“The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde,” by Ross Wolfe (Section 2)

Skyscraper from Nikolai Krasil'nikov's "City of the Future"


[Continued from here]

It is therefore little wonder that the tenor of the debates over Soviet urbanism should have been cast in such stark terms.  The fate of the entire avant-garde, if not society itself, hung in the balance.  Whichever principles won out might ultimately determine the entire course of future building for the USSR, and perhaps the world (pending the outcome of the seemingly terminal crisis in the West).  Modernist architects, who had up to that point been mainly concerned with the design of individual structures, and only here and there touched on the greater problem of urbanism, now scrambled to articulate their theoretical stances on the issue of “socialist settlement.”  As a number of rival positions emerged, they came into heated conflict with one another.  Whole books were written and articles published in popular Soviet journals defending one theory and attacking all that opposed it.  And so the disputes did not merely take on the character of modernism combating its old traditionalist rival, but that of a radically fractured unity of the modernist movement itself.  The fresh lines of division being carved within the architectural avant-garde did not owe so much to national peculiarities as it did to the radicality of the question now being posed before it: that of the fundamental restructuring of human habitation.  For the issues at hand were not simply the reorganization of already-existing cities, but also the construction of entirely new settlements from the ground up.  The intransigent tone that the debates subsequently assumed is thus more a testament to the urgency and sincerity of the modernist theories of the city being put forth than it is to some sort of arbitrary disagreement over matters of trivial importance.

This point is especially important to stress, moreover, in light of some interpretations that have recently dismissed these crucial differences in the avant-garde’s architectural visions of utopia as a quantité négligible.  Not long ago, the argument was advanced that these theoretical disputes amounted to little more than quibbling pettiness on the part of the members of the avant-garde.  According to this version of events, the modernists merely dressed up their personal animosities, jealousies, and professional rivalries in high-sounding rhetoric and thereby ruined any chance for productive collaboration with one another.  Moreover, it asserts that it was this very disunity that led to the modernists’ eventual defeat at the hands of the Stalinists.  Weakened by the years of petty bickering, this argument maintains, the two main groups representing the architectural avant-garde (OSA and ASNOVA) were easily undercut by the fledgling, proto-Stalinist organization VOPRA, working in cahoots with the party leadership.[1]

Of course, this account almost completely overlooks the international dimension of the debates, choosing instead to narrowly focus on the faculty politics taking place within the walls of the VKhUTEMAS school of design.  While this was doubtless an important stage of the debate, it can scarcely be considered the decisive grounds on which the war over Soviet architecture was waged.  It is symptomatic that such an interpretation would leap suddenly from the middle part of the 1920s to the final defeat of the architectural avant-garde in the 1937, ignoring practically everything that transpired in between.  As a result, it is able to treat the problem as a merely internal affair, concerning only Soviet architects.  This then allows the importance of the tensions within the VKhUTEMAS leadership throughout the early- to mid-1920s to be grossly overstated.[2]  Even if the field of inquiry is thus limited, however, the polemics can by no means be reduced to mere cynicism.  Such bitterness and resentment could just as easily be an outcome of (rather than a ground for) heated argumentation.

But this notion — that the real differences within the modernists’ debates over Soviet architecture and urbanism were largely exaggerated — is swiftly dispelled once one takes note of the extra-architectural interest surrounding their potential results.  For architects were hardly the only ones worried about the form that new Soviet settlements would take.  The ideological influence of architecture on society was not lost on non-architects within the Soviet hierarchy.  Many thinkers, scattered across a wide range of vocations, were therefore drawn into the discourse on socialist city planning. Quite a few economists participated in the discussion.  Besides Leonid Sabsovich, a writer for the state journal Planned Economy and a major figure in the debates, economists like Stanislav Strumilin (one of Planned Economy’s editors) and Leonid Puzis weighed in on the material aspects of the various schemas of town planning.  Professional sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich joined OSA in 1928, and went on to become one of its major spokesmen.  The celebrated journalist and author Vladimir Giliarovskii reported on some considerations of nervo-psychological health in the socialist city.[3]  Even more telling of the perceived centrality of the problem of Soviet urbanism to the five-year plan is the number of high-ranking party members and government officials who wrote on the matter.  The Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii, Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaia, the old guard Bolshevik Grigorii Zinoviev, and the doctor and Commissar of Health Nikolai Semashko all devoted lengthy articles to the consideration of different proposed solutions to the issue of urban planning.  So clearly, the detailed differences between the various Soviet urban projects concerned more than solely the architects.

Another historiographical point that must be made is that what appears to have been “Stalinist” from the outset could not have been recognized as such at the time.  The emergent features of what came to be known as Stalinism — its bureaucratic deformities, thuggery, and cultural philistinism — had not yet fully crystallized by the early 1930s.  While it is true that these qualities may have been prefigured to some extent by the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions after the war, the USSR’s consequent isolation, and the cascading effects of the political involutions that followed — none of this could be seen as yet.  The betrayed commitment to international revolution, the disastrous (if inevitable) program of “Socialism in One Country,” did not bear their fruits until much later.  The residual hope remaining from the original promise of the revolution echoed into the next two decades, before the brutal realities of Stalin’s regime eventually set in.  In 1930, there was no “Stalinist” architecture to speak of.  Even the eclectic designs of the academicians did not fully anticipate what was to come.  The contours of what would later be called “Stalinist” architecture — that grotesque hybrid-creation of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical arches, façades, and colonnades — only became clear after a long and painful process of struggle and disillusionment.  Toward the beginning of the decade, a number of possibilities seemed yet to be decided upon, and so the utopian dream of revolution lived on.[4]

[1] Hudson, Hugh.  Blueprints and Blood.  (Princeton University Press.  Princeton, NJ: 1995).  Pgs. 82-83.

[2] Catherine Cooke, one of the great Anglophone authorities on Soviet architecture (tragically killed in a car crash in 2004), pointed this out in her initial review of Hudson’s book.  Hudson marks the date of the final deathblow to the avant-garde, someone melodramatically, as occurring in 1937, which he considers to have been symbolized by the murder of the former-Left Oppositionist and architectural disurbanist Mikhail Okhitovich, which he uncovered as having taken place during the purges.  Cooke, though “grateful” for this “archival nugget,” warned that outside of specialists, “others may be mystified as to the significance of the man [Okhitovich]or the weight of the issues he raised, for there is no context here of the eighteen-month public, professional and political debate of which his ideas were a part.”  This oversight is no coincidence, however.  For if Hudson had examined Okhitovich’s ideas on city planning he would have been forced to discuss the broader international discourse surrounding Soviet urbanism.  Cooke, Catherine.  “Review of Blueprints and Blood: The Stalinization of Soviet Architecture, 1917-1937 by Hugh D. Hudson.”  Russian Review.  (Vol. 54, № 1: Jan., 1995).  Pg. 135.

[3] Giliarovskii, Vladimir.  “Problema sotsialisticheskogo goroda i nervno-psikhologicheskoe zhdorov’e.”  Planovoe khoziaistvo.  (Volume 6, № 3.  Moscow, Soviet Union: March 1930).  Pgs. 111-116.

[4] Stites, Richard.  Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution.  (Oxford University Press.  New York, NY: 1991).

Since Stites already touched on utopian vision in Soviet town planning during the 1920s in chapter nine of this book (pgs. 190-208), it may be wondered why it demands another treatment.  First, while Stites’ book offers an excellent framework of analysis for this period (one which I am partially adopting), there are many glaring factual errors in his account.  One is quite understandable; he provides Mikhail Okhitovich’s date of birth and death as “1896-1937,” which is true, but then adds that he “died of natural causes.”  Pg. 194.  Hudson, whose best insights are purely factual, revealed after his visits to the archives in 1992-94 that Okhitovich was actually a victim of the purges.  Stites’ other mistakes make less sense.  For example, on page 197, he describes Moisei Ginzburg the “main spokesman” for “the principle of ‘rationalism’ in architecture.”  Ginzburg was one of the foremost leaders of the Constructivists in OSA, whose theories opposed those of the Rationalists in ASNOVA, led by Ladovskii.  On the following page, he lists urban proposals which he attributes to Ladovskii and Varentsov as belonging to OSA, when the former had  actually been the president and the latter the secretary of ASNOVA.

Beyond this, however, the reason this subject warrants another study is that even though Stites provides an admirable assessment of the utopian dimension of early Soviet town planning, he leaves out much of the complexity and richness of this topic.  First of all, he only looks at the Urbanist and Disurbanist parties in the debate, with one offhand reference to Miliutin’s alternative idea of a “linear city.”  He does not once mention ARU, the urban planning group Ladovskii founded in 1929 after parting ways with ASNOVA.  Nor does he consider some of the international teams of architects who participated in the utopian project of the early Soviet Union.  Finally, because his interests are different from my own, he does not look into the relationship between utopian modernism and its totalizing tendencies as evidenced by the Soviet case.  This is doubly important, since I intend to retroactively ground the obstinacy of the debates by it.

One thought on ““The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde,” by Ross Wolfe (Section 2)

  1. A brief narrative supplement to the last post, but pivotal to my overall interpretation. One final narrative/interpretive section will be required to complete the introduction, this time regarding the fate of the international avant-garde in relation to its original historical mission. Stay tuned!

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