Theo van Doesburg, “The Capital vs. the Countryside: OSA’s Propaganda for a Modern Community Architecture” (1929)

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).

• • •

Without any doubt a small country will succeed faster in the realization of its cultural potential than will such an immensely vast country as Russia.  Did they not recently discover a city of around 60,000 inhabitants there, in which the population was still living completely according to the notions of the 18th century? These people are totally ignorant, lived in the most primitive way, lacked the simplest modern lighting fixtures, etc., and were completely unaware of the events in Europe, the war, and the Russian revolution.

How will the Russian authorities, no matter of which persuasion, ever be able to ‘electrify,’ as Lenin called it, not only the cities, but the countryside as well? Such a country, the size of half a continent, should be measured by a different standard, and doubtlessly it is beyond the Russian mentality to initiate a well-balanced cultural development, comparable to that in other European counties.  In the latter, even the most remote province has a cultural nucleus from where the countryside can be culturally controlled.  Formerly, religion used to constitute this cultural nucleus, and construction served religion.  In Russia, however, culture is concentrated between Moscow and Leningrad.  In this zone new architecture has potential for realization.  Russia totally lacks the neutralization of the cultural factors across the whole country, which is beneficial to the development of construction.  Holland and Germany are in this favorable position, and this is the cause of the prominence which these countries have achieved in the field of architecture.

In Russia, verything is grandiose…in conception, architecture, and the freely creative arts as well, but in the long run everything gets lost in detail, in vapidities, before being finally crushed by the country’s enormous size.  Although architecture is primarily the functional control of space, for the new generation in Russia as well, it is secondly the organization of required materials, and finally, in its completion, a life structure.  These are the three fundamental tasks to be fulfilled by the new Russian architecture…but they will, alas, never be fulfilled, in the first place because of the immeasurable space, secondly because of the lack of materials, and finally because of the total lack of every notion of method and the chaotic character of the form of life.

If we proceed very objectively and take the time to study the essential causes of the beneficial factors for construction as a primary cultural activity in a small country, more or less reliant on its own forces (such as Holland, for example), we shall see that the factors which I touched upon above not only exist there, but that they are correlated.  Holland controls its extent and therefore it experiences a healthy architectural development, [203-205] in contrast to Russia, which will never control its extent and therefore will never achieve an extensive solution to its architectural problems.  Germany controls its extent as well, although on a different scale from that in Holland or France, but because of that it is in a more favorable position to push architecture as a primary cultural activity to a very high level: for it has all the factors at its disposal which are necessary for the realization of the architectural tasks dictated by modern life.

It is extremely important for architecture to understand the significance of all this, for in the last instance it is not sufficient that occasionally a few well-proportioned modern houses are created here and there.  In those, only very individual interests (of the architect) play a role, or, at most, group interests (those of the contractors and the inhabitants).

For the Russian architects the problem is much more complicated.  Construction touches upon the life interests of the total population and, although it is necessary to electrify the country or to fertilize it, it is equally necessary to industrialize construction.  But the management of Public Works will respond with a ‘No money.’  Is there no money? When millions and millions of rubles are squandered, for instance on Soviet propaganda in Japan, why then would there be no money to procure dwellings for thousands of homeless wretches?

Would this not be the best and most effective propaganda for the idea of the Soviet regime? But instead of carrying out a decentralized industrial building method in the cities and in the countryside, the architects cluster around their favorite Moscow and squander their energy in making all kinds of utopian designs for Lenin institutes and a hundred other projects which will never be realized, and in case they would be, would gobble up senseless amounts of money, without being of any use to the community.

• • •

The architects of OSA (Association for Contemporary Architects), who publish the very well-edited periodical Sovremennaia arkhitektura, set themselves the task to achieve a community architecture based on a functional, elementary construction.  After having informed themselves thoroughly about modern Western European architecture, the architects Barshch, Burov, Ginzburg, Leonidov, Nikolskii, Norvitskii, Orlov, Pasternak, Sobolev, Vegman, A.  and V.  Vesnin, Vladimirov and others united in Moscow in a standing committee for the defense of modern architecture.  In the bi-monthly periodical SA, appearing from 1926 on in 8,000 copies, organized propaganda is being made for the new European architecture, in particular for that in Germany, Holland, and France.  In principle the elementary (so-called ‘cubist’) architecture is featured here, while the [206-207] more decorative or classically oriented architecture is completely excluded.  With respect to this constructive architecture, however, a selection process would be very desirable.  Simultaneous propaganda in a principled periodical for really good constructions, based on function and materials, and for the very weak imitations thereof (such as, for instance, those by V.  Bourgeois, Lurçat, etc., the former directly copying modern architecture in the Netherlands, the latter imitating Le Corbusier) may lead not only to misunderstanding, but also to the encouragement of unoriginal and poor architecture.

The architects do not appear to recognize the importance of a strict separation between purely organic and technically ingenious work, and trivial copies.

Everything which is straight or plastered white is not to be equated with the new architecture solely because of those characteristics.  Neither should everything that happens to be built in our time, be classified as modern architecture.  The latter is still insufficiently understood, in Russia as well.  The modern international architecture movement is, for purely functional reasons, based on a conscious application of new construction methods, which are for technical reasons incompatible with earlier building methods.  Accordingly, a compromise between the two is impossible and undesirable.  Therefore, the mention of more than a single modern direction in architecture contradicts the international aspiration toward a radical innovation of building methods and the correct application of available materials (steel, concrete, plate glass, nickel, caoutchouc, rubber, etc.).

Clearly archaism and decorativism are beyond the scope of the presently [208] popular direction in which architecture is developing internationally.  However, a great deal which, because of incompetence and lack of technical insight, is considered to lie within the scope of modern architecture has very little to do with architectural development (in the direction of a new building style corresponding to contemporary living).

Looking somewhat more attentively at the Central State Insurance Building, we cannot say that it opens new technical perspectives or architectural forms.  Yet this building, created in 1927, is among the most modern ones that were realized.  It belongs to the so-called popular modern architecture, inspired by Western nations.  The accessible roof terraces are derived from Le Corbusier.  The latter, in his veneration of nature, even went to the point of building complete gardens into a project for an immeuble, as if every inhabitant would be inclined to spend his time in a damp, covered kind of garden, enclosed between two walls, and then in the end contract a bronchial ailment.  One should also consider the consequences which these modern picturesque inclinations would inflict upon the materials in the long run.  Well, in Russia the climate appears to allow people to spend their time on unprotected, open roof terraces, just as in France!

Neither are the attempts at creating a new type of workers’ dwelling to be called exactly successful.  Consider, for instance, the standard type designed by A.  Ol, in Leningrad, with its impossible tailpiece.  M.  Ginzburg’s design remindes us very strongly of the Hotel Relais Automobile by the Persian architect Guévrékian.  Although Nikolskii’s model has been most researched technically, it is also based on the old housing system of standardized single-family dwellings.  Nevertheless, we can discern a gratifying [209] progress towards constructive functionalism in the course of five years’ development of Soviet modern architecture.  Athough the first designs were extremely fantastic, and in this respect no less dangerous than, for instance, the artistic affectations of decorative architecture, the later designs created after 1926 are already more in touch with reality, and are therefore more capable of realization.  The OSA has formulated the building commissions in the broadest sense of the word clearly and intelligibly.  In the long run, community architecture can only be viable in this way.  At first, architecture was viewed too much as an autonomous expression of art in Russia as well, but this viewpoint was quickly abandoned when the functionality of the commission had to be taken into account.  Although the association of architects OSA does not constitute the extreme left wing of modern Russian architecture, nevertheless it is because of the thorough explanation in its publication SA that practical realization has begun.

In evaluating designs, models, and realized projects as shown in reproductions in modern periodicals such as SA, etc., one should keep in mind that the photographs may be tricked, and one should be aware of technical and architectural flaws which can easily be disguised by this technique.  In France this kind of modern photography is called photogénique.  It has already caused a great deal of confusion in modern architectural production.

[From Het Bouwbedrijf, February 1929 (Vol. VI, No. 3, pgs. 49-53)]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 19, 2010.

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