The Soviet Moment: The Turn toward Urbanism, the Crisis in the West, and the Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

Ivan Leonidov, proposal for a section of Magnitogorsk (1930)

Introduction to Part Two of The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

The Soviet architectural avant-garde was never as unified as its counterparts in the West.  Almost from the moment of its emergence in the early 1920s, its members were divided along theoretical and methodological lines.  The two main currents of modernist thought on architecture in the Soviet Union could not come to terms over which positive basis of the new architecture held primacy over the others.  One side upheld the formal properties of abstract art as the prime determinant of avant-garde architectural practice; the other side stressed the functional properties of the machine as its foundation.  A similar tension was always latent in modernist architecture internationally, but in no other nation did there result a full-on split like the one experienced by the Soviet avant-garde.  The two competing tendencies were organized into the groups OSA and ASNOVA, as mentioned previously,[1] though subsequent schisms would also occur.  These groups respectively identified themselves as Constructivists (disparagingly dubbed “functionalists” by their opponents) on the one hand and Rationalists (disparagingly dubbed “formalists” by their opponents) on the other.  Though no equivalent rift ever formed within the other national avant-gardes, the Soviet example serves to highlight some of the internal contradictions that existed in modernist ideology as a whole.

German Building in the USSR (1929)

Ernst May’s proposal for the city of Magnitogorsk (1931)

Though the modernist architects in the USSR were fully conversant with avant-garde developments in the West, this was the fractured and fragmented theoretical landscape on which their European and American colleagues would have to stake out their positions.  With the global crisis of capitalism in 1929 and the crisis of parliamentary democracy in the West — along with the ominous rise of ultranationalist (fascist) sentiments in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Spain — many architects outside the Soviet Union looked to the young socialist state as a beacon of hope in an increasingly dark world.  As fortune would have it, the Soviet government was launching its revolutionary program of centralized planning and deliberate industrialization just as the international avant-garde was starting to expound its theories of urban planning post-1925.  The Soviet Union seemed to offer an unprecedented opportunity to the modernists.  It presented a vast canvas onto which the architects could project their most utopian ambitions.

The New Russia, a German periodical (1928)

Mart Stam’s blueprints for Makeevka (1932)

Here, the inherently totalizing aspect of modernist architectural thought was first made manifest.  As the members of the avant-garde began to extrapolate their theories of urbanism from first principles, they came to a deadlock over which particular vision to follow.  While many of the foreign architects were invited to the Soviet Union in order to negotiate some of these impasses, they often found it difficult to make such compromises themselves.  New fissures surfaced as longstanding alliances between certain architects broke down.  Meanwhile, Russia’s technological deficit and relative paucity of advanced building materials led to insurmountable obstacles, preventing the practical realization of the modernists’ plans.  Even more troubling was a cultural shift that was taking place within the Soviet Union, as some of the more radical and novel forms introduced by the modernists in literature and the arts were condemned as “bourgeois” and illegible to the working masses.  The logic of this shift may have owed to a dynamic intrinsic to Russian culture, as Paperny has suggested,[2] but if so, I would like to advance the hypothesis that this occurred mainly as a consequence of the failure of social revolutions to spread in the West following World War I.  If socialism had been established on a more international basis, it is perhaps possible that the peculiarities of Russian culture might not have imposed their logic so unilaterally.  This is, of course, a counterfactual speculation, and it is admittedly a dangerous business to insinuate what alternate historical sequence might have resulted had things only played out differently.  Nevertheless, it is not a point of too much controversy to assert that the USSR’s political isolation had something to do with the grim turn of events that took place for the modernist enterprise in that country.  Also, it should not be thought impossible that some of the cultural binaries that Paperny locates within Russian history (horizontal/vertical,[3] uniform/hierarchical[4]) might not have reflected — or even been reinforced by — broader social binaries emerging out of the dialectical development of global capitalism (such as the spatiotemporal dialectic we have hitherto identified).

OSA’s proposal for Magnitogorsk, by Moisei Ginzburg, Mikhail Okhitovich, and Mikhail Barshch (1930)

Ivan Leonidov – Magnitogorsk Proposal (1930)

Either way, it is crucial to review some of the proposed solutions to the question of planning in the Soviet Union advanced by the international avant-garde, insofar as they sought to address the social problems that so preoccupied them — the housing shortage, the liberation of woman, urban alienation, the antithesis of town and country, and man’s greater estrangement from nature.  Even if these plans were never realized, even if their blatant utopianism foreclosed any possibility they might have possessed from the start, the fact that they were ever imagined at all is itself significant.  For no such visions of an ideal world had ever been dreamt up on such an extraordinary scale: from Plato to More and Campanella, from Renaissance sketches of the città ideale to the fantasies of Boullée and Ledoux, to Owen’s New Harmony, Fourier’s phalanstère, and beyond — never had these propositions amounted to anything more than idle thought experiments or modest programs for single cities existing in isolation from the rest of society.  “[The utopians] still dream of an experimental realization of their social utopias, the establishment of individual phalansteries, the foundation of home colonies, the building of a little Icaria — pocket editions of the new Jerusalem,” wrote Marx and Engels, in their famous Manifesto.[5]  Such utopias were doomed to fail, they argued, as they simply fled from bourgeois society rather than try to overcome it.  By the 1920s and 1930s, however, the Bolsheviks had seemingly uprooted capitalism in Russia, and the rest of the world still appeared ripe for revolution (especially with the onset of the Depression).  For with the maturation of capitalism over the latter half of the nineteenth century, utopia had now been reimagined on a global scale, reflecting at once the real commercial and economic interdependence of nations as well as socialist theories of world revolution.  H.G. Wells expressed this succinctly in his famous Modern Utopia (1905):

No less than a planet will serve the purpose of a modern Utopia.  Time was when a mountain valley or an island seemed to promise sufficient isolation for a polity to maintain itself intact from outward force; the Republic of Plato stood armed ready for defensive war, and the New Atlantis and the Utopia of More in theory, like China and Japan through many centuries of effectual practice, held themselves isolated from intruders.  Such late instances as Butler’s satirical “Erewhon,” and Mr. Stead’s queendom of inverted sexual conditions in Central Africa, found the Tibetan method of slaughtering the inquiring visitor a simple, sufficient rule.  But the whole trend of modern thought is against the permanence of any such enclosures…A state powerful enough to keep isolated under modern conditions would be powerful enough to rule the world, would be, indeed, if not actively ruling, yet passively acquiescent in all other human organizations, and so responsible for them altogether.  World-state, therefore, it must be.[6]

Nikolai Ladovskii’s dynamo-“parabolic” vision of “New Moscow”

Andrei Burov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Le Corbusier (1928)

A Modern Utopia, which in many ways marked the culmination of the series of utopian novels that started in the last decades of the nineteenth century, envisioned the world that was already beginning to emerge around Wells.  This world stood in stark contrast to the ones portrayed in previous utopias, especially in that it was all-encompassing.  It did not admit of localization; nothing could rightfully stand outside of it.  Thereby mirroring the abstract, globalizing spatiality of capitalism, the planetary scale of modern utopianism was combined with the social mission of modernist architecture in its ambition to reshape all of society.  Though Stalin already formulated the notion of sotsializm v’odnoi strane (“Socialism in One Country”) by 1924,[7] the architectural avant-garde within Russia and without retained its commitment to internationalism.  As Paperny has rightly observed, “‘Workers of the world unite!’ — this Marxist slogan, written in Culture One [Paperny’s term for avant-garde culture] on the covers of nearly all architectural publications (and totally absent from that venue in Culture Two [Paperny’s term for Stalinist culture]), indicates that the idea of the international unity of a single class clearly dominated in Culture One over the concepts of either national or state unity.”[8]  The last traces of this celebrated slogan from the end of the Manifesto only disappeared in 1934 from the covers of the popular architectural journals Building Moscow and Architecture of the USSR (successor to the 1931-1934 union journal Soviet Architecture, itself the successor to the iconic 1926-1930 Constructivist periodical Modern Architecture).

Plan for “New Moscow” (April 1929)

Moisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch, Disurbanist scheme for a linear city (1930)

The ultimate collapse of the avant-garde project in the Soviet Union, symbolically marked first by the outcome of the 1932 design competition for the Palace of the Soviets and capped off by the expulsion of all foreign architects in 1937, signaled the demise of one important dimension of modernist architecture.  The social mission that had provided the avant-garde with such positive momentum in its early years was now abandoned.  Its fascination with the forms of industrial engineering and abstract composition remained, but its sense of duty to redress social grievances (or to even fundamentally transform society) vanished.  Curtis makes the following remark regarding this point: “The modern movement was a revolution in social purpose as well as architectural forms.  It tried to reconcile industrialism, society, and nature, projecting prototypes for mass housing and ideal plans for entire cities.”[9]  Following the Soviet fiasco and the general hiatus of new construction up through the end of the Second World War, this feeling of social purpose had evaporated.  Already by 1960, Banham could take stock of the way that modern architecture had come to be perceived as part of the armature of Fordist administrative capitalism.  “[I]f the [modern] style has finished up as the architecture of anonymous corporate domination,” reminded Banham, “it is worth remembering that this was not how it started out.”[10]  It is the thesis of the present study that the modernists’ experience in the USSR, the Soviet moment, marked the pivotal turning point in this development.


[1] See page 6 of the present paper.

[2] The principal focus of Paperny’s brilliant Culture Two is on the structural opposition of two patterns operative within Russian culture, which can be identified with the “avant-garde” 1920s and the “Stalinist” 1930s-1950s: “The concept of Culture One is constructed here primarily based on materials from the 1920s, whereas Culture Two is based on materials from the 1930s to 1950s.”

However, Paperny identifies these two cultural patterns as broader tendencies within Russian history as a whole, extending back at least as far as the ascension of the Muscovite principality in the sixteenth century: “The juxtaposition of Cultures One and Two is a convenient way to describe the events that transpired in the same space but at different times.  This work voices that a certain portion of the events in Russian history (including events having to do with changes in spatial conceptions) can be described in terms of an alternation of the ascendancy of Culture One and Culture Two.  Therefore, because I wish to trace a unifying principle throughout history, my attention is primarily focused on the territory of the Muscovite State under Ivan III, and especially Moscow.”  Paperny, Vladimir.  Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Translated by John Hill and Roann Barris in collaboration with Vladimir Paperny.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 2002).  Pg. xxiii.  Originally published in 1985.

[3] Ibid., pgs. 44-69.

[4] Ibid., pgs. 70-103.

[5] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.  Pg. 28.

[6] Wells, H.G.  A Modern Utopia.  (University of Nebraska Press.  New York, NY: 1967).  Pgs. 11-12.

[7] “[T]he theory that the victory of socialism in one country is impossible, has proved to be an artificial and untenable theory.  The seven years’ history of the proletarian revolution in Russia speaks not for but against this theory.”  Stalin, Iosif.  “The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists? [Preface to a book On the Road to October].”  Translator uncredited.  Collected Works, Volume 6: 1924.  (Foreign Languages Publishing House.  Moscow, Soviet Union: 1954).  Pg. 414.

[8] Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 44.

[9] Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900.  Pg. 15.

[10] Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.  Pg. 9.

2 thoughts on “The Soviet Moment: The Turn toward Urbanism, the Crisis in the West, and the Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

  1. Very interesting (and beautifully presented), thank you. One suggestion: although western architects may have ultimately found their Soviet excursion a fiasco, it’s problematic to refer to a “Soviet fiasco.” Indeed the fiasco is located in western modernism itself, which abandons social purpose following the Stalinist social/cultural consolidation in the USSR, as you point out.

  2. Pingback: Sochi and the Soviet Constructivism | Homo Ludditus

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