RUSSIAN RUANT-GARDE ARCHITECTURE
Статьи, публикации, книги, учебники по вопросам архитектуры, зодчества и дизайна зданий и сооружений.
by Maria KOSTYUK, department head, Department of Architecture and Art Drawing Funds (20th-21st cent.), Shchusev Museum of Architecture, Moscow, Russia
The late 1910s and 1920s were an eventful, fitful period for this country. After the Bolshevik coup of November 1917a new, Soviet state came into being. It meant a new world in everything-in architecture, too. All kinds of fetters were thrown overboard, and that applied to orthodox and canonical forms and styles as well. Boundless opportunities seemed to be open to every kind of creativity. It is to this dramatic turnabout both in politics and in popular mentality that we owe the priceless heritage of the Russian avant-garde.
That was the time of bold search and experiment. Forward-thinking Russian architects were fed up with rigorous academic classicism.* Fed up with the florid modernist style.** With the patchwork quilt of eclecticism*** that disagreed with good taste. All that was old-hat, gone with the rule of the czars. Our architects felt they were free from the dictates of private property, and private ownership of land and real estate. Flushed with a germ of independence, they felt they could fend for themselves in designing and erecting heretofore unseen, exotic model structures.
Architecture was playing a major part in forming the visual image of the Land of the Soviets. Competitions were staged all along the line for the best office and public edifices. Pulling down palaces of the old, condemned era, the young Soviet republic sought to create its own masterpieces designed to embody the might, grandeur and vitality of the new state. A progressive, not a failed state.
For architects it was an uphill struggle. They had to travel a long path from A to Z, from a conceptual design to its material realization. Bled white by the First World War (1914-1918) and the consequent Civil War (1918-1922), our country had other fish to fry, and could not afford monumental projects. Therefore many of these projects were conceptualized with little or no hope of actual realization. It was more important to come for-
* See: Z. Zolotnitskaya, "Lofty Simplicity and Dignity". Science in Russia, No. 3, 2009.-Ed.
** See: T. Geidor, "Russian Architecture of the Silver Age", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2009.-Ed.
*** See: T. Geidor, "Diversity of Styles in Russian Architecture", Science in Russia. No. 5, 2009.-Ed.
ward with a fresh, innovative idea rather than see it in body and form.
Between 1917 and 1925, with a spirit of romantic verve strong upon them, our architects conceived a plethora of daring creations remarkable for poignant symbolist expressiveness; the idea was to make them as explicit as agitational posters. Vladimir Tatlin's Tower of the Third International (1919) was certainly a standout. It was a novel iron-skeleton structure enclosing three all-glass spaces, the cubic, pyramidal and cylindrical ones, each capable of rotating in a definite sequence. This boldly conceived skyscraper was to house the executive bodies and the information center of the Comintern.*
The world's tallest skyscraper was to rise as high as 400 meters. Its architect suggested two all-metal rods held together by thin lintels and curved in a spiral to impart stability and aerial grace to it. Parsimonious use of building materials was to enhance the effect. Like many ambitious projects of the early 1920s, this tower remained on paper. Such projects, however, opened up new aesthetic vistas for novel forms. The blueprints of such monumental structures as the Palace of Labor (brothers Viktor and Leonid Vesnins, 1923), "horizontal skyscrapers" (Lazar Lisitsky, 1923-1925), "architectons" (spatial compositions) by Kazimir Malevich (1920s) went down in the history of world architecture as outstanding creations of their time.
Two new institutions were opened in Moscow in 1920-the Institute of Art Culture (INKHUK), and the Higher Art and Technology Workshops (VKHUTEMAS); both had architecture and production departments. INKHUK was involved with theory, while VKHUTEMAS was concerned with creative sorting and experiment.
Meanwhile the construction of electric power stations, industrial enterprises and associated company towns of low-rise residential homes proceeded apace. All that called for an adequate architectural idiom. By the mid-1920s two lines had taken form in homeland architecture—rationalism and constructivism (both born at INKHUK). The rationalists and constructivists hammered out new criteria and building codes for what looked like exotic structures, including their utilitarian aspects. Each offered original solutions of their own. In fact both trends were much alike, though their adepts insisted their methods were essentially different.
The rationalists stressed the aesthetic side of architecture and its expressive effect residing in the psyche of
* Comintern (Third Communist International), in 1919 to 1943 the international organization of Communist parties founded in Moscow in 1919 and officially dissolved in 1943: also called the Communist International, or Comintern.—Ed.
Design of the Moscow division of the newspaper LENINGRAD PRAVDA. Architects, the Vesnin brothers. 1924.
human perception. They were influenced by cubofutur-ism*, suprematism and romantic symbolism. The plastic image of an object came to the fore, with structural elements played down; dimensionality became all-important.
Nikolai Ladovsky was the herald of the rationalist trend, its demiurge. He rallied a cohort of like-minded artists at INKHUK, who joined into an Association of New Architects (ASNOVA) in 1923. Ladovsky was one of the world's pioneers in devising rationalistic principles in the perception of works of art and architecture. This pathfinder made a close study of appropriate psychic laws of perception, for which purpose he set up a VKHUTEMAS laboratory equipped with facilities for checking on the measurement-by-eye ability and three-dimensional perception.
Early in the 1920s Ladovsky developed a psychoanalytical method of instruction at VKHUTEMAS (for architectural composition in particular) and introduced scale models that helped budding architects develop three-dimensional thinking.
ASNOVA, a rather small organization closely connected with VKH UTEMAS and active in Moscow only, was largely youth-oriented (unlike the older architectural societies of Moscow and Petrograd that experienced a spurt of activity in the early 1920s). It was quite natural therefore for the rationalists to be more involved in teaching than for architects of other schools.
As a matter of fact, the rationalists were often criticized for abstract experimenting and departure from actual reality (for one, in 1922 Vladimir Krinsky drew a blueprint of a fanciful high-rise to be built on Moscow's Lubyanka Square). Be that as it may, rid of utilitarian pragmatism, rationalistic plans had a good potential for the future.
Constructivism, which took shape after rationalism, was part of a broader trend in the homeland culture of the 1920s. In architecture constructivism was born of the creative effort of Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir and Georgi Stenbergs, Naum Gabo, Alexander Rodchenko and such advocates of "industrial art"** as Osip Brick, Boris
* Cubofuturism—a trend in the early 20th-century avant-garde that combined futuristic elements (futurists were bent on an "art of the future" and negated the prior world experience), and elements of cubism (cubists made use of markedly geometrical forms kind of fragmenting real objects). Suprematism—an avant-garde trend proclaimed by Kazimir Malevich in the early 1910s. It combined parti-colored planes and simple geometry (straight lines, squares, circles, rectangles) forming a dynamic system of equilibrated asymmetrical compositions.—Ed.
** "Industrial art"--a cultural movement in Russia of the 1920s. In 1918 to 1921 it was closely allied with the leftist currents in painting and sculpture. This movement sought to marry art, divorced as it was from handicrafts in the course of capitalist development, to material production based on advanced technology.—Ed.
Arvatov, Alexander Hahn, and others. These men sought to create real, palpable things rather their images.
As an architectural trend constructivism entered the stage in 1921 when a group of enthusiasts set up a working group at INKHUK that regarded works of art from the functional, utilitarian angle. Simplicity of form was associated with the ideals of the victorious proletariat.
Little by little constructivists joined together under Alexander Vesnin who, in 1923 and 1924, emerged as the chief of this current recruited mostly from VKHUTEMAS students. Taking an active part were also LeFa (Left Front of the Arts*) militants. In 1925 the group expanded into an Association of Modern Architects that launched a periodical (journal) where its members promulgated their basic principles, accentuating the structural originality of architectural form and its significance. The followers of this current insisted they were advocating a new method, not style.
One of their leaders, Moses Ginsburg, devised a functional method based on a rational approach to the layout and fixings of a structure, its designation and social function. His ideas gained broad ground. That was an all-out creative program urging a wide use of the latest in science and engineering. Also, it called for new types of structures in line with the aesthetic possibilities of new architecture. Industrialization of the building industry was an important part of the new code.
The Palace of Labor project of the Vesnin brothers, Viktor and Leonid, (1923) heralded the birth of constructivism as a new trend. This building was distinguished by a vivid nonorthodox approach providing for the use of up-to-date materials and structural parts. It was a grand-scale town project. The main hall was to be linked to a huge cylindrical tower by a suspended passageway. The tower's asymmetry with respect of the principal axis and the rhythmical pattern of the horizontal and vertical facade lines imparted a jolt of dynamics to the whole composition. The interior spaces were convertible and could be repartitioned and joined together, if need be.
Among other constructivist creations of the 1920s were the competitive projects of the buildings of the Leningrad Pravda newspaper (the Vesnin brothers, Ilya Golo-sov), of the ARCOS Joint-Stock Company (the Vesnin brothers, Ilya Golosov, Vladimir Krinsky), and of the Moscow Telegraph (the Vesnin brothers, Georgi Wegman).
Ilya Golosov moved into prominence in the constructivist movement in 1928-1930. He attached great importance to all-glass frameworks and big sophisticated forms. The Zuev community center in Moscow is
* The Lett Front of the Arts--a creative association of artists active between 1922 and 1929 in Moscow, Odessa and other cities. Their main principles were what they called "literature of the fact", industrial art. and the social order.—Ed.
among his best-known creations (1927-1929). Its glass cylinder kind of cuts through the corner of the main building, thus accentuating the three-dimensional effect at the street intersection where it stands (Lesnaya street in Moscow). The vertical windows of the facade plane inject a well-paced beat into the whole facade and equilibrate the prominent horizontals of the balconies.
Ivan Leonidov was another stand-out in the construc-tivist movement, actually its leader in the late twenties and early thirties. His works were known for their laconic geometry and novel principles of three-dimensionality, as seen in the building of the Lenin Institute of the Library Science.
The apartment-house of the Narkomat (Ministry) of Finance put up on Novinsky Boulevard in Moscow (Moses Ginsburg, Ignatius Milinis, 1929-1930) is another landmark. It rises on, a midst trees on a large land plot on a high slope of the river Moskva. The long windows of its facades augment the horizontal extension of the building and contrast with the stained-glass window of the municipal building nearby. Semicircular ledges of the end facade add to the dynamics of the windows lengthwise.
The quadruple buildings of the Central Union of the USSR Consumer Societies (the Federal Statistical Board, or GOSKOMSTAT now) erected in Moscow's Myasnitskaya street (1929-1936) is yet another important avant-garde monument. Le Corbusier of France won the international competition for the project. The intricate spatial composition and a sequence of altitude
differentials give a dynamic pulse to the rectangular grid of rationalist façades.
The Moscow planetarium put up in 1927 to 1929 by Mikhail Barshch and Mikhail Sinyavsky next to the Garden Ring, one of the main thoroughfares, is known to many people who have ever attended spectacular shows there. The structural centerpiece of its composition is a parabolic ferroconcrete dome erected above the main hall of the first floor. The cylindrical space of the ground floor is accentuated by three flights of stairs.
Konstantin Melnikov was another bright architect of the Soviet avant-garde, though not affiliated with any creative association. His private residential home built in 1929 next to Arbat, a street in the heart of Moscow, is a unique architectural monument. An unprecedented case for the Soviet period! The central government and the Moscow city authorities set aside, officially, a plot of land to the architect and had the State Bank give him a loan. He had permission to put up a house to his own design. It is made up of two cones, of identical diameter but different height, inscribed within each other. The frontal part of the lower cone is cut off by the glass façade: this is the entrance and the windows of the drawing room. The walls of brick form a grid framework having diagonal cells multiple of hexagonal windows.
Melnikov built five clubs, or community centers, in Moscow that went down in the avant-garde history. The most remarkable is one for the Railwaymen's Union built in 1927 to 1929. The interior premises of this building were made convertible. The balconies of the hall done in the form of projections of truncated consoles separated by glassed-in staircases are the compositional pivot of the façade.
Another Melnikov-designed community center was built in 1927 to 1929 for the BUREVESTNIK shoe factory. Its glass quinquefoliate (five-petal) tower contrasts with the blank wall of the hall overhanging the entrance. The bulk of the structure composed of two inscribed rectangles recedes far into the backyard... Yet another community center was built for the Caoutchouc rubber plant in 1927 to 1929. Its stern gray façade is divided by alternating vertical planes of the wall and glass surfaces. The circular pavilion of the box-office on the sidewalk adds finishing touches to the central axis of the structure.
Two-way relationships between rationalism and constructivism had their ups and down. Initially both had common ground in the declarative negation of the past. Thereupon, for a time, they became divided on the basic principles of the creative method, and sharp controversies flared up ever so often. Yet afterwards, getting down to practical work, the rationalists and the constructivists patched up their differences, and joined hands again, complementing each other with much success.
An attempt was made in the late 1920s to bring together all the various avant-gardist currents into one federation. This attempt failed to materialize, however. A new organization, the All-Russia Association of Proletarian Architects, entered the arena. It attacked forward-thinking avant-garde architects and branded the avant-garde as an "unproletarian" movement hostile to the interests of the working class. The old, traditionalist trend was in again.
The rationalists and the constructivists lost their positions as a result. Neoclassical currents gained prominence, all the more so as they were approved by the powers that be as reference points for the orthodox imagery of Soviet architecture. This actually spelled the end of the avant-garde in Soviet architecture.
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