Moisei Ginzburg’s “Contemporary Architecture in Russia” (1928)
Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch. From El Lissitzky, Russia:
An Architecture for World Revolution. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970).
• • •
The state of modern architecture in Russia, or at least the determining factors influencing its development, can only be comprehended on the basis of an understanding of the living conditions existing in the USSR.
First, I should like to clarify the factors that have impeded the progressive evolution of architecture in that country, with special emphasis on how this has affected actual practice.
Underlying the whole problem is the relatively poor economic situation of the Union, which in turn is the outcome of the difficult and long war and postwar years. Nevertheless, conditions are progressively improving with each passing year. The following table illustrates the present state of affairs in terms of capital investment in the various categories of new construction in the metropolitan areas during the past three years:
1924-5 Million Rubles
1925-6 Million Rubles
|1926-7 Million Rubles||
1927-8 Million Rubles
Electrification and Related Building
Residential and Public Buildings
In addition, it is important to take into account a large amount of construction activity in a number of smaller cities as well, especially in recent years. This refers to the capitals and main centers of a number of Republics that have agreed to join the Soviet Union. These are Kzyl-Orda, Alma-Ata, Dzhambul in Kazakhstan, Makhach Kala in Dagestan, Frunze in the Kirghiz SSR, and Elista in the Kalmuck Territory.
The painfully low level of our technology in general, and of the construction industry in particular, represent a further obstacle to the development of modern architecture in the USSR. In all Western countries, and particularly in America, the extraordinary advances in technology have become the real driving force behind all new movements in architecture. In Russia, however, modern technology and its potential are unfortunately still inadequate for the vast social problems to be solved by modern architecture — problems thrust into the fore by the changed living conditions of the working classes after the October Revolution.
The third obstacle to be overcome by modern architecture in Russia has its counterparts in all other countries as well, namely, the conservatism of the older generation of architects and engineers who received their training before the war in the academies and similar educational institutions. They refuse to recognize the dynamism of contemporary architecture and, in effect, often attempt to thwart its growth. In all fairness, however, it must be said that the number of these reactionaries in the profession has diminished considerably in the past few years. It is therefore not really the fault of the professional opposition if a great number of buildings do not satisfy present requirements and thus have to be classified as failures; neither can this be rationalized by saying that these designs have miscarried because of the application of antiquated principles. The simple truth is that we have up to now failed to analyze clearly the tasks to be solved and to articulate our goals. Moreover, we have not yet succeeded in finding the appropriate architectural means of expressing these new ideas.
On the other hand, one could list a number of circumstances that are in fact beneficial to the new architecture. Its progress — to the extent that we dare use the term — justifies the hope that as the years go by, modern architecture will gradually become acceptable both in theory and practice. These hopes are based on the following assumptions:
1. The rapid growth of our science, especially in the field of technological advances. For example, in comparison to prewar levels, our coal  and crude-oil production has increased 23 percent, while cotton production has increased 12.5 percent. The gross national product, which had decreased considerably during the war and the subsequent civil-war, has grown rapidly in the last few years. Whereas in the year 1924-5 the gross national product of our national economy was estimated at 55 billion rubles, this figure has risen by 9.5 billion rubles (i.e., 17.5 percent) in the last four years.
Building activity has increased accordingly. During the last three years, approximately 10.5 billion rubles have been invested in new construction, while in 1928 alone 5 billion rubles were spent. This represents an increase of 20 to 25 percent. It must be kept in mind that the bulk of these expenditures represents direct construction costs, excluding expenditures for equipment and furnishings (3.5 billion in 1928 alone).
2. The special character of our social organization and the detailed provisions of our legislation provide great possibilities for modern architecture.
The nonexistence of private land ownership with its accompanying conflict of private interests creates the conditions for unimpeded city and regional planning for densely populated areas, based solely on community welfare and the modification of these plans as the need arises and at any given moment of time. In the same way, state control of the economy in general, and the concentration of all large construction enterprises under central control in particular, allow a planned effort directed at the industrialization of construction, standardization, and the systematic establishment of building standards.
3. One special circumstance that will be particularly significant in furthering the work of modern architects in Russia is the emergence of a new group of clients: the working masses, free of prejudices as far as taste is concerned, and not bound by tradition — factors that have in the past exerted a decisive, dominant influence on the thinking of the petty bourgeoisie. Because of bare economic necessity the millions of workers have no love for the ornamental junk, the holy pictures, and all the thousands of useless articles that usually clutter up middle-class homes. These millions of workers must unquestionably be considered supporters of modern architecture. Their willingness to relinquish certain private desires — which make coherent planning so difficult — should make the transition to constructive building easier and should help to facilitate the industrialization of the building process by means of serial mass production, similar to the process of high-quality mass production in the consumer industries.
4. Another fact of utmost significance is the growing public interest in questions of architecture. The press pays special attention to questions of technology, and problems of modern architecture are also covered extensively in the daily newspapers. Discussions about technical subjects have become a daily occurrence at workers’ meetings.
Moreover, surveys are being carried out among the inhabitants of the new housing projects, designed to ascertain the true needs of the workers on the one hand, and to teach them to understand the need for simple and rational forms in contemporary architecture on the other.
5. As a consequence of all of this, new architectural teams have formed which have broken unequivocally with academic traditions. Some of these are: ASNOVA (Association of New Architects), OSA (Association of Modern Architects — the constructivists), etc. The OSA, for example, has a membership of young architects from ten cities of the USSR united by a common ideal and using similar methods of work. Their common goal is to solve the great architectural tasks posed by the Revolution by means of rational design methods.
6. Modern architecture is gaining more and more influence and validity in the academies, as well as in the intermediate technical institutes. For example, the Moscow institutes, VKhUTEIN and MVTU, have completely reformed their curricula during the last few years, and the old methods of teaching architecture have been reduced to an insignificant role in their curricula. Thus, traditional methods of teaching architecture no longer have direct influence on the students’ design work. The new curricula vigorously stress a number of entirely new disciplines, such as architectural theory of design, and exercises with space and color.
Thus, we are witnessing the emergence of a generation of young architects who will never be lured back to the eclecticism of the prewar period and who will be charged with the great task of building in a new spirit. The advances of modern architecture are not confined to Moscow alone. From the capital the principles of modern architecture have spread to Leningrad, Kharkov, Kiev, Tomsk, Kazan, Baku, Tiflis, and so on, and there is no doubt that soon there will be no school left in the Union that still supports the old tenets of classical eclecticism.
7. In conclusion, it should be pointed out that all construction in the Soviet Union is being regulated by the state. There is no doubt that the system has made many mistakes and that much has as yet remained untested. Nevertheless, the transition from a privately owned, unregulated construction industry to a planned and centralized  one, committed to rationalization and the reduction of costs, represents an undeniable advance. The Building Committee of the RSFSR is an agency with unlimited powers responsible for the rationalization of the whole building process throughout the whole territory of Russia.
These factors tend to affect Russian architecture in a negative as well as in a positive way and give the existing situation in the USSR its own peculiar flavor. In spite of the fact that until now only a few projects have been realized, each consecutive year can be expected to produce new and important successes. The limited number of modern buildings erected so far should merely be regarded as the first harbingers of the future. Indubitably, the immediate future will produce a number of buildings that will be in full accordance with the new principles of modern architecture. The sum total of objective facts recited above assures us that contemporary architecture in Russia will gain ground with each passing year.
[From Die Baugilde, October 1928]