Soviet architecture: Notes on its development, 1917-1932

by Berthold Lubetkin, 1956

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Image: Lubetkin’s trade pavilion
for the USSR, Bordeaux 1926

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Note: The following brief essay by Berthold Lubetkin, a constructivist architect and comrade of El Lissitzky who moved to Britain in the early 1930s, is actually remarkably lucid in its presentation of the theory-praxis problem so central to Marxism. I find the longitudinal distinction between “philosophies of East and West” a bit crude, but this is to be expected from a popular presentation intended for a British readership. Of course, Marxism (and Hegelianism, which is central for Lubetkin) had originated in the West, but by the time Lubetkin was writing this they had been driven out of mainstream Western political and intellectual discourse. Positivism, empiricism, and pragmatism appeared in its stead.

Lubetkin certainly wouldn’t deny the historical importance of Kant or Hume for the development of philosophy culminating in Hegel, but would instead emphasize the regression signaled by recourse to these figures after 1850, and the epistemological skepticism this entailed toward notions of causation. He was fond of quoting Hegel’s (and Spinoza’s before him, Engels’ after him) dictum that “freedom is the conscious recognition of necessity,” and always stressed the dialectical legacy of Marxist thought.

One of the recognizable dividing lines between the philosophies of East and West is gnoseology, and relates to the interpretation an generalization of the observed phenomena of life, and the coordination of the results into coherent theories and systems. The West, partly, no doubt, as a reaction against medieval dogmatism with its a priori, unverifiable order of things, and the consequent futility of scientific enquiry, partly as a reflection of its economic structure, shuns assumptions and principles, mistrusts generalizations, proceeds empirically to the point of denying the validity of law, of causality in nature and in society.

Berthold Lubetkin photographed in 1933

Berthold Lubetkin photographed in 1933

Under the influence of Kant and Hume, experienced facts are regarded as the ultimate finality, and are incapable of linkage into systems. The mere sequence by which one phenomenon follows another does not justify the conclusion that they are in causal relation, but rather that they coexist in our expectation, in our experience.

Through all forms of contemporary Western philosophy (relativism, empiricism, pragmatism, positivism, etc.), the disbelief in causality stands out as a common factor of decisive significance. In analyzing the interaction of phenomena, the objective character of laws is reduced to psychological necessity, regularity is equated with the particular case of accident, and the notion of objective truth is altogether eliminated, so that scientific results appear as a system or framework with no other end in view but that of convenience, utility, and economy of thought.

The West is thus basically skeptical, hostile to theoretical generalizations, to historical motivation, to the embodiment of experience into binding conclusions with the validity of objective laws.

The resulting intellectual atomization and fragmentation finds its counterpart in economics, in the crisis of productive relations, and it is revealed clearly and hauntingly in the manifestations of our art. Continue reading

On Anatole Kopp

Representing Soviet modernism

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Image: Cover to the English translation of
Anatole Kopp’s Town and Revolution (1967)
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As promised, this post will briefly consider the main theoretical contentions and scholarly contributions of the French-Russian architectural historian Anatole Kopp. My own remarks will be limited to an examination of Kopp’s work on Soviet avant-garde architecture beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. From there, it will seek to ascertain any political implications that result from his dramatic presentation of the modern movement’s adventures in the USSR.

Kopp’s photos of Soviet avant-garde architecture

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With some justice the historiographical claim could be made that, by rediscovering Soviet architectural modernism from the interwar period, Kopp effectively introduced the subject to a whole generation of architects following the Second World War. Scattered accounts remained, of course, from a few celebrated exponents of the “international style” (a phrase that Kopp, like Giedion, never fully accepted). But these had largely been buried beneath these architects’ subsequent achievements, and remained in any case either a source of embarrassment or embitterment that most of them — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, Mart Stam, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, André Lurçat, Arthur Korn, etc. — preferred to forget.

Henri Lefebvre, 1971

Hegelian Marxist theorist Henri Lefebvre, 1971

Henri Lefebvre, later one of Kopp’s primary collaborators, drew upon Kopp’s reading of the era while spelling out just how groundbreaking his narrative of the Soviet avant-garde was in the 1960s in The Urban Revolution:

Between 1920 and 1930, Russia experienced a tremendous spurt of creative activity. Quite amazingly, Russian society, turned upside down through revolution, managed to produce superstructures (out of the depths) of astonishing novelty. This occurred in just about every field of endeavor, including politics, architecture, and urbanism. These super­structures were far in advance of the existing structures (social relations) and base (productive forces). The existing base and superstructures would have had to follow, make up for their delay, and reach the level of the superstructures that had come into existence through the process of revolutionary creativity. This was a key problem for Lenin during his last years. Today, however, it has become painfully obvious that those structures and the “base” did a poor job of catching up. The superstructures produced by revolutionary genius collapsed on top of a base (peasant, backward) that had been badly or inadequately modified. Isn’t this the great drama of our era? Architectural and urbanist thought cannot arise from thought or theory alone (urbanistic, sociological, economic). It came into being during this total phenomenon known as revolution. The creations of the revolutionary period in the Soviet Union quickly disappeared; they were destroyed and then forgotten. So why did it take forty years, why did we have to wait until today (an age that some claim is characterized by speed, acceleration, vertigo) and the work of Anatole Kopp to acknowledge the achievements of architectural and urban thought and practice in the Soviet Union? (The Urban Revolution, pg. 184).

Kopp’s studies were a revelation not only to Western readers, however, but to many of his comrades in the East as well. Indeed, his archival visits to the USSR roughly overlapped with pioneering investigations in the field by Soviet historians like Selim Khan-Magomedov and Oleg Shvidkovskii. The Soviet modernists’ legacy was unknown even in its country of origin, having been politically suppressed for decades. (Though I’d have to double-check, I seem to recall he even worked in tandem with Khan-Magomedov at one point). Unlike his colleagues/contemporaries, who kept more or less neutral in their appraisal of modern architecture, Kopp assigned it a positively revolutionary value. There is something to this approach, to be sure, though the reasons behind this fact perhaps eluded the historian himself. In the introduction to his seminal treatise, Town and Revolution, he explained some of the motivations for his research. Anticipating potential criticisms, Kopp wrote:

It may be objected that if these buildings and projects, all now more than thirty years old, are technically and formally obsolete, why bother to return to them? Because they constitute an important page of world architectural history and because a knowledge of the history of modem architecture makes it easier to understand and appreciate the architecture of today. Because much current [1966] experimentation and research is merely a continuation of efforts begun during the twenties (when it is not simple plagiarism) and because a knowledge of what was done then could assist modem architecture in escaping from the vicious circle in which it now seems trapped. Because the research undertaken at that time related not only to forms and techniques but also to :first principles and because most of the so-called social programs of today have their origin in that remote period and arc a con­ sequence of precisely the economic, political, and social context that existed then. In my opinion, these reasons are amply sufficient to justify a new look at the Soviet architecture of the twenties. They are, however, only secondary considerations.

The principal reason for undertaking such a study lies elsewhere. For the avant-garde of the Soviet architects of the twenties, architecture was a means, a lever to be employed in achieving the highest goal that man can set himself. For them architecture was, above all, a tool for “transforming mankind.” The world had been turned upside down, a new society was being built on the basis of new productive relations between individuals. Soon it would give birth to a new man freed of the prejudices and·habits of the past. This new society, this new man, could not develop in the old human dens fashioned in the image of a discredited social order. A special environment and appropriate structures were indispensable. But this environment was not conceived merely as a reflection, or material “translation,” of the new society; it had to-be-created Immediately, since only by living in it would man as he was become man as he was to be. Thus was established a dialectical conception of the role of the human environment: a reflection of the new society, it was at the same time the mold in which that society was to be cast. To some extent, the new environment, the new architecture, was viewed as a device designed for correcting, transforming, and improving man. In the language of the time architecture was a “social condenser” within which indispensable mutations were to be produced. (Town and Revolution, pg. 12).

In such passages the logic of Kopp’s argument unfolds magnificently. Here he laid out the case for modern architecture as facilitating, expediting, and even generating social change on its own. Kopp’s own formal training as an architect had come, of course, in the United States, under the supervision of exiled Bauhaus masters such as Walter Gropius and Josef Albers. Returning to France after the war, as Falbel discusses below, Kopp joined the French Communist Party and soon fell into the same circles as the prominent Hegelian Marxist Henri Lefebvre and other leading lights such as Claude Schnaidt. Kopp also came into contact with the well-known French intellectual Paul Virilio, who reminded his interviewer in Crepuscular Dawn that he’d “worked with Anatole Kopp, who published Town and Revolution.” (Virilio goes on to flatter himself in the course of the interview by insisting that it was he, and not Lefebvre, who’d first coined the idea of an “urban revolution”). Continue reading

Anatole Kopp (1915-1990): the Engaged Architect and the Concept of Modern Architecture

by Anat Falbel
University of Campinas, Brazil
anatfalbel@uol.com.br

The bulk of the biographical data amassed below comes from an essay by a Brazilian professor, Anat Falbel, so much so that it has been appended in full. It’s rather awkwardly translated, in parts, so I’ve taken the liberty of purging some bits where he equivocates about which word to use. Beyond that, it’s a serviceable enough piece — rather weak in its gloss on Kopp’s politics despite its attention to his party membership, but filled with helpful facts and information throughout.

On engagement

The Petit Robert dictionary defines engagement as “the act or attitude of an intellectual or artist who, aware of his condition as a member of society and of the world of his time, renounces his position as a mere spectator and puts his thinking or his art to the service of a cause.” While he was still a high school pupil, at a time when the ideological debate in France was polarized between right and left, Anatole Kopp become engaged with the French Communist Party (FCP). For the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who was raised between cultural boundaries that permeated and nourished each other, and who faced the chauvinistic and xenophobic France of his youth, the October Revolution signified a new universality, a society free of social as well as national differences, suggesting affinities between Jewish messianic aspiration and a social utopia interpreted as on ethical enterprise.

Record of Anatole Kopp's birth information

Record of Anatole Kopp’s birth information

Kopp’s engagement and awareness of his role as a militant and Modern architect is illustrated in the excerpt below, taken from the 1952 letter he sent to the French Architectural Board that had been refusing his membership since 1947 because of his militant activities. The passage indicates the emergence of on early idea of a modern monument:

…As for as I am concerned, it is the social aspect of architecture that played a crucial role in the choice of studies I have mode. I believe that the path leading to architecture through the Villejuif School, the proletarian towns in Vienna and the great Dam of Dniepr is just as worthy as the way through the Parthenon, the Farnese Palace or the Louvre Colunatta.

…it is widely known that we cannot transform society through architecture or urban planning. To believe in that would be confounding cause and effect…

This study seeks to understand Kopp’s historical work based on his career as an architect and his role as an engaged intellectual. It recognizes his personal struggle with one of the problematic aspects of the militant’s engagement: the need to recognize the primacy of the revolutionary process and the hegemony of the political entity it personified, namely the Communist Party, a primacy that proved increasingly unsustainable in the late 1950s. Continue reading

The other Trotsky

Noi Abramovich (1895-1940)

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Image: Noi Abramovich Trotskii, Leningrad 1929

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Not Lev Davidovich [Лев Давидович]. The architect, Noi Abramovich [Ной Абрамович], rather. No relation, obviously. It’s Bronshtein, remember?

Here are some examples of his work.

Designs

«О советской архитектуре»

* Из стенограммы отчета в Деловом клубе 16 февраля 1935 г. (Фонд ГМИЛ, архив Н. А. Троцкого).

Годы предреволюционной архитектуры в последний десяток лет, примерно начиная с 1908—1909 годов, проходят под знаком увлечения итальянским Ренессансом, увлечения классическими образцами. Это был новый расцвет в России — неоклассицизма. Он дал в России интересные образчики и целую плеяду очень интересных архитекторов.

С наступлением революции это увлечение классикой не могло продолжаться, оно должно было, естественно, приостановиться, революция толкнула на новые пути в поисках более революционного искусства. Этот неоклассицизм или пользование образцами классики казался течением реакционным. Хотелось чего-то нового, революционного. В это время на Западе возникают во всех областях искусства новые революционные течения: в литературе — футуризм, в Италии — Маринетти, в живописи — кубизм, супрематизм, в скульптуре — кубизм и в архитектуре возникает новое течение на основе кубизма и супрематизма — конструктивизм. Эти новые искания в области искусства и в области живописи, и литературы, и архитектуры казались тогда революционными. Казалось, что новые искания в области искусства соответствуют тем революционным настроениям, тем революционным чаяниям и пафосу, который был в те годы, и казалось, что это искусство может отразить пафос революционного движения и поэтому периоду увлечения классикой пришел конец.

[…] И архитектура должна была найти свои новые пути. Архитектура — искусство более консервативное, и в архитектуре это шло более длительно и начиная с 1923 и кончая примерно 1930 годом (в течение 7-летия) архитектура находится под влиянием конструктивизма. Кроме конструктивизма зародился целый ряд других побочных течений…

Примерно в 1930—1931 годах начинает чувствоваться увядание, начинает чувствоваться некоторая беспомощность и падение кривой увлечения этими стилями, начала ощущаться потребность более сильного, более эмоционального и выразительного. Дело в том, что эти «измы», затрагивая те или иные части архитектуры, в целом не охватывали задач архитектуры и поэтому не создавали большого стиля искусства. Первым пробным камнем нашей советской архитектуры этого 7-летия явился конкурс на Дворец Советов. Это чрезвычайно интересный момент. На этом конкурсе выявилась вся беспомощность и все бессилие нашей архитектуры дать то, что нужно нашему государству, нашему Союзу, т. е. передать тот пафос строительства, создать ту сильную монументальную архитектуру, которая нужна Союзу. […] Начиная с 1931 года и до сегодняшнего дня мы находимся в лихорадочном состоянии. […]

Realizations

Chernikhov's dark turn

Iakov Chernikhov’s sepulchral city

The dark turn in Chernikhov’s late works,
the architectural necropolis
after the onset of Stalinism

Almost gothic.

I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend.  —Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

The Soviet Avant-Garde: International Reflections of the OSA-ASNOVA (Constructivist-Rationalist) Split

Architectural Experiment from Nikolai Ladovskii's Studio at VKhUTEMAS, 1924

THE SOVIET AVANT-GARDE — INTERNATIONAL REFLECTIONS OF THE OSA-ASNOVA (CONSTRUCTIVIST-RATIONALIST) SPLIT

THE EFFICACIOUS VS. THE AESTHETIC

In his landmark structural analysis of the antinomical tendencies existing within Russian culture (broadly termed “Culture One” and “Culture Two”),[1] Vladimir Paperny locates a subset of contradictions operative in the context of the former considered by itself.  This second-order oppositional pair he identifies corresponds to the two main positive bases of modernist architecture we have already set forth: the contours of abstract art on the one hand, and modern industrialism (and more specifically, the machine) on the other.  While it is difficult to see how this opposition fits into Paperny’s broader scheme of Russian history as a whole — for he claims that these cultural patterns recur, and the existence of this particular binary in earlier epochs seems unlikely — his conceptual division of these two tendencies is entirely correct with reference to the 1920s.  He explained this internal tension within Soviet avant-garde culture as follows:

In Culture One there is yet another pair of opposing tendencies…One element in this pair is bespredmetnichestvo (nonfigurative art), the rejection of any resemblance between an artistic creation and life and thus the affirmation of the right of art to speak in its own language.  The other element is zhiznestroenie (life-building), the complete blending of art with life.

The first tendency in Culture One led to the appearance of abstract painting, the montage in cinematography, the experiments of Kandinsky and Ladovskii regarding the perception of forms and colors, the arkhitektons of Malevich, El Lissitzky’s PROUNs (Projects for the Affirmation of the New), and, ultimately, to rationalism [or formalism] in architecture.

The second tendency led to Maiakovskii’s political posters for the ROSTA (Russian Telegraph Agency) windows, Tatlin’s chair and flying device called Letatlin, the documentary films of Dziga Vertov and Esfir’Shub, the designs for a city of the future by the sculptor Anton Lavinskii, and, ultimately, to constructivism (or functionalism) in architecture.

Both these trends, as with the two preceding ones, barely existed in a pure form, and every position presented itself as an intervening point between the two poles…Culture One succeeded in seeing abstract beauty in efficacious structures and efficacy in abstract compositions.[2]

Cover of the Publication "Architecture of VKhUTEMAS" (1927), Designed by El Lissitzky

Cover of the Constructivist Journal "Modern Architecture," Tenth Anniversary of October 1917 Edition (1927), Designed by Aleksei Gan

Although many have made the point that in their realized structures — that is, in those buildings that were actually built — the works of the Rationalists in ASNOVA and of the Constructivists in OSA bear an undeniable resemblance to one another,[3] the theoretical differences between the two groups were by no means insignificant (even if they seemed to produce similar results).  Indeed, visiting the Soviet Union in 1929, no less an architect than Bruno Taut admitted that “it is really very difficult for an outsider to understand the difference between the so-called ‘constructivists’ and the ‘formalists.’”[4]  Even Moisei Ginzburg, who would come to be one of the staunchest representatives of Constructivist architecture, sought early on to minimize the differences between the two tendencies.  In 1923 he thus asserted: “‘Rationalism,’ ‘Constructivism,’ and all such nicknames are only outward representations of a striving for modernity, one which is more profound and fertile than might seem the case at first glance and which is engendered by the new aesthetic of a mechanized life.”[5]

Despite such admissions, there are still many good reasons for taking this split within the Soviet architectural avant-garde seriously.  Their differences were both presented on consistently principled grounds and were, moreover, symptomatic of a broader and more basic contradiction within modernist theory as a whole.  Though professional rivalries and personal antipathies no doubt played a role in these groups’ relations, it is important to examine their points of disagreement on their own terms, as historians like Catherine Cooke and Anatole Kopp have to some extent.[6]  The suggestion that such deep-seated disputes were motivated simply by jealousy, dislike, or competition over commissions fails to hold up when placed under scrutiny.  Too many other factors intervene: parallel developments in the arts (particularly in theater) and sciences (particularly in the field of industrial psychology), similar divisions along international lines (between, for example, the Dutch Neoplasticists and the German Functionalists), and the privileging of one set of positive principles over another (as with the emphasis on abstract form versus concrete function).  What is more, the inherently totalizing and systematic nature of modernist architectural thought, which will be the specific focus of the next subsection, prevented the members of these rival avant-garde factions from readily compromising their ideals or making concessions.  They rejected any approach they felt was incompatible with their own doctrines.  This all-or-nothing mentality of the modernists is further evidenced in the turn towards city planning, which gave rise to even greater disagreements and divisions within both OSA and ASNOVA.  Such later fragmentations as these will be dealt with in the course of our discussion of the international avant-garde’s eventual turn towards urbanism in the second half of the 1920s.

J.J.P. Oud's Cafe de Unie (1925) retains Neoplasticist overtones long after his split from De Stijl

Rietveld's very Neoplasticist Schroderhuis (1923)

Beyond those who were themselves involved in Soviet modernist architecture, there were a number of observers and commentators at the time who recognized these rival tendencies.  “[I]n Russia two tendencies can be discerned…: one of aesthetic experiment, and one of constructive functionalism,” noted Theo van Doesburg in his 1928 article, “Abstraction, Dream, and Utopia: Conflicting Movements in Russian Architecture.”[7]  This split he identifies, which corresponds to the distinction between the Rationalists and Constructivists in architecture, was in some sense mirrored in his own experience.  For while the division between painterly-aesthetic formalist tendencies on the one hand and industrial-constructive functionalist currents on the other was nowhere more pronounced than in Russia, especially at a national level, this tension could be seen at work in modern architecture elsewhere.  In some sense, this runs counter to Paperny’s thesis that no equivalent opposition existed in the West, but only superficially.[8]  Van Doesburg had witnessed firsthand the division between rigorous formalism based on abstract painting as practiced by himself and his countrymen — Robert van’t Hoff, and to a lesser extent, Gerrit Rietveld and Mart Stam — and rigorous functionalism based on industrial design as practiced by the (predominantly German) proponents of the Neue Sachlichkeit.  Even earlier, within the ranks of van Doesburg’s journal De Stijl, a similar feud had broken out between the architect Oud, who favored the examples of industrial machinery,[9] and the painter Mondrian, who favored his own Neoplasticist abstractions.[10]  Oud departed De Stijl in 1921 after van Doesburg sided with Mondrian on this issue,[11] though Oud would remain (at least tacitly) more committed to the aesthetic dimension of architecture than his more severe counterparts in German functionalism.[12]  At least in theory, the De Stijl architect Rietveld attempted to reconcile these two poles of modernist architecture by aiming “to determine the relationship between beauty and art, as well as the relationship between these two and utility and construction.”  He proposed (by way of negation) that architecture should seek a middle ground, choosing to take the somewhat safer position of neutrality: “It seems just as wrong to me to accept or reject constructional forms for aesthetic reasons as to accept or reject aesthetic elements on constructional or economic grounds.”[13]  And in practice, Rietveld was rather successful in compromising between the two poles, as his famous Schröderhuis attests.  Despite his earlier affiliation with De Stijl and painterly Neoplasticism, however, Rietveld eventually ended up identifying with the “international style” of functionalism by the beginning of the 1930s.[14]

Walter Gropius' famous Bauhaus Building at Dessau (1926)

The Bauhaus Dessau Building (1926) with notes

Scharoun's 'Panzerkreuzer' block at Siemmensstadt (1929-1934)

The rift that existed in Soviet avant-garde architecture between its positive basis in abstract art and its positive basis in industrial design was reproduced in miniature in the debates between van Doesburg and his followers and Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus school at both Weimar and Dessau.  In 1921, after being denied a position at the newly opened Bauhaus, van Doesburg set up shop in Weimar as a competitor to its course of design.[15]  While he praised the school’s stated goal of unifying the various arts under the rubric of architecture,[16] van Doesburg was highly critical of its actual achievements.[17]  Following the emergence of the Neue Sachlichkeit in German architecture around the Bauhaus, van Doesburg swiftly wrote an article “Defending the Spirit of Space: Against a Dogmatic Functionalism.”  As its title would suggest, this piece defended the spatiotemporal basis of architecture imparted by abstract art against the overzealous application of industrial forms and ideas.  “Undoubtedly, a so strictly functionalistic layout of the spaces will be considered the most appropriate and most economical one,” he admitted.  “In reality, though, this is not true.  Already from a purely practical perspective this architecture, because of its individual shape, does not lend itself to spatial expansion.”[18]  Later, van Doesburg derided the overly Taylorized, industrialist approach to architecture as creating “an absolute rigidity and sterilization of our lives.”[19]  Likewise, his former collaborator Rietveld (whom Gropius did end up hiring for the Bauhaus) — although he eventually came to embrace the mantle of functionalism — also took aim at what he identified as German functionalism’s peculiar inflexibility.  Rietveld did not blindly endorse every sort of functionalism: “Not only in Holland, but in Austria and France (and maybe Japan and Russia, currently very much influenced by Germany, will soon follow), people now see very clearly that the German program for a new functionalism is much too narrow, uncompromising, and lacking in flexibility.”[20]  Mondrian, though long since estranged from Rietveld and van Doesburg, also stressed the abstract formal properties of the new architecture over utilitarian considerations.  “At present, I see no chance of achieving perfect plastic expression by simply following the structure of what we build, studying its utility alone…,” wrote Mondrian.  “We therefore need a new aesthetic based on the pure relationships of pure lines and colors, for only pure relationships of pure constructive elements can result in pure beauty.”[21]

Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren, Architectural Sketch (1924)

Frederick Kiesler's "Cité dans l'espace" (1925)

Though Teige rightly credited the early De Stijl influence on the Bauhaus as helping “to eradicate [its] surviving expressionist tendencies,” the German functionalists coming out of this school toward the end of its years in Weimar and its first years in Dessau were mutually critical of the Dutch movement’s aesthetic adherence to “the new ‘orthogonal’ formalism.”[22]  In Gropius’ reflective 1934 “Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture,” he acknowledged its initial influence while dismissing its overall value, writing: “The ‘Stijl’ movement had a marked effect as propaganda, but it overemphasized formalistic tendencies, and so…made ‘cubic’ forms fashionable.”[23]  Indeed, though he viewed movements like the Neue Sachlichkeit as too limited and one-sided,[24] Gropius’ evolution from an organicist and expressionist architectural ideology to a functionalist approach can be witnessed by comparing his 1919 “Program of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar” to his programmatic 1926 piece, written shortly after moving their operations to Dessau, “Principles of Bauhaus Production.”  In this latter essay, Gropius asserted that an object produced at the school “must serve its purpose perfectly, that is, it must fulfill its function usefully, be durable, economical, and ‘beautiful’.”[25]  Shortly thereafter, one of the great theoreticians of functionalism and Sachlichkeit in architecture, Adolf Behne, rejected the aestheticism of form to make way for purely functional construction.  “The surest guiding principle to absolutely sachlich, necessary, extra-aesthetic design,” wrote Behne in 1926, “seemed to be adaptation to technical and economic functions, which with consistent work must in fact lead to the dissolution of the concept of form.”[26]  On this point, Hannes Meyer, correctly noting the profound development of Bauhaus theory from Weimar to Dessau,[27] continued in his predecessor’s vein by warning against any “modishly-flat plane-surface ornamentation divided horizontally and vertically and all done up in Neoplastic style.”[28]

ABC Beiträge zum Bauen, designed by El Lissitzky (1925)

Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam by Mart Stam, Johannes Brinkman, and Leendert van der Vlugt

Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam by Mart Stam, Johannes Brinkman, and Leendert van der Vlugt (1928)

The final non-Russian example of this internal division within the international avant-garde between aesthetic formalism and utilitarian functionalism centers around the Swiss architectural journal ABC, edited primarily by Mart Stam and El Lissitzky.  In a way, this can be seen as a recapitulation of the controversy surrounding Lissitzky’s involvement with the earlier periodical Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet, as van Doesburg aptly remarked.[29]  This was intimately connected with theoretical formulas advanced in Russia by the group ASNOVA, which had close personal and editorial ties to Lissitzky.  At the same time, it was bound up with subsequent developments within Dutch architectural modernism, as Stam’s growth reflected this broader pattern.[30]  Insofar as Lissitzky was one of the four founding members of ASNOVA,[31] he used ABC as an organ through which he could disseminate the ideas of architectural Rationalism from Russia.[32]  However, the ideals espoused by Stam, the second-ranking member of the group, would have logically placed him more in alliance with the hyperfunctionalist OSA current of Soviet architecture than with ASNOVA.[33]  Though the journal ABC was initially quite supportive of ASNOVA’s architectural agenda,[34] the Swiss group that published it later distanced itself from this early alliance.  “In 1927, [the members of ABC] realized that their alliance with Lissitzky and ASNOVA was the core of their problem, steering them in a direction that deterred Western clients.”[35]  Of course, on a political level, Stam and the other radicals of ABC remained committed to the ideals of communism, and so they were still connected with Lissitzky after rejecting “the impractical ASNOVA approach.”[36]


[1] See above, pgs. 139-140.

[2] Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 207.

[3] Hudson maintains (wrongly) that the theoretical differences between OSA and ASNOVA were of little importance, considering the closeness of their results.  Hudson, Hugh.  Blueprints and Blood.  Pgs. 30-50.

Though Paperny offers a much more nuanced view of this division within the Soviet avant-garde, he does mention “the frequently noted similarity of these tendencies’ [Rationalism’s and Constructivism’s] formal results.”  Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pg. 207.

Paperny explains this similarity of formal results as follows: “Bespredmetnichestvo and zhiznestroenie are identical in the respect that both are a symbolic and positive reaction to the scientific-technological civilization that arrived in Russia from the West.  Similarly, rationalism and constructivism are identical in the respect that both, as formulated by M. Ginzburg, ‘are only external expressions of the striving of contemporary life…of the birth of a new aesthetic by mechanized life.’  The same forms, introduced by the new civilization, were standing directly in the line of vision of both the rationalists and the constructivists — hence, the similarity of formal results.”  Ibid., pg. 210.

[4] Taut, Bruno.  “Russia’s Architectural Situation.”  Translated by Eric Dluhosch.  Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution.  (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1984).  Pg. 170.  Unpublished manuscript originally written in 1929.

[5] Ginzburg, Style and Epoch.  Pg. 102.  This is the same quote cited by Paperny.

[6] Kopp, a Russian-born French architect and historian, wrote: “It would appear that the differences between the OSA and ASNOVA were based at least as much on the almost inevitable spirit of contention between different and rival organizations as on fundamental points of doctrine.  Moreover, the views of each of these two groups on the action that needed to be taken to bring about an architectural renewal, the temperaments of their respective members, and their various attitudes, militant and didactic on the one side, less extrovert and more reflective on the other, also played an important part in the clashes and confrontations of the period.”  Kopp, Anatole.  Town and Revolution: Soviet Architecture and Town Planning, 1917-1935.  Translated by Thomas E. Burton.  (G. Braziller.  New York, NY: 1970).  Originally published as Ville et Révolution: Architecture et Urbanisme Soviétiques in 1967.  Pg. 76,

[7] “In the periodical Gegenstand, the text of which was dictated by Moscow, these two tendencies came into conflict.  Here, machine parts and illustrations of modern airplanes were to serve as incentives to build, manifesting the desire to impress and demonstrate the capacity for great achievements.  All these efforts ‘on paper’ and ‘in the sky’ showed very clearly that architecture had to serve here as a cover for disguising aesthetic fantasies, which were useless from the perspective of functional architecture, but, on the other hand, were most significant from a modern aesthetic viewpoint, as incentives, and beneficial to new building forms and constructions.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “Abstraction, Dream, and Utopia: Conflicting Movements in Russian Architecture.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 197.  Originally published in October 1928, Vol. V, № 22.  Pgs. 436-441.

[8] Paperny relates this claim through a very entertaining story: “Western civilization also went through various phases of an artistic assimilation of machine civilization (William Morris, Walter Gropius), but a sharp collision with a patriarchal culture, such as occurred in Russia in the 1900s (or in Japan after 1868), never happened in the West.  Therefore, the Western avant-garde never agreed with the extreme position of the Russian productionists — the full rejection of the aesthetic in favor of the efficacious.  Le Corbusier could say that the house is a machine for living, but after seeing the gloomy result with which his Russian sympathizers tried to embody his vision, he was compelled to remind them that architecture, all the same, ‘begins where the machine ends.’”  Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.  Pgs. 209-210.

[9] Oud asserted the primacy of machine-based architecture over the abstractions of Mondrian, though he claimed that painting was finally catching up with architecture: “Where architecture has already long been achieving plastic expression through the machine (Wright), painting is being impelled inevitably towards the same plastic means and a unity in the pure expression of the spirit of the age is making a spontaneous appearance.”  Oud, “Art and Machine.”  Pg. 97.

[10] Mondrian saw the utilitarian example of the machine as paving the way for a new aesthetic, but found that this aesthetic should be taken from abstract painting: “Architecture was purified by utilitarian building, with its new requirements, technology and materials.  Necessity, therefore, is already leading to a purer expression of equilibrium and to a purer beauty.  But without new aesthetic insight, this remains accidental, uncertain; or it is weakened by impure concepts, by concentration upon non-essentials.

“The new aesthetic for architecture is that of the new painting.  A purer architecture is now in a position to achieve the same consequences that painting, purified through Futurism and Cubism, realized in Neoplasticism.  Thanks to the unity of the new aesthetic, architecture and painting can merge into a single art and can resolve into each other.”  Mondrian, Piet.  “Is Painting Secondary to Architecture?” Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Pg. 184.  Originally published in De Stijl 1923, Vol. VI, № 5, pp. 62-64.

[11] “The basis of the quarrel between van Doesburg and Oud, in terms of the group, was an ongoing rivalry between the painters and the architects.”  White, Michael.  De Stijl and Dutch Modernism.  (Manchester University Press.  New York, NY: 2003).  Pg. 56.

[12] Banham brilliantly observes: “[The] idea of using concrete to create a purely apparent unification of load and support shows how much aesthetic parti-pris lurks even in the practicalities of a man like Oud who left De Stijl because he felt its aesthetics were becoming too precious.”  Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.  Pg. 161.

[13] Rietveld, Gerrit.  “Utility, Construction: (Beauty, Art).”  Translated by Tim Benton.  Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology of Original Articles.  (The Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).  Pg. 162.  Originally published in 1-10 1927, Vol. 1, № 3, pgs. 89-92.

[14] “The new functionalism in Dutch architecture is no different from that of other countries; when people talk about ‘international architecture’ there, they mean the same thing.”  Rietveld, “New Functionalism in Dutch Architecture.”  Pg. 33.

He posed the problem of functionalism as follows: “The program of the new functionalism is as follows: to determine scientifically the correct requirements for good housing; to ascertain the best systems for insulation, absorption, reflection, drainage, etc., including all these aspects in the construction of a single operation; and, finally, to industrialize the as yet primitive activities on construction sites.”  Ibid., pg. 35.

[15] Teige recalled: “At this time [1921] the Bauhaus betrayed a very strong influence from members of the De Stijl group.  Theo van Doesburg went so far as to found a kind of counterschool in Weimar.”  Teige, “Ten Years of Bauhaus.”  Pg. 633.

“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.”  Dexel, Walter.  “Theo van Doesburg.”  Translated by David Britt.  Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).  Pg. 724.  Originally published in Das neue Frankfurt in 1931.

[16] “The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art — sculpture, painting, handicrafts, and the crafts — as inseparable components of a new architecture.”  Gropius, Walter.  “Program of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar.”  Translated by Michael Bullock.  Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 50.  Originally published as a four-page leaflet in 1919.

[17] “[T]he results of this [the Bauhaus] Institute during the five years of its functioning as a state institution leave much to be desired.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “Teaching at the Bauhaus and Elsewhere: From Copy to Experiment.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 71.  Originally published in Het Bouwbedrijf, October 1925, Vol. II, № 10.  Pgs. 363-366.

[18] Doesburg, Theo van.  “Defending the Spirit of Space: Against a Dogmatic Functionalism.”  Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.  On European Architecture: Complete Articles from Het Bouwbedrijf, 1924-1931.  (Birkhäuser Verlag.  Boston, MA: 1990).  Pg. 89.  Originally published in Het Bouwbedrijf, May 1926, Vol. III, № 5.  Pgs. 191-194.

[19] “Assume for a moment that city planning and housing construction would be reduced to only those elements which would gratify our material requirements in the most economical way.  In that case it would be necessary, for instance, to define precisely the amount of cubic meters required for every practical need and to cut out all superfluous space.  The architectural shape would become totally dependent upon our movements, which then could be checked by means of a Taylor-system.  Would this not lead to an absolute rigidity and sterilization of our lives?” Ibid., pg. 91.

[20] Rietveld, “New Functionalism in Dutch Architecture.”  Pg. 35.

[21] Mondrian, Piet.  “Home — Street — City.”  Translated by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James.  The New Art — The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian.  Pgs. 208-209.  Originally published in i, № 10, January 1927.

[22] “The influence of the Neoplasticism of De Stijl on the Bauhaus and on Gropius himself was healthy in the sense that it helped to eradicate the surviving expressionist tendencies, but at the same time this imbued its work with the new ‘orthogonal’ formalism.”  Teige, “Ten Years of Bauhaus.”  Pg. 633.

[23] Gropius, Walter.  “Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture.”  Translated by Roger Banham.  The Scope of Total Architecture.  (MacMillan Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1980).  Pg. 63.  Originally published in 1934.

[24] “Catch phrases like ‘functionalism’ (die neue Sachlichkeit) and ‘fitness for purpose = beauty’ have had the effect of deflecting appreciation of the New Architecture into external channels or making it purely one-sided.”  Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus.  Pg. 23.

[25] “The Bauhaus fights against the cheap substitute, inferior workmanship, and the dilettantism of the handicrafts, for a new standard of quality work.”  Gropius, Walter.  “Principles of Bauhaus Production.”  Translated by Michael Bullock.  Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pgs. 95, 97.  Originally published in 1926.

Compare this new attitude toward mechanical production, standardization, and so on, with Gropius’ more atavistic statements in his 1919 “Program”: “Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts!…There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman.  The artist is an exalted craftsman.”  Gropius, “Program for the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar.”  Pg. 49.

[26] Behne, The Modern Functional Building.  Pg. 119.

Behne keenly noted the way that German functionalism or Neue Sachlichkeit mirrored Constructivism in Russia: “At the time of the Russian Revolution artists in Russia and Germany began to negate the concept of ‘art.’  They no longer wanted to be producers of luxuries, they wanted to fulfill a necessary function in the life process of society.  They rejected decoration entirely, committed themselves to construction and artistic production, and opposed any sort of aesthetics or concern with form.”  Ibid., pg. 119.

[27] “I have various reasons for wanting to make a few more remarks on the years in Weimar.  It was the postwar period of revolution and romanticism.  All those who participated, feeling like the ‘children of their time,’ were right to do so.  It would not have been merely unnatural but indeed wrong not to have been moved in such stirring times.  But now the conflict for these people [which makes it difficult for them] in finding their way to us is [this]: They have not been aware that a new age has begun.  They should, for once, open their eyes and look around at their environment; then they would notice that conditions have changed radically.”  Meyer, Hannes.  “Address to the Student Representatives at the Bauhaus.”  Translated by Tim Benton.  Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology of Original Articles.  (The Whitney Library of Design.  New York, NY: 1975).  Pg. 169.  Originally delivered in 1928.

[28] Meyer, “bauhaus and society.”  Pg. 99.

[29] See footnote 478 on pg. 143.

[30] “In the short time that has elapsed since the world war, a certain clarification of views as well as of creative directions has taken place in Dutch architecture.  Oud, van der Vlugt, [Johannes] Brinkman, and Mart Stam abandoned earlier architectural cubism and Neoplasticism and founded their work on the scientific basis of constructivism.  Even among the Neoplasticists an evolutionary rift has taken place: van Doesburg, C[ornelis] van Eesteren, and G[errit] Rietveld now proclaim ‘elementarism,’ whereas the architect Jan Wils, the interior design [Vilmos] Huseár, and the painter Mondrian have remained faithful to Neoplasticism.  It is worth noting that even the current work of van Doesburg is by its a priori formalism and aestheticism still close in its substance to Mondrian and thus very foreign to the tendencies of the constructivists.”  Teige, Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia.  Pg. 157.

[31] In a 1925 piece, Lissitzky introduced ASNOVA to the West, writing: “In order to concentrate the new forces, an Association of New Architects (ASNOVA) was formed in Moscow in the summer of 1923.  The first paragraph of their articles reads: ‘ASNOVA unites the architects-rationalists and the workers affiliated to them in all fields of architecture and experimental building, to raise architecture as an art to a level corresponding to the present-day position of technology and science.’  The founders are the directors of the new faculty of architecture and a few noteworthy engineers.  Contact has also been established with some modern architects abroad.”  Lissitzky, “Architecture in the USSR.”  Pg. 373.

Lissitzky himself recorded this history of ASNOVA’s emergence: “The elaboration of new methods for the scientific-objective elucidation of the elements of architectural design — such as mass, surface, space, proportion, rhythm, etc.  — was decisive in establishing the distinctive character of the new schools.  A new methodology had to be created.  This work, begun by such pioneers as Ladovskii, Dokuchaev, and Krinskii [co-founders of ASNOVA], was continued by men of the younger generation, such as Balikhin, Korshev, Lamtsov, and others.”  Lissitzky, The Reconstruction of Architecture in the Soviet Union.  Pg. 30.

[32] Although it is true that Lissitzky identified his own artwork of the early 1920s as “Constructivist,” his architectural proposals were most certainly not, especially insofar as OSA later defined Constructivist architecture.  Sima Ingbergman, author of an overview of the ABC group in Switzerland, thus wrongly calls the works of ASNOVA “Constructivist,” when they clearly categorized their own work as “Rationalist.”  Still, Ingbergman’s account is otherwise accurate: “El Lissitzky was obligated to publicize Constructivist architecture [because]…he owed it to his fellow ASNOVA architects to promote their work.”  Ingbergman, Sima.  ABC: International Constructivist Architecture, 1922-1939.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1994).  Pg. 13.

“With Stam’s help, Lissitzky’s new European friends become converts [to ASNOVA]; Lissitzky wasted little time in educating them to the merits of ASNOVA constructivism in particular.”  Ibid., pg. 17.

[33] Ingbergman notices this as well: “The ABC-ASNOVA alliance should have been a most contradictory one.  Mart Stam was, by all accounts, a radical functionalist whose ideas were at odds with some of ASNOVA’s fundamental principles.”  Ibid., pg. 19.

[34]ABC’s ideological support of Lissitzky and ASNOVA was quite pronounced in the first issues.”  Ibid., pg. 54.

[35] Ibid., pg. 79.

[36] Ibid., pg. 134.

“The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde,” by Ross Wolfe (Section 1)

Georgii Krutikov, "The Flying City" (1928)

INTRODUCTION

Comrades!

The twin fires of war and revolution have devastated both our souls and our cities.  The palaces of yesterday’s grandeur stand as burnt-out skeletons. The ruined cities await new builders[…]

To you who accept the legacy of Russia, to you who will (I believe!) tomorrow become masters of the whole world, I address the question: with what fantastic structures will you cover the fires of yesterday?

— Vladimir Maiakovskii, “An Open Letter to the Workers”[1]

Utopia transforms itself into actuality. The fairy tale becomes a reality. The contours of socialism will become overgrown with iron flesh, filled with electric blood, and begin to dwell full of life. The speed of socialist building outstrips the most audacious daring. In this lies the distinctive character and essence of the epoch.

— I. Chernia, “The Cities of Socialism”[2]

Between 1928 and 1937, the world witnessed the convergence of some of the premier representatives of European architectural modernism in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities throughout the Soviet Union.  Never before had there been such a concentration of visionary architectural talent in one place, devoting its energy to a single cause.  Both at home and abroad, the most brilliant avant-garde minds of a generation gathered in Russia to put forth their proposals for the construction of a radically new society.  Never before had the stakes seemed so high.  For it was out of the blueprints for this new society that a potentially international architecture and urbanism could finally be born, the likes of which might then alter the face of the entire globe.  And from this new built environment, it was believed, would emerge the outlines of the New Man, as both the outcome of the new social order and the archetype of an emancipated humanity.  With such apparently broad and sweeping implications, it is therefore little wonder that its prospective realization might have then attracted the leading lights of modernist architecture, both within the Soviet Union and without.  By that same account, it is hardly surprising that the architectural aspect of engineering a postcapitalist society would prove such a captivating subject of discussion to such extra-architectural discourses as politics, sociology, and economics. Continue reading

Soviet Constructivist Architecture – Blueprints and Realizations

The following pictures are examples of architecture built in the Soviet Constructivist style, a style founded by the Vesnin brothers (Aleksandr, Leonid, and Viktor) along with Moisei Ginzburg between 1923-1925.  Officially, the Society of Modern Architects (OSA) was the main organ for all Constructivist architecture.  However, I have also included pieces which clearly exemplify the Constructivist style, even if the architects involved were not technically members of OSA.  Both blueprints and photographs of the eventual realizations of their plans are shown here:

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The Stalinization of Post-Revolutionary Soviet Art and Architecture

Panteleimon (brother of Il'ia) Golosov's Submission for the Narkomtiazhprom Competition

The vibrant artistic culture that existed in post-revolutionary Russia thrived up until the early 1930s. During that time, the Soviet government allowed a great deal of creative liberty, with a number of independent artistic and architectural movements sprouting up in the aftermath of October.  Some state oversight existed in the capacity of Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment.  Its Fine Arts division sponsored some projects, but gave no special preference to any particular group or style.  Narkompros’ director (and Lenin’s old friend) Anatolii Lunacharskii may have been more fond of the classics of Western civilization than he was of the modernists’ brash iconoclasm, but he was remarkably tolerant of any group that displayed enthusiasm for the Bolsheviks’ social and political revolution.

Post-revolutionary art and architecture can be disaggregated into three main categories: the modernist, the atavistic, and the “proletarian.”  This third category traced its origins to Aleksandr Bogdanov, one of leading figures in Russian Social-Democracy and Lenin’s early rival within the Bolshevik party.  Modernism had emerged in pre-war Russia out of the fragmentation of Symbolism in the fields of literature, poetry, and art, but absorbed international influences as well.  The traditionalist eclecticism of artistic and architectural atavism was passed on through the Imperial Academy system, which had been imported from Western Europe some two hundred years before.

Tatlin's Tower (1919) Digitally Superimposed on the Petersburg Skyline

Out of these three groups, the modernists were the first to lend their support to the Bolshevik cause during the Revolution.  Only months after October 1917, Maiakovskii and others declared their solidarity with Lenin’s party.  They saw the social and political revolution carried out by the communists as a parallel to the artistic revolution that they were attempting to realize.  But the Soviet avant-garde was far from being a unitary movement.  In the fifteen years following the October Revolution, numerous avant-garde currents were established, each with their own agendas and often antagonisms against one another.  They shared a rejection of the ways of the past, and they tended to be more internationalist and experimental in orientation.  There were the Russian Futurists (very different from their Italian counterparts), painterly and architectural Suprematists, Productivists, artistic and architectural Constructivists, and Formalists in architecture and literary theory, etc. These various groups also invited modernists from other countries to join in the project of building a new society.

Eclectic Architecture from 1924

At the same time, however, there was the more conservative brand of eclectic art and architecture inherited from the old academy system. These artists and architects were generally referred to as the academicians, and were generally despised by the avant-gardists.  They saw artistic and architectural history as a sort of inventory of recognized styles that could be arbitrarily combined or juxtaposed at the whim of the artist or architect.  This is why their style was often referred to as “historicist.”

Anti-Capital (1920)

Alongside this, there was the Proletkult/proleterian art movement that Lenin and Trotskii were so uncomfortable with, that tended to be more realist and “heroic” in its representation of workers, Bolshevik leaders, and revolutionary battle scenes.  They believed that there would emerge a new form of art and architecture that was both created by and legible to the revolutionary proletariat.  They believed that the working masses had already established their own essential culture in opposition to bourgeois taste and high society under capitalism.  Lenin and Trotskii criticized them for believing that the culture of the proletariat would be that drastically different than the culture that had predominated under capitalism.  The other aspect that disturbed them was that the Bolshevik Revolution was meant to create a classless society, not a specifically proletarian society.  Nevertheless, Proletkult and proletarian art merged with elements of a strange brand of monumentalist avant-gardism that in architecture banded together in the group VOPRA, and this led to the Stalinist synthesis of Socialist realism.

Around 1931-1933, Stalin and his henchmen intervened and wanted to put an end to the various competing groups and form an official style that would be run by forcibly unionizing the different art and architectural groups together. Once all the groups had been subsumed into All-Union appendages of the state, bureaucratized and monitored closely, the decision was made to institute Socialist realism.  This way, all artists and architects had to be registered with and licensed by the state and made to conform to union mandates handed down from above, by the Stalinist hierarchy.  Those who did not join with the state-funded unions would not have their work supported or even recognized by the Soviet government, and would not receive the regular income that the union provided.

Works now had to be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of every day life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

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Theo van Doesburg’s “Architecture and Revolution — Revolutionary Architecture? Utopian Designs by Tatlin, Lissitzky, and Others” (1928)

Theo van Doesburg’s surprisingly critical, if somewhat superficial, article on Soviet avant-garde architecture from Het Bouwbedrijf, September 1928 (vol. 5, no. 20):

‘I have the courage to be barbaric.  I cannot follow the works of the expressionists, futurists, and cubists, nor all the other “isms” in which artistic genius awakens.  I do not understand anything about it, it leaves me cold.’

— Lenin

‘I can not keep abreast; we are too obsolescent.’

— Kerenskii

1. Introduction.  The double function which every innovation, be it in the sciences, culture, the arts or architecture, has to fulfill, consists on the one hand of building up piece by piece a new image of the world, while on the other hand an old world image is being broken down piece by piece.  The former is usually the result of the latter.  People do not realize at all how far-reaching the effect of a new concept actually is.  Just reading the writings of the adversaries of new forms of architecture or art makes one realize to what enormous extent jealousy and vexation have grown in the past twenty years.  Do read, for fun, for instance the pamphlet by the pompiériste Camille Mauclair, La folie picturale, to come to a slow realization how terrifying the effect of genius is on yonder side of the new art creation, presently already accepted once and for all.  I do not want to discuss art here any further than is necessary to explain our contemporary architecture, and I do not know whether this kind of pamphlet has also been aired against the international innovation in architecture.  They certainly were not lethal, and although on this side nobody takes the trouble to refute them (for nothing refutes them better and more strongly than The Work), they are not only a national disgrace, but also the mark of an imbalance in the development of spiritual and social progress.  This imbalance is characteristic for Russia.  The new endeavors in the fields of art and architecture (the latter date only from 1923) were certainly not less under attack in Russia than in other countries, and under the Soviet regime there must have been quite a confrontation.  Or do you imagine, you Soviets, in your blind veneration of everything originating there, that the Russian revolution a priori guaranteed free development of the modern creative genius? Do you imagine that, with one blow, the working class broke the bonds which had linked it very closely and very deeply with the bourgeois culture? Do you imagine that the leaders of this class, the Lenins, the Trotskiis, the Lunacharskiis, the Radeks, do have just an inkling of an idea of what was growing and flourishing, beyond class and time, beyond nation and community, in the mind of genius, already severed from the bourgeois long ago? If this were not so, why then did all the ‘revolutionary,’ creative people leave their beloved Russia? In order to import the new from Russia into foreign countries? No…In order to learn what is new there, and to import it…into Russia.  Would they make us believe that Russia has completely autonomously (for instance like ‘little’ Holland) produced a new architecture from the highly praised ‘proletarian culture,’ an architecture in keeping with the demands and needs of the working class? Out of the question.

The fact that a few Polish-Russian artists, chased by the Soviet regime, fled across the borders, each of them carrying an enormous portfolio, filled [186-187] with utopian, fantastic plans for a kind of dirigible-architecture, wanting to push these even as the new communist architecture, does not mean that in Russia itself even one modern, waterproof barrack has been built.  For indeed, when around 1920 all who had creative minds set forth from Russia, armed with abstraction and with the red quadrangle pinned on their sleeves (as the regalia of our formless time), not even a single chair had been built in Russia.  They had only words and promises, good as well as vague nebulous notions, sky high fantasies and intentions for eternity, but in reality nothing had been built as yet.  There was neither a basis, nor money available for that.

This situation was extraordinarily fortuitous for snobbism, and, as a reaction to the fact that central Europe (in which I include Holland here) was farther ahead, and, what is more important, more positive and realistic than yonder, and could give evidence of this with facts, people tried to simply antedate their works and thus transfer their creative activity to an earlier period.  Russia, which, according to the Russians, wanted to be an example to the whole of Europe with respect to social reform, could not fail to be the first and a signpost.  Moscow, actually the only cultural center in the immeasurably vast Russia, was already before the war in direct contact (via Poland) with European art life.  The turn in the field of aesthetics and architecture took place under direct influence of innovations which had occurred much earlier in the cultural centers of Milan, Paris, Berlin, etc., Holland included.

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