Mikhail Okhitovich, Moisei Ginzburg, and Disurbanism

Public-House for 100 People (1930)

According to legend, the Soviet sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich wandered into the VKhUTEIN (ВХУТЕИН) studios one day in the summer of 1929.  He left after a short while, having only been noticed by a few students and instructors.  Okhitovich returned the next morning, this time storming directly into the office of the esteemed Constructivist architect and theorist, Moisei Ginzburg.  Okhitovich then promptly locked the door, sequestering the surprised Ginzburg and himself inside the office.  Ginzburg, whose work had hitherto mainly been focused on the problem of the collective dwelling and its place in the modern city, was known to have been an enthusiastic supporter of Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme.  In fact, he had personally translated extracts from Corbusier’s book on city-planning for the inaugural issue of Sovremennaia arkhitektura (Современная архитектура) in 1925.  After an hour and-a-half of heated discussion, however, Ginzburg emerged from his office with Okhitovich a convinced Disurbanist.  The suddenness of his conversion was stunning.  He would later suffer a great deal of criticism for his perceived fickleness in this matter.  But Ginzburg would remain committed to the Disurbanist vision despite pressure from his friends and colleagues (Sabsovich and the Vesnin brothers) to revert to his earlier position.  Ginzburg only relinquished his allegiance to this philosophy of decentralization after Stalin’s government stepped in and put a stop to all this “utopian” speculation, as they called it.

Public-housing for 500 Individuals

Le Corbusier, dismayed at Ginzburg’s sudden new position, wrote to his friend pleading for his return to Urbanism:

Moscow, March 17, 1930

My dear [Moisei] Ginzburg,

I am leaving Moscow this evening. I have been asked to write a report on the recent competition for the Green Town of Moscow. I haven’t done so, not wanting to present a judgment on the work of colleagues. On the other hand, I answered the request that was made to me indirectly, by giving the Committee for a Green Town ‘some commentaries on the development of Moscow and the Green Town.’ My conclusions cannot agree with the enthusiasm that the simple word ‘deurbanization’ seems to raise at the moment.

There is a contradiction in the term itself; this word is a fundamental misunderstanding that has deceived many Western theoreticians and wasted a lot of the time of governing boards of industries — a fundamental misunderstanding that everything opposes and refutes. Society is complex; it is not simple. Whoever tries to bring hurried and tendentious solutions to its problems will [265] meet opposition: it revenges itself, it falls into a state of crisis, and despite changes and regulations, it doesn’t let itself be manipulated: it is life that decides!

Last evening, in the Kremlin, in the office of Mr. Lejawa, the vice-president of the USSR, Mr. Miliutin, one of the commissars of the people, had a thought of Lenin translated for me that, far from supporting the thesis of deurbanization, on the contrary confirms the necessity of urban reform.  Lenin said this: ‘If one wants to save the peasant, one must take industry to the country.  Lenin did not say ‘If one wants to save the town-dweller’; one mustn’t confound, there is all the difference! To take industry to the country, that is to say industrialize the country, that is to create places of human concentration with machines at their disposal.  The machine will make the muzhik think.  Nature is good for the city-dweller whose mind has been galvanized by the city, who puts to work, in the city, the diligent mechanism of his mind.  It is in the group, in shock and cooperation, struggle and mutual help, in activity, that the mind ripens and brings forth fruits.  One should like to think so, but reality is there; it is not the peasant who looks at the trees in bloom and listens to the song of the lark.  It is the town-dweller who does that.  You understand what I mean, if, frankly, we are not fooling ourselves with words.

Men feel the need to get together — always, in all countries and climates.  The group brings them security and defense, the pleasure of company.  But as soon as climates become difficult, grouping encourages industrial activity, production by means of which men live (are dressed, make themselves comfortable).  And intellectual production is the daughter of united men.  Intelligence develops, is sharpened, multiplies its play, acquires its subtlety and innumerable aspects, in the mass of groups.  It is the very fruit of concentration.  Dispersion frightens, makes poorer, and loosens all the ties of physical and spiritual discipline, lacking which men return to their primitive state.

International statistics show us that death rates are lowest in the densest agglomerations; they diminish as populations concentrate.  These are statistical facts; they must be accepted.

History shows the great movements of human thought at the mathematical points of greatest concentration.  Under Pericles, Athens was closely peopled like one of our modern cities, and that is why Socrates and Plato were able to discuss pure ideas there.

Consider more exactly that ten centuries of premachine civilization have made these cities for us which at the moment of mechanical expansion are a frightful and dangerous grimace.  Admit then that the evil is there, in that heritage, and that its salvation is here: to adapt the cities, which will continue to concentrate themselves more and more (statistics and concomitant elements [266] of modern progress: transports: intellectual attractions, industrial organization); to adapt our cities to contemporary. needs, that is to say to rebuild them (as, besides, from their birth they have continually rebuilt themselves).

My dear Ginzburg, modern architecture has precisely the magnificent mission of organizing the life of collectivities. I was the first to proclaim that the modern city should be an immense park, a green city. But to allow this seeming luxury, I increased the density by four and — instead of extending them — shortened distances.

I can nevertheless imagine very well, as a satellite to any urban agglomeration for working and living, a Green Town for resting, eventually organized as with you by turns every fifth day.

I even pointed out in my comments that the compulsory attendance for rest, at least once in three periods, every fifteen days, could be applied like time-clocking for work: and would include the practice of an adequate sport by individual prescription of the doctors of the Green Town. The Green Town becomes the garage where the car is checked (oil, lubrication, verification of organs, revision, maintenance of the car). Besides, the intimacy with nature (radiant springs, winter tempests) incites to meditation, to introspection.

Please then do not see a hostile attitude in my serene and firm affirmation: ‘Mankind tends to urbanize.’

Appreciate this characteristic detail yourself — one of the projects of deurbanization proposes, among other things, to build straw huts in the forest of the Green Town. Bravo, magnificent! as long as they are only for weekends! But do not say that having built huts in straw, you can then tear down Moscow.

Very cordially yours,

L.C.

Ginzburg responded thus:

My dear Le Corbusier,

Our recent conversation about city planning and your letter have compelled me to rethink the entire problem, to recall your objections, the objections you made when you visited me and which you now write about in your letter.

Like all my friends, I value you tremendously not only as a subtle master architect but also as a man with the ability to solve radically and fundamentally the important problems of organization.

For me you are today the greatest and most brilliant representative of the profession that gives my life content, goal, and meaning.

That is why your ideas and solutions in the area of city planning have for us a quite exceptional interest and importance.

You have often told me that you adore nature and would like to live always among greenery…You write that you were the first to advocate the luxury of an enormous park in the city…During our stroll on Tverskaia Street [the present Gorkii Street] you told me that Perret and all the best of the French architects had tried to take housing out of the city.  In other words, you yourself pose the problem of giving man ideal physical surroundings, a problem for which we are trying, in our projects, to find a radical solution.  But you feel obliged to consider such a radical solution possible.  In other words, in spite of your brilliant gifts, you find yourself powerless to overcome the objective contradictions of modern capitalism.

A careful study of your work shows that it is in fact a consistent and stubborn attempt to round off the sharper corners of city planning and smooth and soften all its rough edges.

You are the finest of the surgeons of the modern city, you want to cure it of its ills whatever the cost.  Therefore you raise the entire city on stilts, hoping to solve the insoluble urban traffic problem.  You create wonderful gardens on the roofs of tall buildings, hoping to give people an extra patch of green, you design homes whose occupants enjoy perfect convenience, peace, and comfort.  But you do all this because you want to cure the city, because you are trying to keep it essentially the same as capitalism made it.

We in the USSR are in a more favorable position — we are not tied by the past.

History confronts us with problems that can only have a revolutionary solution [paraphrasing Marx] and, however feeble our resources, we will solve them no matter what.

We are making a diagnosis of the modern city.  We say: yes, it is sick, mortally sick.  But we do not want to cure it.  We prefer to destroy it and intend to begin work on a new form of human settlement that will be free of internal contradictions and might be called socialist.  We know that raising a city on stilts (and you have seen that in this respect we are following your example) does not permit a radical solution of the urban traffic problem.  Driving between columns is almost the same as driving through narrow streets.

We know that the roof garden is an excellent architectural solution, but it cannot solve the sanitation problem, the problem of open spaces.  And similarly, we would like to find a solution for the living unit, but not in the form of a luxurious private home or a European-type hotel.

You yourself talk of international statistics which show that the birth rate is the highest and the death rate the lowest in the most densely populated areas.  But this is only natural.  The thinly populated centers are poor villages and without doctors or culture, without means and without decent food.  You write that culture develops only where people are concentrated in large masses.  But this is perfectly understandable.  It describes the situation in a capitalist society, though not elsewhere.  We in the Soviet Union must make culture available to the entire population, not merely the urban population, whatever the cost.  But to do so we cannot transfer 100 million of our peasants to the big cities, not without destroying our agriculture.  Accordingly, we want all the beneficial consequences of concentration for the development of culture and, at the same time, all the advantages of dispersal and decentralization for spreading culture as uniformly as possible over the population.  And for this it is necessary to create new socialist forms of population settlement based on elimination of all the disparities between town and country.

You are absolutely right in your high evaluation of the collective in human history.  But our disagreement is not along those lines.  The higher requirements of collectivism and industrial concentration demand decentralization and dispersal in space; that is the crux of the matter.

I note with pleasure that you consider it necessary to quote Lenin.  You say that he thought of saving the peasant by introducing industry into the village, but did not think at all of saving the city dweller.

But you are wrong, my dear Le Corbusier.  Not only about Lenin but Engels and Marx thought long and often about both.  Or rather for them these were two aspects of the same problem.

Permit me to quote their own words on the subject:

A resettlement of mankind is necessary, with the elimination of rural neglect and isolation and the unnatural crowding of huge masses into the big cities.

— Lenin

The separation of town and country has condemned the rural population to millennia of backwardness and the urban population to being mere wage slaves, it has destroyed the basis for the spiritual development of the former and the physical development of the latter.

— Engels

The contradiction between town and country is the coarsest expression of the subjection of the personality to the division of labor, which transforms the individual into a limited urban animal, on the one hand, and a limited rural animal, on the other.

— Marx

You refer to Perret’s unsuccessful attempts to take housing out of the city.  But this too is quite understandable.  He severed an isolated member from a complex organism.  That member inevitably wasted away.  We are removing from the city nothing less than the city itself, its entire system of supply and culture.  In other words, we are creating a whole new organism.  This is quite different from what Perret was trying to do.

You write that the peasant does not love flowers and does not hear the song of the skylark.  But of course he doesn’t…when he is exhausted with backbreaking labor.  But we want our peasant to listen to the skylark.  And we know that for this it is only necessary to lighten his labor and bring more culture into his life.  And all this will be possible not by smoothing out the contradictions with which the modern capitalist system is riddled, but by creating new forms of human settlement more worthy of the future.

We are aware that we have yet to find the solution to this very difficult problem.  But we cannot refrain from posing it, we cannot refrain from trying to solve it.  That is our duty, the duty of architects who would like to become the architects of socialism.

Moreover, we hope that in the future, as in the past, we shall be able to learn a great deal from you, and that what we learn will help us to solve our new and difficult problems.

Cordial greetings from myself and my friends,

Yours sincerely,

M. Ginzburg

From Sovremennaia Arkhitektura, 1930.

 

4 thoughts on “Mikhail Okhitovich, Moisei Ginzburg, and Disurbanism

    • If Le Corbusier replied to Ginzburg’s reply, it’s not been found (or simply hasn’t been translated). He talks about the fate of disurbanism in his book The Radiant City, however.

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