Georgii Krutikov, The flying city / Георгий Крутиков, «Летающий город» (1928)

Летающая кабина Жилой комплекс "Трудовая коммуна".

The very first detailed study of Krutikov’s sensational Flying City has been translated and published.

25€ VAT included (24,04€ + 4% VAT)

softcover
English
21 x 16 cm
100 halftones images
160 pp
ISBN: 978-84-939231-8-1

Georgii Krutikov epitomized the utopian ideal of the Russian Avant-garde. In 1928, while still a student at the Moscow VKhUTEMAS, the budding architect presented his visionary solution to the seemingly impending problem of unsustainable population growth; a flying city.

Encapsulating the spirit of the times, Krutikov’s soaring city caused a sensation, daring to reimagine and remake the world as an exercise in possibility; rationalized through data, realized in sketches and plans.

Architectural historians and devotees of Russian modernism have cited the influence of Krutikov’s “Flying City.” Yet, for decades, little was written about this remarkable project, its precocious author or his subsequent career.

Calling down Krutikov’s city from the clouds, eminent scholar Selim O. Khan-Magomedov separates myth from fact to uncover a wealth of previously unseen visual and documentary material, affording insight into this truly revolutionary work, its fascinating creator and a varied later career that spanned influential membership of Nikolai Ladovskii’s rationalist Association of Urban Architects (ARU), his contributions to urban planning, his post-constructivist designs for the Moscow Metro and his passion for preserving Russia’s architectural heritage.

Жилой комплекс "Трудовая коммуна" Жилой комплекс. Жилище гостиничного типа

Written by SELIM O. KHAN-MAGOMEDOV

(1928-2011) has been widely recognized for his outstanding contribution to the study of the Russian avant-garde movement during the 1920s and 1930s. He has written countless monographs, articles and books, including the legendary Pioneers of Soviet Architecture, Pioneers of Soviet Design and One Hundred Masterpieces of the Soviet Architectural Avant-Garde. He has written on the most important architects of the Russian avant-garde, including Konstantin Melnikov, Alexander Vesnin, Nikolai Ladovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Moise Ginsburg, Ivan Leonidov, and Ilya Golosov. Khan-Magomedov contributed greatly to the scholarly research about Russian avant-gardists, and studying the personal archives of over 150 Russian architects, artists, designers and sculptors, which revealed a number of previously unknown facts about their lives.

Khan-Magomedov held a doctorate in art history and was an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Art.  In 1992, he was awarded the Russian Federation’s “Distinguished Architect” title, and in 2003, he was awarded the State Prize of Russia for his contributions to the field of architecture.

Translated by CHRISTINA LODDER

Professor Christina Lodder is an established scholar of Russian art. She is currently an honorary fellow at the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent, Vice-President of the Malevich Society, and co-editor of Brill’s Russian History and Culture series. Among her publications are numerous articles and several books. She has also been involved with various exhibitions such as Modernism (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2006) and From Russia (Royal Academy, London 2008).

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Gosprom: The State Industry building in Kharkov, 1925-1928

Robert Byron, Gosprom in Kharkov (1929)a Robert Byron, Gosprom in Kharkov (1929)b Robert Byron, Gosprom in Kharkov (1929)c Robert Byron, Gosprom in Kharkov (1929)d

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The most breathtaking of all constructivist projects has to be the Gosprom complex (or “Palace of Industry”) in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. There can’t have been anything else of this scale and ambition anywhere else in Europe at the time: indeed, it resembles more some particularly ambitious work of the late 1960s than the mid-twenties, an unacknowledged prototype of that sixties motif, the elevated walkway, the street in the sky. Constructed between 1926 and 1928, apparently by volunteers from the local Komsomol, this is Metropolis — or Aelita — actualized. Concrete and glass blocks from 7 to 13 storeys connected by skyways, curving round a huge public square, this resembles a small city in its own right. Its designers, Serafimov, Kravets, and Felger, appear to have been as obscure at the time as they have been since, yet only an El Lissitsky, a Gropius, or a Corbusier were designing anything as ambitious in 1926. Eisenstein and Vertov both used it on film (The General Line and Three Songs of Lenin, respectively), aptly, as the contrasts, angles and multiple levels had spatial affinities to their montage techniques: more literally, Friedrich Ermler used it in Fragment of Empire, a communist Rip van Winkle tale, as exemplar of the incomprehensible new world that the sleeper awakes to.

(From Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism)

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The hammer-and-sickle kitchen-factory in Samara (1931)

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Ekaterina Maximova’s 1931 fabrika-kukhnia [factory kitchen or canteen] on Maslennikov in Samara is a constructivist wonder in the shape of a hammer and sickle. Soviet “factory kitchens” were intended to provide proper nutrition to workers and liberate women from domestic slavery (i.e. the anonymous toil and drudgery of child-rearing and housework). Many such public kitchens were built and opened in the 1920s, but the one designed by Maximova is without a doubt the most spectacular.  As with most constructivist buildings in Russia, however, especially in the hinterlands, strategies to preserve this avant-garde monument have been less than adequate. Or more frequently, entirely absent.

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Archnadzor noted in an article from March 2008 that “if this building had appeared in a capital, it would have been esteemed and entered the textbooks of architectural history long ago.” (Though the sad state of similar constructivist buildings in other parts of the former USSR should call this assumption int0 question, with the exception of Melnikov’s oligarch-sponsored pieces and Kharkov’s polished Gosprom façade). Most of Maximova’s original design — both the interior and exterior — has unfortunately been destroyed in the course of the extensive reconstructions and modifications it underwent over the 20th century.

In an effort comparable to many countries’ pre- and post-WWII preservation measures, the factory had already been extensively refurbished by 1944. The entire front façade was remade, and covered the face of the building like a sarcophagus built in the classical style. Some internal changes and coverings were also made. In 1998-99 the building was once again transformed, this time into a shopping center. Threatened by demolition several times since, the building now houses stray dogs and the homeless.

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Its function and purpose highlight several aspects of the era’s industrial art. These architectural concepts were ideally employed for factories, workers’ clubs, canteens, garages and modern working-class housing projects, airy and sunlit, and even in Moscow a quarter built purposely to maximize sunlight exposure in all the flats; art became a practicality, industrialized, and intended to serve or otherwise stimulate the masses. Housing projects were designed as a vessel to attune Soviet citizens to the perks of communal living.

The hammer and sickle layout must seem an ideological extravagance, a symbolic excess, but similar projects were realized in Moscow and Leningrad: a school in a vaguely similar hammer and sickle shape, or a Red Army theater in the shape of a star. Maximova’s building thus “demonstrated the progressive aesthetic, engineering, and ethical ideas of the Soviet avant-garde.” It was also one of the first buildings in the Volga area with concrete lift slabs/floor structure, a showcase of modern, creative technology.

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The factory kitchen itself was located in the hammer, from which three conveyor belts brought the food to the canteen in the sickle. There were two floors, with airy mezzanines and staircases, and the building also housed a sports facility, reading room as well as the kitchen’s administration. The interior and plan design formed an integral, dynamic part of the building’s aesthetic impact; however, these aspects are rarely considered by the city council when it comes time for renovations, considering their lack of expertise.

In the TV-program Dostoianie respublika, it is mentioned that neither federal nor local government is willing to lend aid to these decaying structures. Another tragic example of this is Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building in Moscow, which appears on the UNESCO list of endangered buildings, while it is literally falling apart (often with people inside, as Owen Hatherley observed during a recent Moscow excursion). Back in 2008 there were again plans of transforming the Samara kitchen-factory, this time into an office center, but by February 2010 the restoration plans stagnated. Today the building faces destruction once more.

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Andrei Burov

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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.

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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

Grigorii Barkhin, Izvestiia newspaper building in Moscow (1926-1928)

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Some have noted the formal similarities between the original conception of Grigorii Barkhin’s Izvestiia newspaper building in Moscow and Walter Gropius’ proposed Chicago Tribune tower in Chicago. Barkhin himself attested to the latter’s influence on his own project. The initial plan for the building would have featured a base covering about a quarter of a city block, supporting a tall high-rise section that jutted suddenly skyward from it.

Owen Hatherley parsed their relationship several years back on his Kino Fist blog:

The Soviet skyscraper designs of the 1920s were strippings and rationalisations of the USA’s huge, atavistic fantasy-palaces. Aware of the mystificatory absurdity of a Woolworth Building, the extension of the Gothic up into the sky, the USSR’s early architects took their cue from the factories behind the facade. In one particularly memorable instance, this centred on the 1922 competition for the Chicago Tribune skyscraper. Bauhaus director Walter Gropius proposed a tower based on the printworks at the back, extending their modules into a futurist vision of cool, precise technology. It was ridiculed, of course, in favour of flying buttresses and Gothicky ornament. So in another act of plunder, the Soviet architects Grigori and Mikhail Barkhin proposed to build a slightly modified version of Gropius’ Chicago in Moscow for the Izvestia newspaper — and got it built, albeit drastically reduced.

We’ll return to this reduction later.

Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer: Competition Entry for "Chicago Tribune" Tower (1922). Model, dynamic perspective.

Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer: Competition submission for
Chicago Tribune tower (1922). Model, dynamic perspective.

Grigorii Barkhin, original plan for Izvestiia newspaper building (1926)

Grigorii Barkhin, original plan for Izvestiia building (1926)

A more proximate source of inspiration for Barkhin’s design (drafted 1926) was likely the Vesnin brothers’ Palace of Industry competition entry from 1923, which came a year after Gropius’ 1922 piece. One immediately notices the even greater similarities between them.

Here again there was some influence of Gropius’ project on the Vesnins’. (Both ultimately went unrealized). Indeed, there would later be some controversy when the rationalist architect Nikolai Dokuchaev accused his constructivist colleagues at VKhUTEMAS, the Vesnins, of copying the tower by Gropius. Dokuchaev further insinuated that there was some ideological contamination as a result, with some of the capitalist ideology of the Chicago Tribune proposal seeping into the structurally similar Palace of Labor. Moisei Ginzburg, by then chief theoretician of the OSA group, eventually intervened by pointing out the completely different functional contexts of the two buildings, while admitting their superficial resemblance.

The Vesnin brothers' unrealized proposal for the Palace of Labor (1923)

The Vesnin brothers’ unrealized proposal for the Palace of Labor (1923)

To be sure, the actual productive role of Barkhin’s Izvestia building was close to Gropius’ Chicago Tribune tower than was the Vesnins’ Palace of Labor, given that the first two were explicitly intended as publishing centers. Gropius’ tower would have likely served more as an office building for the writing staff than an actual printing plant, however. At least, that’s the role that Raymond Hood’s winning entry ended up playing. Barkhin’s building performed both tasks. Regardless, some overlap may be admitted.

Concerning the reduction mentioned earlier: due to material supply shortages, Barkhin and his younger brother, Mikhail, were forced to scrap the uppermost elevation. Instead, the base would be preserved as a continuous block, with rectilinear glazed façades as well as a series of distinctive circular windows over the right side of the entrance. The building still stands today, overlooking Pushkin Square in Moscow, though it now houses a Kentucky Fried Chicken store and King Sushi restaurant. Many of the photos included below are from the perspective of the park.

Enjoy! Click any of the images to enlarge, and scroll through the gallery.

Grigorii and Mikhail Barkhin. Dom Izvestiia, 1926-1927. Perspective view. Ink, watercolor, & white ink on paper.F-Moscou-Maison du Journal IsvestiaСтроительство типографского корпуса %22Известий%22Мы думаем, что снимок сделан в 1946 году  (направление съемки − север)Большой Путинковский переулок,5barhin2 Continue reading

On publishing practice: Architecture, history, politics

The Charnel-House
interviewed by Kerb

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The following interview is taken from Kerb 21: Uncharted Territories (2013), a yearly publication put out by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. A few months back, some of its editors contacted me for an interview on my rationales and routines for publishing. I was quite flattered, especially given that all of the other publications that were chosen by Kerb (such as Log, Topos, ScapegoatTerragrams306090) have a much, much wider pull than The Charnel-House. To be quite honest, I was surprised they found space for any of us considering the room it takes to house Marina Abramović’s ego, whom they also interviewed. — Just kidding!

Anyway, the physical journal is gorgeous and available for purchase online. I encourage all of you who have the means to pick up a copy. Below is a slightly more expansive series of responses to the questionnaire they asked me to fill out

The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION: Kerb: A Journal of Landscape Architecture approaches blogs, journals, magazines online and in print because it is interested to know how publishing practices operate and contribute to disciplines. Platforms of design and cultural discussion hosted by individuals and collectives offer varying insights and perspectives into the state of design. The ways in which the subject matter is curated and represented outlines one’s practice.

KERB: Describe a regular day in your “office.”

Ross Wolfe: A regular day blogging for The Charnel-House is hardly ever regular. Rather, it consists in a cluster of tightly-knit irregularities. Since there’s no strict timeline according to which updates are set to appear, the factors determining the generation of new content tend to emerge more or less by accident. Here and there (now and then), something will pique my interest, spark my imagination, or move me to issue a response. Such are the moments in which I write. (Of course, to be sure, there is a loose imperative to keep restocking the site with fresh supplies of images and information. Apart from this minimum, periodic upkeep, there’s very little in the way of discipline to maintain a regimented schedule.)

No matter when it comes, however, inspiration for new material on the blog usually doesn’t have anything to do with the environment in which writing takes place. Or if it does, it’s indirect. More often than not, the cues for what to write come from the virtual world rather than my immediate surroundings (which generally remain static throughout). The objects that lie about almost never change; at most they are rearranged. Constants like this can thus sink seamlessly into the background, a kind of visual “white noise,” and function by their total absence from my attention. As such, they create a sense of comfort and familiarity while I peruse the web in search of more direct engagements.

They say Sartre thrived on the hustle-and-bustle, penning some of his most famous tracts and novellas in the middle of packed, hectic, noisy Parisian cafés. It doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me, really. When a topic is sufficiently engrossing, I’m able to tune out just about anything. Yet for the most part, I stick to a routine of place. Sometimes a change of scenery is warranted, but not always.

KERB: We have defined “practice” as the ongoing accumulation of knowledge that test ideas through research and application. Upon reflection, do you have your own mode of practice as an editor? What is it, what is it based on?

Ross Wolfe: Practically speaking, there is very little in the way of “testing” that goes on in blogging for The Charnel-House. That is to say, there is nothing that would approximate a “trial-and-error” method. However, it would be false to suggest that there is no empirical basis to the selection and curation of material for publication. Some programs are built into the blog service I use that allow me to see what kind of content attracts the most visitors, which posts draw the most comments, and which tend to get “liked.” Continue reading

Yesterday’s tomorrow is not today

Hugh Ferriss’ modernity

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Image: Rendering by Hugh Ferriss
of the UN Building proposal (1947)
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What’s so fascinating about [Hugh] Ferriss is what makes him so different to his near-contemporary Iakov Chernikhov. While the latter made fantasy cities out of bizarre amalgams of what did exist and what hadn’t yet been invented, Ferriss drawings take the actually constructed and make it look utterly unreal.

Owen Hatherley, “Fairytales and real estate” (2007)

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)

It’s an odd feeling one gets from time to time, that the future we remember was more futuristic than our own. And yet it’s unmistakable. The moment we inhabit is a peculiar retrogression upon the past; its temporality is all off.

Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, 1917

Architectural sketch by Hugh Ferriss, 1917

Architectural sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, late 1930s

Architectural sketch by Iakov Chernikhov, late 1930s

Hatherley’s observation regarding the perpendicular paths of Ferriss and Chernikhov — paths that converge around the right angle of modernity — extends further than he even imagined. Whether working from unreality to reality or vice versa, the two celebrated draughtsmen charted a collision course from their respective points of origin. This might even be seen to represent a pattern of nonsensuous dissimilarity, inverting the old Benjaminian trope.

Meeting somewhere along the middle in the early 1930s, at least within the realm of ideas, the drawings of Ferriss and Chernikhov thereafter approximate each other visually (in terms of sensuous similarity) the further out one moves diverging from this date. That is to say, Ferriss’ sketches become more pronouncedly gothic the earlier on one looks. A tenebrous crayon rendering from 1917, shown above, amply illustrates this fact. Oppositely, Chernikhov’s sketches began exhibiting numerous gothic features toward the end of the 1930s, becoming progressively gloomier along the way. No one denies the influence of Hugh Ferriss over the comic-book city of Gotham; producers of the new Batman movies just announced would do well to take a look at Chernikhov’s later works for inspiration, especially after their blunder casting Ben Affleck as the dark knight. Continue reading

Buried treasure: The splendor of the Moscow Metro system

Owen Hatherley
The Calvert Journal
January 29, 2013

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Reposted
from The Calvert Journal, a daily briefing on the culture and creativity of modern Russia.

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Post-Communist underground stations in Moscow, like the recently completed Pyatnitskoye shosse, are still, very visibly, Moscow Metro stations. Regardless of the need or otherwise for nuclear shelters, they’re still buried deep in the ground; ubiquitous still is the expensive, laborious, but highly legible and architecturally breathtaking practice of providing high-ceilinged vaults with the trains leaving from either side. There have been attempts at “normal” metro lines, like the sober stations built under Khrushchev, or the “Light Metro” finished in 2003, but they didn’t catch on. Largely, the model developed in the mid-1930s continues, and not just in Moscow — extensions in Kiev or St Petersburg, or altogether new systems in Kazan or Almaty, carry on this peculiar tradition. Metro stations are still being treated as palaces of the people, over two decades after the “people’s” states collapsed. This could be a question of maintaining quality control, but then quality is not conspicuous in the Russian built environment. So why does this endure?

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The original, 1930s Moscow Metro was the place where even the most skeptical fellow travellers threw away their doubts and surrendered. Bertolt Brecht wrote an awe-filled poem on the subject, “The Moscow Workers Take Possession of the Great Metro on April 27, 1935,” dropping his habitual irony and dialectic to describe the Metro workers perusing the system they’d built on the day of its opening. At the end, the poet gasps, his guard down, “This is the grand picture that once upon a time/ rocked the writers who foresaw it” — that is, that here, at least, a dream of “Communism” had been palpably built. It was not an uncommon reaction, then or now, nostalgia notwithstanding. The first stations, those Brecht was talking about, were not particularly over-ornamented, especially by the standards of what came later, but their extreme opulence and spaciousness was still overwhelming. Stations like Sokolniki or Kropotkinskaya didn’t bludgeon with classical reminisces and mosaics. Yet three things about the underground designs created by architects Alexei Dushkin, Ivan Fomin, Dmitry Chechulin et al were unprecedented in any previous public transport network, whether Charles Holden’s London, Alfred Grenander’s Berlin or Hector Guimard’s Paris. First, the huge size of the halls, their high ceilings and widely-spaced columns; second, the quality of the materials, with various coloured marbles shipped in from all over the USSR; and third, the lighting, emerging from individually-designed, surreal chandeliers, often murkily atmospheric, designed to create mood rather than light.

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On the preservation of Konstantin Melnikov’s works and heritage

An open appeal from architects
and architectural historians

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

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

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

Memories of the future

After Krzhizhanovskii

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Image: Recent picture of
Dom Narkomfin (2011)

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Today it is well known that the future has become a thing of the past.

Gone are the days when humanity dreamt of a different tomorrow. All that remains of that hope is a distant memory. Indeed, most of what is hoped for these days is no more than some slightly modified version of the present, if not simply the return to a status quo ante — i.e., to a present that only recently became deceased. This is the utopia of normality, evinced by the drive to “get everything running back to normal” (back to the prosperity of the Clinton years, etc.). In this heroically banal vision of the world, all the upheaval and instability of the last few years must necessarily appear as just a fluke or bizarre aberration. A minor hiccup, that’s all. Once society gets itself back on track, the argument goes, it’ll be safe to resume the usual routine.

Those for whom the present of just a short time ago already seemed to be charting a disastrous course, however, are compelled to imagine a still more remote past: a past that humanity might someday revisit, after completing its long journey through the wilderness of modernity. Having lost its way some centuries back — around the start of the Industrial Revolution — this would signal an end to the hubristic conceit that society can ever achieve self-mastery. Humanity’s homecoming, in this model, is much like that of the prodigal son’s. Never again will it wander too far afield. From this time forward, it’ll stick to the straight and narrow.

Neither of these temporalities, whether oriented toward the present or the past, is entirely what it seems, however. How so?

For one thing, the present (at least, the present of the last two hundred or so years) is never fully present. It’s always getting ahead of itself, lunging headlong into the future, outstripping every prognosis and expectation. But no sooner has its velocity increased than it finds itself right back where it started. Just as swiftly as the present speeds itself up, it feels the ground beneath it begin to shift: a cyclolinear running in place, as it were. The ceaseless proliferation of the new now presents itself as the eternal return of the same old, same old. Novelty today has become quotidian, if not wholly antique. It should thus hardly come as a shock that Marxian theorists like Moishe Postone have described a peculiar treadmill effect that occurs under capitalism.[1] History of late may be going nowhere,[2] but it’s going nowhere faster.

The idea of a prelapsarian past, of the “good old days” before everything went wrong, proves just as problematic. Not by chance does the imagery used to depict this past recall biblical overtones. Make no mistake of it: this is Eden before the Fall, the paradise of a blinkered naïveté — those carefree days before humanity dared to taste the fruit of knowledge. Trying to locate the precise moment at which things took a turn for the worse is trickier than it looks, however. As suggested earlier, this past stands at a far greater remove from the present than the chain of presents that expired not too long ago.[3] Its reality recedes into the mists of prehistory. Continue reading