Erich Mendelsohn, Red Banner Textile Factory in Leningrad (1926)

Charlottenburg, Germany
July 11th, 1926

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We have completed the early project for Stuttgart. The enclosed sheet shows its directness as a spatial organism. To alter it, i.e., to eliminate or add anything, will call for new work and a new design.

So it will be better to push it through as it is and thus bring it to life.

This evening I am traveling to Stuttgart via Nuremberg. We are doing without pictures — which are only attempts to deceive untrained eyes — but are having a colored model prepared straight away. K. is bringing it on Wednesday morning. Until then I will…put my iron in the fire. On Wednesday I am lunching with Bonatz and dining with him at Hildebrandt’s. The omens are favorable, though I cannot believe we shall triumph without a struggle.

But I have a good conscience with regard to this project, which is half the battle.

Still no final decision from Leningrad. My telegram in reply to the renewed Russian invitation is so far unanswered. In this I see neither a good nor a bad omen, but am simply remaining completely indifferent to the way things are developing, which is hard enough to control from close to and quite impossible at a distance.

The endless space of Russia makes dream and aspiration — idea and action — impenetrable in the negative sense, infinite in the positive. [my emphasis — RW]

Even having to reckon with the reality of the few months when building can be done in Leningrad upsets numerical calculations and shifts their emphasis. The constants remain, but the indices explode, because the Russians are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their inner value, and their necessary correlation.

Meanwhile speculation continues about our possible handling of the whole project development. My studio is today a complete forum for statical computations, not, as it is generally, a trapeze of intuition or a firm springboard of organized planning.

At the same time H. telephoned in order to hold out a 90 per cent certain prospect of the Mosse block being realized. All three blocks are to be built at once and my negotiations with the building authorities must be taken up “at once.” People coax me into making compromises, without permitting themselves to notice that they are prepared to sell me down the river at the appropriate moment. So it is necessary to be doubly watchful and unyielding.

If all this comes together, holidays and mountain lakes become unthinkable.

Leningrad, USSR
August 1st, 1926

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The presentation of the project in Moscow has caused the Textile Trust the greatest difficulties and disagreeable cuts, additions, and mixtures — in short a fine flower of compromise…

They want to create a prototype on the basis of the latest international experience, but they entrust the incomplete picture to the hand of a bad copyist.

They make a basic revolution but they are bogged down by even more basic administration. They look to America but they are stuck fast in the suburbs of Königsberg. And all the possibilities are here, as you know.

But this new structure needs a broad base on which to rest, from which to summon up its strength. Everywhere there are those knowledgeable and active people who have always given the hungry mass a new understanding of their freedom, of the goal of all freedom and of man himself.

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The final chapter of Mikhail Lifshits’ The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933)

Here is the final chapter to the Russian philosopher and aesthetician Mikhail Lifshits’ groundbreaking 1933 book The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx.  Lifshits was the closest friend of Georg Lukács in the Soviet Union.  The two met in 1929, and though Lifshits, like Lukács, eventually proved to be an incorrigible conservative and anti-modernist when it came to aesthetics, I’d say that The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx is a valuable text. Consider, for example, its final chapter:

The historical role of the capitalist mode of production is to bring into the sharpest possible focus the contradictions of social progress; at the same time it prepares the ground for the annihilation of all these inequalities and antagonisms. The very division of labour gives rise to contradictions between the three ‘elements’: ‘productive forces’, ‘social relations’, and ‘consciousness’. The social division of labour is not, however, an eternal category. As a class stratification of society it disappears, and as a professional hierarchy it withers away in the transition to communist society.

But what does this transition mean with regard to aesthetic creation? Does it not mean the destruction of all distinctions between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic in art, just as in life the contradiction between the artist and the ordinary mortal is removed? Does not collectivism, generally speaking, suppress all individual originality and talent? Such are some of the bourgeois objections to communism. These objections Marx and Engels dealt with in criticizing Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. Stirner, one of the founders of anarchism, distinguished between ‘human’ work, which can be organized collectively, and ‘individual’ work, which cannot be socialized in any manner. For who can take the place of a Mozart or a Raphael?

‘Here again, as always,’ wrote Marx and Engels, ‘Sancho [i.e. Stirner] is out of luck in his choice of practical examples. He thinks that “no one can compose your music in your stead, or execute your designs for a painting. Raphaers works can be done by no other.” But Sancho should have known that not Mozart himself, but someone else, largely composed and completely finished Mozart’s Requiem; and that Raphael “executed” only a small portion of his frescoes.

‘He imagines that the so-called organizers of labour wish to organize the whole activity of every individual, whereas it is precisely they who make a distinction between directly productive labour, which must be organized, and labour which is not directly productive. As far as the latter kind of labour is concerned, they do not think, as Sancho imagines, that everybody can work in Raphael’s place, but rather that everybody who has a Raphael in him should be able to develop unhindered. Sancho imagines that Raphael created his paintings independently of the division of labour then existing in Rome. If he will compare Raphael with Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, he will see to what extent the works of art of the first were conditioned by the flourishing of Rome, then under the influence of Florence; how the works of Leonardo were conditioned by the social milieu of Florence, and later those of Titian by the altogether different development of Venice. Raphael, like any other artist, was conditioned by the technical advances made in art before him. by the organization of society and the division of labour in his locality, and finally, by the division of labour in all the countries with which his locality maintained relations. Whether an individual like Raphael is able to develop his talent depends entirely upon demand, which in turn depends upon the division of labour and the consequent educational conditions of men.

‘In proclaiming the individual character of scientific and artistic work. Stirner places himself far below the bourgeoisie. Already in our time it has been found necessary to organize this “individual” activity. Horace Vernet would not have had the time to produce one-tenth of his paintings if he had considered them works which “only this individual can accomplish”. In Paris the tremendous demand for vaudeville and novels has given rise to an organization of labour for the production of these wares, which are at least better, at any rate, than their “individual” competitors in Germany.’ Thus bourgeois society itself makes attempts to organize the higher forms of spiritual labour. ‘Needless to say, however, all these organizations based upon the modem division of labour achieve results which are still very inadequate, and represent an advance only by comparison with the short-sighted self-sufficiency existing until now.’ But we should not confuse this so-called ‘organization of labour’ with communism. In communist society those confounded questions concerning the disparity between highly gifted persons and the masses, disappear. ‘The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in certain individuals, and its consequent suppression in the broad masses of the people, is an effect of the division of labour. Even if in certain social relations everyone could become an excellent painter, that would not prevent everyone from being also an original painter, so that here too the difference between “human” work and “individual” work becomes a mere absurdity. With a communist organization of society, the artist is not confined by the local and national seclusion which ensues solely from the division of labour, nor is the individual confined to one specific art, so that he becomes exclusively a painter, a sculptor, etc.; these very names express sufficiently the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on the division of labour. In a communist society, there are no painters, but at most men who, among other things, so paint.’

Collectivism, far from suppressing personal originality, in reality provides- the only solid ground for an all-sided development of personality. Marx and Engels stated this emphatically in The German Ideology. They knew full well that a new cycle of artistic progress can begin only with the victory of the proletariat, the abolition of private property, the spread of communist relations. Only then can all the forces now exhausted by capitalist oppression be liberated. ‘The destruction of private property is the complete assimilation of all human feelings and characteristics.’ The new society, wrote Marx, in criticism of ‘crude’, leveling communism. does not stand for the ‘abstract negation of all education and civilization’. It does not propose ‘to suppress talent by force’. Quite the contrary, ‘in communist society — the only society in which the original and free development of individuals is no mere phrase — this development is contingent precisely upon the very association of individuals, an association based partly on economic premises, partly upon the necessary solidarity of the free development of all, and finally upon the universal activity of individuals in accordance with the available productive forces. Thus the question here concerns individuals on a definite historical level of development, and not any random individuals…Naturally the consciousness of these individuals with respect to their mutual relations is likewise altogether different, and as remote from the “principle of love” or “dévouement” as from egoism.’

Communist society removes not only the abstract contradiction between ‘work and pleasure’ but also the very real contradiction between feeling and reason, between ‘the play of bodily and mental powers’ and ‘the conscious will’. Together with the abolition of classes and the gradual disappearance of the contradiction between physical and spiritual labour, comes that all-sided development of the whole individual which the ‘greatest social thinkers hitherto could only dream about.’ Only communist society, in which ‘the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power’, can establish the material basis for ‘the development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom’. ‘…The shortening of the working day is its fundamental premise.’

According to Marx’s doctrine, therefore, communism creates conditions for the growth of culture and art compared to which the limited opportunities that the slaves’ democracy offers to a privileged few must necessarily seem meagre. Art is dead! LONG LIVE ART! — this is the slogan of Marx’s aesthetics.

You can download the entire book here:

Mikhail Lifshits — The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx

Строительство Москвы/Building Moscow Explained, Plus Some More Issues

Diagram for the Proposed Reconstruction of Moscow

 Строительство Москвы, pronounced “Stroitel’stvo Moskvy,” was a Soviet journal published from 1924-1941.  In the first couple years of its existence, its focus was primarily on the construction industry and its activities in Moscow, talking about city renovation following the end of the devastating Civil War.  Its articles during this period were of a mostly journalistic nature, reporting recent developments and discussing new building proposals.  One section toward the end was usually reserved for a “Chronicle of Foreign Technology,” in which new technological achievements in the West were detailed.

Around 1927, however, the focus of the journal shifted to more theoretical matters, absorbing some of the avant-garde influences of magazines like SA, which was reflected by some of the more programmatic articles it featured.  The nature of modern architecture was discussed, in a way that was slightly more inclusive than the strictly Constructivist SA, under the editorship of Ginzburg and the Vesnins (and later Khiger).  Nikolai Ladovskii published several articles in Building Moscow, as well as his protégés Krutikov and Krasil’nikov.  Some of the more traditional, academic architects were also able to publish during this period.

Between 1929 and 1931, the subject of greater city planning was introduced to the journal, with a great deal of attention devoted to the plans to reconstruct Moscow, overseen by Stalin’s henchman Kaganovich.  The competition for the design of the Palace of the Soviets, planned for construction right outside the Kremlin, was also a major subject dealt with by Building Moscow.  After 1932 or so, with the results of the competition in, the journal slowly began to drift into a neoclassicist direction, where it would remain until it ceased publication in the leadup to war with Germany in 1941.

Anyway, here are another few issues of the journal, of a more avant-garde and theoretical flavor, talking about urbanism and design:

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 5

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 6

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 8

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 10

Александр Сергеевич Никольский, «Современная Обременная Художественная Промышленность» (1929)

Современная художественная промышленность в большей степени, чем другие виды художественного труда, продолжает находиться в идеологическом плену «академической» культуры XIX века. […]

[…] Взамен тяжелой, мало пригодной для современных условий музейной обстановки в изживших себя исторических стилях потребитель настойчиво требует бытовую вещь, построенную на совершенно других принципах. Эти последние должны соответствовать изменившимся жизненным условиям и совершенно иной, непохожей на дореволюционную, планировке современного экономического жилища.

[…]

[…] Поставленный вопрос заключается в том, в какой мере современная художественная промышленность способна отбросить традиции академизма и продолжающегося потрафления обывательским вкусам. Современной идеологией художественного труда в производстве общественно полезных вещей, и в первую очередь в мебельной, бойной и текстильной промышленности, должен стать адекватным нашему времени дух рационализма и конструктивизма. […]

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.

El Lissitzky’s “Architecture in the USSR” (1925)

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IMAGE: El Lissitzky’s Wolkenbügel (1924)
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 From Die Kunstblatt, No. 2 (February 1925)

Modern architecture in Russia?

There is no such thing.  What one does find is a fight for modern architecture, as there is everywhere in the world today.  Still nowhere is their a new architectonic CULTURE.  Any isolated really new buildings were designed only to meet the need of the moment, and only by some anonymous character, some engineer, over the head of the artist with a diploma.  At the same time, modern architects in various countries have been fighting for some decades to establish a new tectonics.  The main watchwords remain the same: expedient, in suitable material, constructive.  Every generation puts a different meaning into the same ideas.  For many this process is not developing rapidly enough.  There is certainly no lack of forces.  The trouble lies in the economic abnormality of the present time and the utter confusion of their intentions.

In the world of today, Russia is moving at record speed.  This is manifested even in the name of the country: — Russia, RSFSR, SSSR.  Art also advanced at the same tempo.  There the revolution in art began by giving form to the elements of time, of space, of tempo and rhythm, of movement.  Before the war cubists in France and futurists in Italy advanced new theses in art.  There re-echoed loudly in Russia; but from the early years of our isolation we went our own way and put forward antitheses.

The European thesis was: THE FINE ARTS (BEAUX-ARTS) FOREVER.  Thus the arts were made to become a completely private, subjective-aesthetic concern.  The antithesis was: ANYTHING BUT THE FINE ARTS.  [372] Let us have something universal, something clear and simple.  Thus a square is simple, or a glass cylinder.  Out with the painting of pictures! ‘The future belongs to those who have a remarkable lack of talent for the fine arts.’  Organic growth is a simple thing — so is building, architecture.

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Color illustration from Modern Architecture (1929) of a disurbanized dwelling

Ginzburg’s reply to Le Corbusier on deurbanization

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IMAGE: Color illustration in Modern Architecture
of a “disurbanized” dwelling unit (1929)

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My dear Le Corbusier,

Our recent conversation about city planning and your letter have compelled me to rethink the entire problem, to recall your objections, the objections you made when you visited me and which you now write about in your letter.

Like all my friends, I value you tremendously not only as a subtle master architect but also as a man with the ability to solve radically and fundamentally the important problems of organization.

For me you are today the greatest and most brilliant representative of the profession that gives my life content, goal, and meaning.

That is why your ideas and solutions in the area of city planning have for us a quite exceptional interest and importance. Continue reading

Le Corbusier’s “The Atmosphere of Moscow,” along with His Letter to Ginzburg on Deurbanization

Barsch and Ginzburg, Proposal for the Green City (1930)

From Le Corbusier’s Precisions on the Present

State of Architecture and City Planning (1930)

*****

I am not trying to learn Russian, that would be a wager.  But I hear people saying krasni and krassivo.  I question.  Krasni means red, krassivo means beautiful.  Before [the Revolution], they say, the terms meant the same: red and beautiful.  Red was beautiful.

If I base myself on my own perceptions, I affirm: red is what is a living being, life, intensity, activeness; there is no doubt.

So naturally I feel I have the right to admit that life is beautiful, or that the beautiful is life.

That little linguistic mathematics is not so ridiculous when one is preoccupied with architecture and planning.

*****

The USSR has decided to carry on a general program of equipment for the country: the five-year plan.  It is being carried out.  It was even decided to concentrate the greater part of the product of present work on carrying out this program: that is why there is no longer any butter on the spinach here,nor any more caviar in Moscow; the savings are used to make foreign exchange.

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Ernst May, “City Building in the USSR” (1931)

Ernst May and collaborators, “The General Plan of Magnitogorsk — a settlement for 150,000 inhabitants attached to the Magnitogorsk industrial complex” (1931)

From Das Neue Rußland, vol. VIII-IX.  Berlin, 1931:

City Planning in Evolution

If there is any one area of endeavor in the USSR where the Revolution is still in full motion, then city building and dwelling construction must be considered first.  This is not surprising, for the replacement of a thousand-year-old social system by a new one is a process that will take more than just a dozen years to complete, or even to provide a clear and unequivocal direction.  Moreover, since the thorough reorganization of the the entire social life of the USSR, which covers on sixth of the land area of our globe, will vitally affect city development and housing everywhere, it follows that within the context of this general process of change it is at the present moment impossible to offer a panacea that would suddenly cure all the many ills accumulated over centuries and bring about immediate mature results.

Nevertheless, a number of theories have been advanced and are in hard competition with each other.  Some have been published abroad, and this in turn may have led to the impression that it is only these that represent the mainstream of Russian city planning.  Nothing could be more misleading!

So far there has been no firm commitment to one or the other system of city planning, and by all indications no such commitment should be forthcoming in the near future.  This does not mean that the field is dominated by a lack of planning or by arbitrariness.  The basic precepts of modern city planning, which in the past years have found wide acceptance in Europe, and which are now being implemented, have become the A to Z of planning in the USSR as well.  Clear separation of industry and residence, rational traffic design, the systematic organization of green areas, etc., are considered as valid a basis for healthy planning there as here; similarly, open-block planning is giving way to single-row building.

The Central Problem of the Socialist City

However, even though the general principles for the planning of Socialist cities have been established, the real problem is only beginning.  In other words, a city structure will have to be developed that in terms of its entire genesis as well as in terms of its internal articulation and structuring will be fundamentally different from the capitalist cities [189] in the rest of the world.  While our own cities in most cases owe their origin to commerce and the market place, with private ownership of land largely determining their form, the generating force behind the development of new cities in the Soviet Union is always and exclusively industrial economic production, regardless of whether in the form of industrial combines or agricultural collectives.  In contrast to prevailing practice in Europe, and with particular reference to trends in the USA, building densities in Soviet cities are not influenced by artificially inflated land values, as often happens in our case, but solely by the laws of social hygiene and economy.  In connection with this it should be pointed out most emphatically that the word ‘economy’ has taken on an entirely new meaning east of the Polish border.  Investments, which in a local sense may appear to be unprofitable, become convincingly [190] viable when seen from the vantage point of over all national planning by the state.

At this point I should like to point out most emphatically that among the innumerable misjudgments made abroad, none is more incorrect than that which assumes that work in the field of city planning and housing in the USSR is done without rhyme or reason, and that the ground has been cut out from under their feet.  The truth is that the economic and cultural reconstruction of all life in the USSR has no parallel in the history of mankind.  It is equally true that this reconstruction is being accomplished by a sober evaluation of all the realities, and it should be obvious to any observer that in each successive stage, matters recognized as desirable and ideal are being consciously subordinated to matters that are feasible and possible within the limitations of the present.  In the course of this discussion I shall return to this point on appropriate occasions.

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Iakov Chernikhov’s Principles of Modern Architecture (1930)

Browsing the Russian search engine Яндекс for information about Iakov Chernikhov, I came across an online copy of his 1930 book, Principles of Modern Architecture (Основы современной архитектуры). It’s free to browse in its entirety.

Enjoy!