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…

Le Corbusier’s angry letter to the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii, upon hearing of the committee’s choice for the proposed Palace of the Soviets:

13 mai 1932

Monsieur Lounatcharsky

Genève

Cher Monsieur,

Vous ne m’en voudrez pas de revenir sur l’entretien que nous avons eu à Genève samedi dernier concernant le Palais des Soviets.

Le Palais des S[oviets] est (dit le programme) le couronnement du Plan quinquennal. Qu’est le Plan quinquennal? La tentative la plus héroïque et véritablement majestueuse dans sa décision d’équiper la société moderne pour lui permettre de vivre harmonieusement. Au bout du Plan quinquennal, une idée. Quelle idée: rendre l’homme heureux. Comment atteindre, au milieu des résidus innombrables d’un premier cycle de civilisation machiniste, un état de pureté capable seul d’ouvrir une ère de bonheur? En n’hésitant pas à se tourner résolument vers l’avenir, en décidant d’être d’aujourd’hui, d’agir et de penser «aujourd’hui».

Ainsi a fait l’URSS. Du moins le croyons-nous, nous qui regardons de loin votre effort. Nous le regardons avec un tel intérêt, avec une telle soif de voir se réaliser quelque part sur la terre, cette aspiration universelle vers un état d’harmonie, qu’une fois en est née, partant, une mystique. Cette mystique: l’URSS. Poètes, artistes, sociologues, les jeunes gens et surtout ceux qui sont restés jeunes parmi ceux qui ont connu la vie, — tous ont admis que quelque part — en URSS — le destin avait permis que la chose fût. L’URSS se fera connaître un jour matériellement — par l’effet du Plan quinquennal. Mais, dès aujourd’hui, l’URSS a allumé sur le monde entier une lueur d’aurore. Des coeurs vrais sont tournés vers nous. Ça, c’est une victoire, — bien plus forte que celle qui suivra sur le plan matériel.

«L’architecte exprime la qualité d’esprit d’une époque.» Donc le Palais des Soviets révélera, dans la splendeur des proportions, la finalité des buts poursuivis chez vous depuis 18. On verra de quoi il s’agit. Le monde verra. Plus que cela, l’humanité trouvera sous les auspices de l’architecture un verbe exact, infrelatable, hors de toute cabale, de toute surenchère, de tout camouflage: le Palais, centre des institutions de l’URSS.

Vous avez fait connaître par le monde que ce palais serait l’expression de la masse anonyme qui vit l’époque présente.

Décision: comme la Société des Nations, le Palais des Soviets sera construit en Renaissance italienne…

La Renaissance italienne — comme les Romains et les Grecs — construisait en pierre. Si grands que fussent les rêves, la pierre fixait les limites de sa mise en oeuvre et de son obéissance aux lois de la pesanteur.

A la Renaissance, il y avait des princes lettrés qui dominaient les masses. Un gouffre séparait la fortune et le peuple. Un gouffre séparait le palais, logis des princes, de la maison du Peuple.

L’URSS, union des républiques soviétiques prolétariennes, dressera un palais qui sera hautain et hors le peuple.

Ne nous illusionnons pas dans la rhétorique: je sais parfaitement que le peuple — et le moujik aussi — trouve admirable les palais de rois et qu’il est de son goût d’avoir des frontons de temple sur le bois de son lit.

Mais la tête pensante des Républiques soviétiques doit-elle conduire ou flatter et cultiver des goûts prouvant la faiblesse humaine?

Nous attendons de l’URSS ce geste qui domine, élève et conduit, parce qu’il exprime le jugement le plus haut et le plus pur. Sinon? Sinon il n’y a plus d’URSS et de doctrine et de mystique et de tout…Il est EFFARANT de devoir être conduit à poser de telles questions.

En un mot pour conclure: il est effarant, angoissant, dramatique, pathétique que la décision actuelle de Moscou puisse commencer son oeuvre de désagrégation de l’opinion, de désenchantement, d’amère ironie. Et que le Plan quinquennal se couronne de ceci: «petitesse des hommes».

Cher Monsieur, dans mes propos, nulle amertume de candidat évincé. Non. Mais j’aime trop l’architecture et trop laVérité pour désespérer déjà. Je voudrais aller parler à Moscou, expliquer, exprimer. Je voudrais aller dire ceci: l’effort innombrable, l’immense labeur anonyme ou signé de ces cent années de sciences, a créé sur le monde la grande collaboration. Il n’est un appoint technique: béton armé, fer, verre, chauffage, ventilation, acoustique, statique, dynamisme, il n’est un outil: machines de toutes natures — qui ne prouvent la grande collaboration.

L’architecture — en l’occurrence l’architecte — a pour mission de mettre en ordre cette armée de collaboration et par la vertu de la puissance créatrice de composition, par la puissance d’une intention élevée, elle peut exprimer le visage unique et magnifique de cette humanité créative. Ce visage serait-il un masque? Jamais, non jamais.

Me permettez-vous de parler objectivement? J’aimerais aller à Moscou.

Le 29 de ce mois, s’ouvre à Barcelone la session du Comité inter[nation]al pour la préparation du Congrès international d’Architecture qui se tiendra à Moscou en septembre.

Mon voyage d’Alger peut être remis (je viens de l’apprendre) à mai.

Je suis attendu à Rome pour deux conférences présidées par Mussolini et pour une entrevue avec lui. But: les Italiens me demandent d’aller arracher le Duce à l’erreur dans laquelle il s’enfonce en ordonnant de construire l’Italie en style Romain (Vous voyez combien le mal est partout.)

S’il vous était possible de préparer mon voyage à Moscou? Je vais même être indiscret: ne m’avez-vous pas dit que vous retourniez sous peu à Moscou? Alors ceci: s’il m’était possible de vous accompagner dans ce voyage, je pourrais vous entretenir de tout ce qui bouillonne en moi, relativement aux villes et aux maisons.

A Moscou, je pourrais, en dehors du Palais parler en public de la Ville Radieuse et expliquer où le progrès et une vue large nous ont conduits et exposer à votre pays qui est le seul ayant les institutions permettant la réalisation des programmes contemporains, le détail technique de la question:

la réforme architecturale

la journée solaire de 24 heures et son programme

les nouvelles techniques de la respiration exacte à l’intérieur des bâtiments (avec les résultats des récents essais du laboratoire de St-Gobain) (Problème décisif capital pour l’URSS)

les problèmes de l’économie du sol dans l’économie domestique

l’insonorisation des logis

l’acoustique

Là sont des vérités, des réalités, des choses à longue trajectoire qui sont dans l’esprit du Plan quinquennal — beaucoup plus que certaines méthodes restrictives, sans imagination et malthusiennes, auxquelles on a fait grand accueil en URSS.

Et si l’on veut, je pourrais parler de proportion, de beauté, de ces choses qui sont les impératifs de ma vie, car il n’y a pas de bonheur possible, sans l’esprit de qualité.

A Buenos Aires en 1929, j’ai fait dix conférences (un cycle) en quinze jours. Je veux bien le faire à Moscou.

Cher Monsieur, voici vingt ans que je vis comprimé. Paris m’a été jusqu’ici indispensable car Paris est le champ clos de la qualité. La vie sévère que j’y mène a porté des fruits. Ignorant en tout, je le sais, je connais toutefois beaucoup de choses de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme.

J’ai à Moscou des amis de coeur, des collègues dans lesquels j’ai grand espoir. J’ai à Moscou des ennemis, mais, je crois, beaucoup d’amis.

Je vous dirai encore ceci: à Moscou j’ai toujours défendu M. Joltowsky qui est un vrai architecte, sensible et plein de talent. C’est cet arrêt inattendu sur une forme historique de l’architecture qui a créé nos divergences. Mais je parlerais avec lui d’architecture, infiniment mieux qu’avec la plupart de mes collègues occidentaux qui se dénomment «architectes modernes».

Je termine : entièrement désintéressé, passionné d’architecture, à l’âge de maturité où un homme doit donner, j’offre ma collaboration en toute loyauté et sans espoirs de gains.

Voilà.

Tout cela était long à dire. Voulez-vous me pardonner d’avoir retenu si longtemps votre attention.

V[otre] bien dévoué

— Le Corbusier

I do not know French.  But here is an English translation of the letter, provided courtesy of my father, Michael Wolfe, and his friend, Michael Vogel:

May 13th, 1932

Mr. Lunacharskii

Geneva

Dear sir,

You will excuse me for returning to the discussion we had in Geneva last Saturday concerning the Palace of the Soviets.

The Palace of the S[oviets] (hereafter referred to as the program) is the crowning achievement of the five-year Plan.  What is the five-year Plan? The most historic and undeniably majestic attempt in its decision to equip modern society in order to enable it to live harmoniously.  At the end of the five-year Plan, an idea.  What idea? To make mankind happy.  How, amid the innumerable residues of the initial cycle of machinistic civilization, to achieve a state of purity that alone is capable of ushering in an era of happiness? By not hesitating to turn resolutely toward the future, by deciding to be contemporary, to act and think “today.”

This is what the USSR has done.  At least this is what we believe, we who observe your effort from afar.  We observe it with such an interest, with such a thirst to see achieved, somewhere on Earth, this universal aspiration for a state of harmony, from which is consequently born a mystique.  This mystique — the USSR.  Poets, artists, sociologists, young people, and above all, those who have remained young among those who have experienced life — all have admitted that somewhere — in the USSR — destiny has allowed the thing to be.  One day, the USSR will make a name for itself materially — through the effect of the five-year Plan.  Yet the USSR has already illuminated the entire world with a glimmer of dawn, of a rising aurora.  The hearts that are true have turned toward us.  That in itself is a victory, one that is far greater than the one that will follow in material terms.

“The architect expresses the spiritual quality of an era.”  Thus, in the splendor of its proportions, the Palace of the Soviets will reveal the finality of the goals pursued in your country since 1918.  We will see what this is all about.  The world shall see.  But even further, humanity will find under the auspices of architecture a precise, uncorruptible verb, devoid of cabalistic machination [cabale], of exaggeration, of camouflage: the Palace, center of the institutions of the USSR.

You have made known throughout the world that this palace is to be the expression of the anonymous mass that is witnessing current events today.  Decision: like the headquarters of the League of Nations, the Palace of the Soviets will be built in the Italian Renaissance style…

The Italian Renaissance — like the Romans and the Greeks — built with stone.  However grandiose the dreams, stone set the limits for its realization, in compliance with the laws of gravity.

During the Renaissance, there were literate princes who dominated the masses.  There was a chasm separating the wealth from the people.  A gulf separated the palace, the dwelling-place of princes, from the house of the people.

The USSR, a union of proletarian soviet republics, shall erect a palace that will be haughty and separate from the people.

Let us not be blinded by rhetoric: I know perfectly well that the people — as well as the muzhik — admire regal palaces, and that it is their taste to have the headboards of their beds engraved with temple façades.

Should the leadership of the Soviet Republics, vehiculate or flatter and cultivate tastes that attest to human frailty?

From the USSR, we expect the type of sweeping gesture that dominates, elevates, and conveys, for such a gesture is a reflection of the highest and purest discernment.  If not? Well then there is no longer such a thing as the USSR, or its doctrine, or its mystique, or anything else…the mere notion of such a thing is INCONCEIVABLE.

In other words — inconceivable, tormenting, dramatic, and indeed saddening [pathetique] that with the actual decision Moscow is now making, it may commence its work of disaggregating opinion, disenchantment, bitter irony.  And for the five-ear Plan to be thus crowned: only by “the pettiness of men.”

Dear sir, my opinions do not reflect the bitterness of a defeated candidate.  No.  But I love architecture and the truth too much to already have lost all hope.  I would like to go to Moscow to talk, to explain things, and to express all this.  I would like to go to say this: The immeasureable effort, the immense labor of so many persons — some known, some nameless — in the sciences these past hundred years has created all over the world the great collaboration.  There is no method of construction — using reinforced concrete, iron, glass, heating systems, ventilation systems, acoustics, or statics and dynamic elements; there’s no tool or any sort of machine that doesn’t reflect the existence of this great collaboration.

Architecture — and in this case the architect — must strive to discipline this army of collaborators, and by virtue of the creative power assemble all these elements.  By the power of its lofty aims, it can express the unique and magnificent face of all mankind’s creativity.  Is this face a mask? Never.  No, never.

How can I put it to you any more directly? I would like to go to Moscow.

On the 29th of this month, in Barcelona, there begins a meeting of the of international committee responsible for planning the upcoming International Congress of Modern Architects [CIAM] that will be held in Moscow in September.

My trip from Algiers can be put off (as I’ve come to learn) until May.

I am expected in Rome for two conferences presided over by Mussolini, and for a meeting with him.  Its aim: the Italians are asking me to save il Duce from the blunder into which he has driven himself by ordering the building of Italy in the Roman style.  (You see how much the evil is everywhere).

Is it still possible for you to set up my trip to Moscow? I’m even going to be indiscreet: didn’t you just tell me that you would be returning to Moscow soon? Consider this: if I could accompany you on this trip I would explain to you everything that is broiling inside me, as concerns towns and houses.

In Moscow, I could — outside the Palace — publicly speak of the Radiant City, and explain where progress and the grand view have led us and shown to your country, which is the only one possessing the institutions that permit the realization of modernist programs.  The technical detail of the question concerning:

architectural reform

the 24-hour solar day and its program

the new techniques of exact respiration inside buildings (with the recent laboratory experiments at St.-Gobain) (the most pressing problem facing the USSR)

 the problems which agriculture poses for the domestic economy

the soundproofing of homes

acoustics

Here are the truths, realities, the long-range items that are informed by the spirit of the five-year Plan — much more than certain restrictive methods, Malthusian and lacking imagination, which have been so warmly embraced in the USSR.

And if anyone wants, I could speak of proportion, of beauty, those things that are the driving forces of my life, because happiness is not possible without a sense of quality.

In Buenos Aires in 1929, I presented at ten conferences (one after the other) in fifteen days.  I really want to do the same in Moscow.

Dear sir, I’ve lived a confined life these last twenty years.  Until now, I have not been able do without Paris, because Paris is the only place that holds this quality.  The austere life I’ve lived has borne its fruits.  Though I can admit ignorance to everything else, I have always known a great deal about architecture and urbanism.

I have some close friends in Moscow, colleagues for whom I have great hope.  I have enemies in Moscow, but I believe also many friends.

I will tell you this again: in Moscow I have always stood up for M. Zholtovskii, who is a true architect, sensitive and quite talented.  It is this unexpected stopover in an historical form of architecture that has caused us to part ways.  But I would much rather talk with him about architecture than with the majority of my Western colleagues who call themselves “modern architects.”

Let me finish: entirely disinterested and passionate about architecture, at an age in adult life when a man must give, I offer you my assistance with completely loyalty and no hope of gain.  There you have it.

It took a long time to say all this.  Please pardon me for taking so much of your time and attention.

Yours truly,

Le Corbusier

The German architect Hans Schmidt also wrote of the modernists’ dismay at the result of the Palace of the Soviets competition, in an article published in 1932:

The outcome of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets has filled all radical architects in the West with indignation and disbelief.  We have no intention of using this occasion to mollify their outrage; on the contrary, it is incumbent upon us to inform the reader in the same breath that the decision was neither accidental nor an isolated occurrence.  In fact, a limited competition among ten Soviet architects has been held and since and has yielded similar results.  At the same time, however, we do consider it our duty to give our Western colleagues a more objective picture of the architectural situation in the Soviet Union and to put into perspective those matters that have been misunderstood and distorted by overexposure and sensation-seeking publicity.  In our case, the attempt to be objective reflects the desire to look at modern architecture not simply as a completed phenomenon, but as a process intimately connected to all the social, political, and technical manifestations of a whole culture.

Let us first attempt briefly to trace developments as far as the West is concerned.  The present situation of modern architecture in the West has come about as the result of a long struggle, with many interacting and mutually interdependent movements often appearing to be countermanding each other, as for example the Arts and Crafts  Movement in England, the Dutch Rationalist Movement (Berlage), the Art Nouveau Movement, the Fin de Siècle Movement, etc.  The bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, which after the French Revolution had at first decided to take over the styles bequeathed by feudalism, later attempted by movements such as those mentioned to evolve their own cultural forms in architecture as well as in other fields of artistic endeavor.  It is significant to note that all these early attempts had one thing in common: they all tried to find their outlets within the context of high capitalism.  As a result of this we had a revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the negation of the metropolis, the embracing of social ideas, i.e., garden cities for the workers, etc.  Under the influence of technical developments in the last phase of capitalism, and as a result of rationalization and standardization, the real program of modern architecture eventually came into existence, demanding absolute unity between art form and technical form, both firmly rooted in developed capitalist technology.  Even here, [219] social ideas crept in, such as the notion that prosperity for all could be solved simply be harnessing capitalism to modern technology.  The realization that this was not necessarily the case had as its consequence the eventual decision by the left wing of modern architecture to embrace the idea of Socialism.

What then, is the situation in the Soviet Union? The first thing to be established is the fact that there was hardly any participation on the part of tsarist Russia in any of the movements preceding modern architecture.  In contrast to the West, the old Russia had neither a superior working class nor a prosperous middle class.  An unbridgeable chasm existed between the living standard of the workers and that of the merchants and officials.  Unlike their Western colleagues, the Russian architects had no opportunity to acquire new skills by dealing with the problem of the working class dwelling or the middle class house.  The victory of the October Revolution brought to the forefront a number of young architects who identified with the aims of the Revolution.  Taking up the cudgel in the fight with the older generation of architects, they apparently were bringing about the triumph of modern architecture.  At a time when relatively very little construction could actually be realized in the Soviet Union, this young and technically inexperienced generation devoted all its energies to utopian projects, in many cases outstripping the real situation of revolutionary development by decades.  What was missing, however, was a realistic base for this evolution, both in the efforts of the architects and in their effects on the public.  The true situation was revealed only after the initiation of the Five-Year Plan, which represented a monumental effort, and which ushered in a period of complete readjustment and maximum exertion.  The Five-Year Plan meant that the country suddenly had to face concrete tasks rather than just fancy dreams.  In the Soviet Union of today elaborate utopias have consequently lost much of their attraction.  First say goes to the well-trained architect and the experienced technician.  In the meantime, a great number of old architects have offered their services to the Soviets.  It is clear that these people have filled the vacuum created by modern architecture, which was characterized by a lack of both technical and cultural preparation.  Modern architecture succumbed.

This defeat was rendered even more poignant in a situation which manifested itself by revealing an important difference between the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other.  In the West, the principles of free competition apply up to a certain point even in the field of the arts.  In Soviet Russia, however, all ideas are expected to [220] be subordinate to and integrated into the mainstream of the Revolution.  As things stand now, modern architecture has gambled away its chance, at least for the time being.  Even the broad masses and youth have joined the ranks of the general opposition.  What is even worse, though, is the fact that the modern movement in architecture has presently run into a closed ideological front ranged against it.

On ideological grounds, the following objections have been raised in the Soviet Union against modern architecture:

  1. The ideas of modern architecture, known in the West under the labels of ‘constructivism,’ ‘functionalism,’ and ‘mechanism,’ are an outgrowth of contemporary capitalism and its rationalized and standardized technology.
  2. Modern architecture’s renunciation of monumentality and symbolic expression, its disavowal of absolute beauty, and its inability to carry out the artistic and ideological mission of architecture, are an expression of the decline of bourgeois culture.
  3. The idealistic-utopian direction modern architecture (Le Corbusier), together with the ideas of the ‘left utopians’ in politics, represent an attempt to bypass the natural stages leading toward Socialism, and thus are counter-revolutionary in the political sense.
  4. It is not the goal of Socialism to destroy the cultural values of the past; quite to the contrary.  Socialism, in constrast to disintegrating contemporary capitalism, tries to preserve these values and give them continuity.

We must leave it to thinkers more thoroughly trained in Marxism to test the correctness of these theses.  Unfortunately, as far as the history of architecture is concerned, and other intellectual areas as well, genuine historical-materialistic investigations are still lacking.  Even though our historians are diligently and devotedly exerting themselves to describe each and every last work of art, they never really bother too much to find out why a particular work of art was created at a specific time and no other.

In the absence of a better answer it is preferable to stick to the program that modern architecture has posed for itself.  There is no question that the original point of departure of its program is based on the conditions created by modern capitalism.  It may even be possible to characterize these ideas as symptoms of the decline of capitalism, but only in the sense that these ideas have already transcended the limits set by capitalism — in [221] which case modern architecture has to content itself with becoming just another new style in a larger fashion market, a style with which most people are already slightly bored anyway.  To a large extent the West already has the technical know-how and the cultural background that modern architecture must take for granted before attempting to transform its whole relationship to architecture in general.  The Soviet Union has neither the first nor the second, for even the most extraordinary efforts in the area of industrialization and the cultural revolution have so far been unable to do much more than lay the foundations.  Owing to these circumstances, the setback suffered by modern architecture in the Soviet Union is regrettable, but understandable; this of course proves nothing as far as the righteousness of our challenge is concerned.  It should therefore surprise no one when the same young architects who for years and ad nauseam have aped the manner of Le Corbusier by making beautiful renderings of glass façades and roof gardens on Watman paper, now draw, under the direction of the old architect-masters, façades of classical beauty on the same Watman paper.  Was it really all in vain that modern architecture proclaimed — against the violent protestations of all kinds of halfwits — that as far as goals are concerned it can never be a question of style but must be a question of a fundamentally new conception of the problems of architecture as such? Evidently, the Russian architect, faced by an extremely difficult and extensive cultural task, will have to be given some time to regain his senses.

[From Die Neue Stadt, Frankfurt/M. 1932, Nos. VI-VII, pgs. 146-148]

More extracts from Erich Mendelsohn’s diary, expressing an apocalyptic tone:

Berlin, February 7th, 1933

…From morning until evening we sit in the office, thinking and working, only to be forced to see how everything is bogged down and coming to a standstill, crippled by uncertainty and demagoguery…

We are fighting to get a prize for obtaining savings on the Columbus House, because in it lies the only possibility of coming through to the spring.  What lies beyond cannot be foretold.  For as long as the question of raising money is not dealt with in relation to unemployment, the miracle remains unperformed and the whole nationalist world remains a circus management.

Gropius is back from Leningrad, horrified and shaken by what he has experienced.  The great idea has been ground down by bureaucracy, [126] the great surge of energy has been directed along a false trail.  Bolshevik is cause and victim of the technical crisis.  Bolshevism is the fulfiller and destroyer of socialism, the utopia of the doctrine of salvation on earth, and humanity is nothing but an animalistic creature.

Berlin, February 11th, 1933

The first consequence of the new orthodoxy coming into the open is in my not being invited to take part in the competition for the new Reichsbank building.  Thirty German architects, and I am not one of them.

I expected as much, but the task would have stimulated me and would have brought me somewhat more into equilibrium.

Meanwhile, yesterday, we heard Hitler outline his program…

Finally, the disintegration of modernism’s social and political mission, from Marcel Breuer’s address “Where do We Stand?” (1934):

The ability to face a problem objectively brings us to the so-called ‘revolutionary’ side of the Modern Movement. I have considerable hesitation in using the word at all, since it has recently been annexed by various political parties, and in some countries it is actually inculcated into school children as an elementary civic virtue. In fact, revolution is now almost becoming a permanent institution. I believe that what was originally revolutionary in the Movement was simply the unheard of principle of putting its own objective views into practice. Our revolutionary attitude was neither self-complacency nor propagandist bravura but the inward and — as far as possible — outward echo of the independence of our work. Although to be revolutionary has received the sanction of respectability, this causes us considerable qualms: the word inevitably has a political flavour.

Politics, of course, play an immensely important part in architecture, as in life, but it is a mistake to identify that part with any one of its different functions. To come down from the general to the particular:

The technical and economic potentiality of architecture is independent of the political views of its exponents. It follows that the aesthetic potentiality of architecture is also independent of their political views; and likewise the intensity with which particular [181] architects may apply themselves to the solution of particular functional problems.

Politics and architecture overlap, first, in the nature the problems presented to the latter; and, secondly, the means that are available for their solutions. But this connection is by no means a definite one. For instance, how does it help us to know that Stalin and me promoters of the Palace of the Soviets competition are communists? Their arguments are very much the as those of any primitive-minded capitalistic, or democratic, or Fascist, or merely conservative motor-car manufacturer with a hankering for the cruder forms of embolism. In spite of life and thought, no one can deny that each of these spheres has a highly important on-political side to it, and that that side determines its nature. The architect, as such, is content to confine himself to analysing and solving the various questions of architecture and town-planning which arise from their several psychophysical, coordinating, and technical-economic aspects. And I believe that work of this kind leads to material advances which have nothing to do with politics.

To quote the brilliant Paperny: “The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was eventually erected in 1883 [after years of backbreaking manual labor carried out by peasants — RW] — by another architect, Konstantin Ton, and on another site, Prechistenskaia Embankment, in another style that could be roughly defined as pseudo-Russian revival. It replaced St. Alexius Monastery, which was dismantled and moved to another location — the move that angered some believers who predicted that the site was now doomed. The reaction of most art critics to Ton’s creation was negative: ‘Architects lacking inspiration and the understanding of the meaning of church building are always substituting spiritual elements with decorative ones…A typical example of such costly absurdity is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that looks like a huge samovar around which the whole patriarchal Moscow has gathered cheerfully.’

The idea of blowing up the ‘huge samovar‘ was first introduced in 1924 by a member of the rationalist movement Balikhin. In a procedure, which could be described as grabbing the flag from the dead enemy and running with it, Stalinism, having demolished both rationalism and constructivism, ran with the idea of demolishing the cathedral [in 1931]. Numerous attempts to blow it up failed, the brickwork was exceptionally strong. Eventually, it was cut into pieces and removed.”

The area of the demolished cathedral then became the site on which the proposed Palace of the Soviets was to be built.

A scene depicting the monstrosity of the eventually-decided-upon competition entry — the hideous collaborative efforts of the architects Boris Iofan, Ivan Fomin, and Vladimir Shchuko — a Cyclopean wedding-cake of a building, taken from the film Новая Москва/The New Moscow (1938), a film that premiered but was never subsequently released to the masses, ostensibly from its nightmarish neoclassical vision of the future

A film preview for the 1933 CIAM convention, to discuss “The Functional City,” originally planned to have been held in Moscow in 1932

Some recommended links pertaining to the Palace of the Soviets, the Soviet avant-garde, & etc.:

“A Pod of One’s — Own Architecture or Revolution: the Congres International d’Architecture Moderne, 1928-33”

“Eisenstein, the Glass House and the Spherical Book”

“A Sartorial Moment”

9 thoughts on “The Past that Wasn’t: International Modernism and the Palace of the Soviets

  1. I enjoyed reading that post.

    It’s frustrating that your research doesn’t have an outlet to be shared by socialists and historians.

    Is there a socialist architects movement today?

    • I’m glad you liked the post. It’s a fascinating topic, and I intend to expand upon this entry considerably over the next day or so. More pictures are also on the way.

      There is no truly socialist architectural movement today. This can be seen in two different lights — one positive, the other negative.

      On the one hand, I believe that there is no socialist architectural movement largely because we don’t inhabit a revolutionary moment. There are significant events taking place throughout the Arab world and in some of the poorer parts of Europe. Even the major economic powers of the world are reeling from crisis. The world is experiencing more upheaval now than it has felt in decades. But all-out social revolution is not imminent. I understand, as you do, that revolutionary transformation is a process, but history requires certain spasms or events to trigger such processes and set them concretely in motion.

      So from this perspective, it’s perfectly understandable why there should be no socialist architectural movement — any such proposals or designs would be hopelessly utopian in our present situation. Architecture can have a social mission, and modernist architecture was certainly committed to such ends in its time. But as Le Corbusier and others realized, an emancipatory architecture can only take place at the level of a generalized process of global social planning. Only then could such ambitious schemes be undertaken and implemented. And so for this to take place, a social revolution must have already laid the groundwork for revolutionary architecture and urban-planning.

      On the other hand, however, this all can be seen in a tragic light. The failure of the Russian Revolution to spread to Central and Western Europe left most of the world outside the pale of truly transformative social change. Still, the ideology of modernist architecture sought initially to rationalize building practices across borders, to create a universal language of spatial organization. The modernists wanted to lay to rest the arbitrary, capricious, and anachronistic methods of traditional construction throughout the world. Furthermore, the European and Russian avant-gardes were deeply concerned with the shortage of workers’ housing, the continued antithesis between town and country, and the general anarchy of design in a world where the architect was forced to seek out private, individual contracts, and satisfy their patrons’ every whim and fancy.

      It was for precisely this reason, I argue, that European modernists pinned their hopes so strongly on the socialist experiment taking place in Russia. Even though modernism — in both Russia and abroad — practically worshipped technology, with its cult of the machine, the members of the avant-garde saw in the Soviet Union the opportunity to realize their visions on an unprecedented scale. Occupying approximately a sixth of the terrestrial globe, the Soviet Union represented to them a sort of spatial infinity, where they could plan not only individual structures or neighborhoods, nor even just individual cities. Whole regions could be moulded through the efforts of unified, centralized planning. Thus, with the disappointment of the League of Nations’ choice opting for a neo-Renaissance design for its headquarters, and the global crisis of capitalism in the midst of the Great Depression, the European avant-garde flocked to Russia in staggering numbers. From Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland, and even the United States, architects of the “International” style were eager to participate in the building of a new society.

      To name just a few: Le Corbusier, André Lurçat, Victor Bourgeois, Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, Bruno Taut, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Erich Mauthner, Arthur Korn, Hans Schmidt, Mart Stam, Cornelis van Eesteren — joining the dozens of capable modernist architects already working in the Soviet Union (Moisei Ginzburg, the three Vesnin brothers, Nikolai Ladovskii, El Lissitzky, Konstantin Mel’nikov, Il’ia Golosov, Nikolai Krasil’nikov, Georgyi Krutikov, Ivan Leonidov, etc., etc.)

      And this is why the Stalinist betrayal dealt modernism such a crushing blow. With the decision for a grotesque neoclassical style for the Palace of the Soviets, the entire “mystique of the USSR” (as Le Corbusier called it) faded swiftly. Those who had dared to dream of a better future now found themselves hopelessly disillusioned. I maintain that this is where the social mission of modernism died its final, miserable death, and gave way to a more or less complete opportunism. Le Corbusier flirted with fascism in Vichy during the war before collaborating on the UN Building afterwards. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who in the 1920s had designed the official Monument to the communist heroes Karl Liebneckt and Rosa Luxemburg, was now commissioned to design the ultimate symbol of swanky corporate capitalism, the Seagram Building, in 1958. For architectural modernism, the form remained — but its substance had forever vanished. Thus, this accounts for the present lack of an international socialist movement in architecture as well.

    • No problem, thank you for visiting the site. I am always interested in finding more people to talk about the various things I’m interested in. I’ll definitely check out your blog, too!

  2. Thank you for the post.

    In my comment to you at my blog, I meant to say, the nature of a mass movement, can change quickly. The Bolsheviks played little or any role at all, in the February 1917 Revolution, where Kerensky was installed after czarism. By the end of the year, a new Russia was born.

    I grew up in the 1950-60s. This period will be more explosive than the days of the Vietnam War.

    Thersites said you are part of the “New Left.” He wishes that was true.

  3. The problem with most Rightists is that they don’t have the first clue about the various species of leftism. It’s clear enough to them that you’re a Trotskyist of some sort, though that probably means very little to them in terms of understanding. I don’t know how they peg me. They know I like Trotsky’s work and know it fairly well (probably not as thoroughly as you, though), and I would have thought it was clear when I declared that the New Left was “long dead” and a “miserable failure” that I can’t really be associated with it. I don’t know where you find the patience to talk with idiot rightists like Thersites. Pagan actually seems like he can engage in intelligent conversation when he wants to. Honestly I’m fairly sure that Thersites/FJ/speedy/etc.’s constant activity and strings of posting has driven away most of the leftist audience your blog once had. Not even Sonia participates as much anymore.

  4. Pingback: Updates « The Charnel-House

  5. Pingback: Period photographs of Soviet avant-garde built exteriors, 1926-1934 | The Charnel-House

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