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Soviet Modernist Architecture - наследие, архитектура, туризм ...
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Soviet Modernist Architecture
http://www.architecturetoday.co.uk/?p=13201

Shabolovka Radio Tower, photographed by Richard Pare in 1998 (Photo: Courtesy of Kicken Berlin)

Shabolovka Radio Tower, photographed by Richard Pare in 1998 (Photo: Courtesy of Kicken Berlin)

The most exotic flowerings of Soviet modernism accompanied the beginning and the end of the USSR, says Owen Hatherley.
For most, ‘Soviet’ is still an architectural insult. Repetitive, authoritarian, bland, monolithic, inhuman – we all know what it means. Of course, there are more nuanced views around, but these two books together make one thing very clear: the Modern Movement and the Soviet Union were inextricably, if not always consciously linked from the 1910s to the 1980s, and not only temporally; and moreover, both the 20s and 80s saw wild modernist experiments in the Soviet Union, producing perhaps the most convulsive, explosive, experimental architecture in the Modern Movement’s history. The first period – the era of Constructivism and revolutionary optimism – we (sort of) know about; the second – the grey zone spanning Brezhnev’s dotage and the failed reforms of Perestroika – is shrouded in obscurity, despite being more recent. Yet neither book has much to say about what happened in between, which might be the key to understanding the entire affair.


El Lissitsky's Sketch for Proun 6B (1919-21), from the Costakis Collection at the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki.

El Lissitsky's Sketch for Proun 6B (1919-21), from the Costakis Collection at the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki.


Building the Revolution is the catalogue of a travelling exhibition, which brings together three contrasting archives of the ‘heroic’ 1915-35 period: the George Costakis collection of avant-garde drawings, paintings and prints, the photographic collection of Moscow’s Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, and Richard Pare’s more recent photographs of a decaying modernism, strewn unloved across the post-Soviet land mass. Building the Revolution has short essays, with Jean-Louis Cohen on this ‘Eastern’ avant-garde and their reception by (and obsession with) the ‘West’ being particularly illuminating, but both are picture books, without much analysis.
The Costakis collection is a compendium of dreams, the utopian paper architecture intensively produced during the privations of the horrendous Russian Civil War of 1918-21 – essentially a matter of people fantasising about flying cities in order to keep warm. Here there are the ‘Painterly Architectonics’ of Liubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko, or the ‘station between painting and architecture’ developed by El Lissitzky, or Kasimir Malevich’s Architektony, imaginary buildings like abstracted Hugh Ferris skyscrapers. What impresses most are Gustav Klutsis’ designs for moving propaganda kiosks and stands, all flying volumes and extraneous components – speakers, girders, slogans. His amazing drawing Construction (1922-3) imagines steel frames rising into vertical towers and then spinning off horizontally into infinity. There’s one slightly more concrete scheme – the City of the Future and Capitalist Fortress by Popova and Alexander Vesnin, designed as a set for a mass festival at the Comintern’s 1921 congress but cancelled for its expense; it’s a high-tech city in spindly steel, a moving city akin to Archigram if they had communism rather than consumerism as their motivation.
But how far did the buildings that resulted, as the economy recovered after the mid-1920s, manage to follow this spatial extravagance? Given the technological limits of a devastated country, it seems a rather tall order. There’s the latticework steel communications towers of engineer Vladimir Shukhov, but then he was a pre-revolutionary figure. There’s the Tratktornaya housing scheme in St Petersburg, an unusual experiment in exploded and reassembled neoclassicism. Slightly later, there’s the adoption by Soviet architects of the orthodoxies of the CIAM and Le Corbusier’s Five Points. Moscow buildings like the famous Narkomfin flats or Corbusier’s Tsentrosoyuz attempt elegant precision, but the signs of a peasant labour force are fairly apparent.
Moscow's Havosko-Shabolovskii residential block and Shabolovka Radio Tower, designed by Vladimir Shukhov in 1922 (photo: courtesy of Schusev State Museum of Architecture)

Moscow's Havosko-Shabolovskii residential block and Shabolovka Radio Tower, designed by Vladimir Shukhov in 1922 (photo: courtesy of Schusev State Museum of Architecture)


This is all fine architecture, and it’s tragic to see it in such desuetude, but the original revolutionary fury seems better served in less mainstream moments: Ilya Golosov’s explosive contrasts of tension and release; or an extraordinary, almost anonymous one-off, the Gosprom, an instant skycity created at Kharkov in the Ukraine, whose flying skyways and staggered skyline are the most vivid inheritance from the painterly avant-garde.
It might have been the victim of a state stylistic clampdown in the 1930s, but this is not a dissident architecture. It’s the architecture of the true believers in communism, so their idealism would necessarily be untrustworthy in Stalin’s cynical USSR, alternating as it did between psychotic violence and icy realpolitik. The period of most of the buildings – late 20s, early 30s – was authoritarian, but aside from one building for the secret police (a communal housing block in the shape of a hammer and sickle, of all things), it doesn’t show in the functions, which are mostly for industry, education, housing, culture and only occasionally government.
Architecture faculty, Polytechnic Institute of Minsk, Belarus, 1983 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)

Architecture faculty, Polytechnic Institute of Minsk, Belarus, 1983 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)


The same functions are often to be found in the late-modernist buildings of Frederic Chaubin’s Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (CCCP), but the forms couldn’t be more different. In leaping from the early 30s to the late 70s, we miss a hell of a lot – acres of gross bombast and bland mass production for sure, but also the USSR’s strikingly original metro systems, or the ‘Stalin skyscrapers’ of the late 40s. Both were a form of architecture that invented postmodernism several decades too early, an ornamental, monumental architecture parlante marked by extreme eclecticism and unexpected spatial effects. This is also the architecture that really accompanied mass murder, so is conspicuous by its absence.
In CCCP, then, we find the architecture of the 70s and 80s – giant but ‘secret’ buildings, often on hills, erupting out of landscape. Built dreams, creatures out of science fiction. Chaubin is at a loss to explain why this came about in the era of ‘stagnation’ that eventually led to the USSR’s early 90s suicide. His tentative argument is that this work, often but not exclusively from the outlying Republics (the Baltics, Caucasus, Central Asia) was incipient dissidence, hidden nationalism. This seems unlikely, not least because their formal extremism and originality has hardly been continued in any of the independent post-1991 Republics, but there’s little doubt that this was what architects did when they thought Moscow wasn’t looking.
Chaubin is on stronger ground when he claims ‘what [these buildings] express is might’ – and he sees their eclecticism, their incorporation of local motifs and their shunning of standardisation as a symptom of that might’s waning. Yet the eclecticism of the Stalin era was also a non-standardised style that claimed to be ‘national in form and socialist in content’, borrowing vernacular and folk motifs wherever convenient.
Perhaps this was really a fusion of the aesthetics of Popova and Klutsis, of Gosprom and Melnikov, with the dream-like interiors of High Stalinism – the metro stations of Alexander Dushkin cast an especially heavy shadow – with the more obvious and banal neoclassical gestures shrugged off. From there, CCCP’s exotic journey makes a little more sense, and the Cold War decadence of, say, Mashul’sky and Kalashiova’s Grodno Academy of Dramatic Art, a cathedral-like structure enclosing extraordinary futurist-baroque glass chandeliers, seems less like an inexplicable eccentricity.
Highways Ministry, Georgia, 1974 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)

Highways Ministry, Georgia, 1974 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)


In something like the Tatar Theatre of Dramatic Art in Kazan, a fierce concrete cruiser, you get a hint of what an Ilya Golosov would have done in the 20s, had they the technology; the Tashkent and Riga TV towers fulfil the dreams of conquering the skies. Perhaps finest of all, the 1974 Ministry of Highways in Tblisi looks back to Malevich’s Suprematism and forward to Koolhaas’ CCTV. Some of these structures are sci-fi kitsch of the best sort, others are utterly timeless – the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, is a brooding, mournful Kubrickian monolith, the Park of Memory in Kiev a proto-Gehry assemblage of abstracted planes and curves. Hardly timeless, but screamingly direct, is Alfonsas Ambrizaunas’ Kaunas War Memorial – concrete Vorticism, with anguished figures bulging out of the béton brut.
Palace of Ceremonies, Tblisi, Georgia, 1985 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)

Palace of Ceremonies, Tblisi, Georgia, 1985 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)


Druzhba sanatorium, Yalto, Ukraine, 1985 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)

Druzhba sanatorium, Yalto, Ukraine, 1985 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)


Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics, St Peters, 1987 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)

Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics, St Peters, 1987 (Photo: Frédéric Chaubin)


Neither book really asks what all this means in the post-Soviet context. Pare admirably shows the philistine neglect of his chosen era, Chaubin conspires to leave his looking pristine and space-age. But have they left a legacy? In Chaubin’s photographs of the Moscow Russian Academy of Sciences, with its granite and anodised gold, you see hints of ‘Capitalist Realism’, the gangster-via-Soviet bling that has overtaken the Russian capital. Chaubin even features an early work by Zurab Tsereteli, court sculptor to Yeltsin and Putin, famous for Disneyesque follies like his Peter the Great memorial – but his Gaudi-influenced park here has few signs of the horrors to come. Nor, as mentioned, do either dwell on the horrors between the 20s and 70s. Muscovites have less trouble – the thug palaces of the Stalin era have long been the city’s most popular pieces of real estate.
Owen Hatherley is the author of Militant Modernism (Zero Books) and is currently completing a PhD in political aesthetics.
Building the Revolution – Soviet Architecture 1915-35

Jean-Louis Cohen, Christina Lodder
Royal Academy, 288pp, £40

Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (CCCP)
Frederic Chaubin
Taschen, 312pp, £35


AT216/ March 11, p6.
http://www.architecturetoday.co.uk/?p=13201

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Comments
steph_anie_88 From: steph_anie_88 Date: March 27th, 2011 09:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for a great post. Fabulous research. I recently watched a video about the modernist buildings that were built in postwar Britain, and the wonderful socialist principles that the architects were adhering to within the design of them.

http://www.utopialondon.com/

Now, we are all in need of the modernist socialist ethos and practice. I would like a resurgence of socialist modernism, globally!
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