Soviet architecture: Notes on its development, 1917-1932

by Berthold Lubetkin, 1956

Image: Lubetkin’s trade pavilion
for the USSR, Bordeaux 1926


Note: The following brief essay by Berthold Lubetkin, a constructivist architect and comrade of El Lissitzky who moved to Britain in the early 1930s, is actually remarkably lucid in its presentation of the theory-praxis problem so central to Marxism. I find the longitudinal distinction between “philosophies of East and West” a bit crude, but this is to be expected from a popular presentation intended for a British readership. Of course, Marxism (and Hegelianism, which is central for Lubetkin) had originated in the West, but by the time Lubetkin was writing this they had been driven out of mainstream Western political and intellectual discourse. Positivism, empiricism, and pragmatism appeared in its stead.

Lubetkin certainly wouldn’t deny the historical importance of Kant or Hume for the development of philosophy culminating in Hegel, but would instead emphasize the regression signaled by recourse to these figures after 1850, and the epistemological skepticism this entailed toward notions of causation. He was fond of quoting Hegel’s (and Spinoza’s before him, Engels’ after him) dictum that “freedom is the conscious recognition of necessity,” and always stressed the dialectical legacy of Marxist thought.

One of the recognizable dividing lines between the philosophies of East and West is gnoseology, and relates to the interpretation an generalization of the observed phenomena of life, and the coordination of the results into coherent theories and systems. The West, partly, no doubt, as a reaction against medieval dogmatism with its a priori, unverifiable order of things, and the consequent futility of scientific enquiry, partly as a reflection of its economic structure, shuns assumptions and principles, mistrusts generalizations, proceeds empirically to the point of denying the validity of law, of causality in nature and in society.

Berthold Lubetkin photographed in 1933

Berthold Lubetkin photographed in 1933

Under the influence of Kant and Hume, experienced facts are regarded as the ultimate finality, and are incapable of linkage into systems. The mere sequence by which one phenomenon follows another does not justify the conclusion that they are in causal relation, but rather that they coexist in our expectation, in our experience.

Through all forms of contemporary Western philosophy (relativism, empiricism, pragmatism, positivism, etc.), the disbelief in causality stands out as a common factor of decisive significance. In analyzing the interaction of phenomena, the objective character of laws is reduced to psychological necessity, regularity is equated with the particular case of accident, and the notion of objective truth is altogether eliminated, so that scientific results appear as a system or framework with no other end in view but that of convenience, utility, and economy of thought.

The West is thus basically skeptical, hostile to theoretical generalizations, to historical motivation, to the embodiment of experience into binding conclusions with the validity of objective laws.

The resulting intellectual atomization and fragmentation finds its counterpart in economics, in the crisis of productive relations, and it is revealed clearly and hauntingly in the manifestations of our art. Continue reading

Modernity for penguins — modernity for all!

Berthold Lubetkin’s celebrated
Penguin Pool in London (1934)

Image: A penguin pauses
midway down the ramp
of Lubetkin’s pool (1934)

Aviary, London zoological garden

Reyner Banham

From The Architectural Review.

(№ 138: Sept. 1965). Pg. 186.

Collapsed goal-posts among the trees — this, undoubtedly, is the first impression of the North Aviary from Primrose Hill, and equally undoubtedly it is a very belated contribution to the Arcadian tradition in British architecture. But, within that tradition, it does not belong to the gimcrack wing that gave us so many fake ruins and other collapsed objects among trees; rather, it belongs to the tough-minded stream whose triumphs are the palm stove at Kew Gardens, or Paxton’s Victoria Regia house at Chatsworth.

Lubetkin and Tecton's Penguin Pool (built 1934, photo late 1930s)

Lubetkin and Tecton’s Penguin Pool (built 1934)

In common with these great temples of acquisitive botany, the aviary is a walk-through exhibition-environment. This is not a total innovation at Regent’s Park Zoo, because one is also permitted to share the same physical space as the humming-birds, for instance. But to build on this scale and in the open is a very different problem from the creation of the small, totally artificial environment in which the humming-birds enjoy a manufactured climate secured by double-doored light-trap entrances. In the North Aviary the problem was more that of taming a piece of the existing topography and covering it with an enclosure high enough and broad enough for large birds to fly convincingly — and yet keep the public close enough to avoid the “Whipsnade effect” of sheer distance and natural surroundings making the exhibits invisible. With very little ingenuity, the form and levels of the present site would probably have made for better-than-average visibility even with an enclosure that permitted observation only from the outside. The creation of an internal observation route, by means as complex as a dog-leg bridge without intermediate supports, therefore proposes a significant improvement over outside viewing — and if the design failed to deliver this, then it would fail as architecture however handsome the covering structure. But quite obviously (though not so obviously that one does not have to explain it, alas) the bridge offers a bird’s-eye-type view of the cliff-face that no rearrangement of the solid topography could afford, except by making an equally high cliff directly opposite, and cliff-nesting birds do not nest on the sides of trenches. The other views, of birds washing and wading in the cascades for instance, are supernumerary benefits by comparison, though their sum-total is a substantial additional justification for the bridge. Continue reading