German builders in the USSR, 1930-1937

Adventures of the avant-garde

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the
Labyrinth
(1979)
.

The attention with which figures such as [Siegfried] Kracauer, [Martin] Wagner, and [Bruno] Taut follow the realization of the Soviet First Five-Year Plan and May’s work in the USSR must, however, be considered in another light with respect to the observations made so far.[1] In the Tagebuch of 25 July 1931, Wagner writes:

The irony of destiny: the same day in which more than a thousand city planners, after having witnessed for five days an autopsy of the cadaver of the European urban organism, agreed, in their final meeting, on their inability to do something, the municipal assessor of city planning, Ernst May, gave his report on Russian city planning before a circle of enthusiastic young architects and interested builders…The young instinctively feel that a new vitality is springing forth from Russia, that there new possibilities are maturing and will bear fruit, that there the creative joy of city planning, freed from all the obstacles of property and of private profit, can fully expand.[2]

And Wagner concludes his hymn to realized socialism with an indicative expression, which puts in the forefront the “ethical” value of global planning: in the Soviet city, “there must be contained the greatest and noblest moments of a socialist Zeitgeist…as the Cathedral of the people.” The mythical “cathedral of socialism” makes its last appearance here. Wagner, like May, Hannes Meyer, Mart Stam, and Hans Schmidt, sees in the USSR of the Five-Year Plans the only possible checkpoint for the hypotheses of city planning put forward in Germany from 1924 on. In the experiment of global planning, the intellectuals of the Weimar Republic believe that they can recognize the “exact” arrangement of technical-operative work, denied them by a capitalist system in regression. But behind this widespread hymn to the oneness of the decision-making.

The dissolution of the “social pacts” on which the “contract democracy” of the Weimar Republic was based becomes evident in the course of the Brüning’s government by presidential degree and in particular after the breaking up of the Parliament of July 1930. In the face of this collapse of the compromises that had held together fragilely the heap of contradictions in which the Weimar culture had found its own spaces, the USSR of the First Five-Year Plan can be considered in a new light: no longer a place of collective catharsis, but rather the place where the State seems to assume the role assigned by [Rudolf] Hilferding and by the Congress of Kiel to the connection “political form/social organization of capital.” This role, note well, is still claimed in 1932 by the ADGB and the Afa-Bund, in the pamphlet Umbau der Wirtschaft, the last significant document of Weimar syndicalism.[3]

Das neue Frankfurt - Neue Stadte im Russland (July 1931)_Page_01 Continue reading

Paul Nelson, Robert Pontabry et Anatole Kopp à l'inauguration de l'exposition des techniques américaines, Grand Palais, 14 juin 1946a

Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans

by Anatole Kopp

Untitled.
Image: Paul Nelson, Robert Pontabry et Anatole Kopp
à l’inauguration de l’exposition des techniques
américaines, Grand Palais, 14 juin 1946
untitled2

Reproduced below, sans footnotes, is the French-Russian architectural historian Anatole Kopp’s late article on “Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans,” from 1988. As things stand, it’s probably the most thorough account of international specialists’ activities in the USSR. In a post that’ll soon follow, I’ll go over Kopp’s career and outlook, his strengths and shortcomings, his collaborations and disagreements with peers such as Henri Lefebvre. His earlier work was stronger, and more influential, but this article is valuable if for no other reason than its comprehensiveness. That said, it does leave out mention of a few noteworthy figures, such as Hinnerk Scheper and Johan Niegeman. I’ve included some images of them, even though he neglects to mention them.

Soviet architecture of the 1920s — avant-garde architecture — was largely unresearched in the West until the mid-1960s. Since then, in Europe, in the United States, and also progressively in the Soviet Union, various studies have been devoted to this subject. What has remained largely unexamined, however, is the activity of a large number of foreign technicians who went to work in the USSR beginning in 1928. Their participation in various construction projects and in the development of Soviet architecture is the subject of this essay. Continue reading

Ernst May and the May Brigade in the Soviet Union (1930-1937)

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From Das Neue Rußland, vol. VIII-IX.  Berlin, 1931:

City Planning in Evolution

If there is any one area of endeavor in the USSR where the Revolution is still in full motion, then city building and dwelling construction must be considered first.  This is not surprising, for the replacement of a thousand-year-old social system by a new one is a process that will take more than just a dozen years to complete, or even to provide a clear and unequivocal direction.  Moreover, since the thorough reorganization of the the entire social life of the USSR, which covers on sixth of the land area of our globe, will vitally affect city development and housing everywhere, it follows that within the context of this general process of change it is at the present moment impossible to offer a panacea that would suddenly cure all the many ills accumulated over centuries and bring about immediate mature results.

Nevertheless, a number of theories have been advanced and are in hard competition with each other.  Some have been published abroad, and this in turn may have led to the impression that it is only these that represent the mainstream of Russian city planning.  Nothing could be more misleading!

So far there has been no firm commitment to one or the other system of city planning, and by all indications no such commitment should be forthcoming in the near future.  This does not mean that the field is dominated by a lack of planning or by arbitrariness.  The basic precepts of modern city planning, which in the past years have found wide acceptance in Europe, and which are now being implemented, have become the A to Z of planning in the USSR as well.  Clear separation of industry and residence, rational traffic design, the systematic organization of green areas, etc., are considered as valid a basis for healthy planning there as here; similarly, open-block planning is giving way to single-row building.

The Central Problem of the Socialist City

However, even though the general principles for the planning of Socialist cities have been established, the real problem is only beginning.  In other words, a city structure will have to be developed that in terms of its entire genesis as well as in terms of its internal articulation and structuring will be fundamentally different from the capitalist cities [189] in the rest of the world.  While our own cities in most cases owe their origin to commerce and the market place, with private ownership of land largely determining their form, the generating force behind the development of new cities in the Soviet Union is always and exclusively industrial economic production, regardless of whether in the form of industrial combines or agricultural collectives.  In contrast to prevailing practice in Europe, and with particular reference to trends in the USA, building densities in Soviet cities are not influenced by artificially inflated land values, as often happens in our case, but solely by the laws of social hygiene and economy.  In connection with this it should be pointed out most emphatically that the word ‘economy’ has taken on an entirely new meaning east of the Polish border.  Investments, which in a local sense may appear to be unprofitable, become convincingly [190] viable when seen from the vantage point of over all national planning by the state.

At this point I should like to point out most emphatically that among the innumerable misjudgments made abroad, none is more incorrect than that which assumes that work in the field of city planning and housing in the USSR is done without rhyme or reason, and that the ground has been cut out from under their feet.  The truth is that the economic and cultural reconstruction of all life in the USSR has no parallel in the history of mankind.  It is equally true that this reconstruction is being accomplished by a sober evaluation of all the realities, and it should be obvious to any observer that in each successive stage, matters recognized as desirable and ideal are being consciously subordinated to matters that are feasible and possible within the limitations of the present.  In the course of this discussion I shall return to this point on appropriate occasions.

The Overall Form of the Socialist City

As far as the general size of the city is concerned, the decision has been made to avoid in the future urban centers with populations larger than 150,000-200,000.  Reference is made to Lenin, who said: “We must aim at the fusion of industry and agriculture, based on the rigorous application of science, combined with the utilization of collective labor, and by means of a more diffused settlement pattern for the people.  We must end the loneliness, demoralization, and remoteness of the village, as well as the unnatural concentration of vast masses of people in the cities.”

Based on the above, the Five-Year Plan proposes decentralization of industrial production and thus automatically prevents the formation of excessive human concentrations.  As mentioned earlier, opinions vary widely concerning the methods by which these new settlements should be implemented.

Street-Aligned Single-Story Buildings

A proposal has been advanced to construct single-story buildings on pylons à la Corbusier, placing them at certain intervals along both sides of roads leading to kolkhozy.  The Soviets do not take this idea too seriously and tend to toy with it in the theoretical sense only.  It has never been tried in practice, and indications are that the concept will never actually be realized; generally it must be considered exceedingly uneconomical, particularly in terms of over-all state economic planning. Continue reading

Photos of and by Ernst May and other German architects in the USSR during the 1930s

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Ernst May and other German architects in the USSR, 1930s.

Taking a break, Soviet Union 1931Ernst May with his stereo camera in the Soviet Union, April 1931German architects in the USSR, journal New Frankfurt
Ilse May in the Armenian Soviet Republic, 1932The May BrigadeWorking in a meeting room of a local soviet; front left Walter Schwagenscheidt, behind from left Carl Lehmann, Wilhelm Hauss, Ms. Struve, and Ernst May, circa 1931
Wilhelm Kratz and Wilhelm Hauss with driver, Siberia 1931 (photo by Ernst May)Wilhelm Hauss, Jekaterina Nikolaevna, Frolov, and Ernst May, Magnitogorsk circa 1931)Walter Schwagenscheidt in the Soviet Union, circa 1932
Sledge tour, Tyrgan, Ernst May to the right circa 1931Nachalovki (improvised housing) near Magnitogorsk, with Walter Schwagenscheidt, 1931 (photo by Ernst May)March in Red Square commemorating Dzerzhinskii, 1931 (photo Ernst May)
IMG_1501Ilse and Thomas May in their dacha circa 1931, photographed by their father Ernst MayFigure on the Iberian Gate on Red Square, 1931 (photo by the German architect Ernst May)
Festival in Red Square, 1931 (photo Ernst May)Ernst May in his train compartment, Soviet Union (1932)Constructivist propaganda figure, 1931 (photo by Ernst May)

A number of extremely rare photos of and by Ernst May as well as other German socialist architects working in the USSR during the 1930s.

You can read a full-text English translation of Ernst May’s “City Building in the USSR” (1931) by clicking this link.

Il'ia Golosov's Zuev House of Culture — Workers' Club (1928)

The sociohistoric mission of modernist architecture

The housing shortage, the urban proletariat,
and the liberation of woman

.

Housing in the Industrial Revolution

Workers’ Housing in the 19th Century

Modernist architecture — Positive Bases

.

Read the full-text PDF version of
Ross Wolfe’s “The Graveyard of Utopia:
Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of
the International Avant-Garde”

By industrializing the process of building houses and other structures, the avant-garde believed that it could help to solve many of the profound problems that had emerged out of industrial society. The housing question, about which Engels and many others wrote, as well as the divide between town and country, along with the intense overcrowding of the cities and the alienation that came with it — all these confronted the modernists as problems in need of solutions.  For Engels, the problem of housing shortages was more or less perennial.  The peculiarity of the modern crisis consisted mostly in the spectacular rate of its urbanization, the magnitude of the population it affected, and by the fact that it was felt not only by the lower classes but by members of the petit-bourgeoisie as well.[1]  While he correctly rejected the base analogy of the tenant-landlord relationship with the worker-capitalist relationship as Proudhonism,[2] Engels was emphatic that the housing question posed by industrial society could only be overcome by overthrowing capitalism as a whole.  Drawing upon an early theme he had developed in collaboration with Marx, this also meant resolving the “antithesis between town and country.”[3]  Although Engels insisted upon the dissolution of capitalist society, he wisely refrained from offering too much in the way of specifics as to what a postcapitalist solution would entail: “To speculate on how a future society might organize the distribution of food and dwellings leads directly to utopia.  The utmost we can do is to state…that with the downfall of the capitalist mode of production certain forms of appropriation which existed in society hitherto will become impossible.”[4]

The Working Poor in Substandard Housing, 19th Century

Workers’ Housing near Ebbw Vale steelworks in Wales, 19th Century

Engels was not the only one to notice the acute urban housing shortage as well as the widening divide between town and country that was taking place under heavy industrial production.  He himself was reacting polemically to treatments of the problem offered by “Proudhonist” Arthur Mülberger and “bourgeois” Emil Sax.  The problem was recognized by more moderate writers like Alfred Smith, who in his own work on The Housing Question in 1900 wrote that “the grim irony of the situation could not go further — the laboring population, who daily contribute to the wealth and comfort of the city, are for the most part driven on to congested areas and into overcrowded rooms.”[5]  A Christian socialist by the unlikely name of Moritz Kaufmann, who accused Marx of utopianism[6] and later briefly corresponded with him,[7] authored a text in 1907 on The Housing of the Working Classes and of the Poor.  In this work, Kaufmann wrote of the evils of “slumlords,” of rural depopulation, and of the different manifestations of the housing crisis in Germany, France, and Belgium.[8]  Ultimately, Kaufmann’s prescriptions for action in dealing with these matters were not far from what Social-Democratic architects like Ernst May would later put forth.  This mostly amounted to more government oversight in the provision of public programs and the bureaucratic deployment of specialists.[9]  The housing question was exacerbated by the Great War, at least in the estimation of Edgar Lauer and Victor House, members of the New York judicial system, who wrote a treatise on The Tenant and His Landlord in 1921.  “Recent housing difficulties are not a local phenomenon,” they wrote.  “Insufficiency and inadequacy of living accommodation appear to be part of the worldwide aftermaths of the Great War.”[10] Continue reading

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

.Untitled
IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism

.Untitled

An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.

Ernst May, “City Building in the USSR” (1931)

Ernst May and collaborators, “The General Plan of Magnitogorsk — a settlement for 150,000 inhabitants attached to the Magnitogorsk industrial complex” (1931)

From Das Neue Rußland, vol. VIII-IX.  Berlin, 1931:

City Planning in Evolution

If there is any one area of endeavor in the USSR where the Revolution is still in full motion, then city building and dwelling construction must be considered first.  This is not surprising, for the replacement of a thousand-year-old social system by a new one is a process that will take more than just a dozen years to complete, or even to provide a clear and unequivocal direction.  Moreover, since the thorough reorganization of the the entire social life of the USSR, which covers on sixth of the land area of our globe, will vitally affect city development and housing everywhere, it follows that within the context of this general process of change it is at the present moment impossible to offer a panacea that would suddenly cure all the many ills accumulated over centuries and bring about immediate mature results.

Nevertheless, a number of theories have been advanced and are in hard competition with each other.  Some have been published abroad, and this in turn may have led to the impression that it is only these that represent the mainstream of Russian city planning.  Nothing could be more misleading!

So far there has been no firm commitment to one or the other system of city planning, and by all indications no such commitment should be forthcoming in the near future.  This does not mean that the field is dominated by a lack of planning or by arbitrariness.  The basic precepts of modern city planning, which in the past years have found wide acceptance in Europe, and which are now being implemented, have become the A to Z of planning in the USSR as well.  Clear separation of industry and residence, rational traffic design, the systematic organization of green areas, etc., are considered as valid a basis for healthy planning there as here; similarly, open-block planning is giving way to single-row building.

The Central Problem of the Socialist City

However, even though the general principles for the planning of Socialist cities have been established, the real problem is only beginning.  In other words, a city structure will have to be developed that in terms of its entire genesis as well as in terms of its internal articulation and structuring will be fundamentally different from the capitalist cities [189] in the rest of the world.  While our own cities in most cases owe their origin to commerce and the market place, with private ownership of land largely determining their form, the generating force behind the development of new cities in the Soviet Union is always and exclusively industrial economic production, regardless of whether in the form of industrial combines or agricultural collectives.  In contrast to prevailing practice in Europe, and with particular reference to trends in the USA, building densities in Soviet cities are not influenced by artificially inflated land values, as often happens in our case, but solely by the laws of social hygiene and economy.  In connection with this it should be pointed out most emphatically that the word ‘economy’ has taken on an entirely new meaning east of the Polish border.  Investments, which in a local sense may appear to be unprofitable, become convincingly [190] viable when seen from the vantage point of over all national planning by the state.

At this point I should like to point out most emphatically that among the innumerable misjudgments made abroad, none is more incorrect than that which assumes that work in the field of city planning and housing in the USSR is done without rhyme or reason, and that the ground has been cut out from under their feet.  The truth is that the economic and cultural reconstruction of all life in the USSR has no parallel in the history of mankind.  It is equally true that this reconstruction is being accomplished by a sober evaluation of all the realities, and it should be obvious to any observer that in each successive stage, matters recognized as desirable and ideal are being consciously subordinated to matters that are feasible and possible within the limitations of the present.  In the course of this discussion I shall return to this point on appropriate occasions.

Continue reading