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The Russian Revolution unleashed a massive burst of creative energy among avant-garde artists and architects, who aspired to build a brave new world with radical and iconoclastic imagery. Arkady Ostrovsky charts the rise and fall of the Russian Constructivists, while on the following pages we assess the impact of the iconic yet unrealised Tatlin’s Tower, and the varying fortunes of Russia’s avant-garde buildings
'Melnikov House', photographed by Richard Pare in 1998. Richard Pare, courtesy Kicken Berlin/© Richard Pare
I have seen it hundreds of times. But as I walked by recently in the late summer twilight, I could not see it for a second. Washed by rain, it seemed to merge with the red wall of the Kremlin fortress, its flat top ending where one of the Kremlin’s towers begins. Its striking and sombre geometry did not jar with St Basil’s Cathedral nearby. Standing alone, as if it had grown out of the cobbles, it held Red Square in its powerful and deadly grip, remaining indifferent to its surroundings and to the fact that the country which built it had vanished. Only the fairy lights of the famous GUM department store were reflected in its dark red surface, like streams of blood.
Of all the Constructivist architecture in the former Soviet Union, the Lenin Mausoleum, built from 1924-30 by Aleksei Shchusev, is the most famous and best preserved. It is also one of the few that still serves its original purpose, encasing its inhabitant Vladimir Lenin, a man responsible for one of the greatest and bloodiest upheavals of the twentieth century, but who also produced a utopian vision that inspired this powerful architecture. A photograph of the Mausoleum concludes the Royal Academy’s exhibition ‘Building the Revolution’. But the show opens with another iconic image of the early Soviet avant-garde – the Shabolovka Radio Tower designed by Vladimir Shukhov (1922), also still in use today.
Designed by Konstantin Melnikov, Melnikov House, Moscow, 1927-31. Under construction, showing the method of laying bricks to create hexagonal openings. Department of Photographs, Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow.
Between Shukhov’s radio tower and Shchusev’s final Lenin Mausoleum of 1929-30, the RA exhibition displays architectural images that are breathtaking in their radical quest for modernity and utopian vision. Like Tatlin’s unrealised Monument to the Third International of 1919 (a scale model is displayed in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard), the radio tower was first erected as a monument to the Communist International. It became an icon of the revolution from the moment it was built in 1922. Photographed by the artist Aleksandr Rodchenko, it was displayed on postcards and posters as a symbol of the progress and modernity of the new Bolshevik country.
Viewed (and photographed) from below, it spirals into the sky like the Tower of Babel. The Biblical story of a united humanity after the Flood who aimed to ‘build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven’ and ‘make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:4) is relevant to the Russian Revolution with its goal of uniting the proletariat scattered across the world and teaching it – through the new medium of radio – the one language of Communism.
Biblical imagery was widely used in the art of the 1920s, by artists of differing beliefs. The painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin marked the first anniversary of the revolution with 1918 in Petrograd (1920), a painting of the Madonna in a red cape feeding the infant Christ. Konstantin Stanislavsky, the theatre director, staged Byron’s mystery play, Cain, at the Moscow Art Theatre in response to the fratricidal Civil War in Russia.
Designed by Vladimir Shukhov, 'Shabolovka Radio Tower, Moscow', 1922. Photographed by Richard Pare in 1998 Richard Pare, courtesy Kicken Berlin/© Richard Pare
Russian art of the 1920s looked upwards. Shukhov’s tower – made from a series of six stacked steel lattices – literally climbed into the sky, not as a challenge to God, but as a means of proving that there was none. As Mayakovsky wrote in his poem Flying Proletarian (1925): ‘We looked at heaven from without and within. There are no gods, no angels, nothing is found.’ There is no force that could overturn the tower and stop the Flying Proletarian reaching into the heavens. The cover of the first edition of the poem was decorated with airplanes circling Shukhov’s tower.
At the same time as annihilating Christian culture and beheading Orthodox cathedrals by ripping off their cupolas, Russia’s revolutionary culture was installing its own deities and building new temples. The chief among them was Lenin and his Mausoleum. After Lenin’s death in January 1924, a temporary wooden Mausoleum was built to enable the millions of pilgrims flocking to Moscow in minus 30˚C to bid farewell to their leader.
The spot chosen for the Mausoleum was not accidental. It served as a common burial ground for the Bolsheviks killed in the first days of the Revolution, the ‘Martyrs of the Beginning of the World Socialist Revolution’ as the giant banners on the Kremlin described them. But it was also the spot where Lenin’s rostrum, designed by the Constructivist Vesnin brothers, stood in Red Square, and from which he famously addressed the crowds.
In the spring of 1924, Shchusev designed a second version of the Mausoleum as a larger, more solid and classical structure of stepped cubes with a temple at the top. Most importantly, he provided it with an elevated rostrum that could only be accessed by screened staircases, hidden from public view. Thus it became at once a burial place and a platform for communicating the ideas of the dead leader. Shchusev also made the Mausoleum flatter. His step pyramid form resembled an ancient Ziggurat – a sacred structure built by the Babylonians, who believed it connected heaven and earth.
Empowered by the spirit of Lenin, the Bolshevik leaders could now ascend invisibly to the top of the Mausoleum in a divine manner and observe the crowds bearing their portraits. In his book The New Theatre and Cinema of Soviet Russia (1924) Huntly Carter, a contemporary Western observer, described the Mausoleum as a ‘red rostrum of the new gods and immediately behind this, is a great blazing portrait of the greatest of these, Lenin himself’. Thus the rostrum and the sky were no longer accessible to the public but were reserved for the upper caste of the Bolshevik Revolution, who possessed a special right of entry.
Photograph of the Red Banner Textile Factory in 1999 by Richard Pare. Richard Pare, courtesy Kicken Berlin/© Richard Pare.
In 1929 Shchusev was commissioned to rebuild the Mausoleum in dark red granite, marble, porphyry and labradorite stone as a permanent – indeed eternal – structure. This coincided with Stalin’s ‘Great Break’, which is often mistranslated as his ‘Great Leap Forward’: the consolidation of his absolute political power, the beginning of his cult of personality and his infamous policy of collectivisation. That year also drew a line under revolutionary experiments in art and heralded the approach of socialist realism as the dominant style of Soviet culture, which took hold from the mid-1930s.
The Bolshevik Revolution released enormous artistic energy which had been gathering force throughout Russian culture for the previous decades. It chimed with a general sense of restlessness and tectonic change ushered in by the twentieth century, and with an artistic desire to break the conventions of language and genres. It offered a stage, a canvas and a building site on an unprecedented scale. The most talented artists of the era embraced the Revolution and treated it as an artistic project. But in the process, they also legitimised and mythologised the regime which would soon destroy them and deprive them of physical and artistic freedom.
The idea of building a brave new world from bricks and mortar possessed artists of different backgrounds. Tatlin was a talented artist and theatre designer who fantasized about revolving towers and flying machines but never actually built them. Shukhov, who built the radio tower, was a 64-year-old engineer at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, who had supervised the construction of Russia’s first oil pipeline in 1878. Shchusev had studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and had built Moscow’s fairytale Kazansky railway station and the Art Nouveau Marfa and Maria Convent.
Konstantin Melnikov – one of the most talented architects of the time – was born into a peasant family and briefly worked as an icon painter. Moisei Ginzburg, a leader of Constructivism, was a Jew from Minsk who, like most Jews in Russia, was confined to the Pale of Settlement and restricted from higher education, so he studied architecture in Paris and Milan before returning to Russia after the Revolution.
Ginzburg saw his task as creating a new type of housing for the proletariat. The function of his Narkomfin Communal House was to assist the transition from family living to the new communal housing. His dwelling units were open— plan, airy and light. The life it envisaged was free of household chores and clutter, steamy kitchens, washing lines and screaming children. The accommodation block was connected to a block for communal eating and reading. There was also supposed to be a separate block for children.
Red Banner Textile Factory, St Petersburg, 1925-37, designed by Erich Mendelsohn: view of the power plant Department of Photographs, Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow.
With its deck-like corridors, communal balconies and porthole windows blending into a long ribbon of glass, the building resembles a steamship. The ship motif was popular in the art of the 1920s. A power station attached to the Red Banner textile factory (1925-37) in St Petersburg resembles a ship which is towing the rest of the plant. (It was initially designed by the Left-leaning German architect, Erich Mendelsohn, one of several European architects, including Le Corbusier, who sympathized with the Revolution and was invited to build in Soviet Russia.) The steamship was part of the revolutionary imagery which inspired the sense of mobility and movement that was so important to the Constructivists, who aimed to cross boundaries between countries and continents, underground and sky, social classes and sexes.
Paradoxically, the culture that preached equality, destroyed hierarchy and discarded emotions for the sake of functionality, was highly original, individualistic and expressive. Melnikov’s house, which consists of two interlocking cylinders with beehive windows (presumably for beehive living), stands alone and, like a sculpture, has no façade, requiring empty space around it to be viewed properly.
This artistic freedom, individualism and disrespect for hierarchy was incompatible with the totalitarian regime which began to emerge in the Stalinist Russia of the 1930s. Vladimir Paperny, the historian of Stalinist architecture and the author of the original and influential book, Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin, describes the transformation from the 1910s-20s to the 1930s-40s as a cyclical change from revolution to restoration and order, from purity to pomposity, from mobility to solidity, from egalitarianism to hierarchy. The evolution of the Lenin Mausoleum from a wooden memorial into a granite temple epitomised that transformation.
The shift from one culture to another is captured in the VTsIK (All-Russian Executive Committee) residential complex for high-ranking Communist Party officials built between 1928 and 1931 by Boris Iofan. It still retains the pure geometric lines of Constructivism and, with its kindergarten, dining-hall and shop, is self-contained. But the architecture no longer evokes a steamship, rather an impenetrable fortress protected from the outside world by a high wall and water (it stands between the Moscow River on the one side and a canal on the other). Nothing, however, protected its inhabitants from Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, which turned the complex on the embankment into a ghost house.
The building corresponds to Stalin’s idea of the Soviet Union as a ‘besieged fortress’ surrounded by enemies and isolated from the world. This isolation lasted almost until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Just as the Soviet flag came down from the Kremlin, a huge Mercedes symbol appeared at the top of the complex – a sign of the country’s transition to capitalism. But despite the revolutionary changes of the 1990s, post-Soviet culture was apprehensive about making any parallels with the revolutionary era of the 1910s-20s. In fact the culture of the 1990s consciously eschewed any such comparison.
The end of the Soviet Union did not produce anything resembling the artistic energy released by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The revolutionary events of August 1991 marked the end of a country not the birth of a new one. Having lived through the Bolshevik utopia, Russia had no desire to create another. The rhetoric of the 1990s was devoid of idealism or ideology. The new regime sought legitimacy by reaching out for the symbols and names of the pre-Revolutionary past, pretending that 70 years of Soviet rule was just a mishap.
The defining architectural moment in post-Soviet Russia was the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which had been blown up in 1931. From the 1990s, under Yuri Luzhkov, the former mayor of Moscow, historic buildings were pulled down and replaced with replicas. Instead of preserving and studying its past, Russia was faking it. New buildings imitated the past, pretending they were part of the country’s historic heritage. History was sacrificed for the appearance of a continuum.
In 2000 – at the time of the first Christmas service at the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – the new President Vladimir Putin restored the Stalin-era national anthem. There was no contradiction in this. He was simply incorporating Soviet symbols into the continuum of rebuilding Russian state power. Since then, new pseudo-Stalinist architecture has been built in Moscow, signalling a return to order and new Russia’s new wealth. Russia today, with its burgeoning consumerist society, has no desire to look back to its avant-garde past. During military parades the Lenin Mausoleum is now covered up by hoardings. But its aura remains. Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia is unable to deconsecrate this spot and escape from its deadly grip.
Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, The Sackler Wing, 29 Oct–22 Jan, 2012.
RA Magazine Autumn 2011, Issue Number: 112
Building the Revolution: Building blocks
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