They still radiate the future

Introduction

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Last night I went to see a preliminary screening of Isabella Willinger’s newly-released documentary Away from all suns. Sammy Medina of FastCo, with whom I frequently collaborate, and Anna Kats of ArtInfo were also in attendance. 
The movie was being shown as part of  Tribeca Cinema’s “Architecture and Design Week,” an event sponsored by Archtober and a host of other companies/publications (far too numerous to name). Her film focuses on three contemporary individuals whose lives are somehow connected to utopian modernist buildings slowly decaying in Moscow. One building, Ivan Nikolaev’s student commune (1929), is currently being renovated. Another, El Lissitzky’s printing factory, is in danger of being torn down. Yet another, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ Dom Narkomfin, is left in a general state of disrepair. Stunning archival footage is mobilized to juxtapose these buildings’ original state against their current dilapidation.

Hopefully I’ll be writing up a review of the film and pitching it to Art Margins or Calvert Journal, so I’ll spare the reader any further thoughts of my own. What follows is an interview with the director Isa Willinger conducted by Boris Schumatsky. It’s being reposted here from the film’s official website. Willinger expresses some sentiments in this exchange that more or less approximate statements that writers like Owen Hatherley, Douglas Murphy, Agata Pyzik, and myself have voiced in the past, independently of or in close dialogue with one another — nostalgia for an age we never knew, awe before the ruins of a past seemingly more futuristic than our own, hope against hope that radical transformation might yet be possible. The line from Willinger I paraphrased for the title of this entry runs as follows: “Many of [these Constructivist buildings in Moscow] are quite run down today, yet they still radiate their futuristic visions.” It recalls, consciously or not, something Owen Hatherley wrote about Il’ia Golosov’s Zuev Club nearby:

The windows might be infilled, the balconies long since disappeared ⎯ what all this damage proves is that buildings with this much power and conviction can still carry you away with them. Or it carries me, anyway. I look at this and I can still feel radiating off the bloody thing the promise of a better society.

Below you can watch a trailer of the film, followed by the edited transcript of the interview.

Away from all suns (2013)

Isa Willinger interviewed
by Boris Schumatsky

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Boris Schumatsky:
 Your film is about people living in buildings of the Russian avant-garde and about the buildings themselves. You seem to be just as fascinated by the buildings as by your protagonists. What is it that struck you about the Constructivist buildings?

Isa Willinger: To me the buildings seem like ruins from another future. I spent some time in Moscow some years ago and on my walks through the city I discovered these exceptional buildings. They really stick out from the rest of Moscow’s city landscape. Many of them are quite run down today, yet they still radiate their futuristic visions. This, of course, is a stunning paradox: Something is from the past and at the same time it seems from the future.

Boris Schumatsky: Can you tell us about the background of Constructivism?

Isa Willinger: The term was first applied to the abstract works of art by Tatlin, Malevich, Popova, Stepanova, El Lissitzky, and others in the 1910s and 1920s. Soon, the artists’ works transgressed the boundary between geometrical shapes on paper or canvas and architectural drawings toying with those shapes. The first Constructivist buildings were built in the mid 20s only, due to a lack of resources in early Soviet Russia. The Constructivist movement was infused with the hopes of socialist revolution, overcoming a repressive tsarist regime, and building a better, more modern society.

Boris Schumatsky: In your film, you are trying to bring back the Russian avant-garde or maybe modernity in general to the present. But is modernity not a chapter of days long past?

Isa Willinger: It’s true. To me the buildings signify the height of modernity. In that sense, they transcend their tie to Russian history and become markers for the condition that modern men and women in general are stamped with. At one point in the film I use a quotation from Nietzsche:

Where is God? …I’ll tell you! We have killed him — you and I…

There is a feeling of lostness that comes with modernity, along with the mind-blowing sense of self-empowerment. Today we are still in the midst of all this, spiritually and politically. Again and again we need to fight for empowerment of the people, against neo-tsarist regimes or corporate powers that determine our world. So, in a nutshell, our world today is still struggling with the modern condition. We have not outlived it.

Boris Schumatsky: How did you pick the three buildings and protagonists that you are focusing on in the film?

Isa Willinger: I visited about fifty of the Constructivist buildings and always tried to get inside to see what kind of life there is today in these places. For the film, I wanted to find people who had a special relationship to their building. Often, it was very difficult to enter. Some of the buildings belong to the army or the Secret Service, and several times I was chased away by armed guards immediately. It was impossible to enter industrial buildings like the bread factories, even after writing many letters. The residential buildings you can enter only after you have established a contact with somebody beforehand.

Boris Schumatsky: You are using documentary footage from the 1920s, among others by Dziga Vertov. Did the filmmakers of the 1920s film the Constructivist buildings extensively?

Isa Willinger: There are a few shots of them in Vertov’s films. In Eisenstein’s The General Line, there is a Constructivist farmhouse [by Burov]. But in general, there is surprisingly little footage of the buildings. And there is only very little footage that stages the buildings’ expressiveness, as we know it from photographs by Rodchenko, for example. We found some stunning shots in the newsreels though. For the film, I slowed them down a lot. Then, the shots convey glimpses of life: children playing in front of the Narkomfin building, or two passersby dancing on the street in front of the Rusakov Workers’ Club.

Boris Schumatsky: Is there something contemporary architecture can learn from Constructivist architecture?

Isa Willinger: In many ways, Constructivism was very progressive. The architects came up with totally new types of buildings: communal apartment buildings, clubhouses for workers, bread factories, canteen kitchens. The fact that they included kindergartens and canteens into apartment buildings, so women could be freed from their subordinate role as housewives is so ahead of us today. Also, the fact that they thought about the workers’ education and designed clubhouses with libraries and theaters — these social values are highly progressive.

The use of organic materials, like wood, is an interesting tension with the modernist, abstract shapes. So despite their geometric coolness, they radiate a warmth and humanness that I personally miss in a lot of contemporary architecture.

Boris Schumatsky: Why then is Constructivist architecture so little known?

Isa Willinger: In the field of architecture, Constructivism is internationally well known and highly respected. Leading contemporary architects like Zaha Hadid or Rem Koolhaas have been influenced by it. In Soviet Russia, artistic experimentation ended in the early ’30s when the state became more and more authoritarian. Stalin proclaimed Socialist Realism in 1932, and thereby suffocated maybe the most original and radical art movement of the 20th century. They Constructivist buildings were too original, too cutting-edge for the totalitarian regime that Stalin installed. They were denounced as eccentric and bourgeois. In Russia today, there is still little awareness of the value of Constructivism.

Isabella Willinger, director of Away from All Suns (2013), inside Ginzburg and Milinis' Dom Narkomfin

Isabella Willinger, director of Away from All Suns (2013),
inside Ginzburg and Milinis’ Dom Narkomfin (built 1930)

Boris Schumatsky: Are the masterpieces of Constructivism generally threatened by destruction?

Isa Willinger: Many of the buildings are being torn down, as real estate prices in Moscow are among the highest in the world. There are a few civic groups that are trying to save what is left of the buildings. But in many people’s eyes, the buildings look too plain to be beautiful. Beauty seems to be associated with decorativeness. Maybe the lack of appreciation for a simple style signaling liberal — even democratic — values mirrors the political situation in Russia today. Yet, more and more young people seem to become interested in the buildings, organizing Constructivist city walks or exhibitions around them. But something needs to be done rapidly on a governmental level, since many of the buildings are dying this very moment.

© Boris Schumatsky
February 11, 2013

4 thoughts on “They still radiate the future

  1. Pingback: They still radiate the future | Research Material

  2. Pingback: They still radiate the future | Research Material

  3. Pingback: Amidst the ruins of the Soviet avant-garde | The Charnel-House

  4. Pingback: Narkomfin — A new web documentary by Luciano Spinelli and Natalia Melikova | The Charnel-House

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