Soviet architecture: Notes on its development, 1917-1932

by Berthold Lubetkin, 1956

Image: Lubetkin’s trade pavilion
for the USSR, Bordeaux 1926


Note: The following brief essay by Berthold Lubetkin, a constructivist architect and comrade of El Lissitzky who moved to Britain in the early 1930s, is actually remarkably lucid in its presentation of the theory-praxis problem so central to Marxism. I find the longitudinal distinction between “philosophies of East and West” a bit crude, but this is to be expected from a popular presentation intended for a British readership. Of course, Marxism (and Hegelianism, which is central for Lubetkin) had originated in the West, but by the time Lubetkin was writing this they had been driven out of mainstream Western political and intellectual discourse. Positivism, empiricism, and pragmatism appeared in its stead.

Lubetkin certainly wouldn’t deny the historical importance of Kant or Hume for the development of philosophy culminating in Hegel, but would instead emphasize the regression signaled by recourse to these figures after 1850, and the epistemological skepticism this entailed toward notions of causation. He was fond of quoting Hegel’s (and Spinoza’s before him, Engels’ after him) dictum that “freedom is the conscious recognition of necessity,” and always stressed the dialectical legacy of Marxist thought.

One of the recognizable dividing lines between the philosophies of East and West is gnoseology, and relates to the interpretation an generalization of the observed phenomena of life, and the coordination of the results into coherent theories and systems. The West, partly, no doubt, as a reaction against medieval dogmatism with its a priori, unverifiable order of things, and the consequent futility of scientific enquiry, partly as a reflection of its economic structure, shuns assumptions and principles, mistrusts generalizations, proceeds empirically to the point of denying the validity of law, of causality in nature and in society.

Berthold Lubetkin photographed in 1933

Berthold Lubetkin photographed in 1933

Under the influence of Kant and Hume, experienced facts are regarded as the ultimate finality, and are incapable of linkage into systems. The mere sequence by which one phenomenon follows another does not justify the conclusion that they are in causal relation, but rather that they coexist in our expectation, in our experience.

Through all forms of contemporary Western philosophy (relativism, empiricism, pragmatism, positivism, etc.), the disbelief in causality stands out as a common factor of decisive significance. In analyzing the interaction of phenomena, the objective character of laws is reduced to psychological necessity, regularity is equated with the particular case of accident, and the notion of objective truth is altogether eliminated, so that scientific results appear as a system or framework with no other end in view but that of convenience, utility, and economy of thought.

The West is thus basically skeptical, hostile to theoretical generalizations, to historical motivation, to the embodiment of experience into binding conclusions with the validity of objective laws.

The resulting intellectual atomization and fragmentation finds its counterpart in economics, in the crisis of productive relations, and it is revealed clearly and hauntingly in the manifestations of our art.

Lubetkin’s USSR pavilion at Bordeaux, 1926

Note: Normally I’d go through and manually remove the watermarks, but it proved exceptionally difficult. Clearly there are traces of Mel’nikov’s 1925 Paris pavilion in this work, however.

Nothing is more symptomatic of the deep cleavage between East and West than the sharp contrast between dialectical materialism, the basic Marxist philosophy, and the idealistic philosophies of the West, and in know domain does this conflict manifest itself more clearly than in that of the theory of knowledge.

To the Marxist, facts in themselves, just as we experience them, have no intrinsic significance, since the world of observed facts is an illusory one. It is only when we know the reality beyond the appearance, that we obtain control over nature. We have to go on, past the first stage of observation, to the higher level of generalization and interpretation of the material observed. Here, analytical thought is able to deduce from the mass of observed characteristics what is general, significant, and common to all, casual and irrelevant variations notwithstanding. By this method we can penetrate beyond the data supplied by individual facts into the essence of things, and determine the laws governing reality. The results of this investigation, collated into concepts and categories, and integrated into a theory, serve as a guide to practice; the practice of mastering one’s fate.

Thus while the theories derive from observed regularity, from practice, at the same time they open the way to a deeper understanding of the universe, and so enriching practice itself in turn. The dialectical process of mutual conditioning, the unity of contradictions, in which objective truth is constantly tested against social practice, contributes to make Soviet philosophy a coherent system, a tool designed not only to explain the world, but to transform it.

It is beyond the scope of this article to attempt an analysis of comparative philosophy; all that can be considered here is that which has a direct bearing on the theory and practice of Soviet architecture. But from what we have already seen certain definite characteristics, particularly by way of contrast with the Western attitude, with which we are familiar.

In the light of Marxist philosophy, culture ceases to be regarded as a sanctuary far removed from daily toil, a temple accessible only the the initiated. A necessary precondition of the existence of such a culture, unified in its social content and diversified in its national forms, is that it must permeate the masses and be accessible to everyone, universally comprehensible.

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