The Past that Wasn’t: International Modernism and the Palace of the Soviets

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Much more later, but for now:

First, an excerpt from El Lissitzky’s “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture” (1925):

Europe is adopting American principles, developing them in a new way. From this point of view it is interesting that of the huge number of entries submitted to the competition for a skyscraper design, organized by the Chicago Tribune, only a few European architects, for example, the Dane Lundberg-Folm, and the Germans Gropius, May, and Bruno Taut, attempted a form suited to American construction. America herself had covered her steel skeleton with endless metres of Gothic and rosette-like ornaments.

Europe is ahead of America in one respect, namely in dealing with the housing problem, and more particularly with workers’ housing. In this field Holland has surpassed other countries. Model complexes can be seen in Rotterdam; very modest, almost austere as seen from the street, open along their whole frontage to the courtyard at the back, which is thus transformed into an enclosed space with little playgrounds for the children and gardens for relaxation. Europe adopts the organized, practical ideas of America, but clarifies and defines them. This process must be applied not only to exterior architecture, but also to an even greater extent to interior design.

The truth is that here Europe makes it her aim to meet the demands of economy, strict utility and hygiene. Architects are convinced that through the new design and planning of the house they are actively participating in the organizing of a new consciousness.

We had occasion to meet a number of great masters of the new architecture in Europe and were convinced of the difficulty of their position. They are surrounded by a chauvinistic, reactionary, individualistic society, to whom these men, with their international mental horizon, their revolutionary activity and their collective thinking, are alien and hostile. That is why they all follow the trend of events in our country so attentively and all believe that the future belongs not to the USA but to the USSR. [my emphasis — RW]

 [From Krasnaya Niva, No. 49, 1925]

Extracts from Erich Mendelsohn’s private diary:

Charlottenburg, July 11th, 1926


Still no final decision from Leningrad. My telegram in reply to the renewed Russian invitation is so far unanswered. In this I see neither a good nor a bad omen, but am simply remaining completely indifferent to the way things are developing, which is hard enough to control from close to and quite impossible at a distance.

The endless space of Russia makes dream and aspiration — idea and action — impenetrable in the negative sense, infinite in the positive. [my emphasis — RW]

Even having to reckon with the reality of the few months when building can be done in Leningrad upsets numerical calculations and shifts their emphasis. The constants remain, but the indices explode, because the Russians are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their inner value, and their necessary correlation.

Meanwhile speculation continues about our possible handling of the whole project development. My studio is today a complete forum for statical computations, not, as it is generally, a trapeze of intuition or a firm springboard of organized planning.


Herrlingen, July 14th, 1927

O Russia, the holy!

Courage again.

Just now, two hours ago, I had given it up — on account of history, of lack of modern Russian examples.

I write through the eye of an architect, purely visually.

From buildings I deduce history, transition, revolution, synthesis…Synthesis: Russia and America — the future of Utopia! I am compensating for a lack of modern Russian examples by the new international, collective, parallel architectural views.

The contrast between the thirst for power of the unconsolidated élite and the nullity of the serfs and the proletariat and their yearning for salvation, between Eastern resignation and Western activity, reveals the soil of Russia as ready for revolution.

I hope to put onto paper a work of my own on these lines, a creative vision. A credo of our age, of the future, as a product of mechanization and divine mystery… Continue reading