Ivan Leonidov: Artist, dreamer, poet

Andrei Gozak
Complete Works
January 1988
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The greatest poet is not the one who wrote best but the one who suggested most.

— Walt Whitman

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Since he first emerged on the architectural scene in the twenties, the name of Ivan Leonidov has acquired legendary status. The reason for this is simply the uniqueness of his work. Its power and originality have been attested by the deep and fruitful influence which it exerted, and continues to exert, on worldwide architectural thinking — despite the fact that the vast majority of his projects remained on paper and unbuilt.

For all the complexities of his life, Leonidov produced a great deal of work. Till the very end of his life he preserved his sharpness of eye and steadiness of hand. But more important he also preserved a total faithfulness to the central ideas of his architecture and to his own aesthetic principles. Thus those commentators are profoundly mistaken, and indeed inaccurate, who say that he was only fully able to display his talent in those brief avant-garde years of the late twenties and early thirties during which he first became known. Notable here has been the writing of P. Aleksandrov and S.O. Khan-Magomedov.1 The triumphant success of Leonidov’s projects in those years is obvious, but what he did later is neither architecturally nor artistically inferior to it. His capabilities in no way diminished with time, but only now, when we can see the fullest possible range of his sketches and designs, such as is assembled here, can we really appreciate the inexhaustible quality of his talent. Naturally his work underwent a process of evolution, as on one hand it reflected the beating of his own internal artistic pulse, and on the other it reacted to external influences and circumstances. But through all the modifications it was characterized by an enviable stability, both in aesthetic and ethical dimensions of his worldview, and in its style of graphic representation.

Ivan Il’ich Leonidov was born into a peasant family on the 9th of February 1902 in the village of Vlasikh, in what was then the Stantskii district of the Tverskoi gubemia, or province. His childhood was spent in the village of Babino, and when he had completed four years at the local parish school he went at the age of twelve to earn his living in Petrograd.2 It is known that Leonidov first received training in painting and drawing in Tver, at the Free Art Studios which were organized in 1920.3 In 1921 he was sent to continue his study in Moscow at the Painting Faculty of the VKhUTEMAS, from which he later transferred to the architecture faculty and the studio of Aleksandr Vesnin.

The atmosphere of the VKhUTEMAS and his personal contacts with Aleksandr Vesnin played an important role in the shaping of Leonidov’s creative personality. Aleksandr Vesnin contributed a great deal to drawing out every side of his gifted pupil’s talents. While still a student, Leonidov took part in numerous open architectural competitions, and often achieved success. There were for example third prizes for an improved peasant hut and for a housing development in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, as well as a “recommendation for acquisition and adoption” for his Byelorussian State University project for Minsk. None of the original drawings done during his training have survived, but several publications from those years give a relatively full idea of his highly individual manner of composition and his graphic skills, as a young architect who had already mastered the language of early constructivism. There are manifestly close links between these Leonidov works and the projects of the Vesnin brothers and other founders of the constructivist architectural association, OSA.4

Leonidov’s final diploma project, for the Lenin Institute of Librarianship, must be regarded not only as his first truly independent work, but also as the distinctive credo of an architect setting out on his professional life. Displayed publicly at the First Exhibition of Modern Architecture in Moscow in 1927, it was received as the opening up of a whole new architectural direction.5 Alongside Tatlin’s tower of 1919 and Melnikov’s Paris Pavilion of 1925, the Lenin Institute has remained to this day one of the great symbols of the revolutionary, innovative spirit of the first decade of Soviet architecture.

The beginning of Leonidov’s professional activity is marked by his active participation in competitions. From 1927 to 1930 he was himself teaching at the somewhat reorganized version of VKhUTEMAS known as VKhUTEIN. Competitions were very numerous in Soviet architecture in those years, and they gave the young architect an opportunity to express himself in the various typological genres of current practice. Leonidov’s works of those years are universally characterized by the coherence of the synthesis he achieved between the constructivist functional method and his own compositional approach, but they are equally characterized by the consistency of his representational technique in exploiting the restrained language of black-and-white graphics.

In 1928 Leonidov took part for the first time in international architectural competitions, for the headquarters of the Tsentrosoiuz in Moscow, and for the monument to Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo. Many well-known Soviet architects participated in both competitions, as well as Westerners. Corbusier of course was eventually to build the Tsentrosoiuz, which was completed in 1935; it is well known that he met Leonidov on related visits to Moscow during 1929-1930, as he did other leading constructivists, and that he had a very high opinion of Leonidov’s scheme for that building.

The finale to this series of competition designs was the project for the new socialist town around the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine in the Urals executed at the end of 1929. Leonidov headed an OSA design team composed of students from his own class in the VKhUTEIN.

Ivan Leonidov at the first OSA congress, 1928 Ivan Leonidov with the rest of the VKhUTEIN faculty, 1930

The next year, 1930, was to be a fateful one in Leonidov’s biography. He took part in a competition for the design of a Palace of Culture in the Proletarskii district of southern Moscow, around the old Simonov Monastery. The plan which he submitted for the first round diverged significantly from the brief, and proposed not a building, but a model for the “cultural organization” of a whole area of the city. Even in the first round of the competition Leonidov’s project therefore provoked sharp criticism. Discussion of the results of the second round took place in even more complex circumstances, revealing acute disagreements between the various groupings and philosophies now becoming consolidated in and around Soviet architecture. Although this time his proposal was in complete accordance with the terms of the brief, Leonidov’s scheme once again became the focal point of heated debate and discussions of larger architectural issues. Continue reading

Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner

Gabo-Red-Kinetic-Painting-97-largeThe realistic manifesto (1920)

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Above the tempests of our weekdays,
Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past,
Before the gates of the vacant future,

We proclaim today to you artists, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, poets…to you people to whom Art is no mere ground for conversation but the source of real exaltation, our word and deed.

The impasse into which Art has come to in the last twenty years must be broken.

The growth of human knowledge with its powerful penetration into the mysterious laws of the world which started at the dawn of this century,

The blossoming of a new culture and a new civilization with their unprecedented-in-history surge of the masses towards the possession of the riches
of Nature, a surge which binds the people into one union, and last, not least, the war and the revolution (those purifying torrents of the coming epoch), have made us face the fact of new forms of life, already born and active.

Naum Gabo in his studio, 1935 Antoine Pevsner in his Paris studio

What does Art carry into this unfolding epoch of human history?

Does it possess the means necessary for the construction of the new Great Style?

Or does it suppose that the new epoch may not have a new style?

Or does it suppose that the new life can accept a new creation which is constructed on the foundations of the old?

Naum Gabo

Naum Gabo

In spite of the demand of the renascent spirit of our time, Art is still nourished by impression, external appearance, and wanders helplessly back and forth from Naturalism to Symbolism, from Romanticism to Mysticism.

The attempts of the Cubists and the Futurists to lift the visual arts from the bogs of the past have led only to new delusions.

Cubism, having started with simplification of the representative technique ended with its analysis and stuck there.

The distracted world of the Cubists, broken in shreds by their logical anarchy, cannot satisfy us who have already accomplished the Revolution or who are already constructing and building up anew.

One could heed with interest the experiments of the Cubists, but one cannot follow them, being convinced that their experiments are being made on the surface of Art and do not touch on the bases of it seeing plainly that the end result amounts to the same old graphic, to the same old volume and to the same decorative surface as of old.

Antoine Pevsner

Antoine Pevsner

One could have hailed Futurism in its time for the refreshing sweep of its announced Revolution in Art, for its devastating criticism of the past, as in no other way could have assailed those artistic barricades of “good taste”…powder was needed for that and a lot of it…but one cannot construct a system of art on one revolutionary phrase alone.

Continue reading

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

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

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

Riccardo Forte
Docomomo № 37
September 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Utopia, Ltd.: Constructivism reconstructed

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There’s a piece I wrote up going over the Utopia, Ltd. show that’s been posted on the Metropolis Magazine blog, titled “Reconstructivism.” If anyone reading this is in London, I’d encourage them to check it out. Looks great, and everyone who’s been to it has had only good things to say. You can read my own thoughts on the matter by clicking the linked article above.

Paul Prudence, a photographer living in London, was the one who first got in touch with me about it. So he deserves some credit for alerting my attention, and major props on the photos he took of the models at the exhibit (shown below). I’m also grateful to Sammy Medina — Metropolis’ web editor — for looking it over and providing me with the interview materials sent in by the model-maker, Henry Milner, and the lead curator, Elena Sudakova.

All photos here were taken by Paul Prudence.

The dead in living color

Chromatic modernism in
the USSR, 1920-1935

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Modernism is often criticized for its allegedly dull monochromes, the ostentatiously unpainted surfaces of its buildings and the desaturated stillness of their black-and-white photographic representation.

Part of this was intentional, for either promotional or artistic reasons. Thus one gets the rich black-and-white photos of brutalist buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, still colorless despite the availability of new technologies. As such, it’s just as much a part of brutalism’s brooding aesthetic as anything else. (Don’t believe me? Take a look through Fuck Yeah Brutalism’s archives). Or else there’s the deliberate intradisciplinary gesture, as in constructivist tekstura, which insists that the material components should be fully exposed, not concealed beneath “artificial” coloring. Either way, the naked white of plaster or the gray-on-gray of concrete, polished metal through untinted glass.

Another part was, of course, incidental. For a long time color photographs weren’t practical, and so much of early modernism’s more chromatic creations were lost to the general public — or at least, to anyone who couldn’t visit them in person. Continue reading

The Mel’nikov house [Дом Мельникова]: A retrospective evaluation

An embarrassing admission: I’ve never been too keen on the Mel’nikov house.

This may seem odd coming from someone who just signed a petition calling for the preservation of Mel’nikov’s works and heritage. Not least among these is his famous house, which the experts say is presently “under threat.” A campaign to restore and maintain the aging structure — spearheaded by a talented young photographer currently residing in Moscow, Natalia Melikova — has already managed to muster a great deal of publicity. Coverage of this effort has not been limited to Russian press, either, though several articles have recently appeared in well-established news outlets like Известия (an old heavyweight, now in an online edition). Even before they began reporting in the vernacular, however, Sophia Kishkovsky ran a story on it for The New York Times‘ ArtBeat section back in April.

Unsurprisingly, the motion to preserve the Mel’nikov house has enjoyed an outpouring of support from a number of high-profile scholars and architects. Many readers of this blog are no doubt that my own stance on this issue has been one of deep ambivalence, despite my reluctant signature and endorsement of the letter. Basically, my reservations were as follows:

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

Whatever the reasons or principles I invoked, these are not the subject of today’s post. Just having stumbled upon a trove of rare images showing the building’s plan, a bisectable small-scale model of its proportions, and some rare photographs of its construction and eventual realization, I thought I’d post them along with some reflections on its strengths and weaknesses vis–à–vis housing projects by other architects of that time, as well as its place within Mel’nikov’s own corpus. Since I suspect my opinion belongs to that rather tiny, discordant minority of Soviet architecture geeks who don’t instantly kvell over the Mel’nikov house, we’ll first offer an expiation in advance of the outrage that might follow. And so, without any further ado, here are some of the plans and sketches for the house.

Plans, paintings, sketches

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Enough already: What’s not to like about the Mel’nikov house? Continue reading

Georgii Krutikov, The Flying City (VKhUTEMAS diploma project, 1928)

The conquest of gravity


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В 1928 году молодой архитектор Георгий Крутиков на защите дипломных работ во Вхутеине представил совершенно безумный по тем временам дипломный проект «Город будущего», который сразу же стал сенсацией. Концепция «летающего города» заключалась в следующем: архитектор предлагал оставить землю для труда, отдыха и туризма, а жилые помещения перенести в парящие в облаках города — коммуны.

In 1928, the young architect Georgii Krutikov, in defending his diploma work at VKhUTEIN, presented a thesis project completely insane for the time, a “City of the Future,” which immediately became a sensation. The concept of a “flying city” was as follows: the architect proposed to leave work, leisure, and tourism on the ground, while living areas would be moved to communes floating in the clouds of the city.

Translated by Natalia Melikova, with slight edits by me.

Georgii Krutikov, 1927

Julia Vaingurt

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Possibly one of the most interesting and the most telling projects of such artistic investigations of the time was the Flying City of Georgii Krutikov. A student of architecture at Vkhutemas, Krutikov presented his project “The City of the Future” as his graduation thesis in 1928. It is telling that Krutikov called his project a quest. It was a quest for mobile architecture. Krutikov’s project was as much a child of its age as Tatlin’s machines and Khlebnikov’s city-plants. Just like these artists, Krutikov was fascinated by movement and flexibility. Departing from the rigid forms dominating the architecture of the time, his city would incorporate living, plastic structures capable of changing qualitatively and quantitatively in accordance with changes in the environment itself. The goal of Krutikov’s work was to prove the theoretical possibility and preferability of mobile architecture.

In his project, industrial and commercial spaces are located on the ground, while residential quarters are suspended in the air. The architecture itself is not in motion, but it will mobilize its inhabitants, who will be able to reach their homes only via individual flying capsules. Selim Khan-Magomedov, who first brought Krutikov’s project to a wider audience in 1973, studied Krutikov’s thesis and concluded that its author “was fully aware that the project of housing structures suspended in space has significance only (at least, for the near future) as an essentially investigatory (speculative) idea.” At a time when the state was taking a pragmatic and utilitarian approach to its existence with the adoption of the First Five-Year Plan, Krutikov envisioned a project whose value to immediate tasks at hand was very ill-defined.

Despite the awareness Khan-Magomedov mentions of the complex’s utter unfeasibility, at least for the foreseeable future, Krutikov was determined to prove its physical possibility. The scale of the project humbled inept contemporaries and mocked the scarcity of the material means at their disposal while exposing the riches of the universe and its offerings to humanity. In this theoretically possible and practically impossible project, technology becomes a part of “nature” — since the potential for this undertaking is present in it — and takes on its sublime quality. Even eighty years later this project lends itself primarily to aesthetic appreciation, its sheer magnitude arousing feelings of awe and incredulity. The pleasure that Krutikov’s project offers is the pleasure in the sublime, a disinterested pleasure in perceiving something immense that transcends a moment and a place.

Krutikov’s portfolio

Georgii Krutikov, diploma portfolio for The Flying City (1928)Georgii Krutikov, diploma portfolio for The Flying City (1928)Georgii Krutikov, diploma portfolio for The Flying City (1928)

From Richard Stites’ Revolutionary Dreams (1981):

A far more popular craze of the 1920s that fed into science fiction was aviation. Russian fascination with aeronautics has been immense in our time — a kind of fear of not flying, of remaining earthbound and thus immobile. Flying — as in the archetypical dream — is a kinetic metaphor for liberation. The literary obsession with it in Europe, America, and Russia is well-known. Figures such as Tatlin and Mayakovsky are inconceivable without the airplane image. Vasily Kamensky — like d’Annunzio — was an aviator poet. Alexander Lavinsky in 1923 designed a plan for an “airborne city.” And Georgy Krutikov in 1928 envisaged a “Flying City Apartment Building” moored to dirigibles when at anchor. Taking off into a better world was semantically and psychologically linked to taking flight. The revolutionary terrorist Nikolai Kibalchich, waiting for his execution in 1881, designed a flying machine that was based on rocket principles. The father of Soviet rocket design, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, hatched most of his ideas while living in an obscure little Russian town. N. A. Rynin, professor and popularizer of space literature in the 1920s, began his work on the cosmic age during the dark years of the Civil War.  “I was hungry, ” he recalled, “I was cold, but one good thing about it — nobody came to see me .“

From Jean-Louis Cohen’s The Future of Architecture since 1889 (2012):

[C]ertain thesis projects still explored radical hypotheses for public buildings. Ivan Leonidov designed a Lenin Institute (1927) with a prophetic structure made of cables and futuristic electronic technology; Georgei Krutikov designed a Flying City (1928). After visiting the Vkhutemas in 1928, Le Corbusier described the school in his journal as an “extraordinary demonstration of the modern credo,” adding: “Here a new world is being rebuilt” out of a “mystique which gives rise to a pure technique.”

Below are some more of Krutikov’s drawings. Enjoy!

Georgii Krutikov’s Flying City

Family collectives and comradely communes: Three color illustrations from Modern Architecture (1930)

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IMAGE: Poster advertising the first exhibition
of the Soviet magazine Modern Architecture

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The following are extremely rare color prints from the legendary Soviet avant-garde architectural publication Modern Architecture [Современная архитектура], depicting communes for comrades [товарищеский коммуны] and collective housing units for families [семейные коллективы].

Incidentally, this would be the last issue of the journal before changing its name to Soviet Architecture [Советская архитектура] at the beginning of 1931.

Communal dwelling for comrades [товарищеская коммуна] № 17, Modern Architecture (1930)

Communal dwelling for comrades [товарищеская коммуна] № 17, Modern Architecture (1930)

While its covers often featured bold color schemes, the illustrations on the pages in between were nearly always black-and-white. This was so even with an issue entirely devoted to color and light in architecture, which included detailed graphs and optical charts measuring and explaining color spectra, but no color pieces. Continue reading

Tea, anyone? Nikolai Suetin’s ceramic Suprematism, 1922-1928

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IMAGE: Nikolai Suetin,
Suprematist teasets
(Moscow, 1925-1926)
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Along with Il’ia Chashnik, Nikolai Suetin was Kazimir Malevich‘s most devoted disciple.  He first came under the great master’s tutelage during his studies at the Vitebsk School of Art in 1918, where he also trained with the renowned artist Jean Pougny.  Though a skilled painter, designer, and ceramicist in his own right, Suetin spent much of his time promoting Malevich’s body of work and keeping a photographic record of his life.  Unlike his mentor, Suetin never theorized his work in so self-conscious a fashion.  In 1924, however, he recorded a brief artistic creed in staccato verse, disavowing every attempt to systematize his work:

neither non-objectivity
nor object
what?
“X,” I reply
it signifies the sum of my painterly thought
in the world, and hence
the answer to the question
of modernity…
No system binds me, as I am unsystematic.
A reasonably logical premise can demonstrate any system, but I am alogical and therefore overcome the systems of cubism, futurism, and suprematism.”

ни беспредметность
ни предмет.
что?
я отвечаю X (икс)
это значит сумма моей живописной мысли
на мир и значит
ответ на вопрос осязания
современности «…»
Никакая система не связывает меня, ибо я бессистемен «…»
Разумно логической предпосылкой можно доказать всякую систему, но я алогичен и потому преодолеваю системы кубизма, футуризма и супрематизма «…»

While Suetin authored numerous remarkable works, perhaps his most striking pieces came in the form of Suprematist plateware commemorating the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917.  These were made over the course of the 1920s, especially from 1922-1928.  Included in this post are several very high-resolution photographs of these works.  Enjoy!

Nikolai Suetin’s Suprematist plateware