The spatiotemporal dimensions of abstract art and the genesis of modern architecture

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Read Ross Wolfe’s “The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde”

Modernist Architecture — Positive Bases

The theory and practice of modernist architecture were positively based on two primary phenomena that developed under capitalism: the abstract sense of space and time created by the internal dynamic of capitalism, and the more concrete process of industrialization that took place in Europe over the course of the nineteenth century. The former of these developments, the abstract side of capitalism’s spatiotemporal dialectic, first manifested itself spatially in the medium of Cubist and post-Cubist abstract painting (Neo-plasticism, Purism, Suprematism) and temporally in the simultaneous representation of motion and light by movements such as Futurism and Rayonism. This abstract temporal dimension was deepened and refined by the avant-garde’s appropriation of Taylorism, the system of “scientific management” in industry founded in America just prior to the First World War.[211] A discussion of Taylorization’s impact on modernist architecture will lead into a more general discussion of the inescapable influence that European industrialization had on its overall development. Specifically, it will examine the modernists’ fascination with machine technologies, efficiency, and the principle of standardization. All these aspects of modern society had been brought into existence by nineteenth-century capitalism in the shift from more primitive manufacturing techniques to full-blown industrialism. In this way, modernist architecture can be seen in its positive connection to the forces and logic unfolding out of capitalist modernity, in addition to its negative bases that were outlined in the previous subsection. Modernism captured in its architecture the greater project of “rationalization” that was taking place throughout the Western world during this time, as theorized by thinkers such as Weber, Adorno, and Horkheimer.

A tertiary influence may be cited alongside these two main positive bases of avant-garde architecture: the working class. In some sense, the modernists’ identification with the European proletariat can be traced to their general disgust with bourgeois society, coupled with the widespread leftist idea that the working class could play a revolutionary role in the construction of a new and more rational society. But in another sense, the modernists’ valorization of working class must have stemmed from its association with industrial production, which held an obvious positive appeal for avant-garde architects. Though this affirmation of the laboring masses of Europe thus had its sources in both positive and negative aspects of modern society, its general character should be seen as positive. Either way, the avant-garde expressed its solidarity with workers in its quest to provide them with adequate dwelling conditions, and, more broadly, to overcome the chronic shortage of urban housing. The modernists’ efforts to this end can be seen in their commitment to the creation of a standard Existenzminimuml’habitation minimum, Kleinstwohnung,or “minimum dwelling.”[212]

DIALECTICS OF CAPITALISM

General

Rational

Systematic

Universal

Irrational

Anarchic

Particular

Temporal

Abstract

Homogeneous

Cyclical

Scientific

Mechanical

Concrete

Heterogeneous

Linear

Historical

Dialectical

Spatial

Abstract

Homogeneous

Global/International

Decentralized/Dispersed

Egalitarian

Expansion

Concrete

Heterogeneous

Local/National

Centralized/Concentrated

Hierarchical

Contraction

Architectural

Modernism

Traditionalism

FIGURE 1: The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Capitalism and Architecture

Before detailing this more social component of modernist architectural ideology, it is proper to examine the formal properties imparted to it by the abstract spatiotemporal dimension of capitalism. Referring back to the characteristics established beforehand as belonging to the abstract forms of space and time manifested under capitalism,[213] the extent to which these qualities were expressed by modernist art and architecture will be made clear. The scientific, cyclical, and synchronous character of its temporality; the geometric, centrifugal, and global/international character of its spatiality; their mutual homogeneity — all these categories will be important to bear in mind moving through the following analysis. For these traits, generated by the inherent dynamism of modern society, would embed themselves in the artistic unconscious of a generation of painters and architects. These then would bubble to the surface in the works of the modernists, which expressed the new spatiotemporal sensibility of their age. Such expressions of this new aesthetic orientation should be seen as manifestations of the latent social dynamic of capitalism, however, mediated perhaps by the genius of individual artists.[214]

Ivan Kudriashev’s “Construction of a Rectilinear Motion” (1925)

Iakov Chernikhov’s “Architectural Fantasy 11″ (1925-1931)

In his groundbreaking 1938 lectures on Space, Time, and Architecture, the modernist and insider historian of the avant-garde movement Sigfried Giedion credited the rise of the new architecture to a newfound sense of “space-time” that congealed around the turn of the twentieth century. According to Giedion, this modern aesthetic[215] sensibility described an abstract, four-dimensional unity of temporalized spatiality, much like the kind outlined in physics by Albert Einstein in 1905. This placed a heavy emphasis on the notion of “simultaneity.”[216] Giedion could have easily added the work that was taking place in philosophy in the writings of Henri Bergson around the same time.[217] In either case, he claimed that explicit awareness of this new sense of space and time appeared first in the works of abstract art, years before the artists’ insights were later taken up and applied by modernist architects. In the first decade of the century, Giedion asserted, “[p]ainters very different in type but sharing a common isolation from the public worked steadily toward a new conception of space. And no one can understand contemporary architecture, become aware of the feelings hidden behind it, unless he has grasped the spirit animating this painting.”[218] Continue reading

“The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde” (Roughly the First Half)

Ivan Kudriashev's "Luminescence" (1926)

INTRODUCTION

Comrades!

The twin fires of war and revolution have devastated both our souls and our cities.  The palaces of yesterday’s grandeur stand as burnt-out skeletons. The ruined cities await new builders[…]

To you who accept the legacy of Russia, to you who will (I believe!) tomorrow become masters of the whole world, I address the question: with what fantastic structures will you cover the fires of yesterday?

— Vladimir Maiakovskii, “An Open Letter to the Workers”[1]

Utopia transforms itself into actuality. The fairy tale becomes a reality. The contours of socialism will become overgrown with iron flesh, filled with electric blood, and begin to dwell full of life. The speed of socialist building outstrips the most audacious daring. In this lies the distinctive character and essence of the epoch.

— I. Chernia, “The Cities of Socialism”[2]

Between 1928 and 1937, the world witnessed the convergence of some of the premier representatives of European architectural modernism in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities throughout the Soviet Union.  Never before had there been such a concentration of visionary architectural talent in one place, devoting its energy to a single cause.  Both at home and abroad, the most brilliant avant-garde minds of a generation gathered in Russia to put forth their proposals for the construction of a radically new society.  Never before had the stakes seemed so high.  For it was out of the blueprints for this new society that a potentially international architecture and urbanism could finally be born, the likes of which might then alter the face of the entire globe.  And from this new built environment, it was believed, would emerge the outlines of the New Man, as both the outcome of the new social order and the archetype of an emancipated humanity.  With such apparently broad and sweeping implications, it is therefore little wonder that its prospective realization might have then attracted the leading lights of modernist architecture, both within the Soviet Union and without.  By that same account, it is hardly surprising that the architectural aspect of engineering a postcapitalist society would prove such a captivating subject of discussion to such extra-architectural discourses as politics, sociology, and economics.

The bulk of the major individual foreign architects and urbanists who contributed to the Soviet cause came from Germany.  Such luminaries as Walter Gropius,[3] Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Peter Behrens each contributed to Soviet design competitions.  Former Expressionists — now turned modernists — like Bruno Taut, his brother Max, Arthur Korn, Hans Poelzig, and Erich Mendelsohn all joined the greater project of socialist construction in the USSR.[4]  Major architects also arrived from other parts throughout Western Europe, eager to participate in the Soviet experiment.  Foremost among them, hailing from Switzerland, was the French-Swiss archmodernist Le Corbusier, whose writings on architecture and urbanism had already become influential in Russia since at least the mid-1920s.  From France additionally appeared figures like André Lurçat and Auguste Perret,[5] lending their talents to the Soviet cause.  The preeminent Belgian modernist Victor Bourgeois actively supported its architectural enterprise as well.

Besides the major individual figures attached to this effort, there existed several noteworthy aggregations of international architects and urbanists, under the heading of “brigades.”  The German socialist Ernst May, mastermind of the highly-successful Neue Frankfurt settlement, traveled to Russia along with a number of his lesser-known countrymen, including Eugen Kaufmann, Wilhelm Derlam, Ferdinand Kramer,[6] Walter Kratz, and Walter Schwagenscheidt. The Austrians Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (designer of the famous “Frankfurt Kitchen”), her husband Wilhelm Schütte, and Anton Brenner also accompanied May in his journeys.[7]  Together with the Hungarian Bauhaus student Alfréd Forbát,[8] the German-Swiss builder Hans Schmidt, and the Bauhaus and De Stijl veteran Mart Stam, originally from Holland, these architects comprised the famous “May’s Brigade” of city planning.  Many other German architects and city-planners, still less well-known, belonged to May’s group as well: Hans Burkart, Max Frühauf, Wilhelm Hauss, Werner Hebebrand, Karl Lehmann, Hans Leistikow, Albert Löcher, Ulrich Wolf, Erich Mauthner, Hans Schmidt, and Walter Schulz, to list a few.[9]

Hannes Meyer, another Swiss German, also departed for Moscow, after being suddenly dismissed from his position as director of the Bauhaus on grounds of his leftist political sympathies.[10]  He took with him seven of his best students from Dessau, who were themselves of quite varied backgrounds: Tibor Weiner and Béla Scheffler, both Hungarian nationals; Arieh Sharon, of Polish-Jewish extraction; Antonín Urban, a Czech architect; and finally Konrad Püschel, Philip Tolziner, René Mensch, and Klaus Meumann, all German citizens.[11]  These members together comprised the so-called “Red Brigade.”  A number of other German architects associated with Kurt Meyer’s (unrelated to Hannes) urban and suburban group were also shown in attendance at the international building conference in Moscow in 1932: Magnus Egerstedt, Josef Neufeld, Walter Vermeulen, E. Kletschoff, Julius Neumann, Johan Niegemann, Hans-Georg Grasshoff, Peer Bücking, and Steffen Ahrends.[12]

The newly formed constellation of Eastern Europe that emerged out of the postwar dissolution of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires was also represented in force by some of its leading modernists.  From Czechoslovakia, the great Constructivist poet and architectural critic Karel Teige[13] lent his incisive observations to the Soviet Union’s various attempts at regional and municipal planning.  Two of Teige’s close compatriots in the Czech avant-garde, the functionalist architects Jiří Kroha[14] and Jaromír Krejcar,[15] were already active in the Soviet Union at that time.  Besides Wiener, Scheffler, and Forbát, who were associated with May’s and Meyer’s groups in Moscow, the Hungarian modernists Laszlo Péri, Imre Perényi,[16] and Stefan Sebök[17] each worked independently for the Soviet state.  Finally, the Polish avant-gardists Edgar Norwerth[18] and Leonard Tomaszewski[19] also collaborated with various organs of the government of the USSR during the execution of its second five-year plan.

A number of American architects contributed to the Soviet effort as well.  Albert Kahn, the celebrated builder of Detroit — along with his brother, Moritz Kahn — helped design over five hundred factories in the Soviet Union as part of its push toward industrialization.[20]  Thomas Lamb, the well-established constructor of many of America’s first cinemas, and Percival Goodman, an urban theorist who would later build many famous American synagogues, also offered their abilities to the Soviet state.[21]  The pioneering American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, though he would not officially visit Russia until 1937, nevertheless spoke openly about the greatness of the Soviet project during the early 1930s.  By the early 1930s, Wright was disillusioned with the capitalist socioeconomic system: “The capitalistic system is a gambling game.  It is hard to cure gamblers of gambling and everybody high and low in this country prefers the gambler’s chance at a great fortune to the slower growth of a more personal fortune.”  By contrast, he exclaimed the virtues of the Soviet project: “I view the USSR as a heroic endeavor to establish more genuine human values in a social state than any existing before.  Its heroism and devotion move me deeply and with great hope.”[22]

Despite the great influx of foreign modernists seen during this period, however, the influence of the new architectural avant-garde was hardly alien to the Soviet Union.  On the contrary, it had begun to establish itself there as early as 1921 — if one discounts the renowned monument proposed by Tatlin for the Third International in 1918.[23]  That year witnessed the appointment of the architects Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, and the sculptor Boris Efimov to the faculty of VKhUTEMAS, the well-known Moscow technical school often compared to the Bauhaus in Germany.[24]  Along with Vladimir Krinskii, Konstantin Mel’nikov, and the international modernist El Lissitzky, Ladovskii and Dokuchaev went on to constitute the avant-garde group ASNOVA (the Association of New Architects) in 1923, though it would only publish the declaration of its existence in 1926. Ladovskii’s brightest pupil and laboratory assistant Georgii Krutikov would join the group upon graduating the academy in 1928.  Opposed to ASNOVA, the equally-stalwart modernist OSA (Society of Modern Architects) formed the Constructivist school of architectural thought in 1925, led by such outstanding designers as Leonid, Aleksandr, and Viktor Vesnin and their chief theorist Moisei Ginzburg.  Il’ia Golosov officially became a member in 1926, followed by two of their exemplary students, Ivan Leonidov and Nikolai Krasil’nikov, in 1927 and 1928 respectively.  Though divergent in terms of their fundamental principles, both OSA and ASNOVA were united in their opposition to atavistic architecture and their mutual commitment to modernity.

The overwhelming gravity that the debates over Soviet urbanism held for the avant-garde, their seemingly high stakes, is difficult to emphasize enough.  Just as the USSR was first embarking upon its five-year plans, the nations of the West were facing the threefold crisis of global capitalism, of parliamentary democracy,[25] and of the European sciences[26] in general.  At no prior point had the future of the worldwide socioeconomic system of capital seemed so uncertain — never had its basis been so shaken.  On nearly every front — economic, political, and epistemological — it faced defeat.  Italy, Germany, and finally Spain fell beneath the rising tide of Fascism.  Everywhere it seemed that Europe was entering into the darkness of Spenglerian decline.

But by that same score, in a positive sense there had never been a planning project as ambitious as the Soviet centralized economy.  It represented a moment of unprecedented opportunity for international modernists to build on the highest possible scale, the chance to realize their visions at the level of totality.[27]  For with the huge projected budgets set aside for new construction toward the end of the 1920s, the modernists saw an opening to implement their theories not just locally, but on a regional, national, and — should the flames of revolution fan to Europe — a potentially international scale.  This mere fact alone should hint at the reason so many members of the architectural avant-garde, who so long dreamed of achieving an “international style”[28] without boundaries, would be attracted to the Soviet cause.  That the number of international representatives of the avant-garde swelled to such an unparalleled degree should come as no surprise, either, given the prospect of imminently realizing their most utopian dreams.  In the midst of the collapse of the old order, as heralded by world war, pestilence (Spanish influenza), revolution, and a nearly universal depression, it appeared as if the modernists were being granted their deepest wish — of erecting a new society upon the ashes of that which had preceded it.  “Our world, like a charnel-house, lays strewn with the detritus of dead epochs,” Le Corbusier had thundered in 1925.[29]  In the wake of global instability, crash, and catastrophe, the Soviet five-year plan seemed to offer to him and his fellow avant-gardists the chance to wipe the slate clean.

It is therefore little wonder that the tenor of the debates over Soviet urbanism should have been cast in such stark terms.  The fate of the entire avant-garde, if not society itself, hung in the balance.  Whichever principles won out might ultimately determine the entire course of future building for the USSR, and perhaps the world (pending the outcome of the seemingly terminal crisis in the West).  Modernist architects, who had up to that point been mainly concerned with the design of individual structures, and only here and there touched on the greater problem of urbanism, now scrambled to articulate their theoretical stances on the issue of “socialist settlement.”  As a number of rival positions emerged, they came into heated conflict with one another.  Whole books were written and articles published in popular Soviet journals defending one theory and attacking all that opposed it.  And so the disputes did not merely take on the character of modernism combating its old traditionalist rival, but that of a radically fractured unity of the modernist movement itself.  The fresh lines of division being carved within the architectural avant-garde did not owe so much to national peculiarities as it did to the radicality of the question now being posed before it: that of the fundamental restructuring of human habitation.  For the issues at hand were not simply the reorganization of already-existing cities, but also the construction of entirely new settlements from the ground up.  The intransigent tone that the debates subsequently assumed is thus more a testament to the urgency and sincerity of the modernist theories of the city being put forth than it is to some sort of arbitrary disagreement over matters of trivial importance.

This point is especially important to stress, moreover, in light of some interpretations that have recently dismissed these crucial differences in the avant-garde’s architectural visions of utopia as a quantité négligible.  Not long ago, the argument was advanced that these theoretical disputes amounted to little more than quibbling pettiness on the part of the members of the avant-garde.  According to this version of events, the modernists merely dressed up their personal animosities, jealousies, and professional rivalries in high-sounding rhetoric and thereby ruined any chance for productive collaboration with one another.  Moreover, it asserts that it was this very disunity that led to the modernists’ eventual defeat at the hands of the Stalinists.  Weakened by the years of petty bickering, this argument maintains, the two main groups representing the architectural avant-garde (OSA and ASNOVA) were easily undercut by the fledgling, proto-Stalinist organization VOPRA, working in cahoots with the party leadership.  Had the members of the avant-garde been willing to set aside their differences, this outlook would have it, they might have prevailed against the combined strength of their opponents.[30]

Of course, this account almost completely overlooks the international dimension of the debates, choosing instead to narrowly focus on the faculty politics taking place within the walls of the VKhUTEMAS school of design.  While this was doubtless an important stage of the debate, it can scarcely be considered the decisive grounds on which the war over Soviet architecture was waged.  It is symptomatic that such an interpretation would leap suddenly from the middle part of the 1920s to the final defeat of the architectural avant-garde in the 1937, ignoring practically everything that transpired in between.  As a result, it is able to treat the problem as a merely internal affair, concerning only Soviet architects.  This then allows the importance of the tensions within the VKhUTEMAS leadership throughout the early- to mid-1920s to be grossly overstated.[31]  Even if the field of inquiry is thus limited, however, the polemics can by no means be reduced to mere cynicism.  Such bitterness and resentment could just as easily be an outcome of (rather than a ground for) heated argumentation.

But this notion — that the real differences within the modernists’ debates over Soviet architecture and urbanism were largely exaggerated — is swiftly dispelled once one takes note of the extra-architectural interest surrounding their potential results.  For architects were hardly the only ones worried about the form that new Soviet settlements would take.  The ideological influence of architecture on society was not lost on non-architects within the Soviet hierarchy.  Many thinkers, scattered across a wide range of vocations, were therefore drawn into the discourse on socialist city planning.  Quite a few economists participated in the discussion.  Besides Leonid Sabsovich, a writer for the state journal Planned Economy and a major figure in the debates, economists like Stanislav Strumilin (one of Planned Economy’s editors) and Leonid Puzis weighed in on the material aspects of the various schemas of town planning.  Professional sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich joined OSA in 1928, and went on to become one of its major spokesmen.  The celebrated journalist and author Vladimir Giliarovskii reported on some considerations of nervo-psychological health in the socialist city.[32]  Even more telling of the perceived centrality of the problem of Soviet urbanism to the five-year plan is the number of high-ranking party members and government officials who wrote on the matter.  The Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii, Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaia, the old guard Bolshevik Grigorii Zinov’ev, and the doctor and Commissar of Health Nikolai Semashko all devoted lengthy articles to the consideration of different proposed solutions to the issue of urban planning.  So clearly, the detailed differences between the various Soviet urban projects concerned more than solely the architects.

Another historiographical point that must be made is that what appears to have been “Stalinist” from the outset could not have been recognized as such at the time.  The emergent features of what came to be known as Stalinism — its bureaucratic deformities, thuggery, and cultural philistinism — had not yet fully crystallized by the early 1930s.  While it is true that these qualities may have been prefigured to some extent by the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions after the war, the USSR’s consequent isolation, and the cascading effects of the political involutions that followed — none of this could be seen as yet.  The betrayed commitment to international revolution, the disastrous (if inevitable) program of “Socialism in One Country,” did not bear their fruits until much later.  The residual hope remaining from the original promise of the revolution echoed into the next two decades, before the brutal realities of Stalin’s regime eventually set in.  In 1930, there was no “Stalinist” architecture to speak of.  Even the eclectic designs of the academicians did not fully anticipate what was to come.  The contours of what would later be called “Stalinist” architecture — that grotesque hybrid-creation of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical arches, façades, and colonnades — only became clear after a long and painful process of struggle and disillusionment.  Toward the beginning of the decade, a number of possibilities seemed yet to be decided upon, and so the utopian dream of revolution continued to live on.[33]

Whatever latent realm of possibility may have still seemed to exist at the moment the Soviet Union initiated its planning program, however, its actual results admit of no such uncertainties.  The defeat of modernist architecture was resounding and unambiguous.  And while it would survive and even flourish in the West following the Second World War, the avant-garde left something of its substance behind in Russia.  Its external form remained — with its revolutionary use of concrete, glass, and other materials, its austere lines and structural severity — but it had been deprived of its inner core, and now stood devoid of content.  For architectural modernism had hitherto expressed an inseparable duality, and deduced its role as both a reflection of contemporary society and an effort to transform it.  These two aspects, its attempt to create a universal formal language that corresponded to modern realities and its sociohistorical mission to fundamentally reshape those very realities, were inextricably bound up with one another.  When the architectural avant-garde ultimately failed to realize itself by achieving this mission, it became cynical; its moment of opportunity missed, it chose instead to abandon the task of helping remake society.  Cast out of the Soviet Union, the modernists let go of their visions of utopia and made their peace with the prevailing order in the West.  They pursued traditional avenues like public contracts and individual commissions to accomplish each of their proposals.  No longer did they dream of building a new society, but focused on limited projects of reform rather than calling for an all-out revolution.  Emptied of its foundational content, however, modernism gradually gave way to post-modernism as architecture became even further untethered from its basis.  Reduced to a set of organizational forms, modernist design grew increasingly susceptible to criticisms of its apparently “dull” and “lifeless” qualities.  Modernism’s capitulation to the realities of bourgeois society doomed it to obsolescence.  The modern itself had become passé.

Framed in this way, this paper will assert that the outcome of the debates over Soviet urbanism in the 1930s sealed the fate of the international avant-garde.  All of its prior commitments to general social change were reneged.  Modernism’s longstanding duty to solve the problem of “the minimum dwelling,”[34] which for Marxists was closely tied into Engels’ work on The Housing Question,[35] was relinquished after only the first few CIAM conventions (1929-1931).  Its resolution to put an end to wasteful (even criminal[36]) ornamentation and make all building more functional was scaled back to a mere stylistic choice, rather than a general social practice.  Likewise, modernism’s call for a uniform, standardized, and industrialized architecture of the home was replaced by a tendency to custom-design each individual dwelling — usually the wealthier ones — as its spare, geometric style became chic among the upper classes.  The mass-production of housing, serialized with interchangeable parts, was instead taken up by companies building in a more traditional style, hoping to turn a cheap profit housing students or the poor.  Those bleak modernist housing complexes that were created all too often became places to merely stuff away the impoverished classes, cramped and out of sight.  (That such places would become areas of high concentration for drug use and petty crime is only fitting).  Finally, the quest for a universal architectural language was abandoned.  This language was adopted exclusively by those particular architects who identified themselves with the modernist movement, and even then it was pursued on only a piecemeal basis.

The Soviet Union alone had presented the modernists with the conditions necessary to realize their original vision.  Only it possessed the centralized state-planning organs that could implement building on such a vast scale.[37]  Only it promised to overcome the clash of personal interests entailed by the “sacred cow” of private property.[38]  And only it had the sheer expanse of land necessary to approximate the spatial infinity required by the modernists’ international imagination.[39]  The defeat of architectural modernism in Russia left the country a virtual graveyard of the utopian visions of unbuilt worlds that had once been built upon it.  It is only after one grasps the magnitude of the avant-garde’s sense of loss in this theater of world history that all the subsequent developments of modernist architecture in the twentieth century become intelligible.  For here it becomes clear how an architect like Mies van der Rohe, who early in his career designed the Monument to the communist heroes Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg in 1926, would later be the man responsible for one of the swankiest monuments to high-Fordist capitalism, the Seagram’s Building of 1958.  And here one can see how Le Corbusier, embittered by the Soviet experience, would briefly flirt with Vichy fascism during the war before going on to co-design the United Nations Building in New York. Continue reading

“The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde,” Complete Introduction with PDF

Ernst May and Collaborators, “The General Plan of Magnitogorsk — a Settlement of 150,000 Inhabitants Attached to the Magnitogorsk Industrial Complex” (1931)

Download Ross Wolfe’s “The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde”

Comrades!

The twin fires of war and revolution have devastated both our souls and our cities.  The palaces of yesterday’s grandeur stand as burnt-out skeletons.  The ruined cities await new builders[…]

To you who accept the legacy of Russia, to you who will (I believe!) tomorrow become masters of the whole world, I address the question: with what fantastic structures will you cover the fires of yesterday?

— Vladimir Maiakovskii, “An Open Letter to the Workers”[1]

Utopia transforms itself into actuality. The fairy tale becomes a reality. The contours of socialism will become overgrown with iron flesh, filled with electric blood, and begin to dwell full of life. The speed of socialist building outstrips the most audacious daring. In this lies the distinctive character and essence of the epoch.

— I. Chernia, “The Cities of Socialism”[2]

Between 1928 and 1937, the world witnessed the convergence of some of the premier representatives of European architectural modernism in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities throughout the Soviet Union.  Never before had there been such a concentration of visionary architectural talent in one place, devoting its energy to a single cause.  Both at home and abroad, the most brilliant avant-garde minds of a generation gathered in Russia to put forth their proposals for the construction of a radically new society.  Never before had the stakes seemed so high.  For it was out of the blueprints for this new society that a potentially international architecture and urbanism could finally be born, the likes of which might then alter the face of the entire globe.  And from this new built environment, it was believed, would emerge the outlines of the New Man, as both the outcome of the new social order and the archetype of an emancipated humanity.  With such apparently broad and sweeping implications, it is therefore little wonder that its prospective realization might have then attracted the leading lights of modernist architecture, both within the Soviet Union and without.  By that same account, it is hardly surprising that the architectural aspect of engineering a postcapitalist society would prove such a captivating subject of discussion to such extra-architectural discourses as politics, sociology, and economics. Continue reading

“The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde,” by Ross Wolfe (Section 2)

Skyscraper from Nikolai Krasil'nikov's "City of the Future"

INTRODUCTION (CONTINUED)

[Continued from here]

It is therefore little wonder that the tenor of the debates over Soviet urbanism should have been cast in such stark terms.  The fate of the entire avant-garde, if not society itself, hung in the balance.  Whichever principles won out might ultimately determine the entire course of future building for the USSR, and perhaps the world (pending the outcome of the seemingly terminal crisis in the West).  Modernist architects, who had up to that point been mainly concerned with the design of individual structures, and only here and there touched on the greater problem of urbanism, now scrambled to articulate their theoretical stances on the issue of “socialist settlement.”  As a number of rival positions emerged, they came into heated conflict with one another.  Whole books were written and articles published in popular Soviet journals defending one theory and attacking all that opposed it.  And so the disputes did not merely take on the character of modernism combating its old traditionalist rival, but that of a radically fractured unity of the modernist movement itself.  The fresh lines of division being carved within the architectural avant-garde did not owe so much to national peculiarities as it did to the radicality of the question now being posed before it: that of the fundamental restructuring of human habitation.  For the issues at hand were not simply the reorganization of already-existing cities, but also the construction of entirely new settlements from the ground up.  The intransigent tone that the debates subsequently assumed is thus more a testament to the urgency and sincerity of the modernist theories of the city being put forth than it is to some sort of arbitrary disagreement over matters of trivial importance.

This point is especially important to stress, moreover, in light of some interpretations that have recently dismissed these crucial differences in the avant-garde’s architectural visions of utopia as a quantité négligible.  Not long ago, the argument was advanced that these theoretical disputes amounted to little more than quibbling pettiness on the part of the members of the avant-garde.  According to this version of events, the modernists merely dressed up their personal animosities, jealousies, and professional rivalries in high-sounding rhetoric and thereby ruined any chance for productive collaboration with one another.  Moreover, it asserts that it was this very disunity that led to the modernists’ eventual defeat at the hands of the Stalinists.  Weakened by the years of petty bickering, this argument maintains, the two main groups representing the architectural avant-garde (OSA and ASNOVA) were easily undercut by the fledgling, proto-Stalinist organization VOPRA, working in cahoots with the party leadership.[1]

Of course, this account almost completely overlooks the international dimension of the debates, choosing instead to narrowly focus on the faculty politics taking place within the walls of the VKhUTEMAS school of design.  While this was doubtless an important stage of the debate, it can scarcely be considered the decisive grounds on which the war over Soviet architecture was waged.  It is symptomatic that such an interpretation would leap suddenly from the middle part of the 1920s to the final defeat of the architectural avant-garde in the 1937, ignoring practically everything that transpired in between.  As a result, it is able to treat the problem as a merely internal affair, concerning only Soviet architects.  This then allows the importance of the tensions within the VKhUTEMAS leadership throughout the early- to mid-1920s to be grossly overstated.[2]  Even if the field of inquiry is thus limited, however, the polemics can by no means be reduced to mere cynicism.  Such bitterness and resentment could just as easily be an outcome of (rather than a ground for) heated argumentation.

But this notion — that the real differences within the modernists’ debates over Soviet architecture and urbanism were largely exaggerated — is swiftly dispelled once one takes note of the extra-architectural interest surrounding their potential results.  For architects were hardly the only ones worried about the form that new Soviet settlements would take.  The ideological influence of architecture on society was not lost on non-architects within the Soviet hierarchy.  Many thinkers, scattered across a wide range of vocations, were therefore drawn into the discourse on socialist city planning. Quite a few economists participated in the discussion.  Besides Leonid Sabsovich, a writer for the state journal Planned Economy and a major figure in the debates, economists like Stanislav Strumilin (one of Planned Economy’s editors) and Leonid Puzis weighed in on the material aspects of the various schemas of town planning.  Professional sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich joined OSA in 1928, and went on to become one of its major spokesmen.  The celebrated journalist and author Vladimir Giliarovskii reported on some considerations of nervo-psychological health in the socialist city.[3]  Even more telling of the perceived centrality of the problem of Soviet urbanism to the five-year plan is the number of high-ranking party members and government officials who wrote on the matter.  The Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii, Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaia, the old guard Bolshevik Grigorii Zinoviev, and the doctor and Commissar of Health Nikolai Semashko all devoted lengthy articles to the consideration of different proposed solutions to the issue of urban planning.  So clearly, the detailed differences between the various Soviet urban projects concerned more than solely the architects.

Another historiographical point that must be made is that what appears to have been “Stalinist” from the outset could not have been recognized as such at the time.  The emergent features of what came to be known as Stalinism — its bureaucratic deformities, thuggery, and cultural philistinism — had not yet fully crystallized by the early 1930s.  While it is true that these qualities may have been prefigured to some extent by the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions after the war, the USSR’s consequent isolation, and the cascading effects of the political involutions that followed — none of this could be seen as yet.  The betrayed commitment to international revolution, the disastrous (if inevitable) program of “Socialism in One Country,” did not bear their fruits until much later.  The residual hope remaining from the original promise of the revolution echoed into the next two decades, before the brutal realities of Stalin’s regime eventually set in.  In 1930, there was no “Stalinist” architecture to speak of.  Even the eclectic designs of the academicians did not fully anticipate what was to come.  The contours of what would later be called “Stalinist” architecture — that grotesque hybrid-creation of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical arches, façades, and colonnades — only became clear after a long and painful process of struggle and disillusionment.  Toward the beginning of the decade, a number of possibilities seemed yet to be decided upon, and so the utopian dream of revolution lived on.[4]


[1] Hudson, Hugh.  Blueprints and Blood.  (Princeton University Press.  Princeton, NJ: 1995).  Pgs. 82-83.

[2] Catherine Cooke, one of the great Anglophone authorities on Soviet architecture (tragically killed in a car crash in 2004), pointed this out in her initial review of Hudson’s book.  Hudson marks the date of the final deathblow to the avant-garde, someone melodramatically, as occurring in 1937, which he considers to have been symbolized by the murder of the former-Left Oppositionist and architectural disurbanist Mikhail Okhitovich, which he uncovered as having taken place during the purges.  Cooke, though “grateful” for this “archival nugget,” warned that outside of specialists, “others may be mystified as to the significance of the man [Okhitovich]or the weight of the issues he raised, for there is no context here of the eighteen-month public, professional and political debate of which his ideas were a part.”  This oversight is no coincidence, however.  For if Hudson had examined Okhitovich’s ideas on city planning he would have been forced to discuss the broader international discourse surrounding Soviet urbanism.  Cooke, Catherine.  “Review of Blueprints and Blood: The Stalinization of Soviet Architecture, 1917-1937 by Hugh D. Hudson.”  Russian Review.  (Vol. 54, № 1: Jan., 1995).  Pg. 135.

[3] Giliarovskii, Vladimir.  “Problema sotsialisticheskogo goroda i nervno-psikhologicheskoe zhdorov’e.”  Planovoe khoziaistvo.  (Volume 6, № 3.  Moscow, Soviet Union: March 1930).  Pgs. 111-116.

[4] Stites, Richard.  Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution.  (Oxford University Press.  New York, NY: 1991).

Since Stites already touched on utopian vision in Soviet town planning during the 1920s in chapter nine of this book (pgs. 190-208), it may be wondered why it demands another treatment.  First, while Stites’ book offers an excellent framework of analysis for this period (one which I am partially adopting), there are many glaring factual errors in his account.  One is quite understandable; he provides Mikhail Okhitovich’s date of birth and death as “1896-1937,” which is true, but then adds that he “died of natural causes.”  Pg. 194.  Hudson, whose best insights are purely factual, revealed after his visits to the archives in 1992-94 that Okhitovich was actually a victim of the purges.  Stites’ other mistakes make less sense.  For example, on page 197, he describes Moisei Ginzburg the “main spokesman” for “the principle of ‘rationalism’ in architecture.”  Ginzburg was one of the foremost leaders of the Constructivists in OSA, whose theories opposed those of the Rationalists in ASNOVA, led by Ladovskii.  On the following page, he lists urban proposals which he attributes to Ladovskii and Varentsov as belonging to OSA, when the former had  actually been the president and the latter the secretary of ASNOVA.

Beyond this, however, the reason this subject warrants another study is that even though Stites provides an admirable assessment of the utopian dimension of early Soviet town planning, he leaves out much of the complexity and richness of this topic.  First of all, he only looks at the Urbanist and Disurbanist parties in the debate, with one offhand reference to Miliutin’s alternative idea of a “linear city.”  He does not once mention ARU, the urban planning group Ladovskii founded in 1929 after parting ways with ASNOVA.  Nor does he consider some of the international teams of architects who participated in the utopian project of the early Soviet Union.  Finally, because his interests are different from my own, he does not look into the relationship between utopian modernism and its totalizing tendencies as evidenced by the Soviet case.  This is doubly important, since I intend to retroactively ground the obstinacy of the debates by it.

“The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde,” by Ross Wolfe (Section 1)

Georgii Krutikov, "The Flying City" (1928)

INTRODUCTION

Comrades!

The twin fires of war and revolution have devastated both our souls and our cities.  The palaces of yesterday’s grandeur stand as burnt-out skeletons. The ruined cities await new builders[…]

To you who accept the legacy of Russia, to you who will (I believe!) tomorrow become masters of the whole world, I address the question: with what fantastic structures will you cover the fires of yesterday?

— Vladimir Maiakovskii, “An Open Letter to the Workers”[1]

Utopia transforms itself into actuality. The fairy tale becomes a reality. The contours of socialism will become overgrown with iron flesh, filled with electric blood, and begin to dwell full of life. The speed of socialist building outstrips the most audacious daring. In this lies the distinctive character and essence of the epoch.

— I. Chernia, “The Cities of Socialism”[2]

Between 1928 and 1937, the world witnessed the convergence of some of the premier representatives of European architectural modernism in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities throughout the Soviet Union.  Never before had there been such a concentration of visionary architectural talent in one place, devoting its energy to a single cause.  Both at home and abroad, the most brilliant avant-garde minds of a generation gathered in Russia to put forth their proposals for the construction of a radically new society.  Never before had the stakes seemed so high.  For it was out of the blueprints for this new society that a potentially international architecture and urbanism could finally be born, the likes of which might then alter the face of the entire globe.  And from this new built environment, it was believed, would emerge the outlines of the New Man, as both the outcome of the new social order and the archetype of an emancipated humanity.  With such apparently broad and sweeping implications, it is therefore little wonder that its prospective realization might have then attracted the leading lights of modernist architecture, both within the Soviet Union and without.  By that same account, it is hardly surprising that the architectural aspect of engineering a postcapitalist society would prove such a captivating subject of discussion to such extra-architectural discourses as politics, sociology, and economics. Continue reading

On the Left Front of Art: An Interview and Counter-Interview with the Anarchist Performance Artist Kalan Sherrard

Anarchist performance artist Kalan Sherrard

The following interview with Kalan Sherrard, the 23-year-old self-described “anarcho-naïvist” performance artist originally hailing from Seattle, took place over the course of a series of e-mails exchanged for a few weeks between myself and Sherrard last month.  I first encountered Mr. Sherrard outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where he was going through one of his set interactive pieces entitled “Discourse on the Other.”  Recognizing that this probably in some way related to the Levinasian/Derridean vein of recent French theory, I approached him with questions regarding his vocation as a leftist artist, whereupon he referred me to his official website, The Enormous Face.  From there I set up a correspondence with Sherrard, the fruit of which is the interview (and counter-interview) that is reproduced below.

It is my hope that this engagement will form a part of an ongoing occasional series of interviews/intersections with parts of the artistic Left, both Marxist and non-Marxist alike.  My intention is to problematize the political aspects of the artist’s relationship to himself, to his work, and to his world.  In these ways do I believe that I can challenge the politics of the artist through an ethical, logical, and pathical examination of their existence, in keeping with the Aristotelian rhetorical schema of ethos/logos/pathos.  I aim to encourage the subjects with whom I’ll be dealing to understand themselves at a critical and historical level, in order that they might situate themselves more properly to the various discourses and practices in which they take part.

It is my personal belief that contemporary art stands at an historical impasse, especially in its expression of politics.  As the opportunities for revolutionary political change have dwindled, so have the prospects for genuinely revolutionary artistic innovation.  Increasingly, art has struggled to deal with its own incoherence, an incoherence which has arisen historically in proportion to the incoherence of the social order out of which it has emerged.  Art and politics, which have for so long struggled in common with the utopian business of imagining another world (different from our own), have arrived at a point at which they have become untethered from the transcendental basis of their own possibility.  These problems of contemporary art, and especially contemporary political art, I intend to elicit through my interviews.

With respect to the present interview specifically, I should like to highlight several of its peculiarities.  First of all, I would like to make clear that Mr. Sherrard, upon receiving my interview questions, proposed that he should write his own meta-interview questions to me, in an attempt to interview the interviewer.  This I happily agreed to, though I will hardly be making this a standard practice or general requirement of my inquiries going ahead.  Second, I have chosen to leave Mr. Sherrard’s written answers in the form in which I received them, rather than polish them up as for a more formal publication.  I feel that their jagged character reflects the quasi-academic, schizoid, and confused nature of his answers in all their original urgency.  I am not sure as yet if I will make this a broader policy of my interviews or if it will be observed only in certain instances.  Either way, this is the form in which the interview (and counter-interview) will be published for now.

Continue reading

Excerpts from My Forthcoming Thesis

Much as Le Corbusier did by releasing snippets of his Toward an Architecture through his journal L’esprit Nouveau, co-published with the Purist painter Amédée Ozenfant, I plan to release excerpts from my forthcoming thesis here on my blog.  These are to be more or less self-contained wholes which have cumulative reference to one another and the central contention of the thesis as a whole.

Stated succinctly, my thesis is that the fate of the international architectural avant-garde as a whole hung in the balance pending the outcome of the Soviet urbanistic experiment of the 1930s, and that the failure of revolutionary socialism to embrace revolutionary modernist architecture resulted not only in its territorial defeat, but in the abandonment of its social mission as a whole.  Thus, my argument runs that following the period of intensive urban building took place in the USSR between 1928 and 1937 — while all of Europe and the West was in the throes of the crisis of global capitalism, of parliamentary democracy, and of the European sciences in toto – the entire sphere of architecture has been subject to a general regression, following its missed opportunity.

I hope to post each section of my thesis at a point where it has at least begun to approach completeness.  Some of them might still be in some phase or other of intellectual gestation, but nevertheless I should be in a position to post a good deal of my findings.  I hope that everyone will enjoy the installments.

Some Wisdom from Žižek

A few lines of wisdom from Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times:

[I]t is not enough to say that the idea of Communism should not be applied as an abstract dogma, that, in each case, concrete circumstances should be taken into consideration.  It is also not enough to say, apropos the fiasco of the twentieth-century Communist countries, that this mis-application in no way disqualifies the idea of Communism.  The idea’s imperfect [or, rather, catastrophic] actualizations bear witness to an “inner contradiction” at the very heart of the idea.)  (pg. 20)

As Žižek notes earlier, one must also dispel the notion that Stalin was merely a clever, cynical manipulator:

This brings us to the limit of liberal interpretations of Stalinism, which becomes palpable when liberal critics tackle the motivations of the Stalinist: they dismiss Stalinist ideology as a mere cynical and deceptive mask, and locate beneath it a brutal, egotistic individual who cares only about power and pleasure. In this way the “pre-ideological” utilitarian individual is posited as the true figure beneath the ideological mask.  The presupposition is here that the Stalinist subject related in a purely external-instrumental way towards his language, disposing of another code (the pre-ideological utilitarian one) which enabled him to be fully aware of his true motivations.  But, what if — cynical though the Stalinists’ use of official jargon was — they did not dispose of any such alternative language to articulate their truth?  Is it not this properly Stalinist madness which is obliterated by the liberal critics, ensuring that we remain safely moored in the commonsense image of a human being?  (pg. 7)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s unabashedly pro-Soviet sentiments during the 1930s

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. and Mrs. Iofan, Society of Cultural Relations Banquet, Moscow (1937)

Frank Lloyd Wright, almost indisputably the greatest architect America ever produced, was throughout his life a strong supporter of the ideals of liberty and democracy and strove to find their expression through architecture.  However, it is less well known that he was a staunch supporter of the Soviet social experiment during the 1930s.  Of course, he did not believe that this support was in any way incompatible with his prior belief in democracy and liberty.  Quite the opposite, he considered the Soviet Union to be embarking upon an entirely new path toward a more perfect democracy.  Like many other observers in the West, he failed to recognize the totalitarian and undemocratic nature of the Stalinist regime.  Wright can probably be excused for not seeing this at the time, though he did problematically endorse program of “Socialism in One Country” as a fitting course of action for the Russian people.  Nevertheless, Wright’s belief in the emancipatory potential of the Bolshevik Revolution is symptomatic of the great surge of utopian sentiment involving the young USSR, as well as of a deep disillusionment with the capitalist socioeconomic order, which was in shambles over the whole course of that decade.

You can download Wright’s various statements and articles written with regard to the Soviet Union by clicking the following link:

Frank Lloyd Wright on the Soviet Union

Frank Lloyd Wright with Mr. and Mrs. Arkin, outside Moscow (1937)

 The following is an excerpt from one of these exchanges:

FIRST ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS BY PRAVDA

October 19, 1933

Dear Mr. Wright:

A year ago the Pravda asked your opinion about the position of the intellectuals in the United States in connection with the economic crisis. Your opinion was then forwarded to Moscow. Today the Pravda editors, wishing to acquaint their readers more thoroughly with the changes wrought in the life of the intellectuals, during the last year, solicit your opinion on the following questions:

1. What change, if any, has taken place in the life of the intellectuals (engineers, technicians, architects, artists, writers, teachers, etc.) during the last year?

2. How has the prolongation of the crisis influenced the creative activities in this country in the realm of technique, art, literature and the sciences?

3. Do you see improvement ahead for the intellectual groups?

An early reply will be highly appreciated.

Yours sincerely,

Moissaye J. Olgin

My dear Mr. Olgin:

Little visible change in the life or the attitude toward life of the intelligentsia of the United States is evident. No clear thinking is possible to them. They are all the hapless beneficiaries of a success-system they have never clearly understood, but a system that worked miracles for them while they slept. The hardships of the last three years have left them confused but not without hope that more miracles will come to pass in their behalf. They are willing to wait for them to happen.

The capitalistic system is a gambling game. It is hard to cure gamblers of gambling and everybody high and low in this country prefers the gamblers chance at a great fortune to the slower growth of a more personal fortune.

It is true that the educational system of the country has for many decades been breeding inertia. It aims to produce the middle-class mind which is able to function only in the middle of the road, boulevard preferred. It is the “safe” mind for the system as set up.

Machine power is vicarious power at best and breeds a lower type of individuality, it seems, the longer it functions. Action of any sort becomes less and less likely. So creative activity is a thing of the past — so far as it goes with machine power in these United States. Little art of any but the most superficial kind — the formula or the fashion — now characterizes the life of the States. The capacity for spiritual rebellion has grown small and the present ideals of success are making it smaller every day. No radical measures have been undertaken in the New Deal but there has been a great deal of tinkering and adjusting and pushing with prices to bring the old game alive again. Something more is needed than an arbitrary price-system to re-awaken capitalistic confidence in the spending of money.

The capitalistic system has evidently come to the necessity for a radical change that no tinkering can effect.

It is now proposed among the more sensible of the intelligentsia that all absentee-ownership be declared illegal by legislation.

The far-reaching consequences of such an enactment are hard to forecast but certainly the stranglehold of capitalism would be cut by such a measure and a freedom would ensue that would soon make Democracy a reality instead of the pretense it is. There is little chance however for any such measure until all the expedients have been tried and have failed in plain sight of everyone.

In the course of the next five years a real demand for such “repeal” of special privilege may come to pass. This is the feeling of the minority among the intelligentsia but they are doing nothing about it. They are spectators by birth, breeding, and habit.

Meantime all are getting on with about one-tenth of their former incomes.

I believe all three of your questions are answered in this answer to the first question.

1. The present economy has practically eliminated our profession, such as it was.

2. An entirely new set of ideas more in keeping with the principles of architecture are needed before thinking men can be inspired with sufficient confidence to go on building any more buildings. In the epoch now painfully closing — disguised as “economic depression” — architecture was only bad form of surface decoration: landlord bait for tenants. If the profession of architecture has any future it must get the building more directly and sensibly out of nature for the native.

3. Nor do I see any possibility of any return to the abnormality which has become normal, without some serious recognition of such organic integrity as a matter of means as well as an end to be achieved. Capitalistic centralization was content to employ the makeshift. Its economic structure was a makeshift. Its buildings were makeshifts. Its social life was an economic anxiety to makeshift. And finally its devotion to the makeshift is sterilizing all human creative power. There is left but ingenuity and scientific research.

4. I view the U.S.S.R. as a heroic endeavor to establish more genuine human values in a social state than any existing before. Its heroism and devotion move me deeply and with great hope. But I fear that machine worship to defeat capitalism may become inverted capitalism in Russia itself and so prostitute the man to the machine. Because the heart beats of the human soul are not like the ticking of a watch creative art is essential in any up-building of any social order worthy to be called organic and to endure. Individuality is a precious asset of the human race where it rests upon a common basis fair to all and should be rewarded according to its just value. This just reward is no less the problem of Russia now than of every other sincere attempt to enable all to rule and be ruled by their own bravest and their own best.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Lloyd Wright