Izvestiia ASNOVA/Известия АСНОВА (1926)

The first and only issue of ASNOVA’s journal, with its layout designed by El Lissitzky and Nikolai Ladovskii

Izvestiia ASNOVA [Известия АСНОВА] PDF Download

Today I made my way from the NYPL Schwarzman building over to Columbia University’s Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library.  I half wondered if I’d bump into Louis Proyect along the way.  After some sifting through the WorldCAT I discovered that some of the original source documents I’d been looking for were in Columbia’s collection.

Most astoundingly, I happened across a copy of the architectural avant-garde group ASNOVA’s sole publication, Izvestiia ASNOVA (Известия АСНОВА), from 1926.  Unlike their rivals, the architectural Constructivists in OSA, the Rationalists of ASNOVA were never able to maintain a steady periodical of their own.  Still, it’s a beautifully designed text; none other than El Lissitzky worked on its layout.  It has some interesting theoretical pieces by Nikolai Ladovskii on architectural pedagogy and the insights of Münsterburgian psychotechnics into the effects of various formal combinations on the mind.  Also, it includes the article in which El Lissitzky unveils his famous Wolkenbügel proposal, describing some of the specifics of the project.

Though it’s only eight pages long, this piece is incredibly rare to find in its full-text form.  A few quotes and passages from the journal are often cited in passing, but no one to date seems to have taken the time to digitize it.  So anyway, I copied some images of it and ran it through some text-recognition software and then uploaded it for everyone.  Just click on the above link to download it.

Modernist architecture archive

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IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism

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An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.

Karel Teige’s “Contemporary International Architecture” (1928)

The most modern and consistent solutions achieved by contemporary architects are still confined within the bourgeois way of living.  All contemporary buildings, even the most modern ‘separate mansions’ (villas, palaces) as well as housing estates for the exploited poorer classes use the most modern building materials and techniques promoting a rational daily family life and improving hygienic standards.  All this activity is still based nevertheless on the bourgeois concept of a family, in particular on the concept: one family, one home, one kitchen.  Also the individual whims of the owners are excessively respected.  Luxury, diverse equipment, unnecessary artistic furniture, splendor and abundance for the rich and only certain facilities available for the poor…

Men who try to create a new architecture, a free architecture for a free people, anticipate the creation of a new social order in which private ownership, family, and nationality will be unknown.  Anticipation is now, however, the tactic of a revolutionary.  It is now necessary to prepare the community, to accustom it to new ideas, to revolutionize architecture, architectural production and include the hypotheses of a new organization of a new world.  This statement applies especially to architecture since architecture is the creation of organization.

The revolutionary liberation of architecture will produce the concept of housing for people not burdened by family or nationality, where a companionship and a collective way of life will exist replacing sumptuous drawing-rooms and private gardens by social district clubs and public parks.  Housing will no longer be ‘home, sweet home’ or ‘my castle’…The balance of present achievements in the field of housing is not yet clear and the standards for modern living not yet formulated.  The Weissenhof estate does not provide any final solutions; its achievements are at present subordinate to the ideas of a bourgeois society [201] within whose boundaries all aims cannot be achieved.  In the Weissenhof estate for example, in spite of all technical progress, separate kitchens are provided in each flat and only one bedroom for both husband and wife.  In the present economic conditions of a divided class society, it is impossible to hope for a final solution to the housing problem for equality and a new way of life of a new free people.  In housing, economic and financial class interests still predominate.  Nevertheless the experience gained in the construction of contemporary buildings may be used to attempt a theoretical investigation and a determination of hypothetical standards for socialist housing.  In order to outline a hypothesis for socialist housing it is first necessary to analyze the means actually available and to examine the needs of modern man in relation to housing.  The examination of a building involves the following questions: might the dwelling be smaller? should it consist of only one room which simultaneously serves as a boudoir, study, living-room? Is it actually admissible to reduce the dwelling to only on room which is adapted to complex ends? Do we require the separation into particular premises for particular needs? If so, then what premises and what purposes? Another problem: what degree of comfort can be provided by a socialist community for the disposal of an individual and what comforts shall be reserved for the collective?

The hypothesis of socialist housing must profess that freedom consists of leaving the home.  Socialist architecture must reject the concept of rented family houses which must disappear together with ownership (rented accommodation) and family.  Our idea is based on present achievements and on the critical assessment of present forms; it outlines modern housing for socialist citizens as an open-plan construction.  Recent socialist inventions are dwellings without imprisoning walls, providing a living space which is deprived of furniture rather than encumbered by it, which is full of light and bright colors with free access of light.  Even the sun is a desirable commodity.  Diogenes, who lived in a tub and renounced everything that he considered superfluous, said to Alexander the Great, ‘Move away from the sunlight.’  Well then, out with the unnecessary paraphernalia of our daily life but let us have the sun…

The housing complex in socialist towns should be composed of single cells designed to fit the people (husbands or wives), but never in accordance with the concept of a family.  Its ‘standards’ depend upon a very extensive change of living habits which must be brought about by social revolution.  The new society will no doubt be compelled to reform its customs which already begin to oppress the modern man.

The contemporary concepts of reformed life shown to the public at the Werkbund exhibition by Le Corbusier, Mart Stam, Mies van der Rohe, J.J.P. Oud (especially the equipment, not the design of houses), and Walter Gropius must not be considered as the final achievement but merely as a transitory stage.  The most far-reaching solution of the housing problem is still on paper and cannot yet be realized.  Le Corbusier’s plan of ‘immeubles villas’ represent a collective cooperative complex composed of single units — villas or cottages.  It seems that from now on the future development will follow a different road: a cooperative complex elimination of kitchens, hotel-like organization of living providing restaurants, canteen, flats for single persons and a collective comfort: cafeterias, restaurants, festival hall, dancing, baths, playgrounds, reading room, and library for the disposal of the collective.  Modern architects who build up a socialist community are not satisfied with orders and limitations imposed by the means available at present.  Using explicit methods they prepare theories and hypothetical solutions for the architecture of the future.  An ideal design for housing is not yet attained; it is said that utopia and ideal are the same thing and both can never be reached.  (We would like to say that they can be reached but the way is very hard).  The setting up of an ideal standard for new housing and new architecture must encourage us towards the utopian goal.  At present not the utopia but a hypothetical architecture, is important.  Changes in architecture cannot be effected without changes in the organization of production and society, in other words without a social [202] revolution.  The theories and hypotheses of the new architecture are the ‘battle for tomorrow.’  According to Saldow the endeavors in the study of housing are still the ‘dreams of a happy future,’ but these dreams are supported by a number of historical probabilities.  Here the renaissance of architecture begins.

A Modernist Architectural and Aesthetic Theory Database

Over the next couple weeks, I’m planning to post a flurry of full-text books and articles from the annals of modernist architectural and aesthetic theory.  After they’re all up, I’m going to catalog it so that it’s easily searchable.  They’re all going to be translated primary source documents that (at least to my knowledge) aren’t already up on the web.  With the Russian texts, I’m going to post the Russian along with my own translations, which will be forthcoming.  A lot of this material has never been translated.  All non-Russian sources are translated by someone else or were originally written in English.

Louis Proyect is again “provoked by the platypus”; again fails to say anything meaningful in response

Louis Proyect (of the blog The Unrepentant Marxist) is upset over the publication of a translation of the Antideutsch article “Communism and Israel” in the Platypus Review.  This isn’t the first time Proyect has devoted a blog entry to discussing Platypus only to turn out to have nothing to say.  Back in April, he made a weak attempt to peg Platypus’ critical stance toward the existing Left as an American version of Eustonism.  A few months later, upon some reflection, he came to the profound conclusion that the Platypus group was nothing more than a bunch of eschatological leftists awaiting the final dispensation.  With characteristic banality, Proyect then ended his piece by dismissively conceding that “[i]f you think of the left in biological terms, the Platypus is something necessary for the healthy functioning of the body.”

Two days ago, he found himself again “provoked by the Platypus” — this time by the translated article mentioned above.  Proyect, though aware of the fact that the Platypus Review publishes views that do not necessarily match the views of its members, nevertheless assumed that Platypus tacitly agreed with the ISF position laid out in “Communism and Israel.”  According to him, Platypus simply lacked the “courage” to come out and say so.  Even then, instead of discussing the more substantive points raised by the article, Proyect chose to seize upon a rather ugly (and apparently Islamophobic) book cover published by the ISF’s press so that he could avoid taking on the organization’s position altogether.  He wrote off the ISF as a group of “fanatical anti-Muslim [sic] racists,” therefore unworthy of a critique.  I was unaware that the Muslims were now a “race,” but oh well.

Now there are certainly problems and limitations to the Antideutsch movement’s seemingly exclusive focus on anti-fascist politics and Marxist critiques of anti-Semitic undercurrents prevailing on the Left.  But to refuse to engage it at all, as if it had nothing to offer, is indicative of Proyect’s reluctance to face any challenge to the conventional wisdom of anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist leftism.  Proyect remains blind to the problematic tendency of leftists today to reduce all questions of Marxist anti-capitalist politics to the issue of opposition against U.S. imperialism and Israeli Zionism.

Though Proyect’s blog occasionally offers some insights and interesting perspective, it’s fairly clear to anyone who reads it that he’s unwilling to depart from the same shallow, predictable outlook that’s become so common on today’s Left.  But when he’s not just making vague appeals to common sense in order to justify his own dreary position, he claims the real reason he’d rather not seriously engage Platypus is that they’re “schmucks.”

Most normal people, like the subscribers to Doug Henwood’s mailing list, view Platypus and Chris Cutrone in particular as a bunch of schmucks.  Who wants to waste time debating schmucks?

For someone who talks a lot about Platypus’ supposed lack of “courage,” it seems that Proyect himself doesn’t have the chutzpah to try and actually respond to their criticisms.  Perhaps this is the better part of valor, though, since he would probably just wind up embarrassing himself anyway.

Adolf Behne’s The Modern Functional Building (1926)

 

 

The Original Cover to Behne’s Book, Featuring El Lissitzky’s “Cloudprop”

 

Foreword

Man’s primordial reason for building is to protect himself against the cold, against animals, against enemies.  He is driven by necessity: he would not build were it not for definite, compelling, urgent purposes.  His early buildings are purely functional in character; they are in their nature essentially tools.

But when we study the earliest stages of human culture, we find that the instinctive joys of play cannot be separated from practical matters.  Primitive man is not strictly utilitarian.  He demonstrates his instinct for play even in his tools, which he makes smooth and beautiful beyond the demands of strict necessity, painting them or decorating them with ornaments.

The tool called “house” is no exception to this.

From the very beginning the house has been as much a toy as a tool.  It is difficult to say how long a balance was maintained between the two poles.

In the course of history we only rarely find such a balance.

The play instinct led to interest in form.  Without that instinct it would be impossible to understand why the tool called “house” must look good and be a certain shape.  Thus our play instinct established certain laws of form, although they are subject to change from time to time.

The laws of form did change periodically.  But if laws of form were unquestionably the secondary element in the origin of all building, they became the stronger, stricter, more rigid principle in the history of human building — stronger, stricter, and more rigid than mere fulfillment of utilitarian function.  Formal considerations outweighed considerations of purpose.

Thus a return to purpose is always revolutionary in its effect.  Forms that have become tyrannical are discarded in order to create — from the recollection of the original function, from as neutral a condition as possible — a rejuvenated, living, breathing form.

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Walter Curt Behrendt’s The Victory of the New Building Style (1928)

Introduction

Influenced by the powerful spiritual forces in which the creative work of our time is embodied, the mighty drama of a sweeping transformation is taking place before our eyes.  It is the birth of the form of our time.  In the course of this dramatic play — amid the conflict and convulsion of old, now meaningless traditions breaking down and new conventions of thinking and feeling arising — new, previously unknown forms are emerging.  Given their congruous features, they can be discussed as the elements of a new style of building.

Though the public regards these new building forms with immediate and visible excitement, their unfamiliar appearance often leads to a feeling of unease and incomprehension.  For the public, and at best for those members of the profession who have not been hardened by the dead certitude of a doctrine, only one path leads to a vital understanding of the new architecture.  These new forms must be shown to be inevitable, so that they will be seen as a natural consequence and logical result of a changed formulation of the problem.

This is the approach taken in the following remarks.  Their aim is to make a broader circle of people familiar with the crucial building problems of the time; to show that these problems concern not purely aesthetic issues or the vain conceits of a company of misfits but rather quite universal and concrete questions.  These questions, moreover, are of interest not just to architects to us all, and they can therefore be discussed in a very specific way.

The New Architectural Form

Let us begin by describing very superficially the exterior attributes of the buildings of the new style, which, owing to a number of unmistakable features, stand out against their surroundings so emphatically.  As the accompanying illustrations show, they are usually works with a simple, austere form and a clear organization, with smooth, planar walls, and always with a flat roof and straight profiles.  The building body is generally articulated by a more or less lively gradation of masses and by the distribution of windows and openings in the wall surfaces.  It is also apparent that the openings the windows, and occasionally, also the balconies (quite contrary to tradition) are placed at the corners of the buildings, where formerly we were accustomed to seeing the load-bearing parts of the building or the solid masonry of corner piers.  Further, we notice that these buildings altogether lack the familiar and [90-97] customary means of decoration.  The advocates of the new building attitude seem to have a particularly keen dislike for the column, that popular showpiece of academic architecture, and they are notably cool toward any kind of ornament or decorative detail.  Ornament — the decorative accessory, the detail in the old sense — has completely disappeared.  They prefer smooth walls and consciously exploit the wall’s planar attributes as an architectural design tool.  They compose simple building bodies, which are themselves plastically articulated, and create a powerfully punctuated rhythm of movement by linear accents or occasionally by overhanging slabs and deeply shaded projections, which emphasize and strengthen the impression of the corporal, the spatial, and the three-dimensional.

The most curious and striking feature of the new architecture is the absence of any kind of exterior ornament, which is then usually the first criticism leveled against it.  This is completely understandable.  In many areas of our life today we stand under the crippling weight of traditional views that cloud our judgment.  Our artistic judgment is also greatly confused by the widespread superstition that art is synonymous with decoration.  This deeply rooted belief makes it inevitable that not only the lay world but also the professionals look upon the unadorned and therefore unfamiliar works of the new architecture as cold and dry, raw and unfinished, purely and simply as inartistic.  They miss in these buildings the familiar charm of decorations.  They are put off by linear, hard, and angular forms.  And we must conceded that such limited judgment is to some extent justified, that the buildings of the new style do lack the effect of the pleasing, the artistic, the emotional that was evoked by the sensuous charm of detail in historical works.

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Александр Сергеевич Никольский, «Современная Обременная Художественная Промышленность» (1929)

Современная художественная промышленность в большей степени, чем другие виды художественного труда, продолжает находиться в идеологическом плену «академической» культуры XIX века. […]

[…] Взамен тяжелой, мало пригодной для современных условий музейной обстановки в изживших себя исторических стилях потребитель настойчиво требует бытовую вещь, построенную на совершенно других принципах. Эти последние должны соответствовать изменившимся жизненным условиям и совершенно иной, непохожей на дореволюционную, планировке современного экономического жилища.

[…]

[…] Поставленный вопрос заключается в том, в какой мере современная художественная промышленность способна отбросить традиции академизма и продолжающегося потрафления обывательским вкусам. Современной идеологией художественного труда в производстве общественно полезных вещей, и в первую очередь в мебельной, бойной и текстильной промышленности, должен стать адекватным нашему времени дух рационализма и конструктивизма. […]

The controversy surrounding Columbus Day

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IMAGE: Protest against Columbus Day, 1992
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Yesterday was Columbus Day.  I saw the parade pass by the Museum of Modern Art in downtown Manhattan.  People were happy.  I am, of course, aware of the controversy that surrounds Columbus Day, and the widespread protests that have taken place since 1992, the 500 anniversary of Columbus’ historic voyage.  Many Native American and activist groups have campaigned against the existence of the holiday; I personally didn’t feel too strongly one way or the other.

Now I hesitate to even touch on this subject, since most of the discourse associated with it is so miserable on either side that it tends to swiftly devolve into empty, back-and-forth accusations of racism on the one hand and politically-correct historical revisionism on the other.  For those who are critical of the holiday and would like to see it removed, Columbus Day is nothing more than an open celebration of the imperial conquest over native peoples, of the genocidal consequences that followed Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies.  Some who have advocated for its removal have even proposed that it be replaced by the observation of an “Indian Resistance Day.” Oppositely, those who remain supportive of the traditional celebration of Columbus Day charge that this is just another hit that’s been taken out on a heroic figure of world history, simply for having been a “dead, white, European male.”  They allege that the attacks on Columbus’ personal character are vicious and often exaggerated, and that many of the attempts to diminish the significance of his 1492 voyage (by pointing out supposed contacts with the New World apparently established by earlier explorers) are based on dubious evidence.  All in all, the controversy surrounding Columbus Day is incredibly overblown.  Still, since it’s become such a popular target of pseudo-leftist critique, it might warrant a brief reinspection.

Not that the stakes of the debate are really all that high, beyond matters of just pure symbolism; rather, what is more significant is the fact that there even is such controversy at all.  For those who consider themselves to be part of the Left, the adoption of this critical standpoint with regard to Columbus Day has the appearance of being exceedingly radical, as a challenge to the conventional wisdom of European triumphalist historiography.  As one ostensibly Marxist article polemically asserts, “[t]o celebrate Columbus is to celebrate a legacy of genocide, slavery, rape and plunder.”  However, the elevation of this supposedly radical critique to the point where it’s become little more than a convenient provocation directed against the Western imperialist metanarrative, is symptomatic of a broader tendency within the contemporary Left.

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Репринт Журнала Современная Архитектура [Reprint of the Journal Modern Architecture] (1926-1930)

I came across this advertisement yesterday while searching online for any articles on the early Soviet periodical Modern Architecture.  For those who don’t spend their time painstakingly researching long-dead avant-garde movements, this publication might not mean much.  However, it’s of great historical and theoretical importance — a project featuring a truly spectacular cast of characters.  The main organ for the OSA group of architectural Constructivists, Modern Architecture was edited first by the legendary theoreticians and architects Moisei Ginzburg and Aleksandr Vesnin, later coming under the editorship of Roman Khiger, after 1928.  Its layout was designed by Aleksei Gan, author of the seminal text on Constructivism in art, Конструктивизм (1922).  A number of young Soviet modernists contributed pieces to the journal: Mikhail Barshch, Ivan Leonidov, Nikolai Krasil’nikov, Kazimir Malevich, etc.  Articles by some of the most extraordinary foreign avant-garde architects and artists were also included: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Fernand Léger.

Needless to say, I was immediately overcome with excitement. You see, last winter I spent weeks at the New York Public Library, poring over their microfiche collection of the 1927-1930 editions of Modern Architecture (they didn’t have the volume for 1926).  I sat there using their clumsy old machines, struggling to center the pages exactly and bring them into focus by using the different microscopic lenses, only to make poor-quality printouts in the end.  So now that Tatlin press is re-releasing it in full, 80 years after Stalin’s government forced them to cease its publication, I can honestly say I’m stoked.  Here’s the description included in the ad:

ISBN 978-5-903433-12-4

редактор составитель — Эдуард Кубенский
вступительная статья — Жан-Луи Коэн
5 томов, 1076 стр., 24.0х34.0 см,
мягкая обложка, футляр, рус./фр./нем./англ.

Современная архитектура — иллюстрированный журнал «Государственного издательства», выходивший в Москве с 1926 по 1930 годы 6 раз в год. Журнал освещал вопросы современного градостроительства, жилой, промышленной и сельской архитектуры, типового проектирования, истории и теории архитектуры и строительства. Несмотря на короткий срок своего существования, журнал Современная архитектура — журнал-эпоха. В его реализации принимали участие ведущие мастера эпохи авангарда. Среди выдающихся имен, имевших отношение к журналу, можно назвать архитектора и бессменного редактора журнала Моисея Гинзбурга, автора проекта Дома Наркомфина; художников Алексея Гана и Варвару Степанову, занимавшихся версткой и дизайном издания и других. На его страницах публиковали свои работы Иван Леонидов и братья Веснины, Ле Корбюзье и Мисс Ван дер Роэ. Отдельной темой выступает в издание его графический строй, являющийся образцом передового дизайна своего времени. Сегодня эти журналы стали библиографической редкостью: растет цена информации, размещенной на их страницах. Об актуальности всего, что связано с эпохой русского авангарда в мире, не приходится говорить, это давно сформировавшаяся позиция. Анализ этого явления и его актуализация сегодня поможет еще раз осознать место России в мировом архитектурном пространстве.