The works of Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre’s work spans a variety of disciplines and fields, ranging from philosophy and sociology to architecture and urbanism. Obviously, this relates to a number of the themes discussed on this blog. A past entry featured Alfred Schmidt’s laudatory essay dedicated to Lefebvre, which I urge everyone to read. Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, defended his contemporary against “criticism blind and dumb” in the press: “You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You have no desire to understand that play by the Marxist Lefebvre, but you can be sure that the Marxist Lefebvre understands your incomprehension perfectly, and above all that he understands (for I myself suspect you to be more subtle than stupid) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it.”

Lefebvre blazed a path, moreover, in the theoretical inquiry into “everyday life,” taking up a thread from the early Soviet discourse on the transformation of “everyday life” [быт] and Marx’s musings on “practical everyday life” [praktischen Werkeltagslebens]. Trotsky had authored a book on the subject in the 1920s, under the title Problems of Everyday Life, and the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life by Lefebvre, released over the course of four decades (1946, 1961, and 1981), can be seen as an elaboration of its themes. Eventually, inspired by this series, the Situationist upstar Raoul Vaneigem would publish The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), while the Catholic theorist Michel de Certeau released two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (1976, 1980).

Russell Jacoby passingly remarked in his excellent Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981) that “Lefebvre’s career in France recapitulates the general development of Western Marxism.” He continued: “Lefebvre left the French Communist party only after 1956, but his earlier activities and writings betrayed a commitment to unorthodox Marxism. He belonged to a group called ‘Philosophies,’ which briefly (1925-1926) formed an alliance with the surrealists. With Norbert Guterman he translated Hegel, Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, and early Marx. He also wrote with Guterman a book that represented a high point of French Western Marxism in this earlier period, La Conscience mystifiée. Published in 1936, the title itself hints of History and Class Consciousness… rewritten in the context of the struggle against fascism.” Continue reading

Nikolai Sokolov, proposal for a resort hotel in Matsetsa (1928-1929)

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Spotted over at Togdazine, which translates roughly to Then Magazine. Check it out. It’s a great site.

Nikolai Sokolov (1904-1990) was a student at VKhUTEIN, the State Arts and Technical Institute, from which he graduated in 1930. A member of the Society of Modern Architects, or OSA, Sokolov served as an editor for the group’s journal Modern Architecture. Later he worked with the constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg as part of Stroikom, the building commission within the state planning agency of the RSFSR, Gosplan.

He designed this hotel spa or resort for his final project in an architecture course taught by Aleksandr Vesnin.

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Курсовой проект Николая Соколова «Курортной гостиницы в Мацесте», выполнен на архитектурном факультете ВХУТЕИН в мастерской А. Веснина. IV курс. 1928/29 учебный год.

Николай Соколов — (1904, Одесса — 1990, Москва) член Юго-Лефа. Окончил ВХУТЕИН в 1930 году. Член: ОСА, редколлегии журнала «Современная архитектура». Работал в Стройкоме РСФСР, Госплане РСФСР, Гипрогоре под руководством Моисея Гинзбурга.

Курсовойпроект Николая Соколова «Курортной гостиницы в Мацесте»

“Thus is conquered the whole of nature.” Cover sheet for the project.

«Так берите природу всем…». Вводный лист к проекту.

Генплан

General plan.

Генплан.

Индивидуальный домик. Фасад, планы, развертка «улицы»

Individual housing-unit [domik]. Façade, plans, elevation, “the street.”

Индивидуальный домик. Фасад, планы, развертка «улицы».

Фасад индивидуального домика

Left: Axonometric view of an individual housing-unit, and “street” perspective. Right: Façade of an individual housing-unit.

Слева: Аксонометрия индивидуального домика, перспектива «улицы». Справа: Фасад индивидуального домика.

Перспектива подземной «улицы»

Perspective of the subterranean “street.”

Перспектива подземной «улицы».

Общественный комплекс. Фабрика — кухня. Фасад, перспектива, разрез. Разрезы подземной «улицы»

Communal complex. Factory-kitchen. Façade, perspective, section. Underground “street” sections.

Общественный комплекс. Фабрика-кухня. Фасад, перспектива, разрез. Разрезы подземной «улицы».

Images courtesy the archives of the Shchusev Museum of Architecture.

In memoriam: Zaha Hadid, 1950-2016

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Zaha Hadid passed away unexpectedly today, suffering a heart attack in a Miami hospital where she was being treated for bronchitis. She was 65.

It would be disingenuous for me to claim I was an admirer of Hadid’s oeuvre. Doubtless she was an important figure within contemporary architecture, and in many ways a pioneer. As an Iraqi-born woman working in a field dominated by white men, Hadid overcame numerous obstacles to achieve rare prominence among her peers. Other women had enjoyed moderate success as builders, like the urban planner Catherine Bauer and the architect Eileen Gray, but never won the accolades Hadid did in her lifetime. Non-Western architects have likewise made only modest headway in the modern period. Gabriel Guévrékian, of Persian-Armenian origin, was one of the founders of CIAM in 1928, while the Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei perhaps alone can claim to rival Hadid’s accomplishments.

To be perfectly honest, I was much more torn up about the 2012 death of Lebbeus Woods. But he’d been sick for a long time. Woods was something of a mentor to Hadid when she was first starting out in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her early architectural delineations — or “paintings,” as she called them — were often quite impressive on a formal level. She worked in much the same speculative vein as Woods or Daniel Libeskind. Incidentally, before he died, Woods devoted a short essay split up into three posts on his blog, all of which analyzed Hadid’s drawings:

Hadid’s work of the eighties was paradoxical. From one perspective, it seemed to be a postmodern effort to strike out in a new direction by appropriating the tectonic languages of an earlier epoch — notably Russian avant-garde at the time of the Revolution — but in a purely visual, imagistic way: the political and social baggage had been discarded. This gave her work an uncanny effect. The drawings and architecture they depicted were powerfully asserting something, but just what the something was, in traditional terms, was unclear. However, from another perspective this work seemed strongly rooted in modernist ideals: its obvious mission was to reform the world through architecture. Such an all-encompassing vision had not been seen since the 1920s. Zaha alluded to this when she spoke about “the unfinished project” of modernism that she clearly saw her work carrying forward. With this attitude she fell into the anti-postmodern (hardly popular) camp championed by Jürgen Habermas. Understandably, people were confused about what to think, but one thing was certain: what they saw looked amazing, fresh and original, and was an instant sensation.

Studying the drawings from this period, we find that fragmentation is the key. Animated bits and pieces of buildings and landscapes fly through the air. The world is changing. It breaks up, scatters, and reassembles in unexpectedly new, yet uncannily familiar forms. These are the forms of buildings, of cities, places we are meant to inhabit, clearly in some new ways, though we are never told how. We must be clever enough, or inventive enough, to figure it out for ourselves — the architect gives no explicit instructions, except in the drawings. Maybe we, too, must psychically fragment, scatter, and reassemble in unexpected new configurations of thinking and living. Or, maybe the world, in its turbulence and unpredictability, has already pushed us in this direction.

Like Libeskind, but unlike Woods, Hadid eventually transitioned from paper architecture to the realm of built objects. Receiving major commissions around the world, she began to cultivate a complex, curvilinear, and organic style. Patrik Schumacher, her theoretical spokesperson, called it “parametricism.” Aided by new digital programs, which could calculate the area of contoured surfaces, Hadid developed a biomorphic expressionism that became her trademark. My opinion of these later structures is considerably lower than it is of her earlier, more suprematist-inflected buildings. I quite like the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, as well as the Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati. Essentially I agree with Woods here: “In one sense, [computer-aided design] liberated Zaha, enabling her to create the unprecedented forms that have, by the present day, become her signature. In another, it brought an end to a certain intimacy and feel of tentative, almost hesitant expectancy, in her drawings and designs, that was part of the intense excitement they generated.”

Below I am appending some extremely hi-res images of Zaha’s drawings. Longish essays by Hal Foster and Gevork Hartoonian, both insightful and making similar points about the prioritization of image and spectacle over building and tectonics, also follow.

Hadid, Zaha Title Vitra Fire Station Date 1994 Location Weil am Rhein, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany Description aerial view; landscape painting 1 Hadid, Zaha Title Vitra Fire Station Date 1994 Location Weil am Rhein, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany Description longitudinal section

Neo avant-garde gestures

Hal Foster
The Art-Architecture
Complex
(2012)
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In the last decade, Zaha Hadid has advanced from a vanguard figure in architecture schools to a celebrity architect with credibility enough in boardrooms to have several big buildings completed and several other projects launched. This upswing began in 2003 when her Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, her first structure in the United States, opened to wide acclaim, and it was confirmed in 2005 when her BMW plant center in Leipzig, which proved her ability to design for industry, was completed. In 2004 Hadid won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize — the first woman to be so honored — and in 2006 she received a retrospective of thirty years of her work (paintings as well as designs) at the Guggenheim Museum. More recently, her Museum of XXI Arts (MAXXI) in Rome appeared to warm reviews in 2009, and there are other large commissions in the works, including office buildings and cultural complexes in the Middle East, an opera house in Guangzhou, and an aquatic center for the 2012 Olympics in London. Hadid can no longer be dismissed, as her critics were once wont to do, as a woman who stood out in a male profession on account of her brassy personality and exotic background (she was born in Baghdad in 1950). Indeed, for her proponents Hadid has done more than any of her peers to rethink old representational modes of architecture and to exploit its new digital technologies. It is this view I consider here, with special attention to her recourse to select moments in modernist art and architecture.

For several years after her 1977 graduation from the Architectural Association (AA) in London, Hadid had little work of her own. In this lull she turned to modernist painting, in particular the Suprematist abstraction of Kasimir Malevich. Hadid explored this work in painting of her own, which she regarded primarily as a way not only to develop an abstract language for her architectural practice, but also to render the standard conventions of architectural imaging (plan, elevation, perspective, and axonometric projection) more dynamic than they usually appear. Already in her AA thesis, an unlikely scheme for a hotel complex on a hypothetical Thames bridge, Hadid adapted the idiom of the Malevich “Arkhitektons,” plaster models, built up in geometric blocks, that he proposed in the middle 1920s for a monumental architecture in the young Soviet Union. This was only an initial gesture, but it was not an auspicious one, for, however enlivened with Suprematist red and black, the Arkhitekton blocks remain static in her adaptation. Nevertheless, her project was shaped: “I felt we must reinvestigate the aborted and untested experiments of modernism,” Hadid wrote in retrospect, “not to resurrect them but to unveil new fields of building.”1 Continue reading

Margaret Bourke-White in the USSR, 1931

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Margaret Bourke-White was one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, and certainly one of my personal favorites. Early in her career she was granted access to the rooftop of the Chrysler Building, where another photojournalist captured her image atop one of the metallic eagles jutting out the side. This iconic photographic can be seen below, along with some other early photos she took of various buildings.

Bourke-White On The Chrysler Building

Bourke-White was born in New York City in 1904. She became interested in photography while studying at Cornell University. After studying under Clarence White at Columbia University, she opened a studio in Cleveland where she specialized in architectural photography. In 1929 Bourke-White was recruited as staff photographer for Fortune, and made several trips to the Soviet Union. Eyes on Russia, a firsthand account of her experiences in the USSR, was published in 1931.

Her impressions of the USSR in the early 1930s were varied, but generally positive. “When Fortune was in its infancy during the thirties, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia,” Bourke-White later recalled. She dubbed the Soviet Union “the land of the day after tomorrow.” The title was ironic, apparently. For not only did this indicate the country’s futuristic bent; it also hinted at deeply-rooted confusion:

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Le Corbusier, the famous modern architect, likewise noted this experiment in reformatting the work week in his postscript “Moscow Atmosphere” in Precisions (1930). But the title also suggested communism’s headlong dive into the future. Making her way through the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Bourke-White also stumbled across Stalin’s closest relations. She photographed the communist leader’s mother, great-aunt, and several others. A few decades later, she recorded a few snippets about their meeting. Aside from Stalin’s family and relatives, Bourke-White also photographed a number of other eminent personages in the Soviet Union: Karl Radek, Sergei Eisenstein, Hugh Cooper, etc. Ten years later she would portray Stalin himself. In addition to these figures, however, she also took many portraits of ordinary people from everyday life in the USSR.

Deeply influenced by her experience of the Great Depression, she became increasingly interested in politics, joining Life in 1936.  Her photograph of the Fort Peck Dam appeared on its first front cover. In 1937 Bourke-White worked with the best-selling novelist Erskine Caldwell on the book You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). The book was later criticized for supposed “left-wing bias,” upsetting whites in the deep South with its passionate attack on Jim Crow. Bourke-White was a member of the American Artists’ Congress. The group supported state-funding of the arts, fought discrimination against African American artists, and supported artists fighting against fascism in Europe. She also subscribed to the Daily Worker and was a member of several Communist Party front organizations.

Margaret Bourke-White, 92 canvas

Bourke-White married Caldwell in 1939. They were the only foreign journalists in the Soviet Union when the German Army invaded in 1941. When Bourke-White and Caldwell returned to the United States in 1942, they collaborated to produce another attack on social inequality, Say Is This the USA? During the Second World War, Bourke-White served as a war correspondent, working for both Life and the US Air Force. Having survived a torpedo attack en route to North Africa, she was with United States troops when they reached the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war Bourke-White continued her interest in racial inequality by documenting Gandhi’s non-violent campaign in India and apartheid in South Africa. She also captured a grisly photo of a South Korean soldier smiling after decapitating of North Korean communist guerilla. During the Korean Civil War, the US backed the South Korean army and even directly supported it with marines.

The FBI had been collecting information on Bourke-White’s political activities since the 1930s and in the 1950s became a target for Joe McCarthy and the Unamerican Activities Committee. However, a statement reaffirming her belief in democracy and her opposition to dictatorship of the left or of the right, enabled her to avoid being cross-examined by the committee. In 1952 Bourke-White was discovered to be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Unable to take photographs, she spent eight years writing her autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). Margaret Bourke-White died at Darien, Connecticut, in 1971.

Below is posted an excerpt from her autobiography that goes over her first round of visits to Russia in the early 1930s.

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Land of the day after tomorrow

Margaret Bourke-White
Portrait of Myself
September 1963

 

In the early thirties, when Fortune was in its infancy, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia. No foreign photographers had been allowed across Russian borders to take a direct look at what was going on under the Soviet Five-Year Plan. Foreign engineering consultants — mostly Americans — came and went with comparative freedom. But for the professional photographer from the outside world, it was a closed country. Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open, and I wanted to be first.

With my enthusiasm for the machine as an object of beauty, I felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize almost overnight was just cut out for me. Peasants who had been taken from the plow and put on the punch press — how did they manage this jump of centuries? Although my approach was nontechnical, I had been in factories enough to appreciate that industry has a history-machines are developed and men grow along with them. Here was a unique opportunity to see a country in transition between a medieval past and an industrialized future.

No one could have known less about Russia politically than I knew — or cared less. To me, politics was colorless beside the drama of the machine. It was only much later that I discovered that politics could be an absorbing subject, with a profound effect on human destiny.

The person most helpful in giving me background on Russia was Cleveland’s live-wire city manager, Dan Morgan. From him I got some conception of the tremendous range of heavy industry being built with the technical assistance of American firms. There was virtually a little Cleveland within Soviet borders. Warner & Swasey and Foote-Burt were tooling up Stalingrad. Two of Cleveland’s leading construction companies, McKee and Austin, built some of the biggest installations in the Soviet Union — from steel mills in Siberia to oil refineries on the Black Sea. Detroit, too, was prominently represented by Ford; Schenectady by General Electric. Ford’s industrial architect, Albert Kahn, was laying out the entire group of factory buildings for Stalingrad, now Volgograd. The Newport News Shipbuilding Company was furnishing what were then the world’s largest hydroturbines for Dnieprostroi, and the huge Dnieper Dam was erected under the experienced direction of Col. Hugh L. Cooper, builder of America’s Muscle Shoals.

These great American builders and their staffs of engineers and planners were not, of course, dangerous Reds, or even fellow travelers. They were not working for ideological or propaganda purposes, but strictly for business reasons or — as the Marxists might have said — “the profit motive.” The role played by American industrialists in building up the Soviet giant cannot be overestimated.

Margaret Bourke-White, American engineer Col. Hugh Cooper, the chief conslultant for the construction of Russia's Dnieper Dam, holdling pipe as he poses before the dam's spillway (1931)

The idea of running photographs of the sprouting industries of the USSR intrigued Fortune’s editors, but they had grave doubts whether I could get anything done. They were sending me to Germany to take pictures of industry, and I decided to push on from there. I had applied for a Russian visa six months earlier at Intourist, the Soviet travel agency in New York. In Berlin, I was puzzled when I discovered my visa was not waiting for me, because the Intourist official had been so enthusiastic about my industrial photographs. “Your pictures will be your passport,” he kept repeating.

Not only was there no visa at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin, but the officials there had never heard of my grand plan to chronicle Soviet industry, or of me either. I opened up the ever-present portfolio of my industrial work and was told again my pictures would be my passport. The Embassy officials dismissed me courteously with instructions to return the day after tomorrow. I returned the day after tomorrow and continued to do so for five and a half weeks.

I woke up before dawn one morning and restlessly started walking from the Hotel Adlon past the Brandenburg Gate and up Unter den Linden. As I passed under the window of the Soviet Embassy, I heard a whistle over my head. I looked up, and there, at the window, stood the Soviet consul. He was waving a piece of paper. It was the telegram granting my visa. I bought a cheap trunk and filled it with canned food. I had been warned that if I traveled off the beaten path, I would find near famine conditions. That night I left for Moscow.

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Even getting to one of these evaporating appointments was a feat. Taxis were rare and apt to break down on the way. Next choice was a droshky, a carriage so worn it seemed a breath would blow it to pieces. You were at the mercy of the bearded driver who might dump you out halfway to your destination if he thought his horse was tired. The next possibility was to get on a streetcar if you could get the conductor to stop when it was literally dripping with human beings.

I remember a day when my interpreter and I squeezed into one of these bursting streetcars. The conductor held out her hand for our fare: “Ten kopecks.”
……“We do not have change,” said my interpreter. “But here’s a ruble.”
……“But I cannot take the ruble. I cannot take tips. It’s against the law.”
……“What shall we do? We have no kopecks.”
……“Get off the car.” The conductor stopped the car in the middle of the crowded street, and in true Russian fashion, the passengers discussed our dilemma.

While the debate raged, streetcars halted, traffic slowed to a standstill. Finally, the passengers rose unanimously to our support. We could stay on the car. We could keep our ruble. The car started and the blocked traffic rolled into motion again.

With all the absurdities, there was a quality about the people I can only call exasperating charm. On my visits to the various commissars, I was always received hospitably. Inevitably, I was told two things: one was to return the day after tomorrow; the other was that my pictures would be my passport. Yet I was fortunate in having something as tangible as my pictures of American steel mills, factories and refineries to show what I wanted to do photographically in the Soviet Union. I began getting very limited permission to take pictures in and around Moscow. On alternate days, I did what little work I could, and on the Days After Tomorrow, I visited the Commissariats of Heavy Industry and Railroads, pressing for a big tour with proper authority to travel and take pictures. During these visits, scores of admiring Russians crowded in to examine minutely my pictures of American factories, while I slipped in reminders that there were many beautiful pictures to be taken in Soviet factories. I had come for only a few weeks, and already half of my time had trickled uselessly away.

“Yes,” the officials would say. “The Amerikanka is right. The great Lenin said, ‘Time is our most precious possession’.” I don’t know whether it was the counsel of the deceased Lenin that took effect or my persistence, but finally the Day After Tomorrow really came, and I set out to tour the industrial centers with a highly competent young girl interpreter, my trunk of food, my bulky camera cases, a sheaf of permits and, most important, that portfolio of photographs that indeed was to be my passport. The pictures soon became dog-eared and battered, but they opened many doors.

Everywhere I traveled, I heard about the Amerikanskoe tempo. It was the watchword of the hour, the ultimate in praise. In Stalingrad, particularly where the factories were modeled after Ford in Detroit, the workers adored the conveyor belt as a symbol of the Amerikanskoe tempo. The workers who gathered in crowds made suggestions, smoked cigarettes, eulogized the conveyor, broke into oratory at the very sight of it, did everything but run it.

At Dnieprostroi, during the first month, half of the locomotive cranes were busy picking up the other half that had broken down on the job. The workmen were like children playing with new toys. In the power installations, they acted as though throwing on a new generator was like turning on an electric fan. The endless meetings to decide whether or not to use a new tool exasperated the American technicians; tools were hard to get. The tractor was the object of special reverence, but still the tractor operators ran them up and down the fields like racing cars until they broke down.

Machine worship was everywhere; it permeated even the classic Russian ballet. Little girls with gear wheels in gold or silver painted on their chests danced Machine Dances. The people were worshiping at new shrines with the fervor of religious zealots. It was as though they needed to replace their religion — which was being taken away from them step by step. They looked on the coming of the machine as their Savior; it was the instrument of their deliverance.

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Mondrian: Order and randomness in abstract painting

Meyer Schapiro
Modern Art
(Nov. 1978)
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Mondrian’s abstract paintings appeared to certain of his contemporaries extremely rigid, more a product of theory than of feeling. One thought of the painter as narrow, doctrinaire, in his inflexible commitment to the right angle and the unmixed primary colors. We learn that he broke with a fellow-artist and friend who had ventured to insert a diagonal in that fixed system of vertical and horizontal lines. “After your arbitrary correction of Neo-Plasticism,” he wrote to van Doesburg, “any collaboration, of no matter what kind, has become impossible for me,” and withdrew from the board of the magazine De Stijl, the organ of their advanced ideas.1

Yet in the large comprehensive shows of his art one discovers an astonishing range of qualities, a continuous growth from his twenties to his last years in fertile response to the new art of others and to a new milieu. Even while holding strictly to the horizontal and vertical in the painted lines, Mondrian brought back the abhorred diagonal in the frequent diamond shape of a square canvas. Diagonal axes are implicit too in his placing of paired colors. And in his late work he deviated from his long-held principle of the single plane by interlacing the lines to suggest a layered grid in depth. If his abstract paintings of the 1920s and 1930s seem dogmatically limited in their straight forms, these constant elements, through carefully pondered variation of length, thickness, and interval, compose a scale of forces that he deploys in always individual combinations. When studied closely, the barest works, with only a few units, reveal his canny finesse in shaping a balanced order; that variety in the sparse and straight is a ground of their continuing fascination. One need not analyze that structure, however, to sense its precision and strength. These qualities come to the eye directly like the harmony of a Greek temple. His gravely serious art unites in its forms the large regularities of architecture as a canonical constructed order with a complexity of relations inherited from the painting of nature and the city scene. The persisting white field, in heightened contrast to the black lines, is a luminous ground — it has what may be called after Keats: “the power of white Simplicity” — and, in its division by those lines, provides a measure of the rhythm of the enclosing rectangles.

Like Picasso’s art, Mondrian’s would have to be characterized very differently according to one’s choice of a particular phase as typical. Before the constructive abstract art by which he is best known, his works had been in turn impressionistic, romantic, lyrical, visionary, and symbolic; and in his last years, at seventy, after that severely intellectual style, his paintings became surprisingly sensuous and elated. In assimilating before 1914 the most advanced art of his time, he stood out unmistakably as a painter with his own qualities and powers. Moving from Holland to Paris and later to London and New York, this ascetic artist reacted to each new environment with a quiet enthusiasm, inventing new features that transformed the face of his art. When he worked in the style of Picasso and Braque in 1911 to 1913, he was not far behind them, having absorbed the most recent stage of their rapidly evolving art, and was soon able to move on to more strictly abstract forms of his own invention. Mondrian’s warm embrace of Cubism was the more surprising since he was forty then, with a long-matured practice that would have seemed to discourage the change to a style so different in principle from his own. Even more remarkable is that in adopting this challenging art from painters younger than himself, he derived from it conclusions still more radical, which were to stimulate and guide painters in Europe and America in the following decades. His later work was an outcome of reflection and a firm will to rigor, in keeping with a philosophizing habit and long meditated ideals. Few artists in our century have displayed so ardent a growth.

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Mondrian wrote in more than one article that his goal was to achieve an art of “pure relations.” These, he believed, had been “veiled” in older painting by the particulars of nature which could only distract the viewer from the universal and absolute in art, the true ground of aesthetic harmony.

I wish in this essay to explore closely several of his abstract works in order to bring into clearer sight the character of those “pure relations” and to show their continuity with structures of representation in the preceding art. For this a minute analysis is necessary. It may be tedious or seem superfluous to one who grasps with feeling the order of a work of Mondrian on immediate view. I shall risk it in the belief that it will also bring us nearer to his sensibility and thought.

In a painting of 1926 in the Museum of Modern Art labeled Composition in White and Black, what seems at first glance a square set within a diamond square — a banal motif of decorators and doodlers — becomes to the probing eye a complex design with a subtly balanced asymmetry of unequal lines. We see the square as partly covered and extending into an imaginary field beyond the diamond canvas. If modeling and perspective have been given up, another cue for depth comes into play in this flat painting on the impenetrable plane of the canvas: the overlapping of forms. The intercepting edge advances and the intercepted square recedes as if passing underneath the edge. The whole appears then as a cropped representation of an object in a three-dimensional space. The missing parts are cut off from view at the limits of the diamond field. Only at the upper left corner of the square is the angle closed; but its vertical and horizontal lines cross at that point and are prolonged just enough for us to suppose that what we first perceived as a partly masked square belongs to a larger whole, a lattice or grid formed by bars of varied thickness.2 We are induced by that single crossing to imagine a similar completion of the other bars and their continuity beyond the square. The black grid seems to exist in a space between the plane of the diamond and the white voids enclosed by the painted bars.

Even if we fix our attention on the canvas as a limited plane surface with a painted set of flat marks complete in themselves as a balanced asymmetric design, another mode of spatial intuition is soon aroused: our habitual response to recognizably incomplete forms. The black bars are envisioned unreflectively as parts of a whole continuing beyond the limits of the overlapping diamond field, although no familiar object has been depicted (unless we regard the thick lines of the “abstract” square as a concrete object like the surface of the canvas itself). Each black line is seen then as an intercepted side of a complete square, just as in a perspective view we identify a partly covered object with its whole. The diamond form of Mondrian’s canvas reinforces this effect by the strong contrast of its diagonal edges with the painted lines of the square and by providing between the angles, and especially those above and below, a much greater span than between the parallel lines of the inscribed form. The latter stands out even more decidedly from a larger field in which two lines of the square cross and four triangles are marked as opposing shapes.

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Moisei Ginzburg’s constructivist masterpiece: Narkomfin during the 1930s

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Recently I happened across a cache of extremely rare photos of Moisei Ginzburg’s constructivist masterpiece, Dom Narkomfin, in Moscow. They are reproduced here along with a brief popular exposition of the building’s history and current status by Athlyn Cathcart-Keays, which I thought quite good (despite an overly personalized narrative). Most of the photos were taken by three different individuals:

  1. Charles Dedoyard, a Frenchman and contributor to the avant-garde journal L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui;
  2. Vladimir Gruntal, a noted constructivist photographer and member of Rodchenko’s October Association; and
  3. Robert Byron, a British travel writer and Byzantine historian known for his deep appreciation of architecture.

It’s difficult for me to say whose photographs of Narkomfin I like best, as each capture very different “moods” of the building. Byron’s are dark, brooding, and ominous, while those of Gruntal and Dedoyard are comparatively sunny, vivacious, and light. Someone who knows more about photography, especially architectural photography, might say more about them. Ginzburg’s revolutionary communal housing structure is as photogenic as ever, though the real complexity of the building tends to get lost in single snapshots (whether taken indoors or from the outside). Hopefully I’ll be writing a longer article on Narkomfin soon. Please contact me if you’d like to publish it.

Lately, apart from work, I’ve been wasting far too much time antagonizing tankies on Twitter — defending friends and Slavoj Žižek along the way — instead of spending it on more productive ventures. They’re young, and I’m bored, but it’s not like my trolling and ceaseless mockery will persuade them of anything. So I apologize to anyone I’ve offended these past several weeks. From now on, I’ll try to redirect my energies to more fruitful ends. Besides a few pieces I’ve already written and have stowed on the backburners, I think I’m going to finally finish that book for Zer0. Enjoy these for now.

Charles Dedoyard
Dedoyard, C. Exterior view of the People's Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow September 1932 Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932b Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932a Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932 Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the People's Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932

Vladimir Gruntal

Robert Byron

Unknown

Unknown  Interior views of the House-commune of transitional type communal centre, some showing Solomon Lisagor, Rostokino, Moscow, 1928-1930 [www.imagesplitter.net]-1-1 Unknown  Interior views of the House-commune of transitional type communal centre, some showing Solomon Lisagor, Rostokino, Moscow, 1928-1930 [www.imagesplitter.net]-1-0 Unknown  Interior views of the House-commune of transitional type communal centre, some showing Solomon Lisagor, Rostokino, Moscow, 1928-1930 [www.imagesplitter.net]-0-1 Unknown  Interior views of the House-commune of transitional type communal centre, some showing Solomon Lisagor, Rostokino, Moscow, 1928-1930 [www.imagesplitter.net]-0-0

Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building in Moscow: A Soviet blueprint for collective living

Athlyn Cathcart
The Guardian
May 5, 2015

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In the shadow of one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers in Moscow’s Presnenskii District, an unkempt park gives way to a trio of yellowing buildings in varying states of decay. The crumbling concrete and overgrown wall-garden don’t give much away, but this is the product of the utopian dreams of a young Soviet state — a six-storey blueprint for communal living, known as the Narkomfin building.

Designed by architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis in 1928, the building represents an important chapter in Moscow’s development — as both a physical city and an ideological state. Built to house the employees of the Narodnyo Kommissariat Finansov (Commissariat of Finance), Narkomfin was a laboratory for social and architectural experimentation to transform the byt (everyday life) of the ideal socialist citizen. Continue reading

The historical project

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the
Labyrinth
(1979)
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There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jigsaw puzzle. But unlike the jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately), in research only some of the pieces are available, and theoretically more than one figure can be made from them. In fact, there is always the risk of using, more or less consciously, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle as blocks in a construction game. For this reason, the fact that everything falls into place is an ambiguous sign: either one is completely right or completely wrong. When wrong, we mistake for objective verification the selection and solicitation (more or less deliberate) of the evidence, which is forced to confirm the presuppositions (more or less explicit) of the research itself. The dog thinks it is biting the bone and is instead biting its own tail.[1]

In this way Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi synthesize the labyrinthine path of historical analysis and the dangers with which it is fraught, in one of the few recent volumes that have had the courage to describe, not the Olympian and definitive results of research, but rather its tortuous and complex iter. But why should we propose, at the beginning of a volume dedicated to the adventures of architectural language, the problem of the “jigsaw puzzles” characteristic of historical research? In the first place, we could answer that our intention is to follow an indirect path. Contrary to those who pose the theme of architectural writing — the term “language” should, it seems to us, be adopted only as a metaphor[2] — we shall present the theme of critical writing: is it not the function of criticism to constitute the historical (and thus the real) specificity of artistic writings? Does not historical work possess a language that, entering perpetually into conflict with the multiple techniques of environmental formation, can function like litmus paper to verify the correctness of discourses on architecture?

Only in appearance, then, will we speak of something else. For how often, when probing what is on the fringes of a given problem, do we discover the most useful keys for dealing with the problem itself — particularly if it is as equivocal as the one that we are about to examine.

Let us further define our theme. Architecture, language, techniques, institutions, historical space: are we simply lining up on a wire stretched over a void a series of problems, each with its own intrinsic characteristics, or can we legitimately contest the “terms” used here to trace these problems back to an underlying or hidden structure, in which these words can find a common meaning on which to rest? It is no accident that we have reduced to “words” the density of historically stratified disciplines. Every time, in fact, that the critic’s zeal causes his guilty conscience to erupt, constructing linear routes that force architecture to migrate into language, language into institutions, and institutions into the all-encompassing universality of history, one feels the need to ask how such a totally illegitimate simplification could gain currency.

After the persuasive demonstrations of the untranslatability of architecture into linguistic terms, after Saussure’s discovery that language itself is a “system of differences,” after the calling into question of the conspicuous features of institutions, historical space appears to dissolve, to disintegrate, to become a justification for disordered and elusive multiplicity, a space of domination. Is this not the final outcome reached by a good part of the “Lacanian left” or by an epistemology of pure registration? And after all, is not architectural writing (this phantasm that we now recognize as divided and multiplied into techniques incommunicable among one another) itself an institution, a signifying practice — an ensemble of signifying practices — a multiplicity of projects of domination?

Is it possible to make a history from such “projects” without breaking away from them, without abandoning the multiple perspectives of history itself, and without inquiring into that which permits the very existence of history? Is it still necessary to remember that the totality of the capitalist means of production is a condition for both the cohesion and the diffraction of techniques, that the “mystical character of the commodity” breaks up and multiplies the relationships that are at the base of its own reproduction?

A series of questions confronts the historian who discovers the dishomogeneity of the materials of his work. These questions go to the very roots of historiographical work, uniting indissolubly the question of languages, of techniques, of sciences, of architecture, with that of the languages of history. But which history? Toward what productive ends? With what long-term objectives?

The questions that we are posing arise from a precise assumption. History is viewed as a “production,” in all senses of the term: the production of meanings, beginning with the “signifying traces” of events; an analytical construction that is never definite and always provisional; an instrument of deconstruction of ascertainable realities. As such, history is both determined and determining: it is determined by its own traditions, by the objects that it analyzes, by the methods that it adopts; it determines its own transformations and those of the reality that it deconstructs. The language of history therefore implies and assumes the languages and the techniques that act and produce the real: it “contaminates” those languages and those techniques and, in turn, is “contaminated” by them. With the fading away of the dream of knowledge as a means to power, the constant struggle between the analysis and its objects — their irreducible tension — remains. Precisely this tension is “productive”: the historical “project” is always the “project of a crisis.”[3] Franco Rella writes:

Interpretive knowledge has a conventional character and is a production, a positing of a meaning-in-relation and not an uncovering of the meaning. But what is the limit of this operari, of this activity? What is the locus of this relationship? What lies behind the Fiktion of the subject, of the thing, of the cause, of the being? What, then, can bear this “awful plurality”? The body. “The phenomenon of the body is the richest, the most significant [deutlichere], the most tangible phenomenon: to be discussed first [voranzustellen] methodologically, without coming to any decision about its ultimate meaning.”[4] This, then, is the limit of interpretation, that is to say the locus of the description… In fact, through criticism and the “plurality of interpretation” we have acquired the strength “not to want to contest the world’s restless and enigmatic character,” and in this way genealogy has proved itself to be a critique of values, for it has discovered the material origin of them, the body.[5]

Thus emerges the problem of the “construction” of the object — disciplines, techniques, analytical instruments, long-term structures — to be put in crisis. Immediately the historian is confronted with the problem of the “origins” of the cycles and phenomena that are the objects of his study. But is it not precisely in the study of long-term phenomena that the theme of the origin seems mythological? However much Weber’s “ideal types” or Panofsky’s conceptual structures appear to be instrumental abstractions, is it not precisely in them that the fundamental difference between beginning and origin is posed? And why a beginning? Is it not more “productive” to multiply the “beginnings,” recognizing that where everything conspires to make one recognize the transparency of a unitary cycle there lies hidden an intertwining of phenomena that demands to be recognized as such?

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Small is Beautiful, but Big is Sublime

Kant, Le Corbusier, Koolhaas
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Analytic of the Sublime

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The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation; the sublime, by contrast, is to be found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it, or at its instance, and yet it is also thought as a totality.

— Immanuel Kant, 1793
Critique of Judgment

Bolshevism means big

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“Bolshoi!”

It is a word (a magnificent one) and not a mere matter of party membership.

In 1928, I was called to Moscow to discuss the construction of the Tsentrosoiuz there. I was taken to the office of Mr. Lubinov (now the People’s Commissar, once mayor of Moscow, before that a peasant, and at this particular time President of the Tsentrosoiuz). There was an interpreter there. The President delivered himself of a long speech in which the word ‘bolshoi,’ always delivered with great force, recurred again and again. The interpreter passed on the substance of this speech to me as follows:

The construction of this palace [The Palace of the Soviets] must prove itself an outstanding event in Russian architectural history, a history that only began with the Revolution itself. It is essential that there should be a visible quality of bigness in all the aspects of its design, a bigness achieved not simply by means of physical dimensions, nor by emphasis, but by a judicious regard to proportions. It is essential that this non-military building, the biggest that has so far been envisaged by our regime, should constitute a model: strict expression of function and dignity. All our projects must come into the world under this sign: BIG, bolshoi…

I questioned the interpreter: “That word, ‘bolshoi,’ which Mr. Lubinov kept hammering out, what does it mean?”

“Big!”

“So, Bolshevism…?”

“Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible, the biggest theory, the biggest projects. Maximum. Going to the heart of any question. Examining it in depth. Envisaging the whole. Breadth and size.”

Up to then, I had understood from our newspapers that Bolshevik meant a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth.

— Le Corbusier, 1930
The Radiant City

Manhattan

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The skyscrapers here are much too small.

— Le Corbusier arriving
in Manhattan, 1935 Continue reading

A. Laptev, We build from cardboard [Строим из картона] (1932)

Rad Borislavov

One of the lofty goals of Communist Party and education officials was to create “harmonious human beings” by instilling Soviet morals and work habits into the minds of young children. While literacy rates in the first decade after the October Revolution were remarkably low, reading was soon to become the single most important way of socializing and educating children in the Soviet Union. An important but lesser-known aspect of Soviet 1930s education involved do-it-yourself books. These were conceived as an interactive medium that invited children not only to enjoy reading, absorb information and reflect, but also to develop practical skills needed for the construction of a Communist society.

Compared to other children’s books, do-it-yourself books often encouraged young children to view themselves as responsible adults and engaged citizens. Their topics were numerous and wide-ranging and yet overwhelmingly geared toward the achievement of practical goals at hand and the learning of useful skills for the future. Their themes range from the application of technology in the context of Stalinist industrialization, military preparedness, the importance of voting, and understanding how machines work, to arithmetic, drawing, printing, and making figures of cardboard and wood. Published during the First Five-Year Plan, these books were clearly unified by the particular urgency attributed to the cultivation of practical technical skills and knowledge during that period of accelerated industrialization.

Do-it-yourself books are invariably multicolored, engaging and include easy and simple instructions. They often start with a list of required materials and tools and end with an exhortation to their young readers to build on what they have already learned. Some of the books have a simple plot with characters that walk the reader through the steps of assembling an object. Most lack a plot but sometimes go well beyond the construction of toys. For example, Kak my delali Avroru [How We Made the Cruiser Aurora] asks children to model various objects associated with the historic events on the eve of the October Revolution and then to use these toys and re-enact them in groups. These re-enactments hearken back to the massive theatrical commemorative events of the October Revolution organized on a huge scale during the early 1920s by avant-garde theater directors. Continue reading

Il’ia Chashnik, revolutionary suprematist (1902-1929)

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Il’ia Grigorievich Chashnik was born to an unremarkable Jewish family in Lyucite, Latvia on June 20, 1902. He spent most of his childhood in Vitebsk, leaving school at the age of eleven to work in a small watchmaking workshop.

From 1917 to 1919, Chashnik studied art with the local artist Iurii (Yehuda) Pen before moving to Moscow in 1919 to attend the newly-opened VKhUTEMAS [Higher State Art and Technical Studios]. Just a few months later, however, he transferred to the Vitebsk Art Institute in order to study under the Russian-Jewish folk painter and avant-gardist Marc Chagall. Soon he became enamored of the work of Kazimir Malevich, the mastermind of Suprematism. Malevich also happened to teach at the Institute, before receiving a promotion and taking it over during the winter of 1919-1920. El Lissitzky also mentored Chashnik briefly before departing to Western Europe.

Once his apprenticeship under Malevich began, Chashnik’s paintings underwent a radical change. Chashnik cultivated his own distinctive style within the Suprematist idiom, developing Malevich’s ideas of abstraction and non-figuration to produce floating geometric shapes with crossing planes. While Malevich composed white-on-white paintings wrapped in fragile stillness and simplicity, Chashnik moved toward more dynamic pieces where black was the predominant element.

David Walsh of the World Socialist Website described the young painter’s unique talents with considerable eloquence in a review he wrote of The Great Utopia exhibition of 1993, which featured some of Chashnik’s work. Walsh wrote:

Chashnik’s The Seventh Dimension: Suprematist and his Color Lines in Vertical Motion demonstrate an enormous talent. His Cosmos — Red Circle on Black Surface (1925), for example, is an extraordinary work. A giant red circle (sun, planet) hovers in blackness (sky, atmosphere). Under it on the painting’s surface floats a Suprematist-like structure (space station), lines and rectangles arranged horizontally across a central bar. The Suprematist craft — delicate, outweighed, pale in color — is seemingly directed toward the gigantic, perfect red sphere. The enormity of the task, the terrifying emptiness of the universe, the flimsiness of the vessel, are clear to the viewer.

Along with some other talented students of Malevich’s class — Nikolai Suetin, Vera Ermolaeva, and Lev Iudin — Chashnik participated in the organization of the group POSNOVIS [Followers of the New Art], later renamed UNOVIS [Affirmers of the New Art], contributing to all of its exhibitions. He became particularly close with Suetin, a friendship and creative partnership that would endure until the former’s untimely passing in 1929.

Even further, while still in Vitebsk, Chashnik helped Malevich draft the syllabus for the Department of Architecture and Technology at Vitebsk in 1921. There he explained:

The constructions of Suprematism are blueprints for the building and assembling of forms of utilitarian organisms.Consequently, any Suprematist project is Suprematism extended into functionality. The Department of Architecture and Technology is the builder of new forms of utilitarian Suprematism; as it develops, it is changing into a huge workshop-laboratory, not with the pathetic little workbenches and paints in departments of painting, but with electric machines for casting, with all kinds of apparatuses, with the technological wealth of magnetic forces. [This department works] in concert with astronomers, engineers, and mechanics to attain a single Suprematism, to build organisms of Suprematism — a new form of economics in the utilitarian system of modernity.

When local authorities forced UNOVIS out of Vitebsk in 1922, Chashnik, Suetin, Ermolaeva, and Iudin followed Malevich to join the GINKhUK in Petrograd. Throughout the Petrograd/Leningrad period, Chashnik spent his days exploring possible applications of Suprematist art to everyday life.

Creative product photography, catalog and web-site photography Creative product photography, catalog and web-site photography Architektonisches Projekt, 1926-1927. Bewegung der Farbe, 1921-1922. Suprematistische Komposition, 1922-1923 Continue reading