that I was once a member of Platypus. Even when I was, though, I was bothered by a lot of the opinions expressed by the group’s “guru” and clashed with him often. While I don’t think any of this is sufficient reason to no-platform the Plats — especially compared to the slew of leftist organizations and publishing houses that have either covered up or sought to downplay instances of rape, sexual abuse, and assault by its various members and authors (the FRSO, Solidarity-US, ISO-US, SWP-Britain, Historical Materialism, etc.) — I would still like to make clear in no uncertain terms how utterly abhorrent I consider these positions to be.
Platypus continues to pose interesting questions and put together worthwhile events. To wit: Democracy and the Left, Anti-Fascism: Its Problematic History and Meaning, Marx and Wertkritik, and Neoliberalism and Its Discontents. For the most part, I continue to get along with and respect most of its members. Many of them do not share Cutrone’s bizarre or shocking beliefs, but unfortunately find themselves often tasked with defending his antics and megalomania. Here is not the place to go over my manifold reasons for leaving Platypus. Contrary to what you may have heard (that I was “pushed out” after becoming “too much of a liability”), I wasn’t expelled from the group. Rather, I resigned of my own volition. And though for a time I sought to rejoin, this was mostly because the New York chapter I’d invested so much time into seemed to be falling apart. A while ago I drafted a list of all my grievances, everything about Platypus that annoyed the living shit out of me, but decided not to post it. It’s all blood under the bridge.
Nevertheless, I do feel some responsibility to distance myself from some opportunistic remarks made by Ian Donovan against the CPGB, a British communist group whose work I greatly admire. Donovan describes Platypus as “the CPGB’s lynch-mob American ally” — a gross mischaracterization, as anyone familiar with the two organizations will recognize immediately. The CPGB is not in any sense Platypus’ “ally.” First of all, because the latter does not officially espouse a political line, notwithstanding the aforementioned opinions of its founder and president. Second of all, because most of the back-and-forth between Cutrone & Macnair, Parker & Turley, as well as others, has so far consisted of frank and open (though sometimes productive) disagreement. Many different Marxist and anarchist organizations have engaged with Platypus, seldom out of the concordance of their views. Whether they will still to do so after this latest batch of Platyleaks is up to them.
At any rate, we would do well to attend to the real motivations behind Donovan’s attack on the CPGB. Just a year or so ago, Peter Manson authored a devastating article exposing antisemitic statements made by Donovan during his stint on Left Unity’s Communist Platform. Manson explained how Donovan’s notion of a “pan-national Jewish bourgeoisie” in Israel, included in his Draft Theses on the Jews and Modern Imperialism, is plainly antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. Yassamine Mather of the CPGB also added some cutting criticism, and Manson appended the motion on antisemitism prepared by Jack Conrad and Moshé Machover in response to Donovan. I highly recommend reading it.
So, to summarize: I’m publishing here the leaked “highlights” of Cutrone’s e-mails to the Platypus list-serve. Clearly I’m not singling out Platypus, since I’ve publicized “Internal Bulletins” from the ISO and some (now-redacted) information regarding Solidarity in the past. Nor do I intend to shield Platypus from such publicity out of a misbegotten sense of loyalty to my former organization. That said, Ian Donovan’s attempt to tar the CPGB’s reputation in light of these leaked e-mails is completely illegitimate.
The greatest poet is not the one who wrote best but the one who suggested most.
— Walt Whitman
Since he first emerged on the architectural scene in the twenties, the name of Ivan Leonidov has acquired legendary status. The reason for this is simply the uniqueness of his work. Its power and originality have been attested by the deep and fruitful influence which it exerted, and continues to exert, on worldwide architectural thinking — despite the fact that the vast majority of his projects remained on paper and unbuilt.
For all the complexities of his life, Leonidov produced a great deal of work. Till the very end of his life he preserved his sharpness of eye and steadiness of hand. But more important he also preserved a total faithfulness to the central ideas of his architecture and to his own aesthetic principles. Thus those commentators are profoundly mistaken, and indeed inaccurate, who say that he was only fully able to display his talent in those brief avant-garde years of the late twenties and early thirties during which he first became known. Notable here has been the writing of P. Aleksandrov and S.O. Khan-Magomedov.1 The triumphant success of Leonidov’s projects in those years is obvious, but what he did later is neither architecturally nor artistically inferior to it. His capabilities in no way diminished with time, but only now, when we can see the fullest possible range of his sketches and designs, such as is assembled here, can we really appreciate the inexhaustible quality of his talent. Naturally his work underwent a process of evolution, as on one hand it reflected the beating of his own internal artistic pulse, and on the other it reacted to external influences and circumstances. But through all the modifications it was characterized by an enviable stability, both in aesthetic and ethical dimensions of his worldview, and in its style of graphic representation.
Ivan Il’ich Leonidov was born into a peasant family on the 9th of February 1902 in the village of Vlasikh, in what was then the Stantskii district of the Tverskoi gubemia, or province. His childhood was spent in the village of Babino, and when he had completed four years at the local parish school he went at the age of twelve to earn his living in Petrograd.2 It is known that Leonidov first received training in painting and drawing in Tver, at the Free Art Studios which were organized in 1920.3 In 1921 he was sent to continue his study in Moscow at the Painting Faculty of the VKhUTEMAS, from which he later transferred to the architecture faculty and the studio of Aleksandr Vesnin.
The atmosphere of the VKhUTEMAS and his personal contacts with Aleksandr Vesnin played an important role in the shaping of Leonidov’s creative personality. Aleksandr Vesnin contributed a great deal to drawing out every side of his gifted pupil’s talents. While still a student, Leonidov took part in numerous open architectural competitions, and often achieved success. There were for example third prizes for an improved peasant hut and for a housing development in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, as well as a “recommendation for acquisition and adoption” for his Byelorussian State University project for Minsk. None of the original drawings done during his training have survived, but several publications from those years give a relatively full idea of his highly individual manner of composition and his graphic skills, as a young architect who had already mastered the language of early constructivism. There are manifestly close links between these Leonidov works and the projects of the Vesnin brothers and other founders of the constructivist architectural association, OSA.4
Leonidov’s final diploma project, for the Lenin Institute of Librarianship, must be regarded not only as his first truly independent work, but also as the distinctive credo of an architect setting out on his professional life. Displayed publicly at the First Exhibition of Modern Architecture in Moscow in 1927, it was received as the opening up of a whole new architectural direction.5 Alongside Tatlin’s tower of 1919 and Melnikov’s Paris Pavilion of 1925, the Lenin Institute has remained to this day one of the great symbols of the revolutionary, innovative spirit of the first decade of Soviet architecture.
The beginning of Leonidov’s professional activity is marked by his active participation in competitions. From 1927 to 1930 he was himself teaching at the somewhat reorganized version of VKhUTEMAS known as VKhUTEIN. Competitions were very numerous in Soviet architecture in those years, and they gave the young architect an opportunity to express himself in the various typological genres of current practice. Leonidov’s works of those years are universally characterized by the coherence of the synthesis he achieved between the constructivist functional method and his own compositional approach, but they are equally characterized by the consistency of his representational technique in exploiting the restrained language of black-and-white graphics.
In 1928 Leonidov took part for the first time in international architectural competitions, for the headquarters of the Tsentrosoiuz in Moscow, and for the monument to Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo. Many well-known Soviet architects participated in both competitions, as well as Westerners. Corbusier of course was eventually to build the Tsentrosoiuz, which was completed in 1935; it is well known that he met Leonidov on related visits to Moscow during 1929-1930, as he did other leading constructivists, and that he had a very high opinion of Leonidov’s scheme for that building.
The finale to this series of competition designs was the project for the new socialist town around the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine in the Urals executed at the end of 1929. Leonidov headed an OSA design team composed of students from his own class in the VKhUTEIN.
The next year, 1930, was to be a fateful one in Leonidov’s biography. He took part in a competition for the design of a Palace of Culture in the Proletarskii district of southern Moscow, around the old Simonov Monastery. The plan which he submitted for the first round diverged significantly from the brief, and proposed not a building, but a model for the “cultural organization” of a whole area of the city. Even in the first round of the competition Leonidov’s project therefore provoked sharp criticism. Discussion of the results of the second round took place in even more complex circumstances, revealing acute disagreements between the various groupings and philosophies now becoming consolidated in and around Soviet architecture. Although this time his proposal was in complete accordance with the terms of the brief, Leonidov’s scheme once again became the focal point of heated debate and discussions of larger architectural issues. Continue reading
Two articles I’m reposting here. Both concern the Bernie Sanders campaign. One, written by Jake Verso, specifically focuses on US politics. It also provides some historical context, mentioning past socialist figures such as Bernstein and Debs. The other, written by Michael Rectenwald, compares the enthusiasm surrounding the Sanders campaign to the outpouring of support for the Syriza coalition in Greece.
Communist League Tampa
August 20th, 2015
However fed up it claims to be, a certain portion of the Left in the United States remains sympathetic (if not outright loyal) to the Democratic Party. Many of these people are coming to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and for them, the legacy of the postwar American economy looms large. When not focusing on identity politics and fear of republicans, Keynesian economic policy tends to be the ideological basis of the left wing of the Democratic Party. However, that same institution is incapable of bringing forth such reforms, not only due to the capitalist nature of the organization, but also because the leadership understands, at least unconsciously, that such reforms are impossible in the current historical moment.
In the dark comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, two reformist insurance employees discover the corpse of their boss at his weekend beach house. In order to protect their lives and keep the party going, they spend the rest of the film working to maintain the illusion that the lifeless corpse of their boss is still alive and is having the time of his life. To their surprise, and the delight of most of the unknowing spectators, the ruse is successful: the dead guy brings more joy to everyone who encounters him as a corpse than he probably would have were he still alive.
Bernie Sanders has frequently identified himself — in interviews, speeches, etc. — as a “socialist.” When pressed as to what this means, he usually mentions something about Sweden or else sticks the “democratic” moniker in front of it, presumably to be less scary. Yet Sanders is deliberately appealing to something bigger and more powerful than what is normally found within the bounds of typical political rhetoric. While most of the Democratic Party has stoically marched right, Sanders has veered left, raising the specter of a revamped populism with his appeal to outrage over growing economic inequality. His seemingly unpolished style, appearing and talking like your old socialist uncle who probably still mimeographs his own newsletters, Sanders appeals to the legacy of American unionism and nostalgia for its former strength. During this period of escalating election hype, it is important to remember that this remains within a framework of mainstream left-of-center politics. Positioning himself within Democratic Party primary politics, Sanders has drawn more attention to this type of rhetoric than one might have thought feasible. Since Sanders has nowhere to go but up, this has been the key to his appeal: raise the specter of working class strength, state directed social development, and populist economic outrage contained within a palatable framework and channeled into old political currents.
This is nothing new. If anything, it is the new normal. This same self-congratulatory politics could be seen during the 2008 Obama campaign. In his tone and diction Obama sought to subtly evoke the legacy of Martin Luther King, and would later famously install a bust of the man in the Oval Office. Today the Eugene Debs poster in Sander’s office is a similar object of note for reporters. Obama also acted as insurgent candidate against Clinton, filling a necessary power vacuum in the Democratic Party’s shallow bench of celebrity politicians. Obama promised a new kind of politics, albeit of a vaguer sort than Sanders, and sailed in on a wave of popular outrage toward the Bush administration and panic at the sudden emergence of the economic crisis. During Obama’s rise, all of the usual useful idiots pressed the line, excited that someone is able to appeal to loftier notions in anything resembling a mainstream context. To his credit, Sanders policies and political history go slightly deeper than Obama’s, but at the same time this poses a greater hurdle for him. A good deal of the Democratic Party base identifies as moderate or conservative. If Sanders hopes to actually secure a nomination, like Obama or anyone else, he will be forced to make concessions to those components of the party. All of this is moot anyway. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, or even if he somehow gets elected, the Democratic Party as a whole and as an institution is both unwilling to and incapable of implementing the kind of economic policy Sanders is touting. For now, Sanders has skillfully exceeded the extremely low expectations surrounding his candidacy and made great strides in closing the gap in the polls against Hillary Clinton. There has been a great deal of euphoria on some sectors of the American Left (to the extent that a Left can be said to exist in America). There has also been a growing chorus of dissident voices pointing out that Sanders platform is much less radical than some are touting it as. I suppose that I stand in the latter camp. But rather than listing the numerous political sins he’s committed over the years through his relationship with the Democrats, I’m going to examine and critique some of the assumptions underlying his appeal and then briefly look at just how meaningless Sanders conception of socialism really is.
Reformism and neoliberalism
The extent to which one can place hope in reformist efforts today, depends in part as to one’s conception of neoliberalism. It can be tough to characterize the economic opinions of the Left, since so little of it can be said to hold any kind of economic conception of capitalism. For many people, in today’s environment Clintonite stooge Robert Reich has come to constitute some kind of economic guru for many people. Still, a unifying theme, from soft Marxists like David Harvey and Richard Wolf to liberal reformists like Robert Reich is that the period encompassing neoliberalism roughly amounts to an attack on the working and middle classes by the rich. That the gutting of US manufacturing, international trade deals, the welfare state, and dying off of trade unions was the result of a concerted effort, lead on a political front by greedy elites who were not satisfied with the previous equilibrium that had been established in the economy. This skillfully and self-servingly reduces structural economic problems to a question of political leadership, and from this standpoint, it makes sense to expect that the United States could return to “peace and prosperity” through the policy decisions of elected officials. Unfortunately this picture does not correspond to the reality of the last forty years or to capitalism in general. Continue reading
You can download the 1969 translation of László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (1927) by clicking on the embedded link. A while ago I posted some of Moholy’s work, but this is much more comprehensive. Otto Stelzer’s postscript to the 1967 reissue of the classic Bauhausbuch release appears below along with some examples of his films, photographs, and paintings.
Nearly out of space on my WordPress account. So I might have to set up a Paypal account and start soliciting donations. For now, though, enjoy.
László Moholy-Nagy saw photography not only as a means of reproducing reality and relieving the painter of this function. He recognized its power of discovering reality. “The nature which speaks to the camera is a different nature from the one which speaks to the eye,” wrote Walter Benjamin years after Moholy had developed the experimental conditions for Benjamin’s theory. The other nature discovered by the camera influenced what Moholy, after he had emigrated, was to call The New Vision. It alters our insight into the real world. Much has happened in the meantime in this field and on a broader basis than Moholy could have foreseen. Painting, Photography, Film today exists as a new entity even in areas to which Moholy’s own creative desire could scarcely have led: for example, in the Neo-Realism of Bacon, Rivers, Warhol, Vostell and many others whose reality is no more than a second actuality produced by photography.
Moholy is one of those artists whose reputation continues to grow steadily after their death because their works have a prophetic action. Moholy always saw himself as a Constructivist but he passed quickly through the static Constructivism of his own time. In a few moves he opened a game which is being won today. His light-modulators, his “composition in moving colored light,” his leaf-paintings of the forties, represent the beginnings of a “kinetic art” — even the term is his — which is flourishing today. Op Art? Moholy did the essential spade-work of this school (the old expression is in order here) in 1942, even including the objective, important for Op artists, of a “use”: with his pupils in Chicago he had evolved studies for military camouflage. The display of these things, later mounted in the school of design by his collaborator and fellow Hungarian György Kepes, was at once the first Op exhibition, “Trompe l’oeil,” and its theoretical constituent. New materials? Moholy had been using celluloid, aluminium, plexiglass, and gallalith as early as the Bauhaus days. Modern typography? Moholy has influenced two generations of typographers. Even in the field of aesthetic theory Moholy found a new approach; its aim was a theory of information in art. Moholy enlisted pioneers of this now much discussed theory as long as twenty-five years ago, nominating Charles Morris, the authority on semantics, to a professorship at the New Bauhaus, Chicago and inviting Hayakawa, another semanticist to speak at his institute. In 1925, when the Bauhaus book now being re-issued first appeared, Moholy was regarded as a Utopian. That Moholy, this youthful radical, with his fanaticism and his boundless energy, radiated terror too, even among his colleagues at the Bauhaus, is understandable. “Only optics, mechanics, and the desire to put the old static painting out of action,” wrote Feininger to his wife at the time: “There is incessant talk of cinema, optics, mechanics, projection and continuous motion and even of mechanically produced optical transparencies, multicolored, in the finest colors of the spectrum, which can be stored in the same way as gramophone records” (Moholy’s “Domestic Pinacotheca,” p. 25). Is this the atmosphere in which painters like Klee and some others of us can go on developing? Klee was quite depressed yesterday when talking about Moholy.” Yet Feininger’s own transparent picture-space seems not wholly disconnected from Moholy’s light “displays.”
Pascal discovered in human behavior two attitudes of mind: “One is the geometric, the other that of finesse.” Gottfried Benn took this up and made the word “finesse,” difficult enough to translate already, even more obscure. “The separation, therefore, of the scientific from the sublime world…the world which can be verified to the point of confirmatory neurosis and the world of isolation which nothing can make certain.” The attitudes which Pascal conceived of as being complementary and connected are now separated. The harmonization of the two attitudes of mind to which the art of classical periods aspired is abandoned. The conflict between the Poussinistes and the followers of Rubens, conducted flexibly from the 17th to the 19th century, became a war of positions with frozen fronts.
The Bauhaus carried on the conflict until the parties retired: on the one side the sublime: Klee, Feininger, Itten, and Kandinsky too, whose “nearly” Constructivist paintings still reminded Moholy of “underwater landscapes’; on the other “geometricians” with Moholy at their head (“forms of the simplest geometry as a step towards objectivity’), his pupils and the combatants, Malevich, El Lissitzky, Mondrian, Van Doesburg, all closely connected with the Bauhaus. On the one side the “lyrical I” (in Benn’s sense), on the other the collectivists, “one in the spirit” with science, social system and architecture, as Moholy formulated it in a Bauhaus lecture in 1923.
Two years ago, I introduced my readers to the work of the German expressionist architect Hans Poelzig. Many were doubtless familiar with his buildings already. What I sought to highlight, though, was the sheer scariness of his architecture. Hence “scary architecture.” SOCKS Studio, always excellent and often operating on the same wavelength, also put up a post on Poelzig around the same time.
In the time that has passed, I have amassed hundreds more high-quality images of plans, sketches, and period photographs of Poelzig’s built work. Needless to say, they aren’t any less scary than before. One could easily imagine Max Schreck’s Nosferatu lurking in the corridors of these structures, with Caligari’s hypnotized somnambulist dashing madly over their rooftops. Alfred Kubin’s monsters threaten to burst forth at any minute.
Flights of fancy aside, these really are stunning images. Dark, peculiar, and unexpected. I’m not sure what lends them this eerie quality, especially as a range of different building types are depicted, delineated, or photographed. Yet all of Poelzig’s structures share this tenebrous aspect, whether one takes his elegant cinema palaces, ominous monuments, or frightening industrial complexes (see the acid factory and gas works). Great stuff.
Click any of the following thumbnails to see the images in higher resolution, and scroll through to see more. Enjoy!
For anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing, Experimental Cinema was basically an organ of Soviet avant-garde movie-making published in English. It includes articles written by Sergei Eisenstein, Béla Balázs, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and numerous others from that milieu. El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko were employed as photographers for the journal. You can download a few issues published between 1930 and 1934 courtesy of the Internet Archive. Movie posters for some of the films discussed in its pages can be found in my post from a few days ago on the Stenberg brothers.
The following review of Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece, Que viva México!, was written by the American filmmaker and studio producer Morris Helprin. At the time, both he and his wife were committed communists. Later, Helprin became president of London Films in Hollywood (one article in Experimental Cinema called Hollywood “the sales agent of American imperialism”). Still, quite a neat summary and some behind-the-scenes details. If you’re interested in reading more about it, you can download the following texts or watch the full-length movie below.
- Andrea Noble, “Seeing through ¡Que viva México!: Eisenstein’s Travels in Mexico”
- Masha Salazkina, In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico
Eisenstein in Mexico
“Que Viva Mexico!”
It is the first film made in the Western hemisphere to assume the mantle of maturity. The furthest step yet from the idiocies of corn-fed Hollywood. It turns its tail up at the banal; thumbs its nose at the benign. It is pictorial rhetoric of such vital force that it thunders and roars. Yet it contains every aspect of the popular cinema.
“QUE VIVA MEXICO!”
That day at Los Remedios, when we walked over the hills in search of a suitable location, served as an indication of Eisenstein’s preciseness, his exciting demands that his subject be even in quality. All Mexico around us was “beautiful enough to swoon in.” Here was no prettiness of the postcard cinema, none of your oak-paneled pictures that need but sprinklings of chemical brilliants to turn them into revolting chromes. The top of a mountain and an ancient aqueduct jutting at a seven-thousand foot height into a stilled canopy of swan-white clouds. You could set your camera down at almost any spot and grind. And have a beautiful scenic.
But the Russian, followed hastily by Tisse, his cameraman, Aragon, a young Mexican intellectual who serves as a guide, interpreter, and go-between, a camera boy, and myself, trailed by five peons who were the day’s actors at a peso each, led a frantic chase to find the spot. Following which were at least a dozen of the spots. Continue reading
Below are scans of the communist and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ copy of his own short tract on Soviet Central Asia, from 1932. It was published under the title A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, and includes copious editorial notation and marginalia around the text. Hughes was known as something of a perfectionist, so it’s not surprising at all that he would submit something he wrote to such rigorous scrutiny.
The introductory remark provided by the publisher is slightly misleading, reflecting a political policy adopted by the Stalinist Comintern toward the black population in the Southern United States. Describing Hughes as “the son of an oppressed nationality,” the brief note suggests that he will testify to “the achievements of formerly oppressed nationalities under the banner of the Soviets.” At the time, Moscow’s line on “the Negro question” in the US was that blacks in the South — especially along the so-called “Black Belt,” areas where they held a sizable majority — constituted a separate nation which ought to be granted autonomy, i.e. the right of national self-determination.
Readers can learn more about this disastrous official stance here in Benjamin Blumberg’s excellent essay “Race and the Left in America: An Unmet Challenge.” For now, we turn to the text. What were Hughes’ impressions of life in Soviet Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan?
Many of his attitudes and opinions, it must be said, would likely shock and offend today’s self-proclaimed “Marxists.” Hughes unabashedly celebrated the secularization process then underway in these territories, inaugurated by the Soviet authorities working in tandem with local communists and fellow-travelers. The struggle against religious tradition was not restricted to gender integration and secular education in school reform, but extended to the public sphere and culture in general. “Illiteracy, not only of children but of adults, has been greatly reduced,” wrote Hughes, enthusiastically. “The cells of the madrases are empty, and the schools of the state are overcrowded. Already to the youth today, Allah is only a legend and the Koran is forgotten. Marx, Lenin, chemistry, economics, mathematics, scientific agriculture, electricity, and hygiene are new realities to millions who once knew only the sleepy teachings of priestcraft” (33).
Such talk would likely get one branded an Orientalist or Islamophobe by Marxists writing in recent years. According to Houria Bouteldja and the indigènes of France, religion is not the opiate of the masses but rather an authentic expression of non-Western ways of life. Worldviews rooted in atheistic materialism are imports of the decadent, liberal, bourgeois West. Downtrodden peoples living along the periphery cannot be expected to live without the comforting illusions of religious ritual. Perhaps Hughes was simply unaware of radical cultural difference, irreducible Otherness, and similar French theoretical nonsense. Now, thank G-d, we know better than those naïve revolutionaries of the past.
But Hughes had a more immediate reason for associating faith and religiosity with oppression. Citing Mencken — i.e., “America’s lovable literary buffoon” — he notes that “Across the water, on the mainland, the god worshipers are legion. Mencken…calls the South ‘The Bible Belt’ because there are so many churches, preachers, and prayers there. Yet it is in this same Bible Belt that hundreds of Negroes are lynched, race riots are organized, peonage and chain gangs and forced labor of all forms are found, women are exploited in the cotton mills, and farces of justice like the Scottsboro trial are staged” (27).
Little wonder, then, that Marx’s 1875 program “to liberate conscience from the witchery of religion” would appeal to someone like Hughes. He poetically recalls,
In industrial cities in the Northern Unites States, hundreds of thousands of black and white workers walk the streets hungry and unemployed in the shadows of skyscrapers… And in the churches, the bosses pray, and the ministers are one in denouncing communism — and calling on God — like the mullahs of Bukhara when the Emir ruled. I walk through the streets past crumbling walls of sun-dried brick, beneath empty towers and minarets beside palaces and mosques. I remember how, as a boy in far-away Kansas, I dreamed of seeing this fabulous city… And now here I am, traveling with a Soviet newspaper, seeing for myself all the dusty and wonderful horrors that monarchy and religion created in the dark past, which have now been vanquished by socialism. (28)
What impressed Hughes the most, however, was the liberation of women brought about by the Bolsheviks. And not just Russian ones, either, but partisans hailing from every Soviet republic. Following the Emir’s overthrow, he explains, came “an opening of doors to women and the death of Allah…Now the brass bed of the Emir still stands in the summer palace, but his wives are free from the harem, and the whole estate is shortly to become a rest-home for the workers of the sovkhozes. Peasants will sleep where they could not enter before, and women will stroll unveiled beneath the grape arbors where once they walked only in paranjas guarded by eunuchs” (25). Continue reading
I’ve posted about Hannes Meyer several times already. For those who don’t know, Meyer was the second Bauhaus director. He stepped in after Walter Gropius returned to his own private practice in 1928, and presided over the art and architecture school until he was forced out due to his Marxist convictions in 1930. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe replaced him. After his tenure came to an abrupt end, Meyer and a number of his students traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government. Despite his enthusiastic support for the five-year plans then underway, and his unwavering loyalty throughout, Meyer eventually wore out his welcome in the USSR. Several of his colleagues were rounded up and arrested before he finally decided to return to Switzerland. Meyer didn’t stay long there, however, moving permanently to Mexico in 1938.
Today he is largely forgotten, though some have expressed interest in his legacy of late. Claude Schnaidt has provided probably the best comprehensive account of his work. It is not surprising that Meyer would be overshadowed by his predecessor Gropius on the one hand, and his successor Mies on the other. Both were more significant in the history of modern architecture, more groundbreaking or talented. Nevertheless, Meyer was quite innovative himself, as can be seen from his designs for co-ops and proposal for the League of Nations building in Geneva (1926). His skill in other media, such as photography and city planning, was also considerable.
Yesterday I discovered a rare article Meyer wrote in 1942, originally in Spanish, on the architectural profession in the Soviet Union. It was translated into English and published by Harvard’s student design magazine TASK in 1943. The article is interesting in several respects. First, because it displays no bitterness whatsoever at the Stalinist regime that forced Meyer into exile and many of his friends. Second, because the pioneering modernist implicitly repudiates many of his earlier positions on the role of architecture in modern society, criticizing the avant-garde architects at VKhUTEMAS and providing a “dialectical” justification for protopostmodernist eclecticism. Third, because it includes a number of facts and figures, which are interesting even though they are without a doubt inaccurate or misleading.
Alongside the article, which appears below, I’ve included a bunch of photos Meyer took documenting his journeys across the USSR. Enjoy.
The Soviet architect
I dedicate this unpretentious work to the composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, who, in the trenches of Leningrad, December 1941, put the final notes on his Seventh Symphony, rising in this classic form — score and weapon forged in hand — to the present duty of all democratic intellectuals in the entire world: the defense of our culture and of humanity.
The architect has always been intimately linked with his social environment. He is one of the human tools that serve the ruling power to fortify its position. Architecture besides its direct utility, has always served to maintain power. We find an architect serving the Pope, in Bramante, or the King, in Le Nôtre, or as a colonial functionary, in Tolsa, or as a privileged member of the bourgeoisie, in Tony Garnier. To this we must add that building’ is an activity profoundly connected with social-economic needs and the superimposed spiritual structure. And the architect is always of necessity a collaborator. He does his work together with economists and industrialists, with workers, artisans, and housewives. In Hindu tradition the future architect must first perfect himself as a carpenter, a mason, a painter, a sculptor, and an iron worker. Mature men of forty years are then known as “masters of architecture.”
In capitalist society architecture is numbered among the “liberal professions,” and this is why bankers, speculators, and other knights of the stock market can use the decorative cloak of architecture to cover the sores of the social body. — Architecture is not an autonomous art, as certain prima donnas of the drawing board would like to have us believe. The architect is born and finds his form in the womb of his society and is brought forth by a specific age and by a definite epoch. Hence we find the most capable and creative architects in the heart of the classical forms of society.
The socialist society in the USSR, created by the October Revolution of 1917, is an experiment without precedent. For the first time in human history the people themselves own the factories and all the means of production. The land also has been nationalized. Private economy, until then in a state of anarchy, has been transformed into a planned and directed economy. Together with the great change in the position of intellectuals in the USSR, the position and the role of the architect has been completely altered. The architectural structure of the new state has itself been transformed.
Outside of the USSR it is very hard to form any clear idea of the present conception of architecture in that country. It is confusing to find in its publications buildings of the most diverse character, examples of classicism, and of conflicting trends. These efforts in search of a national ideal are described as backward by American architects, who are justly proud of their highly industrialized achievements. They describe the Soviet attempt to connect by way of dialectics the magnificent past of Russian architecture with the dynamic present as a new academicism. Because of their ignorance of social and economical matters, they can employ no other pattern than those found in their everyday surroundings. For this reason “glass construction,” which is the last word on this continent, over there, in a different environment appears completely out of place. Chippendale furniture, here an expression of conservatism, is there a step forward in the development of the highest quality in cabinet work.