A revolutionary impulse: Russian avant-garde at the MoMA

.
Four months back, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art opened an ex­hib­it en­titled A Re­volu­tion­ary Im­pulse: Rise of the Rus­si­an Av­ant-Garde. The show re­ceived mostly fa­vor­able write-ups in lib­er­al out­lets like New York Times and New York­er as well as art/cul­ture mags like Stu­dio In­ter­na­tion­al, Seca Art, and He­don­ist. Marx­ist and left­ish pub­lic­a­tions such as World So­cial­ist Web­site (or­gan of the So­cial­ist Equal­ity Party) and Brook­lyn Rail also ran ap­pre­ci­at­ive re­views of the ex­hib­i­tion.

Per­haps my fa­vor­ite crit­ic­al re­flec­tion on the show came from Caesura, an off­shoot from the Platy­pus Af­fil­i­ated So­ci­ety ex­clus­ively fo­cused on art, mu­sic, and lit­er­at­ure. It fea­tured a fairly char­ac­ter­ist­ic but nev­er­the­less poignant ob­ser­va­tion:

Of the stag­ger­ing num­ber of ob­jects on dis­play, most strik­ing was film­maker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 col­lab­or­a­tion with Rod­chen­ko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a pro­pa­ganda film (the title trans­lates to cinema-truth) track­ing the fail­ing health, death and fu­ner­al of Len­in. Black and white graph­ics con­trib­uted by Rod­chen­ko de­pict­ing, without com­ment, the med­ic­al stat­ist­ics of the ail­ing re­volu­tion­ary lead­er cre­ated a palp­able sense of worry as they edge, at an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow pace, to­wards the res­ult we all know already: Len­in’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced pro­ces­sion of mourn­ers at his fu­ner­al, ded­ic­at­ing por­trait shots and name plates to party lead­ers: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Le­on Trot­sky and Joseph Stal­in stead­fastly look­ing ahead. The lat­ter was ut­terly chilling — a glimpse of a fu­ture yet un­known to the film­makers but known all too well today. Stand­ing, in 2017, in the Amer­ic­an Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in a mo­ment of ut­ter polit­ic­al con­fu­sion, the tragedy of this mo­ment was cut­ting. Could the mourn­ers have pos­sibly known that they had wit­nessed both the be­gin­ning and the end of a mo­ment of tre­mend­ous his­tor­ic­al po­ten­tial? Did Vertov and Rod­chen­ko real­ize that in their mont­age of party lead­ers it would be Stal­in who would take power? Did they know that, after the crip­pling de­feat of the Ger­man Left the year pri­or, 1924 would mark a clos­ing and not an open­ing of his­tory?

Caesura’s re­view­er fur­ther spec­u­lates that “if the art of the Rus­si­an av­ant-garde has a time­less qual­ity, it is be­cause of its unique his­tor­ic­al ori­gin. Nev­er be­fore or since have artists op­er­ated un­der the thrall of three so­ci­et­ies — crum­bling czar­ist Rus­sia, the dy­nam­ic bour­geois west, and the ad­van­cing specter of so­cial­ism — so dif­fer­ent. It ex­presses all three but be­longs to none.” A sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment is cap­tured by a line in the New York­er: “His­tory is not a con­stant march for­ward; it can stand still for dec­ades and then, as it did in Rus­sia a hun­dred years ago, ex­plode in a flash.” This line it­self merely para­phrases a quip at­trib­uted to Len­in, to the ef­fect that “there are dec­ades where noth­ing hap­pens, but then there are weeks where dec­ades hap­pen.”

I my­self at­ten­ded the ex­hib­it, and was im­pressed by what I saw. Some of the same pieces had ap­peared in spe­cial gal­ler­ies across the city over the last few years, but the sheer wealth of ma­ter­i­al con­cen­trated in one space was breath­tak­ing. Fur­ther­more, the way this ma­ter­i­al was or­gan­ized and form­ally ar­ranged was skill­ful. You can see a pic­ture of me stand­ing next to Lis­sitzky’s “new man of com­mun­ism,” taken from his series for Vic­tory over the Sun. Be­low you can read a fine med­it­a­tion on the show writ­ten by Bloom Correo, a young ul­traleft au­thor who vis­ited NYC just to see it.

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

Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer’s adventures in the Soviet Union, 1930-1936

.
I’ve posted about Hannes Meyer several times already. For those who don’t know, Meyer was the second Bauhaus director. He stepped in after Walter Gropius returned to his own private practice in 1928, and presided over the art and architecture school until he was forced out due to his Marxist convictions in 1930. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe replaced him. After his tenure came to an abrupt end, Meyer and a number of his students traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government. Despite his enthusiastic support for the five-year plans then underway, and his unwavering loyalty throughout, Meyer eventually wore out his welcome in the USSR. Several of his colleagues were rounded up and arrested before he finally decided to return to Switzerland. Meyer didn’t stay long there, however, moving permanently to Mexico in 1938.

Today he is largely forgotten, though some have expressed interest in his legacy of late. Claude Schnaidt has provided probably the best comprehensive account of his work. It is not surprising that Meyer would be overshadowed by his predecessor Gropius on the one hand, and his successor Mies on the other. Both were more significant in the history of modern architecture, more groundbreaking or talented. Nevertheless, Meyer was quite innovative himself, as can be seen from his designs for co-ops and proposal for the League of Nations building in Geneva (1926). His skill in other media, such as photography and city planning, was also considerable.

Yesterday I discovered a rare article Meyer wrote in 1942, originally in Spanish, on the architectural profession in the Soviet Union. It was translated into English and published by Harvard’s student design magazine TASK in 1943. The article is interesting in several respects. First, because it displays no bitterness whatsoever at the Stalinist regime that forced Meyer into exile and many of his friends. Second, because the pioneering modernist implicitly repudiates many of his earlier positions on the role of architecture in modern society, criticizing the avant-garde architects at VKhUTEMAS and providing a “dialectical” justification for protopostmodernist eclecticism. Third, because it includes a number of facts and figures, which are interesting even though they are without a doubt inaccurate or misleading.

Alongside the article, which appears below, I’ve included a bunch of photos Meyer took documenting his journeys across the USSR. Enjoy.

The Soviet architect

Hannes Meyer
TASK magazine
February 1943

.
.
I dedicate this unpretentious work to the composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, who, in the trenches of Leningrad, December 1941, put the final notes on his Seventh Symphony, rising in this classic form — score and weapon forged in hand — to the present duty of all democratic intellectuals in the entire world: the defense of our culture and of humanity.

Hannes Meyer
Mexico 11/15/1942
Villalongin 46-8

.
The architect has always been intimately linked with his social environment. He is one of the human tools that serve the ruling power to fortify its position. Architecture besides its direct utility, has always served to maintain power. We find an architect serving the Pope, in Bramante, or the King, in Le Nôtre, or as a colonial functionary, in Tolsa, or as a privileged member of the bourgeoisie, in Tony Garnier. To this we must add that building’ is an activity profoundly connected with social-economic needs and the superimposed spiritual structure. And the architect is always of necessity a collaborator. He does his work together with economists and industrialists, with workers, artisans, and housewives. In Hindu tradition the future architect must first perfect himself as a carpenter, a mason, a painter, a sculptor, and an iron worker. Mature men of forty years are then known as “masters of architecture.”

In capitalist society architecture is numbered among the “liberal professions,” and this is why bankers, speculators, and other knights of the stock market can use the decorative cloak of architecture to cover the sores of the social body. — Architecture is not an autonomous art, as certain prima donnas of the drawing board would like to have us believe. The architect is born and finds his form in the womb of his society and is brought forth by a specific age and by a definite epoch. Hence we find the most capable and creative architects in the heart of the classical forms of society.

I

.
The socialist society in the USSR, created by the October Revolution of 1917, is an experiment without precedent. For the first time in human history the people themselves own the factories and all the means of production. The land also has been nationalized. Private economy, until then in a state of anarchy, has been transformed into a planned and directed economy. Together with the great change in the position of intellectuals in the USSR, the position and the role of the architect has been completely altered. The architectural structure of the new state has itself been transformed.

Outside of the USSR it is very hard to form any clear idea of the present conception of architecture in that country. It is confusing to find in its publications buildings of the most diverse character, examples of classicism, and of conflicting trends. These efforts in search of a national ideal are described as backward by American architects, who are justly proud of their highly industrialized achievements. They describe the Soviet attempt to connect by way of dialectics the magnificent past of Russian architecture with the dynamic present as a new academicism. Because of their ignorance of social and economical matters, they can employ no other pattern than those found in their everyday surroundings. For this reason “glass construction,” which is the last word on this continent, over there, in a different environment appears completely out of place. Chippendale furniture, here an expression of conservatism, is there a step forward in the development of the highest quality in cabinet work.

Hannes Meyer, Palace of the League of Nations Continue reading

Afrofuturism, Aaron Douglas, and W.E.B. Du Bois (1920s-1930s)

artstor_103_41822000904639Study for %22Aspects of Negro Life- An Idyll of the Deep South%22 (1934), tempera on paper, by Aaron DouglasAaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life- From Slavery to the Reconstruction, 1934. Harlem Renaissancepicture49-142E3580479301EA0AA

Lanre Bakare writes in The Guardian that “[a] new generation of artists [is] exploring afrofuturism. OutKast and Janelle Monáe take the philosophy to the mainstream, while Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces push jazz and hip-hop to their extremes.” He traces its musical lineage as follows:

The ’50s and ’60s were dominated by the free jazz and avant-garde work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and Alice Coltrane, with some psychedelic input from Jimi Hendrix and Love. The ’70s and ’80s were when George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic and Prince sent funk to outer space and dub innovators such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry beamed out cosmic signals from Jamaica. The ’90s saw a renaissance and reimagining of Afrofuturism in hip-hop (OutKast, Kool Keith’s Dr Octagon alias, and RZA), neo-soul (Erykah Badu) and techno (specifically Detroit producers such as Drexciya), with all embracing the philosophy and giving it their own distinctive edge.

If Bakare’s right, things must be looking up. Though I’m by no means an afrofuturist connoisseur, I love Miles Davis, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix. Plus, Flying Lotus’ 2010 record Cosmogramma was great. As far as cinematic afrofuturism is concerned, I’m a longtime fan of John Sayles’ Brother from another Planet (1979).

Bakare devotes most of his article to an examination of music and film, so we may forgive him for neglecting to mention the great afrofuturist art that was made in the first half of the twentieth century. This post might go some way in correcting his omission.

Of all the great figures from that period, the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas stands apart. Raymond E. Jackson and select others deserve some recognition, but no one approaches Douglas. I’d almost describe it as deco-futurism with a heavy emphasis on African symbolism and history, at least as he understood it. Douglas first began to be noticed for his illustrated covers to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “chronicle of the darker races,” The Crisis. At that time in the mid-’20s, the journal had a discernibly Marxist political bent (in keeping with Du Bois’ own views).

He also did some work for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Later he was commissioned to do murals at a number of clubs and universities in Chicago and New York. These are truly stunning; they use a whole range of colors to achieve a deeply atmosphere effect. In this post you can see some of his work, or read more about his life via Wikipedia.

index (5) 9Aspiration Aaron Douglas Harriet Tubman Mural at Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina 1 Continue reading

Iakov Chernikhov, Cycle of architectural landscapes and other fantasies (1930)

.

Architectural fantasy stimulates the architect’s activity, it arouses creative thought not only for the artist but it also educates and arouses all those who come in contact with him; it produces new directions, new quests, and opens new horizons.

— Iakov Chernikhov, 1927

Chernikhov is a pioneer, a trail-blazer of new themes in graphic art, and also, in part, of new modes of graphic design.

— Erikh Gollerbakh, 1930

Regular readers of The Charnel-House will know that I’ve already written on the brilliant architect and designer Iakov Chernikhov (1889-1951). Or rather, I’ve posted the excellent introduction Erikh Gollerbakh wrote in 1930 introducing Chernikhov’s The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms, as well as a broader overview of his significance and career by the more recent scholar Dmitrii Khmel’nitskii. Some of my own thoughts about his work as it can be found in a sketch I made relating it  to that of the American Hugh Ferriss, his contemporary. Moreover, Chernikhov receives a brief mention in my broader outline of Russian and Soviet architecture from 1900 to 1953.

I won’t reprise the same summary treatment here. For now, just enjoy these images from Chernikhov’s Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, as well as other assorted fantasies. Anyone who’s into these will likely also want to take a look at Theo van Doesburg’s themes for the Aubette Café in Strasbourg, Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröderhuis in Utrecht, JJP Oud’s Café de Unie in Rotterdam, and Frederick Kiesler’s “City of Space” model, Lazar Khidekel’s cosmist suprematism, Ivan Kudriashev’s dynamic abstractions, László Moholy-Nagy’s paintings and photographs, Charlotte Perriand’s purist furniture designs, and Il’ia Chashnik’s revolutionary suprematism.

Click on any of the pictures to see them in higher resolution, and check out any of the links above if you’re interested in learning more.

Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 3, 1930 Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 4 in 10.2 × 10.2 cm Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 1, circa. 1930 Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 5 1:2 in 10.2 × 14 cm Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 2, circa. 1930 Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 4 in 10.2 × 10.2 cm Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 1, circa. 1930image (1)Chernikhov architecture of industrial forms 1934aimage (3)image (5)image (11)image (23)image (25)image (2)image (14) Continue reading

Theo van Doesburg, Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst (1925)

.
Below is an article written in memoriam of De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg upon his death in 1931. It discusses his pivotal intervention in the life of the Bauhaus, where Dexel was a student. In between there are reproduced all 72 pages from his Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst (1925), published as part of the Bauhausbücher series.
.

Theo van Doesburg

Walter Dexel
Das Neue Frankfurt
Vol. 4, №. 6 (1931)

.
On March 7, Theo van Doesburg died at Davos. He was a highly significant and almost a tragic figure, since the opportunity to realize his potential to the full was largely denied him — a fact that is hard to understand if one looks at some of those who are permitted to work.

He was a painter, an architect, a typographer, and from 1917 the founding editor of the magazine De Stijl, the first ever to campaign consistently for new formal design. (The cover of De Stijl remains an exemplary piece of modern typography — think of the visual changes that have overtaken our periodicals in the past decade, and you have one small illustration of Van Doesburg’s startling anticipation of present-day design principles.). He fought in the foremost ranks of the Dutch shock troops alongside Mondrian, Oud, Rietveld, Wils, Huszár, Van t’Hoff and others. What they stand for is well known. Now that he is dead, let us reflect for a moment on what we in Germany owe to Doesburg. Historical justice and the memory of an important man demand that we remember.

In 1921 Theo van Doesburg came to Weimar, with his vital energy and his clear critical mind — Weimar, where the Bauhaus had been in existence since 1919, and where a considerable number of modern artists were living, attracted by the wind of progress that used to blow — in those far-off days — through Thuringia. The credit for inviting Doesburg to Weimar goes to Adolf Meyer; straightforward, phlegmatic, and consistent, Meyer never diverged from the straight line that led from the buildings designed in cooperation with Gropius in Cologne and Alfeld to the works of his later, mature period in Frankfurt. The teaching appointment as such was not a success, since it proved impossible to bridge the gap between Doesburg’s views and those of the then dominant Bauhaus personalities. Continue reading

Bauhausbücher covers, № I-XIV (1925-1930)

.
Below are the covers to the books in the Bauhausbücher series, № 1-14.

  1. Walter Gropius, Internationale Architektur. Bauhausbücher 1, München 1925
  2. Paul Klee, Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch. Bd. 2, München 1925
  3. Adolf Meyer, Ein Versuchshaus des Bauhauses in Weimar. Bd. 3, München, 1925
  4. Oskar Schlemmer, Die Bühne im Bauhaus. Bd. 4, München 1925
  5. Piet Mondrian, Neue Gestaltung. Neoplastizismus. Bd. 5, Eschwege 1925
  6. Theo van Doesburg, Grundbegriffe der neuen gestaltenden Kunst. Bd. 6, München 1925
  7. Walter Gropius, Neue Arbeiten der Bauhauswerkstaetten. Bd. 7, München 1925
  8. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Malerei, Fotografie, Film. Bd. 8, München 1925
  9. Wassily Kandinsky, Punkt und Linie zur Fläche: Beitrag zur Analyse der malerischen Elemente. Bd. 9, München, 1926
  10. Jan Peter Oud, Holländische Architektur, Bd. 10, München 1926
  11. Kasimir Malewitsch, Die gegenstandslose Welt, Bd. 11, München 1927
  12. Walter Gropius, Bauhausbauten Dessau. Bd. 12, München 1928
  13. Albert Gleizes, Kubismus. Bd. 13, München 1928
  14. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Von Material zu Architektur. Bd. 14, 1929

Enjoy.

Bauhausbucher1200252.w.1280bauhausbucher 3867502_4_lLászló Moholy-Nagy Bauhaus Books No. 5- %22Neoplasticism%22 by Piet Mondrian, 1925bauhausbucher 6Bauhausbucher 7bauhausbucher 8 moholy-nagyBauhausbucher 9 Kandinsky8868072_1_lBauhausbucher 11 MalewitschLászló Moholy-Nagy Bauhaus Books No. 12- %22Bauhaus Buildings, Dessau%22 by Walter Gropius, 1930Bauhausbucher 13laszlo_moholy-nagy-dust_jackets_for_2_of_the_series_of_14_bauhaus_books-19291317188312990moholy-nagy-brochure_cover_for_the_series_of_fourteen_bauhaus_books-19291317188247231

Architecture in cultural strife: Russian and Soviet architecture in drawings, 1900-1953

.
Originally published over at Metropolis magazine’s online edition. A longer, slightly more comprehensive version of the review appears below.

The exhibition “Architecture in Cultural Strife: Russian and Soviet Architecture in Drawings, 1900-1953” opened two weeks ago at the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Bringing together a total of 79 unique architectural delineations from this period, the show spans the twilight years of the Romanov dynasty up to Stalin’s death in 1953.

Pavel Siuzor, Dom Zinger (1902-1904) K.N. Rouchefort and V.A. Linskii, 1906-1907

One is immediately struck by the periodization, bookended as it is by the death of a major political figure on one side and the turn of the century on the other. In terms of historical events, the latter of these seems fairly arbitrary. Stylistically, however, the date makes a bit more sense. Around 1900, Russian architects began to emulate non-academic design movements originating abroad. What Jugendstil had been to Germany, Art Nouveau to France, Sezessionstil to Austria — so stil’ modern [стиль модерн] was to Russia. Modernist architecture (sovremennaia arkhitektura [современная архитектура], not to be confused with stil’ modern) was still a couple decades away, but Pavel Siuzor and Gavriil Baranovskii introduced the style to Petrograd with some success.

Not much happened in the fifteen years from 1905 to 1920, at least as far as architecture is concerned. Of course this was largely due to the turbulence of the time. Two wars, a string of social and military crises, and multiple political revolutions interrupted ordinary construction cycles, preventing anything like normality from taking shape. Meanwhile, the widespread destruction of the country’s built infrastructure wrought by years of bloody civil war created a demand for new projects to replace what had been lost.

Nikolai Ladovskii Communal House Experimental project for Zhivskulptarkh Moscow, USSR 1920 Pencil, colored pencil, and colored ink on tracing paper 40 x 21 cmIl'ia Golosov, Lenin House 1924

After conditions finally stabilized in 1922, an experimental phase set in. Inspired by revolutionary tendencies in the visual arts — by abstract painting and sculptural constructs — an architectural avant-garde began to take shape. Highly innovative research was conducted at schools like INKhUK and VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN in Moscow, as well as the Academy of Arts and RABFAK in Leningrad. Students of architecture were encouraged to explore the possibilities of new materials and forms. The emerging Soviet avant-garde was hardly monolithic, however, despite certain popular depictions that represent the modernists as one homogenous bloc. While such simplifications are often expedient, even necessary, some nuance is inevitably lost along the way.

Continue reading

Panteleimon Golosov, Leningradskaia Pravda building in Moscow (1930-1935)

The following is taken from the international art journal Docomomo. It is a serviceable enough text, if somewhat awkwardly translated from French. One gets a good sense of the project’s evolution from the remarks Forte makes, even if the context he provides is a bit superficial. Plus, he highlights a central point toward the end of this excerpt: cultural regression following upon political regression.

Repressed architecture: The Pravda publishing house in Moscow (1930-1935)

Riccardo Forte
Docomomo № 37
September 2007

.
The “heroic” building of the Pravda’s printing complex, sancta sanctorum of the communist doctrinal orthodoxy and ideological manifesto of Soviet power, was erected between 1930 and 1935 in the Muscovite district of Yamskoye Pole. Thanks to its symbolic content and programmatic commitment, it undeniably embodies an unrivaled episode in the history of modern architecture in Russia.

This prodigious building of colossal dimension, eulogistic icon of a new model of society which, forged upon the ideals of the Revolution, advancing towards the “glorious edification” of socialism and containing in its poetics of bold lines inspired by the vision of a civilisation machiniste, provided a most profound sense of that ideology of progress and aesthetics — a secular “religion of Utopia” — upon which the expectations of the modern movement were founded.

A manifesto of Utopia: The aesthetic search for the “supreme building”

.
In 1929 the Central Committee of the PCUS (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), in order to find a suitable solution for the growing production needs of the Pravda, the Bolshevik Party’s newspaper founded by V.I. Lenin in 1912, announced a national competition for a large-scale publishing house to serve as new headquarters for the newspaper, the regime’s official press organ. The plan for the editorial complex of the principal Soviet newspaper belonged in every respect to the vast modernization program which the Russian government embarked on in the mid-1920s. The period’s extraordinary intellectual effervescence and unprecedented creative fervor were such that the NEP (New Economic Policy) contributed in a decisive measure to the feverish construction activity in the public sector. Such activity was embodied by the realization of great infrastructures, services and industries, as well as in the creation of new organizational typologies, such as the “social condensers” (public housing, industrial  establishments, workers’ clubs), catalyzing centers of the new socialist culture, that are constitute the regime’s most significant experimental results.

The ambitious project launched by the Soviet leadership, whose intention was to emphasize symbolically their own hegemonic control of Russian society, simultaneously developing the device propaganda for the official party line from one boundary of the Union to the other, constituted for the avant-garde architects a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a formidable experimentation field for the new doctrinal directions and composition models that were formulated in those years. The competition’s prescriptions laid down that the functional units of administrative offices, newspaper offices and typographic works were to be integrated in a single large complex. The chosen site — today the area comprised between the Belorussky and Savyolovsky subway stations — was located in the Yamskoye Pole district, a strategic localization right in the city center, which at the time was still barely constructed. Continue reading

Book review: Architecture between spectacle and use (2011)

Berrin Chatzi Chousein
(edited by Ross Wolfe)
.
.

Berrin Chatzi Chousein contacted me about a week ago inquiring if I’d be interested in publishing her review of Architecture between Spectacle and Use, edited by Anthony Vidler, on The Charnel-House. Glancing over it just superficially, I could immediately tell it pertained to the blog’s focus and broader statement of intent. Though it was a bit rough in parts, I edited it down into its present form, appearing here for the first time.

.
Architecture between Spectacle and Use
, a collection edited by Anthony Vidler,[1] focuses on the concepts of “spectacle” and “use” as they appear in many recent international projects and designs. It evaluates their role by situating within a broader historical context, moving on from there to consider current examples. As its title suggests, the book’s essays examine the condition of contemporary architecture in terms of factors such as “usage” and “display.” The book advances a comprehensive criticism of prevalent architectural tendencies today, going over specific examples and approaching them from different angles. In so doing, it focuses on the various contexts in which spectacle and use relate. This review primarily assesses the relationship between spectacle and use and different approaches appraised within different contents and submits a certain role of criticism about the theme of the book.

In the introduction, Vidler starts the discussion by evaluating Hal Foster’s critique of the “spectacular” Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry. Foster clarifies by indicating that “spectacle is an image accumulated to the point where it becomes capital,”[2] Vidler continues by citing Hal Foster’s position on contemporary architecture. He makes three general comments on Foster’s critical framework. First, he draws a comparison between Frank Loyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. He adds that although Wright’s Manhattan Guggenheim has a formal logic based on programmatic considerations, Gehry’s museum mostly serves as a tourist attraction.[3] Secondly, Vidler mentions not only Foster’s criticisms of the “Bilbao effect” associated with Gehry, but also his criticisms of other master architects like Rem Koolhaas. Vidler’s third major point regards the way Foster approaches architecture in terms of expression. This leads Foster to characterize it in vague, underspecified terms such as “the sublime,” “the baroque,” etc.[4] The most important thing for Vidler about Foster’s critique is its emphasis on the way in which images directly serve the market economy and the limits this imposes on architects in design process, especially given their responsibility to the public.

Though Vidler explicitly criticizes some of the terms Foster uses to conduct his analysis, he implicitly reaffirms Foster’s centrality to the discussion. He accepts that architectural images are designed according to the demands of consumer society. But at the same time, he also explores some of the incidental benefits that accrue to contemporary architecture even if it has become “identical” to this society of consumption. Vidler begins by quoting the Situationist critic Guy Debord:

The problem of architecture is not to be seen from outside, nor to live inside. It is in the dialectical relationship interior and exterior, at the scale of urbanism (houses-streets) and at the scale of the house (interior-exterior).[5]

Working from this passage, Vidler explores some of the relationships that exist for Debord between an architectural “image” and its public “context.” Continue reading