Building the Revolution 01.03.12

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When I walked into the courtyard of Burlington House in London and saw yet another replica of Tatlin's Tower – this time by Jeremy Dixon of Dixon Jones Architects – I was struck by how impossible it was for the "Russian avant-garde" to have been more disfigured or less properly interpreted. Envisaged by committed Bolshevik Vladimir Tatlin, the original 400m-high iron, steel and glass monument to the Third International was never built. But since the 1970s, a kind of obsession with tiny – usually 1:40 or 1:50 – replicas has endured.

Tatlin's idea was to surpass the benchmarks of Western engineering – the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the New York and Chicago skyscrapers. With its neon, glimmering lights and twisting movement around an axis, it was the ultimate tower; a tower of towers; a Gesamtkunstwerk that summed up communism in a way that it never was. Designed in 1919 as part of the effort to replace old Tsarist monuments with new revolutionary ones, it was too complex to build, so become a tribute to "Soviet Utopia".

In the Soviet Union of the 1920s, the possibilities dreamed up by constructivists mostly remained dreams. Shows such as Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture, 1915-1935 at the Royal Academy remind us how paltry our ambitions for the new world are compared with their efforts. This group of agitators-engineers-radicals-propagandists were deeply devoted to the communist system. Lenin was not a fan – he believed in the conservatism of the working classes. But no one stopped them leaving their mark on the regime's visual shape – most obviously on the built environment.

Their creations were wide ranging. There were office blocks, such as the Gosprom in Kharkiv by Samuil Kravets (1929), communal centres, cooperatives, schools, youth centres, factories and workers clubs. There were also buildings for state communications – such as the Shabolovka radio tower in Moscow by Vladimir Shukhov (1922), offices of newspapers such as Izvestia or Pravda and news stands by Gustav Klutsis –as well as theatres and arts venues. These designers were creating new ways of life from start to finish and, through the way the interiors were distributed, new forms of work, social, family and sexual interaction.

The show demonstrates that architecture succeeded more than other avant-garde activities under the communist regime. Even if the constructivists themselves were not always architects, their approach was architectural – in their eyes they were creating a fully mechanised, rectilinear, precise landscape on which industry could put its mark.

Yet many of the featured architects were classicists – both before and after the 1920s. They changed their course under constructivism's influence and then, after Stalin suppressed the avant-garde, they changed course again. Indeed, the exhibition hints that they did not necessarily take a fanatical avant-gardist approach all the time – there are elements of expressionism in the Soviet Doctor's Housing Cooperative in Kiev by P. Aleshin, for example, and even semi-classicist, Palladian impulses, such as on Ivan Zholtovsky's MOGES, a modernist power station with Renaissance arches. The internationality of the style is also evident in the buildings by Western architects, most notably giants such as Le Corbusier, who designed the Tsentrosoyuz government building in Moscow, and Erich Mendelsohn, who worked on the Red Banner Textile Factory in St Petersburg.

There was room for a variety of styles within constructivism, and perhaps this contributed to its demise and replacement by an architecture that was "Soviet in content, nationalist in form". Whether they died during the purges, joined the new regime or took on more insignificant roles, the constructivists were, in the end, defeated by something perhaps inherent in the Russian character: a predilection for Tsarist flamboyance and kitsch. They leave behind a 
group of buildings unmatched in their disciplined beauty, now mostly decaying – as revealed in the photographs by Richard Pare.

They inspired a plethora of styles, from pop-art to postmodernism, in the West. But when, today, we read the architectural manifestos of ManTownHuman or Patrik Schumacher, calling for an "ambition architecture once had", let's 
remember that Russian architects were responding to revolutionary social demand, rather than realising Ayn Randesque dreams.

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture, 1915-1935. Royal Academy, London. Until 22 January 2012

 

Image

Richard Pare

 

Words

Agata Pyzik

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The show demonstrates that architecture succeeded more than other avant-garde activities under the communist regime

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