Hannes Meyer’s “Construction, Construction Workers, and Technicians in the Soviet Union” (1931)

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

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

• • •

Based on a lecture by Hannes Meyer, the former Bauhaus director

and now architect in Moscow, presented October 13th, 1931:

Having an architect speak conjures up the image of someone belonging to the intellectual and financial milieu of the middle classes, whose role in Western culture has been to act as an acrobat swinging between the banks and the land speculators, between bureaucrat and builder, and between the future tenant and the owner of the building to be constructed.  This juggling act consumes 90 percent of his work activity, and only during the remaining 10 percent is he allowed to deal with architecture as an art.  Compared to this, the position of the architect in the Soviet Union is quite different.  In the Soviet Union architects are worker-builders in the front ranks of the Five-Year Plan — the Piatiletka.  We have joined this work-battle in the ranks of the worker-builders, as officers of the technical cadres.  In the sense that we are worker-builders, we see ourselves as architectural trade-unionists.  My union card has the number 629-828.  We belong to the working classes as scientists and practical builders, and all of us together contribute to the building of the new Socialist economy.  We have many jobs.  For instance, I am being used by the ‘Institute for the Construction of Technical Colleges in the Soviet Union,’ (Giprovtus), for city planning (Giprogor), and in the Institute for Housing.  Apart from these, I teach at the School of Architeecture (Wasi) in Moscow, while at the same time I am involved in the House of Books, the National Publishing House (which has an annual publishing output of 12 million volumes), the Lenin School, the Communist Academy, etc.  We work in teams, doing all work collectively; ‘personality’ is not important; each of us is only one atom among a thousand others.  We are attempting to significantly increase the number of students.  To become a student is a distinction and not, as in Western Europe, a privilege.  Whoever distinguishes himself in his work in the factories is sent to college.  Students do not lead the kind of life current in the West but contribute in a productive way to the building of [214] Socialism.  The type of student known in the West does not exist here.  We consider the student a worker.  A student receives the same wage that a worker does.  Studying is considered productive labor, just as productive as work done in the factory.

Education in the Soviet Union is a matter of national planning.  We are being urged to let the students continue with their work in the factories.  Students form groups of 4 or 5 comrades.  Their slogan is ‘Away with individualism in education, forward with collective training!’ During the first semester the student joins an existing group whose older students act as senior members.  Our goal is not only to improve education in general, but to mobilize all teaching efforts.  The number of teachers needed for this task is extremely high.  So far, great shortages still exist in this field.  Our students receive thorough instruction in the ideas of Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism.  In this way the thesis of Socialism receives its theoretical foundation.  The knowledge of the average student in this area is enormous.  Another important point in our system of education is strong specialization within the various professions.  We are training four categories of architects: the fields of agriculture, industry, housing, and civic building.  During his four years of study, each student spends 90 days in military service.  In the normal course of their studies all students take military science.  There is a basic identity between the state and the student.  The Red Army soldier not only protects his homeland in the event of danger, but represents a great cultural force as well.  All students serve in the capacity of technical cadre personnel.  Our schools are not just places of education, but workshops; in fact, factories.  The school as such is only an appendage; lately we have stopped the building of schools and have transferred education into the factories: no more workshops without a technical cadre, and no more factories without a school.

[215]

The building of cities is accomplished in the Soviet Union within the over-all framework of the Five-Year Plan.  Education, work, housing, and even recreation (the Park of Culture in Moscow is four kilometers long!): in short, everything is done according plan and collectively.  The construction of whole new cities, as described by May, represents the ‘cake,’ so to speak.  Our ‘daily bread,’ however, consists in rebuilding existing cities.  The most difficult problems have to be solved in this context.  For instance, there is a city near Samarkand, the cotton center.  The city has to be transformed into an industrial center.  It represents a city type that over the centuries has evolved along the lines of hereditary property rights.  The whole city is a maze of blind alleys leading to the various clan holdings.  The housing system is in complete contradiction to our contemporary world of Socialism: forecourt, male area, harem.  The question is: should the former Mohammedan woman, now liberated from her veil, live, as the new Socialist woman, in a harem? To rebuild this city of feudalism and capitalism is an enormous task.  While many cities must be enlarged, extended, and have many parts added to them, [216] others must be allowed to shrink in size.  We do not have many buildings of steel and concrete.  We build just as well and quite solidly with local materials, such as mud, wood, and stone.  We have to be very economical as far as materials are concerned.  Our buildings are unencumbered by specific aesthetic intentions.  Each material we use represents a deficit unit.  Even straw is considered a deficit material.  In this sense architecture becomes pure scientific construction.  Twelve hundred scientists work in the Institute of Building Sciences for the Testing of Building Materials.  We even abandon buildings that have been started and whose foundations have been finished, simply because waste of materials has to be avoided at all costs.  An example of this is the building of the Centrosoyus (designed by Le Corbusier).  At the moment we lack the capability to carry out such projects.  They are beyond the scope of the present Five-Year Plan.  We abandon such unfinished projects, like a cake half eaten, so we can have our daily bread.

Let me say a few words about work speed.  It takes four weeks to obtain a site for a project planned today.  The House of Soviets, in contrast to the many-angled Palace of Nations in Geneva, was under way within four weeks of its approval.  It took four years just to find a site for the Palace of Nations in Geneva.  We do not believe in all sorts of zigzags; our buildings are conceived in a straightforward open manner.  Insofar as the target date of the Five-Year Plan is concerned, it is only discussed in terms of a reduction to four years.  The next four five-year plans have already been prepared.

The function of the artist has changed accordingly.  He is obliged to contribute as a member of a collective.  He cooperates by painting or by redesigning whole spaces.  His work is being included naturally in the normal life of the city.  Substance is everything, form is secondary.  It is impossible for an artist to run out of inspiration in such a process.

Now to the question of housing! Before the Revolution, Moscow had 1.6 million inhabitants; at the present time this figure is around 2.8 million.  The per capita dwelling area in Moscow is 4.5 square meters (as compared to approximately 12 square meters in Western countries).  However, there is a tendency to ignore the square meters devoted to cultural and collective life.  As a rule, comparisons are made on the basis of the strictly personal individual living areas in the West.  Still, we hope to increase living areas to 7 square meters per capita.  Furthermore, around the fringes of Moscow, satellite towns are being built such as Optigozorsk and Mostrkotash, which house the workers of the glass and knitted-goods industries.  These are now 30 percent complete.

[217]

Outside the Soviet Union much has been said about people queuing up for everything.  People do indeed queue up in Moscow, for example, in front of a department store when a large factory happens to close down for a day.  People also queue up for movies, as happened with the film The Road to Living was being shown.  For months it ran uninterruptedly from noon until late at night every day of the week in the largest theaters of Moscow.  The largest queue of all, often 5,000 meters long, may be found on Red Square in front of Lenin’s Tomb, a sacred place to all proletarians of the Soviet Union.

The practical realization of brilliant economic planning in the USSR is only possible because all means of production are in the hands of the proletariat, and this is also the reason why unemployment, prostitution, and all the other evils of the capitalist system have been liquidated.

The woman is a comrade in work, in contrast to Parisian women, who spend their time in long discussions on whether the pajama should be considered proper evening attire or not.  Our women think it more important to consider the question of wearing the uniform of the Komsomol.  Here I have for the first time been able to observe Socialism as a working system rather than a figment of the imagination.  All our Western upbringing is based on the premise that one and all must participate in the struggle of everybody against everybody else [the Hobbesian thesis].  So far this has been the most characteristic feature of our position.  In this connection it is significant that our banks have been designed in the form of temples.  The new Russian architecture is the result of a collective will and has not developed according to the wishes of some individual group.  Our architecture has the features of collectivism, combined with American functionalism, Leninistic science, and revolutionary flexibility.

[From Das Neue Russland, Vols. VIII-IX, 1931]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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