To the planetarium

Walter Benjamin

What follows is an excerpt from Walter Benjamin’s 1928 book One-Way Street, his first definitively Marxist work. The photos that come afterward are of the modernist Moscow Planetarium, built by Mikhail Barshch, M. Siniavskii, and G. Sundblat in 1928-1929. Benjamin would write his well-known Moscow Diary over the course of his stay with Asja Lacis in Russia in 1926-1927, so he would not have been able to visit the structure, for which the foundation had not even been laid. Still, I would like to think that something of its spirit carried over from the missed encounter that isn’t just speculative fluff.

If one had to expound the doctrine of antiquity with utmost brevity while standing on one leg, as did Hillel that of the Jews, it could only be in this sentence: “They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos.” Nothing dis­tinguishes the ancient from the modem man so much as the former’s absorption in a cosmic experience scarcely known to later periods. Its waning i marked by the flowering of astro­nomy at the beginning of the modem age. Kepler, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe were certainly not driven by scientific im­pulses alone. All the same, the exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe, to which astronomy very quickly led, contained a portent of what was to come. The ancients’ intercourse with the cosmos had been different: the ecstatic trance. For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest to us, and never of one without the other. This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only commun­ally. It is the dangerous error of modem men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at new and unprecedented com­ mingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high­ frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology. But because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education above all the indispensable ordering of the relation­ ship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species is just beginning his. In technology a physis is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind is now preparing to embark on in­ calculable journeys into the interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength as they did earlier on high mountains or at Southern seas. The “Luna parks” are a prefiguration of sanatoria. The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call “Nature.” In the nights of annihilation of the last war the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that fol­lowed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to the very marrow by the discipline of this power, no pacifist polemics will save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation.

Walter Benjamin
One-Way Street

The planetarium in Moscow

“The Green City” of Moscow, 1930

Mel’nikov’s Proposal for the Laboratory of Sleep (1930)

Included in this post is the original issue of Building Moscow (Строительство Москвы), in which the general planning schemes for the proposed “Green City” of Moscow were submitted. Contributors to this competition included some of the premier architects and city-planners of the day: Moisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch of OSA, Nikolai Ladovskii of ARU (a splinter group of ASNOVA), and Konstantin Mel’nikov, who was more of an independent (his membership in the different avant-garde architectural societies of the day varied over time).

The plans were wildly ambitious, and, unfortunately, none of them were realized. Nevertheless, the ambition and utopianism of their proposals remain as fascinating and haunting today as ever. Haunting, because these plans were so crudely shoved aside by Kaganovich and the Stalinist bureaucracy — because the ideas survived as artifacts long after their potential for realization had passed, because their fantasy has since outlived history and continues to linger over it, like a ghost. Thus, the fact that these science fictions were discarded, placed on the Hegelian “slaughterbench of history,” did not mean that they altogether vanished without a trace. They survive, spectrally, as testaments to a society that could have been.

The extraordinary ambitions of the Soviet planners were declared unrealistic and impracticable. And indeed, given the Soviets’ technological and material limitations at that time, they may well have been impossible. But such a verdict has often been passed on past visions of the future, and utopian speculation in general. Yet the modernists who took part in this competition felt that such utopianism was not only warranted, but required by a revolutionary society like the Soviet Union. Under capitalism, they argued, utopianism was a waste of time and impossible to realize. Now that the October Revolution had overturned these social relations, however, utopia was at last realizable, and so fantastic visions of the future were at last justified.

In any case, this issue contains Ginzburg and Barshch’s reproduction of their famous Disurbanist scheme for the Green city, which they had first unveiled in an issue of Modern Architecture (Современная архитектура) a month before. It also includes Mel’nikov’s mysterious and intriguing proposals for a “Laboratory of Sleep,” an “Institution for the Transformation of the Perspective of Man,” and a “Sonata of Sleep.” Ladovskii’s project for “the rationalization of rest and socialist living” saw him experimenting with his notion of a parabolic city within the municipal limits of Moscow. The rationalization of rest and sleep were indeed very important when it came to the Green City; Le Corbusier mentioned over and over his delight at the Soviets’ abolition of the seven-day week, replaced now by a five-day cycle of working for four days and resting on the fifth.

Below is the original issue, digitized and restored to the best of my ability from the microfiche copy:

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 3

Репринт Журнала Современная Архитектура [Reprint of the Journal Modern Architecture] (1926-1930)

I came across this advertisement yesterday while searching online for any articles on the early Soviet periodical Modern Architecture.  For those who don’t spend their time painstakingly researching long-dead avant-garde movements, this publication might not mean much.  However, it’s of great historical and theoretical importance — a project featuring a truly spectacular cast of characters.  The main organ for the OSA group of architectural Constructivists, Modern Architecture was edited first by the legendary theoreticians and architects Moisei Ginzburg and Aleksandr Vesnin, later coming under the editorship of Roman Khiger, after 1928.  Its layout was designed by Aleksei Gan, author of the seminal text on Constructivism in art, Конструктивизм (1922).  A number of young Soviet modernists contributed pieces to the journal: Mikhail Barshch, Ivan Leonidov, Nikolai Krasil’nikov, Kazimir Malevich, etc.  Articles by some of the most extraordinary foreign avant-garde architects and artists were also included: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Fernand Léger.

Needless to say, I was immediately overcome with excitement. You see, last winter I spent weeks at the New York Public Library, poring over their microfiche collection of the 1927-1930 editions of Modern Architecture (they didn’t have the volume for 1926).  I sat there using their clumsy old machines, struggling to center the pages exactly and bring them into focus by using the different microscopic lenses, only to make poor-quality printouts in the end.  So now that Tatlin press is re-releasing it in full, 80 years after Stalin’s government forced them to cease its publication, I can honestly say I’m stoked.  Here’s the description included in the ad:

ISBN 978-5-903433-12-4

редактор составитель — Эдуард Кубенский
вступительная статья — Жан-Луи Коэн
5 томов, 1076 стр., 24.0х34.0 см,
мягкая обложка, футляр, рус./фр./нем./англ.

Современная архитектура — иллюстрированный журнал «Государственного издательства», выходивший в Москве с 1926 по 1930 годы 6 раз в год. Журнал освещал вопросы современного градостроительства, жилой, промышленной и сельской архитектуры, типового проектирования, истории и теории архитектуры и строительства. Несмотря на короткий срок своего существования, журнал Современная архитектура — журнал-эпоха. В его реализации принимали участие ведущие мастера эпохи авангарда. Среди выдающихся имен, имевших отношение к журналу, можно назвать архитектора и бессменного редактора журнала Моисея Гинзбурга, автора проекта Дома Наркомфина; художников Алексея Гана и Варвару Степанову, занимавшихся версткой и дизайном издания и других. На его страницах публиковали свои работы Иван Леонидов и братья Веснины, Ле Корбюзье и Мисс Ван дер Роэ. Отдельной темой выступает в издание его графический строй, являющийся образцом передового дизайна своего времени. Сегодня эти журналы стали библиографической редкостью: растет цена информации, размещенной на их страницах. Об актуальности всего, что связано с эпохой русского авангарда в мире, не приходится говорить, это давно сформировавшаяся позиция. Анализ этого явления и его актуализация сегодня поможет еще раз осознать место России в мировом архитектурном пространстве.