Nikolai Krasil’nikov’s terrifying planar urbanism (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov
Sovremennaia arkhitektura
Vol. 3, № 6: 1928, 170-176

Problems of modern architecture
……Final diploma project for Aleksandr
……Vesnin’s studio at VKhUTEIN


In order to really know an object, it is necessary to comprehend, to study all sides of it, all its internal and external connectivities.

— Lenin

It is necessary to pursue and elaborate the implications of this proposition in every specialized field.

Central tower to Nikolai Krasil'nikov's "New City" (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov’s “New City” (1928)

My initial premises:

  1. The environment in which an organic body exists has an influence upon its form.
  2. The forms of the various parts of the organic body are determined by their functions. Thus in a tree the forms of the root, the trunk, and the leaves are determined by the purposes they serve.
  3. To put it mathematically, the form of every body is a complex function of many variables (and the concept of form embraces the internal structure of the body matter).
  4. A scientific theory of the design of form can be developed through the dialectical method of thinking, with the application of mathematical methods of analysis; analysis, that is, which uses the infinitesimal quantities of analytical geometry along with both differential and integral calculus, and the theory of probability and mathematical statistics.
  5. A theory of the design of architectural form must be based on the physical, mechanical, chemical, and biological laws of nature.
  6. Socialist construction is unthinkable without the solution of economic aspects of the problem such as would yield the maximum economic effect in the very broadest sense.  So the constructional economics of a building for human work or habitation must be measured in terms of:
    • the material resources expended in erecting and running it;
    • wear (amortization) and repair of the building;
    • the time expended by people on all forms of movement in and around it;
    • impairment of the health of individuals, which depends on the extent to which the sanitary-technical norms and laws on safety at work and leisure are observed; and
    • the working conditions which would promote an improvement in the productivity of labor in general and mental work in particular, or in the conditions for leisure.

7. Under present Soviet circumstances [destvitel’nosti], the
……achievement of maximum constructional economics in
……architecture is also a vital necessity for the successful
……realization of socialism.

Specialists in the field of architecture are atavistically following the work methods of a thousand or more years ago.

To us, the creative process of the designer appears an inscrutable business, full of mysterious and intensely individualistic characteristics.

Modern architecture is a blind alley because it is not based upon a precise, scientific method.

The technical possibilities — that is, the structural form, the building materials, the condition and quality of the ground, all the preliminary, technical and economic investigations of the town, etc. — must be examined with a view to minimizing the aggregate costs of constructing and using the building. In the end we shall arrive at the solution which is the most economic overall, diverging as little as possible from the optimum for each factor, and this will then be the solution which is most rational for the particular case.

The problem that the designer will have to face first is that of arranging the units of accommodation so that their interconnections and links with the street will be as convenient as possible; that is to say, so that the amount of time expended in all forms of movement will be minimal.

The question of constructional economics is no less important than the question of convenience; indeed under our state of economic backwardness it is perhaps even more important.

Nikolai Krasil'nikov, diploma project (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov, diploma project (1928)

The socialist revolution that is impending in a whole series of countries [!!] has to create new economic and industrial planning organs to consolidate its revolutionary conquests. The new technical apparatus will have to be moulded to the socialist system of administration: that means large areas whose administration will have to be concentrated geographically in order to function properly, thus creating the “socialist business center.”

This new scientific and materialist system for organizing human life not only gives a new form to the administrative apparatus, but demands in turn the appropriate equipment and set-up with which to operate; and these material requirements must in turn be reflected in the architecture of buildings and in the plans of the towns.

Quite obviously, the whole look of a town that forms such a politico-economic center and seedbed for socialist culture will differ significantly from that of the contemporary town which was shaped by capitalism and its anarchically unplanned economy. The arguments of commercial speculation determined the plan and form of its buildings.

The towns that were centers of bourgeois culture are gradually losing their relevance for the new forms of life.

Either they must be turned into ancient monuments, or they must fully or partially replan themselves — taking into account of the economic, geographical, and other conditions in which they now find themselves. There is a whole number of conditions which will require that there will be even more building of new towns in the future than the replanning of existing ones.

Nikolai Krasil'nikov, final diploma project (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov, final diploma project (1928)

We have to look ahead to this, and prepare for it. There will be both small settlements and large towns to be created. How does one approach this problem?

It is certainly impossible to produce more or less precise plans for new socialist towns or settlements in the absence of a well-defined brief. In the USSR we have only just embarked upon the building of socialism, while other countries have not yet turned that way. We have as yet no more than the rudiments of a prototype socialist economy, and even less of a culture.

But for us socialism is not a utopia; it is a reality towards which we are moving. The basic characteristics of a socialist economy and culture are clear, and can be specified in advance.

When bourgeois specialists draw or describe “a town of the future” they become sunk in utopianism, eclecticism, and unreality, for they have no reliable materialistic base or starting point from which to work; if their intuitive guesses at the form of the future town ever prove at all accurate, it is only by chance. Their lack of any corresponding ideological aspirations wholly prevents them from making realistic projects.

In conclusion, I must say that the mathematicization of architectural projects (in which this work does not pretend to any degree of finality) must be based on a mass of scientific research into such factors as the psycho-physical effect on the human organism of light, heat-energy, the quality of air, of color, space and form, amongst many other factors.

The successes of the last decade in mathematical statistics and analysis must herald their even further development in the future, and all such progress will greatly assist the solution to our architectural tasks.

11 thoughts on “Nikolai Krasil’nikov’s terrifying planar urbanism (1928)

  1. There is a simple fundamental flaw in this argument. Architecture involves the human interaction and appreciation of form and space – beauty, in other words. Aesthetics in another. Function and economy are important matters but should not be all encompassing at the sake of human experience.

    • This may be so, and I would also perhaps take issue with Krasil’nikov’s pretensions to scientific indifference. But I would say that the real significance of a text like this is its historic import — to the extent that it represented an attempt to overcome architecture as an art. Krasil’nikov’s scientific ideal would entail the loss of the architect, or at least the architect’s subjectivity, in the work of architecture, a sublime anonymity of design. As Adorno later pointed out in his lecture on “Functionalism Today,” this objectivity (which would tend to diminish the intuitive genius of someone like Le Corbusier) was greatly overstated. Nevertheless, this only reveals Krasil’nikov’s (sadly unfounded) optimism about the possibility of a global, revolutionary transformation of architecture.

      Also, I would disagree with your claim that Krasil’nikov ignores the empirical dimension of architecture. One might find his reduction of human experience to a psycho-physical datum somewhat crude, but this is clearly something he takes into account:

      …the mathematicization of architectural projects (in which this work does not pretend to any degree of finality) must be based on a mass of scientific research into such factors as the psycho-physical effect on the human organism of light, heat-energy, the quality of air, of color, space and form, amongst many other factors.

      • In other words he even suggests that the human experience of architecture can (with the proper “mass of scientific research”) be mathematised… Clearly, this is nonsense and sounds about as convincing as “Psycho-History” the stuff of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s creation Hari Seldon. The human experience of emotion is unique to each and every individual and is shaped by their life and influences; one person’s pleasure is another person’s pain – the same can be said when looking at, using, or simply passing through the buit environment. There are some universal constants that the Humanists of the Enlightenment attempted to define as prerequisites for Pittoresco (or the Picturesque) such as symmetry, rhythm, proportion etc but these do not in their own right great beautiful architecture.

        Each of us defines our own interpretation of beauty and it cannot be boiled down to a series of mathematical formulae.

      • I still don’t see how what you write would stand in utter contradiction to what Krasil’nikov was getting at. The only possible objection you might have, though a serious one, regards the relative incalculability of any particular individual’s “emotional” response to a given piece of architecture, or to the universal aggregate of social responses. Because the scope of the psycho-physical could be extended to encapsulate all of experience, insofar as all of experience is physical or psychological. Or one or the other, if you’re a panpsychist or panphysicist, whichever you’d prefer.

        Immeasurability aside, however, I’m not sure what kind of actual principles for building one could extrapolate from your rather loose empirical explanation of individuals’ appreciation (or lack thereof) of an architectural work. In effect, I couldn’t see any prescription apart from “Build whatever you think looks nice, based on whatever experiences have conditioned what your conception of what ‘nice’ is, so long as the building is able to stand against the forces of gravity.” This kind of commonsensical argumentation nearly always results in some sort of relativism, wherein the only requirement of a building is that it “works.” Besides this criterion, it really wouldn’t matter what it looks like.

      • “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – everyone has different opinions as to what makes a perfect building in terms of aesthetics, function etc. What might be perfect for one person could be a disaster for another, could it not?

        My point is simply that. We all have buildings that we like and those that we don’t. I fail to see why stating this causes such consternation or upset? Name me any building and I suspect I know people who love it, others who hate it.

        In my opinion there can be no mathematic solution to the ‘perfect’ building that will be universally agreed by all as beautiful, functional, economic, pleasurable to use and experience.

        I fail to see why that is so hard to accept, or maybe its not and I’m missing something (wouldn’t be the first time….)

        Some people detest “modern’ architecture in all its forms and think only buildings designed between 1795 and 1845 of any real merit. Others feel that historical styles are out of place in a modern world and a lack of understanding of the grammer and vocabulary behind traditional buildings gives rise to poor pastiche attempts to ‘copy’ historical architecture. Likewise, much contemporary architecture could be said to be simply ‘one-liners’ if one is to continue the literary analogy, brash simple statements rather than crafted and carefully thought through designs.

        As for trying to come up with a solution to cover the human experience of architecture, I wasn’t at all – I don’t beleive for one moment that one could be produced and I certainly don’t recall saying I thought it could be; quite the opposite in fact.

        I do suspect that if you could really be bothered that a mathematical solution of some sort could work out the economical side / functional side of the equation but my initial point is simple that; it is only one side of the equation and I beleive that this is even acknowledged in the original text anyway, albeit in a crude and slightly off-hand way.

  2. How can my own opionion of what I beleive “be wrong”? My opinion is my opinion and my belief is that there is alot more to architecture and the experience of the built environment than can simply be boiled down to mathematics alone – that’s all I said. A certainly the application of the Golden Section / Mean whatever you want to refer to it as does not automatically produce good architecture.

  3. But when all’s said and done, the original text was written in 1928 and is, as Ross says, clearly an attempt to reduce architecture into building and remove art from the equation.

    Most of us these days can see that for the folly it was (except perhaps the large national housebuilders churning out identikit ‘homes’ regardless of location or need…. I suspect they’d love this idea!)

    • Your characterization of my point about removing the architect from the architectural object, the abandonment of art in the name of science, etc., is completely correct.

      What is of more interest to me than the rightness or wrongness of Krasil’nikov’s theory of how buildings should be built, is what it says about his historical moment that he proposed it when he did. Shades of his view can be seen among architects from throughout that period. What explains this peculiar confluence of opinion and common theorization amongst a number of architects at this point in history? In other words, why was there any entire movement of avant-garde architecture?

  4. Pingback: Soviet avant-garde architectural negatives (mid-1920s to early-1930s) | The Charnel-House

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