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

Le Corbusier’s project for the Palace of the Soviets (1928-1931)

The Radiant City: Elements for a doctrine
of urbanism for the machine age 

Le Corbusier

The Main Auditorium: an audience of 15,000. Open-air platform: 50,000 people. And perfectly regulated acoustics. Small auditorium: 6,500 people. Huge crowds can move about at their case of the esplanade. Cars are on a lower level; the parking lot is beneath the auditoriums.

General ground-level plan: The natural declivities of the ground are left untouched. Automobiles are assigned a circuit on either side, in the open or underground. The circuit leads to the various entrances: an automatic classification of all visitors. Pedestrians never come into contact with cars. (There can be 25,000 people inside the Palace, and 50,000 more on the open-air platform).

Le Corbusier’s sketches of the Palais des Soviets

1932: Project for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow

1928-1931 Moscow classified traffic system

The ground is devoted to movement: pedestrians, cars.

Everything above the ground (the buildings) is devoted to stability.

No similarity between the two. The ground beneath the buildings must be freed, for regular streams of cars and lakes of pedestrians. The streams flow directly to certain entrances; the pedestrians are widely scattered. This makes for a new economy of layout.

The streams of cars can flow in sunken beds or along elevated highways. Starting 5 meters above the ground, buildings take on definite shape. Distribution of traffic has been achieved below, on the ground.

Here, the dynamic functions: distribution of sorts of traffic.

(Pilotis on the ground level).

Here, the static function is expressed by offices, club, and auditorium. 1928. Palace of Light Industry (first called the Tsentrosoiuz) in Moscow. Now built.

Le Corbusier at a conference in Moscow, 1928

Here, the dynamic functions: distribution of sorts of traffic.

(Pilotis on the ground level).

Here, the static function is expressed by offices, club, and auditorium. 1928. Palace of Light Industry (first called the Tsentrosoiuz) in Moscow. Now built.

Tsentrosoiuz: Plans, models, site visits

Master plan for the urbanization of the city of Moscow

In 1931, Moscow officials sent me a questionnaire, admirably thought out, about the city’s reorganization. If only all cities would send out such questionnaires! Their lot would be improved.

The theoretical drawings of the “Radiant City” were made in order to answer this questionnaire. They form a theory of urbanization for modern times.

My “Answer to Moscow” caused an unexpected reaction: its technical aspects were hailed in flattering terms. But the cornerstone of my work was freedom of the individual, and this was held against me. Doctrinal vehemence prevented any worthwhile discussion. Capitalist? bourgeois? proletarian? My only answer is a term expressing my line of conduct and my ingrained revolutionary attitude: human. My professional duty, as architect and city planner, is to achieve what is human.

Charitable colleagues — Frenchmen, too, and far from being “Reds” — proclaimed to all who would listen or read, “that I wanted to destroy Moscow.” Whereas they themselves, if only they were called upon, would, etc.…

The plate which appears opposite (last in the “Radiant City” series), is not a program for Moscow’s destruction but on the contrary, for its construction. It shows zoning and axes of movement along which the city could gradualIy achieve a position of supple ease, expansion without difficulty, and so forth. This plate shows a specimen of urban biology.

So far, only the International Congress for Modem Architecture, the C.I.A.M. has required its members to seek the lines of vital communication which can bring a city into efficient contact with its surrounding region. (A task which will fall to the 5th Congress).

Corbu’s iconic model of the Palais des Soviets

Palace of the Soviets in Moscow

The administration building, on the left, is independent of the ground. Not only is the ground freed but, moreover, the expanse of open space beneath the building forms a highly architectural frame for the landscape seen in the background.

On the right, impressive ramps lead the way to the open-air platform for 50,000 people.

By contrast, 15,000 can reach the main auditorium from ground level by means of a continuous inclined plane, becoming concave until it reaches the seats. No stairways, not even a single step can be tolerated in a public building — and certainly not “monumental” stairways!

Corbusier in the USSR
Space, Time, and Architecture (1941)

Sigfried Giedion

Le Corbusier’s Geneva plan remained a project, but the principles embodied in it were partially realized in the Tsentrosoiuz at Moscow (1928-34). The erection of the Tsentrosoiuz — now the Ministry of Light Industry — was retarded partly by the requirements of the Five-Year Plan and partly by the emergence of an architectural reaction. It was one of the last modern structures erected in Russia.

Le Corbusier with Sigfried Giedion and Gabriel Guervekian at La Sarraz for CIAM 1 (1928)

Le Corbusier with Sigfried Giedion and Gabriel Guervekian
at La Sarraz for the founding of CIAM (1928)

Le Corbusier’s design for the Palace of the Soviets (1931) fell within the period of Stalinist reaction. With the ceiling of the great hall suspended on wire cables from a parabolic curve, it was Le Corbusier’s boldest accomplishment up to that time. In 1931 the realization of this project or any of the other contemporary schemes, such as those by Gropius and  Breuer and by the sculptor [Naum] Gabo, was no longer conceivable in the U.S.S.R.

Russian translation of Le Corbusier's 1925 classic, Urbanisme [Планировка города]

Russian translation of Le Corbusier’s 1925
classic, Urbanisme [Планировка города]

Ivan Leonidov

These are some utopian sketches and plans by Soviet avant-garde architect Ivan Leonidov.  Here’s a defense of Leonidov’s work against some of the criticisms leveled against it by the rationalist Nikolai Dokuchaev, written up by his fellow constructivist, Aleksandr Kuzmin:

Projects may be criticized in various ways.  Amongst the critics of Leonidov’s projects there is a category of architects who, whilst understanding and recognizing the great importance of the projects to the development of a genuinely contemporary architecture, try by all means fair and foul to discredit them.

True, for all who understand this, such manoeuvers appear dismal and trite.  But unfortunately they do not all understand this.  They do not all see clearly that the heart of the problem can all too easily be littered up with scientific rubbish; not everyone sees that there are very few true theorists of architecture on the pages of our magazine, but a lot of reporters who jump from one case to another and are helplessly attacking issues which are beyond their capabilities.  In just this way Professor Dokuchaev writes in the journal Building Moscow (and when not being unduly familiar, he is incoherent), in an attempt to shape public opinion on Leonidov’s work. Continue reading