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.

What really had its origin in a Slavic mentality was the expressionism which around 1910-11 was born in Munich and came to fruition on German soil (Kandinskii’s Blaue Reitergruppe).  This movement did not have any influence on architecture at all, if we leave aside its decorative application in interior design.  At that time the Russian vanguard consisted mainly of artist who were trained and re-educated in Paris under the influence of cubism, the ripe fruit of Latin culture: Archipenko, Lipchitz, Chagall, Vasiliev, Larionov, and the unforgettable (under a French pseudonym) Daniel de Rossiné.  In Russia itself, in Moscow, it was night, as Malevich himself confesses, and it was only much later, around the time of the revolution, that Tatlin, Rodchenko, etc., emerged on the scene.  Tatlin, the architect of an in-executable, symbolic, spiral-shaped monument for the Third International, copied the Italian Boccioni; Malevich imitated cubism, etc.  People awaited the great happening, the tragic revolution, which, according to Lenin, would shake up the minds and work miracles, and the awakening of forces which would bring the USSR a new culture and a new art.  ‘The revolution’ — quote from Lenin — ‘unleashes all the forces which were dormant until now, and what was hidden in the depths [188-189] comes to the surface.  An example: think of the fashion and the whims of the tsarist regime, yes, even of the taste and the fantasies of the aristocrats and gentry, on the development of our painting, sculpture, and architecture.  Under a regime of private property the artist produces for the market, and he needs clients.  Our revolution has freed the artists from this prosaic necessity.  Today it is the proletarian community which patronizes them and gives them commissions.  Every artist, and everyone who imagines that he is one, has the right to create freely after his ideal, regardless of his significance.’

Very true in words, just not in reality.  Just as the French proletariat’s ideal is to surround themselves with a feeble afterglow of the Louis-styles, so the Russian proletariat actually wants to settle down in the bourgeois décor of the architects Shchusev and Zheltovskii.  ‘The whole of Russia seemed submerged in the sultry sensuality of a depressing orientalism like that of Bakst, etc.’ (Clara Zetkin).  Lenin’s statements concerning the state of the arts and architecture can be considered an apology for individualism.  But, in all fairness, the fact that ‘we are lagging behind substantially in this respect’ is repeatedly acknowledged.  The fact that neither Lenin nor Trotskii actually realized to the slightest degree what was happening spiritually, the ‘sur-materialist’ revolution of their time, is most clearly evidenced by the former’s conservative statement: ‘We must preserve what is beautiful, even if it is “old.”  Why turn our backs on what is beautiful, and reject it once and for all, only because it is old? Why should we exalt the new as a god whom we have to venerate, only because it is “new”,’ and so on.  Were such statements (leaving aside whether they contain any truth) not particularly suited to making the ‘working class’ persist in its ‘bourgeois’ sense of art, and surround itself, with the sanction of authority, with copies of a quasi-oriental sensuality? Thus: all of this contrasts entirely with the first maneuvers of a new revolutionary art and architecture, the groundwork for which was laid in Russia only as late as around 1923-24.  Already about four years ago I objected to the notion of a ‘proletarian art.’  Such an art, such a notion is nonsense.  Moralists and social reforms always and everywhere mistakenly confuse the concepts ‘proletarian (communist) art’ with ‘revolutionary art.’  The same is true for the cultural principle.  A proletarian culture [proletkult] is an absurdity.  A culture originating from the masses is unthinkable, because of the simple fact that every mass is amorphous.  It only gets its shape through the individual.  The individual possesses a firm shape, a skeleton.  It can realize a new principle (no matter in what subject) by means of a crowd.  The crowd itself has neither any principle, nor any thought, because of its lack of autonomous uniformity.  The crowd is, and [190-191] always has been, zero.  Every style, every form of living has been dictated.  The crowd is only an instrument, an executive power, which realizes, and thereby multiplies, individual thought.  Neither the Egyptian pyramids, nor the Greek temple architecture, nor the Roman amphitheater, the gothic cathedrals, our factories, nor the whole of future architecture is, or will be, the expression of the masses’ will to create.  It is all dictated, be it by royalty, popes, great industrials, or automobile princes.  It cannot, and will not ever, be different.

What kind of beautiful phrases are these, with which they want to bind genderless growds to the individual principle, for instance like: ‘art must go out to the people, and the people will come to the art,’ and: ‘our workers and farmers are entitled to the real art’ (Lenin).  Easily said, but who will determine what is real art? Which standard will, under the Bolshevist regime, be employed for distinguishing real art from non-real art? Lunacharskii, the intellectual leader of the USSR, expresses himself more precisely on this: ‘All that formerly served only to satisfy the whims of the bourgeoisie, all that is frivolous in decorative art, all that is merchandise for the market, the literary subtleties which have really nothing to say, all that has no other use than to sustain parasites must be annihilated…’  Thus, there is no doubt about it: from a communist viewpoint only art which is useful and necessary for the community is true art, from advertising sign to dwelling, from chair to city planning.  Radek globally defines the program of future architecture: ‘Then the proletariat of the Soviet Union will plunge itself into the construction of skyscrapers and new cities will emerge out of the earth, and every artist will come to the realization that something great is being wrought.’

[192]

Before investigating to what extent at this moment, after ten years of existence of the new Russia, this program of community art has been realized, I should, once more, casually refer to the fact that art, where it has truly manifested itself as such, never was accessible to the community.  Therefore the notion ‘community art’ is just as untenable as ‘proletarian art.’  That art which was the property of the masses was, on the contrary, anti-revolutionary at all times.  On the other hand, ‘revolutionary art’ was individualistic (just as it is now, and not least in Russia) and never reached the community, unless diluted or watered down, for instance in the form of applied art, as movies (the community art of the present!), or in a mitigated architectural form.

When architecture reaches the community, or, more precisely: is being pressed upon by the community and is accepted willy-nilly by the latter, the cause may be found in the predominantly practical, material aspect of this ‘community art.’  But, as I remarked earlier, architecture and art have their starting point in totally different, we can rightly say: in totally opposite, postulates and requirements, and therefore they do have but little, or nothing at all, in common.  The house is a utility object, at least: that is what it should be.  The community only benefits for products which are useful and pleasant for the material life of the community.  If these products for daily use are, right now, available to every worker, this is the result of the development of the ‘capitalist’ large industry, which has grown parallel to, and simultaneously with, our modern social relations.  The highly praised products (from automobiles to flat-irons) which Soviet architects are always holding up to us in their periodicals as examples of economical and beautiful design, are products of large industry, the growing ‘anti-social mechanization’ (Ruskin) of ‘capitalism’ and the ‘bourgeoisie.’

Returning now to the attempts at modern architecture, we should certainly be surprised to discover that the extremely leftist architects, therefore the ones who should supply us with community art, are making plans which are based solely on aesthetic speculation, and are therefore totally unfit for practical execution.  See for instance Tatlin’s monument for the Third International, the Wolkenbügel and orator’s platform by Lissitzky, Malevich’s ‘blind architecture,’ etc.  I only make a stab at the enormous plethora of utopian and above al, aesthetic designs, with which the Russian architecture periodicals are teeming, and I prefer to choose here some projects of the three major leaders of the Russian architectural and art movement.

One should wonder whether such projects have any value besides a solely speculative-aesthetic one, and whether these designs can be of use [193] in meeting the housing shortage and the miserable living conditions of the Russian working class.  An American skyscraper develops functionally and economically; on a relatively small surface area the entity grows in steel-frame construction to a height of twenty floors or more, while neither space nor materials are wasted.  But the projects with which the architects of Russian proletarian architecture present us are not only based on pure imagination, but their construction would, if they were fitted for realization, entail enormous waste of space and materials.  The dwelling complex Wolkenbügel (assuming that one could live here without either freezing or melting!), shaped like a 4, stands in a very un-constructive way on three legs in which the elevators are located.  The latter take up as much space as would one or more skyscrapers.  And these ‘architects’ are to teach the West what architecture is! Just as utopian is the design for the monument for the Third International, consisting of two conical spirals, enclosing three spaces.  At the bottom a cubic space for meetings and conferences, in the middle a pyramid shaped space for administrative offices, the secretariat, etc., and finally, way up, a cylindrical space used as an information center.  And these spaces move in different tempos.  Of course it is self-evident that this monstrous ‘baroque’ product does not offer any possibility for constructive realization.  Those who saw the models at the Paris exhibition in 1925, could take note of that fact for themselves.  All the designs of these architects are conceived in such enormous dimensions that, if they actually were to be realized, it would take much more slave labor than was necessary to build Cheop’s pyramid.

On the other hand, there were real, even realizable, designs created as well, beside the utopian ones.  Those which have been executed up to the present do not distinguish themselves at all from what was realized in other countries ten and fifteen years earlier.  Rodchenko’s library for workers is spacious, cool, and quiet, but does not differ at all from the many libraries one can find, for instance, in the provinces of the Netherlands.  But there the lighting will definitely be better! Vesnin’s project for the Temple of Labor differs only in its dimensions, but absolutely not in its spirit, from ‘bourgeois’ industrial architecture.  It is a quasi-frame construction, in which the distribution of the windows is not at all modern.  Probably the many radio aerials are supposed to lend a modern aspect to this product.  The design for a Moscow stadium does not belong to the category of Cheops-fantasies either.  It is very ingenious and exceptionally economical, conceived completely in iron and concrete, and will undoubtedly signify a radical innovation in the field of stadium construction.  Our modern sports require a completely new type of stadium, which our modern techniques and materials will be able to create.

From Pgs. 185-193.

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

  1. Pingback: Современная архитектура: Organ of architectural modernism in the Soviet Union, 1926-1930 | The Charnel-House

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