Anonymous from Novosibirsk, “On the Subject of Discussions Concerning Russian Architecture”

Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch.  From El Lissitzky, Russia:

An Architecture for World Revolution.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1970).

• • •

Lively discussions on the subject of the ideological and practical situation of modern architecture in Russia have been carried more and more frequently not only by this publication, but by other German professional journals as well.  It is our intention to direct our critical attention only to those projects that have actually been built within the general framework of the first five-year period of Soviet industrialization, in conjunction with a look at some of the theoretical guidelines and ideological devices being used by Soviet members of the profession to justify and explain their work.

The following facts strike one’s attention: after the Revolution Russia experienced a flowering of constructivism in art; the pure essence of l’art pour l’art and, as Hans Schmidt noted in Volume 6/7, this also included architecture.  There was an urge to be more European than the Europeans.  However, things changed after the proclamation of the ‘new line,’ and the whole reversal was later formalized in Stalin’s Six Points.  Ne of these points deals with the mobilization and employment of the old technical intelligentsia.  To an astonishing degree these people have succeeded in working their way up again.  Education is solid again — one learns from the Old Masters.  ‘Do not whold the Masters in contempt.’  The classics are once more revered; classicism is being justified (Lunacharskii); at the same time one does not yet wish to dismiss Le Corbusier, ‘the poet of constructivism,’ altogether.  And above all, economy and standardization at all costs! The result is general insecurity, particularly since a theoretical leadership has not developed and directives from the state have not been forthcoming.

In the leading architectural journal, Stroitelstvo Moskvy, the architect Grechukho indulges in polemics againste rowhouse development in the characteristic manner of dark eclecticism, coupled with an apparent lack of theoretical assurance in the vindication of his thesis.  After describing ‘the monotonous repetition of architecturally unattractive units, all oriented the same way, and spaced at precisely calculated intervals, without consideration of topography and site…’ as ‘barracklike’ and ‘boring,’ the author informs us in addition that cities planned in this manner ‘resemble settlements built by the bourgeoisie [226] abroad for its workers.’  First of all it should be made clear that in the past it was only on the rarest of occasions that workers ever had a chance to live in the foreign settlements alluded to, never mind the present.  Secondly, we would like to suggest that the architect Grechukho take a good look at one of these ‘monotonous’ settlements in other countries, or even better, live in one for a while.  Finally, the capitalist origin of certain architectural principles does not necessarily preclude their functional usefulness.  It may be noted in this connection that Russia is using the same transportation facilities for its workers, such as roads and subways, as the capitalists.  In order to be correct, the question ought to be phrased in a different way, i.e., ‘can a dwelling become a “machine for dwelling”?’ Mr.  Grechukho dismisses all this with the old homily that ‘architecture, after all, is not only a science, but also (!) an art.’  It is not that easy to dismiss an idea, particularly as it symbolizes a whole program.

Having duly noted the author’s rejection of the capitalist form of cities, we read further that ‘this does not mean that all the features of old cities are necessarily bad and not worthy of being incorporated into our new city plans.  There have always been talented builders, capable of producing incomparable compositions (!) for cities and parks that fill us with astonishment (!) even today.’  So far, so good! However, the things that fill Grechukho with astonishment in these compositions are revealed to us only at the end of the article in his six postulates:

1.  He rejects the ‘preconceived stereotype solutions of the German group of architects and the Ginzburg Group.’

Unfortunately, such stereotype solutions do not exist.  What does exist is a general plan for the development of Magnitogorsk by May, and another one for Kuznetsk by Schwagenscheidt.  Strictly speaking this is realy not quite the whole story, but only its most important part.  Evidently the author is looking for something more, some kind of point de vue, i.e., ‘compositions.’  According to his view, vegetation, water, and topology ‘must be arranged byt eh urbanist in the same way as a theater tableau is arranged by the stage designer.’

2.  Standardization is ‘not to be repeated ad nauseam.’  Standardization is of elements, yes, but under no circumstances standardization of the whole…He is skeptical of norms, ‘because they have not yet been sufficiently tested.’  The latter is unfortunately the case, but really only a question of time.  Inasmuch as such skepticism [227] pretends to be based on principle, it flies in the face of all systematic work as such.

Now comes a cheap recipe for classicism:

3.  Do not panic or be afraid if something is designed to resemble the good old (!) styles, even if these old concepts should fall into the category of classical solutions.

4.  ‘…do not ignore purely artistic and decorative techniques…’

5.  ‘Return sculpture to architecture, which has for centuries been its close companion.’

And to make it quite clear, in the best manner of the ‘École des Beaux Arts,’ he adds:

6.  ‘Do not be afraid of the classical concepts of axial and symmetrical composition.  The latter applies especially to planning.’

One would have expected such dark eclecticism to have been abandoned a long time ago and left to be espoused by its sundry devotees and stalwart adulators, except for the fact that the above list of principles — insofar as this sampling can be dignified by the term principles — has now been elevated to the rank of political postulates in Russia.

In Volume 5/6 of Die Neue Stadt, Hans Schmidt has formulated much more succinctly certain objections to the tenets of modern architecture, and it is these that must be taken much more seriously.  Among them, the third one ought to be studied very carefully.  It deals with the so-called left utopians among modern architects (Le Corbusier), who have been trying to leapfrog all the intermediary stages of normal evolution.  Here lies the real source of the danger, for any postulate that demands the subordination of all creative architectural efforts to a general party line may — and we emphasize may — condemn any bold attempt to push developments to the limits of their technical possibilities as ‘counter-revolutionary.’  At the same time it would be interesting to have the apologists of classicism reveal to us the secret of to what degree a symmetry-loving architecture made beautiful by ‘culture’ is more Socialistic than a ‘house on pylons’ by Le Corbusier.

In reality, the rejection of the ‘monotonous’ forms of functionalism in architecture is based on a completely different line of reasoning: poor quality of construction.  A construction force, whose members only a few years ago roamed the steppe like nomads or who at best lived the life of peasants in villages, quite frequently up to 75 percent of them women, often including girls in their twenties, will inevitably turn modern functionalism into something crudely primitive.  This has been openly admitted by our Russian colleagues in the profession.  This [228] is also the reason for reverting to round staircases, bulls’ eyes, cornices, and ultimately ‘related sculpture’ and classical symmetry: involvement with form rather than quality.  One might even be tempted to concede that sculptural monumentality, which by now has lost its meaning in the West, has in Russia regained some of its lost meaning in the political sense, but surely not as an ornament of architecture.

If the russians persist in trying to go their own way politically and artistically, then they are only doing what the whole worled expected them to do anyway.  At the same time it remains a mystery why it should suddenly be permissible to use the cultural forms of expression from the Golden Age of the bourgeoisie, such as classicism in architecture, romantic music, and Strauss waltzes, but not the new functionalism in architecture, or new dance music.  As far as the suitability of the functional principles developed in the West is concerned, the Russians have good reason to be cautious.  The accomplishments of Gropius, May, Taut, and others may be summed up as follows: a city form expressing an economically and spiritually fragmented bourgeois society of single individuals.  In contrast to earlier stages of conservative bourgeois development, their city plans reflect the life style of the liberal middle classes, with a tendency toward communal and cooperative community centralization of various life functions.  What they did not find, could not find, and therefore could not bring to Russia, was a master plan that would have focused the political-educational purposes of the mass movements (for example the movements of May 1, May 2, and October 8).  Their ‘garden cities,’ ‘sattelite cities,’ and ‘peripheral cities’ are nothing more — but also nothing less — than systematic aggregations of roughly equal dwelling units designed according to optimal norms of hygiene and light.  To each adult his own room and the maximum of light and quiet or, even better, to be left alone in peace.  That in itself is a great achievement and should help to enrich the vocabulary of Soviet-Russian city planning.  All this is necessary, but not sufficient.  The political and propagandistic significance of a city plan, especially with reference to its squares and civic centers, has so far scarcely been recognized.  Similarly it is not enough to view the integration of communal buildings, clubs, bachelors’ homes, community centers, kindergartens, and dining halls with their respective districts merely as a sort of functional appendix, for their symbolic significance as politically exemplary focal points is equally important.  Insofar as these ‘supplementary buildings’ are known at all in the West, they represent only an anticipatory stage in the over-all context of housing, [229] based on completely different social considerations, while in Russia they tend to take on the function of political showpieces, notwithstanding the fact that at present they represent only 25 percent of the total housing construction.  The communal dwelling that represents one of the most advanced and pure examples of its type, and that at the present is still relatively rare, is usually under the patronage of a large factory, which clearly illustrates the relevance of the public character of this type of building.  In conclusion it should be pointed out that in a country where the workers are the masters of their own factories, this new relationship between factory and dwelling should also be reflected in the plan of the city.  At any rate, none of these questions have been answered by the Russians, much less by the German architects working in Russia.  In this respect, the opportunities of Russian planning clearly lie in the direction of a meaningful expansion of the rowhouse concept developed in the West, and it is precisely for this reason that one expects more from the Russians than mere historical plagiarism.  To ignore Western city planning cimply for the reason that it ‘resembles settlements built by the capitalists for their workers’ is silly and primitive.  Such political arrogance convinces no one and leads nowhere.

There is no proof to what extent the views and theories presently being circulated in Russia have been initiated or approved by high Soviet officials or competent theoreticians.  An official clarification of these questions may be expected during the forthcoming International Congress in Moscow.  Without doubt there will be many a surprise and no shortage of criticism on both sides.

[From Die Neue Stadt, No.  XII, Frankfurt/M. 1933, pgs. 270-271]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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