“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.

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 1923.[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.


[1] Maiakovskii, Vladimir.  “Otkrytoe pis’mo rabochim.”  From Gazeta futuristov.  March 15th, 1918.

[2] Chernia, I.  “Goroda sotsializma.”  From Revoliutsia i kultura, № 1.  January 1930.  Pg. 16.

[3] Gropius’ participation in the Soviet project was much more limited than the others mentioned here.  He submitted an entry in 1932 for the Palace of the Soviets competition, and would later go on a three-day lecture tour in Leningrad in 1933, but otherwise he was less interested in prospects of building in the USSR than his compatriots.  Jaeggi, Annemarie.  “Relations between the Bauhaus and the Russian Avant-garde as Documented in the Collection of the Bauhaus Archive Berlin.”  From Heritage at Risk, Special Edition: The Soviet Heritage and European Modernism.  (Hendrik Verlag.  Berlin, Germany: 2006).  Pg. 155.

[4] Borngräber, Christian.  “Foreign Architects in the USSR.”  Architectural Association Quarterly.  (Volume 11, № 1.  London, England: 1979).  Pgs. 51-53.

[5] See his submission to Sovetskaia arkhitektura.  (Volume 2, № 2/3.  Moscow: May 1932).

[6] A well-known architect, and also a friend and associate of the Marxist social theorist Theodor Adorno.

[7] Teige, Karel.  The Minimum Dwelling.  Translated by Eric Dluhosch.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2004).  Pg. 214.  Originally published in 1932 in Czech as Nejmenší byt by Václav Petr, Prague.

[8] Leśnikowski, Wojciech.  “Functionalism in Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, and Polish Architecture from the European Perspective.”  From East European Modernism: Architecture in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, & Poland between the Wars.  (Thames and Hudson, Ltd.  London, England: 1996).  Pg. 25.

[9] Names recalled by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in an interview with Christian Borngräber in 1978. Borngräber, “Foreign Architects in the USSR.”  Pg. 61.

[10] “You [Oberbürgermeister Fritz Hesse] referred me to the investigation of Bauhaus affairs which the Anhalt Government was demanding as a result of the false report from the town authorities — and called for my immediate resignation.  The reason: it was alleged I was bringing politics into the Bauhaus.  A Marxist (you said) could never be the Director of the Bauhaus.  Immediate cause of dismissal: a voluntary contribution as a private person to the International Workers’ Aid Fund for helping the distressed families of the miners on strike in the Mansfeld coalfield.  It was no use reiterating that I had never belonged to any political party.”  Meyer, Hannes. “My Dismissal from the Bauhaus: An Open Letter to Oberbürgermeister Hesse, Dessau.”  From Buildings, Projects, and Writings.  Translated by D.Q. Stephenson.  (Arthur Niggli Ltd.  New York, NY: 1965).  Pgs. 103-105.  Originally published in German in 1930.

[11] Mordvinov, Arkadii.  “Baukhauz k vystavke v Moskve.”  From Sovetskaia arkhitektura.  (Volume 1, № 1/2.  Moscow: March 1931).  Pg. 10.

[12] “An den internationalen Kongress für neues Bauen.  Generalsekretariat.”  Das Neue Stadt.  (Volume 8. № 6/7.  Berlin, Germany: 1932).  Pg. 146.

[13] Leśnikowski, Wojciech.  “Functionalism in Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, and Polish Architecture from the European Perspective.”  From East European Modernism: Architecture in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, & Poland between the Wars.  (Thames and Hudson, Ltd.  London, England: 1996).  Pg. 20.

[14] Ibid., pg. 21.

[15] Ibid., pg. 21.

[16] Bonta, János.  “Functionalism in Hungarian Architecture.” From East European Modernism: Architecture in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, & Poland between the Wars.  (Thames and Hudson, Ltd.  London, England: 1996).  Pg. 171.

[17] Jaeggi, “Relations between the Bauhaus and the Russian Avant-garde as Documented in the Collection of the Bauhaus Archive Berlin.”  Pg. 156.

[18] Leśnikowski, “Functionalism in Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, and Polish Architecture from the European Perspective.”  Pg. 31.

[19] Ibid., pg. 32.

[20] Borngräber, “Foreign Architects in the USSR.”  Pg. 51.

[21] See Lamb’s submission for the Palace of the Soviets, pg. 77, as well as Goodman’s submission (Project № 169), pg. 80.  Sovetskaia arkhitektura. (Volume 2, № 2/3.  Moscow: May 1932).

[22] Wright, Frank Lloyd.  “First Answers to Questions by Pravda.”  From Collected Writings, Volume II: 1931-1939.  (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.  New York, NY: 1993).  Pgs. 141-142.  Published originally in 1933.

[23] There is a common misunderstanding regarding the status of Tatlin’s famous Monument to the Third International.  Tatlin’s tower is quite frequently even cited as the originary example of Constructivist architecture.  While his Monument was quite influential, it is important to remember that Tatlin was an architect neither by training nor profession.  This is a point that Lissitzky stressed repeatedly: “Tatlin created his tower…[though] he had no schooling in engineering, no knowledge of technical mechanics or of iron constructions.”  Lissitzky, El. “Architecture in the USSR.” From El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts. Translated by Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers. (Thames & Hudson Press. London: 1980).  Pg. 368.  Originally published in German in Die Kunstblatt, No 2.  February 1925.

And again: “[Tatlin] accomplished [the Monument] without having any special knowledge of construction.”  Lissitzky, El.  The Reconstruction of Architecture in the Soviet Union.  From Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution, translated by Eric Dluhosch. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1984).  Pg. 29.  Originally published in 1930 as Rußland, Die Rekonstruktion der Architektur in der Sowjetunion.

Tatlin never developed a theory of architecture.  Nor did he even advance any other major architectural proposals throughout the rest of his career.  Indeed, the Monument is something of an anomaly with respect to his corpus as a whole.

[24] “In 1921 a group of young professors (Ladovskii, Dokuchaev, Efimov) succeeded in constituting an autonomous department in the faculty of architecture at the academy (VKhUTEMAS) in Moscow.”  Lissitzky, “Architecture in the USSR.”  Pg. 372.

[25] Schmitt, Carl.  The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy.  Translated by Ellen Kennedy.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2000).  Originally published in 1928.

[26] Husserl, Edmund.  The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.  Translated by David Carr.  (Northwestern University Press.  Chicago, IL: 1980).  Originally published in 1932.

[27] In the sense of a unified, homogeneous whole.

[28] This is intended not only as a reference to the eponymous book by the two Americans, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, but to the countless articles and texts by figures such as Le Corbusier, Gropius, Hilberseimer, and Ginzburg from 1923 on, which make statements like the following:

“[T]he architect, the artist, without mastering the sovereign possibilities of technology, remains clouded in academic aestheticism, becomes tired and convention-bound; the design of accommodations and of cities escapes him.  This formalistic development, mirrored in the ‘isms’ that have rapidly succeeded one another in the past few decades, seems to have reached its end.  A new essential sense-of-building is unfolding simultaneously in all the cultured countries.  Our realization grows of a living form-will [Gestaltungswille], taking root in the totality of society [in der Gesamheit der Gesellschaft] and its life, investing all realms of man’s formative activity with a unified goal — beginning and ending in building.”  Gropius, Walter.  Internationale Architektur.  (Bauhausbücher, № 1.  Munich, Germany: 1925).  Pg. 6.

“If one takes a cursory glance at everything that is now taking place in the architectural life of all countries, the first impression will be this: the world is split into two halves.  In one of them, eclecticism still reigns — having lost any point of departure, having exhausted itself through and through — perfectly symbolizing the deteriorating culture of old Europe.  In the other [half] young, healthy shoots push themselves through — landmarks, the beginnings of a new life start to emerge, from which it is not difficult to extend the single, unified thread of an international front of modern architecture.  Despite all the differences and peculiarities of different countries and peoples, this front really exists.  The results of the revolutionary pursuits of the modern architectural avant-gardes of all nations intersect with one another closely in their main lines of development.  They are forging a new international language of architecture, intelligible and familiar, despite the boundary posts and barriers.”  Ginzburg, Moisei.  “Mezhdunarodnoi front sovremennoi arkhitektury.”  Sovremennaia arkhitektura.  (Volume 1, № 2.  Moscow, Russia: March 1926).  Pg. 41.

“The new architecture…is based not on problems of style, but on problems of construction…So the surprising agreement in the external appearance of this new international architecture is also evident.  It is not a fashionable matter of form, as is often assumed, but the elementary expression of a new conviction of construction.  Although often differentiated by local and national particularities and by the person of the designer, in general the product is made subject to the same conditions.  Therefore the uniformity of their appearance, their spiritual connectedness across all borders.”  Hilberseimer, Ludwig.  Internationale Neue Baukunst.  (Julius Hoffmann.  Stuttgart, Germany: 1929).  Pg. 1.

“The principles of the [international] style that appeared already plainly by 1922 in the projects and the executed buildings of the leaders, still control today an ever increasing group of architects throughout the world.”  Hitchcock, Henry-Russell and Johnson, Philip.  The International Style: Architecture since 1922.  (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  New York, NY: 1995).  Pg. 49.  Originally published in 1932.

[29] Le Corbusier.  Toward an Architecture.  Translated by John Goodman.  (Getty Research Institute.  Los Angeles, CA: 2007).

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

  1. Excerpts from my thesis, part 1

    strategy:

    1. an appropriately epic and baffling title
    2. hit them with a futurist factographical frontal attack
    3. follow with crescendoing narrative, alive with Ruskinite elegance and the bravado of Le Corbusier

  2. Also, to my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive full-name list of foreign architects working in the USSR during this period ever assembled in any language

    even more so than Borngraber’s

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

  4. Ross!

    This blog is awsome. I’m currently finishing off Masters of Arch. Thesis of a ‘Corporate’ (I.M Pei) building in Melbourne. (It’s a ‘Corporate building in nature) with undelying Communist (Russian Constructivism), Mies AND Steve Jobs. They’re all connected…. And I was super happy to see the Seagram building in there too!

    I look forward to reading the entire thing when I’m not having a panic attack over the thesis. Lol

    Andreea

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