ASNOVA at VKhUTEMAS
Not all of the early Soviet architectural avant-garde was “Constructivist,” strictly speaking. Though this was the title often generically used to describe to all modernist architecture coming out of Russia, only those pieces produced by the architectural group OSA can really be considered constructivist per se. OSA’s self-proclaimed doctrine was constructivism, founded on the principle of the “functional method” of design, as Ginzburg and the Vesnin brothers described it.
Earlier, another avant-garde group — the Association of New Architects, or ASNOVA — had been founded in 1923 by Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, Vladimir Krinskii, and El Lissitzky (though Lissitzky spent most of his time abroad). This school of architectural thought was deeply informed by the principles of abstract Suprematism in painting, the style invented by Kazimir Malevich some years before. In fact, Lissitzky’s PROUN series led directly into his architectural phase of production.
Project for the “new city”
As opposed to the Constructivists in the Society of Modern Architects (OSA), founded two years later, the premise of architectural Rationalism, as it came to be called, was formalistic rather than functional. The members of ASNOVA appealed to evidence gleaned from the study of psychotechnics, a science imported from Germany and America, to claim that certain formal shapes and patterns of design had a direct effect on the psychology of those who viewed the structure of a building. Once these formal principles could be discerned, they could be used to produce a psychological effect, lifting viewers and inhabitants out of false consciousness and inspiring them to participate in the construction of a new society.
Nikolai Dokuchaev was, next to Ladovskii, the main theoretical exponent of Rationalism in architecture. With Lissitzky in Germany, working on periodicals like G, ABC, and Merz, and the majority of Krinskii’s time devoted to teaching and designing new projects, it fell to Dokuchaev and Ladovskii to explicate ASNOVA’s programmatic stance. In the a series of articles published in the early Soviet periodical Советское искусство (Soviet Art), Dokuchaev compared the Constructivist architecture of the OSA group with parallels he saw in the capitalist West. He criticized the Constructivists’ “functional method,” equating it with the spare style of Functionalism that was prominent in Germany at the time. Later, in an article published in the journal Строительство Москвы (Building Moscow), Dokuchaev laid out a proposal for the Socialist city of Magnitogorsk, the first of many experimental cities that were planned to be built.
The House of Unions and the Comintern
Though the Constructivists would eventually overtake the Rationalists in terms of their sway over architectural discourse in the USSR, one site of ASNOVA’s enduring influence remained in the schools. Krinskii, Ladovskii, and Dokuchaev trained a number of extremely talented young architects. Catherine Cooke recalls:
When the VKhUTEMAS school was created in Moscow in late 1920, the members of Inkhuk took over the crucial basic or foundation course, akin to the Bauhaus Vorkurs, which was the common preparation for students of all artistic and design disciplines. The collection of schoolwork by the student Ivan Lamtsov, completed under the direct tutelage of Ladovskii in 1921-1922, shows the full range of set exercises, from those devoted purely to the formal expression of such sensations as weight and mass to first extensions of this work in the direction of making “buildings.” Lidia Komarova’s responses to the same exercises a year later make an interesting comparison; where Lamtsov remained with Ladovskii and Krinskii in Rationalism, Komarova would end up with Vesnin and Ginzburg in Constructivism.
Some examples of student work according to Rationalist principles are included in this post.