Representing Soviet modernism
Image: Cover to the English translation of
Anatole Kopp’s Town and Revolution (1967)
As promised, this post will briefly consider the main theoretical contentions and scholarly contributions of the French-Russian architectural historian Anatole Kopp. My own remarks will be limited to an examination of Kopp’s work on Soviet avant-garde architecture beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. From there, it will seek to ascertain any political implications that result from his dramatic presentation of the modern movement’s adventures in the USSR.
Kopp’s photos of Soviet avant-garde architecture
With some justice the historiographical claim could be made that, by rediscovering Soviet architectural modernism from the interwar period, Kopp effectively introduced the subject to a whole generation of architects following the Second World War. Scattered accounts remained, of course, from a few celebrated exponents of the “international style” (a phrase that Kopp, like Giedion, never fully accepted). But these had largely been buried beneath these architects’ subsequent achievements, and remained in any case either a source of embarrassment or embitterment that most of them — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, Mart Stam, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, André Lurçat, Arthur Korn, etc. — preferred to forget.
Henri Lefebvre, later one of Kopp’s primary collaborators, drew upon Kopp’s reading of the era while spelling out just how groundbreaking his narrative of the Soviet avant-garde was in the 1960s in The Urban Revolution:
Between 1920 and 1930, Russia experienced a tremendous spurt of creative activity. Quite amazingly, Russian society, turned upside down through revolution, managed to produce superstructures (out of the depths) of astonishing novelty. This occurred in just about every field of endeavor, including politics, architecture, and urbanism. These superstructures were far in advance of the existing structures (social relations) and base (productive forces). The existing base and superstructures would have had to follow, make up for their delay, and reach the level of the superstructures that had come into existence through the process of revolutionary creativity. This was a key problem for Lenin during his last years. Today, however, it has become painfully obvious that those structures and the “base” did a poor job of catching up. The superstructures produced by revolutionary genius collapsed on top of a base (peasant, backward) that had been badly or inadequately modified. Isn’t this the great drama of our era? Architectural and urbanist thought cannot arise from thought or theory alone (urbanistic, sociological, economic). It came into being during this total phenomenon known as revolution. The creations of the revolutionary period in the Soviet Union quickly disappeared; they were destroyed and then forgotten. So why did it take forty years, why did we have to wait until today (an age that some claim is characterized by speed, acceleration, vertigo) and the work of Anatole Kopp to acknowledge the achievements of architectural and urban thought and practice in the Soviet Union? (The Urban Revolution, pg. 184).
Kopp’s studies were a revelation not only to Western readers, however, but to many of his comrades in the East as well. Indeed, his archival visits to the USSR roughly overlapped with pioneering investigations in the field by Soviet historians like Selim Khan-Magomedov and Oleg Shvidkovskii. The Soviet modernists’ legacy was unknown even in its country of origin, having been politically suppressed for decades. (Though I’d have to double-check, I seem to recall he even worked in tandem with Khan-Magomedov at one point). Unlike his colleagues/contemporaries, who kept more or less neutral in their appraisal of modern architecture, Kopp assigned it a positively revolutionary value. There is something to this approach, to be sure, though the reasons behind this fact perhaps eluded the historian himself. In the introduction to his seminal treatise, Town and Revolution, he explained some of the motivations for his research. Anticipating potential criticisms, Kopp wrote:
It may be objected that if these buildings and projects, all now more than thirty years old, are technically and formally obsolete, why bother to return to them? Because they constitute an important page of world architectural history and because a knowledge of the history of modem architecture makes it easier to understand and appreciate the architecture of today. Because much current  experimentation and research is merely a continuation of efforts begun during the twenties (when it is not simple plagiarism) and because a knowledge of what was done then could assist modem architecture in escaping from the vicious circle in which it now seems trapped. Because the research undertaken at that time related not only to forms and techniques but also to :first principles and because most of the so-called social programs of today have their origin in that remote period and arc a con sequence of precisely the economic, political, and social context that existed then. In my opinion, these reasons are amply sufficient to justify a new look at the Soviet architecture of the twenties. They are, however, only secondary considerations.
The principal reason for undertaking such a study lies elsewhere. For the avant-garde of the Soviet architects of the twenties, architecture was a means, a lever to be employed in achieving the highest goal that man can set himself. For them architecture was, above all, a tool for “transforming mankind.” The world had been turned upside down, a new society was being built on the basis of new productive relations between individuals. Soon it would give birth to a new man freed of the prejudices and·habits of the past. This new society, this new man, could not develop in the old human dens fashioned in the image of a discredited social order. A special environment and appropriate structures were indispensable. But this environment was not conceived merely as a reflection, or material “translation,” of the new society; it had to-be-created Immediately, since only by living in it would man as he was become man as he was to be. Thus was established a dialectical conception of the role of the human environment: a reflection of the new society, it was at the same time the mold in which that society was to be cast. To some extent, the new environment, the new architecture, was viewed as a device designed for correcting, transforming, and improving man. In the language of the time architecture was a “social condenser” within which indispensable mutations were to be produced. (Town and Revolution, pg. 12).
In such passages the logic of Kopp’s argument unfolds magnificently. Here he laid out the case for modern architecture as facilitating, expediting, and even generating social change on its own. Kopp’s own formal training as an architect had come, of course, in the United States, under the supervision of exiled Bauhaus masters such as Walter Gropius and Josef Albers. Returning to France after the war, as Falbel discusses below, Kopp joined the French Communist Party and soon fell into the same circles as the prominent Hegelian Marxist Henri Lefebvre and other leading lights such as Claude Schnaidt. Kopp also came into contact with the well-known French intellectual Paul Virilio, who reminded his interviewer in Crepuscular Dawn that he’d “worked with Anatole Kopp, who published Town and Revolution.” (Virilio goes on to flatter himself in the course of the interview by insisting that it was he, and not Lefebvre, who’d first coined the idea of an “urban revolution”). Continue reading