At the Royal Academy until... well, today actually. But the ’Recreating Tatlin’s Tower’ section remains open for another week, until 29th Jan, and is free!
“Engineers and bridge-builders, do your calculations and invent a new form!” - Vladimir Tatlin
Okay, I know what you’re thinking.
You’re about to ask, “an art exhibition in a gallery space, but all about architecture, can that be satisfactorily achieved?”
But that isn’t what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking “okay, it’s been a while coming but this time Four Eyes has finally lost it. Now he’s banging on about some show about Soviet-era tower blocks, doubtless to tell us how they’re more aesthetic than ‘bourgeois’ painting or something. We have been patient with his funny fixations up until now. You distract him with a question while I call Social Services.”
Let’s take both of those in turn.
First, the architecture isn’t always in a gallery space, for this exhibition starts before you’re even in the building. The courtyard holds a replica of Tatlin’s Monument to Third International, known universally as the less mouthfulsome Tatlin Tower (above). Unsurprisingly, it’s nowhere near to Tatlin’s intended gargantuan scale, but it remains impressive. (“I thought they were doing building work” I heard one punter exclaim, taken aback that this metalwork was actually part of the art.) But of course this can’t be kept up once we are inside the exhibition space. You can’t pluck buildings from the Moscow skyline, subject them to a shrinking ray and stuff them inside another one, like shrunken heads put on show by a victorious tribe.
The general format is to display large-scale modern-day photos (by Richard Pare), with adjacent smaller photos from the era, often still attached to handwritten index cards. (Videos, which usefully show the buildings inside and interacting with, their environment, were sometimes added but for some reason on absurdly tiny screens.) It’s like seeing photos of someone at the different stages of their life, and works pretty well.
The space is designed unassumingly but modernistically, with a heavy use of bold whites, and displays not in cabinets but sleek floating shelves jutting from the wall. (Not for the first time the Academy has proven itself more adventurous and more inventive than supposedly cooler galleries.)
And the second question? The last thing we have here is some fanatical ‘formalism’, sour-faced committees purging any ‘bourgeois’ aesthetics in their obsessive rush towards an unliveably austere utopia. Instead we have creative and innovative architects who, in the show’s words, “sought a radical new language with which to construct the world of Soviet Socialism.” In fact its nearest thematic cousin is last years ‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene’, in Seventies New York, in its attempt to reclaim the city for the human imagination - a plastic arena we could shape to suit our desires.
True, there’s one major difference. A totemic word for the Downtown scene was ‘play’, as an antidote to a city quite literally built about commerce. The Soviet architects (and Constructivism in general), hated anything that suggested of “bourgeois-bohemianism”, proudly donned blue collars and became as equally fixated upon work. Nevertheless, the similarities are there for those with eyes to see.
The exhibition promises to show “new developments in art, poetry, theatre and architecture.” Though its heart is clearly in the last item, let’s start as it does with the earlier ones.
Whether the artworks should be called ‘bourgeois’ or not is a question I’ll leave to others. Notably, however, several of their own creators went on to think so. Nikritin’s large (and very good) Russian Futurist work ‘The Connection of Painting to Architecture’ (1919/21) sums up a tendency, to move from painting into three directions. Tatlin himself started with sculptures and ‘counter reliefs’.
Many of the paintings are abstract but with perspective, making them feel already ‘proto-architectural.’ Popova’s geometric ‘Spatial Force Construction’ (1921, above) is described as “a transitional stage from painting to architecture.”
From there the show threads the art in parallel with architecture. Handouts suggest these are “set in dialogue”, with direct comparisons left implicit, but it basically means spotting recurring geometric forms (“circles, truncated cones and fractured planes”). In practise this was more like trying to carry on a conversation with two different people at once. Yes, those forms recur, but only like words repeated across two quite different sentences.
Things would have run more smoothly if it had followed chronology of the times; first the paintings put up and done with, then moving on. Building the revolution isn’t a pun or a slogan, it’s doing just what it says on the lid. These guys weren’t marking or responding to anything, they thought themselves part of a movement which was remaking Russia, if not the world.
The art is often at its most interesting when its creators do not quite take this path into architecture. Malevich for example stopped painting but for ‘architectons’, architectural-style models never designed to be buildings. The students of Unovis produced abstract drawings styled after rooms, unsigned and produced collectively. Popova produced sets and designs for Meyerhold’s theatre.
However these divergencies do tend to get crushed by the show’s over-arching theme. We’re told, for example, “Malevich and Rodchenko explored the potential for two-dimensional art to be translated into three-dimensional constructs.” This not only conflates the two (which might have confused both of them), but misses the central point. To Constructivism the move beyond painting wasn’t to up the number of dimensions but function. Works had to do something or fulfill some role, not merely decorate, and aesthetics’ role was to be based around that.
A Tale of Two Towers
Architecture has a reputation as ‘power art’, and it can’t be denied that it’s the one art form habitually loved by dictators. In a scene in the film ’Downfall’, Hitler looks over models of a re-transfigured Berlin and confesses to Speer this is his favourite part. Whether based on a real conversation or not, it has the sting of truth; those grand architects drawings vying with the real world so obstinately difficult to shape into them.
Yet at the same time Stalin ordered production of a lot of musicals, and that doesn’t make the musical as a form inherently totalitarian. We need to decouple such notions from the work here, which is rarely grandiosley self-important in the same way.
It’s part of a general problem of this era. Seeing an exhibition set after the Russian Revolution is a bit like seeing a film when you’ve been tipped off the ending. You have to somehow hold that apart in your mind, or you won’t understand why the characters are behaving the way they do.
Let’s start with that model tower in the courtyard. In a pre-echo of the corporate dickwaving contest that mars the modern London skyline, Tatlin’s designs planned for something taller than the Eiffel Tower (both above). But even if you only saw a model of the Eiffel you would most likely guess it was designed to stand tall; dominating its surroundings, its symmetry enhancing the way it points proudly up at the sky. Its shape is designed to enhance its scale, it is made to look big.
Though it’s similarly iconic you wouldn’t necessarily think the same thing of Tatlin’s tower; it snakes and slopes, rather than jutting straight up. It’s more open design is built around a spiral, it’s apex not even coming to a point. In a detail almost forgotten it was designed to move, so it “would have appeared like a figure in motion, striding forwards towards Communist utopia.”
In fact the exhibition gave me a new favourite image of the Tower model, Tatlin and his assistants scaling it in order to complete it. (The model itself was over five metres tall.) It makes the climbers look giant against the mountain, and the work look enticingly incomplete. Its not a power figure but a congruence for movement, monument both to things done and yet to do.
It could perhaps be argued that the Eiffel Tower, raised to mark the centenary of the French Revolution, marks a bourgeois revolution while Tatlin’s was designed for a proletarian. Of course that’s something of a simplification, but that doesn’t stop it being argued.
Powerplants Not Palaces
Tatlin said of his tower “I believe that it can be done if we really want it.” This proved prophetic, albeit in an ironic sense, for it is of course one of those projects which is chiefly famous for remaining a model and a plan. It may even be the best-know unbuilt building in history. A shortage of steel meant that even the celebrated model, the only way we know it, had to resort to wood. And that non-existence, the fact that it never truly made it off the drawing board, means we should see it less as monument than as tombstone – an unerected tribute to a people’s revolution that never was.
And yet shouldn’t we challenge that assumption, or at the very least look into what underpins it? If Tatlin’s Tower was never built this show features many other buildings, admittedly less grand and audacious, which still stand today. At their enlarged size, Richard Pare’s blown-up photos show up their cracks and blemishes, yet they are still recognisable from their younger days. They’re rather like old men, no longer tall and proud on the street, somewhat beaten and faded, yet still standing and with their stories to tell.
Shukhov’s Shabalovka Radio Tower (1922), one of the first post-revolutionary constructions, was built not according to flighty idealism but new architectural principles, sound enough to ensure it remains in use today. It is this which becomes the poster image of the show (up top). Perhaps we read what we choose into these things, and others will see that lattice as a spider’s web. Yet to me the converging concentric circles, with the giddyingly enticing ladder pointing through them to the sky, make for an image which almost pulls you upwards. It couldn’t be more suggestive of liberation.
But the whole picture changes again when you’re shown images of the tower from without (above). Seen this way, it doesn’t dominate its environment, in fact its barely a trace in the sky. It’s like it’s survived so long the way reeds can weather storms which fell oaks.
If Shukhov’s tower is important for being pioneering, the (of all things) water tower at Ekaterinburg, central Russia, (1929, above) was designed to be “a focal point” at the end of a boulevard. Sacking the palaces was not enough. Technology, the workplace, everyday life, were all now to be at the centre of things. Consequently, factories and services needed their own aesthetic. Nowadays we hide such things away like the electric cabling behind the walls of our houses. Their function is only to be venerated when put in the past, like the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern or gasworks of Tate St. Ives. But why not celebrate the power plant that lights your home?
Space Breaks Open
Exhibitions divide their subject matter into manageable sections. Here this becomes purpose, (so we have ‘Communication’, ‘Industry’, ‘Housing’, etc.), but frankly you wouldn’t know any of that without the signs to tell you. This was a movement about putting things together, founding a common aesthetic. The show says itself “ architects applied the new formal language as enthusiastically to industrial plants as to office buildings.” For example, the afore-mentioned Water tower seems of a kind with Melnikov’s “highly individual” round house (1927, above), even if one was for housing water and the other... actually, it was just Melnikov himself!
However the show does have the smarts or the luck to start things off with the theme of Communication. It means the word in the narrow sense, of the communicative industries. Yet things work out a different way.
As we’ve already seen, power and domination are not the key concepts here. Creating a break with the past, putting the productive forces at the centre of life, they are at least present - but neither is key. The primary purpose of this new urban environment was to enhance the flow of communication.
Rather than the grim fortresses of Cold War imaginings, the buildings are virtually porous - bursting with openings, held together with criss-crossing gangways or connecting skyways. The show speaks of “wide corridors intended to promote social interaction.” Like a microcosm of the whole spirit, Golosov’s Zuev Worker’s Club (Moscow, 1926) or the Palace of Culture in Baku (Azerbajan, 1929) are both built around a central cylinder housing the staircase. Again and again the emphasis is on buildings which are light, open and airy.
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