The decantation chamber of Soviet modernism: VKhUTEMAS projects from the 1920s

Academic Conferences in the VKhUTEMAS

Iakov A. Kornfel’d
Sovremennaia arkhitektura
No. 5-6, 1926. Pgs. 135-137

.
In November each faculty in the VKhUTEMAS had a conference and set itself the following aims:

  1. to establish direct links between the school and its main “consumers,” i.e. the state economic organizations and soviet society;
  2. to sort out the faculty’s own program;
  3. to take note of practical shortcomings in their training of specialists and to discuss proposals for correcting the teaching program appropriately, and to look at the ideological make-up of their curriculum.

The conference in the Architecture Faculty took place on Thursday 18 November. The first session attracted 70 percent of those invited. VKhUTEMAS Rector P.I. Novitskii was elected chairman and spoke on the change taking place in the social context of our lives, with its requirement that we give form to the new way of life and solve architectural tasks of a vast scale in the fields of social, industrial, and housing construction.

Dean of the Architecture Faculty I.V. Rylskii then reported on the academic life of the faculty and on the structure of the curriculum. He noted that of the 70 students who have left the school in the three graduating classes completing the whole course since the Revolution, only one has remained on the unemployment list at the Labor Exchange — which shows that architects emerging from here really are being trained to meet today’s practical requirements. Continue reading

The Rationalist current in Soviet avant-garde architecture

ASNOVA at VKhUTEMAS

.
Not all of the early Soviet architectural avant-garde was “Constructivist,” strictly speaking. Though this was the title often generically used to describe to all modernist architecture coming out of Russia, only those pieces produced by the architectural group OSA can really be considered constructivist per se. OSA’s self-proclaimed doctrine was constructivism, founded on the principle of the “functional method” of design, as Ginzburg and the Vesnin brothers described it.

Earlier, another avant-garde group — the Association of New Architects, or ASNOVA — had been founded in 1923 by Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, Vladimir Krinskii, and El Lissitzky (though Lissitzky spent most of his time abroad). This school of architectural thought was deeply informed by the principles of abstract Suprematism in painting, the style invented by Kazimir Malevich some years before. In fact, Lissitzky’s PROUN series led directly into his architectural phase of production.

Project for the “new city”

.
As opposed to the Constructivists in the Society of Modern Architects (OSA), founded two years later, the premise of architectural Rationalism, as it came to be called, was formalistic rather than functional. The members of ASNOVA appealed to evidence gleaned from the study of psychotechnics, a science imported from Germany and America, to claim that certain formal shapes and patterns of design had a direct effect on the psychology of those who viewed the structure of a building. Once these formal principles could be discerned, they could be used to produce a psychological effect, lifting viewers and inhabitants out of false consciousness and inspiring them to participate in the construction of a new society. Continue reading

Soviet avant-garde architectural journal Izvestiia ASNOVA [Известия АСНОВА] (1926)

Me reading one of the original printings of Izvestiia ASNOVA, formatted and designed by El Lissitzky in 1926

My comrade Brian Hioe reading one of the original copies of Izvestiia ASNOVA

Download the full-text, PDF version of Izvestiia ASNOVA/Известия АСНОВА (1926)

I recently happened across a copy of the Soviet architectural avant-garde group ASNOVA’s sole publication, Izvestiia ASNOVA (Известия АСНОВА), from 1926. Unlike their rivals, the architectural Constructivists in OSA, the Rationalists of ASNOVA were never able to maintain a steady periodical of their own. Still, it’s a beautifully designed text; none other than El Lissitzky worked on its layout. It has some interesting theoretical pieces by Nikolai Ladovskii on architectural pedagogy and the insights of Münsterburgian psychotechnics into the effects of various formal combinations on the mind. Also, it includes the article in which El Lissitzky unveils his famous Wolkenbügel proposal, describing some of the specifics of the project. Continue reading

The Soviet Avant-Garde: International Reflections of the OSA-ASNOVA (Constructivist-Rationalist) Split

Architectural Experiment from Nikolai Ladovskii's Studio at VKhUTEMAS, 1924

THE SOVIET AVANT-GARDE — INTERNATIONAL REFLECTIONS OF THE OSA-ASNOVA (CONSTRUCTIVIST-RATIONALIST) SPLIT

THE EFFICACIOUS VS. THE AESTHETIC

In his landmark structural analysis of the antinomical tendencies existing within Russian culture (broadly termed “Culture One” and “Culture Two”),[1] Vladimir Paperny locates a subset of contradictions operative in the context of the former considered by itself.  This second-order oppositional pair he identifies corresponds to the two main positive bases of modernist architecture we have already set forth: the contours of abstract art on the one hand, and modern industrialism (and more specifically, the machine) on the other.  While it is difficult to see how this opposition fits into Paperny’s broader scheme of Russian history as a whole — for he claims that these cultural patterns recur, and the existence of this particular binary in earlier epochs seems unlikely — his conceptual division of these two tendencies is entirely correct with reference to the 1920s.  He explained this internal tension within Soviet avant-garde culture as follows:

In Culture One there is yet another pair of opposing tendencies…One element in this pair is bespredmetnichestvo (nonfigurative art), the rejection of any resemblance between an artistic creation and life and thus the affirmation of the right of art to speak in its own language.  The other element is zhiznestroenie (life-building), the complete blending of art with life.

The first tendency in Culture One led to the appearance of abstract painting, the montage in cinematography, the experiments of Kandinsky and Ladovskii regarding the perception of forms and colors, the arkhitektons of Malevich, El Lissitzky’s PROUNs (Projects for the Affirmation of the New), and, ultimately, to rationalism [or formalism] in architecture.

The second tendency led to Maiakovskii’s political posters for the ROSTA (Russian Telegraph Agency) windows, Tatlin’s chair and flying device called Letatlin, the documentary films of Dziga Vertov and Esfir’Shub, the designs for a city of the future by the sculptor Anton Lavinskii, and, ultimately, to constructivism (or functionalism) in architecture.

Both these trends, as with the two preceding ones, barely existed in a pure form, and every position presented itself as an intervening point between the two poles…Culture One succeeded in seeing abstract beauty in efficacious structures and efficacy in abstract compositions.[2]

Cover of the Publication "Architecture of VKhUTEMAS" (1927), Designed by El Lissitzky

Cover of the Constructivist Journal "Modern Architecture," Tenth Anniversary of October 1917 Edition (1927), Designed by Aleksei Gan

Although many have made the point that in their realized structures — that is, in those buildings that were actually built — the works of the Rationalists in ASNOVA and of the Constructivists in OSA bear an undeniable resemblance to one another,[3] the theoretical differences between the two groups were by no means insignificant (even if they seemed to produce similar results).  Indeed, visiting the Soviet Union in 1929, no less an architect than Bruno Taut admitted that “it is really very difficult for an outsider to understand the difference between the so-called ‘constructivists’ and the ‘formalists.’”[4]  Even Moisei Ginzburg, who would come to be one of the staunchest representatives of Constructivist architecture, sought early on to minimize the differences between the two tendencies.  In 1923 he thus asserted: “‘Rationalism,’ ‘Constructivism,’ and all such nicknames are only outward representations of a striving for modernity, one which is more profound and fertile than might seem the case at first glance and which is engendered by the new aesthetic of a mechanized life.”[5]

Despite such admissions, there are still many good reasons for taking this split within the Soviet architectural avant-garde seriously.  Their differences were both presented on consistently principled grounds and were, moreover, symptomatic of a broader and more basic contradiction within modernist theory as a whole.  Though professional rivalries and personal antipathies no doubt played a role in these groups’ relations, it is important to examine their points of disagreement on their own terms, as historians like Catherine Cooke and Anatole Kopp have to some extent.[6]  The suggestion that such deep-seated disputes were motivated simply by jealousy, dislike, or competition over commissions fails to hold up when placed under scrutiny.  Too many other factors intervene: parallel developments in the arts (particularly in theater) and sciences (particularly in the field of industrial psychology), similar divisions along international lines (between, for example, the Dutch Neoplasticists and the German Functionalists), and the privileging of one set of positive principles over another (as with the emphasis on abstract form versus concrete function).  What is more, the inherently totalizing and systematic nature of modernist architectural thought, which will be the specific focus of the next subsection, prevented the members of these rival avant-garde factions from readily compromising their ideals or making concessions.  They rejected any approach they felt was incompatible with their own doctrines.  This all-or-nothing mentality of the modernists is further evidenced in the turn towards city planning, which gave rise to even greater disagreements and divisions within both OSA and ASNOVA.  Such later fragmentations as these will be dealt with in the course of our discussion of the international avant-garde’s eventual turn towards urbanism in the second half of the 1920s.

J.J.P. Oud's Cafe de Unie (1925) retains Neoplasticist overtones long after his split from De Stijl

Rietveld's very Neoplasticist Schroderhuis (1923)

Beyond those who were themselves involved in Soviet modernist architecture, there were a number of observers and commentators at the time who recognized these rival tendencies.  “[I]n Russia two tendencies can be discerned…: one of aesthetic experiment, and one of constructive functionalism,” noted Theo van Doesburg in his 1928 article, “Abstraction, Dream, and Utopia: Conflicting Movements in Russian Architecture.”[7]  This split he identifies, which corresponds to the distinction between the Rationalists and Constructivists in architecture, was in some sense mirrored in his own experience.  For while the division between painterly-aesthetic formalist tendencies on the one hand and industrial-constructive functionalist currents on the other was nowhere more pronounced than in Russia, especially at a national level, this tension could be seen at work in modern architecture elsewhere.  In some sense, this runs counter to Paperny’s thesis that no equivalent opposition existed in the West, but only superficially.[8]  Van Doesburg had witnessed firsthand the division between rigorous formalism based on abstract painting as practiced by himself and his countrymen — Robert van’t Hoff, and to a lesser extent, Gerrit Rietveld and Mart Stam — and rigorous functionalism based on industrial design as practiced by the (predominantly German) proponents of the Neue Sachlichkeit.  Even earlier, within the ranks of van Doesburg’s journal De Stijl, a similar feud had broken out between the architect Oud, who favored the examples of industrial machinery,[9] and the painter Mondrian, who favored his own Neoplasticist abstractions.[10]  Oud departed De Stijl in 1921 after van Doesburg sided with Mondrian on this issue,[11] though Oud would remain (at least tacitly) more committed to the aesthetic dimension of architecture than his more severe counterparts in German functionalism.[12]  At least in theory, the De Stijl architect Rietveld attempted to reconcile these two poles of modernist architecture by aiming “to determine the relationship between beauty and art, as well as the relationship between these two and utility and construction.”  He proposed (by way of negation) that architecture should seek a middle ground, choosing to take the somewhat safer position of neutrality: “It seems just as wrong to me to accept or reject constructional forms for aesthetic reasons as to accept or reject aesthetic elements on constructional or economic grounds.”[13]  And in practice, Rietveld was rather successful in compromising between the two poles, as his famous Schröderhuis attests.  Despite his earlier affiliation with De Stijl and painterly Neoplasticism, however, Rietveld eventually ended up identifying with the “international style” of functionalism by the beginning of the 1930s.[14]

Walter Gropius' famous Bauhaus Building at Dessau (1926)

The Bauhaus Dessau Building (1926) with notes

Scharoun's 'Panzerkreuzer' block at Siemmensstadt (1929-1934)

The rift that existed in Soviet avant-garde architecture between its positive basis in abstract art and its positive basis in industrial design was reproduced in miniature in the debates between van Doesburg and his followers and Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus school at both Weimar and Dessau.  In 1921, after being denied a position at the newly opened Bauhaus, van Doesburg set up shop in Weimar as a competitor to its course of design.[15]  While he praised the school’s stated goal of unifying the various arts under the rubric of architecture,[16] van Doesburg was highly critical of its actual achievements.[17]  Following the emergence of the Neue Sachlichkeit in German architecture around the Bauhaus, van Doesburg swiftly wrote an article “Defending the Spirit of Space: Against a Dogmatic Functionalism.”  As its title would suggest, this piece defended the spatiotemporal basis of architecture imparted by abstract art against the overzealous application of industrial forms and ideas.  “Undoubtedly, a so strictly functionalistic layout of the spaces will be considered the most appropriate and most economical one,” he admitted.  “In reality, though, this is not true.  Already from a purely practical perspective this architecture, because of its individual shape, does not lend itself to spatial expansion.”[18]  Later, van Doesburg derided the overly Taylorized, industrialist approach to architecture as creating “an absolute rigidity and sterilization of our lives.”[19]  Likewise, his former collaborator Rietveld (whom Gropius did end up hiring for the Bauhaus) — although he eventually came to embrace the mantle of functionalism — also took aim at what he identified as German functionalism’s peculiar inflexibility.  Rietveld did not blindly endorse every sort of functionalism: “Not only in Holland, but in Austria and France (and maybe Japan and Russia, currently very much influenced by Germany, will soon follow), people now see very clearly that the German program for a new functionalism is much too narrow, uncompromising, and lacking in flexibility.”[20]  Mondrian, though long since estranged from Rietveld and van Doesburg, also stressed the abstract formal properties of the new architecture over utilitarian considerations.  “At present, I see no chance of achieving perfect plastic expression by simply following the structure of what we build, studying its utility alone…,” wrote Mondrian.  “We therefore need a new aesthetic based on the pure relationships of pure lines and colors, for only pure relationships of pure constructive elements can result in pure beauty.”[21]

Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren, Architectural Sketch (1924)

Frederick Kiesler's "Cité dans l'espace" (1925)

Though Teige rightly credited the early De Stijl influence on the Bauhaus as helping “to eradicate [its] surviving expressionist tendencies,” the German functionalists coming out of this school toward the end of its years in Weimar and its first years in Dessau were mutually critical of the Dutch movement’s aesthetic adherence to “the new ‘orthogonal’ formalism.”[22]  In Gropius’ reflective 1934 “Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture,” he acknowledged its initial influence while dismissing its overall value, writing: “The ‘Stijl’ movement had a marked effect as propaganda, but it overemphasized formalistic tendencies, and so…made ‘cubic’ forms fashionable.”[23]  Indeed, though he viewed movements like the Neue Sachlichkeit as too limited and one-sided,[24] Gropius’ evolution from an organicist and expressionist architectural ideology to a functionalist approach can be witnessed by comparing his 1919 “Program of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar” to his programmatic 1926 piece, written shortly after moving their operations to Dessau, “Principles of Bauhaus Production.”  In this latter essay, Gropius asserted that an object produced at the school “must serve its purpose perfectly, that is, it must fulfill its function usefully, be durable, economical, and ‘beautiful’.”[25]  Shortly thereafter, one of the great theoreticians of functionalism and Sachlichkeit in architecture, Adolf Behne, rejected the aestheticism of form to make way for purely functional construction.  “The surest guiding principle to absolutely sachlich, necessary, extra-aesthetic design,” wrote Behne in 1926, “seemed to be adaptation to technical and economic functions, which with consistent work must in fact lead to the dissolution of the concept of form.”[26]  On this point, Hannes Meyer, correctly noting the profound development of Bauhaus theory from Weimar to Dessau,[27] continued in his predecessor’s vein by warning against any “modishly-flat plane-surface ornamentation divided horizontally and vertically and all done up in Neoplastic style.”[28]

ABC Beiträge zum Bauen, designed by El Lissitzky (1925)

Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam by Mart Stam, Johannes Brinkman, and Leendert van der Vlugt

Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam by Mart Stam, Johannes Brinkman, and Leendert van der Vlugt (1928)

The final non-Russian example of this internal division within the international avant-garde between aesthetic formalism and utilitarian functionalism centers around the Swiss architectural journal ABC, edited primarily by Mart Stam and El Lissitzky.  In a way, this can be seen as a recapitulation of the controversy surrounding Lissitzky’s involvement with the earlier periodical Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet, as van Doesburg aptly remarked.[29]  This was intimately connected with theoretical formulas advanced in Russia by the group ASNOVA, which had close personal and editorial ties to Lissitzky.  At the same time, it was bound up with subsequent developments within Dutch architectural modernism, as Stam’s growth reflected this broader pattern.[30]  Insofar as Lissitzky was one of the four founding members of ASNOVA,[31] he used ABC as an organ through which he could disseminate the ideas of architectural Rationalism from Russia.[32]  However, the ideals espoused by Stam, the second-ranking member of the group, would have logically placed him more in alliance with the hyperfunctionalist OSA current of Soviet architecture than with ASNOVA.[33]  Though the journal ABC was initially quite supportive of ASNOVA’s architectural agenda,[34] the Swiss group that published it later distanced itself from this early alliance.  “In 1927, [the members of ABC] realized that their alliance with Lissitzky and ASNOVA was the core of their problem, steering them in a direction that deterred Western clients.”[35]  Of course, on a political level, Stam and the other radicals of ABC remained committed to the ideals of communism, and so they were still connected with Lissitzky after rejecting “the impractical ASNOVA approach.”[36]


[1] See above, pgs. 139-140.

[2] Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 207.

[3] Hudson maintains (wrongly) that the theoretical differences between OSA and ASNOVA were of little importance, considering the closeness of their results.  Hudson, Hugh.  Blueprints and Blood.  Pgs. 30-50.

Though Paperny offers a much more nuanced view of this division within the Soviet avant-garde, he does mention “the frequently noted similarity of these tendencies’ [Rationalism’s and Constructivism’s] formal results.”  Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 207.

Paperny explains this similarity of formal results as follows: “Bespredmetnichestvo and zhiznestroenie are identical in the respect that both are a symbolic and positive reaction to the scientific-technological civilization that arrived in Russia from the West.  Similarly, rationalism and constructivism are identical in the respect that both, as formulated by M. Ginzburg, ‘are only external expressions of the striving of contemporary life…of the birth of a new aesthetic by mechanized life.’  The same forms, introduced by the new civilization, were standing directly in the line of vision of both the rationalists and the constructivists — hence, the similarity of formal results.”  Ibid., pg. 210.

[4] Taut, Bruno.  “Russia’s Architectural Situation.”  Translated by Eric Dluhosch.  Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution.  (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1984).  Pg. 170.  Unpublished manuscript originally written in 1929.

[5] Ginzburg, Style and Epoch.  Pg. 102.  This is the same quote cited by Paperny.

[6] Kopp, a Russian-born French architect and historian, wrote: “It would appear that the differences between the OSA and ASNOVA were based at least as much on the almost inevitable spirit of contention between different and rival organizations as on fundamental points of doctrine.  Moreover, the views of each of these two groups on the action that needed to be taken to bring about an architectural renewal, the temperaments of their respective members, and their various attitudes, militant and didactic on the one side, less extrovert and more reflective on the other, also played an important part in the clashes and confrontations of the period.”  Kopp, Anatole.  Town and Revolution: Soviet Architecture and Town Planning, 1917-1935.  Translated by Thomas E. Burton.  (G. Braziller.  New York, NY: 1970).  Originally published as Ville et Révolution: Architecture et Urbanisme Soviétiques in 1967.  Pg. 76,

[7] “In the periodical Gegenstand, the text of which was dictated by Moscow, these two tendencies came into conflict.  Here, machine parts and illustrations of modern airplanes were to serve as incentives to build, manifesting the desire to impress and demonstrate the capacity for great achievements.  All these efforts ‘on paper’ and ‘in the sky’ showed very clearly that architecture had to serve here as a cover for disguising aesthetic fantasies, which were useless from the perspective of functional architecture, but, on the other hand, were most significant from a modern aesthetic viewpoint, as incentives, and beneficial to new building forms and constructions.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “Abstraction, Dream, and Utopia: Conflicting Movements in Russian Architecture.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 197.  Originally published in October 1928, Vol. V, № 22.  Pgs. 436-441.

[8] Paperny relates this claim through a very entertaining story: “Western civilization also went through various phases of an artistic assimilation of machine civilization (William Morris, Walter Gropius), but a sharp collision with a patriarchal culture, such as occurred in Russia in the 1900s (or in Japan after 1868), never happened in the West.  Therefore, the Western avant-garde never agreed with the extreme position of the Russian productionists — the full rejection of the aesthetic in favor of the efficacious.  Le Corbusier could say that the house is a machine for living, but after seeing the gloomy result with which his Russian sympathizers tried to embody his vision, he was compelled to remind them that architecture, all the same, ‘begins where the machine ends.’”  Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pgs. 209-210.

[9] Oud asserted the primacy of machine-based architecture over the abstractions of Mondrian, though he claimed that painting was finally catching up with architecture: “Where architecture has already long been achieving plastic expression through the machine (Wright), painting is being impelled inevitably towards the same plastic means and a unity in the pure expression of the spirit of the age is making a spontaneous appearance.”  Oud, “Art and Machine.”  Pg. 97.

[10] Mondrian saw the utilitarian example of the machine as paving the way for a new aesthetic, but found that this aesthetic should be taken from abstract painting: “Architecture was purified by utilitarian building, with its new requirements, technology and materials.  Necessity, therefore, is already leading to a purer expression of equilibrium and to a purer beauty.  But without new aesthetic insight, this remains accidental, uncertain; or it is weakened by impure concepts, by concentration upon non-essentials.

“The new aesthetic for architecture is that of the new painting.  A purer architecture is now in a position to achieve the same consequences that painting, purified through Futurism and Cubism, realized in Neoplasticism.  Thanks to the unity of the new aesthetic, architecture and painting can merge into a single art and can resolve into each other.”  Mondrian, Piet.  “Is Painting Secondary to Architecture?” Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Pg. 184.  Originally published in De Stijl 1923, Vol. VI, № 5, pp. 62-64.

[11] “The basis of the quarrel between van Doesburg and Oud, in terms of the group, was an ongoing rivalry between the painters and the architects.”  White, Michael.  De Stijl and Dutch Modernism.  (Manchester University Press.  New York, NY: 2003).  Pg. 56.

[12] Banham brilliantly observes: “[The] idea of using concrete to create a purely apparent unification of load and support shows how much aesthetic parti-pris lurks even in the practicalities of a man like Oud who left De Stijl because he felt its aesthetics were becoming too precious.”  Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.  Pg. 161.

[13] Rietveld, Gerrit.  “Utility, Construction: (Beauty, Art).”  Translated by Tim Benton.  Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology of Original Articles.  (The Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).  Pg. 162.  Originally published in 1-10 1927, Vol. 1, № 3, pgs. 89-92.

[14] “The new functionalism in Dutch architecture is no different from that of other countries; when people talk about ‘international architecture’ there, they mean the same thing.”  Rietveld, “New Functionalism in Dutch Architecture.”  Pg. 33.

He posed the problem of functionalism as follows: “The program of the new functionalism is as follows: to determine scientifically the correct requirements for good housing; to ascertain the best systems for insulation, absorption, reflection, drainage, etc., including all these aspects in the construction of a single operation; and, finally, to industrialize the as yet primitive activities on construction sites.”  Ibid., pg. 35.

[15] Teige recalled: “At this time [1921] the Bauhaus betrayed a very strong influence from members of the De Stijl group.  Theo van Doesburg went so far as to found a kind of counterschool in Weimar.”  Teige, “Ten Years of Bauhaus.”  Pg. 633.

“In 1921 Theo van Doesburg came to Weimar, with his vital energy and his clear critical mind — Weimar, where the Bauhaus had been in existence since 1919, and where a considerable number of modern artists were living, attracted by the wind of progress that used to blow — in those far-off days — through Thuringia.  The credit for inviting Doesburg to Weimar goes to Adolf Meyer; straightforward, phlegmatic, and consistent, Meyer never diverged from the straight line that led from the buildings designed in cooperation with Gropius in Cologne and Alfeld to the works of his later, mature period in Frankfurt.  The teaching appointment as such was not a success, since it proved impossible to bridge the gap between Doesburg’s views and those of the then dominant Bauhaus personalities.”  Dexel, Walter.  “Theo van Doesburg.”  Translated by David Britt.  Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).  Pg. 724.  Originally published in Das neue Frankfurt in 1931.

[16] “The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art — sculpture, painting, handicrafts, and the crafts — as inseparable components of a new architecture.”  Gropius, Walter.  “Program of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar.”  Translated by Michael Bullock.  Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 50.  Originally published as a four-page leaflet in 1919.

[17] “[T]he results of this [the Bauhaus] Institute during the five years of its functioning as a state institution leave much to be desired.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “Teaching at the Bauhaus and Elsewhere: From Copy to Experiment.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 71.  Originally published in Het Bouwbedrijf, October 1925, Vol. II, № 10.  Pgs. 363-366.

[18] Doesburg, Theo van.  “Defending the Spirit of Space: Against a Dogmatic Functionalism.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 89.  Originally published in Het Bouwbedrijf, May 1926, Vol. III, № 5.  Pgs. 191-194.

[19] “Assume for a moment that city planning and housing construction would be reduced to only those elements which would gratify our material requirements in the most economical way.  In that case it would be necessary, for instance, to define precisely the amount of cubic meters required for every practical need and to cut out all superfluous space.  The architectural shape would become totally dependent upon our movements, which then could be checked by means of a Taylor-system.  Would this not lead to an absolute rigidity and sterilization of our lives?” Ibid., pg. 91.

[20] Rietveld, “New Functionalism in Dutch Architecture.”  Pg. 35.

[21] Mondrian, Piet.  “Home — Street — City.”  Translated by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James.  The New Art — The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian.  Pgs. 208-209.  Originally published in i, № 10, January 1927.

[22] “The influence of the Neoplasticism of De Stijl on the Bauhaus and on Gropius himself was healthy in the sense that it helped to eradicate the surviving expressionist tendencies, but at the same time this imbued its work with the new ‘orthogonal’ formalism.”  Teige, “Ten Years of Bauhaus.”  Pg. 633.

[23] Gropius, Walter.  “Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture.”  Translated by Roger Banham.  The Scope of Total Architecture.  (MacMillan Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1980).  Pg. 63.  Originally published in 1934.

[24] “Catch phrases like ‘functionalism’ (die neue Sachlichkeit) and ‘fitness for purpose = beauty’ have had the effect of deflecting appreciation of the New Architecture into external channels or making it purely one-sided.”  Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus.  Pg. 23.

[25] “The Bauhaus fights against the cheap substitute, inferior workmanship, and the dilettantism of the handicrafts, for a new standard of quality work.”  Gropius, Walter.  “Principles of Bauhaus Production.”  Translated by Michael Bullock.  Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pgs. 95, 97.  Originally published in 1926.

Compare this new attitude toward mechanical production, standardization, and so on, with Gropius’ more atavistic statements in his 1919 “Program”: “Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts!…There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman.  The artist is an exalted craftsman.”  Gropius, “Program for the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar.”  Pg. 49.

[26] Behne, The Modern Functional Building.  Pg. 119.

Behne keenly noted the way that German functionalism or Neue Sachlichkeit mirrored Constructivism in Russia: “At the time of the Russian Revolution artists in Russia and Germany began to negate the concept of ‘art.’  They no longer wanted to be producers of luxuries, they wanted to fulfill a necessary function in the life process of society.  They rejected decoration entirely, committed themselves to construction and artistic production, and opposed any sort of aesthetics or concern with form.”  Ibid., pg. 119.

[27] “I have various reasons for wanting to make a few more remarks on the years in Weimar.  It was the postwar period of revolution and romanticism.  All those who participated, feeling like the ‘children of their time,’ were right to do so.  It would not have been merely unnatural but indeed wrong not to have been moved in such stirring times.  But now the conflict for these people [which makes it difficult for them] in finding their way to us is [this]: They have not been aware that a new age has begun.  They should, for once, open their eyes and look around at their environment; then they would notice that conditions have changed radically.”  Meyer, Hannes.  “Address to the Student Representatives at the Bauhaus.”  Translated by Tim Benton.  Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology of Original Articles.  (The Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).  Pg. 169.  Originally delivered in 1928.

[28] Meyer, “bauhaus and society.”  Pg. 99.

[29] See footnote 478 on pg. 143.

[30] “In the short time that has elapsed since the world war, a certain clarification of views as well as of creative directions has taken place in Dutch architecture.  Oud, van der Vlugt, [Johannes] Brinkman, and Mart Stam abandoned earlier architectural cubism and Neoplasticism and founded their work on the scientific basis of constructivism.  Even among the Neoplasticists an evolutionary rift has taken place: van Doesburg, C[ornelis] van Eesteren, and G[errit] Rietveld now proclaim ‘elementarism,’ whereas the architect Jan Wils, the interior design [Vilmos] Huseár, and the painter Mondrian have remained faithful to Neoplasticism.  It is worth noting that even the current work of van Doesburg is by its a priori formalism and aestheticism still close in its substance to Mondrian and thus very foreign to the tendencies of the constructivists.”  Teige, Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia.  Pg. 157.

[31] In a 1925 piece, Lissitzky introduced ASNOVA to the West, writing: “In order to concentrate the new forces, an Association of New Architects (ASNOVA) was formed in Moscow in the summer of 1923.  The first paragraph of their articles reads: ‘ASNOVA unites the architects-rationalists and the workers affiliated to them in all fields of architecture and experimental building, to raise architecture as an art to a level corresponding to the present-day position of technology and science.’  The founders are the directors of the new faculty of architecture and a few noteworthy engineers.  Contact has also been established with some modern architects abroad.”  Lissitzky, “Architecture in the USSR.”  Pg. 373.

Lissitzky himself recorded this history of ASNOVA’s emergence: “The elaboration of new methods for the scientific-objective elucidation of the elements of architectural design — such as mass, surface, space, proportion, rhythm, etc.  — was decisive in establishing the distinctive character of the new schools.  A new methodology had to be created.  This work, begun by such pioneers as Ladovskii, Dokuchaev, and Krinskii [co-founders of ASNOVA], was continued by men of the younger generation, such as Balikhin, Korshev, Lamtsov, and others.”  Lissitzky, The Reconstruction of Architecture in the Soviet Union.  Pg. 30.

[32] Although it is true that Lissitzky identified his own artwork of the early 1920s as “Constructivist,” his architectural proposals were most certainly not, especially insofar as OSA later defined Constructivist architecture.  Sima Ingbergman, author of an overview of the ABC group in Switzerland, thus wrongly calls the works of ASNOVA “Constructivist,” when they clearly categorized their own work as “Rationalist.”  Still, Ingbergman’s account is otherwise accurate: “El Lissitzky was obligated to publicize Constructivist architecture [because]…he owed it to his fellow ASNOVA architects to promote their work.”  Ingbergman, Sima.  ABC: International Constructivist Architecture, 1922-1939.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1994).  Pg. 13.

“With Stam’s help, Lissitzky’s new European friends become converts [to ASNOVA]; Lissitzky wasted little time in educating them to the merits of ASNOVA constructivism in particular.”  Ibid., pg. 17.

[33] Ingbergman notices this as well: “The ABC-ASNOVA alliance should have been a most contradictory one.  Mart Stam was, by all accounts, a radical functionalist whose ideas were at odds with some of ASNOVA’s fundamental principles.”  Ibid., pg. 19.

[34]ABC’s ideological support of Lissitzky and ASNOVA was quite pronounced in the first issues.”  Ibid., pg. 54.

[35] Ibid., pg. 79.

[36] Ibid., pg. 134.

The Soviet Moment: The Turn toward Urbanism, the Crisis in the West, and the Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

Ivan Leonidov, proposal for a section of Magnitogorsk (1930)

Introduction to Part Two of The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

The Soviet architectural avant-garde was never as unified as its counterparts in the West.  Almost from the moment of its emergence in the early 1920s, its members were divided along theoretical and methodological lines.  The two main currents of modernist thought on architecture in the Soviet Union could not come to terms over which positive basis of the new architecture held primacy over the others.  One side upheld the formal properties of abstract art as the prime determinant of avant-garde architectural practice; the other side stressed the functional properties of the machine as its foundation.  A similar tension was always latent in modernist architecture internationally, but in no other nation did there result a full-on split like the one experienced by the Soviet avant-garde.  The two competing tendencies were organized into the groups OSA and ASNOVA, as mentioned previously,[1] though subsequent schisms would also occur.  These groups respectively identified themselves as Constructivists (disparagingly dubbed “functionalists” by their opponents) on the one hand and Rationalists (disparagingly dubbed “formalists” by their opponents) on the other.  Though no equivalent rift ever formed within the other national avant-gardes, the Soviet example serves to highlight some of the internal contradictions that existed in modernist ideology as a whole.

German Building in the USSR (1929)

Ernst May’s proposal for the city of Magnitogorsk (1931)

Though the modernist architects in the USSR were fully conversant with avant-garde developments in the West, this was the fractured and fragmented theoretical landscape on which their European and American colleagues would have to stake out their positions.  With the global crisis of capitalism in 1929 and the crisis of parliamentary democracy in the West — along with the ominous rise of ultranationalist (fascist) sentiments in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Spain — many architects outside the Soviet Union looked to the young socialist state as a beacon of hope in an increasingly dark world.  As fortune would have it, the Soviet government was launching its revolutionary program of centralized planning and deliberate industrialization just as the international avant-garde was starting to expound its theories of urban planning post-1925.  The Soviet Union seemed to offer an unprecedented opportunity to the modernists.  It presented a vast canvas onto which the architects could project their most utopian ambitions.

The New Russia, a German periodical (1928)

Mart Stam’s blueprints for Makeevka (1932)

Here, the inherently totalizing aspect of modernist architectural thought was first made manifest.  As the members of the avant-garde began to extrapolate their theories of urbanism from first principles, they came to a deadlock over which particular vision to follow.  While many of the foreign architects were invited to the Soviet Union in order to negotiate some of these impasses, they often found it difficult to make such compromises themselves.  New fissures surfaced as longstanding alliances between certain architects broke down.  Meanwhile, Russia’s technological deficit and relative paucity of advanced building materials led to insurmountable obstacles, preventing the practical realization of the modernists’ plans.  Even more troubling was a cultural shift that was taking place within the Soviet Union, as some of the more radical and novel forms introduced by the modernists in literature and the arts were condemned as “bourgeois” and illegible to the working masses.  The logic of this shift may have owed to a dynamic intrinsic to Russian culture, as Paperny has suggested,[2] but if so, I would like to advance the hypothesis that this occurred mainly as a consequence of the failure of social revolutions to spread in the West following World War I.  If socialism had been established on a more international basis, it is perhaps possible that the peculiarities of Russian culture might not have imposed their logic so unilaterally.  This is, of course, a counterfactual speculation, and it is admittedly a dangerous business to insinuate what alternate historical sequence might have resulted had things only played out differently.  Nevertheless, it is not a point of too much controversy to assert that the USSR’s political isolation had something to do with the grim turn of events that took place for the modernist enterprise in that country.  Also, it should not be thought impossible that some of the cultural binaries that Paperny locates within Russian history (horizontal/vertical,[3] uniform/hierarchical[4]) might not have reflected — or even been reinforced by — broader social binaries emerging out of the dialectical development of global capitalism (such as the spatiotemporal dialectic we have hitherto identified).

OSA’s proposal for Magnitogorsk, by Moisei Ginzburg, Mikhail Okhitovich, and Mikhail Barshch (1930)

Ivan Leonidov – Magnitogorsk Proposal (1930)

Either way, it is crucial to review some of the proposed solutions to the question of planning in the Soviet Union advanced by the international avant-garde, insofar as they sought to address the social problems that so preoccupied them — the housing shortage, the liberation of woman, urban alienation, the antithesis of town and country, and man’s greater estrangement from nature.  Even if these plans were never realized, even if their blatant utopianism foreclosed any possibility they might have possessed from the start, the fact that they were ever imagined at all is itself significant.  For no such visions of an ideal world had ever been dreamt up on such an extraordinary scale: from Plato to More and Campanella, from Renaissance sketches of the città ideale to the fantasies of Boullée and Ledoux, to Owen’s New Harmony, Fourier’s phalanstère, and beyond — never had these propositions amounted to anything more than idle thought experiments or modest programs for single cities existing in isolation from the rest of society.  “[The utopians] still dream of an experimental realization of their social utopias, the establishment of individual phalansteries, the foundation of home colonies, the building of a little Icaria — pocket editions of the new Jerusalem,” wrote Marx and Engels, in their famous Manifesto.[5]  Such utopias were doomed to fail, they argued, as they simply fled from bourgeois society rather than try to overcome it.  By the 1920s and 1930s, however, the Bolsheviks had seemingly uprooted capitalism in Russia, and the rest of the world still appeared ripe for revolution (especially with the onset of the Depression).  For with the maturation of capitalism over the latter half of the nineteenth century, utopia had now been reimagined on a global scale, reflecting at once the real commercial and economic interdependence of nations as well as socialist theories of world revolution.  H.G. Wells expressed this succinctly in his famous Modern Utopia (1905):

No less than a planet will serve the purpose of a modern Utopia.  Time was when a mountain valley or an island seemed to promise sufficient isolation for a polity to maintain itself intact from outward force; the Republic of Plato stood armed ready for defensive war, and the New Atlantis and the Utopia of More in theory, like China and Japan through many centuries of effectual practice, held themselves isolated from intruders.  Such late instances as Butler’s satirical “Erewhon,” and Mr. Stead’s queendom of inverted sexual conditions in Central Africa, found the Tibetan method of slaughtering the inquiring visitor a simple, sufficient rule.  But the whole trend of modern thought is against the permanence of any such enclosures…A state powerful enough to keep isolated under modern conditions would be powerful enough to rule the world, would be, indeed, if not actively ruling, yet passively acquiescent in all other human organizations, and so responsible for them altogether.  World-state, therefore, it must be.[6]

Nikolai Ladovskii’s dynamo-“parabolic” vision of “New Moscow”

Andrei Burov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Le Corbusier (1928)

A Modern Utopia, which in many ways marked the culmination of the series of utopian novels that started in the last decades of the nineteenth century, envisioned the world that was already beginning to emerge around Wells.  This world stood in stark contrast to the ones portrayed in previous utopias, especially in that it was all-encompassing.  It did not admit of localization; nothing could rightfully stand outside of it.  Thereby mirroring the abstract, globalizing spatiality of capitalism, the planetary scale of modern utopianism was combined with the social mission of modernist architecture in its ambition to reshape all of society.  Though Stalin already formulated the notion of sotsializm v’odnoi strane (“Socialism in One Country”) by 1924,[7] the architectural avant-garde within Russia and without retained its commitment to internationalism.  As Paperny has rightly observed, “‘Workers of the world unite!’ — this Marxist slogan, written in Culture One [Paperny’s term for avant-garde culture] on the covers of nearly all architectural publications (and totally absent from that venue in Culture Two [Paperny’s term for Stalinist culture]), indicates that the idea of the international unity of a single class clearly dominated in Culture One over the concepts of either national or state unity.”[8]  The last traces of this celebrated slogan from the end of the Manifesto only disappeared in 1934 from the covers of the popular architectural journals Building Moscow and Architecture of the USSR (successor to the 1931-1934 union journal Soviet Architecture, itself the successor to the iconic 1926-1930 Constructivist periodical Modern Architecture).

Plan for “New Moscow” (April 1929)

Moisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch, Disurbanist scheme for a linear city (1930)

The ultimate collapse of the avant-garde project in the Soviet Union, symbolically marked first by the outcome of the 1932 design competition for the Palace of the Soviets and capped off by the expulsion of all foreign architects in 1937, signaled the demise of one important dimension of modernist architecture.  The social mission that had provided the avant-garde with such positive momentum in its early years was now abandoned.  Its fascination with the forms of industrial engineering and abstract composition remained, but its sense of duty to redress social grievances (or to even fundamentally transform society) vanished.  Curtis makes the following remark regarding this point: “The modern movement was a revolution in social purpose as well as architectural forms.  It tried to reconcile industrialism, society, and nature, projecting prototypes for mass housing and ideal plans for entire cities.”[9]  Following the Soviet fiasco and the general hiatus of new construction up through the end of the Second World War, this feeling of social purpose had evaporated.  Already by 1960, Banham could take stock of the way that modern architecture had come to be perceived as part of the armature of Fordist administrative capitalism.  “[I]f the [modern] style has finished up as the architecture of anonymous corporate domination,” reminded Banham, “it is worth remembering that this was not how it started out.”[10]  It is the thesis of the present study that the modernists’ experience in the USSR, the Soviet moment, marked the pivotal turning point in this development.


[1] See page 6 of the present paper.

[2] The principal focus of Paperny’s brilliant Culture Two is on the structural opposition of two patterns operative within Russian culture, which can be identified with the “avant-garde” 1920s and the “Stalinist” 1930s-1950s: “The concept of Culture One is constructed here primarily based on materials from the 1920s, whereas Culture Two is based on materials from the 1930s to 1950s.”

However, Paperny identifies these two cultural patterns as broader tendencies within Russian history as a whole, extending back at least as far as the ascension of the Muscovite principality in the sixteenth century: “The juxtaposition of Cultures One and Two is a convenient way to describe the events that transpired in the same space but at different times.  This work voices that a certain portion of the events in Russian history (including events having to do with changes in spatial conceptions) can be described in terms of an alternation of the ascendancy of Culture One and Culture Two.  Therefore, because I wish to trace a unifying principle throughout history, my attention is primarily focused on the territory of the Muscovite State under Ivan III, and especially Moscow.”  Paperny, Vladimir.  Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Translated by John Hill and Roann Barris in collaboration with Vladimir Paperny.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 2002).  Pg. xxiii.  Originally published in 1985.

[3] Ibid., pgs. 44-69.

[4] Ibid., pgs. 70-103.

[5] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.  Pg. 28.

[6] Wells, H.G.  A Modern Utopia.  (University of Nebraska Press.  New York, NY: 1967).  Pgs. 11-12.

[7] “[T]he theory that the victory of socialism in one country is impossible, has proved to be an artificial and untenable theory.  The seven years’ history of the proletarian revolution in Russia speaks not for but against this theory.”  Stalin, Iosif.  “The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists? [Preface to a book On the Road to October].”  Translator uncredited.  Collected Works, Volume 6: 1924.  (Foreign Languages Publishing House.  Moscow, Soviet Union: 1954).  Pg. 414.

[8] Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 44.

[9] Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900.  Pg. 15.

[10] Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.  Pg. 9.

Models and Sketches from Nikolai Ladovskii’s Studio at VKhUTEMAS-VKhUTEIN (1922-1930)

The following models and sketches were produced by students at VKhUTEMAS (1921-1928) or VKhUTEIN (1929-1930), under the supervision of Nikolai Ladovskii, in his famous classes regarding architectural problems and formal solutions, unbound by physical constraints.  Though I will not be adding captions for each individual piece, I will say that they are in roughly chronological order:

Continue reading

Recommended Architectural Blogs and Articles, along with My Gratitude

Leonidov's Proposed "Ministry of Heavy Industry" (1934)

I should like to thank the following architecture-related websites and point to some of their best articles:

  1. dpr-barcelona: I would like to thank Ethel Baraona not only for her enthusiastic promotion of my site on Twitter and so on, but for her friendship.  After I posted some links to a few of the journals I’d uploaded, she immediately e-mailed me personally expressing her thanks.  That said, she and her co-contributor have produced some excellent content of their own, in articles both in English and in Spanish.  To point to just a couple of them: “Ivan Leonidov and the Russian Utopias” and “Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms | Iakov Chernikhov.”
  2. Critical Grounds: Thanks to the author of this blog for pointing his students to the English-language modernist architectural archive I created.  And if you have the time, please read the following excellent articles: “In the Name of Being: Critical Regionalist Landscape Urbanism, a Critique,” his reference to another critique of environmentalism in “Ross Adams on the ‘eco-city’,” and finally his own “Parallel Lines: formal expression as publicity in the architecture of Hadid’s Central Building for BMW Leipzig.”
  3. sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy: As always, the Bolshevist and “interdistrictite” Owen Hatherley must make the list.  Not only for his incredibly helpful promotion of my own blog, but for his numerous good articles.  Some of his older articles from his previous blog are more immediately related to what I’ve been working on: “No Rococo Palace for Buster Keaton: Americanism (and Technology, Advertising, Socialism) in Weimar Architecture,” “The Functionalist Deviation Politics of building, aesthetics of anti-architecture,” and especially “A Pod of One’s Own — Architecture or Revolution: the Congres International d’Architecture Moderne, 1928-33.”
  4. Kosmograd: There’s too much good, cosmopolitan material at this site, which is mostly dedicated to early Bolshevik architecture and the Soviet space program.  He has linked to my site on several occasions, for which I am very thankful.  Interesting articles on this site include “Communal House of the Textile Institute,” the hilarious “Eco-town of Tomorrow and Its Planning,” and his interesting piece on “Decaying Orbiters.”

Another Batch of Soviet Avant-Garde Architectural Journals (Free PDFs)

Plan for "New Moscow" (April 1929)

Here’s another batch of early Soviet avant-garde architectural journals, from between 1929-1930.  The 1929 one is the one I most recently worked on; the others were converted into PDFs back before I had perfected the method of separating out the text from the rest of the page.  As a result, these are all in grayscale, though they remain very readable.  The image quality is a little lower than on my more recent uploads.  But here they are, so enjoy!

  1. Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 4
  2. Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 7
  3. Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 8/9
  4. Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 10
  5. Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 12

Anti-Constructivism in the Soviet Avant-Garde: Nikolai Dokuchaev and ASNOVA

Nikolai Ladovskii's Rationalist Metro Station in Moscow (1931)

Not all of the early Soviet architectural avant-garde was “Constructivist,” strictly speaking.  Though this was the title often generically ascribed to all modernist architecture coming out of Russia, only those pieces produced by the architectural group OSA can be considered constructivist.  OSA’s self-proclaimed position was that of constructivism, which was founded on the principle of the “functional method” of design, as Ginzburg and the Vesnin brothers described it.

An earlier avant-garde group, ASNOVA, had been founded in 1923 by Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, Vladimir Krinskii, and El Lissitzky (though Lissitzky spent most of his time abroad).  This school of architectural thought was deeply informed by the principles of abstract Suprematism in painting, the style invented by Kazimir Malevich some years before.  In fact, Lissitzky’s PROUN series led directly into his architectural phase of production.

As opposed to the Constructivists in OSA, which was founded two years later (in 1925), the premise of architectural Rationalism, as it came to be called, was formalistic, rather than functional.  The members of ASNOVA appealed to evidence gleaned from the study of psychotechnics, a science imported from Germany and America, to claim that certain formal shapes and patterns of design had a direct effect on the psychology of those who viewed the structure of a building.  Once these formal principles could be discerned, they could be used to produce an ideological effect, lifting viewers out of their state of false consciousness and inspiring their participation in the construction of the new society.

Nikolai Dokuchaev was, next to Ladovskii, the main theoretical exponent of Rationalism in architecture.  With Lissitzky in Germany, working on periodicals like G, ABC, and Merz, and the majority of Krinskii’s time devoted to teaching and designing new projects, it fell to Dokuchaev and Ladovskii to explicate ASNOVA’s programmatic stance.  In the following series of articles, taken from the early Soviet periodical Советское искусство (Soviet Art), Dokuchaev compares the Soviet Constructivist architecture of the OSA group with architectural parallels he sees in the capitalist West.  He criticized the Constructivists’ “functional method,” equating it with the spare style of Functionalism that was prominent in Germany at the time.  Then, in a later article, published in the journal Строительство Москвы (Building Moscow) [the issue is reproduced in full], Dokuchaev lays out his proposal for the Socialist city of Magnitogorsk, one of the first of many experimental cities that were planned to be built.

These articles and the one complete issue can be downloaded below:

Николай Докучаев – «Современная русская архитектура и западные параллели» (part 1) – Советское искусство – (1927) – № 1

Николай Докучаев – «Современная русская архитектура и западные параллели» (part 2) – Советское искусство – (1927) – № 2

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 4

“The Green City” of Moscow, 1930

Mel’nikov’s Proposal for the Laboratory of Sleep (1930)

Included in this post is the original issue of Building Moscow (Строительство Москвы), in which the general planning schemes for the proposed “Green City” of Moscow were submitted. Contributors to this competition included some of the premier architects and city-planners of the day: Moisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch of OSA, Nikolai Ladovskii of ARU (a splinter group of ASNOVA), and Konstantin Mel’nikov, who was more of an independent (his membership in the different avant-garde architectural societies of the day varied over time).

The plans were wildly ambitious, and, unfortunately, none of them were realized. Nevertheless, the ambition and utopianism of their proposals remain as fascinating and haunting today as ever. Haunting, because these plans were so crudely shoved aside by Kaganovich and the Stalinist bureaucracy — because the ideas survived as artifacts long after their potential for realization had passed, because their fantasy has since outlived history and continues to linger over it, like a ghost. Thus, the fact that these science fictions were discarded, placed on the Hegelian “slaughterbench of history,” did not mean that they altogether vanished without a trace. They survive, spectrally, as testaments to a society that could have been.

The extraordinary ambitions of the Soviet planners were declared unrealistic and impracticable. And indeed, given the Soviets’ technological and material limitations at that time, they may well have been impossible. But such a verdict has often been passed on past visions of the future, and utopian speculation in general. Yet the modernists who took part in this competition felt that such utopianism was not only warranted, but required by a revolutionary society like the Soviet Union. Under capitalism, they argued, utopianism was a waste of time and impossible to realize. Now that the October Revolution had overturned these social relations, however, utopia was at last realizable, and so fantastic visions of the future were at last justified.

In any case, this issue contains Ginzburg and Barshch’s reproduction of their famous Disurbanist scheme for the Green city, which they had first unveiled in an issue of Modern Architecture (Современная архитектура) a month before. It also includes Mel’nikov’s mysterious and intriguing proposals for a “Laboratory of Sleep,” an “Institution for the Transformation of the Perspective of Man,” and a “Sonata of Sleep.” Ladovskii’s project for “the rationalization of rest and socialist living” saw him experimenting with his notion of a parabolic city within the municipal limits of Moscow. The rationalization of rest and sleep were indeed very important when it came to the Green City; Le Corbusier mentioned over and over his delight at the Soviets’ abolition of the seven-day week, replaced now by a five-day cycle of working for four days and resting on the fifth.

Below is the original issue, digitized and restored to the best of my ability from the microfiche copy:

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 3