Moisei Ginzburg’s “Results and Prospects” (1927)

One of the principles spawned by the October Revolution which has proved most potent for modern artistic labor is undoubtedly constructivism.  The struggle for the new tenets of constructivism began in the Soviet Union in 1920.  The “ideological content” of constructivism consisted in a departure from the metaphysical essence of idealistic aesthetics and a move towards consistent artistic materialism.  The constructivists at that time set themselves the task of destroying the abstract forms and old aspects of art, and of rationalizing artistic labor.

However, the vital principles of constructivism have now been adopted by theatrical producers and designers, leftist painters, constructivist poets and so on, who have transformed what are often essentially revolutionary principles into an individual “constructive-aesthetic style.”  Constructivism has been on a host of occasions not only not only distorted and vulgarized but also used in what is its absolute antithesis — a purely formal and aesthetic basis.  As a result, to this day the general public has not managed to differentiate fully the artistic methods of this “pseudo-constructivism” from the true vital principles of constructivism.  Essentially, the majority of the polemics, attacks, and difficulties which constructivism has had to experience, have to a large extent resulted from this confusion, which explains he inability or reluctance among our critics to understand these two, as it were diametrically opposed concepts.

Aleksei Gan’s propaganda book Constructivism, which was issued in Moscow in 1922, represents the first attempt to formulate and disseminate in print the vital ideas of constructivism.

The constructivists’ declaration and program, presented in 1920 to the plenary session of the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK), and the above-mentioned book, so to speak, the first signposts to the future development of constructivism.  In one of the extracts from this book which at that time appeared in our periodical press, we read, amongst other things:

But attacks against Marxists being ‘hurt by aesthetics’ will be sterile after constructivism has made the transition from the realm of theory to action and has shown in action its connection with the Marxist conception of life…

Since that time five years have elapsed.  During those five years much has been done by Soviet architecture in the realm of action.  The following lines will endeavor to trace the results of this action, and to outline the prospects for the further development of constructivism in one of the most important realms of artistic labor and production — architecture.

In 1923 we have a landmark for constructivism in its first concrete architectural action — the Vesnins’ project for a “Palace of Labor” completed for a competition which the Moscow Architectural Society was commissioned to announce by the Moscow Soviet.

For the first time we see embodied in this work the vital principles of the new approach to the resolution of architectural problems.  This work is uniquely important and valuable for its new plan.  Instead of an intricate, involved configuration, with many courtyards and passages, giving a better or worse, but almost always a stereotyped symmetrical and purely ornamental impression; instead of, in other words, an old-style specific plan, the Vesnin brothers alone, for all the defects and shortcomings of their work, nevertheless provided in this competition a new approach to the same assignment, concentrating all the locations in a new way, rejecting all internal courtyards, attempting the creation of a new social organism, whose inner life flowed as a whole not from the stereotypes of the past, but from the novelty of the job itself.  The whole of its further development was subordinate to and anticipated by an elliptical hall for 8,000 people, joined by a sliding wall to another hall for 2,500 people, providing in this case a colossal meeting-place for the representatives of the working people of the whole world — an architectural conception of grandiose proportions.  Such is the simple monolithic three-dimensional expression of the “palace” from the outside, flowing logically from its internal conception, and interrupted rhythmically only by the few horizontal and vertical lines of a reinforced concrete framework as well as some utilitarian additions, such as a radio mast, a clock, and so on.

There is a curious comparison between the Vesnins’ palace and Walter Gropius’ project of a building for the Chicago Tribune, which was also completed in 1923, and which — in the laconic simplicity of the same framework of horizontal and vertical lines — in fact has close parallels with the palace.

But these two almost simultaneous projects, which arrived at a single system of external partition as the function of a single construction, clearly highlight the difference between the tasks confronting each other.

At a time when Gropius’ Chicago Tribune, a brilliantly executed, radically constructed object designed with a new simplicity, has for its inner content the typical American conception of the “Business House,” the Vesnins’ “palace” originates from a new social conception of the organism of a building, so establishing a fundamental characteristic of constructivism.

Although the Vesnins’ next work — the joint-stock company ARCOS building — is on the surface completely unlike the Chicago Tribune building, it comes far closer to it in its essence for the simple reason that by dint of the peculiarities of the job and the site, it represents the typical planned conception of comparable banks, and reduces all the revolutionary achievements of the authors to a mere external design.

Accordingly, only the Palace of Labor can be regarded as the first landmark of genuine constructivism, for while the ARCOS building, with its system of vertical and horizontal planes, with the clarity of its proportions, the restrained simplicity of the whole and its details — is a beautifully executed object, it lacks the authentically revolutionary stamp of constructivism.  Nevertheless, the Palace of Labor did not receive the appreciation it deserved, and the ARCOS building made an immense impact in the broader circles of modern architects and on our student youth.  The explanation of this phenomenon is extremely simple.  The Palace of Labor was the first realization of the method of constructivism.  It cannot be imitated.  It can only be followed — along the thorny path of independent, thoughtful, and creative work.  The ARCOS building is a new formulation of the “conception of façades.”  It is externally revolutionary and internally inoffensive.  It is the line of least resistance, which the majority takes.

This was the way that the first stages of the “new style” was created; its unique characteristic consisted in a framework of horizontal and vertical lines, filled either by the body of a wall or by continuous fenestration.  In this way the so-called “glass-mania” arose — it was the easiest and most irresponsible means of filling the framework, the amount (of filling) being determined not by the actual need for light, but by the spaces formed by the partitions in the framework.  It required a deal of time for the transition to be made from this initial period, which advanced the construction framework of a wall to the exclusion of everything else, to a more penetrating conception and interpretation of an external wall, not only as an elementary quantity in construction, but also as an isolated plance, behind which is concealed definite social content.

During this period the work of Soviet architects proceeded in almost complete isolation from Western Europe and America, and the similarity between certain of our concepts and those of our comrades abroad can be explained as the natural outcome of the same preconditions in construction.  Starting from 1924-25 a series of Western European magazines began to come through to us, acquainting us with the achievements of foreign architects, and at the same time exercising considerable influence on our everyday work.  It should, however, be pointed out that the achievements of our Western comrades have in the same way been subject to the influence, on the one hand, of the vital principles of constructivism, exported to the West by Lissitzky a and Ehrenburg, and on the other, to the influence of Surprematist compositions of space bore an extraordinary resemblance to the three dimensional architectural compositions of the Dutchmen Doesburg and van Eesteren.

Be that as it may, with the help of a whole series of magazines and books, above all with the help of the Czechoslovakian magazine Stavba, the French Esprit Nouveau, the Dutch De Stijl, and the Polish Blok, Soviet architects are recognizing that behind the customs barriers in almost every European country there is a group, however large or small, of revolutionary innovators, whose paths intersect our own at some point.  Just now we are learning to value and respect Walter Gropius’ many years of persistent and obdurate revolutionary work, we admire Le Corbusier-Saugnier’s acute mind and rational inventiveness, in a series of projects and theoretical books which have reappraised all the old architectural values.

But in connection with this acquaintance with our Western comrades’ achievements, there is another phase of the “latest new style,” which has borrowed from Le Corbusier only the formal attributes of his work, only his treatment of the external wall, the horizontally extended window, or some of the other design details.  Within the broader circles of our architects and youth there has grown a fashionable new veneer of this style which has replaced the previous one without at any point approaching a fundamental solution of an architectural problem.  While giving our Western comrades’ achievements their due, constructivist architects wish to obtain from them not such and such formal elements but those vital principles and working methods which actually are of great assistance to our work, in some instances reinforcing it, in others enabling a clear understanding of those divergences and disagreements which result from the completely different social and economic conditions of our existence…

We increasingly face an awful danger — the danger of the appearance of a canonical new style, the danger of the appearance of a stereotyped new design, which disregards the organism of the assignment, and which acquires its own independent aesthetic existence.

In other words, what is at issue is the substitution of the truly revolutionary principles of constructivism which go to the very essence of each task and compel its reappraisal, starting from the plan and the construction, and finishing with the design flowing organically from them — the substitution of these principles by the external stereotypes of the new style, under which is concealed an atavistic planned conception or an archaic construction method.

It is extremely important and necessary that we recognize this danger in time, and warn ourselves against this easier path, but one alien to us

Constructivism is the most up-to-date working method of this day.  The constructivist is working today for the sake of tomorrow.  Therefore he must banish all of yesterday’s stereotypes and canons, and any danger of utopianism as well.  He must not forget that while working for tomorrow, he is nevertheless building today

The attempt at the reconciliation in the new dwelling of the workers’ completely individualized family life within our view of the growing need for a social-collective life, for the emancipation of women from unnecessary household burdens — this is a manifestation of the will of the architect to take his place in the building of a new life, in the creation of a new organism — the social condenser of our time.  This…represents the basic feature with which we should characterize the work of the Soviet constructivist architect…

With our desire at all costs to put our principles into effect not on paper, but in the real construction of life, we must at all costs make our work conform to the possibilities of its realization

Thus, summing up the results of our first social survey not from the point of view of the individual success of one or other of our comrades, but from the point of view of the collective advancement of constructivism’s practical working methods, we can formulate with much greater precision our most urgent problems.

(i) We must first of all place on the basis of our work, the careful and persistent working out of this task: work on the creation of the social condensers of the epoch, which represent the true aim of constructivism in architecture.  The work on the creation of a new type of dwelling should be continued at a deeper level, and in exactly the same way comparable work should be started on the other urgent problems of the day — particularly the problem of the standardization of the basic and most widespread social buildings, and the still most neglected question of the principles of new town planning.

The maximum public attention needs to be drawn to this work, and it should in every way possible be joined with the work of our comrades who are directly at the source of the new existential and productive interrelationships.

(ii) Our activity must be intensified in the sphere of the elaboration and popularization of the most appropriate constructional methods and constructional materials in relation to our economic and technical potential.  The struggle must be intensified for the right to build a new architecture with new constructional methods and new constructional materials.

(iii) Questions of architectural design within the terms of constructivism must at all costs be raised and analyzed under laboratory conditions.

We must study and examine in every possible way the architect’s material which is formed in the very process of the utilitarian construction of an object: plan, volume, space, color, texture, and so on.

We must study it so that we master it and subordinate it in the process of the resolution of an architectural problem.

We must with more than usual application and thoroughness clarify all the questions of architectural design, not, of course, in order that they should acquire a self-satisfying independent existence, but only so that they should be used in the best possible way, subject always to the utilitarian constructional essence of the organism.  It is necessary to raise questions of architectural design as questions of the level of skill of an artist’s work, as questions of purely architectural culture.  We must grasp that a conception perfect in its architectural expression is achieved in the process of utilitarian constructional development not mechanically, not of its own accord, but on the basis of the architect’s higher level of skill, on the basis of his architectural culture, which is the result of the greatest possible mastery of architectural material, the result of the ability to utilize and subordinate to oneself all the peculiarities and properties of plane, volume, and space.

And in addition it is necessary to approach these problems with great caution, in order to avoid all the dangers of abstract aesthetic interpretations of objects, which lead inevitably to the alienation of form from content, the primordial evil of pre-revolutionary architectural dualism.

The formulation and resolution of all these most important problems of form within the terms of constructivism must become one of the OSA’s [Association of Contemporary Architects] immediate tasks, and must receive exhaustive coverage in the pages of our journal.

[Originally published as «Итоги и перспективы».  Современная архитектура,  1927.  №4/5.  с. 112-114]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on November 3, 2010.

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