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”).
As Virilio’s passing statement suggests, Town and Revolution made quite the splash in France and beyond. Translated into numerous languages shortly thereafter, it immediately established Kopp as a leading figure in the discourse on modern architecture and city planning techniques. Moreover, Town and Revolution served to remind the broader public of architectural modernism’s more radical origins and its initial aspiration to enact a global social program. Perhaps more importantly, this came at a time when the role of modern architecture in transforming society as a whole was by no means obvious. Stymied in its more grandiose urbanistic ambitions and subordinated to the design of shoddy individual housing projects on the one hand and lavish corporate headquarters on the other, much of what had made modernism so compelling in the postwar aftermath had vanished from sight. The modern movement was slowing down.
Here the emphasis on city planning in Kopp’s early study is indeed noteworthy:
in dealing with the history of a period of decisive importance in the development of world architecture, where the Soviet Union is concerned one must begin with city planning. The October Revolution, having demolished the entire economic, social, and political structure of the country, gave city planning a fundamental role closely linked with the general question of economic reconstruction. That science, still rudimentary in the West and nonexistent in Russia, became a necessity from one day to the next; from the moment of establishment of Soviet authority it became the framework within which the new architecture was to develop, and the architects, even though ill-prepared for these tasks, found themselves obliged to regard the projects with which they were entrusted no longer as so many isolated buildings but as elements of a greater whole that henceforth could be conceived without taking into account the crippling limitations formerly imposed by private ownership. This is why it is impossible to study Soviet architecture except within a context of city planning. (Town and Revolution, pg. 34).
Kopp perceptively points out the groundbreaking character of the Bolsheviks’ legal reforms in abolishing private ownership of the land, creating the conditions for more sweeping attempts at urban planning. Moisei Ginzburg had already made this point by 1926, in an article published in the major German architectural journal Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst. Of course, this only provided the opportunity so many avant-garde architects had hoped for. Early modernism’s totalizing concern with problems of regional and urban planning, as opposed to a focus on problems of individual structures isolated from any greater context, was part of its inherent logic — itself an outcome of the logic of modernity. A total architecture required total space, and only Russia possessed the ultramodern zoning laws and seemingly infinite territory in which this logic could play out.
That said, it was easy for this memory of modern architecture’s more heroic early days to create a false impression amongst the general populace and unrealistic expectations in the minds of young, usually left-leaning architects. For many, Kopp’s analysis of the built environment as a decisive factor in the effort to transform society implied a relative degree of autonomy for architects. Even if the revolutionary context in which the Soviet modernists’ proposals were put forth was lacking, many believed, progressive and reform-oriented designers could still effect meaningful change operating solely within the limits of the architectural medium. While it’d been eviscerated of its social content long before, the crisis into which postwar (“high”) modernism was entering during the late 1960s granted Town and Revolution particular saliency in some of the debates that were emerging at the time. Soon, some of the central problematics Kopp sought to address in his book were taken up social and architectural critics like Henri Lefebvre and Manfredo Tafuri.
Recently, in his book Henri Lefebvre on Space, the Lefebvre scholar Łukasz Stanek touched on some of the central issues in the debates that followed. These can be quoted at length, with some bracketed commentary added just because:
In June 1972, the Groupe de sociologie urbaine Paris 10 and the Institut de recherches at the Unité pédagogique no. 8 organized a colloquium at the Mediterranean tourist new town of Port Grimaud under the topic of architecture and the social sciences with the ambitious aim “to constitute architectural space as an object of study.” Even though sociology was included in the title of the colloquium, it was linguistics that fascinated the two most prominent contributors, Henri Lefebvre and Manfredo Tafuri. Tafuri called for an analysis of structuralism as one of the ideologies of the capitalist city, representing the belief that a management of contradictions secures the permanent technological innovation and development of capitalism. Lefebvre would agree with much of this, but during the discussion, when Tafuri referred to the operaist argument of workers’ struggle as the engine of capitalism [Tafuri’s critique was not simply workerist, as many have suggested since, RW], Lefebvre’s answer was ironic: “You put everything into your system.”
“Not mine, that of capitalism,” responded Tafuri.
Where does Anatole Kopp’s work figure into all this? Only peripherally, it might seem. But what’s at stake here is the social program of modern architecture, its assimilability to the framework of capitalist development, and even its integrative planning role once it’s been assimilated. Despite the dispute between Lefebvre and Tafuri summarized above, the French social theorist and Venetian architectural historian were much closer to one another than either was to Kopp, Schnaidt, or Jean-Louis Cohen (the latter two whose work centered on the lives of early Western communist architects Hannes Meyer and André Lurçat, respectively). Stanek had rightly observed that “[t]he controversy between Tafuri and Lefebvre concerned not whether architecture is to be put on trial but rather what kind of critique should it be, how far should it go, and what should it aim at.” This was explained earlier on:
Lefebvre and Tafuri contended that the unity of abstract space — recognized, postulated, and instrumentalized by the modern movement — in fact accompanies and facilitates the unity of the processes of production, distribution, and consumption in developed capitalism. While Adam Smith demonstrated that different professions are facets of labor in general, architects, artists, and theorists of the modern movement showed that different places are interrelated in the processes of production, consumption, and distribution, located in one space. Thus, abstract labor, defined by Marx as “an abstraction which became true in practice,” and abstract space, described by Lefebvre as an “abstraction in action” or “active abstraction” — are intrinsically related as conditions of developed capitalism. Abstract space corresponds “to abstract labor…and hence general form of commodity,” wrote Lefebvre in The Production of Space.
While…Lefebvre rejected Tafuri’s extrapolation of this experience of the modern movement into a general condition of architecture as necessarily unable to think itself beyond the conditions of its production, he was convinced until the end of his life about the essential link between modern architecture and the project of capitalist modernization. For example, writing in 1984, he argued that the Athens Charter provided an ideology, a code, and a model for innovative capitalism, scooping out new forces from crises and wars. This argument led to disagreements with his friends, such as Anatole Kopp and Claude Schnaidt, both defenders of the social program of the modern movement — Kopp, in 1980, condemning those “who make the young believe…that modern architecture and urbanism are creations of capitalism and that they have as their function the production of an environment favorable to repression, alienation, and the exploitation of workers”; and Schnaidt opposing the critique of the architectural avant-garde as technocratic and regretting that he had been one of the first to encourage Lefebvre to come to grips with the urban question.
Similar criticisms of Kopp’s loyalty to the project of modern architecture had already been leveled within Anglophone literature on the subject. S. Frederick Starr, for example, saw his sympathetic attitude toward the Soviet avant-garde as bordering on apologetic:
The enthusiastic and apologetic volume of the French architect Anatole Kopp stands as a direct outgrowth of this mood. Handsomely illustrated and covering particularly the urbanistic and housing ideals of the era, Kopp’s work is intended to demonstrate “that mankind is not obliged to make an invidious choice between underdevelopment and the consumer society.” The book makes no pretense to scholarly precision but derives a certain strength from the author’s conviction that architecture is inseparable from its social nexus. Unfortunately, like most western writers, whether architectural historians or practicing architects, Kopp neglects the important research on the social and intellectual history of twentieth-century Russia carried out during the past two decades. Hence, his laudable desire to contextualize his subject is vitiated by a conception of Russian society after the October revolution that excludes most of the less glamorous but very real factors to which architects and planners had to respond.
To be sure, the depth of Kopp’s modernist convictions can be seen as a liability when it came to his evaluation of avant-garde architecture’s role within the capitalist social formation. But this should not blind us to those moments in which Kopp clearly recognized the limitations of the architect’s role as an agent of social change. He stresses “the necessary conditions” as establishing the space within which Soviet avant-garde architects were able to undertake their program. These defined what was imaginable and unimaginable. As Stanek characterized Kopp’s position, “architects cannot transgress the social structures in which they work.” Thus the most lasting contributions of Soviet modernist architecture were not simply the result of inexplicable, irreducible genius. History set the stage in which such contributions could be articulated. “In a few short years,” Kopp wrote in concluding Town and Revolution, “[Soviet architects] formulated all the important problems of architecture and modern urban and regional planning. They devised new forms, which in many cases were much later in reaching the West; they anticipated techniques in use today and others that are still in the future, and thus proved that a new architecture is born not only of the experimental and inventive spirit of its creators, not only of technical advances but, above all, of the problems with which history suddenly confronts society” (Town and Revolution, pg. 240).
At other points, Kopp clearly allows his prejudices to get the better of him. Or, even if he’s right, he is satisfied with the bald statement, and either cannot explain the underlying reasons that such and such is the case or does not bother to. “Between 1925 and the early thirties the best of the Soviet architects devoted themselves to the realization of this ambitious but inspiring program,” he wrote. “It is understandable that in the face of such a task they may sometimes have failed to distinguish between what was possible and what was not, and that the noble dream may sometimes have blinded them to the hard facts” (Town and Revolution, pg. 112). Kopp is correct here, but he neglects to raise what is perhaps the most crucial question: Why this elusive threshold of possibility? What made it so difficult to distinguish to achievable from the unachievable?
In other words, what was the catalyst for such frenzied and unprecedented formal and technical innovation? What could have so blurred the line between reality and unreality that later historians look back at such projects as outlandish curiosities, with no hope of ever being realized? Kopp came close to answering this question during the best sections of Town and Revolution. The singular event that gave rise to this situation — even if it was cut short, as world revolution stalled out in the 1920s — was the (failed) October revolution. He thus wrote:
The breath of that October wind swept through the studios of the painters and sculptors, through the sets of the fledgling motion-picture industry, through the cliques and coteries of the writers and poets, and through the old academies where generations of architectural students had copied and recopied the dusty models of an “eternal” architecture. Suddenly, the acanthus leaves and volutes, the classical orders and majestic axes became in the eyes of the young the attributes of another age, the absurd trimmings of a doomed civilization. After October a new society figured in the work of the architects, in their projects and even in their dreams. It was this society that could be discerned beneath “le feu savant, correct et magnifigue des volumes sous la lumière” of which Le Corbusier has spoken. For if architecture is indeed a “play of volumes,” it is equally the framework of existence that a society creates for itself. Thus, while the Soviet architecture of the twenties is certainly one of the important landmarks in the history of modern architecture, it is also a piece of historical evidence, a clue to the understanding of a passionate epoch when the world was “turned upside down.” For this reason it engages the interest not only of the artist, architect, and city planner but also of the sociologist and historian.
By contrast, the disappointing conclusion to Kopp’s exhaustive article on “Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans” (1988) indicates just how far the author’s own recognition of the problem had regressed. Here, after a long and admittedly impressive historiographical and factual demonstration, Kopp dutifully mounted his old hobbyhorse by arguing that architecture can play a transformative, emancipatory role in society. Even Kopp seems bored, however, as he rehashes this familiar argument.
Today the belief that architecture could be a tool of social transformation might seem naïve. But this belief, widely shared by architectural avant-gardists during the interwar period, provides a major clue to understanding the “progressive” architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the Utopian experiments that gave rise to this belief took place in the United States during the nineteenth century, and were inspired by Utopian thinkers such as Fourier, Owen, Cabet, and Bellamy.
But during the first decades of the twentieth century, many thought that the country where these experiments would reach a definitive and positive conclusion was the Soviet Union. To the foreign architects working in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, Utopia seemed a necessary part of architecture. Since the 1960s, the brilliant and inventive architecture of the 1920s has been progressively “rehabilitated” by Soviet and foreign architectural historians.
While it was true in the 1950s and 1960s that modernist architecture from the early Soviet period seemed lost to the ages, by the 1980s this was no longer so, largely due to Kopp’s efforts at popularizing the topic. Modern architecture had by then lost its luster, even in its most exhilaratingly utopian iterations. Soviet architecture from the 1920s had been rehabilitated well enough, but society (and even architecture as a discipline) was no more the better for it. What happened?