A revolutionary impulse: Russian avant-garde at the MoMA

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Four months back, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art opened an ex­hib­it en­titled A Re­volu­tion­ary Im­pulse: Rise of the Rus­si­an Av­ant-Garde. The show re­ceived mostly fa­vor­able write-ups in lib­er­al out­lets like New York Times and New York­er as well as art/cul­ture mags like Stu­dio In­ter­na­tion­al, Seca Art, and He­don­ist. Marx­ist and left­ish pub­lic­a­tions such as World So­cial­ist Web­site (or­gan of the So­cial­ist Equal­ity Party) and Brook­lyn Rail also ran ap­pre­ci­at­ive re­views of the ex­hib­i­tion.

Per­haps my fa­vor­ite crit­ic­al re­flec­tion on the show came from Caesura, an off­shoot from the Platy­pus Af­fil­i­ated So­ci­ety ex­clus­ively fo­cused on art, mu­sic, and lit­er­at­ure. It fea­tured a fairly char­ac­ter­ist­ic but nev­er­the­less poignant ob­ser­va­tion:

Of the stag­ger­ing num­ber of ob­jects on dis­play, most strik­ing was film­maker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 col­lab­or­a­tion with Rod­chen­ko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a pro­pa­ganda film (the title trans­lates to cinema-truth) track­ing the fail­ing health, death and fu­ner­al of Len­in. Black and white graph­ics con­trib­uted by Rod­chen­ko de­pict­ing, without com­ment, the med­ic­al stat­ist­ics of the ail­ing re­volu­tion­ary lead­er cre­ated a palp­able sense of worry as they edge, at an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow pace, to­wards the res­ult we all know already: Len­in’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced pro­ces­sion of mourn­ers at his fu­ner­al, ded­ic­at­ing por­trait shots and name plates to party lead­ers: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Le­on Trot­sky and Joseph Stal­in stead­fastly look­ing ahead. The lat­ter was ut­terly chilling — a glimpse of a fu­ture yet un­known to the film­makers but known all too well today. Stand­ing, in 2017, in the Amer­ic­an Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in a mo­ment of ut­ter polit­ic­al con­fu­sion, the tragedy of this mo­ment was cut­ting. Could the mourn­ers have pos­sibly known that they had wit­nessed both the be­gin­ning and the end of a mo­ment of tre­mend­ous his­tor­ic­al po­ten­tial? Did Vertov and Rod­chen­ko real­ize that in their mont­age of party lead­ers it would be Stal­in who would take power? Did they know that, after the crip­pling de­feat of the Ger­man Left the year pri­or, 1924 would mark a clos­ing and not an open­ing of his­tory?

Caesura’s re­view­er fur­ther spec­u­lates that “if the art of the Rus­si­an av­ant-garde has a time­less qual­ity, it is be­cause of its unique his­tor­ic­al ori­gin. Nev­er be­fore or since have artists op­er­ated un­der the thrall of three so­ci­et­ies — crum­bling czar­ist Rus­sia, the dy­nam­ic bour­geois west, and the ad­van­cing specter of so­cial­ism — so dif­fer­ent. It ex­presses all three but be­longs to none.” A sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment is cap­tured by a line in the New York­er: “His­tory is not a con­stant march for­ward; it can stand still for dec­ades and then, as it did in Rus­sia a hun­dred years ago, ex­plode in a flash.” This line it­self merely para­phrases a quip at­trib­uted to Len­in, to the ef­fect that “there are dec­ades where noth­ing hap­pens, but then there are weeks where dec­ades hap­pen.”

I my­self at­ten­ded the ex­hib­it, and was im­pressed by what I saw. Some of the same pieces had ap­peared in spe­cial gal­ler­ies across the city over the last few years, but the sheer wealth of ma­ter­i­al con­cen­trated in one space was breath­tak­ing. Fur­ther­more, the way this ma­ter­i­al was or­gan­ized and form­ally ar­ranged was skill­ful. You can see a pic­ture of me stand­ing next to Lis­sitzky’s “new man of com­mun­ism,” taken from his series for Vic­tory over the Sun. Be­low you can read a fine med­it­a­tion on the show writ­ten by Bloom Correo, a young ul­traleft au­thor who vis­ited NYC just to see it.

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VKhUTEMAS exhibition in Berlin: Rediscovery of a Russian revolutionary art school

Sibylle Fuchs
Verena Nees

April 5, 2015
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“Vkhutemas: A Russian Laboratory of Modernity — Architectural Designs 1920-1930,” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, December 5, 2014 to April 6, 2015.

A remarkable exhibition, featuring the art and architecture of the early Soviet Union’s VKhUTEMAS [acronym in Russian for Higher Art and Technical Studios] school, is currently at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, until April 6. For the first time, some 250 works — drawings, sketches, paintings, photographs and models, mainly in the field of architecture — created by the students and teachers of the Moscow workshops, which existed from 1920 to 1930, are on display.

Exhibition of student’s work on “Evidence and expression of mass and weight” School year 1927-1928 © The Schusev State Museum of Architecture Moscowia802601.us.archive.org-grerussi00schi_0302 copy 2

The exhibition was organized by the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow, based on extensive research into numerous archives, as well as interviews with graduates of the school and the families of former teachers. Researchers were thus able to bring to light long-lost designs, construction plans and models. The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into a neglected school of art that revolutionized modern architecture.

The displayed works of the Vkhutemas students range from designs for residential buildings, theaters, kiosks, swimming pools, sports stadiums, workingmen’s clubs and entire cities to student research projects on theoretical questions such as “mass and weight,” “color and spatial composition,” and “geometric properties of a form.” The sketches of complex urban roofscapes, imaginatively conceived recreation centers in natural settings, seemingly weightless buildings with vibrantly curved features, aesthetic structuring and façades for industrial buildings—all testify to such a wealth of radicalism, experimentation and diversity of ideas that many Bauhaus [German art school, 1919-1933] creations fade in comparison.

All the designs, even the bold and less realistic ones like the floating skyscrapers attached to balloons, also evoke a sense of the seriousness with which architectural commissions assigned by the workers’ state were undertaken after the October Revolution.

M. Korshew- Abstrakte Aufgabe zur Ermittlung von Masse und Gewicht

On December 19, 1920, Lenin announced the Soviet government’s resolve to establish the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops — VKhUTEMAS. The aim was to use the visual arts in the training of technically, politically and scientifically educated architects and designers in all disciplines. In the ten years of its existence, VKhUTEMAS became a laboratory of modern architecture and art, in which diverse artistic ideas and methods, such as classicism, constructivism, psychoanalytic approaches and even futurism came together.

Time and again, the media refers to VKhUTEMAS as the Russian Bauhaus. Many scholars in the West have insisted on seeing the Bauhaus movement in Weimar and Dessau as a model for the Russian architectural avant-garde. However, the exhibition throws this conception into question. Although VKhUTEMAS had close ties to Bauhaus and the latter held some concepts and ideas in common with the Soviet workshops, the relationship is rather the reverse. In her contribution to the catalog, Barbara Kreis writes that the works of the students and teachers are “unmatched, and later often served architects as templates and sources of inspiration.”

The sheer scope of the training and the vast number of students and teachers make it clear that the Moscow workshops mark a unique stage in the development of modern architecture. Some 2,000 students enrolled in the first year alone, while Bauhaus trained only about 150 in the same time frame.

Many famed Russian artists and avant-garde architects were at least temporarily VKhUTEMAS teachers. These included Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Krinsky, Alexander Vesnin and his brothers Viktor and Leonid, Lyubov Popova, Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Nikolai Ladovsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Moisei Ginzburg, Alexei Shchusev, Wassily Kandinsky, Aleksandra Ekster, and Gustav Klutsis.

BookScanStation-2013-07-11-06-19-45-PM0001alq VKhUTEMAS faculty and professors

The VKhUTEMAS school’s reputation also spread internationally and reached New York, where the works of its students were exhibited. Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, traveled specifically to visit the VKhUTEMAS in Moscow in 1928. The Soviet pavilion designed by Melnikov and Rodchenko’s Workers Club were accorded great recognition at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.

The designs and sketches now shown in Berlin form eloquent testimony to the tremendous spirit of optimism that the October Revolution unleashed in architecture and other art forms. A documentary film, made by the German WDR broadcaster in 1984 and shown at the exhibition, features the comments of contemporaries, enthusiastically recalling their years of study in the VKhUTEMAS. Describing the atmosphere, one said he “always climbed stairs two steps at a time and, going down, in leaps and bounds.”

Curator Irina Tschepkunowa also writes in the introduction to the catalog that one can scarcely any longer imagine in today’s “pragmatically oriented” Russia the enthusiasm that broke out after the revolution. “Hunger and destruction during war communism, the ongoing civil war in the country’s border areas and the impoverished everyday life provoked in young people — as strange as this may seem today — not dejection, but an unprecedented creative enthusiasm and willingness to work.”

Establishing the VKhUTEMAS

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Training in the VKhUTEMAS was focused on the mobilization of all talents for the building of a socialist society. Immediately after the revolution, the academies and art schools, reserved for the privileged social elites, were abolished and artistic training procedures reformed with the introduction of free state art workshops. All who wanted to study art could enroll at such schools. This also initially applied to the VKhUTEMAS, where participation in preparatory courses of the RabFak workers’ university was obligatory in 1921 for workers and young people without qualifications. In 1925, an examination assessing artistic talent was also introduced as an entry requirement.

A. Wesnin- Entwurf zur Gestaltung der Außenfassade der WChUTEMAS zum 10. Jahrestag der OktoberrevolutionLissitzky_Proun-Street_celebration_design_2786-08

The VKhUTEMAS were divided into eight faculties that included three art workshops: painting (panel, monumental and decorative painting), sculpture and architecture, as well as five production workshops: graphics, textiles, ceramics, metal and wood working. Lidia Komarova, an architect and a 1929 graduate of the VKhUTEMAS described the overall orientation of the workshops as follows: “The goal was to unite art with production, science with technology, and the new content of socialist life with the needs of the people.”(1) Continue reading

The future of Enlightenment

Thoughts on
“Universalism and
its discontents”
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Last Thursday an online discussion of “Universalism and Its Discontents” took place at noon via livestream. It was the first in what is projected to be a series of conversations on the theme of Fixing the Future, related to some of the problems raised by the accelerationist current. Anthony Paul Smith of the online collective An und für sich and Pete Wolfendale of the blog Deontologistics were the primary discussants, with Deneb Kozikoski playing the role of moderator. Mohammed Salemy was responsible for setting up the event. Video footage of the proceedings can be found here.

What follows are some scattered thoughts in response to it.

Kozikoski’s introduction to the speakers’ opening remarks was, on the whole, extremely helpful. She provided a serviceable overview of debate up to this point, the main issues involved, etc. (and did so in a compact enough manner that even a beginner could follow). I hadn’t kept up with all the literature pertaining to accelerationism myself, so the primer was welcome. Her own editorializing was fairly minimal. She remained evenhanded throughout the subsequent exchange.

To briefly recapitulate her summary: Accelerationism poses a challenge to the prevailing negativity of the contemporary Left, the default logic of both its academic and activist wings. Namely, accelerationists reject the defensive posture of “resistance” struck by leftists when new modes of domination emerge from capitalism’s evolving matrix of creative destruction. By extension, this critique also takes aim at the ideological tendency to simply propose the inverse of whatever deleterious effects are associated with capitalist development — a procedure that could well be called abstract negation. Capitalism is a global phenomenon? If so, anticapitalism must of course counterpose local solutions. Universal, alienating, and abstract? Surely leftists are duty-bound to offer particular, disalienating, and concrete alternatives. Rather than delirious Prometheanism, ruminative Epimetheanism. One could go on.

Against the “folk politics” of localism, direct action, and horizontality that dominate the Left today,[1] accelerationists set out to recover the quintessentially modern vision of a global emancipation, working toward “a completion of the Enlightenment project of self-​criticism and self-​mastery, rather than its elimination.”[2] They thus reaffirm the emancipatory potential of science and technology, repudiating the dire predictions of Malthusian doomsayers and primitivists. Kozikoski explained that this broader accelerationist drive to embrace forms of universality discarded by poststructuralists and postcolonial theorists in recent decades puts the fledgling movement at odds with these more established discourses.

“Universalism and Its Discontents” staged this specific antagonism, providing a platform for accelerationism and postcolonialism to debate. Wolfendale represented the former of these two schools, while Smith — a postcolonial theologian skeptical of calls for a renewed universalism — represented the latter.

Smith spoke first. He began by announcing his sympathy with much of the accelerationist program, especially as laid out in Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s jointly-written article “Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” Quoting the Marxian scholar Alberto Toscano, Smith agreed with the accelerationist argument that forces of production can be effectively decoupled from relations of production and made to serve different ends. “[U]se can [still] be drawn from the dead labors which crowd the earth’s crust,” Toscano asserted, “in a world no longer dominated by value.”[3] Overcoming capitalism needn’t entail scrapping the productive implements it brought into being, as these can potentially be repurposed or reconfigured. Nor is the manifesto’s emphasis on climate change misplaced, in Smith’s judgment. Indeed, he would appear amenable to many of its theses. Continue reading

Object lessons from the Bauhaus

Joan Ockman
Art in America
Dec. 1, 2009
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Bauhaus is the name of an artistic inspiration.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, January 1954
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Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, but the meaning of a movement that represents a well-defined doctrine.

— Max Bill, letter to Asger Jorn, January 1954
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If Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, it is the name of a doctrine without inspiration — that is to say, dead.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, February 1954
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What was the Bauhaus really? The question has been raised repeatedly ever since Nazi agents raided the school in April 1933, precipitating its closure by the faculty a few months later. On the 90th anniversary of its founding, and the 20th of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a major exhibition organized by three institutions in Germany,1 and now another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have relaunched the debate. The answer proffered in MoMA’s “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” assembled by Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design, and Leah Dickerman, curator in the department of painting and sculpture, is that the Bauhaus was, above all, a new form of art education: a radically innovative and progressive school for artists and designers in the modern epoch. This is hardly revelatory, but it’s a valuable frame for rethinking the Bauhaus’ lessons for today. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue advance the argument that under each of its successive architect-directors — Walter Gropius (1919-28), Hannes Meyer (1928-30) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1930-33) — and in three locations — Weimar (1919-25), Dessau (1925-32) and Berlin (1932-33) — the Bauhaus brought together a diverse group of international artists, designers and architects in “a kind of cultural think tank for the times.”2

But if the Bauhaus may be said to have been the ultimate decantation chamber for early 20th-century modernity, it didn’t just emerge from Gropius’ head after World War I as a full-fledged idea. Nor did its afterlife in the various institutions and schools that carried forward its legacy over the remainder of the century play out neatly. The curators have made the decision not only to leave out its often messy pre- and post-history, but also to circumscribe most of the surrounding context, focusing narrowly on the school’s 14-year existence and its leading pedagogical figures and students. (The catalogue does a better job of situating the school’s development as well as some of its exemplary objects in relation to the cultural background, with many fine essays.) As Bauhaus scholars have amply documented, the roots of the school’s design reformism lay in the British Arts and Crafts Movement (especially as filtered into Germany in the first decade of the century by the architect, author and cultural ambassador Hermann Muthesius), the European Werkstätten and Werkbund movements, and the school’s immediate predecessor in Weimar, Henry van de Velde’s Kunstgewerbeschule, whose building also housed the Bauhaus during its initial phase. Pedagogically, the school’s anti-academic, experiential philosophy of learning, variously imparted by its different masters, also had well-established antecedents in 19th-century and early 20th-century progressive education movements, including those of Europeans Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Georg Kerchensteiner, as well as John Dewey in the United States. Arguably, what was unprecedented at the Bauhaus was neither the effort to forge a new unity between the fine and applied arts, nor even, subsequently, between esthetic practice and commercial production, but rather the school’s extraordinary gathering of creative talents in the service of these objectives. That it sustained this project for nearly a decade and a half with a total of 33 faculty and 1,250 students over the course of its life, all the while being threatened by reactionary political forces and destabilizing economic ones, is all the more remarkable. Even if the school’s efforts to bring its designs to the marketplace had checkered success, the widespread diffusion of its intellectual and pedagogical program remains a phenomenon. Apropos of the show’s title, it is worth emphasizing that the workshop per se is hardly a modern form of organization. It harks back to the medieval craft guilds or Bauhütten — brotherhoods of masons and other tradesmen that existed all over Europe from Gothic times, typically bound together by arcane social rituals and unified spiritually around architecture, or more precisely Baukunst, a monumental synthesis of the building arts. The instructors in the Bauhaus workshops, initially split up into formal and practical training, were known as masters rather than professors; students progressed from Lehrlinge (apprentices or trainees) to Gesellen (journeymen) to Jungmeister (young masters).

The transmission of knowledge on the model of the guild workshop also parallels the hieratic relationship between master and acolyte in a religious sect. That the Bauhaus was steeped in both these atmospheres—of craft and cult—in the immediate aftermath of World War I is richly conveyed in the exhibition, which opens with Lyonel Feininger’s famous woodcut made to accompany the school’s founding program. The crystalline image of a Gothic cathedral is charged with the same romantic-utopian afflatus that inspired the revolutionary socialism of several other cultural-political groups formed in the early months of the Weimar Republic, including the Workers Council for Art, the November Group and the circle of architectural fantasists brought together by Bruno Taut and known as the Glass Chain. Handcrafted products by the school’s bookbinding and pottery workshops, including a series of superb vessels by the future monk Theodor Bogler, as well as curious totems like a coffin designed by Lothar Schreyer and Marcel Breuer’s long-lost “African” Chair — a student project created in collaboration with Gunta Stölzl in the weaving workshop — likewise reflect an early Bauhaus whose metaphysical-material concerns were remote from the machine. Similarly, the Sommerfeld House, a log dwelling for a rich timber merchant and Bauhaus patron, realized in 1920-21 by Gropius with his partner Adolf Meyer, belongs to this late Expressionist mood. Represented in the exhibition by a series of original photographs and a colored drawing, the house was based on a system of wood prefabrication, and its construction was solemnized by a ritualistic topping-out ceremony (regrettably documented only by the invitation produced in the Bauhaus printing workshop). Inside, it was fitted with elaborately carved wall decorations, stained-glass windows and furnishings crafted by Joost Schmidt, Josef Albers, Breuer and other Bauhaus students in a Gesamtkunstwerk collaboration among all the workshops. The first of a series of “worksites,” the house inaugurated the on-site approach to teaching architecture that prevailed until the subject was finally integrated into the curriculum under department head Hannes Meyer in 1927. Along with his Märzgefallenen-Denkmal (Monument to the March Dead), 1921-22 — a cantilevered concrete “thunderbolt,” displayed in an early plaster model — the Sommerfeld House reveals a wholly different Gropius from the one associated with both the sachlich Fagus Factory of 1914, which made his early reputation as a functionalist architect, and the Bauhaus building to come in 1925-26 in Dessau.

The most visually arresting image from this period is an abstract painting by Johannes Itten titled Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt (Ascent and Resting Point), 1919. The canvas unexpectedly evokes the Parisian Orphism of the Delaunays or František Kupka, attesting to more complex cross-pollination across the modernist map than conventional narratives (and this show) suggest. The charismatic Itten, whose sacerdotal persona and haptic teaching methods made him the school’s most distinctive figure in these years, also inaugurated the famous Vorkurs in 1919. Subsequently modified under his successors, the half-year-long preliminary course was the portal to the workshops and would serve for most of the next decade as a fundamental initiation rite for every student entering the school. Continue reading

Architecture in cultural strife: Russian and Soviet architecture in drawings, 1900-1953

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Originally published over at Metropolis magazine’s online edition. A longer, slightly more comprehensive version of the review appears below.

The exhibition “Architecture in Cultural Strife: Russian and Soviet Architecture in Drawings, 1900-1953” opened two weeks ago at the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Bringing together a total of 79 unique architectural delineations from this period, the show spans the twilight years of the Romanov dynasty up to Stalin’s death in 1953.

Pavel Siuzor, Dom Zinger (1902-1904) K.N. Rouchefort and V.A. Linskii, 1906-1907

One is immediately struck by the periodization, bookended as it is by the death of a major political figure on one side and the turn of the century on the other. In terms of historical events, the latter of these seems fairly arbitrary. Stylistically, however, the date makes a bit more sense. Around 1900, Russian architects began to emulate non-academic design movements originating abroad. What Jugendstil had been to Germany, Art Nouveau to France, Sezessionstil to Austria — so stil’ modern [стиль модерн] was to Russia. Modernist architecture (sovremennaia arkhitektura [современная архитектура], not to be confused with stil’ modern) was still a couple decades away, but Pavel Siuzor and Gavriil Baranovskii introduced the style to Petrograd with some success.

Not much happened in the fifteen years from 1905 to 1920, at least as far as architecture is concerned. Of course this was largely due to the turbulence of the time. Two wars, a string of social and military crises, and multiple political revolutions interrupted ordinary construction cycles, preventing anything like normality from taking shape. Meanwhile, the widespread destruction of the country’s built infrastructure wrought by years of bloody civil war created a demand for new projects to replace what had been lost.

Nikolai Ladovskii Communal House Experimental project for Zhivskulptarkh Moscow, USSR 1920 Pencil, colored pencil, and colored ink on tracing paper 40 x 21 cmIl'ia Golosov, Lenin House 1924

After conditions finally stabilized in 1922, an experimental phase set in. Inspired by revolutionary tendencies in the visual arts — by abstract painting and sculptural constructs — an architectural avant-garde began to take shape. Highly innovative research was conducted at schools like INKhUK and VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN in Moscow, as well as the Academy of Arts and RABFAK in Leningrad. Students of architecture were encouraged to explore the possibilities of new materials and forms. The emerging Soviet avant-garde was hardly monolithic, however, despite certain popular depictions that represent the modernists as one homogenous bloc. While such simplifications are often expedient, even necessary, some nuance is inevitably lost along the way.

Continue reading

On “conference communism”

Some thoughts in closing

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Fol­low­ing the ap­pear­ance of my be­lated re­port on “con­fer­ence com­mun­ism” a couple days ago, I re­ceived a num­ber of ap­pre­ci­at­ive com­ments, e-mails, and replies. It would seem I wasn’t alone in my rather low opin­ion of these con­fer­ences. A few of the people who sent me notes to this ef­fect caught me genu­inely off guard; it al­ways feels vin­dic­at­ing to know that oth­ers agree with you.

Pre­dict­ably, however, the re­sponses that came in from the speak­ers who ac­tu­ally par­ti­cip­ated in the event, es­pe­cially those who had been singled out for cri­ti­cism, were less than ap­pre­ci­at­ive. Some seemed to take it all quite per­son­ally — and one of them, George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, went so far as to de­friend me on Face­book. Was a bit sur­prised by it, to be hon­est; I’d al­ways thought he had pretty thick skin, oth­er­wise. For the most part, I think, I’d re­frained from the ad hom­inem at­tacks and man­aged to keep my re­marks strictly ad rem. Maybe he felt that by at­tack­ing his cre­den­tials to speak on a giv­en sub­ject, I was thereby in­dir­ectly at­tack­ing his char­ac­ter. This was not my in­ten­tion.

Congress of Soviet deputies, 1918

Either way, it’s not like it mat­ters. I’d an­ti­cip­ated it any­way. Just goes to show you can’t please every­one. Continue reading

The ghost of communism past

Against “conference communism”

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Image: El Lissitzky, PROUN

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A few months ago I attended the “Communist Currents” mini-conference at Cornell University in Ithaca. Douglas La Rocca and I departed from New York near the crack of dawn, around 5:00 AM, driving upstate to Ithaca. There we met up with his buddy Roger Palomeque, an engineer with an interest in Marxian economics and one of Doug’s fellow Linux-nerds. The drive to and from was cool, as was hanging out with Roger, but I was less than impressed with the actual proceedings of the symposium. I suppose the posh digs of the conference setting at Cornell’s White House were pretty fun/funny. The building’s main claim to fame is that former President (and staunch anti-communist) Ike Eisenhower once ate there. Only fitting that a series of talks on “the communist idea” today should be held there, really — though the very fact such a thing is permitted should give some indication of how benign the “idea” has become.

Over the last five years, books and conferences on “the communist idea” have been greeted by some as heralding the rebirth of the radical Left (“the long night of the Left is coming to a close”). Verso has released a string of titles and essay collections in its “pocket communism” series, featuring marquee names like Alain Badiou, Boris Groys, and Slavoj Žižek, as well as a host of “rising stars” — second-tier up-and-comers like Jodi Dean, Bruno Bosteels, and Alberto Toscano. After a few sellout conferences in London, New York, and Berlin, the organizers brought it to Seoul in South Korea, a longstanding stronghold of anti-communist reaction. Surely all this bodes well for the revolution, right?

Nearly a century ago, there were those who hailed the workers’ councils as the units of proletarian organization par excellence, a vehicle for the self-emancipation of the working class. Led by figures like Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick, they were called the “council communists.” Today, it is instead the academics’ conferences that hold the promise of communism (or so it would seem). It is only fitting that they be dubbed, in like fashion, the “conference communists.” Continue reading

Utopia, Ltd.: Constructivism reconstructed

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There’s a piece I wrote up going over the Utopia, Ltd. show that’s been posted on the Metropolis Magazine blog, titled “Reconstructivism.” If anyone reading this is in London, I’d encourage them to check it out. Looks great, and everyone who’s been to it has had only good things to say. You can read my own thoughts on the matter by clicking the linked article above.

Paul Prudence, a photographer living in London, was the one who first got in touch with me about it. So he deserves some credit for alerting my attention, and major props on the photos he took of the models at the exhibit (shown below). I’m also grateful to Sammy Medina — Metropolis’ web editor — for looking it over and providing me with the interview materials sent in by the model-maker, Henry Milner, and the lead curator, Elena Sudakova.

All photos here were taken by Paul Prudence.

Architecture and capitalism

Event review
Architecture
and Capitalism:
1845 to the Present

Book launch at the Storefront for Art
………and Architecture in Manhattan

Featuring:
Thomas Angotti
Peggy Deamer
Quilian Riano
Michael Sorkin

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The following review of the book release event for the new collection Architecture and Capitalism was first published over at Quaderns d’arquitectura i urbanisme, the journal of the Association of Architects of Catalonia. A trilingual publication, it features articles written in Spanish, English, and Catalan.

Last night’s book launch for Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present drew a large crowd to the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Lower Manhattan. The precise relation of the event to the newly-released Routledge collection was obscure, however. Of the four featured speakers — Thomas Angotti, Peggy Deamer, Quilian Riano, and Michael Sorkin — only Deamer and Sorkin contributed pieces to the volume. Deamer, the prime mover behind Architecture and Capitalism, wrote the introduction; Sorkin was responsible for its pithy four-page conclusion. Effectively bookending the discussion, then, the book’s themes entered into the conversation in a largely oblique fashion. For the most part, the talk was limited to generalities.

Architecture and Capitalism - Quilian Riano, Michael Sorkin, Peggy Deamer, and Thomas Angotti (photo by Anna Kats)

Architecture and Capitalism: Quilian Riano, Michael Sorkin,
Peggy Deamer, and Thomas Angotti (photo by Anna Kats)

Some of the topics focused on by the speakers were fairly familiar, by now standard fare for reflections on architecture’s role in society. There was reference, of course, to the supremely compromised position of the architect within the existing system of capitalist reproduction. Given the present constraints encountered in the profession, Sorkin and Angotti pointed out, designers are typically bound to the whims of their clients. What little leverage can be mustered during the building process is usually a function of the “name recognition” of their firm. Otherwise, architects have very little say in how their visions are eventually realized, unless they stipulate specific guarantees beforehand (making it far more difficult to secure a contract in the first place). If they don’t follow the instructions or meet the expectations of their employers, in most cases, all funding is cut off and the commission is lost. Questions concerning the supposed ethical obligations of the architect were also raised in this connection. Should architects refuse to lend their name to certain kinds of building projects? Prisons featuring cells for solitary confinement were listed by Sorkin as obvious examples, along with military installations with facilities built-in to serve as torture chambers. Deamer brought up the extraordinary conditions of exploitation suffered by the workers mobilized to construct, for instance, gleaming skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Not only the living labor involved in their assembly, Riano added somewhat vaguely, but also the dead labor embodied in the materials assembled.

Besides these scattered considerations, more theoretical issues of interpretation were also touched upon. Included here was some debate regarding the relationship between the material “base” of social production and the ideological “superstructure” it supports — that controversial architectural metaphor supplied by Marx over 150 years ago. Continue reading

Event review: Le Corbusier/New York

Sammy Medina and Ross Wolfe

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Saturday, June 8th, 2013
Center for Architecture
Museum of Modern Art
New York, NY

Originally published at Former People:
A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers
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“Le Corbusier/New York” was billed as a two-day international symposium focusing on the architect’s relationship to the city, and featured such luminaries within the field as Jean-Louis Cohen, Kenneth Frampton, Peter Eisenman, Stanislaus von Moos, and Mary McLeod, along with a host of other lesser-known critics and historians. Jointly organized by the Center for Architecture together with the Museum of Modern Art, the event was held at the former’s downtown headquarters on the occasion of the latter’s upcoming exhibit, Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes. Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, was on hand to preside over several rounds of the discussion. With headlining acts like these, the space was predictably packed to the gills. Somewhere around two hundred people attended the symposium.

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Beneath this general rubric of Corbusier’s relationship to New York City, the quality of the presentations varied widely. The first batch was composed of papers decidedly more academic, even scholastic, in character. Of these first few twenty-minute talks (though they frequently ran over time), the one by Mardges Bacon “On the Streets of the Vertical City: Le Corbusier in New York, 1935” was perhaps the most compelling. In all likelihood, this owed  its fidelity to the historical record of Corbusier’s actual visit to the city in that year, rather than to speculation about the impact the city might have had in concept — in the abstract. Bacon carefully traced his ambivalent impressions of New York as he encountered it in person for the first time, no longer forced to make do with the visual descriptions or the photographic documentation of others. She explained the great modernist’s awe before the sheer verticality of Manhattan, and his profound admiration for skyscrapers’ use of the latest building materials and techniques. In Corbusier’s view, the real tragedy was that such modern methods were forced to fit the framework of such antiquated zoning laws. Continue reading