Moscow constructivism

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Images taken from the Russian language website Medusa, along with a translation of the short blurb that accompanied it. Reportedly several hundred Musvovites gathered to protest the razing of the Tagansk Telephone Exchange, mentioned below. But developers went ahead with it anyway.

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Demolition of the Tagansk Telephone Exchange — a constructivist building lacking the official status of architectural landmark — began at the end of April in Moscow. In place of the Telephone Exchange, they plan to build a hotel. Aleksandr Gorokhov, photo editor of Medusa, found in the archives of the Shchusev Architecture Museum some old photographs of other constructivist buildings, in order to show readers how they looked having just been built.

В конце апреля в Москве начался снос Таганской АТС — конструктивистского здания, не имевшего формального статуса памятника архитектуры. На месте АТС планируют построить отель. Фоторедактор «Медузы» Александра Горохова нашла в архиве музея архитектуры имени Щусева старые фотографии других конструктивистских зданий, чтобы показать читателям, как они выглядели, когда только были построены.

Вегнер А.П., Мотылев М.И., Молоков Н.М., Звездин И.А., Шервинский Е.В., Федоров А.Н., Буров И.Г., Блохин Б.Н., Савельев Л.И., Виссинг М.Г. Дворец культуры автозавода им. Сталина-Лихачева. Здание столовой. Архитекторы братья Веснины А.А., В.А., Л.А. Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева (ЗИЛа). Крыша с обсерваторией. Архитекторы братья Веснины А.А., В.А., Л.А. Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева. Клубная часть. Интерьер, лестница. Архитекторы братья Веснины Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева. Переход из театрального зала в клубную часть. Архитекторы братья Веснины Фото 1937 год. Дом «Известий». Архитектор Бархин Г.Б. Фото 1937 года Continue reading

Hannes Meyer, The new world [Die neue Welt] (1926)

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The flight of the “Norge” to the North pole, the Zeiss planetarium at Jena and Flettner’s rotor ship represent the latest stages to be reported in the mechanization of our planet. Being the outcome of extreme precision of thought, they all provide striking evidence of the way in which science continues to permeate our environment. Thus in the diagram to the present age we find everywhere amidst sinuous lines of its social and economic fields of force straight lines which are mechanical and scientific in origin. They are cogent evidence of the victory of man the thinker over amorphous nature. This new knowledge undermines and transforms existing values. It gives our new world its shape.

Motor cars dash along our streets. On a traffic island in the Champs Elysées from 6 to 8 p.m. there rages round one metropolitan dynamism at its most strident. “Ford” and “Rolls Royce” have burst open the core of the town, obliterating distance and effacing the boundaries between town and country. Aircraft slip through the air: “Fokker” and “Farman” widen our range of movement and the distance between us and the earth; they disregard national frontiers and bring nation closer to nation. Illuminated signs twinkle, loud-speakers screech, posters advertise, display windows shine forth. The simultaneity of events enormously extends our concept of “space and time,” it enriches our life. We live faster and therefore longer. We have a keener sense of speed than ever before, and speed records are a direct gain for all. Gliding, parachute descents and music hall acrobatics refine our desire for balance. The precise division into hours of the time we spend working in office and factory and the split-minute timing of railway timetables make us live more consciously. With swimming pools, sanatoria, and public lavatories, hygiene appears on the local scene and its water closets, faience washbowls and baths usher in the new line of sanitary fittings in earthenware. Fordson tractors and v. Meyenburg cultivators have resulted in a shift of emphasis in land development and sped up the tilling of the earth and intensive cultivation of crops. Borrough’s calculating machine sets free our brain, the Dictaphone our hand, Ford’s motor our place-bound senses and Handley Page our earthbound spirits. Radio, marconigram, and phototelegraphy liberate us from our national seclusion and make us part of a world community. The gramophone, microphone, orchestrion, and pianola accustom our ears to the sound of impersonal-mechanized rhythms: “His Master’s Voice,” “Vox,” and “Brunswick” see to the musical needs of millions. Psychoanalysis has burst open the all too narrow dwelling of the soul and graphology has laid bare the character of the individual. “Mazdaism,” “Coué” and “Die Schönheit” are signs of the desire for reform breaking out everywhere. National costume is giving way to fashion and the external masculinization of woman shows that inwardly the two sexes have equal rights. Biology, psychoanalysis, relativity, and entomology are common intellectual property: France, Einstein, Freud, and Fabre are the saints of this latterday. Our homes are more mobile than ever. Large blocks of flats, sleeping cars, house yachts, and transatlantic liners undermine the local concept of the “homeland.” The fatherland goes into a decline. We learn Esperanto. We become cosmopolitan.

triptychon-1921

The steadily increasing perfection attained in printing, photographic, and cinematographic processes enables the real world to be reproduced with an ever greater degree of accuracy. The picture the landscape presents to the eye today is more diversified than ever before; hangars and power houses are the cathedrals of the spirit of the age. This picture has the power to influence through the specific shapes, colors, and lights of its modern elements: the wireless aerials, the dams, the lattice girders: through the parabola of the airship, the triangle of the traffic signs, the circle of the railway signal, the rectangle of the billboard; through the linear element of transmission lines: telephone wires, overhead tram wires, high-tension cables; through radio towers, concrete posts, flashing lights, and filling stations. Our children do not deign to look at a snorting steam locomotive but entrust themselves with cool confidence to the miracle of electric traction. G. Palucca’s dances, von Laban’s movement choirs, and D. Mesendieck’s functional gymnastics are driving out the aesthetic eroticism of the nude painting. The stadium has carried the day against the art museum, and physical reality has taken the place of beautiful illusion. Sport merges the individual into the mass. Sport is becoming the university of collective feeling. Suzanne Lenglen’s cancellation of a match disappoints hundreds of thousands, Breitensträter’s defeat sends a shiver through hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands follow Nurmi’s race over 10,000 meters on the running track. The standardization of our requirements is shown by: the bowler hat, bobbed hair, the tango, jazz, the Co-op product, the DIN standard size, and Liebig’s meat extract. The standardization of mental fare is illustrated by the crowds going to see Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, and Jackie Coogan. Grock and the three Fratellini weld the masses — irrespective of class and racial differences — into a community with a common fate. Trade union, co-operative, Lt., Inc., cartel, trust, and the League of Nations are the forms in which today’s social conglomerations find expression, and the radio and the rotary press are their media of communication. Co-operation rules the world. The community rules the individual.

Each age demands its own form. It is our mission to give our new world a new shape with the means of today. But our knowledge of the past is a burden that weighs upon us, and inherent in our advanced education are impediments tragically barring our new paths. The unqualified affirmation of the present age presupposes the ruthless denial of the past. The ancient institutions of the old — the classical grammar schools and the academies — are growing obsolete. The municipal theaters and the museums are deserted. The jittery helplessness of the applied arts is proverbial. In their place, unburdened by classical airs and graces, by an artistic confusion of ideas or the trimmings of applied art, the witnesses of a new era are arising: industrial fairs, grain silos, music halls, airports, office chairs, standard goods. All these things are the product of a formula: function multiplied by economics. They are not works of art. Art is composition, purpose is function. The composition of a dock seems to us a nonsensical idea, but the composition of a town plan, a block of flats…?? Building is a technical not an aesthetic process, artistic composition does not rhyme with the function of a house matched to its purpose. Ideally and in its elementary design our house is a living machine. Retention of heat, insolation, natural and artificial lighting, hygiene, weather protection, car maintenance, cooking, radio, maximum possible relief for the housewife, sexual and family life, etc. are the determining lines of force. The house is their component. (Snugness and prestige are not leitmotifs of the dwelling house: the first resides in the human heart and not in the Persian carpet, the second in the attitude of the house-owner and not on the wall of a room!) Today we have new building materials at our disposal for building a house: aluminium and duralumin in plates, rods, and bars, Euboölith, Ruberoid, Forfoleum, Eternit, rolled glass, Triplex sheets, reinforced concrete, glass bricks, faience, steel frames, concrete frame slabs and pillars, Trolith, Galalith, Cellon, Goudron, Ripoliin, indanthrene paints, etc. We organize these building elements into a constructive unity in accordance with the purpose of the building and economic principles. Architecture has ceased to be an agency continuing the growth of tradition or an embodiment of emotion. Individual form, building mass, natural color of material, and surface texture come into being automatically and this functional conception of building in all its aspects leads to pure construction [Konstruktion]. Pure construction is the characteristic feature of the new world of forms. Constructive form is not peculiar to any country; it is cosmopolitan and the expression of an international philosophy of building. Internationalism is the prerogative of our time.

Today every phase of our culture of expression is predominantly constructive. Human inertia being what it is, it is not surprising that such an approach is to be found most clearly at first where the Greeks and Louis XIV have never set foot: in advertising, in typographical mechanical composition, in the cinema, in photographic processes. The modern poster presents lettering and product or trademark conspicuously arranged. It is not a poster work of art but a piece of visual sensationalism. In the display window of today psychological capital is made of the tensions between modern materials with the aid of lighting. It is display window organization rather than window dressing. It appeals to the finely distinguishing sense of materials found in modern man and covers the gamut of its expressive power: fortissimo = tennis shoes to Havana cigarettes to scouring soap to nut chocolate! Mezzo-forte = glass (as a bottle) to wood (as a packing case) to pasteboard (as packing) to tin (as a can)! Pianissimo = silk pajamas to cambric shirts to Valenciennes lace to “L’Origan de Coty”! Continue reading

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Lenin workers’ club in Paris (1925)

Aleksandr Rodchenko, design for the 1925 exhibition222 Aleksandr Rodchenko, design for the 1925 workers club in the Soviet Pavilion, Paris122

My friend Agata Pyzik, author of the excellent Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (Zer0: 2014), recently uploaded some pictures from her visit to Moscow. One of them shows her holding a copy of her book inside a reconstruction of the Lenin Workers’ Club by Aleksandr Rodchenko, originally designed for the 1925 Paris Exposition. The scale reconstruction traveled to Tate Modern back in 2009, and currently resides in the State Tretiakov Museum in Russia, which is where Agata had her picture taken.

She left a copy of Poor but Sexy in its display of revolutionary literature — a valuable addition, in my opinion. Right now I’m waiting to hear back from the LARB about my review of it, though if I don’t hear back from them soon I’ll likely submit it elsewhere. All I can say is pick up a copy and read it posthaste.

tumblr_inline_mhuto1o47j1qz4rgp1 rodochenko international_exhibition_of_modern_decorative_and_inudstrial_art1335908254148

For now, here are some photos and drawings of Rodchenko’s famous design along with some well-known passages written at the time of the exhibition. It appeared as part of the same show that saw the premier of architect Konstantin Mel’nikov’s outstanding Soviet Pavilion. Continue reading

The Soviet pavilion at the 1925 Paris International Exposition

For those ardent enthusiasts of Soviet avant-garde architecture from the 1920s, whom I suspect account for a great deal of this blog’s readership, my retrospective evaluation of Konstantin Mel’nikov’s famous house in Moscow from a few weeks back may have rubbed some the wrong way. While generally appreciative of the architect’s built and unbuilt legacy, it was decidedly less impressed with the private domestic arrangement he designed for himself. This might not seem all that controversial to those of you who remain unschooled in Soviet architectural esoterica, but when it comes to a structure as iconic as Dom Mel’nikova — a building currently threatened by years of neglect and decay — such an opinion could well be considered anathema. In case this opinion offended any Mel’nikov partisans among you, however, this post is intended to make up for it. Today we’ll review one of his projects that I consider an overwhelming and unambiguous success: the Soviet Pavilion for the 1925 Paris Exposition.

Mel’nikov’s undoubtable talents as an architect revealed themselves nowhere more clearly than in his submissions to international design competitions. A number of historians have noted this fact.”Mel’nikov rose to prominence through competitions,” writes Jean-Louis Cohen in his recent historical overview, The Future of Architecture since 1889. “Mel’nikov created a sensation with his Makhorka Tobacco Pavilion at the Agricultural Exhibition held in Moscow in 1923 and, two years later, with the pavilion he designed to represent the USSR at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” (pgs. 165-166). Though they drew a dubious inference regarding Mel’nikov’s overall “qualifications” from the work, Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co reached a similar conclusion in their history of Modern Architecture: “Mel’nikov acquired immediate international fame with his Russian pavilion for the Paris Exposition of 1925” (pg. 180).

Initial sketches, models, and designs

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As the above would seem to suggest, Mel’nikov’s pavilion was, at least visually, extremely striking. Not only that, however. Its perambulatory effect, experienced chiefly through the mechanism of the open staircase, was similarly unprecedented. The glasswork, laid out in flat sheets stood vertically adjacent to the stairs, allowed the entire contents of the building’s interior (its stands, internal layout, and displays). Concerning the formal significance of the structure’s composition, and its reception by crowds of Parisians and foreign visitors, Cohen summarizes: “Composed of two glazed triangular volumes bisected diagonally by a staircase, it was the most conspicuous structure at the Paris exhibition. It revealed to the West the existence of a new Russian architecture, which was further confirmed by the presentation elsewhere at the fair of over one hundred projects conceived in the USSR since 1920” (The Future of Architecture, pg. 166).

El Lissitzky, writing several years after the 1925 Paris Expo, reasoned along similar lines. For him, the Mel’nikov’s piece was significant as an early and profound expression of the formalist wing of Soviet architecture, represented in the theory and methods of the ASNOVA group, of which Mel’nikov was a member at the time. Lissitzky wrote:

The first small building that gave clear evidence of the reconstruction of our architecture was the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, designed by Mel’nikov. The close proximity of the Soviet Pavilion to other creations of international architecture revealed in the most glaring way the fundamentally different attitudes and concepts embodied in Soviet architecture. This work represents the “formalistic” [Rationalist] wing of the radical front of our architecture, a group whose primary aim was to work out a fitting architectural concept for each utilitarian task.

In this case, the basic concept represents an attempt to loosen up the overall volume by exposing the staircase. In the plan, the axis of symmetry is established on the diagonal, and all other elements are rotated by 180 ̊. Hence, the whole has been transposed from ordinary symmetry at rest into symmetry in motion. The tower element has been transformed into an open system of pylons. The structure is built honestly of wood, but instead of relying on traditional Russian log construction [it] employs modern wood construction methods. The whole is transparent. Unbroken colors. Therefore no false monumentality. A new spirit. (The Reconstruction of Architecture in the USSR [1929], pgs. 35-36.

The building thus reflected the relatively advanced state of Russia’s architectural thinking rather than any inherent political message. Tafuri and Dal Co. wisely warned against seeing the structure as some kind of metaphor for socialism. Paying close attention to the architect’s initial sketches (shown above), they derived an interpretation of the pavilion as a daring formal experiment rather than a propaganda piece. “[Mel’nikov’s pavilion] was a dynamic building based on the intersection of deformed geometrical masses that obliged the visitor to move along specific diagonals. There is no point in reading those ‘intersections’ as metaphors of the socialist dynamic: the preparatory drawings for the pavilion show circular buildings which are broken up, inclined, and interconnected in informal manner, indicating beyond a doubt that what interested the architect was only experimentation with a language made up of alienated objects, of volumes designed to deform their own geometry and in fact clashing with each other” (pg. 180).

Photos of Mel’nikov’s 1925 pavilion

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This was, incidentally, roughly in accordance with Mel’nikov’s own self-understanding at the time of the Paris Expo. Upon arriving in Paris, and completing the startling structure, the Soviet architect found himself a minor celebrity on the scene. A buzz already surrounded Mel’nikov given the sketches that’d been previewed in the Parisian press. In the summer of 1925, then, a major newspaper sat down to interview the emerging designer. Continue reading

The Mel’nikov house [Дом Мельникова]: A retrospective evaluation

An embarrassing admission: I’ve never been too keen on the Mel’nikov house.

This may seem odd coming from someone who just signed a petition calling for the preservation of Mel’nikov’s works and heritage. Not least among these is his famous house, which the experts say is presently “under threat.” A campaign to restore and maintain the aging structure — spearheaded by a talented young photographer currently residing in Moscow, Natalia Melikova — has already managed to muster a great deal of publicity. Coverage of this effort has not been limited to Russian press, either, though several articles have recently appeared in well-established news outlets like Известия (an old heavyweight, now in an online edition). Even before they began reporting in the vernacular, however, Sophia Kishkovsky ran a story on it for The New York Times‘ ArtBeat section back in April.

Unsurprisingly, the motion to preserve the Mel’nikov house has enjoyed an outpouring of support from a number of high-profile scholars and architects. Many readers of this blog are no doubt that my own stance on this issue has been one of deep ambivalence, despite my reluctant signature and endorsement of the letter. Basically, my reservations were as follows:

As a student of history and a great admirer of Mel’nikov’s architectural corpus (built and unbuilt), I am of course in favor of maintaining and restoring the many iconic examples of his work that remain. But knowing that pitiless, unsentimental attention to the demands of technical turnover and the imperative to overturn obsolescence formed part and parcel of the worldview animating Soviet modernism, it is impossible to deny the irony of the wish to preserve buildings that no longer serve any meaningful function — except, perhaps, as a physical reminder of the project that was once underway in Russia. Nothing would seem so preposterous to an avant-garde architect of the time than to cling to the past out of melancholy or nostalgia, let alone museumify it.

Whatever the reasons or principles I invoked, these are not the subject of today’s post. Just having stumbled upon a trove of rare images showing the building’s plan, a bisectable small-scale model of its proportions, and some rare photographs of its construction and eventual realization, I thought I’d post them along with some reflections on its strengths and weaknesses vis–à–vis housing projects by other architects of that time, as well as its place within Mel’nikov’s own corpus. Since I suspect my opinion belongs to that rather tiny, discordant minority of Soviet architecture geeks who don’t instantly kvell over the Mel’nikov house, we’ll first offer an expiation in advance of the outrage that might follow. And so, without any further ado, here are some of the plans and sketches for the house.

Plans, paintings, sketches

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Enough already: What’s not to like about the Mel’nikov house? Continue reading

On the preservation of Konstantin Melnikov’s works and heritage

An open appeal from architects
and architectural historians

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Image: “SOS” projected onto Konstantin
Mel’nikov’s cylindrical house (1928)

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I recently received an e-mail from Ginés Garrido of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and S. Frederick Starr of the Johns Hopkins University requesting that I help spread the word about an initiative they’ve developed to assist in the preservation of Soviet avant-garde architect Konstantin Mel’nikov‘s works and heritage. My decision to do so was not as immediate or as obvious as it might at first seem, however.

Let me explain: As a student of history and a great admirer of Mel’nikov’s architectural corpus (built and unbuilt), I am of course in favor of maintaining and restoring the many iconic examples of his work that remain. But knowing that pitiless, unsentimental attention to the demands of technical turnover and the imperative to overturn obsolescence formed part and parcel of the worldview animating Soviet modernism, it is impossible to deny the irony of the fact that preserving buildings that no longer serve any meaningful function except as a physical reminder of the project that was once underway in Russia. Nothing would seem so preposterous to an avant-garde architect of the time than to cling to the past out of melancholy or nostalgia, let alone museumify it. Continue reading

Nikolai Suetin's crypto-Suprematist model for the 1937 Soviet Pavilion, featuring Iofan's Palace of the Soviets

Nikolai Suetin’s crypto-Suprematist model for the Paris 1937 Soviet Pavilion, featuring Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets

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IMAGE: Suetin’s model
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From the first chapter of Douglas Murphy‘s Architecture of Failure (if you haven’t checked this book out by now, you really should):

Industrial exhibitions of one kind or another had been held for at least half a century before 1851.  However, as the Great Exhibition would be the first that was international in any sense, and as it would also be an event on a scale that dwarfed any previous exhibition, then it is not unreasonable to think of it in terms of a ‘first of its kind.’  Moreover, it set in motion a massive cultural movement; the Great Exhibition is often said to be the birth of modern capitalist culture, both in terms of the promotion of ideologies of free trade and competitive display but also in the new ways in which objects were consumed, and how they were seen. Benjamin refers to how the exhibitions were ‘training schools in which the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value,’ while more recently Peter Sloterdijk would write that with the Great Exhibition, ‘a new aesthetic of immersion began its triumphal procession through modernity.’  The financial success of the Great Exhibition was swiftly emulated: both New York and Paris would hold their own exhibitions within the next five years, and there would be a great many others held throughout the century all over the world.  As time went on, the event would slowly metamorphose into what is now known as the ‘Expo’, a strange shadow counterpart to the events of so long ago, but one that still occurs, albeit fitfully, and with a strange, undead quality to it.  By the time the first half-century of exhibitions was over the crystalline behemoths of the early exhibitions had been replaced by the ‘pavilion’ format, whereby countries, firms and even movements would construct miniature ideological edifices to their own projected self-identities. The 1900 Paris exhibition was the first to truly embrace this format, and in future years one could encounter such seminal works of architecture such as Melnikov’s Soviet Pavilion and Le Corbusier’s Pavilion Esprit Nouveau (Paris 1925), Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (Barcelona 1929), Le Corbusier & Iannis Xenakis’ Phillips Pavilion (Brussels 1958), or witness the desperately tragic face-off between Albert Speer and Boris Iofan (Paris 1937). Continue reading

Izvestiia ASNOVA/Известия АСНОВА (1926)

The first and only issue of ASNOVA’s journal, with its layout designed by El Lissitzky and Nikolai Ladovskii

Izvestiia ASNOVA [Известия АСНОВА] PDF Download

Today I made my way from the NYPL Schwarzman building over to Columbia University’s Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library.  I half wondered if I’d bump into Louis Proyect along the way.  After some sifting through the WorldCAT I discovered that some of the original source documents I’d been looking for were in Columbia’s collection.

Most astoundingly, I happened across a copy of the 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.

Though it’s only eight pages long, this piece is incredibly rare to find in its full-text form.  A few quotes and passages from the journal are often cited in passing, but no one to date seems to have taken the time to digitize it.  So anyway, I copied some images of it and ran it through some text-recognition software and then uploaded it for everyone.  Just click on the above link to download it.