Walter Curt Behrendt’s The Victory of the New Building Style (1928)

Introduction

Influenced by the powerful spiritual forces in which the creative work of our time is embodied, the mighty drama of a sweeping transformation is taking place before our eyes.  It is the birth of the form of our time.  In the course of this dramatic play — amid the conflict and convulsion of old, now meaningless traditions breaking down and new conventions of thinking and feeling arising — new, previously unknown forms are emerging.  Given their congruous features, they can be discussed as the elements of a new style of building.

Though the public regards these new building forms with immediate and visible excitement, their unfamiliar appearance often leads to a feeling of unease and incomprehension.  For the public, and at best for those members of the profession who have not been hardened by the dead certitude of a doctrine, only one path leads to a vital understanding of the new architecture.  These new forms must be shown to be inevitable, so that they will be seen as a natural consequence and logical result of a changed formulation of the problem.

This is the approach taken in the following remarks.  Their aim is to make a broader circle of people familiar with the crucial building problems of the time; to show that these problems concern not purely aesthetic issues or the vain conceits of a company of misfits but rather quite universal and concrete questions.  These questions, moreover, are of interest not just to architects to us all, and they can therefore be discussed in a very specific way.

The New Architectural Form

Let us begin by describing very superficially the exterior attributes of the buildings of the new style, which, owing to a number of unmistakable features, stand out against their surroundings so emphatically.  As the accompanying illustrations show, they are usually works with a simple, austere form and a clear organization, with smooth, planar walls, and always with a flat roof and straight profiles.  The building body is generally articulated by a more or less lively gradation of masses and by the distribution of windows and openings in the wall surfaces.  It is also apparent that the openings the windows, and occasionally, also the balconies (quite contrary to tradition) are placed at the corners of the buildings, where formerly we were accustomed to seeing the load-bearing parts of the building or the solid masonry of corner piers.  Further, we notice that these buildings altogether lack the familiar and [90-97] customary means of decoration.  The advocates of the new building attitude seem to have a particularly keen dislike for the column, that popular showpiece of academic architecture, and they are notably cool toward any kind of ornament or decorative detail.  Ornament — the decorative accessory, the detail in the old sense — has completely disappeared.  They prefer smooth walls and consciously exploit the wall’s planar attributes as an architectural design tool.  They compose simple building bodies, which are themselves plastically articulated, and create a powerfully punctuated rhythm of movement by linear accents or occasionally by overhanging slabs and deeply shaded projections, which emphasize and strengthen the impression of the corporal, the spatial, and the three-dimensional.

The most curious and striking feature of the new architecture is the absence of any kind of exterior ornament, which is then usually the first criticism leveled against it.  This is completely understandable.  In many areas of our life today we stand under the crippling weight of traditional views that cloud our judgment.  Our artistic judgment is also greatly confused by the widespread superstition that art is synonymous with decoration.  This deeply rooted belief makes it inevitable that not only the lay world but also the professionals look upon the unadorned and therefore unfamiliar works of the new architecture as cold and dry, raw and unfinished, purely and simply as inartistic.  They miss in these buildings the familiar charm of decorations.  They are put off by linear, hard, and angular forms.  And we must conceded that such limited judgment is to some extent justified, that the buildings of the new style do lack the effect of the pleasing, the artistic, the emotional that was evoked by the sensuous charm of detail in historical works.

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Репринт Журнала Современная Архитектура [Reprint of the Journal Modern Architecture] (1926-1930)

I came across this advertisement yesterday while searching online for any articles on the early Soviet periodical Modern Architecture.  For those who don’t spend their time painstakingly researching long-dead avant-garde movements, this publication might not mean much.  However, it’s of great historical and theoretical importance — a project featuring a truly spectacular cast of characters.  The main organ for the OSA group of architectural Constructivists, Modern Architecture was edited first by the legendary theoreticians and architects Moisei Ginzburg and Aleksandr Vesnin, later coming under the editorship of Roman Khiger, after 1928.  Its layout was designed by Aleksei Gan, author of the seminal text on Constructivism in art, Конструктивизм (1922).  A number of young Soviet modernists contributed pieces to the journal: Mikhail Barshch, Ivan Leonidov, Nikolai Krasil’nikov, Kazimir Malevich, etc.  Articles by some of the most extraordinary foreign avant-garde architects and artists were also included: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Fernand Léger.

Needless to say, I was immediately overcome with excitement. You see, last winter I spent weeks at the New York Public Library, poring over their microfiche collection of the 1927-1930 editions of Modern Architecture (they didn’t have the volume for 1926).  I sat there using their clumsy old machines, struggling to center the pages exactly and bring them into focus by using the different microscopic lenses, only to make poor-quality printouts in the end.  So now that Tatlin press is re-releasing it in full, 80 years after Stalin’s government forced them to cease its publication, I can honestly say I’m stoked.  Here’s the description included in the ad:

ISBN 978-5-903433-12-4

редактор составитель — Эдуард Кубенский
вступительная статья — Жан-Луи Коэн
5 томов, 1076 стр., 24.0х34.0 см,
мягкая обложка, футляр, рус./фр./нем./англ.

Современная архитектура — иллюстрированный журнал «Государственного издательства», выходивший в Москве с 1926 по 1930 годы 6 раз в год. Журнал освещал вопросы современного градостроительства, жилой, промышленной и сельской архитектуры, типового проектирования, истории и теории архитектуры и строительства. Несмотря на короткий срок своего существования, журнал Современная архитектура — журнал-эпоха. В его реализации принимали участие ведущие мастера эпохи авангарда. Среди выдающихся имен, имевших отношение к журналу, можно назвать архитектора и бессменного редактора журнала Моисея Гинзбурга, автора проекта Дома Наркомфина; художников Алексея Гана и Варвару Степанову, занимавшихся версткой и дизайном издания и других. На его страницах публиковали свои работы Иван Леонидов и братья Веснины, Ле Корбюзье и Мисс Ван дер Роэ. Отдельной темой выступает в издание его графический строй, являющийся образцом передового дизайна своего времени. Сегодня эти журналы стали библиографической редкостью: растет цена информации, размещенной на их страницах. Об актуальности всего, что связано с эпохой русского авангарда в мире, не приходится говорить, это давно сформировавшаяся позиция. Анализ этого явления и его актуализация сегодня поможет еще раз осознать место России в мировом архитектурном пространстве.