Theo van Doesburg’s “Abstraction, Dream, and Utopia: Conflicting Movements in Russian Architecture” (1928)
Translated from the Dutch by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.
In Theo van Doesburg, On European Architecture: Complete
Essays from Het Bouwbedrijf. (Bïrkhauser Verlag. Berlin:1990).
• • •
II. With my previous introductory article I did not at all intend to ridicule the Soviet architectural efforts within and…outside of Russia. Those who are inclined to draw that conclusion have misunderstood the purport of that article. Neither did I intend to represent the capitalist production system as superior to all other production methods (as colleagues unjustly imputed to me). I only wanted to accentuate the enormous confusion of ideas among those who a priori take a social-revolutionary stance and as a result condemn all that is, according to Soviet mentality, anti-social and does not theoretically conform to their viewpoint.
The utility principle became popular in Russia around 1920 and the young artists who went to Germany condemned every freely creative artistic effort as useless, anti-social pursuits of the bourgeoisie. The expressions of ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’ had to serve as charms, and as a result they did not fail to affect the young generation growing up in deprivation. The young German artists abandoned all free expression and turned to objects and materials. Blind prejudice and slavish reverence for everything coming out of Russia generated a whole generation of ‘utility-romantics,’ and they, suppressing all higher aspirations, restricted themselves to designing chairs, posters, advertisements, automobiles, yes, even sowing machines. Why did this have the makings of a new romanticism? Why were these products lagging behind reality? Romanticism, because they wanted to realize an ideal without confronting reality. This idealistic production of objects did not match reality because modern techniques and industry were already producing objects of a much higher cultural significance.
Everything which was not utilitarian and could not be of use to the proletariat was simply damned. They had to put art behind them. They did not want visions of the world, but worldly reality. ‘Instead of copyist, the artist becomes a builder of the new world of objects’ (Lissitzky). Russia, Moscow, wanted to exercise a kind of Art-dictatorship in Western Europe, purely for social reasons, without having tested these principles in architectural practice. Lack of money and materials prevented architecture from being put into practice for the time being, and therefore it remained restricted to utopian plans, to architecture ‘in the sky’ and ‘on paper,’ and to theories. In other countries, on the other hand, and particularly in Holland, the new, now already almost generally accepted, building principleshad begun to be realized a long time ago.
• • •
The new problem: how to convert the illusory world image of the old art into a new world reality, was misunderstood by many, and this misunderstanding led to decorative application, a new kind of arts and crafts.
The new problem had been well defined by the Russian younger generation. For the arts, the new formula meant: amalgamating idea and material so closely that they would form, as it were, an organic entity. For architecture it meant: abandoning every factor (such as aesthetic and decorative ones, etc.) which could stand in the way of pure and honest construction. Architecture became a method of organizing various materials in accordance with their function and purpose. This idea, the basic principle of Russian architectural innovation even at this point, paralleled the requirement of functional-constructive building methods. In Germany this concept was still very young. The plastic, expressionist building style such as the one of Poelzig had become obsolete; the fantasies of architects like Finsterlin and Bruno Taut had palled. Those were considered the last excesses of a capricious architectural fantasy. The new architectural concept put an end to them.
An absolute separation between art and architecture, now felt in the whole of Europe as a necessity, and as hygienic for a healthy development of architecture, did not yet exist. This is why in Russia two tendencies could be discerned as well: one of aesthetic experiment, and one of constructive functionalism. In the periodical Gegenstand, the text of which was dictated by Moscow, these two tendencies came into conflict. Here, machine parts and illustrations of modern airplanes were to serve as incentives to build, manifesting the desire to impress and demonstrate the capacity for great achievements. All these efforts ‘on paper’ and ‘in the sky’ showed very clearly that architecture had to serve here as a cover for disguising aesthetic fantasies, which were useless from the perspective of functional architecture, but, on the other hand, were most significant from a modern aesthetic viewpoint, as incentives, and beneficial to new building forms and constructions. Employment of glass façades, mainly in factories, industrial buildings, and schools, reduction of support points to the minimum, shifting of pillars inwards, flat roof covering, etc., did not belong to the Russian architectural tradition at all, and were imported from the West. It is very questionable whether this building style, presently followed in Russia as well, at least on paper, can be adjusted to the Russian climate. Actually, Russia does not have an architectural culture in our sense of the words. The architecture of the countryside, the exquisite wood constructions, are in fact more characteristic of the national character than is the architectural style of the Kremlin, introduced by the Tsars. Here, exotic influences are felt, Asiatic in character, in the sharpest constrast with the very sympathetic folk architecture. Neither the former, nor the latter could give rise to such a modern-oriented architecture as the illustrations show. We know — I already pointed this out at the start of [198-199] this series of articles — that architecture expresses the national traits more than do the visual arts, and I have the impression that the Russian national character and the latest efforts in architecture cannot be brought in line with one another.
The Russian national character, founded on the extreme stresses of tragedy and suffering, draws its reserve strength mainly from abstraction, dreams, and utopia. More than any other nation it is familiar with the daring jump into the unknown, and these characteristic traits will always recur in their art and architecture. It is only partly true that the revolution brought them to reality. One might have concluded this from the new credo ‘no visions of the world, but worldly reality,’ if only this slogan had not been initiated by a small group of intellectuals and artists sponsored by ISO, the ministry of visual arts. One could draw the opposite conclusion from the first attempts at new architecture. These are either all utopian and therefore romantic in the best sense, or pessimistic to the extent that they reach the abyss of the blackest nihilism.
In my opinion the viewpoint that these, indeed ‘barbaric,’ characteristics could not develop into important cultural factors, is not justified. Therefore I do not want to skip the good side of these architectural fantasies. The daring, the utopian, is in its challenging force a very essential innovative factor, and therefore it is a racial characteristic only of those who (like the Spaniards, Italians, and Americans) have substantially influenced culture. This is not at all in line with the Dutchman, who, solidly equipped, only walks the beaten road. His nature is characterized by a predominantly static touch; that is why our architecture lacks in dynamic and daring elements. It is erroneous, however, to put a lower value on the essential qualities of Dutch architecture than on those of Russian architecture because of this solidity in construction. In a comparative study of present Soviet architecture with ours, a French critic, Pierre Aufray, recently wrote the following: ‘With the Russian artists, application of the social principle is very visible in the organic conception of the plan…The absence of organic character is manifest in Dutch architecture. This is mainly caused by the social habits of the country.’ And a little further along: ‘The Russian artists apparently want to realize this organic principle which eludes the Western architects.’ In my opinion, the concept ‘organic’ is out of place here, and could be better replaced by the word ‘dynamic.’
In our dealings with such extremely intertwined relations as that between architecture and community, between technical result and social reform, it behooves us to form a clear picture, not only about the new direction of architecture in a technical sense, but above all about the  purpose, that is to say: the future potential, as well. In France, and, I believe, also in Holland, construction of free-standing houses, villas, is flourishing and still developing, for individualistic reasons. In France, the ideal is (and has been ever since the French revolution) a roof of one’s own, a house of one’s own, and if possible, a petit château. It cannot, and should not, be the task of the new architecture to cater to these wishes. Neither does it belong to its essence, which is characterized by large spans, a system of pillars, in short: by spatial quantity. Therefore its future points in the direction of city planning, industrial complexes, centralized construction of factories, rather than to that of small houses. In Holland we can discern the same kind of tendency in the form of normalization, i.e., the dwelling complex, cut up in slices. In Germany the romantic dream of a Heim of one’s own is also realized by means of the increasing construction of small dwellings. The same goes for Czechoslovakia. It is noteworthy that this craze for small-dwelling designs is practically absent in the modern Russians. If Russian architectural innovation is to fulfill its task to become community art, and have a fruitful effect on the moral aspect of living and society in Western Europe, then it will, first of all, have to abolish the individualistic system of single family dwelling and small villa. It will have to occupy itself with the construction of central complexes.
We need to surmount all prejudices in order to achieve practical final results, heralded by extreme economy, hygiene, and functional organization of building materials, which were only the first steps. How many traditional prejudices have we already needed to battle in order to break with the old construction system of heavy supporting walls, the slanted roof of the nomads, the living space partitioned into many small, dark dens. A communal, transformable space which can be arranged according to necessity by means of light partitions is presently not utopian anymore, and in the same way the utopia of a central construction of complexes with a communal kitch, lounge, game room, communal laundry, etc., will be realizable one day. Realization of all this is the task of a future generation.
Architecture is not a matter of a political party, but of conscience. When, only in passing, I pointed out the erroneous connection between ‘revolutionary art’ and revolutionary community in my previous article, my conclusion was based upon evidence that architectural development in the Soviet Union cannot expect much support from the government. The complete ignorance, yes, backwardness, of the ‘revolutionary political leaders,’ is disproportionate with the tendencies of progressive architecture and the evolution in the arts and constructive technology. In  this respect we have such extensive factual data that we can silence the fanatical Soviet fans (and there are many of those among the architects) once and for all. Of course, this imbalance, progressiveness in one aspect and backwardness in another, occurs in all countries. We only criticize it more sharply in a country claiming the monopoly on novelty in all fields. One might expect here that the new architecture, since it cast off everything belonging to the antimacassar mentality, would be adopted and promoted by the government. But here, the tradition is a great obstacle as it is, for instance, in Italy, where everything is based upon making old ruins profitable, and on the care of old monuments. Revolutionary Russia is not at all better off. Evidence is the following. In a letter from Martin Conway to Mrs. Trotskii (Director of the Museum Administration and the Commissariat for Public Education [Narkompros]), published in Izvestiia of June 15th, 1924, we read the following: ‘In the first place I must express to you my great admiration for the important work by the Soviet Government in the realm of the arts and the preservation of old monuments. Something of the same kind is not possible in any other country of the world. You collect all the great works of your country, which were formerly by and large neglected, and had become incomprehensible as a result of modern accretions. I am filled with enthusiasm about the restoration work which I saw in the Kremlin. The magnificent antique art has been totally re-creatd, or at least beautifully restored. The rule that nothing modern be allowed to affect antique art works is a very good one, and should serve as an example worth following for all other countries…You have repaired the great architectural works of the past, and I had the opportunity to witness the completion of a projet in the same spirit in the Trotskii monastery, and this visit made an indelible impression on me. As a result of the efforts of your colleagues I learned to appreciate for the first time the masterworks of the aritsts (churches) of the XVth, XVIth, and XVIIth centuries!’ Folk Heritage can rest easy: it can count on the support of the government in the Soviet regime as well!
Of course, all of this did not escape protests from the direction of the newly emerging generation of architects. In 1925 the modern architects united in Moscow and in 1926 founded a periodical, Modern Architecture (SA). With the support of the ‘Association for cultural relations abroad,’ this periodical, which exclusively advocates the modern directions in European architecture, has already achieved its third volume. In a subsequent article I will return in more detail to the group rallying around this publication advocating constructivist architecture, and its influence upon the new architecture in the Soviet Union.
[From Het Bouwbedrijf, October 1928, Vol. V, No. 22, pgs. 436-441]