El Lissitzky’s “Architecture in the USSR” (1925)

Translated from the German by David Britt.  From El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts.

• • •

Modern Architecture in Russia?

There is no such thing.  What one does find is a fight for modern architecture, as there is everywhere in the world today.  Still nowhere is their a new architectonic CULTURE.  Any isolated really new buildings were designed only to meet the need of the moment, and only by some anonymous character, some engineer, over the head of the artist with a diploma.  At the same time, modern architects in various countries have been fighting for some decades to establish a new tectonics.  The main watchwords remain the same: expedient, in suitable material, constructive.  Every generation puts a different meaning into the same ideas.  For many this process is not developing rapidly enough.  There is certainly no lack of forces.  The trouble lies in the economic abnormality of the present time and the utter confusion of their intentions.

In the world of today, Russia is moving at record speed.  This is manifested even in the name of the country: — Russia, RSFSR, SSSR.  Art also advanced at the same tempo.  There the revolution in art began by giving form to the elements of time, of space, of tempo and rhythm, of movement.  Before the war cubists in France and futurists in Italy advanced new theses in art.  There re-echoed loudly in Russia; but from the early years of our isolation we went our own way and put forward antitheses.

The European thesis was: THE FINE ARTS (BEAUX-ARTS) FOREVER.  Thus the arts were made to become a completely private, subjective-aesthetic concern.  The antithesis was: ANYTHING BUT THE FINE ARTS.  [372] Let us have something universal, something clear and simple.  Thus a square is simple, or a glass cylinder.  Out with the painting of pictures! ‘The future belongs to those who have a remarkable lack of talent for the fine arts.’  Organic growth is a simple thing — so is building, architecture.

Thus are the bare outlines of one component part.  Then in the second place: according to the old law in Russia only architects with their diplomas, civil servants, had the right to build, which made this fraternity into a living corpse.  These two circumstances were the cause; the effect was the first offensive from the front of the painters and sculptors.

In the years 1917-1918, some young architects (Ladovskii, Krinskii, and others), painters (such as Rodchenko, Shevchenko), sculptors (Korolev and so on) organized themselves into a group, which sought to achieve a synthesis on these lines:





However, as with every approach to a synthesis, the first results were destructive.  The several elements of design were already finding expression here, only they were disconnected and without a function.  One was still caught in the trap.  To this period belongs the design for a telephone kiosk by Rodchenko (1919).

Then came the Revolution and the belief that now everything would immediately become reality.  Tatlin created his tower.  His preparatory school was the training of hand and eye acquired from working with technical materials.  He had no schooling in engineering, no knowledge of technical mechanics or of iron constructions.  His starting points were the incorporation of a new form — the spiral — and the revelation of the glories of iron and glass.  The strength of the antithesis, the ‘remarkable lack of talent’ for the fine arts, preserved him from the pitfall of aesthetic ventures.  In his glorification of mechanical technology, this revelation of the possibilities of well-known materials, there is more of value than just a powerful reaction against the old aesthetics.  The reaction merely provides the impetus, the action must be based on deeper foundations.  The aim was to make effective an architecture the entire energy which was crystallized in the new painting – not using the newly-introduced forms (the square, for example) but the forces which had been liberated for the building of the new body.  Least of all should one let oneself be enticed by the primary element of painting, namely colour.  Fulfillment depends on the arrangement of space by means of lines, planes, volumes.  No self-contained, individual bodies, but relations and proportions.  The unconfined, bodies which originate from movement, from communication and in communication.  New constructions.  Taking into consideration the fifth view (from above).  A demand for new materials, but no material-fetishism.  Under the controlling influence of a single idea: function.

In 1921 a group of young professors (Ladovskii, Dokuchaev, Efimov) succeeded in constituting an autonomous department in the faculty of architecture at the academy (VKhUTEMAS) in Moscow.  Here they had the benefit of the scientific apparatus of a modern university and could rely on gifted young students, devoted to their work, so something started to happen.

Their initial ideas were vastly ambitious.  Instead of starting in the drawing-office they wanted to build on an experimental field, instead of a scale of 1:100 on paper they wanted a direct construction of large surfaces on a scale of 1:1.  At present every piece of work is executed as a model.  The tasks set are of two types, according to two aims.

(1) Pure tectonic type; for example — to show that tectonic stability is not identical with physical-mechanic stability; or a more complicated task dealing with proportions, dynamics, and rhythm.  If the geometric proportions are in the ration 1:2:3, the rhythm and speeds are also in the same ratio 1:2:3.  This whole experimental knowledge will be utilized afterwards for the designing of an aerodrome.

(2) Tasks of utilitarian architecture.

These are in Moscow.  In Petersburg the Greco-Roman spirit of the old academy still prevails.  Only Malevich is taking up this work which has now been started, which he calls ‘blind architecture’; and trying to ventilate the atmosphere with it.


In order to concentrate the new forces, an Association of New Architects (ASNOVA) was formed in Moscow in the summer of 1923.  The first paragraph of their articles reads:

‘ASNOVA unites the architects-rationalists and the workers affiliated to them in all fields of architecture and experimental building, to raise architecture as an art to a level corresponding to the present-day position of technology and science.’

The founders are the directors of the new faculty of architecture and a few noteworthy engineers.  Contact has also been established with some modern architects abroad.  A series of designs are being completed which relate to the specific circumstances in Russia; these are destined for a propaganda exhibition in the provinces.  It is also the intention to exhibit them abroad.

Craftsmanship, that which the new culture of painting in Russia brought to such a high level, is now one of the objects of architecture.  To see the modern spirit only in that which is ‘without ornament and profile’ would be too miserable.  And to cast everything in concrete is dangerous.  It was thus that Rodin led sculpture astray, because anything can be cast in bronze.  We are not thinking in terms of a game with building-blocks, but in terms of building ideas and space concepts.  The energies released after the French Revolution — in the Napoleonic era, barely a hundred years ago — also tried to crystallize in architecture.  Most ideas then, as in Russia now, remained on paper, which is why they are known as ‘problems.’  Take the memorial to Newton: it is also without ornament and profile, just a colossal hemisphere: or the works of Ledoux.  But up in the North these ‘problems’ become realities: The Admiralty (Zakharov), the Stock Exchange (Thomon) in Petersburg.  Today the Wise men of art call this work megalomania.  They are right.  Everything which exists above the average is a mania.  I hear that the verdict passed on Russian work is: mechanomania.  But — have patience.  We are just in the middle of the work and are happy to be accomplishing it specifically for the present time.

[From Die Kunstblatt, No. 2 (February 1925)]

~ by Ross Wolfe on October 21, 2010.

2 Responses to “El Lissitzky’s “Architecture in the USSR” (1925)”

  1. […] in engineering, no knowledge of technical mechanics or of iron constructions.”  Lissitzky, El. “Architecture in the USSR.” From El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts. Translated by Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers. (Thames & […]

  2. […] in engineering, no knowledge of technical mechanics or of iron constructions.”  Lissitzky, El. “Architecture in the USSR.”  El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts. Translated by Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers. (Thames & Hudson […]

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