Hans Schmidt’s “The Soviet Union and Modern Architecture” (1932)


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

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

• • •

The outcome of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets has filled all radical architects in the West with indignation and disbelief.  We have no intention of using this occasion to mollify their outrage; on the contrary, it is incombent upon us to inform the reader in the same breath that the decision was neither accidental nor an isolated occurrence.  In fact, a limited competition among ten Soviet architects has been held and since and has yielded similar results.  At the same time, however, we do consider it our duty to give our Western colleagues a more objective picture of the architectural situation in the Soviet Union and to put into perspective those matters that have been misunderstood and distorted by overexposure and sensation-seeking publicity.  In our case, the attempt to be objective reflects the desire to look at modern architecture not simply as a completed phenomenon, but as a process intimately connected to all the social, political, and technical manifestations of a whole culture.

Let us first attempt briefly to trace developments as faras the West is concerned.  The present situation of modern architecture in the West has come about as the result of a long struggle, with many interacting and mutually interdependent movements often appearing to be countermanding each other, as for example the Arts and Crafts  Movement in England, the Dutch Rationalist Movement (Berlage), the Art Nouveau Movement, the Fin de Siècle Movement, etc.  The bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, which after the French Revolution had at first decided to take over the styles bequeathed by feudalism, later attempted by movements such as those mentioned to evolve their own cultural forms in architecture as well as in other fields of artistic endeavor.  It is significant to note that all these early attempts had one thing in common: they all tried to find their outlets within the context of high capitalism.  As a result of this we had a revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the negation of the metropolis, the embracing of social ideas, i.e., garden cities for the workers, etc.  Under the influence of technical developments in the last phase of capitalism, and as a result of rationalization and standardization, the real program of modern architecture eventually came into existence, demanding absolute unity between art form and technical form, both firmly rooted in developed capitalist technology.  Even here, [219] social ideas crept in, such as the notion that prosperity for all could be solved simply be harnessing capitalism to modern technology.  The realization that this was not necessarily the case had as its consequence the eventual decision by the left wing of modern architecture to embrace the idea of Socialism.

What then, is the situation in the Soviet Union? The first thing to be established is the fact that there was hardly any participation on the part of tsarist Russia in any of the movements preceding modern architecture.  In contrast to the West, the old Russia had neither a superior working class nor a prosperous middle class.  An unbridgeable chasm existed between the living standard of the workers and that of the merchants and officials.  Unlike their Western colleagues, the Russian architects had no opportunity to acquire new skills by dealing with the problem of the working class dwelling or the middle class house.  The victory of the October Revolution brought to the forefront a number of young architects who identified with the aims of the Revolution.  Taking up the cudgel in the fight with the older generation of architects, they apparently were bringing about the triumph of modern architecture.  At a time when relatively very little construction could actually be realized in the Soviet Union, this young and technically inexperienced generation devoted all its energies to utopian projects, in many cases outstripping the real situation of revolutionary development by decades.  What was meissing, however, was a realistic base for this evolution, both in the efforts of the architects and in their effects on the public.  The true situation was revealed only after the initiation of the Five-Year Plan, which represented a monumental effort, and which ushered in a period of complete readjustment and maximum exertion.  The Five-Year Plan meant that the country suddenly had to face concrete tasks rather than just fancy dreams.  In the Soviet Union of today elaborate utopias have consequently lost much of their attraction.  First say goes to the well-trained architect and the experienced technician.  In the meantime, a great number of old architects have offered their services to the Soviets.  It is clear that these people have filled the vacuum created by modern architecture, which was characterized by a lack of both technical and cultural preparation.  Modern architecture succumbed.

This defeat was rendered even more poignant in a situation which manifested itself by revealing an important difference between the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other.  In the West, the principles of free competition apply up to a certain point even in the field of the arts.  In Soviet Russia, however, all ideas are expected to [220] be subordinate to and integrated into the mainstream of the Revolution.  As things stand now, modern architecture has gambled away its chance, at least for the time being.  Even the broad masses and youth have joined the ranks of the general opposition.  What is even worse, though, is the fact that the modern movement in architecture has presently run into a closed ideological front ranged against it.

On ideological grounds, the following objections have been raised in the Soviet Union against modern architecture:

1. The ideas of modern architecture, known in the West under the labels of ‘constructivism,’ ‘functionalism,’ and ‘mechanism,’ are an outgrowth of contemporary capitalism and its rationalized and standardized technology.

2. Modern architecture’s renunciation of monumentality and symbolic expression, its disavowal of absolute beauty, and its inability to carry out the artistic and ideological mission of architecture, are an expression of the decline of bourgeois culture.

3. The idealistic-utopian direction modern architecture (Le Corbusier), together with the ideas of the ‘left utopians’ in politics, represent an attempt to bypass the natural stages leading toward Socialism, and thus are counter-revolutionary in the political sense.

4. It is not the goal of Socialism to destroy the cultural values of the past; quite to the contrary.  Socialism, in constrast to disintegrating contemporary capitalism, tries to preserve these values and give them continuity.

We must leave it to thinkers more thoroughly trained in Marxism to test the correctness of these theses.  Unfortunately, as far as the history of architecture is concerned, and other intellectual areas as well, genuine historical-materialistic investigations are still lacking.  Even though our historians are diligently and devotedly exerting themselves to describe each and every last work of art, they never really bother too much to find out why a particular work of art was created at a specific time and no other.

In the absence of a better answer it is preferable to stick to the program that modern architecture has posed for itself.  There is no question that the original point of departure of its program is based on the conditions created by modern capitalism.  It may even be possible to characterize these ideas as symptoms of the decline of capitalism, but only in the sense that these ideas have already transcended the limits set by capitalism — in [221] which case modern architecture has to content itself with becoming just another new style in a larger fashion market, a style with which most people are already slightly bored anyway.  To a large extent the West already has the technical know-how and the cultural background that modern architecture must take for granted before attempting to transform its whole relationship to architecture in general.  The Soviet Union has neither the first nor the second, for even the most extraordinary efforts in the area of industrialization and the cultural revolution have so far been unable to do much more than lay the foundations.  Owing to these circumstances, the setback suffered by modern architecture in the Soviet Union is regrettable, but understandable; this of course proves nothing as far as the righteousness of our challenge is concerned.  It should therefore surprise no one when the same young architects who for years and ad nauseam have aped the manner of Le Corbusier by making beautiful renderings of glass façades and roof gardens on Watman paper, now draw, under the direction of the old architect-masters, façades of classical beauty on the same Watman paper.  Was it really all in vain that modern architecture proclaimed — against the violent protestations of all kinds of halfwits — that as far as goals are concerned it can never be a question of style but must be a question of a fundamentally new conception of the problems of architecture as such? Evidently, the Russian architect, faced by an extremely difficult and extensive cultural task, will have to be given some time to regain his senses.

[From Die Neue Stadt, Frankfurt/M. 1932, Nos. VI-VII, pgs. 146-148]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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