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

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

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

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

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

The Soviet architect

Hannes Meyer
TASK magazine
February 1943

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

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

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

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

I

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

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

Hannes Meyer, Palace of the League of Nations Continue reading

Architecture in revolutionary times

Parallels after Emil Kaufmann

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Image: “Le Corbusier in Boullée” by Romeo D’Orazi

Determining the relation of architecture to revolution clearly depends in no small measure on how these terms are defined. Before revisiting this familiar counterposition, however, it is worth noting that revolutionary politics makes up only one part of politics proper. Even if one were to grant architecture some kind of inbuilt political status, this by no means guarantees the politics it embodies are of the revolutionary variety. Architecture can for instance be politically reformist in character, as in Ernst May’s Neue Frankfurt settlement or Walter Gropius’ Törten district outside Dessau, Karl Ehn’s iconic Karl Marx-Hof block in Red Vienna, and JJP Oud’s Spangen/Kiefhoek estates in Rotterdam.[1] In the last few decades, critical regionalists such as Kenneth Frampton, Alexander Tzonis, and Lilliane Lefaivre have likewise spoken of “an architecture of resistance,” understood as “a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself.”[2] Despite its many outspoken adherents, practical examples of critical regionalism are harder to come by than those associated with interwar Sozialpolitik.[3] Most of the time it’s tended to emerge alongside movements struggling for autonomy against neoliberal integration, as in Catalonia, Scandinavia, and the Baltics during the ’70s and ’80s. But objections have been raised even on purely theoretical grounds.[4]

So much for the architectures of resistance and reform. Is there, then, an architecture of revolution? Certainly, some have made the case that there is. Foremost among them is the Viennese art historian, Emil Kaufmann, who in his 1952 study Three Revolutionary Architects: Boulée, Ledoux, and Lequeu described these most radical bourgeois architects of the French Enlightenment as “men imbued with the great new ideals set forth by the leading thinkers of the century [who] strove, unconsciously rather than intentionally, to express these ideals in their own medium.”[5] Though the actual basis for this correlation is never spelled out in detail, inferred from a shared emphasis on the idea of “autonomy,”[6] Kaufmann’s chief merit consists in precisely this intuition of a nonsensuous similarity between the philosophic and architectonic modes of its expression. At times he came close to discerning its sociopolitical root. “Having lived in the atmosphere of growing political and social discontent,” Kaufmann wrote, “the revolutionary architects wished to realize, for the common good, the ideals of the time by contriving architectural schemes such as had never existed before.”[7]

Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s Monument to the revolution (1791)

Two aspects of Kaufmann’s classic account of revolutionary architecture deserve to be mentioned. First, there is the procedure he adopts in attempting to situate architecture and revolution. Rather than assume direct correspondence between them, either according to a linear model of cause and effect or a reciprocal model of mutual causation and effectuation, Kaufmann suggested a more circuitous and indirect link. In other words, architecture neither brings about revolution by itself nor prevents it from coming about, and vice versa. Still less could the matter be resolved simply by asserting that they simultaneously codetermine one another. Kaufmann instead contended the apparent isomorphism of moral and architectural conceptions of autonomy during this period arose out of their common participation in its revolutionary Zeitgeist.[8] A materialist would only add that this radical spirit of innovation he perceived was but the ideological reflection of real historical dynamics. Continue reading

VIDEO — Plenary on Utopia and Program with Stephen Eric Bronner, the Endnotes collective, Sam Gindin, Roger Rashi, and Richard Rubin

2013 Platypus Affiliated Society
International Convention

Untitled.
Image: Image designed by
Doug La Rocca

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The closing plenary of the 2013 Platypus International Convention, held from April 5-7, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Event description

“Program” and “Utopia” have for well over a century now sat in uneasy tension within the politics of the Left, in tension both with each other and with themselves. Political programs tend to be presented in the sober light of practicability — straightforward, realistic, matter-of-fact. Social utopias, by contrast, appear quite oppositely as the virtue of aspiring ambition — involved, unrealistic, exhilarating. Historically, then, the two would appear to be antithetical. In either case, one usually offers itself up as a corrective to the other: the programmatic as a harsh “reality check” to pipe-dream idealism; utopianism as an alternative to dreary, cynical Realpolitik.

Today, however, it is unavoidable that both program and utopia are in profound crisis. For those Leftists who still hold out some hope for the possibility of extra-electoral politics, an impasse has arisen. Despite the effusive political outbursts of 2011-12 in the Arab Spring and #Occupy — with their emphasis on the identity of means and ends, anti-hierarchical modes of organization, and utopian prefiguration — the Left still seems to have run aground. Traces may remain in the form of various issue-based affinity groups, but the more ambitious projects of achieving sweeping social transformation have been quietly put to rest, consoled with the mere memory of possibility.

Meanwhile, longstanding Left organizations, having temporarily reverted to the usual waiting game of patiently tailing popular discontents with the status quo, until the masses finally come around and decide to “get with the program” (i.e., their program), have experienced a crisis of their own: slowly disintegrating, with occasional spectacular implosions, many of their dedicated cadre call it quits amid demoralization and recriminations. What possibilities might remain for a Left whose goal is no longer utopian, and whose path is no longer programmatically defined?

Speakers

Stephen Eric Bronner (Rutgers University)
The Endnotes Collective
Sam Gindin (Socialist Project)
Roger Rashi (Québec solidaire)
Richard Rubin (Platypus)

Ivan Leonidov

These are some utopian sketches and plans by Soviet avant-garde architect Ivan Leonidov.  Here’s a defense of Leonidov’s work against some of the criticisms leveled against it by the rationalist Nikolai Dokuchaev, written up by his fellow constructivist, Aleksandr Kuzmin:

Projects may be criticized in various ways.  Amongst the critics of Leonidov’s projects there is a category of architects who, whilst understanding and recognizing the great importance of the projects to the development of a genuinely contemporary architecture, try by all means fair and foul to discredit them.

True, for all who understand this, such manoeuvers appear dismal and trite.  But unfortunately they do not all understand this.  They do not all see clearly that the heart of the problem can all too easily be littered up with scientific rubbish; not everyone sees that there are very few true theorists of architecture on the pages of our magazine, but a lot of reporters who jump from one case to another and are helplessly attacking issues which are beyond their capabilities.  In just this way Professor Dokuchaev writes in the journal Building Moscow (and when not being unduly familiar, he is incoherent), in an attempt to shape public opinion on Leonidov’s work. Continue reading

Capitalist unrealism: Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama (1939)

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Even capitalism used to be more futuristic.

Unreal City…

— T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland” (1922)

Horizons

ENTER a new era. Are we ready for the changes that are coming? The houses we live in tomorrow will not much resemble the houses we live in today. Automobiles, railway trains, theaters, cities, industry itself, are undergoing rapid changes. Likewise, art in all its forms. The forms they presently take will undoubtedly have kinship with the forms we know in the present; but this relationship will be as distinct, and probably as remote, as that between the horseless buggy of yesterday and the present-day motor car. We live and work under pressure with a tremendous expenditure of energy. We feel that life in our time is more urgent, complex and discordant than life ever was before. That may be so. In the perspective of fifty years hence, the historian will detect in the decade of 1930-1940 a period of tremendous significance. He will see it as a period of criticism, unrest, and dissatisfaction to the point of disillusion when new aims were being sought and new beginnings were astir. Doubtless he will ponder that, in the midst of a worldwide melancholy owing to an economic depression, a new age dawned with invigorating conceptions and the horizon lifted.

Critics of the age are agreed upon one thought: that what industry has given us, as yet, is not good enough. Another plea of critics hostile to the age is that machines make automatons of men. They fail to see that the machine age is not really here. Although we built the machines, we have not become at ease with them and have not mastered them. Our condition is the result of a swift industrial evolution. If we see the situation clearly, we realize that we have been infatuated with our own mechanical ingenuity. Rapidly multiplying our products, creating and glorifying the gadget, we have been inferior craftsmen, the victims rather than the masters of our ingenuity. In our evolution we have accumulated noise, dirt, glitter, speed, mass production, traffic congestion, and the commonplace by our machine-made ideas. But that is only one side.

We have achieved the beginnings of an expression of our time. We now have some inkling of what today’s home, today’s theater, today’s factory, today’s city, should be. We perceive that the person who would use a machine must be imbued with the spirit of the machine and comprehend the nature of his materials. We realize that he is creating the telltale environment that records what man truly is.

It happens that the United States has seized upon more of the fruits of industrialism than any other nation. We have gone farther and more swiftly than any other. To what end? Not the least tendency is the searching and brooding uncertainty, the quest for basic truths which characterize the present day. Never before, in an economic crisis, has there been such an aroused consciousness on the part of the community at large and within industry itself. Complacency has vanished. A new horizon appears. A horizon that will inspire the next phase in the evolution of the age.

We are entering an era which, notably, shall be characterized by design in four specific phases: Design in social structure to insure the organization of people, work, wealth, leisure. Design in machines that shall improve working conditions by eliminating drudgery. Design in all objects of daily use that shall make them economical, durable, convenient, congenial to every one. Design in the arts, painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture, that shall inspire the new era.

The impetus towards design in industrial life today must be considered from three viewpoints: the consumer’s, the manufacturer’s, and the artist’s. In his appreciation of the importance of design the artist is somewhat ahead of the consumer, while the average manufacturer is farther behind the consumer than the consumer is behind the artist. The viewpoint of each is rapidly changing, developing, fusing. More than that, the economic situation is stimulating a unanimity of emphasis, a merger of viewpoints. Continue reading

“The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde” (Roughly the First Half)

Ivan Kudriashev's "Luminescence" (1926)

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.

The bulk of the major individual foreign architects and urbanists who contributed to the Soviet cause came from Germany.  Such luminaries as Walter Gropius,[3] Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Peter Behrens each contributed to Soviet design competitions.  Former Expressionists — now turned modernists — like Bruno Taut, his brother Max, Arthur Korn, Hans Poelzig, and Erich Mendelsohn all joined the greater project of socialist construction in the USSR.[4]  Major architects also arrived from other parts throughout Western Europe, eager to participate in the Soviet experiment.  Foremost among them, hailing from Switzerland, was the French-Swiss archmodernist Le Corbusier, whose writings on architecture and urbanism had already become influential in Russia since at least the mid-1920s.  From France additionally appeared figures like André Lurçat and Auguste Perret,[5] lending their talents to the Soviet cause.  The preeminent Belgian modernist Victor Bourgeois actively supported its architectural enterprise as well.

Besides the major individual figures attached to this effort, there existed several noteworthy aggregations of international architects and urbanists, under the heading of “brigades.”  The German socialist Ernst May, mastermind of the highly-successful Neue Frankfurt settlement, traveled to Russia along with a number of his lesser-known countrymen, including Eugen Kaufmann, Wilhelm Derlam, Ferdinand Kramer,[6] Walter Kratz, and Walter Schwagenscheidt. The Austrians Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (designer of the famous “Frankfurt Kitchen”), her husband Wilhelm Schütte, and Anton Brenner also accompanied May in his journeys.[7]  Together with the Hungarian Bauhaus student Alfréd Forbát,[8] the German-Swiss builder Hans Schmidt, and the Bauhaus and De Stijl veteran Mart Stam, originally from Holland, these architects comprised the famous “May’s Brigade” of city planning.  Many other German architects and city-planners, still less well-known, belonged to May’s group as well: Hans Burkart, Max Frühauf, Wilhelm Hauss, Werner Hebebrand, Karl Lehmann, Hans Leistikow, Albert Löcher, Ulrich Wolf, Erich Mauthner, Hans Schmidt, and Walter Schulz, to list a few.[9]

Hannes Meyer, another Swiss German, also departed for Moscow, after being suddenly dismissed from his position as director of the Bauhaus on grounds of his leftist political sympathies.[10]  He took with him seven of his best students from Dessau, who were themselves of quite varied backgrounds: Tibor Weiner and Béla Scheffler, both Hungarian nationals; Arieh Sharon, of Polish-Jewish extraction; Antonín Urban, a Czech architect; and finally Konrad Püschel, Philip Tolziner, René Mensch, and Klaus Meumann, all German citizens.[11]  These members together comprised the so-called “Red Brigade.”  A number of other German architects associated with Kurt Meyer’s (unrelated to Hannes) urban and suburban group were also shown in attendance at the international building conference in Moscow in 1932: Magnus Egerstedt, Josef Neufeld, Walter Vermeulen, E. Kletschoff, Julius Neumann, Johan Niegemann, Hans-Georg Grasshoff, Peer Bücking, and Steffen Ahrends.[12]

The newly formed constellation of Eastern Europe that emerged out of the postwar dissolution of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires was also represented in force by some of its leading modernists.  From Czechoslovakia, the great Constructivist poet and architectural critic Karel Teige[13] lent his incisive observations to the Soviet Union’s various attempts at regional and municipal planning.  Two of Teige’s close compatriots in the Czech avant-garde, the functionalist architects Jiří Kroha[14] and Jaromír Krejcar,[15] were already active in the Soviet Union at that time.  Besides Wiener, Scheffler, and Forbát, who were associated with May’s and Meyer’s groups in Moscow, the Hungarian modernists Laszlo Péri, Imre Perényi,[16] and Stefan Sebök[17] each worked independently for the Soviet state.  Finally, the Polish avant-gardists Edgar Norwerth[18] and Leonard Tomaszewski[19] also collaborated with various organs of the government of the USSR during the execution of its second five-year plan.

A number of American architects contributed to the Soviet effort as well.  Albert Kahn, the celebrated builder of Detroit — along with his brother, Moritz Kahn — helped design over five hundred factories in the Soviet Union as part of its push toward industrialization.[20]  Thomas Lamb, the well-established constructor of many of America’s first cinemas, and Percival Goodman, an urban theorist who would later build many famous American synagogues, also offered their abilities to the Soviet state.[21]  The pioneering American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, though he would not officially visit Russia until 1937, nevertheless spoke openly about the greatness of the Soviet project during the early 1930s.  By the early 1930s, Wright was disillusioned with the capitalist socioeconomic system: “The capitalistic system is a gambling game.  It is hard to cure gamblers of gambling and everybody high and low in this country prefers the gambler’s chance at a great fortune to the slower growth of a more personal fortune.”  By contrast, he exclaimed the virtues of the Soviet project: “I view the USSR as a heroic endeavor to establish more genuine human values in a social state than any existing before.  Its heroism and devotion move me deeply and with great hope.”[22]

Despite the great influx of foreign modernists seen during this period, however, the influence of the new architectural avant-garde was hardly alien to the Soviet Union.  On the contrary, it had begun to establish itself there as early as 1921 — if one discounts the renowned monument proposed by Tatlin for the Third International in 1918.[23]  That year witnessed the appointment of the architects Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, and the sculptor Boris Efimov to the faculty of VKhUTEMAS, the well-known Moscow technical school often compared to the Bauhaus in Germany.[24]  Along with Vladimir Krinskii, Konstantin Mel’nikov, and the international modernist El Lissitzky, Ladovskii and Dokuchaev went on to constitute the avant-garde group ASNOVA (the Association of New Architects) in 1923, though it would only publish the declaration of its existence in 1926. Ladovskii’s brightest pupil and laboratory assistant Georgii Krutikov would join the group upon graduating the academy in 1928.  Opposed to ASNOVA, the equally-stalwart modernist OSA (Society of Modern Architects) formed the Constructivist school of architectural thought in 1925, led by such outstanding designers as Leonid, Aleksandr, and Viktor Vesnin and their chief theorist Moisei Ginzburg.  Il’ia Golosov officially became a member in 1926, followed by two of their exemplary students, Ivan Leonidov and Nikolai Krasil’nikov, in 1927 and 1928 respectively.  Though divergent in terms of their fundamental principles, both OSA and ASNOVA were united in their opposition to atavistic architecture and their mutual commitment to modernity.

The overwhelming gravity that the debates over Soviet urbanism held for the avant-garde, their seemingly high stakes, is difficult to emphasize enough.  Just as the USSR was first embarking upon its five-year plans, the nations of the West were facing the threefold crisis of global capitalism, of parliamentary democracy,[25] and of the European sciences[26] in general.  At no prior point had the future of the worldwide socioeconomic system of capital seemed so uncertain — never had its basis been so shaken.  On nearly every front — economic, political, and epistemological — it faced defeat.  Italy, Germany, and finally Spain fell beneath the rising tide of Fascism.  Everywhere it seemed that Europe was entering into the darkness of Spenglerian decline.

But by that same score, in a positive sense there had never been a planning project as ambitious as the Soviet centralized economy.  It represented a moment of unprecedented opportunity for international modernists to build on the highest possible scale, the chance to realize their visions at the level of totality.[27]  For with the huge projected budgets set aside for new construction toward the end of the 1920s, the modernists saw an opening to implement their theories not just locally, but on a regional, national, and — should the flames of revolution fan to Europe — a potentially international scale.  This mere fact alone should hint at the reason so many members of the architectural avant-garde, who so long dreamed of achieving an “international style”[28] without boundaries, would be attracted to the Soviet cause.  That the number of international representatives of the avant-garde swelled to such an unparalleled degree should come as no surprise, either, given the prospect of imminently realizing their most utopian dreams.  In the midst of the collapse of the old order, as heralded by world war, pestilence (Spanish influenza), revolution, and a nearly universal depression, it appeared as if the modernists were being granted their deepest wish — of erecting a new society upon the ashes of that which had preceded it.  “Our world, like a charnel-house, lays strewn with the detritus of dead epochs,” Le Corbusier had thundered in 1925.[29]  In the wake of global instability, crash, and catastrophe, the Soviet five-year plan seemed to offer to him and his fellow avant-gardists the chance to wipe the slate clean.

It is therefore little wonder that the tenor of the debates over Soviet urbanism should have been cast in such stark terms.  The fate of the entire avant-garde, if not society itself, hung in the balance.  Whichever principles won out might ultimately determine the entire course of future building for the USSR, and perhaps the world (pending the outcome of the seemingly terminal crisis in the West).  Modernist architects, who had up to that point been mainly concerned with the design of individual structures, and only here and there touched on the greater problem of urbanism, now scrambled to articulate their theoretical stances on the issue of “socialist settlement.”  As a number of rival positions emerged, they came into heated conflict with one another.  Whole books were written and articles published in popular Soviet journals defending one theory and attacking all that opposed it.  And so the disputes did not merely take on the character of modernism combating its old traditionalist rival, but that of a radically fractured unity of the modernist movement itself.  The fresh lines of division being carved within the architectural avant-garde did not owe so much to national peculiarities as it did to the radicality of the question now being posed before it: that of the fundamental restructuring of human habitation.  For the issues at hand were not simply the reorganization of already-existing cities, but also the construction of entirely new settlements from the ground up.  The intransigent tone that the debates subsequently assumed is thus more a testament to the urgency and sincerity of the modernist theories of the city being put forth than it is to some sort of arbitrary disagreement over matters of trivial importance.

This point is especially important to stress, moreover, in light of some interpretations that have recently dismissed these crucial differences in the avant-garde’s architectural visions of utopia as a quantité négligible.  Not long ago, the argument was advanced that these theoretical disputes amounted to little more than quibbling pettiness on the part of the members of the avant-garde.  According to this version of events, the modernists merely dressed up their personal animosities, jealousies, and professional rivalries in high-sounding rhetoric and thereby ruined any chance for productive collaboration with one another.  Moreover, it asserts that it was this very disunity that led to the modernists’ eventual defeat at the hands of the Stalinists.  Weakened by the years of petty bickering, this argument maintains, the two main groups representing the architectural avant-garde (OSA and ASNOVA) were easily undercut by the fledgling, proto-Stalinist organization VOPRA, working in cahoots with the party leadership.  Had the members of the avant-garde been willing to set aside their differences, this outlook would have it, they might have prevailed against the combined strength of their opponents.[30]

Of course, this account almost completely overlooks the international dimension of the debates, choosing instead to narrowly focus on the faculty politics taking place within the walls of the VKhUTEMAS school of design.  While this was doubtless an important stage of the debate, it can scarcely be considered the decisive grounds on which the war over Soviet architecture was waged.  It is symptomatic that such an interpretation would leap suddenly from the middle part of the 1920s to the final defeat of the architectural avant-garde in the 1937, ignoring practically everything that transpired in between.  As a result, it is able to treat the problem as a merely internal affair, concerning only Soviet architects.  This then allows the importance of the tensions within the VKhUTEMAS leadership throughout the early- to mid-1920s to be grossly overstated.[31]  Even if the field of inquiry is thus limited, however, the polemics can by no means be reduced to mere cynicism.  Such bitterness and resentment could just as easily be an outcome of (rather than a ground for) heated argumentation.

But this notion — that the real differences within the modernists’ debates over Soviet architecture and urbanism were largely exaggerated — is swiftly dispelled once one takes note of the extra-architectural interest surrounding their potential results.  For architects were hardly the only ones worried about the form that new Soviet settlements would take.  The ideological influence of architecture on society was not lost on non-architects within the Soviet hierarchy.  Many thinkers, scattered across a wide range of vocations, were therefore drawn into the discourse on socialist city planning.  Quite a few economists participated in the discussion.  Besides Leonid Sabsovich, a writer for the state journal Planned Economy and a major figure in the debates, economists like Stanislav Strumilin (one of Planned Economy’s editors) and Leonid Puzis weighed in on the material aspects of the various schemas of town planning.  Professional sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich joined OSA in 1928, and went on to become one of its major spokesmen.  The celebrated journalist and author Vladimir Giliarovskii reported on some considerations of nervo-psychological health in the socialist city.[32]  Even more telling of the perceived centrality of the problem of Soviet urbanism to the five-year plan is the number of high-ranking party members and government officials who wrote on the matter.  The Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii, Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaia, the old guard Bolshevik Grigorii Zinov’ev, and the doctor and Commissar of Health Nikolai Semashko all devoted lengthy articles to the consideration of different proposed solutions to the issue of urban planning.  So clearly, the detailed differences between the various Soviet urban projects concerned more than solely the architects.

Another historiographical point that must be made is that what appears to have been “Stalinist” from the outset could not have been recognized as such at the time.  The emergent features of what came to be known as Stalinism — its bureaucratic deformities, thuggery, and cultural philistinism — had not yet fully crystallized by the early 1930s.  While it is true that these qualities may have been prefigured to some extent by the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions after the war, the USSR’s consequent isolation, and the cascading effects of the political involutions that followed — none of this could be seen as yet.  The betrayed commitment to international revolution, the disastrous (if inevitable) program of “Socialism in One Country,” did not bear their fruits until much later.  The residual hope remaining from the original promise of the revolution echoed into the next two decades, before the brutal realities of Stalin’s regime eventually set in.  In 1930, there was no “Stalinist” architecture to speak of.  Even the eclectic designs of the academicians did not fully anticipate what was to come.  The contours of what would later be called “Stalinist” architecture — that grotesque hybrid-creation of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical arches, façades, and colonnades — only became clear after a long and painful process of struggle and disillusionment.  Toward the beginning of the decade, a number of possibilities seemed yet to be decided upon, and so the utopian dream of revolution continued to live on.[33]

Whatever latent realm of possibility may have still seemed to exist at the moment the Soviet Union initiated its planning program, however, its actual results admit of no such uncertainties.  The defeat of modernist architecture was resounding and unambiguous.  And while it would survive and even flourish in the West following the Second World War, the avant-garde left something of its substance behind in Russia.  Its external form remained — with its revolutionary use of concrete, glass, and other materials, its austere lines and structural severity — but it had been deprived of its inner core, and now stood devoid of content.  For architectural modernism had hitherto expressed an inseparable duality, and deduced its role as both a reflection of contemporary society and an effort to transform it.  These two aspects, its attempt to create a universal formal language that corresponded to modern realities and its sociohistorical mission to fundamentally reshape those very realities, were inextricably bound up with one another.  When the architectural avant-garde ultimately failed to realize itself by achieving this mission, it became cynical; its moment of opportunity missed, it chose instead to abandon the task of helping remake society.  Cast out of the Soviet Union, the modernists let go of their visions of utopia and made their peace with the prevailing order in the West.  They pursued traditional avenues like public contracts and individual commissions to accomplish each of their proposals.  No longer did they dream of building a new society, but focused on limited projects of reform rather than calling for an all-out revolution.  Emptied of its foundational content, however, modernism gradually gave way to post-modernism as architecture became even further untethered from its basis.  Reduced to a set of organizational forms, modernist design grew increasingly susceptible to criticisms of its apparently “dull” and “lifeless” qualities.  Modernism’s capitulation to the realities of bourgeois society doomed it to obsolescence.  The modern itself had become passé.

Framed in this way, this paper will assert that the outcome of the debates over Soviet urbanism in the 1930s sealed the fate of the international avant-garde.  All of its prior commitments to general social change were reneged.  Modernism’s longstanding duty to solve the problem of “the minimum dwelling,”[34] which for Marxists was closely tied into Engels’ work on The Housing Question,[35] was relinquished after only the first few CIAM conventions (1929-1931).  Its resolution to put an end to wasteful (even criminal[36]) ornamentation and make all building more functional was scaled back to a mere stylistic choice, rather than a general social practice.  Likewise, modernism’s call for a uniform, standardized, and industrialized architecture of the home was replaced by a tendency to custom-design each individual dwelling — usually the wealthier ones — as its spare, geometric style became chic among the upper classes.  The mass-production of housing, serialized with interchangeable parts, was instead taken up by companies building in a more traditional style, hoping to turn a cheap profit housing students or the poor.  Those bleak modernist housing complexes that were created all too often became places to merely stuff away the impoverished classes, cramped and out of sight.  (That such places would become areas of high concentration for drug use and petty crime is only fitting).  Finally, the quest for a universal architectural language was abandoned.  This language was adopted exclusively by those particular architects who identified themselves with the modernist movement, and even then it was pursued on only a piecemeal basis.

The Soviet Union alone had presented the modernists with the conditions necessary to realize their original vision.  Only it possessed the centralized state-planning organs that could implement building on such a vast scale.[37]  Only it promised to overcome the clash of personal interests entailed by the “sacred cow” of private property.[38]  And only it had the sheer expanse of land necessary to approximate the spatial infinity required by the modernists’ international imagination.[39]  The defeat of architectural modernism in Russia left the country a virtual graveyard of the utopian visions of unbuilt worlds that had once been built upon it.  It is only after one grasps the magnitude of the avant-garde’s sense of loss in this theater of world history that all the subsequent developments of modernist architecture in the twentieth century become intelligible.  For here it becomes clear how an architect like Mies van der Rohe, who early in his career designed the Monument to the communist heroes Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg in 1926, would later be the man responsible for one of the swankiest monuments to high-Fordist capitalism, the Seagram’s Building of 1958.  And here one can see how Le Corbusier, embittered by the Soviet experience, would briefly flirt with Vichy fascism during the war before going on to co-design the United Nations Building in New York. Continue reading

Pod-people: Soviet disurbanism and individual housing units

There actually were socialist proposals for something like the Futuro. Though he initially worked on a number of plans for communal housing, Moisei Ginzburg, along with Mikhail Okhitovich, Aleksandr Zelenko, and Aleksandr Pasternak (Boris’ brother), came close to this in their plans for “disurbanism” in late 1929 and early 1930. They opposed the existence of the traditional, centralized city as they viewed it as bound up with the capitalist social formation. Ginzburg, Okhitovich, & co. were much more interested in the development of personality and the free individual under socialism, rather than in the creation of vast collectivist dwellings. This was a welcome corrective to Leonid Sabsovich and others for whom communism meant merely the abstract negation of capitalism, and who wanted to substitute collectivism for individualism, which they associated with capitalism.

Anyway, the Disurbanists proposed small but accommodating individual housing units, or “pods,” which would moreover be mobile and collapsible. These spaces would aid in the cultivation of the individual personality, and would moreover allow each person the freedom to associate with others as he would like. If someone got married, he could “link” his pod to another’s. If the couple would then have children, they could “plant” more pods for each child to live in. Moreover, the Disurbanists believed that this would help solve the problem of divorce, housing space, and property, since a divorced couple would no longer have to fight over the space they shared or other proprietary issues. The two divorcees could simply uncouple their pod-houses from each other and go their separate ways.

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

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

The Disurbanists thus also hoped that this would help dissolve the traditional social unit of the family and more broadly “socialize” them. Like Sabsovich and the Urbanists, Ginzburg and his allies believed that the care of children in their upbringing should be primarily provided for by institutions established by society. But while familial bonds and affection would doubtless remain in many cases, one would not be forced by his involuntary association with his family to remain attached to it. Once a child would reach the age of maturity, it would be his right to dissociate himself from the rest of his natural family. Continue reading

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

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IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism

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An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.

Iakov Chernikhov’s Principles of Modern Architecture (1930)

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

Enjoy!