Yesterday’s tomorrow is not today

Hugh Ferriss’ modernity

Image: Rendering by Hugh Ferriss
of the UN Building proposal (1947)

What’s so fascinating about [Hugh] Ferriss is what makes him so different to his near-contemporary Iakov Chernikhov. While the latter made fantasy cities out of bizarre amalgams of what did exist and what hadn’t yet been invented, Ferriss drawings take the actually constructed and make it look utterly unreal.

Owen Hatherley, “Fairytales and real estate” (2007)

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)

It’s an odd feeling one gets from time to time, that the future we remember was more futuristic than our own. And yet it’s unmistakable. The moment we inhabit is a peculiar retrogression upon the past; its temporality is all off.

Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, 1917

Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, 1917

Architectural sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, late 1930s

Architectural sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, late 1930s

Hatherley’s observation regarding the perpendicular paths of Ferriss and Chernikhov — paths that converge around the right angle of modernity — extends further than he even imagined. Whether working from unreality to reality or vice versa, the two celebrated draughtsmen charted a collision course from their respective points of origin. This might even be seen to represent a pattern of nonsensuous dissimilarity, inverting the old Benjaminian trope.

Meeting somewhere along the middle in the early 1930s, at least within the realm of ideas, the drawings of Ferriss and Chernikhov thereafter approximate each other visually (in terms of sensuous similarity) the further out one moves diverging from this date. That is to say, Ferriss’ sketches become more pronouncedly gothic the earlier on one looks. A tenebrous crayon rendering from 1917, shown above, amply illustrates this fact. Oppositely, Chernikhov’s sketches began exhibiting numerous gothic features toward the end of the 1930s, becoming progressively gloomier along the way. No one denies the influence of Hugh Ferriss over the comic-book city of Gotham; producers of the new Batman movies just announced would do well to take a look at Chernikhov’s later works for inspiration, especially after their blunder casting Ben Affleck as the dark knight. Continue reading

The speculative constructivism of Iakov Chernikhov’s early architectural experiments, 1925-1932

Chernikov-11 main libraryIakov Chernikhov, strict integration of individual structural elements into a single coordinatedd unit

Problems of constructivism
in their relation to art

Erikh Fedorovich Gollerbakh
Construction of Architectural
and Machine Forms

In this epoch of the triumphant development of mechanical engineering and the continuous growth of industrialization a new conception of artistic activity is being born. New demands are being made of the fine arts. Old and decrepit forms are being repudiated. Modernity demands of fine art that it should directly serve the urgent needs of our time.

Bending their ear to the modern world’s demands, artists are trying to find new principles forgiving form to their intentions — new principles that will be in keeping with the industrial and technological character of modern civilization. If they proceed from outside and amount to an “adapting” of old forms to new content, these attempts are rarely successful. Art can be brought onto its true path only through the creation of new forms which are adequate to the forms of life itself, and which answer its concrete requirements. Instead of seeking every kind of adaptation from the outside, what we need is the equally possible discovery of new values from within, that is, in the field of those phenomena which are characteristic of the modern tenor of life, of the modern state of technology. To a certain degree, art may become engineering. It must move from its previous aimless decorativeness, from its unprincipled aestheticism alienated from life, to an existence of practical utility. In this process the question of a transformation of artistic forms must not depend exclusively upon ideological content, but must be solved on the basis of a fundamental re-examination of the means of expression. Industrial and technological “being” cannot fail to influence the artistic and creative “consciousness.”

Needless to say, diverse other factors can also influence this consciousness. In the latest Western European art, and on the Left Front of the visual arts in the USSR, one can see the influence of prehistoric, primitive art, of ancient, archaic cultures, of the art of savages, children folk-cultures and so on. But when we are told that the artists who soak up these influences are “setting up new traditions,” are “achieving one of the greatest revolutions ever known in the history of the arts,” we are justified in doubting the extent to which these “new” traditions have any genuinely revolutionary content. Would it not be more correct to regard them as feeble imitation sui generis, as a conscious return to those albeit great, but already incarnate and largely extinct forms of which countless multitudes fill the long history of art — sometimes outreaching their original prototypes created at the dawn of human existence, sometimes endlessly inferior to them. Do we have to seek artistic models in the cemeteries of dead art, in the depth of history, amongst socially backward strata of modern humanity, when the progress of modern life is endlessly generating new forms, is conquering the indifference of the elements and harnessing them in the steel chains of technology. Instead of imitating the stiffened corpses of dead forms — albeit of beautiful ones — is it not better to seek the basis of a new art in the deep structures of organic and spatial phenomena in the world around us?

Iakov Chernikhov teaching in an arts class in Leningrad, 1920s

Investigation of the principles governing these structures leads to an identification of the primary geometrical laws common to the most diverse phenomena of the external world. It is precisely investigation, positing the principle of a scientific foundation for art, that will offer the possibility of finding a synthesis of technology with all aspects of the visual arts in a single constructivist art.

We do not yet have one single investigation specifically devoted to the question of constructivism. More than that, we do not have so much as an essay which elucidates the concept of constructivism, or outlines its course of development. Most discussion of constructivism is very superficial and unconvincing: people point out that it is based on principles of the mechanical and geometrical inter-relations of materials and their forms. They mention that constructivism aspires to create practically useful and externally beautiful objects (or in the first place, designs for them). Finally they underline constructivism’s direct connection with the mechanization of the whole structure of our lives, with the intensive development of industrial production, and so on. None of these diffuse and foggy definitions give any precise or true understanding of the essence of constructivism. Indeed, it is difficult to give a precise definition when it has still not fully defined itself. It is impossible to write an investigation of a subject whose actual nature has still not yet entirely emerged. This is why constructivism should not now be written about by historians of art or aesthetic critics, but by theoreticians of art or — even better — by practitioners, that is to say by those artists (or engineers) who are themselves constructivists.

The book presented to the reader here by architect-artist Iakov G. Chernikhov constitutes precisely such an experiment in laying out the fundamentals of constructivism. The author is not an art historian evaluating an artistic phenomenon “from the sidelines,” but a builder-artist pursuing and creating relatively new forms of depiction in his own personal professional work.

Chernikhov’s book The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms is not a narrowly specialist technical investigation or handbook; if it were the latter there would be no place in it for a preface from an art historian. This book has an incomparably broader perspective. It is an investigation of theoretical principles which touch upon certain problems of the philosophy of art. The questions which the author raises about the meaning of the constructive approach, about its essence, about the nature or “constitution” of that approach, about the laws of construction and about constructive principles of form-generation, all these lead to the boundaries where the theory of art begins. However the author does not withdraw into the debris of abstract cognition. He does not get cut off from the real origins of his theoretical debate. In his role as a practicing artist participating directly in the productive and constructional life of our country, Chernikhov knows all too well the importance and value of concrete tasks in the art of today understanding “art,” as I do, in the very broadest sense of that word. While taking into account the methodological value of abstract solutions and structures, he also knows that we must not build forms which are beyond the realm of the useful, that we must not prop up the concept of a self-sufficient, “pure” art. His book rests upon a recognition of the profound commonality of the constructive principles underlying art and technology. And with that, on a recognition that the creative handling of materials can become a great organizing force, if it is directed towards the creation of useful, utilitarian forms. Continue reading

Chernikhov's dark turn

Iakov Chernikhov’s sepulchral city

The dark turn in Chernikhov’s late works,
the architectural necropolis
after the onset of Stalinism

Almost gothic.

I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend.  —Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

Яков Чернихов, «Архитектурные фантазии: 101 композиция» (1925-33) — Along with fully searchable, downloadable PDFs of the original Russian texts

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Forty-five sketches by the brilliant former Suprematist painter and visionary architect Iakov Chernikhov, all composed between 1925-1933 and published together in his book Architectural Fantasies: 101 Compositions.

For any of my readers who know Russian, please feel free to download the full-text, searchable PDFs of these brilliant texts:

The Major Works of Iakov Chernikhov

Many thanks to for making available the following major works of the famed Russian avant-garde architect Iakov Chernikhov, which I have converted into PDF form and rendered searchable:

1. Яков Чернихов — 101 архитектурная фантазия (1927) [101 Architectural Fantasies]

2. Яков Чернихов — Основы Современной Архитектуры (1930) [The Fundamentals of Modern Architecture]

3. Яков Чернихов — Конструкция машинных и архитектурных форм (1933) [The Construction of Machine and Architectural Forms, of which I have recently posted an excellent full-text translation by the late Catherine Cooke]

An additional thank you to Arch-Grafika for crediting my work in uploading Izvestiia ASNOVA.