Mies van der Rohe

Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe hardly needs any in­tro­duc­tion to read­ers of this blog, or in­deed to any­one more than cas­u­ally fa­mil­i­ar with the his­tory of twen­ti­eth cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture. Still, a few words might be in­cluded here for those who haven’t yet had the pleas­ure. He was the third dir­ect­or of the le­gendary Bauhaus art school, after the pi­on­eer­ing mod­ern­ist Wal­ter Gropi­us and the con­tro­ver­sial Marx­ist Hannes Mey­er. Des­cen­ded from stone­ma­sons, Mies entered the build­ing trade at a young age. Pri­or to his ten­ure at the Bauhaus, he was an ap­pren­tice along with Gropi­us in the stu­dio of Peter Behrens, who also later su­per­vised a Swiss prodigy by the name of Charles-Édouard Jean­ner­et (ali­as Le Cor­busier). Un­der the Ger­man mas­ter’s tu­tel­age, Mies gained an en­dur­ing ap­pre­ci­ation for the Prus­si­an clas­si­cist Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Be­sides Behrens, the oth­er mod­ern in­flu­ence on Mies dur­ing this early phase of his ca­reer was the Dutch­man Hendrik Pet­rus Ber­lage, through whom Europe learned of the ground­break­ing designs of Frank Lloyd Wright in Amer­ica.

Mies’ turn to full-fledged mod­ern­ism came in the 1920s, after he came in­to con­tact with Kurt Schwit­ters and oth­er mem­bers of the in­ter­na­tion­al av­ant-garde. Al­though his com­mis­sions earli­er in the dec­ade still came from cli­ents whose taste was rather more tra­di­tion­al, Mies nev­er­the­less began writ­ing bold art­icles and mani­fes­tos for the con­struct­iv­ist journ­al G. Oth­er con­trib­ut­ors to this peri­od­ic­al were artists and crit­ics such as El Lis­sitzky, Wern­er Gräff, and Wal­ter Ben­jamin. Jean-Louis Co­hen, au­thor of The Fu­ture of Ar­chi­tec­ture (2012), de­tails the vari­ous ex­per­i­ments Mies con­duc­ted around this time. In 1926, he was se­lec­ted to design the monu­ment to Rosa Lux­em­burg and Karl Lieb­knecht in Ber­lin. Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of the 1927 Wießenhof ex­hib­i­tion, spear­headed by Mies, a num­ber of more dar­ing projects now opened them­selves up to him. Villa Tu­gend­hat in Brno, Czechoslov­akia and the Wolf House in Gu­bin, Po­land were only the most fam­ous of these projects. In 1929, Mies was chosen to design the Ger­man pa­vil­ion for the world’s fair in Bar­celona, which re­ceived wide­spread ac­claim. You can read more about these works in an ex­cerpt taken from Alan Colquhoun’s his­tor­ic­al sur­vey Mod­ern Ar­chi­tec­ture (2002).

portriat-of-german-born-american-architect-ludwig-mies-van-der-rohe-1886-1969-as-he-sits-in-a-chair-in-his-home-chicago-illinois-1956 mies-van-der-rohe_casa-de-campo-de-ladrillo-1924-mies-van-der-rohe portriat-of-german-born-american-architect-ludwig-mies-van-der-rohe-1886-1969-as-he-peers-from-between-a-model-of-his-26-story-twin-apartment-buildings-located-at-860-on-the-right-and-880-lake

In any case, just as Mies was be­gin­ning to make a name for him­self, Gropi­us asked Mies to step in and re­place Mey­er over at the Bauhaus in Des­sau. At the time, Mey­er was em­broiled in a scan­dal con­cern­ing his com­mun­ist sym­path­ies. He ex­ited, along with many of his left-wing stu­dents, to plan new cit­ies in the USSR. (Eva For­gacs has writ­ten ex­cel­lently about the polit­ics that sur­roun­ded this de­cision). With the rise of Hitler in 1933, Gropi­us’ icon­ic Des­sau build­ing was com­mand­eered by the Nazis and the school moved to Ber­lin. Mies’ choice to stay in Ger­many, and in­deed col­lab­or­ate with the fas­cist au­thor­it­ies, has been chron­icled at length by Elaine Hoch­man in her 1989 study Ar­chi­tects of For­tune. Co­hen dis­misses this book as a bit of journ­al­ist­ic sen­sa­tion­al­ism, but its charges are worth tak­ing ser­i­ously. Sibyl Mo­holy-Nagy, for her part, nev­er for­gave him for this. “When [Mies] ac­cep­ted the com­mis­sion for the Reichs­bank in Ju­ly 1933, after the com­ing to power of Hitler, he was a trait­or to all of us and to everything we had fought for,” she wrote. In a 1965 let­ter, she fur­ther re­but­ted the his­tor­i­an Henry-Rus­sell Hitch­cock:

Mies van der Rohe seemed to be wholly a part of that slow death when he fi­nally ar­rived in this coun­try in 1937. His first scheme for the cam­pus of the Illinois In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy is pain­fully re­min­is­cent of his deadly fas­cist designs for the Ger­man Reichs­bank, and the Krefeld Fact­ory of 1937 proved the old Ger­man pro­verb that he who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas. Yet he was the only one of the di­a­spora ar­chi­tects cap­able of start­ing a new life as a cre­at­ive de­sign­er fol­low­ing World War II, be­cause to him tech­no­logy was not a ro­mantic catch­word, as it had been for the Bauhaus pro­gram, but a work­able tool and an in­es­cap­able truth.

Per­son­ally, I am in­clined to agree with the judg­ment of Man­fredo Tafuri and his co-au­thor Francesco Dal Co. Mies was for the most part apolit­ic­al; i.e., “not con­nec­ted with any polit­ic­al ideo­logy.” Either way, as Mo­holy-Nagy her­self noted, he en­joyed great fame and prestige throughout the post­war peri­od, in which he con­sol­id­ated the form­al prin­ciples of the in­ter­na­tion­al style of the twen­ties and thirties, des­pite his op­pos­i­tion dur­ing those dec­ades to form­al­ism or “prob­lems of form.” However, Tafuri was right to deny this ap­par­ent vari­ance: “There is noth­ing more er­ro­neous than the in­ter­pret­a­tion of Mies van der Rohe in his late works as con­tra­dict­ing the Mies of the 1920s, or the read­ing of his late designs as re­nun­ci­at­ory in­cur­sions in­to the un­ruffled realm of the neoaca­dem­ic.” In many ways, it was only dur­ing this later phase of his ca­reer that Mies was able to real­ize the pro­gram­mat­ic vis­ion he laid out between 1921 and 1923. One need only take a look at the apart­ments he de­signed in Chica­go or Lake Point Tower, posthum­ously real­ized by his pu­pils John Hein­rich and George Schip­por­eit, to see the em­bod­i­ment of the spec­u­lat­ive of­fice build­ing and the sky­scraper he en­vi­sioned back in the 1920s. Really, it is a shame that Mies’ sig­na­ture style has lent it­self so eas­ily to im­it­a­tion, be­cause the fea­tures which seem rep­lic­able con­ceal the subtler secret of their pro­por­tions.

At any rate, you can down­load a num­ber of texts which deal with the work of Mies van der Rohe be­low. Fol­low­ing these there are a num­ber of im­ages, sketches and de­lin­eations of vari­ous proven­ance (most come from MoMA’s col­lec­tion), as well as pho­to­graphs of both Mies and build­ings which were real­ized. Texts on Mies writ­ten by Co­hen, Colquhoun, and Tafuri/Dal Co fin­ish these off.

Continue reading

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

.
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

Ivan Leonidov: Artist, dreamer, poet

Andrei Gozak
Complete Works
January 1988
.

The greatest poet is not the one who wrote best but the one who suggested most.

— Walt Whitman

.
Since he first emerged on the architectural scene in the twenties, the name of Ivan Leonidov has acquired legendary status. The reason for this is simply the uniqueness of his work. Its power and originality have been attested by the deep and fruitful influence which it exerted, and continues to exert, on worldwide architectural thinking — despite the fact that the vast majority of his projects remained on paper and unbuilt.

For all the complexities of his life, Leonidov produced a great deal of work. Till the very end of his life he preserved his sharpness of eye and steadiness of hand. But more important he also preserved a total faithfulness to the central ideas of his architecture and to his own aesthetic principles. Thus those commentators are profoundly mistaken, and indeed inaccurate, who say that he was only fully able to display his talent in those brief avant-garde years of the late twenties and early thirties during which he first became known. Notable here has been the writing of P. Aleksandrov and S.O. Khan-Magomedov.1 The triumphant success of Leonidov’s projects in those years is obvious, but what he did later is neither architecturally nor artistically inferior to it. His capabilities in no way diminished with time, but only now, when we can see the fullest possible range of his sketches and designs, such as is assembled here, can we really appreciate the inexhaustible quality of his talent. Naturally his work underwent a process of evolution, as on one hand it reflected the beating of his own internal artistic pulse, and on the other it reacted to external influences and circumstances. But through all the modifications it was characterized by an enviable stability, both in aesthetic and ethical dimensions of his worldview, and in its style of graphic representation.

Ivan Il’ich Leonidov was born into a peasant family on the 9th of February 1902 in the village of Vlasikh, in what was then the Stantskii district of the Tverskoi gubemia, or province. His childhood was spent in the village of Babino, and when he had completed four years at the local parish school he went at the age of twelve to earn his living in Petrograd.2 It is known that Leonidov first received training in painting and drawing in Tver, at the Free Art Studios which were organized in 1920.3 In 1921 he was sent to continue his study in Moscow at the Painting Faculty of the VKhUTEMAS, from which he later transferred to the architecture faculty and the studio of Aleksandr Vesnin.

The atmosphere of the VKhUTEMAS and his personal contacts with Aleksandr Vesnin played an important role in the shaping of Leonidov’s creative personality. Aleksandr Vesnin contributed a great deal to drawing out every side of his gifted pupil’s talents. While still a student, Leonidov took part in numerous open architectural competitions, and often achieved success. There were for example third prizes for an improved peasant hut and for a housing development in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, as well as a “recommendation for acquisition and adoption” for his Byelorussian State University project for Minsk. None of the original drawings done during his training have survived, but several publications from those years give a relatively full idea of his highly individual manner of composition and his graphic skills, as a young architect who had already mastered the language of early constructivism. There are manifestly close links between these Leonidov works and the projects of the Vesnin brothers and other founders of the constructivist architectural association, OSA.4

Leonidov’s final diploma project, for the Lenin Institute of Librarianship, must be regarded not only as his first truly independent work, but also as the distinctive credo of an architect setting out on his professional life. Displayed publicly at the First Exhibition of Modern Architecture in Moscow in 1927, it was received as the opening up of a whole new architectural direction.5 Alongside Tatlin’s tower of 1919 and Melnikov’s Paris Pavilion of 1925, the Lenin Institute has remained to this day one of the great symbols of the revolutionary, innovative spirit of the first decade of Soviet architecture.

The beginning of Leonidov’s professional activity is marked by his active participation in competitions. From 1927 to 1930 he was himself teaching at the somewhat reorganized version of VKhUTEMAS known as VKhUTEIN. Competitions were very numerous in Soviet architecture in those years, and they gave the young architect an opportunity to express himself in the various typological genres of current practice. Leonidov’s works of those years are universally characterized by the coherence of the synthesis he achieved between the constructivist functional method and his own compositional approach, but they are equally characterized by the consistency of his representational technique in exploiting the restrained language of black-and-white graphics.

In 1928 Leonidov took part for the first time in international architectural competitions, for the headquarters of the Tsentrosoiuz in Moscow, and for the monument to Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo. Many well-known Soviet architects participated in both competitions, as well as Westerners. Corbusier of course was eventually to build the Tsentrosoiuz, which was completed in 1935; it is well known that he met Leonidov on related visits to Moscow during 1929-1930, as he did other leading constructivists, and that he had a very high opinion of Leonidov’s scheme for that building.

The finale to this series of competition designs was the project for the new socialist town around the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine in the Urals executed at the end of 1929. Leonidov headed an OSA design team composed of students from his own class in the VKhUTEIN.

Ivan Leonidov at the first OSA congress, 1928 Ivan Leonidov with the rest of the VKhUTEIN faculty, 1930

The next year, 1930, was to be a fateful one in Leonidov’s biography. He took part in a competition for the design of a Palace of Culture in the Proletarskii district of southern Moscow, around the old Simonov Monastery. The plan which he submitted for the first round diverged significantly from the brief, and proposed not a building, but a model for the “cultural organization” of a whole area of the city. Even in the first round of the competition Leonidov’s project therefore provoked sharp criticism. Discussion of the results of the second round took place in even more complex circumstances, revealing acute disagreements between the various groupings and philosophies now becoming consolidated in and around Soviet architecture. Although this time his proposal was in complete accordance with the terms of the brief, Leonidov’s scheme once again became the focal point of heated debate and discussions of larger architectural issues. Continue reading

Современная архитектура: Organ of architectural modernism in the Soviet Union, 1926-1930

 
Sovremennaia arkhitektura
[Modern Architecture, or SA] was published every other month by the Society of Modern Architects [OSA] from 1926 to 1930. In all, the magazine ran for thirty issues, counting double-issues as two. A few years ago I uploaded some crude photographs of individual pages from originals stored in Columbia’s Avery Library. Tatlin has since republished the iconic journal, however, so anyone with the money and means to scan them could upload much higher-quality versions. For now, here are some that have been digitized for the Russian website Techne, which I’ve taken the liberty of running through ABBYY FineReader:

Moisei Ginzburg served as SA’s chief editor from its inaugural issue through to the end of 1928. Victor, Aleksandr, and Leonid Vesnin also helped organize it and solicit articles. The journal was intended to function primarily as a theoretical organ for constructivist architecture, providing a forum for debate and a platform for the promotion of avant-garde ideas about building methods and design. It was formatted by Aleksei Gan, author of the 1922 treatise Konstruktivizm, who sought to systematize the constructive principles of Tatlin and Rodchenko. Nevertheless, this continuity in terms of personnel should not blind us to the fact that architectural constructivism was distinct from constructivism in art. By 1926, SA’s various editors and contributors had absorbed the influence of Le Corbusier in France, JJP Oud in Holland, as well as Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus school in Germany. Ginzburg and the Vesnins regarded Tatlin’s old proposal for a monument to the Third International as a bit of impracticable symbolism. El Lissitzky explained in 1928 that “[t]he present ‘constructivist’ generation of professional architects looks upon this work [by Tatlin] as formalistic or even ‘symbolic’.”

first OSA conference 1928OSA members

In addition to its own articles, SA also translated texts from prominent European and American modernists such as Bruno Taut, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier. Journalistic coverage of international events, like the Stuttgart-Weißenhof exhibition in 1927, also appeared in its pages. Occasionally polemics were written, usually against the older, academic forms of architecture, but also against rival avant-garde tendencies such as VOPRA and ASNOVA. Toward the end of its run, under Roman Khiger’s editorship, there was an editorial dispute over the question of cities, as many wondered whether urban agglomerations would endure the abolition of the town and country divide. Some — like Ginzburg, Barsch, and Pasternak — sided with the sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich, embracing his “disurbanist” vision of ribbon cities and decentralized dwelling spaces. Others — the Vesnins, Krasil’nikov, and Burov — sided with the economist Leonid Sabsovich, advocating his “urbanist” proposals for mid-sized concentric cities of about 50,000 a pop. In 1931, however, the magazine was dissolved into Sovetskaia arkhitektura [Soviet Architecture], and included representatives of other schools of architectural thought besides constructivism.

Below are some of the page scans, which you can enlarge by clicking on them. You can also read an uncharacteristically favorable review by the Dutch modernist and De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg, where he discusses SA in the context of Russia and the international style.

d181d0bed0b2d0b0d180d185

The capital vs. the countryside:

             OSA’s propaganda for a modern communist architecture

Theo van Doesburg
Het Bouwbedrijf
February 1929
.

Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.
On European Architecture: Complete Essays from
Het Bouwbedrijf. (Bïrkhauser, Berlin: 1990)

 
Without any doubt a small country will succeed faster in the realization of its cultural potential than will such an immensely vast country as Russia. Did they not recently discover a city of around 60,000 inhabitants there, in which the population was still living completely according to the notions of the 18th century? These people are totally ignorant, lived in the most primitive way, lacked the simplest modern lighting fixtures, etc., and were completely unaware of the events in Europe, the war, and the Russian Revolution.

How will the Russian authorities, no matter of which persuasion, ever be able to “electrify,” as Lenin called it, not only the cities, but the countryside as well? Such a country, the size of half a continent, should be measured by a different standard, and doubtlessly it is beyond the Russian mentality to initiate a well-balanced cultural development, comparable to that in other European counties. In the latter, even the most remote province has a cultural nucleus from where the countryside can be culturally controlled. Formerly, religion used to constitute this cultural nucleus, and construction served religion. In Russia, however, culture is concentrated between Moscow and Leningrad. In this zone new architecture has potential for realization. Russia totally lacks the neutralization of the cultural factors across the whole country, which is beneficial to the development of construction. Holland and Germany are in this favorable position, and this is the cause of the prominence which these countries have achieved in the field of architecture.

Partial view of the lateral façade of the Rusakov Club, Moscow, 1929 or later

In Russia, everything is grandiose…in conception, architecture, and the freely creative arts as well, but in the long run everything gets lost in detail, in vapidities, before being finally crushed by the country’s enormous size. Although architecture is primarily the functional control of space, for the new generation in Russia as well, it is secondly the organization of required materials, and finally, in its completion, a life structure. These are the three fundamental tasks to be fulfilled by the new Russian architecture…but they will, alas, never be fulfilled, in the first place because of the immeasurable space, secondly because of the lack of materials, and finally because of the total lack of every notion of method and the chaotic character of the form of life.

If we proceed very objectively and take the time to study the essential causes of the beneficial factors for construction as a primary cultural activity in a small country, more or less reliant on its own forces (such as Holland, for example), we shall see that the factors which I touched upon above not only exist there, but that they are correlated. Holland controls its extent and therefore it experiences a healthy architectural development, in contrast to Russia, which will never control its extent and therefore will never achieve an extensive solution to its architectural problems. Germany controls its extent as well, although on a different scale from that in Holland or France, but because of that it is in a more favorable position to push architecture as a primary cultural activity to a very high level: for it has all the factors at its disposal which are necessary for the realization of the architectural tasks dictated by modern life. Continue reading

Stuttgart-Weißenhof, 1927: Modern architecture comes into its own

The significance of the Werkbund exhibition on “Die Wohnung” at Stuttgart-Weißenhof in 1927 is universally attested. Organized by Mies van der Rohe two years prior, it aimed to unite the various strands of modern architecture that had been developed earlier in the decade. Despite its commitment to internationalism, its international character was nevertheless somewhat limited by sheer geographical proximity and the haste with which it was thrown together. As Reyner Banham pointed out, it was a largely Berlin affair:

[I]n spite of these international overtones, Weißenhof was primarily a manifestation of Ring architecture, and apart from…four non-German designers…the remaining eleven were mostly Berliners by professional domicile, birth, or attachment — Mies himself, Gropius, Hilberseimer, the Tauts, Scharoun, Döcker, Behrens, etc. The style to which the foreign designs conformed was the style of Berlin by sheer pressure of numbers. No other city at the time could have mustered, as Berlin could by this date, over a dozen convinced modernists of recognizable talent.

Van Doesburg noted at the time that Corbusier, whose distinctive style was already well known, was strongly influenced by the Neues Bauen architects at the Weißenhof estate. Functionalism was out in full force, and van Doesburg had no illusions about its origin: “Principally this trend came from Russia, and therefore it concurs with the communist philosophy of life.” His intuition wasn’t too far off, and indeed the Nazis would denounce the settlement ten years later for its “Bolshevik depravity.” Wolfram von Eckardt, the architectural historian, recalls that the fascists installed pitched roofs onto the flat terraces in order to render them more palatable. Bombs dropped by Allied planes during World War II destroyed several of the buildings. Restoration since has only been partial.

Schulze strikes a slightly different note in his Critical Biography of Mies. In his view, the functionalism on display at the Stuttgart exhibition was more apparent than it was ever actual, largely an aesthetic effect. “To the extent that functionality was one of the New Architecture’s objectives at Stuttgart,” avers Schulze, “it is hard to defend the rapid deterioration of most of the houses — stunningly, within as little as a year or two. In short, Weißenhof was never a triumph of Sachlichkeit and functionalism, but of the image of modernism.”

Below you can read a selection of articles in translation about the exhibit at the time.

15145575822_5dd8cbe582_b

Stuttgart-Weißenhof, 1927: The famous Werkbund exhibition on “the dwelling”

Theo van Doesburg
Het Bouwbedrijf
November 1927

I

.
Some remarks about the prehistory. The demonstrative architectural exhibition, being held in Stuttgart from July 23 on, means the realization of an idea which has existed for years in the minds of the younger generation grouped around the periodical G (Gestaltung). This notion can be worded thus: since all exhibitions, whether of art objects or of architecture or technology, only show separate portions of an entity, Einzelstücke, and because on the other hand in our modern time the Gesamtarbeit, the unity of a collective stylistic purpose, is the only thing that counts, it must be clear to everyone that the exhibition of separate works of art, architectural models and designs lacking an inner coherence is pointless and passé. On the contrary, the requirement should be the following: demonstration of an entity in which all parts (meaning: color, furniture, utensils etc.) are organically combined. With the regular manner of exhibiting: the placing and hanging of loose objects next to, or on top of, each other, this was of course impossible, because that would be too much of a strain on the imaginative powers of the masses. They wanted to place the visitor within, instead of opposite, the new environment and make him “experience” it, instead of “looking at” it. This new requirement to demonstrate instead of exhibit was put into words for the first time in 1922, at the international artists’ congress in Dusseldorf, by the constructivists: “Stop holding exhibitions. Instead: space for demonstrations of collective work.” And under point 4: “Stop separating art from life. Art becomes life.”[1]

In fact, as everybody will remember, the aim to achieve a Gesamtarbeit formed the basis of the modern art movement in Holland, which around 1916 propagated its ideas in the modest periodical De Stijl and took up the defense for a collective rendering as opposed to an individualistic one. Then, in the midst of the war, no trace of this zeal was to be discerned in other countries, and this is understandable when we realize that this new tendency postulated an international orientation.

56707 11b7025408b3a7d2de34e894a171849f

The periodical G, in which the functionalists started publishing their views on architecture in 1923, was primarily based on the ideas of the Dutch and Russian artists, the former of which were becoming more and more the aorta of the new direction in Europe. It is because of the initiative of the architect Mies van der Rohe, by far the strongest personality of the group of German constructivists, the core of the circle around G (only five issues of this periodical were ever published), that the common ideal of a demonstrative architecture exhibition was almost completely realized. Not only is the Siedlung Weißenhof Mies van der Rohe’s work with respect to grouping etc., but the stands of construction materials and ingredients in the Gewerbehalle [Trade Hall] and the Plan- und Modellausstellung [exhibit of plans and models] — all of which are of great importance for the entire planning of the exhibition — can be considered his mental property as well. Neither should we forget the Versuchsgelände [testing area], located next to the Weißenhofsiedlung, where the visitor can get acquainted with the construction and building method and the materials used here. Various kinds of solutions for roof covering of flat roofs, sound proof walls etc. are displayed here. Certainly nobody will be surprised that the realization of this wide-ranging demonstration required enormous energy, all the more because unexpected difficulties, prejudices and even political complications had to be overcome; not to speak even of the financial difficulties, resulting from the tight budget with which the organizers had to work. We have to credit the architect Mies van der Rohe, vice president of the Werkbund for having tackled the majority of these problems, assisted by the 15 collaborating architects as well as by his faithful supporters Werner Gräff, Willi Baumeister, Hilberseimer, Döcker etc.; the latter undertook the supervision of the execution of the work.

It is not premature to state that — leaving the quality of the architectural products themselves aside for the moment — this undertaking of a demonstrative exhibition is the product of a modern necessity, not only putting the traditional way of exhibiting in the shadow, but surpassing it, and rendering it obsolete for future use. Those who have visited the exhibition held in Paris in 1925 and compare it to this exhibition, will have to acknowledge that the former sinks into insignificance compared to the construction manifest in Stuttgart. The latter contrasts sharply with the exhibition in Paris, with respect to organization as well as to the exterior aspect.

Robert Bothner, Stuttgart- Blick vom Turm des Höhenrestaurants auf die Weißenhofsiedlung 1931

II

.
Impressions of the exhibition. — When we, after visiting the Weißenhofsiedlung, come to the glass display in the Gewerbehalle, we find ourselves, without preparation, in the best and purest presentation of this exhibition in the field of interior architecture (if these words are not a misnomer!). This glass hall, also executed after a design of Mies van der Rohe, owes its creation to the unequivocal task of displaying fragile material (semi-transparent and opaque glass of different colors) in such a way that it would be shown to full advantage. This was realized best by raising glass plates of enormous dimensions straight in the free space as walls, unprotected from top of bottom, without base board, profile or ornament. These glass plates are mounted in narrow, flat frames of nickel-coated steel. The problem was a sober one, but the solution reached the highest point that blessed, inspired visual artists can attain, and that only in very special moments: conquering the material with all of its faults, such as weightiness, resistance and transience, with the maximum of the energy force of the material itself.

Every material has its own energy force, and the challenge is to enhance this energy force to its maximum by proper application. The opposite is: violation of the material by wrong application, whereby a relatively large percentage of the energy force is lost. Weighing one material against another in respect to their energy and character, and proportioning them well, most certainly belongs to the essence of the new architecture. Only in this way can modern architecture bring to realization what it has to offer in involuntary beauty.

Only when iron concrete was, for the first time, applied in the right way (I believe this was done by Wright), were the character of the tension and the energy of the iron concrete shown off to such an advantage that architecture attained a new beauty, involuntarily, without a preconceived aesthetic intention. The same is true for plate glass, seamless floors, and other unjointed surfaces of materials, which by their purity, simplicity and their Gespanntheit [surface tension] are in keeping with the modern mentality.

It is my utter conviction, formed in practice, that only the ultimate surface is decisive in architecture. “How so? and what about the construction, the mechanism?”

The answer to this question is: “The ultimate surface is in itself the result of the construction. The latter expresses itself in the ultimate surface. Bad construction leads to a bad surface. Good construction produces a sound surface with tension.” Indeed, the finishing touch of architecture is in the finish of the surface, interior as well as exterior. The development of the ultimate surface is essential, from the first stone to the last stroke of paint. Every architect having a visual sense for construction knows this, and with this glass display Mies van der Rohe proved to be on top of this new problem.

Continue reading

Small is Beautiful, but Big is Sublime

Kant, Le Corbusier, Koolhaas
.

.

.
Analytic of the Sublime

.
The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation; the sublime, by contrast, is to be found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it, or at its instance, and yet it is also thought as a totality.

— Immanuel Kant, 1793
Critique of Judgment

Bolshevism means big

.
“Bolshoi!”

It is a word (a magnificent one) and not a mere matter of party membership.

In 1928, I was called to Moscow to discuss the construction of the Tsentrosoiuz there. I was taken to the office of Mr. Lubinov (now the People’s Commissar, once mayor of Moscow, before that a peasant, and at this particular time President of the Tsentrosoiuz). There was an interpreter there. The President delivered himself of a long speech in which the word ‘bolshoi,’ always delivered with great force, recurred again and again. The interpreter passed on the substance of this speech to me as follows:

The construction of this palace [The Palace of the Soviets] must prove itself an outstanding event in Russian architectural history, a history that only began with the Revolution itself. It is essential that there should be a visible quality of bigness in all the aspects of its design, a bigness achieved not simply by means of physical dimensions, nor by emphasis, but by a judicious regard to proportions. It is essential that this non-military building, the biggest that has so far been envisaged by our regime, should constitute a model: strict expression of function and dignity. All our projects must come into the world under this sign: BIG, bolshoi…

I questioned the interpreter: “That word, ‘bolshoi,’ which Mr. Lubinov kept hammering out, what does it mean?”

“Big!”

“So, Bolshevism…?”

“Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible, the biggest theory, the biggest projects. Maximum. Going to the heart of any question. Examining it in depth. Envisaging the whole. Breadth and size.”

Up to then, I had understood from our newspapers that Bolshevik meant a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth.

— Le Corbusier, 1930
The Radiant City

Manhattan

.
The skyscrapers here are much too small.

— Le Corbusier arriving
in Manhattan, 1935 Continue reading

Andrei Burov

.
Burov was a member of the Society of Modern Architects (OSA) and an avowed disciple of Le Corbusier living in Moscow. He designed a number of workers’ clubs during the 1920s, none of which were ever realized.

What he did become known for, albeit somewhat obliquely, was a brilliant bit of Corbusian architecture which appeared in the Eisenstein film The General Line (1927, though released in 1930 after some delays). Some stills from the film are reproduced below, along with some text by the architect and historian Vladimir Paperny.

Recently Owen Hatherley wrote up a piece for Calvert Journal called “Block Party,” in which he touched briefly on Burov’s later work.

From the late Thirties, some architects tried to devise ways of industrializing the creation of individualist, anti-modernist apartment blocks. The earliest is probably a 1938 block on Leningradsky Prospekt by Andrei Burov, who was once such a disciple of Le Corbusier that he even copied his fashion choices (those little round spectacles). Here, the ceramic ornaments of leaves and suchlike are made from prefabricated panels, as are the balustrades and cornices.

By this point, of course, Burov had remade himself as a model Stalinist in architecture. Paperny recalls:

In 1938 the interiors of the Slate Historical Museum were redesigned. This is the very same Historical Museum that Le Corbusier dreamed of demolishing. It had been constructed by V. Sherwood and A. Semenov…The renovations were done by the architect Andrei Burov, “a tall blond man, speaking fluent French” — that was how he was seen in 1935 in Athens, where he had stopped off upon returning from an architectural congress in Rome — a decade after his construction of the model constructivist dairy farm for Eisenstein’s film Generalnaia linia (The General Line) [a.k.a. Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New)]. Here in the Historical Museum design he made a 180° turn from the design philosophy of his former friend Le Corbusier. The interiors created by Burov, in the words of one scholar of art, “express profound principles, inherent in ancient Russian architecture, particularly in the “classical” models of the architecture of Kiev, Vladimir, and Moscow, and whim are undoubtedly related to the traditions of antique, primarily Greek, art.” In Burov’s design, continues the scholar, Russian art ceases to be “an exotic, provincial curiosity” and becomes “the original force with which the folk genius creates, on the basis of antique tradition, a new architecture, unsevered from and connected to, but in no way ceding to, the architecture of the Byzantine era, the proto-Renaissance or the Renaissance.”

There’s a broader thesis at work in these lines, which will become clearer in the following passages. In his excellent thesis, Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin, Paperny describes two main cultural forces at work in Russian history. Culture One corresponds to a destructive, youthful tendency and lines up with the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s. Culture Two, by contrast, covers a more monumental, venerable tendency and lines up with Stalinist architecture. You can read my review of Paperny’s book for more details.

Staroye_i_novoye_1929_p153945_original54266_original54874_original54455_original54581_original

When Andrei Burov, in 1927, was set designer for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Generalnaia linia (The General Line) [a.k.a. Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New)], his basic idea was that he “works in film not as a decorator but as an architect.” He considered that he should construct a real building, one that would continue to function after the shooting. (It was only because of technicalities that he did not succeed in this.) Film critics of the 1920s rated very highly the idea of such a collaboration of the architect with film, since even feature (non-documentary) films had to show “life as it should be.” Burov shared this position: “film must…show that which is and that which should be” — a position quite similar to the idea of zhiznestroenie. Continue reading

Avant-garde journal design: Building Moscow [Строительство Москвы], 1927-1931

.
Below are some pretty stellar avant-garde journal designs by Gustav Klutsis, Vasilii Elkin, and El Lissitzky for the monthly architecture journal Building Moscow. It ran through the 1930s, but progressively became less and less modernist in terms of both form (layout, formatting) and content (projects, proposals) as time went on. Number eleven from the year 1928 shows Le Corbusier’s influential proposal for the Tsentrosoiuz, or central union administration building, in Moscow. Here he incorporated a number of elements from his League of Nations proposal, which had been rejected the previous year.

There’s also a note here that I’ve included from the fourth issue of  1929. Enjoy!

Журнал Строительство Москвы, несомненно, становится все более содержательным. Им интересуются уже не только специалисты-строители и архитектора, но и широкие круги рабочей общественности. В свете строительных задач Москвы — ответственность органа Моссовета все более увеличивается. Continue reading

Bauhaus master Walter Gropius’ submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition, 1931

.
Just a few brief notes, since I’m presently occupied with other tasks and because I’ve dealt with this topic (however cursorily) elsewhere. Recently I stumbled upon a cache of outstanding images of Walter Gropius’ 1931 submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition in Moscow. The majority of these images are floor plans, numerous because of the complex multilevel structure Gropius envisioned. Many, however, are sketches — perspective and axonometric drawings — depicting the view of the Palace from the river as well as approaches to its various entrances. A few more show the building’s situation vis-à-vis the rest of the city, site plans and the like.

Some have noted the similarities between Gropius’ proposal for the Palace of the Soviets and his earlier experiments with the idea of “total theater” for Erwin Piscator. James Marston Fitch, for example, pointed out the continuities that exist between the designs Gropius made for Piscator up through a 1930 proposal for a theater in Kharkhiv, Ukraine, leading ultimately to his conception of the Palace of the Soviets (Fitch, Walter Gropius, pg. 22). Gropius had already designed a theater for Oskar Schlemmer at his Bauhaus building in Dessau.

Total theater.

Important differences may be mentioned as well, however. Certainly Gropius’ Palace of the Soviets project was conceived on a much grander scale, given the specifications and requirements outlined by the Bolshevik government. Predictably, this entailed shifting qualitative dynamics that couldn’t be solved merely by quantitative increase or multiplication. Acoustical studies thus form an integral part of Gropius’ argument for the viability of his building.

Obviously, as everyone knows, things didn’t turn out the way the modernists had expected in the USSR. Neoclassicism won out, much to the chagrin of Le Corbusier, Moisei Ginzburg, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes MeyerSigfried Giedion, and the rest. Many felt it was a repeat of the whole League of Nations debacle. Giedion even sent Stalin an angry collage in protest — a futile but rather entertaining gesture. Would’ve loved to have seen the befuddled look on Dzugashvilii’s face when he opened that letter.

You can enlarge any of these images by clicking on them and scrolling through the gallery I’ve compiled.

Sketches.

Continue reading

Suprematism in architecture: Kazimir Malevich and the arkhitektons

Painting and the Problem of Architecture

Kazimir Malevich
Nova generatsiia
Vol. 3, №. 2 (1928)

If we examine the painting of the first quarter of the 20 century we immediately notice two trends: “objective” and “non-objective.”

These two trends differ both formally and in their Weltanschauung and attitude to art.

Corresponding to the different types of Weltempfang there arise various artistic classifications.

In the “objective” trend there exist various stages: the first stage is figurative; it perceives the model as such. In this stage we see objects in their artistic expression “as they are.”

In the second stage the subject or model is only a means of communicating the artist’s experience in works of art. What is more, all the objects, or nature, are artistically unified by the tone passing through them.

In the third stage we see how as the result of a particular artistic Weltempfang there occurs “artistic deformation of phenomena”; hence follows the disintegration of the object into separate pictorial elements. They create a new order which is called “the cubic form of revealing artistic expression.”

At this stage the object itself is not considered “as such,” and “as such” it is not the content of artistic skill; it exists only as the sum of unorganized painterly elements.

Next come two variants of the fourth stage of communicating Weltempfang: they are called “non-objective.”

In one of these types we see the total eclipse of the object and have a work of pure painterly Weltempfang.

The other “non-objective” type is not only the revelation of artistic Weltempfang but also of a whole series of the dynamic, static, magnetic, and other elements which exist in nature.

These two figurative stages deal exclusively with the form of objects, i.e. forms with the help of which objects are created on the canvas “as such.”

In the “non-objective” stages, on the other hand, form plays an important role, since without form it becomes impossible to convey any kind of Weltempfang.

In the “non-objective” stages one is not dealing with the representation of phenomena “as such,” but with the communication of definite sensations which exist in the phenomenal world.

In the “non-objective” stages there comes to the fore the question of creating the “forming element” with which to communicate sensations.

Thus the problem of form arises only in the new “non-objective” art. This is why the “non-objective” arts have had to rid themselves of the contents of various ideologies and also of the entire material side of everyday life, the system of which has been developing on a basis harmful to painting. Thus, for example, the table, house, motor, wedding, marriage did not develop as a result of people’s perceiving life artistically and expressing elements of this perception, as a revelation of artistic Weltempfang, in the form of a table.

The table, in common with all objects of a technical purpose, has practical utilitarian functions, and therefore the content of such objects is functionality; and all the elements of the world’s material constitute a firm functional order.

Thus the system of artistic perception of the functional order of the object may happen not to correspond to the artistic perception of the object, as one is dealing not with the functional content of a table but with its artistic content.

The critics have regarded this trend as “abstract,” at the basis of “abstract” art, parting from practical, concrete life.

To this “non-objective” type belongs Suprematism.

From this short analysis we see that in the first two stages of revealing sensations “form” is not a problem and does not have the same importance as in the third stage and, particularly, in the “non-objective” stages.

Continue reading