Theo van Doesburg’s “Architecture and Revolution — Revolutionary Architecture? Utopian Designs by Tatlin, Lissitzky, and Others” (1928)

Theo van Doesburg’s surprisingly critical, if somewhat superficial, article on Soviet avant-garde architecture from Het Bouwbedrijf, September 1928 (vol. 5, no. 20):

‘I have the courage to be barbaric.  I cannot follow the works of the expressionists, futurists, and cubists, nor all the other “isms” in which artistic genius awakens.  I do not understand anything about it, it leaves me cold.’

— Lenin

‘I can not keep abreast; we are too obsolescent.’

— Kerenskii

1. Introduction.  The double function which every innovation, be it in the sciences, culture, the arts or architecture, has to fulfill, consists on the one hand of building up piece by piece a new image of the world, while on the other hand an old world image is being broken down piece by piece.  The former is usually the result of the latter.  People do not realize at all how far-reaching the effect of a new concept actually is.  Just reading the writings of the adversaries of new forms of architecture or art makes one realize to what enormous extent jealousy and vexation have grown in the past twenty years.  Do read, for fun, for instance the pamphlet by the pompiériste Camille Mauclair, La folie picturale, to come to a slow realization how terrifying the effect of genius is on yonder side of the new art creation, presently already accepted once and for all.  I do not want to discuss art here any further than is necessary to explain our contemporary architecture, and I do not know whether this kind of pamphlet has also been aired against the international innovation in architecture.  They certainly were not lethal, and although on this side nobody takes the trouble to refute them (for nothing refutes them better and more strongly than The Work), they are not only a national disgrace, but also the mark of an imbalance in the development of spiritual and social progress.  This imbalance is characteristic for Russia.  The new endeavors in the fields of art and architecture (the latter date only from 1923) were certainly not less under attack in Russia than in other countries, and under the Soviet regime there must have been quite a confrontation.  Or do you imagine, you Soviets, in your blind veneration of everything originating there, that the Russian revolution a priori guaranteed free development of the modern creative genius? Do you imagine that, with one blow, the working class broke the bonds which had linked it very closely and very deeply with the bourgeois culture? Do you imagine that the leaders of this class, the Lenins, the Trotskiis, the Lunacharskiis, the Radeks, do have just an inkling of an idea of what was growing and flourishing, beyond class and time, beyond nation and community, in the mind of genius, already severed from the bourgeois long ago? If this were not so, why then did all the ‘revolutionary,’ creative people leave their beloved Russia? In order to import the new from Russia into foreign countries? No…In order to learn what is new there, and to import it…into Russia.  Would they make us believe that Russia has completely autonomously (for instance like ‘little’ Holland) produced a new architecture from the highly praised ‘proletarian culture,’ an architecture in keeping with the demands and needs of the working class? Out of the question.

The fact that a few Polish-Russian artists, chased by the Soviet regime, fled across the borders, each of them carrying an enormous portfolio, filled [186-187] with utopian, fantastic plans for a kind of dirigible-architecture, wanting to push these even as the new communist architecture, does not mean that in Russia itself even one modern, waterproof barrack has been built.  For indeed, when around 1920 all who had creative minds set forth from Russia, armed with abstraction and with the red quadrangle pinned on their sleeves (as the regalia of our formless time), not even a single chair had been built in Russia.  They had only words and promises, good as well as vague nebulous notions, sky high fantasies and intentions for eternity, but in reality nothing had been built as yet.  There was neither a basis, nor money available for that.

This situation was extraordinarily fortuitous for snobbism, and, as a reaction to the fact that central Europe (in which I include Holland here) was farther ahead, and, what is more important, more positive and realistic than yonder, and could give evidence of this with facts, people tried to simply antedate their works and thus transfer their creative activity to an earlier period.  Russia, which, according to the Russians, wanted to be an example to the whole of Europe with respect to social reform, could not fail to be the first and a signpost.  Moscow, actually the only cultural center in the immeasurably vast Russia, was already before the war in direct contact (via Poland) with European art life.  The turn in the field of aesthetics and architecture took place under direct influence of innovations which had occurred much earlier in the cultural centers of Milan, Paris, Berlin, etc., Holland included.

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