Wednesday, 25 January 2012


For the first part to this retrospective of the recent Royal Academy exhibition click here.

Thin Borders, Porous Walls

There’s a post-hoc tendency to ringfence the Russian revolution, to make it appear an isolated outbreak of madness. While of course all these buildings went up with post-revolutionary optimism, that spirit was far from unique to Russia – the ideas were as porous as their walls. Russian Constructivism was actually but one example of a global tendency, a spirit which flowered as widely as it did briefly. For just one example, the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, which I visited last year, employs the same effect of making the staircase central.

Counter to most assumptions, prior to the Cold War there was plentiful cross-fertilisation. The famous Swiss architect Corbusier designed the Tsentrosoyuz building (1929/36, above), for the central union of consumer cooperatives, while the Red Banner Textile Factory (1925/37) came from the German Erich Mendelsohn. Even Corbusier’s celebrated nautical metaphors are frequently taken up by others, in Moscow and other towns not noted for their seaside status.

Peering From Inside the Closet

However, even re-examined enough to be stripped of any connection to totalitarianism, there remains an aspect of all this which is hard for us to relate to. Can we understand that people might embrace life in those open-plan buildings? Not just communal living but constantly working and socialising with the same people, eating together in vast halls, only separating to sleep? (Perhaps some radicals thought even that last part too much of a concession, and set about designing a vast bed the size of a small town, ready for us all to share. With a duvet turned by hydraulics.)

We can read here how the communal kitchens and crèches were largely designed to enhance the liberation of women, or the worker’s clubs to provide information and entertainment. But it still seems an infinity away from our closeted and segregated lives, spending evenings alone watching property porn on the TV.

We are walled off from all this not just because of the Cold War years, for ‘public space agoraphobia’ is reflected in more recent aesthetic styles. The ‘industrial gothic’ look pioneered by films like ‘Alien’ (1979), relocated ghosts and monsters from Gothic castles to imposing and intimidating institutions. We see such places and immediately feel lost in a maze, we imagine a minotaur. Notably, many of Pere’s photos have an empty corridor stretching to vanishing point (example above), an image familiar from many such a film.

Yet shouldn’t art do just that? Not flatter your core assumptions but challenge them, take you out of yourself? Should we not take this strange perspective as an opportunity to question the way we live? More than any other time in history we live apart, yet more than any other time of history we are watched. We are set aback when we see see such wanton disregard for ‘privacy’, yet what we have really done is swapped the communal for the panopticon. Tony Hancock’s words in ’The Radio Ham’, “I don’t know anyone down this street, but I’ve got friends all over the world”, seem all too prophetic, as Facebook friends replace real friends and neighbours.

And at times even own media seems aware of our alienation. Though they never say it, their ceaseless fixation with social networks is clearly compensatory. A typical example was their risible response to the Arab Spring as a “Facebook revolution.” Yet of course the defining factor was that people went beyond getting together virtually, and started getting together on the street. Dictators can withstand a few ‘dislike’ tags on their home page.

It All Ends in Mausoleums

Alternately perhaps the problems of our own existence, coupled with these architects’ skill and prowess, can make this aesthetic too seductive. The Marsakov Bakery in Moscow (1931, above) is at least in part a dressing-up of the Fordist production line. And a Fordist production line in sleek Modernist surroundings, with gleaming surfaces and light pouring through the windows, is still a Fordist production line. Slavery isn’t ended by giving slaves finer chains.

The Lensovet Communal House in St. Petersberg, built for the Party elite, both looked much more imposing and was considerably roomier than regular fare. Narkomfin Communal House, built for the Finance Ministry in Moscow (1930), was topped by a double-height penthouse for the minister. And this when all too often regular workers endured “cramped communal living conditions and long working hours.” Even by the Twenties, some animals were already more equal than others.

In fact, seeing the Twenties through the prism of its art and architecture can be terribly misleading. Lenin was artistically tolerant (though scarcely indulgent), but that did not cross over into the political. The show states that the Revolution “brought the Bolsheviks to absolute power by 1921 under the undisputed leadership of Lenin.” Is that the sort of reactionary comment well-off gallery curators are likely to make, unwilling or afraid to admit that workers could run their own lives? Possibly, but that doesn’t stop it being true.

The regrettable facts are that the collapse of the revolution into bureaucratic authoritarianism was not a chance result of Lenin’s death, but a slow process of encroaching Bolshevik control. This was mainly achieved not by guns or threats but something more sordid - subtle and incremental subversion, drawing actual power away from worker’s soviets.

The buildings, often now empty, were almost from the beginning drained of anything but formal power. Their spirit was debased almost as soon as they went up, in some cases sooner. Even Stalin did not pull them down, though he forbad anything else going up in their style. (And, perhaps significantly, the synechdoche for the Eastern block during the Cold War was the Kremlin – the very antithesis of a modern building.)

The last room is given over to Shchusev’s mausoleums for Lenin. Starting straight after his death in January ‘24, there came to be three of these in increasingly elaborate succession, the last (1929, above) in marble, red granite, “porphry and labradorite.” (The last two perhaps carried by three wise men as they sound like alternatives to frankincense and myrrh.) It was a cross between a Pharoah’s pyramid, a fortress and a corporate HQ, with the great leader’s body houses in a glass sarcophagus.

Of course these stages of the Mausoleum are a barometer; simply put, the more ostentatiously Lenin’s corpse was put on show, the more buried was the revolution. Neither was this cult of personality any bar to Stalin, if anything it was a spur to creating his own cult. When he died he was first added to the same mausoleum. (Though removed in ’61, on Khrushchev’s orders.)

Nor should we fall into some romantic but imaginary opposition between creative architects and sinister bureaucrats. Melnikov abandoned architecture rather than submit to Stalin’s anti-modernist directives. Merzhanov’s work got him sent to a gulag in ’42 (from where he continued to work on architecture in secret.)  Yet others (including Kliun, Levinson, Fomin and Iofan) succumbed. Shchusev, as we’ve seen, never had to turn his coat for it was put on wrong to start with.

Suppose you were an architecture buff, with no particular interest in the history or politics of this time and place, should you still see this show? The answer to that is most probably ‘no’, which is of course a great tribute to the work here. The task may be like trying to take an interest in Dada but without the anti-art, or in windows while ignoring glass.

Other recent Constructivist exhibitions, with their wider remit, may have served newbies better. (For example ’Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism', which I would link to if Blogger's moodies allowed. Look for 'Shows of Future Past' in the sidebar.) If this show were an evening class it would most likely be an advanced course, for all that it covers the same period as others have. In fact it works best when at it’s most advanced, when the Constructivist crew had travelled furthest from painting upon canvas.

It may well be one of those things greatly liked by those who like that sort of thing. A camp I most likely fall into. But consider Edwin Heathcote’s words from, I kid you not, the Financial Times: “there’s plenty here to stimulate and inspire, even if we know it all ended badly.”

Coming soon! It’s about time we went to the ballet...

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