The metropolis, money, and abstraction

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What follows is an extract, some preliminary research, from an essay I’m working on with Sammy Medina. It’s in very rough form, and over-footnoted. Much of it will have to be cut. But I still felt like I had to go through everything step by step to make sure that each stage of the argument holds up. Once that’s done I’m hoping I’ll find shortcuts for how to say it with greater brevity.

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The modern metropolis, both in its historical origins and present-day existence, is the site of capitalist accumulation par excellence. As the German sociologist Georg Simmel put it in his celebrated 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” “[t]he metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy.”[1] Money played a vital role, after all, in shifting the political center of gravity away from the countryside toward the city. Despite the numerous titles and privileges enjoyed by clergymen and noblemen, the townsmen had one mighty weapon in their struggle against feudalism: money.[2] By removing the primacy of land tenure (i.e., the manorial system of fiefs and hereditary estates), it eroded the basis of traditional bonds of dependence. “Long before the ramparts of the old baronial castles were breached by the new artillery, they had already been undermined by money,” wrote Friedrich Engels in 1884. “In fact, gunpowder could be described as an executor of the judgment rendered by money.”[3]

With the increased availability of minted coins in Europe — starting in the twelfth century with the discovery of silver deposits in Thuringia,[4] but especially following the influx of precious metals from the New World after 1493[5] — commodity circulation took place on an expanded scale.[6] For merchants and moneylenders living in the cities, the pervasiveness of pecuniary transactions allowed them to leverage their position at the crucible of exchange  against the landed aristocracy in the surrounding territories.[7] The feudal lords relied on the towns both for their finished wares as well as the occasional loan, and thus fell prey to price gouging and crippling debt. Hard currency thereby helped bring about the decline of feudalism alongside the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.

Cities today invariably reflect this influence. Not simply owing to their past function as the breeding-ground of modern capitalism, but because of their ongoing inundation by the money form of capital as well. Practically every facet of urban life is organized according to synchronized rhythms of exchange.[8] Here money acts as a sort of perpetuum mobile, facilitating the circulation of commodities throughout the city and its environs.[9] At the same time, however, it accelerates the tempo of daily interactions, since “a change in monetary circumstances brings about a change in the pace of life,” as Simmel observed.[10] Whether a town was from the outset a center of trade or a seedbed of industry,[11] money eventually permeates its entire infrastructure. Replacing medieval relations rooted in so-called “natural economy,”[12] it soon becomes integral to the comings and goings of the whole populace.[13]

The move away from economies based on barter and the gift, where precise equivalence of exchange is either impossible or besides the point, toward economies based on money and credit acquires an almost world-historical significance in this light.[14] Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the unique character of a money economy. Continue reading

Mikhail Barshch’s housing-communes in Moscow 1928-1930

Karel Teige
The Minimum
Dwelling
(1931)

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Currently, the functions and dimensions of the jačejka as a new housing type are widely discussed in the USSR under the heading of the obshchezhitie [collective living] versus the dom-komuna. The collective house is seen as a kind of interim solution, designed to accomplish the transition from the rental barracks type to a higher mode of dwelling. These collective houses are intended to provide accommodations for more than one person, and sometimes even families share a single room. The apartments have no kitchens, which are provided separately and shared by a number of living units. In some cases public dining halls are provided instead. The dom-komuna represents a more authentic solution for collective living: it is a house designed for a large number of inhabitants — a big structure, without kitchens, but containing common children’s homes, clubs, and so on. An all-out collectivization of dwelling services implies that it is possible to develop two types of houses: the dwelling beehive or the dwelling combine.

One of the foremost advocates of the dom-komuna [i.e., dwelling combine] idea is [Leonid] Sabsovich, the author of the book The USSR in Fifteen Years [1929], where he proposes a much more developed version than that exemplified by early Moscow dwelling communes. His mature dom-komuna envisions complexes for two to ten thousand inhabitants. Each commune is conceived as a distinct community, a city, and includes meeting halls, a club, study rooms, a theater, movies, health care facilities, emergency rooms, exercise rooms, and so on. Other spaces are provided for the offices of the administration and the local soviet. Several of these dom-komuna can be combined to make up a residential city for adults. Children would be raised and educated outside of the city, in special school districts.

Barshch Vladimirov axonometric dom kommuna1bird's eye view housing commune Barshch Vladimirov

Sabsovich’s theories have been implemented to some degree in the well-known architectural project of a large dom-komuna by Mikhail Barshch and Vladimir Vladimirov, members of the Construction Committee of the Economic Soviet (Stroikom), with the difference that in this project the children’s home and the schools are included as an integral part of the complex, in order to prevent the segregation of children’s life away from adult life in special districts. It is a self-contained community, an independent dwelling complex and a new urban type, designed as a unified architectural structure serving both individual and collective life. Its design and built form reflect the organization of collective life. It succeeds in fusing into a unified whole a whole series of heterogeneous elements. According to Sabsovich, the fundamental question facing the new type of socialist housing is to define the center of gravity of the dwelling combine: is it represented by the common spaces or by the complex of individual rooms? In his opinion, there is no doubt that the center of gravity of any socialist dwelling should be the collective, social spaces. And, since it is imperative to build at the lowest possible cost and save space, he defends the position that unavoidably the individual dwelling cells must be kept as modest as possible, rather than skimping on collective spaces, where it is essential to nurture the new lifestyle. For the collective spaces, he establishes a minimum of three square meters per inhabitant (but never less than one square meter). Sabsovich assumes that the majority of the inhabitants will spend most of their free time in the collective spaces for recreation, lectures, study, physical culture, and similar activities, while they will use their individual cells only for sleep and possibly individual rest — in short, when biological needs make isolation from the collective necessary. On these assumptions, it should be possible to reduce the individual cell to a mere sleeping cubicle of minimal dimensions, with an approximate floor area of four to five square meters. The opponents of Sabsovich’s theory claim that such housing communes change communism into communalism and that it is neither advisable nor possible to bring together all private as well as collective living functions in a single building complex, even if loosely arranged. They argue that it would therefore be better to decentralize these functions and accommodate them in special buildings, which means that the ideal collective house should be conceived as a separate beehive, consisting solely of individual living cells. Continue reading

Avant-garde journal design: Building Moscow [Строительство Москвы], 1927-1931

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Below are some pretty stellar avant-garde journal designs by Gustav Klutsis, Vasilii Elkin, and El Lissitzky for the monthly architecture journal Building Moscow. It ran through the 1930s, but progressively became less and less modernist in terms of both form (layout, formatting) and content (projects, proposals) as time went on. Number eleven from the year 1928 shows Le Corbusier’s influential proposal for the Tsentrosoiuz, or central union administration building, in Moscow. Here he incorporated a number of elements from his League of Nations proposal, which had been rejected the previous year.

There’s also a note here that I’ve included from the fourth issue of  1929. Enjoy!

Журнал Строительство Москвы, несомненно, становится все более содержательным. Им интересуются уже не только специалисты-строители и архитектора, но и широкие круги рабочей общественности. В свете строительных задач Москвы — ответственность органа Моссовета все более увеличивается. Continue reading

Bauhaus master Walter Gropius’ submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition, 1931

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Just a few brief notes, since I’m presently occupied with other tasks and because I’ve dealt with this topic (however cursorily) elsewhere. Recently I stumbled upon a cache of outstanding images of Walter Gropius’ 1931 submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition in Moscow. The majority of these images are floor plans, numerous because of the complex multilevel structure Gropius envisioned. Many, however, are sketches — perspective and axonometric drawings — depicting the view of the Palace from the river as well as approaches to its various entrances. A few more show the building’s situation vis-à-vis the rest of the city, site plans and the like.

Some have noted the similarities between Gropius’ proposal for the Palace of the Soviets and his earlier experiments with the idea of “total theater” for Erwin Piscator. James Marston Fitch, for example, pointed out the continuities that exist between the designs Gropius made for Piscator up through a 1930 proposal for a theater in Kharkhiv, Ukraine, leading ultimately to his conception of the Palace of the Soviets (Fitch, Walter Gropius, pg. 22). Gropius had already designed a theater for Oskar Schlemmer at his Bauhaus building in Dessau.

Total theater.

Important differences may be mentioned as well, however. Certainly Gropius’ Palace of the Soviets project was conceived on a much grander scale, given the specifications and requirements outlined by the Bolshevik government. Predictably, this entailed shifting qualitative dynamics that couldn’t be solved merely by quantitative increase or multiplication. Acoustical studies thus form an integral part of Gropius’ argument for the viability of his building.

Obviously, as everyone knows, things didn’t turn out the way the modernists had expected in the USSR. Neoclassicism won out, much to the chagrin of Le Corbusier, Moisei Ginzburg, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes MeyerSigfried Giedion, and the rest. Many felt it was a repeat of the whole League of Nations debacle. Giedion even sent Stalin an angry collage in protest — a futile but rather entertaining gesture. Would’ve loved to have seen the befuddled look on Dzugashvilii’s face when he opened that letter.

You can enlarge any of these images by clicking on them and scrolling through the gallery I’ve compiled.

Sketches.

Continue reading

Erich Mendelsohn, Red Banner Textile Factory in Leningrad (1926)

Charlottenburg, Germany
July 11th, 1926

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We have completed the early project for Stuttgart. The enclosed sheet shows its directness as a spatial organism. To alter it, i.e., to eliminate or add anything, will call for new work and a new design.

So it will be better to push it through as it is and thus bring it to life.

This evening I am traveling to Stuttgart via Nuremberg. We are doing without pictures — which are only attempts to deceive untrained eyes — but are having a colored model prepared straight away. K. is bringing it on Wednesday morning. Until then I will…put my iron in the fire. On Wednesday I am lunching with Bonatz and dining with him at Hildebrandt’s. The omens are favorable, though I cannot believe we shall triumph without a struggle.

But I have a good conscience with regard to this project, which is half the battle.

Still no final decision from Leningrad. My telegram in reply to the renewed Russian invitation is so far unanswered. In this I see neither a good nor a bad omen, but am simply remaining completely indifferent to the way things are developing, which is hard enough to control from close to and quite impossible at a distance.

The endless space of Russia makes dream and aspiration — idea and action — impenetrable in the negative sense, infinite in the positive. [my emphasis — RW]

Even having to reckon with the reality of the few months when building can be done in Leningrad upsets numerical calculations and shifts their emphasis. The constants remain, but the indices explode, because the Russians are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their inner value, and their necessary correlation.

Meanwhile speculation continues about our possible handling of the whole project development. My studio is today a complete forum for statical computations, not, as it is generally, a trapeze of intuition or a firm springboard of organized planning.

At the same time H. telephoned in order to hold out a 90 per cent certain prospect of the Mosse block being realized. All three blocks are to be built at once and my negotiations with the building authorities must be taken up “at once.” People coax me into making compromises, without permitting themselves to notice that they are prepared to sell me down the river at the appropriate moment. So it is necessary to be doubly watchful and unyielding.

If all this comes together, holidays and mountain lakes become unthinkable.

Leningrad, USSR
August 1st, 1926

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The presentation of the project in Moscow has caused the Textile Trust the greatest difficulties and disagreeable cuts, additions, and mixtures — in short a fine flower of compromise…

They want to create a prototype on the basis of the latest international experience, but they entrust the incomplete picture to the hand of a bad copyist.

They make a basic revolution but they are bogged down by even more basic administration. They look to America but they are stuck fast in the suburbs of Königsberg. And all the possibilities are here, as you know.

But this new structure needs a broad base on which to rest, from which to summon up its strength. Everywhere there are those knowledgeable and active people who have always given the hungry mass a new understanding of their freedom, of the goal of all freedom and of man himself.

Continue reading

Noah’s arkhitektura: Ship-like constructivist buildings in former Leningrad (1930-1937)

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Some photos of three ship-like buildings in former Leningrad designed by Noi [Russian version of "Noah"] Trotskii between 1930 and 1937. This resemblance has been pointed out by such scholars as Boris Kirikov in his book on the Leningrad avant-garde. Right now I’m finishing up a longer reflection on these buildings for Calvert Journal. For now, enjoy the pics.

Noi Trotskii (1895-1940).

Kirovskii District Council (1930-1935).

Kirov Palace of Culture (1931-1937).

Kirov meat-packing plant (1931-1933).

Reform and revolution in the age of online “social justice” campaigns

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I’ve been trying to lay off pop culture political commentary these past few weeks, fearing that writing yet another article about the poverty of intersectionality theory or Flavia Dzodan and the narcissism of “identity” might distract me from more worthy ventures. But sometimes History itself intervenes and moves one to respond — that is,  if History can still be said to be happening (which it isn’t). Twitter activist Suey Park’s half-baked reflections on “reform and revolution” were bound to strike a chord with me. As an admirer of Rosa Luxemburg and her contribution to Marxist discourse on this subject, I couldn’t help but feel dismayed at the way these terms were being thoughtlessly bandied about, emptied both of content and relevant context. (Parks insists that “context” isn’t important, but that’s really besides the point).

Maybe I should be more forgiving, and regard Park’s political and historical illiteracy as the result of mere ignorance rather than deliberate effrontery, a cynical ploy to raise her profile as a leading voice for the oppressed. She did manage to land an interview conducted by the mainstream leftish media outlet Salon, after all. Enough equivocation, though. Here are her thoughts on the perennial dichotomy of reform versus revolution, from the viral marketing genius who brought us #notyourasiansidekick:

SALON: What is the best way to work with white people, to get them on our side?

SUEY PARK: I don’t want them on our side.

SALON: You don’t?

SUEY PARK: This is not reform, this is revolution.

SALON: So what do you want to see happen in your revolution?

SUEY PARK: I mean it’s already happening I think. The revolution will not be an apocalypse, it’s gonna be a series of shifts in consciousness that result in actions that come about, and I think that like, at this point is really like, ride or die, in terms who’s in and who is out. I don’t play by appeasement politics, it is not about getting my oppressors to humanize me. And in that sense I reject the respectability politics, I reject being tone-policed, I think we need to do away with this idea that these structures are…that the prisons can undergo reform and somehow do less violence as a structure.

Without claiming to be an authority on the matter, this is something I’ve actually written a lot about. So I hope the reader will excuse me if I share my perspective, fully aware that my arguments might fall short or fail to convince.

One doesn’t need to insist upon rigid designation or fixed points of reference to demonstrate that Park’s interpretation of “revolution” evacuates the word of any meaning it might have once possessed. This isn’t about positing some changeless synchronic language where words always just mean one thing and nothing else irrespective of shifting usage and convention. It’s about a specific (conservative) adaptation to changed political circumstances, a rationalization of defeat. For Park’s redefinition of revolution as “a series of shifts in consciousness resulting in actions that come about” is not simply an attempt to bring the concept up to date, to show what “revolution” might mean in the 21st century. Rather, it expresses deeper misgivings about the pervasive helplessness felt throughout contemporary politics, but in a way which occludes the possibility of its overcoming. Because radical social transformation no longer seems imaginable, Park’s rebrands revolution as something that’s already happening anyway. Much like Chávez’s “21st century socialism,” this basks in fresh air of postmodern ahistoricity, reassuring everyone that they’re remaining faithful to the good old cause while abdicating any real responsibility to the immense practical tasks set by that revolutionary socialism in the past. Continue reading

Object lessons from the Bauhaus

Joan Ockman
Art in America
Dec. 1, 2009
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Bauhaus is the name of an artistic inspiration.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max
Bill, January 1954

Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, but the meaning of a movement that represents a well-defined doctrine.

— Max Bill, letter to Asger
Jorn, January 1954

If Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, it is the name of a doctrine without inspiration — that is to say, dead.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max
Bill, February 1954

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What was the Bauhaus really? The question has been raised repeatedly ever since Nazi agents raided the school in April 1933, precipitating its closure by the faculty a few months later. On the 90th anniversary of its founding, and the 20th of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a major exhibition organized by three institutions in Germany,[1] and now another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have relaunched the debate. The answer proffered in MoMA’s “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” assembled by Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design, and Leah Dickerman, curator in the department of painting and sculpture, is that the Bauhaus was, above all, a new form of art education: a radically innovative and progressive school for artists and designers in the modern epoch. This is hardly revelatory, but it’s a valuable frame for rethinking the Bauhaus’ lessons for today. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue advance the argument that under each of its successive architect-directors — Walter Gropius (1919-28), Hannes Meyer (1928-30) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1930-33) — and in three locations — Weimar (1919-25), Dessau (1925-32) and Berlin (1932-33) — the Bauhaus brought together a diverse group of international artists, designers and architects in “a kind of cultural think tank for the times.”[2]

But if the Bauhaus may be said to have been the ultimate decantation chamber for early 20th-century modernity, it didn’t just emerge from Gropius’ head after World War I as a full-fledged idea. Nor did its afterlife in the various institutions and schools that carried forward its legacy over the remainder of the century play out neatly. The curators have made the decision not only to leave out its often messy pre- and post-history, but also to circumscribe most of the surrounding context, focusing narrowly on the school’s 14-year existence and its leading pedagogical figures and students. (The catalogue does a better job of situating the school’s development as well as some of its exemplary objects in relation to the cultural background, with many fine essays.)

As Bauhaus scholars have amply documented, the roots of the school’s design reformism lay in the British Arts and Crafts Movement (especially as filtered into Germany in the first decade of the century by the architect, author and cultural ambassador Hermann Muthesius), the European Werkstätten and Werkbund movements, and the school’s immediate predecessor in Weimar, Henry van de Velde’s Kunstgewerbeschule, whose building also housed the Bauhaus during its initial phase. Pedagogically, the school’s anti-academic, experiential philosophy of learning, variously imparted by its different masters, also had well-established antecedents in 19th-century and early 20th-century progressive education movements, including those of Europeans Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Georg Kerchensteiner, as well as John Dewey in the United States. Arguably, what was unprecedented at the Bauhaus was neither the effort to forge a new unity between the fine and applied arts, nor even, subsequently, between esthetic practice and commercial production, but rather the school’s extraordinary gathering of creative talents in the service of these objectives. That it sustained this project for nearly a decade and a half with a total of 33 faculty and 1,250 students over the course of its life, all the while being threatened by reactionary political forces and destabilizing economic ones, is all the more remarkable. Even if the school’s efforts to bring its designs to the marketplace had checkered success, the widespread diffusion of its intellectual and pedagogical program remains a phenomenon.

Apropos of the show’s title, it is worth emphasizing that the workshop per se is hardly a modern form of organization. It harks back to the medieval craft guilds or Bauhütten — brotherhoods of masons and other tradesmen that existed all over Europe from Gothic times, typically bound together by arcane social rituals and unified spiritually around architecture, or more precisely Baukunst, a monumental synthesis of the building arts. The instructors in the Bauhaus workshops, initially split up into formal and practical training, were known as masters rather than professors; students progressed from Lehrlinge (apprentices or trainees) to Gesellen (journeymen) to Jungmeister (young masters).

The transmission of knowledge on the model of the guild workshop also parallels the hieratic relationship between master and acolyte in a religious sect. That the Bauhaus was steeped in both these atmospheres—of craft and cult—in the immediate aftermath of World War I is richly conveyed in the exhibition, which opens with Lyonel Feininger’s famous woodcut made to accompany the school’s founding program. The crystalline image of a Gothic cathedral is charged with the same romantic-utopian afflatus that inspired the revolutionary socialism of several other cultural-political groups formed in the early months of the Weimar Republic, including the Workers Council for Art, the November Group and the circle of architectural fantasists brought together by Bruno Taut and known as the Glass Chain. Handcrafted products by the school’s bookbinding and pottery workshops, including a series of superb vessels by the future monk Theodor Bogler, as well as curious totems like a coffin designed by Lothar Schreyer and Marcel Breuer’s long-lost “African” Chair — a student project created in collaboration with Gunta Stölzl in the weaving workshop — likewise reflect an early Bauhaus whose metaphysical-material concerns were remote from the machine.

Similarly, the Sommerfeld House, a log dwelling for a rich timber merchant and Bauhaus patron, realized in 1920-21 by Gropius with his partner Adolf Meyer, belongs to this late Expressionist mood. Represented in the exhibition by a series of original photographs and a colored drawing, the house was based on a system of wood prefabrication, and its construction was solemnized by a ritualistic topping-out ceremony (regrettably documented only by the invitation produced in the Bauhaus printing workshop). Inside, it was fitted with elaborately carved wall decorations, stained-glass windows and furnishings crafted by Joost Schmidt, Josef Albers, Breuer and other Bauhaus students in a Gesamtkunstwerk collaboration among all the workshops. The first of a series of “worksites,” the house inaugurated the on-site approach to teaching architecture that prevailed until the subject was finally integrated into the curriculum under department head Hannes Meyer in 1927. Along with his Märzgefallenen-Denkmal (Monument to the March Dead), 1921-22 — a cantilevered concrete “thunderbolt,” displayed in an early plaster model — the Sommerfeld House reveals a wholly different Gropius from the one associated with both the sachlich Fagus Factory of 1914, which made his early reputation as a functionalist architect, and the Bauhaus building to come in 1925-26 in Dessau.

The most visually arresting image from this period is an abstract painting by Johannes Itten titled Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt (Ascent and Resting Point), 1919. The canvas unexpectedly evokes the Parisian Orphism of the Delaunays or František Kupka, attesting to more complex cross-pollination across the modernist map than conventional narratives (and this show) suggest. The charismatic Itten, whose sacerdotal persona and haptic teaching methods made him the school’s most distinctive figure in these years, also inaugurated the famous Vorkurs in 1919. Subsequently modified under his successors, the half-year-long preliminary course was the portal to the workshops and would serve for most of the next decade as a fundamental initiation rite for every student entering the school. Continue reading

Venezuela and the “Bolivarian Revolution”

Sergio López
Kosmoprolet
April 2009

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This is an analysis of the socio-economic and political bases of the rise to power of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and of the trajectory of the “Bolivarian” regime. Its author, “Sergio López,” writes from firsthand knowledge of conditions in Venezuela, and this article appeared first in Kosmoprolet, Heft 1, the publication of the Freundinnen und Freunde der Klassenlosen Gesellschaft (Friends of the Classless Society).

A translation of this piece was published in the journal Internationalist Perspective, and is reproduced from their website below. While it’s quite a bit lengthier — at over 11,000 words, it’s able to say more about the socioeconomic context and so on — López’s article forms a nice supplement to the much shorter piece by Marco Torres on “The Dead Left: Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution,” which is more of an ideology-critique with a political emphasis. Both pieces were written around the same time, with López ‘s coming out in 2009 and Torres’ in 2010. Moreover, Marco’s piece focused more on what the Western Left’s fixation on Venezuela and Bolivarianism said about its own powerlessness.

Even though several years have now passed, with the anniversary of Chávez’s death having just been marked, both pieces provide a nice Marxist counterpoint to a lot of the rather uncritical cheerleading engaged in by Alan Woods and the International Marxist Tendency or George Ciccariello-Maher‘s anarchist apologia for the Venezuelan state.
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“President Chávez is a tool of God”

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A highlight of every child’s birthday party in Venezuela is a piñata, a brightly-colored paper container filled with candy or toys dangling from a rope. Taking turns the children try to break the piñata with a stick. When it eventually breaks releasing its precious contents all the children jump at it and try to grab as much of it as possible. It goes without saying that the weaker children are intimidated and squeezed out by the stronger ones. Their share depends upon the size of the piñata, the number of children and, ultimately their capability of standing up to the other children. If there were no interference by the parents, several children would go away empty-handed.

How is this related to the Bolivarian process? How does the game continue? And who are the players?

In a materialist understanding, the key to the “Bolivarian revolution” cannot be the man Hugo Chávez with his real or alleged staff of advisers. Rather, the historical structures, the concrete economic interests and the social tensions within Venezuela are key to understanding Chávez’s rise to power, his political actions and his particular rhetoric.

Since the 1920s oil has been Venezuela’s most important export good. Ever since, it has been central to all economic, political and social life in Venezuela. Unlike agricultural produce, natural resources were at that time already the property of the state which, hence, as a direct trading partner of the foreign oil companies, had a source of capital at its disposal which is to this day largely independent from the rest of the country’s economic activity. It was only in the 1920s that the state exerted its authority against the local chieftains, the “caudillos,” and set an end to the recurring flare-up of bloody civil wars that had shaken the country since its independence in 1821.

Proprietors of natural resources can regulate the access to it, deny it altogether or sell it at a high price. This is the source of the “absolute rent” Marx analyzed. By founding OPEC, the oil exporting countries could raise this absolute rent and snatch it away from the world market. Moreover, oil has an advantage over its main competitor on the energy market, coal, because the extraction of oil is cheaper than that of coal. Therefore, the oil industry gains a so-called differential rent. Particularly in the years after 1958 the Venezuelan state was in a struggle with the oil companies over a share in this differential rent until it eventually nationalized oil production in 1975, in a way though which still involved the oil companies. For almost a century this state has been trying to strengthen its bargaining power against the transnational oil companies without endangering the whole process of extracting and distributing the oil.

This is at the heart of Venezuela’s perpetual anti-imperialism. The character of the negotiations, and which oil concessions are granted, is pivotal for the country’s foreign policy. The struggle for political power, the discussion about the attitude towards the oil companies and the appropriation of the oil rent, dominate the political sphere. Also, socio-economic structures have developed in direct dependence on the almighty state and its seemingly inexhaustible sources of capital. This has led to an historically early process of urbanization in the administrative centres and in the areas where the oil is extracted. Today less than 15 percent of Venezuelans live in the countryside (compared to 25 percent of the French and 10 percent of the Germans). Continue reading

Architecture in cultural strife: Russian and Soviet architecture in drawings, 1900-1953

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Originally published over at Metropolis magazine’s online edition. A longer, slightly more comprehensive version of the review appears below.

The exhibition “Architecture in Cultural Strife: Russian and Soviet Architecture in Drawings, 1900-1953” opened two weeks ago at the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Bringing together a total of 79 unique architectural delineations from this period, the show spans the twilight years of the Romanov dynasty up to Stalin’s death in 1953.

Pavel Siuzor, Dom Zinger (1902-1904) K.N. Rouchefort and V.A. Linskii, 1906-1907

One is immediately struck by the periodization, bookended as it is by the death of a major political figure on one side and the turn of the century on the other. In terms of historical events, the latter of these seems fairly arbitrary. Stylistically, however, the date makes a bit more sense. Around 1900, Russian architects began to emulate non-academic design movements originating abroad. What Jugendstil had been to Germany, Art Nouveau to France, Sezessionstil to Austria — so stil’ modern [стиль модерн] was to Russia. Modernist architecture (sovremennaia arkhitektura [современная архитектура], not to be confused with stil’ modern) was still a couple decades away, but Pavel Siuzor and Gavriil Baranovskii introduced the style to Petrograd with some success.

Not much happened in the fifteen years from 1905 to 1920, at least as far as architecture is concerned. Of course this was largely due to the turbulence of the time. Two wars, a string of social and military crises, and multiple political revolutions interrupted ordinary construction cycles, preventing anything like normality from taking shape. Meanwhile, the widespread destruction of the country’s built infrastructure wrought by years of bloody civil war created a demand for new projects to replace what had been lost.

Nikolai Ladovskii Communal House Experimental project for Zhivskulptarkh Moscow, USSR 1920 Pencil, colored pencil, and colored ink on tracing paper 40 x 21 cmIl'ia Golosov, Lenin House 1924

After conditions finally stabilized in 1922, an experimental phase set in. Inspired by revolutionary tendencies in the visual arts — by abstract painting and sculptural constructs — an architectural avant-garde began to take shape. Highly innovative research was conducted at schools like INKhUK and VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN in Moscow, as well as the Academy of Arts and RABFAK in Leningrad. Students of architecture were encouraged to explore the possibilities of new materials and forms. The emerging Soviet avant-garde was hardly monolithic, however, despite certain popular depictions that represent the modernists as one homogenous bloc. While such simplifications are often expedient, even necessary, some nuance is inevitably lost along the way.

Continue reading

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