The speculative constructivism of Iakov Chernikhov’s early architectural experiments, 1925-1932

Chernikov-11 main libraryIakov Chernikhov, strict integration of individual structural elements into a single coordinatedd unit

Problems of constructivism
in their relation to art

Erikh Fedorovich Gollerbakh
Construction of Architectural
and Machine Forms

In this epoch of the triumphant development of mechanical engineering and the continuous growth of industrialization a new conception of artistic activity is being born. New demands are being made of the fine arts. Old and decrepit forms are being repudiated. Modernity demands of fine art that it should directly serve the urgent needs of our time.

Bending their ear to the modern world’s demands, artists are trying to find new principles forgiving form to their intentions — new principles that will be in keeping with the industrial and technological character of modern civilization. If they proceed from outside and amount to an “adapting” of old forms to new content, these attempts are rarely successful. Art can be brought onto its true path only through the creation of new forms which are adequate to the forms of life itself, and which answer its concrete requirements. Instead of seeking every kind of adaptation from the outside, what we need is the equally possible discovery of new values from within, that is, in the field of those phenomena which are characteristic of the modern tenor of life, of the modern state of technology. To a certain degree, art may become engineering. It must move from its previous aimless decorativeness, from its unprincipled aestheticism alienated from life, to an existence of practical utility. In this process the question of a transformation of artistic forms must not depend exclusively upon ideological content, but must be solved on the basis of a fundamental re-examination of the means of expression. Industrial and technological “being” cannot fail to influence the artistic and creative “consciousness.”

Needless to say, diverse other factors can also influence this consciousness. In the latest Western European art, and on the Left Front of the visual arts in the USSR, one can see the influence of prehistoric, primitive art, of ancient, archaic cultures, of the art of savages, children folk-cultures and so on. But when we are told that the artists who soak up these influences are “setting up new traditions,” are “achieving one of the greatest revolutions ever known in the history of the arts,” we are justified in doubting the extent to which these “new” traditions have any genuinely revolutionary content. Would it not be more correct to regard them as feeble imitation sui generis, as a conscious return to those albeit great, but already incarnate and largely extinct forms of which countless multitudes fill the long history of art — sometimes outreaching their original prototypes created at the dawn of human existence, sometimes endlessly inferior to them. Do we have to seek artistic models in the cemeteries of dead art, in the depth of history, amongst socially backward strata of modern humanity, when the progress of modern life is endlessly generating new forms, is conquering the indifference of the elements and harnessing them in the steel chains of technology. Instead of imitating the stiffened corpses of dead forms — albeit of beautiful ones — is it not better to seek the basis of a new art in the deep structures of organic and spatial phenomena in the world around us?

Iakov Chernikhov teaching in an arts class in Leningrad, 1920s

Investigation of the principles governing these structures leads to an identification of the primary geometrical laws common to the most diverse phenomena of the external world. It is precisely investigation, positing the principle of a scientific foundation for art, that will offer the possibility of finding a synthesis of technology with all aspects of the visual arts in a single constructivist art.

We do not yet have one single investigation specifically devoted to the question of constructivism. More than that, we do not have so much as an essay which elucidates the concept of constructivism, or outlines its course of development. Most discussion of constructivism is very superficial and unconvincing: people point out that it is based on principles of the mechanical and geometrical inter-relations of materials and their forms. They mention that constructivism aspires to create practically useful and externally beautiful objects (or in the first place, designs for them). Finally they underline constructivism’s direct connection with the mechanization of the whole structure of our lives, with the intensive development of industrial production, and so on. None of these diffuse and foggy definitions give any precise or true understanding of the essence of constructivism. Indeed, it is difficult to give a precise definition when it has still not fully defined itself. It is impossible to write an investigation of a subject whose actual nature has still not yet entirely emerged. This is why constructivism should not now be written about by historians of art or aesthetic critics, but by theoreticians of art or — even better — by practitioners, that is to say by those artists (or engineers) who are themselves constructivists.

The book presented to the reader here by architect-artist Iakov G. Chernikhov constitutes precisely such an experiment in laying out the fundamentals of constructivism. The author is not an art historian evaluating an artistic phenomenon “from the sidelines,” but a builder-artist pursuing and creating relatively new forms of depiction in his own personal professional work.

Chernikhov’s book The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms is not a narrowly specialist technical investigation or handbook; if it were the latter there would be no place in it for a preface from an art historian. This book has an incomparably broader perspective. It is an investigation of theoretical principles which touch upon certain problems of the philosophy of art. The questions which the author raises about the meaning of the constructive approach, about its essence, about the nature or “constitution” of that approach, about the laws of construction and about constructive principles of form-generation, all these lead to the boundaries where the theory of art begins. However the author does not withdraw into the debris of abstract cognition. He does not get cut off from the real origins of his theoretical debate. In his role as a practicing artist participating directly in the productive and constructional life of our country, Chernikhov knows all too well the importance and value of concrete tasks in the art of today understanding “art,” as I do, in the very broadest sense of that word. While taking into account the methodological value of abstract solutions and structures, he also knows that we must not build forms which are beyond the realm of the useful, that we must not prop up the concept of a self-sufficient, “pure” art. His book rests upon a recognition of the profound commonality of the constructive principles underlying art and technology. And with that, on a recognition that the creative handling of materials can become a great organizing force, if it is directed towards the creation of useful, utilitarian forms.

With every decade, the gulf which has recently divided art from the concerns of engineering is becoming narrower. In our own period, the mutual incomprehension, and frequently even antagonism which have come to separate the artist and the engineer are beginning to give way to the idea of a friendly working collaboration. This is leading to a new division of labor; but it is leading also to a pursuit at the level of principle, of the fullest possible reconstruction of the close relationship which did once exist, historically, between art and technology. Elements of the creative process which are common to both fields at the most profound level are being manifested and affirmed. This new approach to understanding the creative process in art was reflected clearly in Chernikhov’s preceding book, The Fundamentals of Modern Architecture, but here it is reflected even more prominently. This book, by its very essence, constitutes a complete rejection of outdated canons, historical prototypes and that idealistic, contemplative aestheticism which is an end in itself, cut off from the seething current of real life and the powerful concerns of the modern world.

The development of techniques of reinforced concrete, the titanic growth of metallurgy, the intensive progress of mechanical engineering have not up till now exerted that radical effect upon art which they could do, if their significance as reformative factors was understood by artists in its full profundity. A demonstration of the technological might of capitalist Europe such as the Eiffel Tower appears an empty and pointless enterprise today. Its restaurants, its advertisements for Citroën cars, and even its radio station represent no more than insignificant “appendages” to this grandiose but absurd structure, and certainly do not to any extent “legitimize” it. In this case technology had no desire to be art, and art did not come to technology’s aid. The art of building in Western Europe continues to oscillate between tasteless stylization, bourgeois decadence, modernistic novelties and a barrack-like standardization that shuts urban life up in masonry boxes separated by monotonous corridors-creating identically depressing skyscrapers on one hand and identical suburban cottage settlements on the other. And only very occasionally are buildings created which to some degree express the essence of our epoch and thereby do something towards creating a new style. A new architecture is being born, whose beauty resides in its appropriateness to purpose, in its superlative use of material, in a rational constructiveness. A broad highway must be opened up for this architecture in the Land of the Soviets where socialist culture is being built, where powerful new industrial plants are being created, as well as grandiose electrical power-stations, gigantic state farms, citadels of industry within agriculture; where the entire economic base is being rebuilt upon socialist principles; where the whole way of life of society is being reconstructed; where the cultural requirements of the masses are growing continuously.

In this connection the works of the advanced architects take on a special significance. We speak here of those architects who are trying to find the fundamental forms appropriate to the new building effort, to discover what the logical line of development should be for the building industry, and to put it onto firm rails underpinned by scientific research and artistic and technological experiment.

Composition 15, 1930Iakov Chernikhov, Fantastic composition, 1929-1931, composition 26

Chernikhov’s merit lies in the fact that he has brought the “technological” forms of architecture and mechanical engineering into the graphic field, and has done so not as was done previously, at the level of decorative vignette or ornament, but as an absolutely legitimate theme of art. The graphic representations which he has created are not just “technical” but also artistic. This is no lifeless juxtaposition of “illustrations” to text of the sort that peppers books on technology. The whole is a richly original piece of artistic work in its own right. In this sense Chernikhov is a pioneer, a trail-blazer of new themes in graphic art, and also, in part, of new modes of graphic design. In themselves mechanical forms are not new in graphics; during the last decade the art of graphics in book design has demonstrated numerous examples which use technological and industrial subjects more or less successfully. In decorative graphics for example one meets hammers-and-sickles, anvils, cogwheels, conveyor belts, all sorts of machine components, but in virtually all cases these objects have no independent significance as a result of their subject-matter. They are no more than one element amongst others in a composition — and are often highly stylized to boot. In these cases the object as such does not play a large part, does not interest the book designer particularly, and perhaps rightly so.

Chernikhov has a quite different attitude to the objects, figures or built structures which he depicts. In his work a very special kind of architecture is unfolded in front of us; machine architecture, which submits to special principles and its own canons. The possibilities for machine architecture were first shown in all their full potential as art. Dryly drawn depictions of a machine can have interest and importance only for the specialist, for the engineer. They say nothing to the “broad public.” The same is true for photographs of machines. Even the machines themselves cannot directly produce that impression on a spectator which a skillful graphic image can create. Chernikhov’s graphics thus bring the viewer closer to understanding the essence of the machine than the object itself can do. They reveal its “spirit,” its essential “idea,” and a beauty which only the initiated would perceive from the object itself.

The author of The Construction is interested precisely in the object as such; in its organization, its construction as a form, its spatial character and sometimes also its fractural properties of surface treatment. He is interested in its purpose and function; in its weight, even in the nature and properties of the material, all of which are expressed very convincingly in certain of his drawings. His approach to the depiction of the subject-matter is entirely devoid of all decorativeness, of aesthetic “flourishes,” of extraneous “stuffing,” background or frame. He approaches the objects simply and soberly, concerned above all to manifest what is constructive about them. He forces us to feast our eyes upon objects that we normally pass by indifferently. Quite unexpectedly we then discover for ourselves a very special beauty and truth in some stepped cube or fractured quadrilateral; in a combination of cylinders; in nuts and bolts or the coupling of machine components. Thus aspects of constructivism which normally remain unnoticed are opened up to us through the medium of graphic art.

Already in his first book, The Art of Graphic Representation, Chernikhov evoked these principles of graphic drawing and representation which he advocated in his own teaching work. However the reproductions in that book failed to communicate a correct understanding of the author’s approach and its success, through the fault of the publishers they were much too small. The exhibition of his graphic works presented in 1927 on the walls of the Leningrad Academy of Arts, however, unfolded before us the vast diversity of his modes and the range of his achievements. It demonstrated the complex and fantastic paths which graphic representation may take, and the original effects which “abstract” graphic exercises may produce.

Iakov Chernikhov, Principles of modern architecture, composition 220

In his book The Fundamentals of Modern Architecture, Chernikhov gave a series of extremely interesting models of abstract compositional work in the field of architectural forms, work which, when turned into concrete projects for various building types, expressed sometimes highly specific ideological aspirations and very exactly formulated concepts. Already here it was difficult to describe the work as graphics in a conventional sense. The tasks which the author had set, and the mode in which they had been responded to, clearly burst the boundaries of representational genres, sometimes becoming painterly works of great sophistication in their own right as for example in certain of his colored works; at other times becoming sculpture, as for example in the case of many volumetric models.

When constructive images become incarnated in graphic depictions such as those produced by Chernikhov, or by the group of pupils and assistants whom he leads, they acquire unusual conviction and comprehensibility, and begin “to tell us about themselves” with exceptional eloquence. Looking through the drawings which depict various constructive joints and their possible forms, one at times experiences an almost purely physical feeling of the “clamping,” the “coupling” or the “embracing” involved. In many of his compositions one feels very fully the massiveness, the weight, the staticness — or alternatively the lightness, the aerial freedom, the dynamism. One feels the stiff dead rigor of a rhythm of lines — or their elasticity; one feels them restrained and held back, or running forwards. Quite involuntarily the rhythm of the composition communicates itself to the viewer. All this is achieved without any deliberate “tricks.” The forms of the real objects are preserved, and never abstracted willfully or arbitrarily but only in accordance with the compositional intention. The wealth of inventive fantasy and the inexhaustible diversify of combinations are the very essence of Chemikhov’s great originality in both graphic work and full-scale architectural design. It ranges from the simplest to the most complex, with simplicity sometimes concealing an inner complexity and vice versa. The range of his imagination is exceptionally broad. His thinking is not confined in any one mould of the sort that is sometimes erroneously termed a “style.” In all his works Chernikhov consistently executes convincing images by strict and laconic graphic techniques.

Leaving aside here questions of the significance of Chernikhov’s “theory” of constructivism from the scientific or technical point of view, this being an area outside our competence, let us note what is for us the unquestionable formal importance of his graphic works and the thematic enrichment they bring to the art of drawing.

There is very little in common between Chernikhov’s creative research and the “constructive” efforts of the Leftist artists. Chernikhov is also in a certain sense “leftist” in architecture, but he has mastered those preparatory fundamentals which were lacking amongst the artists of the “Left Front” with their attempts at engineering.

Having noted the innateness of the “feeling for constructiveness,” and facing up to the necessity for human beings to exercise this instinct, Chernikhov explains the essence of constructive principles in a series of visually compelling examples, these being principles which people otherwise apply in their activities unconsciously, but rarely recognize properly. Had the author of this book on construction been a natural scientist as well as an architect, he would very likely have reinforced many of his propositions with examples from the plant and animal worlds, from the field of organic form-generation. Cytology and histology, for example, would have offered him some very apposite comparisons and conclusions.

Iakov Chernikhov, Composition 18, 1929

For the engineer as much as the artist, a familiarity with The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms will prove rewarding. Even the questionable and rather confused aspects of this book are valuable for the fact that they will promote thinking and stimulate some consideration of constructive problems. Herein lies the book’s educational importance. It shifts away conservative conceptions of “artistic values” and introduces us to the world of constructive design. It represents an overture to the systematic and planned study of those constructive principles to which people here are usually attracted transiently, in the absence of any proper, profound research into the problems of constructive art.

In all his investigations Chernikhov shows himself to be a persistent and uncompromising fighter for new forms, and the enemy of all forms of routinism or conservatism. The works he has executed manifest to the freshness of his thinking and the flexibility and diversity of his experimentation, always moving step-by-step with modernity and at times in advance of it.

His works convince us that even the most talented pretensions to “constructivism” amongst the leftist artists were essentially child’s play. The “contre-reliefs” and other “constructions” of the leftist painters hardly have any kind of meaning, unless one considers there is meaning in the shock qualities of mere daring and novelty.

There is no denying that the graphic oeuvre of Chernikhov represents as a whole a remarkable and hopeful phenomenon. In these depictions on architectural and engineering themes there is vast scale, great tension and clear basis in principle. All this does not exclude artistic quality, though it does not of itself provide it. Most important is something else: in Chernikhov’s graphic work the subject-related elements, the constructive and the rhythmic elements are inseparable. This guarantees it great vitality and an unquestioned place in that circle of phenomena to which it is related.

The first thing that attracts attention in the whole organization of Chernikhov’s book is his concern with the precise classification of the phenomena he is examining. This characteristic was also evident in The Fundamentals of Modern Architecture, and manifests itself particularly in his inclination towards systems and methods. He is innately an analyst and a creator of nomenclatures he is interested above all in questions of morphology and systematics.

In this book as in his previous ones, certain factors can be shown to be questionable, but it is impossible to deny the importance of the questions he is tackling. The mode of presentation and the book’s style may call forth certain objections, as may the formulation of certain of his propositions. An example here is his chapter on “The Melody of Constructive Forms.” All this fades into the background, however, before that charge of creative enthusiasm which penetrates the whole of Chernikhov’s work. It is necessary to see his graphic experiments, his volumetric models or his architectural projects — the majority of which remain unpublished — in order to feel the vast labor which has been expended in giving real form to the principles he has laid down. Only then can one feel the energy and ebullient love for the work which hide behind the author’s externally dry and abstract discussions. A fanatical devotion to ideas always was and will be the best guarantee of their successful development and realization.

At the same time it has to be noted that with Chernikhov this devotion to his special interests is not accompanied by that nihilistic abnegation of cultural traditions which is characteristic of extreme innovators. He does not deny, for example, that elements of constructivism have existed throughout history in some form or another, he merely underlines that these principles have acquired particular importance in our own period and therefore deserve special attention.

Iakov Chernikhov, Fantasy 76

The works of Chernikhov possess one quality which is particularly essential in our times, when we face the central question of a change-over in architecture requiring the education of new professional cadres. They are didactic. The author does not merely present a general exposition of his subject; he introduces his reader to its richer profundities. He not only recounts his own material; he outlines paths of independent investigative work for those who wish to study this area further. He addresses himself to an imaginary group of listeners; he gives them advice and warnings. He shows them ways and means of mastering the material.

Nor is it only the text which is didactic in character. So too is the graphic material, and perhaps even more so, because it convincingly and visually enters the whole environment of constructive forms and brings us closer to an understanding of the constructivistic view of the world. We are convinced by the consistency and decisiveness with which the author of these constructive compositions sweeps aside everything superfluous to the functional legitimacy, everything that could impede the clear manifestation of its meaning. His experiments may seem incomprehensible to many people. They may evoke protest even from adherents of “the new direction.” But the topicality of the questions he is examining cannot be denied.

In due course there may emerge other formulations of the principles which Chernikhov is defending, but the fundamental ideas which reside in those principles will unquestionably remain fruitful. The estrangement of art and engineering that has hitherto existed plainly can be overcome on precisely the level envisaged in Iakov Chernikhov’s book.

April 1930