Александра Экстер, супрематизм

You can’t spell “intersectionality” without “sect”

A dissection

The concept of “intersectionality” is at best equivalent to unthought social complexity. Even then it is misleading, and potentially pernicious. 
At worst it’s just a meaningless pomo shibboleth used to stifle debate, obscure universal dynamics of capitalist society, and encourage methodological eclecticism (under the questionable pretext of a “plurality” of approaches). See the recent “‘Safe’ Spaces” piece I reposted from the CPGB’s Weekly Worker a couple months back to see the kind of spiraling madness to which this nonsense often leads.

It’s the continuation of identity politics by other means, to paraphrase Clausewitz.

Rejecting intersectionality and identity politics does not mean reasserting a crude “class reductionist” model promoting “working-class identity,” however, as Mark Fisher seems to contend in his recent article “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (otherwise a serviceable critique of “identitarian” politics, which are always welcome). After all, this would just be another species of economic determinism, the sort that eventually leads leftists to search for “alien class elements” to root out, explaining ideological deviations by pointing to one’s petit-bourgeois upbringing (for example).

Over the summer I was hoping to co-write something with my friend Jasmine Curcio, a radical feminist and Marxist from Australia, in response to Seymour’s post back in March on “The Point of Intersection.” I’m guessing the title of this entry alludes to the older Marxian concept of “the point of production.” Sadly, Jasmine became busy with university work, and I’ve been bogged down with other projects. James Heartfield’s piece will therefore have to do for now. Luckily his article is quite good. He’s better read in the history of these concepts than most of their proponents, at least. Also, it has the virtue of remaining pretty ad rem, which is more than can be said for most of Heartfield’s critics. George Galloway is one figure I find particularly repulsive, however. I’m not really bothered by Russell Brand, Lily Allen, or Julie Bindel.

Harry Pregerson Interchange, a particularly hellish intersection

Harry Pregerson Interchange, a particularly hellish intersection

Intersectional? Or just sectarian?

James Heartfield
Mute Magazine

Is self-styled revolutionary Russell Brand really just a “Brocialist”? Is Lily Allen’s feminist pop-video racist? Is lesbian activist Julie Bindel a “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist” Is Respect MP George Galloway a “rape apologist”? Welcome to the world of “intersectionalism” — or what we used to call sectarianism.

“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” This was Flavia Dzodan’s angry challenge to a feminist slogan on a placard on a “slutwalk” march, “woman is the nigger of the world.” Dzodan did not like the “white feminist” laying claim to her the oppression suffered by women of color. “Am I supposed to ignore the violence that ensued in the N* word discussion?’ Dzodan asked: “Am I supposed to overlook its blatant violence in the name of sisterhood?”[1]

Dzodan’s meme “intersectional” was widely taken up amongst radical campaigners and bloggers. Intersectionality seemed to be a way to balance the different claims of oppressed groups. No one would be ignored, or folded into the other. Intersectional feminism would not ignore the special problems faced by black women. Nor would anti-racist campaigners ignore sexism. The watchword of intersectionality was that you should “check your privilege” before making any claims.[2]

For the radical left “intersectionality” seemed to be a way of “achieving effective political unity among the oppressed.”[3] Those leftists were embarrassed by their own tradition, which seemed to them to be too mannish. They felt they had ignored questions of oppression, and would make amends through an intersectional approach. The older texts that saw women’s oppression as a footnote to the class struggle were set aside.[4] Continue reading

Zaha Hadid, digital rendering of the interior to the Performing Arts Center in Abu Dhabi

Architecture and capitalism

Event review
and Capitalism:
1845 to the Present

Book launch at the Storefront for Art
………and Architecture in Manhattan

Thomas Angotti
Peggy Deamer
Quilian Riano
Michael Sorkin

The following review of the book release event for the new collection Architecture and Capitalism was first published over at Quaderns d’arquitectura i urbanisme, the journal of the Association of Architects of Catalonia. A trilingual publication, it features articles written in Spanish, English, and Catalan.

Last night’s book launch for Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present drew a large crowd to the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Lower Manhattan. The precise relation of the event to the newly-released Routledge collection was obscure, however. Of the four featured speakers — Thomas Angotti, Peggy Deamer, Quilian Riano, and Michael Sorkin — only Deamer and Sorkin contributed pieces to the volume. Deamer, the prime mover behind Architecture and Capitalism, wrote the introduction; Sorkin was responsible for its pithy four-page conclusion. Effectively bookending the discussion, then, the book’s themes entered into the conversation in a largely oblique fashion. For the most part, the talk was limited to generalities.

Architecture and Capitalism - Quilian Riano, Michael Sorkin, Peggy Deamer, and Thomas Angotti (photo by Anna Kats)

Architecture and Capitalism: Quilian Riano, Michael Sorkin,
Peggy Deamer, and Thomas Angotti (photo by Anna Kats)

Some of the topics focused on by the speakers were fairly familiar, by now standard fare for reflections on architecture’s role in society. There was reference, of course, to the supremely compromised position of the architect within the existing system of capitalist reproduction. Given the present constraints encountered in the profession, Sorkin and Angotti pointed out, designers are typically bound to the whims of their clients. What little leverage can be mustered during the building process is usually a function of the “name recognition” of their firm. Otherwise, architects have very little say in how their visions are eventually realized, unless they stipulate specific guarantees beforehand (making it far more difficult to secure a contract in the first place). If they don’t follow the instructions or meet the expectations of their employers, in most cases, all funding is cut off and the commission is lost. Questions concerning the supposed ethical obligations of the architect were also raised in this connection. Should architects refuse to lend their name to certain kinds of building projects? Prisons featuring cells for solitary confinement were listed by Sorkin as obvious examples, along with military installations with facilities built-in to serve as torture chambers. Deamer brought up the extraordinary conditions of exploitation suffered by the workers mobilized to construct, for instance, gleaming skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Not only the living labor involved in their assembly, Riano added somewhat vaguely, but also the dead labor embodied in the materials assembled.

Besides these scattered considerations, more theoretical issues of interpretation were also touched upon. Included here was some debate regarding the relationship between the material “base” of social production and the ideological “superstructure” it supports — that controversial architectural metaphor supplied by Marx over 150 years ago. Continue reading


A singular deception: Socialism and “singularity”

Michael Rectenwald
Insurgent Notes
November 2013


By definition, a singularity is something utterly peculiar unto itself, a species of being unmatched for its “this-ness.” The term has found usage in a number of domains, most significantly in physics, where a singularity defines a condition of mass whose volume is approaching zero as a function of its density approaching infinity. Cases of singularities or near singularities include black holes and the singularity that preceded the Big Bang.

The singularity is the topic of a recent book on Marxism by Luca Basso — Marx and Singularity (2008), which is an attempt to understand Marx’s thought from the early writings through the Grundrisse in terms of the search for individual realization. Others too, such as Bruno Gullì (Labor of Fire, 2005), have worked in part to correct the errant notion that Marxism is predicated on an undifferentiated mass subject, rather than a fully articulated, fully realized (social) individual, a singularity.

But I am using “singularity” in yet another sense, to refer to the technological singularity, the hypothetical, near-future point at which machine intelligence will presumably supersede human intelligence, and when an intelligence explosion will commence. Inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil, whose books include The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), The Singularity Is Near (2005), and How to Create a Mind (2012), heralds the singularity in the technological sense.

Lebbeus Woods, Einstein's Tomb (1980)

In this singularity, a prospect predicted and also advocated by “Singulartarians” like Kurzweil, the future is as fabulous as science fiction might have it. In the short term, regular genetic check-ups to scan for “programming errors” in gene sequencing, and gene therapy, would be common, as would the merging of human brains and computer prostheses. But soon thereafter, nanorobots would clean up the environment, removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere, recreating a green planet, and reversing global warming. Micro-robots would also course through the human bloodstream, removing waste (and a distasteful process), killing pathogens, eliminating cancer cells, repairing genetic codes, and reversing aging. Computer chips, implanted in the brain, would increase memory by a million-fold. By 2029, technologists will have successfully reverse-engineered the brain and replicated human intelligence in (strong) artificial intelligence (AI), while vastly increasing processing speeds of “thought.” Continue reading

nietzsche 2 by luca del baldo1

Nietzsche’s untimeliness

Sunit Singh

The following article first appeared in the Platypus Review. It covers some of the same terrain that I explored around a year ago in my reflections on the recent “anti-Nietzschean turn” that has taken place on the Left. Sunit’s piece ranges a bit more widely than my own, and incorporates important insights from the early Marxist Franz Mehring and the later critical theorists of the Frankfurt School elucidating Nietzsche’s fraught relationship to his own time, bourgeois liberal democracy, and the rise of the socialist workers’ movement.

I’d also recommend Mazzino Montinari’s excellent overview, Reading Nietzsche. Montinari was an Italian Marxist dissident who left the PCI during the early 1970s, and helped edit the collected works of Nietzsche in German.


Eros and Civilization: the title expressed an optimistic, euphemistic, even positive thought, namely, that the achievements of advanced industrial society would enable man to reverse the direction of progress, to break the fatal union of productivity and destruction, liberty and repression — in other words to learn [Nietzsche’s] gay science.

— Herbert Marcuse

In [ancient] philosophy the duties of human life were treated as subservient to the happiness and perfection of human life. But when moral, as well as natural philosophy, came to be taught only as subservient to theology, the duties of human life were treated of as chiefly subservient to the happiness of a life to come…[But even] in [what came to be called] the modern philosophy [perfecting virtue] was frequently represented as generally, or rather as almost always inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life; and heaven was to be earned only by penance and mortification, by austerities and abasement of a monk; not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of man.

— Adam Smith

Nietzsche believed that gaining even a modicum of reason and freedom had to be a hard won, blood-soaked, and world-historical affair, but was nevertheless inclined to be as uncharitable in the extreme toward Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the seducer” behind the idealist and rabble in the French Revolution, as toward the socialists who claimed to be the inheritors of the Jacobin tradition. He identified Of the Social Contract — a meditation on the conditions of possibility for the radical self-determination of modern civilization — as putting forward the first image of modern man to inspire mortals to a “transfiguration” of their own circumstances. However, modern man turned out to be a creature afflicted with a fevered historical self-consciousness that periodically flared up in revolutions, “like Typhon under Etna.”[1] It was a symptom of this curious sickness, Nietzsche held, that had led the philosophizing son of a watchmaker to characterize man as a creature full of pity or empathy and as capable of perfectibility, while positing an unwarranted faith in nature as an idyll of freedom. Nietzsche saw modern civilization as a chimera, characterized by what Kant had referred to as “glittering misery” and by the creation invidious interdependencies, but had reached the opposite conclusion as the “Citizen of Geneva.” For Nietzsche, plunging further into the civilization that the latter abhorred “is precisely that which speaks in favor of civilization.”[2] For moderns, who were proving themselves unable to squarely take on the task of Enlightenment, it was as “reasonable” to consider a return to nature as it was for them to revive Greek tragedy; we moderns had no chance of ever going back to the state of nature — the state of nature was itself a myth that the dialectic of Enlightenment had necessitated.

Photograph of Nietzsche, Paul Rée, and Lou Salome, circa 1882.

Photograph of Nietzsche, Paul Rée,
and Lou Salome, circa 1882.

Despite identifying “the labor question” as an intractable issue of the industrial age, Nietzsche never offered a clear resolution to the “the physiological self-contradiction” that defines capitalism. One can admit as much without either attempting to shape Nietzsche on a Marxist lathe — the accusation once leveled at Adorno — or giving in to the idea that Nietzsche was an elitist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal conservative.[3] The efforts to “let workers be themselves” had failed, Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, as a result of “the most irresponsible negligence.” Nietzsche was apportioning fault for this “negligence” directly on the socialists, who were confounded as to why, in spite of the fact that workers had made enormous strides toward sociopolitical equality since the industrial revolution, and justifiably wanted more and felt “their existence to be desperate… an injustice,” their demands for “a social democracy” could not be met by the vote and contractual rights. Europe had to answer the workers, while the workers tried to articulate their own demands and to answer, “What do they will?”[4] But the socialists — those “superficial, envious, and three-quarter actors” infected with “nihilism” — had turned freedom into an ethic and so crab-walked backward into “a will to negate life.”[5] Further, their values were little more than refashioned Christian ideals rather than peculiarly modern aspirations; their certitude that a socialist revolution was inevitable was motivated by the same animalistic instincts that had led Christians to see the Last Judgment as “the sweet consolation of revenge.”[6] Such vituperations also masked the actual task of emancipation and left the socialists with the muddle-headed belief that, “[as] time marches forward…Everything that is in it also marches forward — that the development is one that moves forward.” Although, even “the most level-headed are led astray by this illusion,” Nietzsche claimed, “the nineteenth century does not represent progress per the sixteenth…’Mankind’ does not advance, it does not even exist…Man represents no progress over the animal: the civilized tenderfoot is an abortion.”[7] Despite the touted “progress” of the nineteenth over the eighteenth century, the socialists had overlooked or were unable to recover what earlier revolutionaries, inspired by the notion of the infallible sovereignty of the General Will, had understood — that rather than “dance in our ‘chains’” we had to break them.[8]

The case of anti-Nietzsche

The aristocratic antipathy in which Nietzsche held the Left is presumably one reason behind the leftist “anti-Nietzsche” stance. Others chafe at the fact that Nietzsche was a staunch individualist who clubbed the Marxist social-democrats together with the anarchists as well as with the Christian socialists; Nietzsche was satisfied to say that anarchism held “the same ideal [as socialism], but in a more brutal fashion,” while the dogmatic social-democrat who hypostatized class relations was in as bad faith as the Protestant minister who reconciled men to their wretched fate.[9] Malcolm Bull is the latest leftist to argue for an anti-Nietzsche stance. But with the critical difference that Bull’s criticism of Nietzsche is rooted in a conservatism that obfuscates the established tradition of left criticism of Nietzsche, which dates back to the revisionist debate. Bull compares Nietzsche to Durkheim, as both were diagnosticians who theorized that the incompleteness of our transition to modernity had manifested itself pathologically in what Nietzsche referred to as “decadence” or “nihilism,” and in what Durkheim called “anomie.” Continue reading


What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist left? An interview with Jodi Dean

IMAGE: Cover to Jodi Dean’s
The Communist Horizon (2012)

Platypus Review № 54 | 2013

Ross Wolfe

On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ross Wolfe:
 Your new book, The Communist Horizon, builds upon a body of literature that has accumulated around the concept of “communism” over the last decade. What is the significance of this renewed emphasis on communism?

Jodi Dean: The shift towards communism puts leftist thought into a distinct political horizon. It is no longer a sort of touchy-feely, identity issue-based, and fragmented emphasis on each person’s unique specificity. It is no longer a generic, attitudinal lifestyle, preoccupation with “awareness” or the spontaneous, and momentary reduction of politics to the minuteness of the everyday. Communism returns politics to grand, revolutionary possibilities — to projects of political power. And that change is absolutely, crucially enormous, even if forty years out of date. Continue reading

Anti-Duhring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche

Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ, I

Marx, Engels, and Nietzsche
on equality and morality

Image: Anti-Dühring
and Anti-Christ


Return to the introduction to “Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”
Return to “Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche”

In his defense, Bull is hardly the first to have made this mistake. Many of Nietzsche’s latter-day critics, self-styled “progressives,” actually share his vulgar misconception of socialism. The major difference is that where Nietzsche vituperated against the leveling discourse of equality, believing it to be socialist, his opponents just as gullibly affirm it — again as socialism. Noting that Nietzsche’s antipathy toward the major currents of socialism he encountered in his day was an extension of his scorn for Christianity and its “slave morality,” which he saw apotheosized in the modern demand for equality, some critics go so far as to uphold not only the equation of socialism with equality, but also to defend its putative precursors in traditional religious practices and moral codes. This is of a piece with broader attempts by some Marxists to accommodate reactionary anti-capitalist movements that draw inspiration from religion, whether this takes the form of apologia for “fanaticism” (as in Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism),[48] “fundamentalism” (as in Domenico Losurdo’s “What is Fundamentalism?”),[49] or “theology” (as in Roland Boer’s trilogy On Marxism and Theology).[50] These efforts to twist Marxism into a worldview that is somehow compatible with religious politics ought to be read as a symptom of the death of historical Marxism and the apparent absence of any alternative.

According to the testimony of Peter D. Thomas, “[Losurdo] argues that Nietzsche’s…critiques of Christianity…were a response to the role [it] played in the formation of the early socialist movement. The famous call for an amoralism, ‘beyond good and evil,’ is analyzed as emerging in opposition to socialist appeals to notions of justice and moral conduct.”[51] Corey Robin touches on a similar point in his otherwise uninspired psychology of “the” reactionary mind, a transhistorical mentalité across the centuries (from Burke to Sarah Palin, as the book’s subtitle would have it): “The modern residue of that slave revolt, Nietzsche makes clear, is found not in Christianity, or even in religion, but in the nineteenth-century movements for democracy and socialism.”[52] Finally, Ishay Landa differentiates between Marxist and Nietzschean strains of atheism in his 2005 piece “Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion,” in which he all but confirms the latter’s suspicion that socialism is nothing more than a sense of moral outrage against empirical conditions of inequality.[53]

To make better sense of this confusion, it is useful to glance at the various texts and authors that Nietzsche took to be representative of socialism. Once this has been accomplished, the validity of his claim that nineteenth-century socialism was simply the latest ideological incarnation of crypto-Christian morality, repackaged in secular form, can be ascertained. Notwithstanding the incredulity of Losurdo,[54] even the German Social-Democrat and later biographer of Marx, Franz Mehring, who had little patience for Nietzsche (despite his indisputable poetic abilities), confessed: “Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism.”[55] (Mehring added, incidentally, much to Lukács’ chagrin, that “[t]he Nietzsche cult is…useful to socialism…No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people…growing up within the bourgeois classes…, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. But for such people, Nietzsche is only a transitional stage on the way to socialism.”[56] Other than the writings of such early socialists as Weitling and Lamennais, however, Nietzsche’s primary contact with socialism came by way of Wagner, who had been a follower of Proudhon in 1848 with a streak of Bakuninism thrown in here and there. Besides these sources, there is some evidence that he was acquainted with August Bebel’s seminal work on Woman and Socialism. More than any other, however, the writer who Nietzsche most associated with socialist thought was Eugen Dühring, a prominent anti-Marxist and anti-Semite. Dühring was undoubtedly the subject of Nietzche’s most scathing criticisms of the maudlin morality and reactive sentiment in mainstream socialist literature. Continue reading

LC +а Moscou 1928 FLC

Le Corbusier in the USSR (1928-1931)

Moscow is a factory for making plans, the Promised Land of technicians (without a Klondike).  The country is being equipped!

— Le Corbusier, “The Atmosphere of Moscow” (1930)

This post includes pictures of Le Corbusier traveling in the USSR, attending conferences, building sites, and on one of Eisenstein’s movie sets (for The Old and the New).


Nikolai Krasil'nikov, final diploma project (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov’s terrifying planar urbanism (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov
Sovremennaia arkhitektura
Vol. 3, № 6: 1928, 170-176

Problems of modern architecture
……Final diploma project for Aleksandr
……Vesnin’s studio at VKhUTEIN


In order to really know an object, it is necessary to comprehend, to study all sides of it, all its internal and external connectivities.

— Lenin

It is necessary to pursue and elaborate the implications of this proposition in every specialized field.

Central tower to Nikolai Krasil'nikov's "New City" (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov’s “New City” (1928)

My initial premises:

  1. The environment in which an organic body exists has an influence upon its form.
  2. The forms of the various parts of the organic body are determined by their functions. Thus in a tree the forms of the root, the trunk, and the leaves are determined by the purposes they serve.
  3. To put it mathematically, the form of every body is a complex function of many variables (and the concept of form embraces the internal structure of the body matter).
  4. A scientific theory of the design of form can be developed through the dialectical method of thinking, with the application of mathematical methods of analysis; analysis, that is, which uses the infinitesimal quantities of analytical geometry along with both differential and integral calculus, and the theory of probability and mathematical statistics.
  5. A theory of the design of architectural form must be based on the physical, mechanical, chemical, and biological laws of nature.
  6. Socialist construction is unthinkable without the solution of economic aspects of the problem such as would yield the maximum economic effect in the very broadest sense.  So the constructional economics of a building for human work or habitation must be measured in terms of:
  • the material resources expended in erecting and running it;
  • wear (amortization) and repair of the building;
  • the time expended by people on all forms of movement in and around it;
  • impairment of the health of individuals, which depends on the extent to which the sanitary-technical norms and laws on safety at work and leisure are observed; and
  • the working conditions which would promote an improvement in the productivity of labor in general and mental work in particular, or in the conditions for leisure.

7. Under present Soviet circumstances [destvitel’nosti], the
……achievement of maximum constructional economics in
……architecture is also a vital necessity for the successful
……realization of socialism.

Continue reading

Photos of and by Ernst May and other German architects in the USSR during the 1930s

Ernst May and other German architects in the USSR, 1930s.

Taking a break, Soviet Union 1931Ernst May with his stereo camera in the Soviet Union, April 1931German architects in the USSR, journal New Frankfurt
Ilse May in the Armenian Soviet Republic, 1932The May BrigadeWorking in a meeting room of a local soviet; front left Walter Schwagenscheidt, behind from left Carl Lehmann, Wilhelm Hauss, Ms. Struve, and Ernst May, circa 1931
Wilhelm Kratz and Wilhelm Hauss with driver, Siberia 1931 (photo by Ernst May)Wilhelm Hauss, Jekaterina Nikolaevna, Frolov, and Ernst May, Magnitogorsk circa 1931)Walter Schwagenscheidt in the Soviet Union, circa 1932
Sledge tour, Tyrgan, Ernst May to the right circa 1931Nachalovki (improvised housing) near Magnitogorsk, with Walter Schwagenscheidt, 1931 (photo by Ernst May)March in Red Square commemorating Dzerzhinskii, 1931 (photo Ernst May)
IMG_1501Ilse and Thomas May in their dacha circa 1931, photographed by their father Ernst MayFigure on the Iberian Gate on Red Square, 1931 (photo by the German architect Ernst May)
Festival in Red Square, 1931 (photo Ernst May)Ernst May in his train compartment, Soviet Union (1932)Constructivist propaganda figure, 1931 (photo by Ernst May)

A number of extremely rare photos of and by Ernst May as well as other German socialist architects working in the USSR during the 1930s.

You can read a full-text English translation of Ernst May’s “City Building in the USSR” (1931) by clicking this link.

The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

Ivan Kudriashev’s “Luminescence” (1926)

Table of Contents

I. Introduction: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

II. A Structural Overview of the Proceeding Work: The Sociohistoric Phenomenon of the International Avant-Garde and Soviet Urbanism as Its Decisive Moment

III. The Dialectic of Modernism and Traditionalism: The Development of the International Avant-Garde in Architecture

A. The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Capitalism

B. Traditionalist Architecture

C. Modernist Architecture — Negative Bases

1. Traditionalist Architecture: “Style,” Ornamentation, and Eclecticism

2. The Academic Establishment

3. The “Anarchy of Production” under Capitalism

D. Modernist Architecture — Positive Bases

1. The Spatiotemporal Dimensions of Abstract Art (or, the Volumetrics of Modern Architecture) 

2. Industrialism (or, the Ergonomics of Modern Architecture) 

3. The Housing Shortage, the Urban Proletariat, and the Liberation of Woman (or, the Sociohistoric Mission of Modern Architecture)

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

A. The Artistic and Intellectual Origins of the Soviet Architectural Avant-Garde

B. The Further Development of the Soviet Architectural Avant-Garde into the 1930s

C. Totality, Total Architecture, and the Turn toward Urbanism

1. Totality

2. Total Architecture

3. The Turn toward Urbanism

D. The Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

V. Conclusion: The Sepulchral Cities of Modernity

VI. Notes

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



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.

Le Corbusier in Paris unveiling his model for his Palais des Soviets (1931)

Le Corbusier sitting in front of the construction site for the Tsentrosoiuz Building in Moscow (March 1931)

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.

Foreign architects at work on Magnitogorsk, including Mart Stam and Johan Niegeman (circa 1931-1932)

Ernst May’s “May Brigade” (1930)

Ernst May lecturing in the Soviet Union on his proposal for Magnitogorsk (1930)

Ernst May dressed in heavy winter gear in the Soviet Union, late 1930

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 theBauhaus 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]

André Lurçat in Moscow, 1934

Members of Hannes Meyer’s “Red Brigade” in the Soviet Union (1931)

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]

Albert Kahn’s Cheliabinsk tractor factory (1934)

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. and Mrs. Iofan at a banquet, Moscow (1937)

Czech modernists Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige in Moscow (1926)

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.

The radical architect and Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer (1930)

Bruno Taut, Grete Schutte-Lihotsky, and others in the Soviet Union (1933)

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]

VKhUTEMAS students, 1927

First OSA Conference, 1928

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.

Wall Street crash, 1929

Schmitt’s “Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy” incarnate: Burning of the German parliament, the Reichstag (1933)

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.

Comrade Lenin clearing the Earth of the rabble (1920)

Workers of the World, Unite!

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.

VKhUTEMAS poster celebrating the Five-Year Plan

Poster for the First Five-Year Plan (1928), with vaguely antisemitic overtones

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.

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

Members of the forcibly unionized Union of Soviet Architects (1932)

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]

Plan for the Functional City (1932), for a conference that was to have been held in Moscow

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.

Zinoviev in a motorcade (1929)

Lunacharskii at a congress of Working Artists (1923)

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.

Painting of Stalin atop the Kremlin in Moscow (1935)

Lazar’ Kaganovich, far right, Stalin’s Commissar of Railways and overseer of the rebuilding project for Moscow, including the Moscow metro system (1932)

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]

Viktor Kalmykov, project “Saturn,” proposal for a levitating city (1930), studio of Nikolai Ladovskii

Soviet utopia: Proposal for Krasnoiarsk, the “red city” (1931)

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.

Georgii Krutikov’s “flying city” (1929)

Georgii Krutikov's proposal for a "city of the future" (1929)

Georgii Krutikov’s proposed “city of the future” (1929)

Shuttlepod for Georgii Krutikov's "flying city" (1929)

Shuttlepod for the “flying city”

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.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s monument to Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg (1926)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1958)

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 curry favor with the Nazis in the 1930s,[40] and then later become 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