El Lissitzky’s “The Catastrophe of Architecture” (1921)
(1921, from ISO, No. 1, March 1921)
We are now on the road to the artist’s direct participation in the creation of material culture.
Architecture is an art which has always embodied the culture of the age in a material form. What is being achieved in the architecture of today?
In Numbers 1 and 3 of Khudozhestvannaia Zhizn’ [‘Artistic Life’], the bulletin of the art section [IZO] of the People’s Commissariat of Education [Narkompros], there are a series of articles from the Politico-Architectural Department which clearly and fully express the outlook on life of people who are now working at their benches and creating the ‘new artistic-constructional culture linked with the rebuilding of the State on new principles’ (No. 1, page 27).
The narrowness and backwardness of their outlook is completely embodied in the above definition, for, in an age when all the foundations of the old society have been destroyed and the whole world is being born anew, to see only the reorganization of the State and new building regulations means looking no further than their own bureaucratic desk.
We shall not cite illustrative examples from these articles here, such as the concern for the working ‘class,’ for the ‘peasants’ — there are more serious matters to be considered. This new school has been made so bold as to talk of ‘Utopia’ (No. 3, page 23 onwards). It is working on a project for building the Moscow of the future. You are expecting them to create new arteries through which the life-blood of the new Red Moscow is to flow. In order to establish these new channels, these Utopians from the architectural workshop of the Moscow Council of Deputies have dragged out the mummified seventeenth-century town plan and are ‘reconstructing’ the former ring roads of the ‘whole city,’ and so on and so forth.
They are planning a ‘City’ for Moscow in the Nikolskaia, Varvarka, and Ilinka districts, corresponding to London’s belly of world capitalism. In the suburbs they are building ‘pleasant estates’ and suchlike for the workers.
Where are such paltry Utopias born?
In the archives!
When they came to design a new Kamenny Bridge over the Moskva River for their projected Utopia (No. 1, pg. 30), they dispatched a gravedigger to ‘carry out a thorough excavation of the archives, to unearth a historical reference to the Kamenny bridge’ and then to ‘present a detailed report, of which the separate data will together constitute a basis for consideration, when selecting the artistic-architectonic shape of the new bridge.’
Now we have had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the forms resulting from this search in the archives: recently an exhibition was opened, showing the entries in a competition for the design of bridges to span the Moskva river. What we simply fail to understand is in which Moscow archives the ‘Mannheim type’ and the Palladian columns were found. With a miscarriage it is not necessary to pay for a midewife; similarly, to pay for reports which have not the slightest connection with the present face of the city is a frivolous waste of public funds. This exhibition was an appalling disgrace to the venerable repurtation of our feeble graybeards. The best proof of this is the design submitted by the most revered of them all. The bridge and a roadway spanning the river to link two streets was treated by him like a Roman forum. In the middle he placed a temple — with the customary colonnades — to some god, and built a triumphal flight of steps flanked with lions, which led straight down into the Moskva river. Yes, in order to create a miracle like this a great store of knowledge is essential: one needs to know that Venice was once  the empress of the seas and that there lived a doge who was wed every year to the Adriatic; that once upon a time there lived a great architect named Palladio and so that the doge could descend from the bridge or the palace to his beautiful bride the sea, a temple and flight of steps with lions was built. But what fool transplants all this into the Moskva mud, and why? We do not need these temples and flights of steps nowadays, even for baptism by total immersion…
It is not my fault that I had to lead you into this society of living corpses, but what wind brought them here?
Ever since they transplanted our living, naturally-cultivated creations into the hothouses of the academies, everything truly creative has passed these conservatories by. But those for whom the cnavas and clay were too restrictive, who proceeded to design buildings, became trapped in a shamanistic circle of endless library studies, which professors crammed into them, slowly, yeet in such a way as to stem the whole creative impulse of their apprentices. So monsters grew up among us, walking encyclopaedias of knowledge of all past ages, as wrinkled and unfit for life as all antiquated things are. It is little wonder that the name applied to these so-called ‘applied artists’ — that of ‘architects’ — has become a term of abuse among artists.
But now a fresh wind arose in the West. The soil of life has been furrowed by revolution. In place of the eight wonders of the ancient world we have a new wonder — the modern city.
In Paris, under Napoleon III, the triumphant bourgeoisie swept away the medieval dust and congestion and began installing themselves in newly-erected living-quarters along the grands boulevards. Thus the image of the new bourgeois capitalist world was created and flourished in the shape of their town.
When imperialist capital began to tread on the corns of its less successful brother — the petty bourgeois — this generated philanthropy and a love of nature. In London, Ebenezer Howard invented the ‘garden city’ — cozy little houses in the suburbs to which those people for whom there was no room in the city-center could escape. Krupps, the German industrialists (and others in a similarly elevated position), were enthusiastic about this splendid idea, and set about philanthropically installing their workers in the same kind of colonies.
It is from this kind of world that the wind brought us our living corpses who intended to establish in Communist Russia the capitalist, imperialist town, with its center of stock exchanges (the City), with its factory-sites and workshops removed outside in the direction from which the wind does not blow, with its philanthropic little houses for the working ‘classes,’ and so on and so on.
All this gives rise to a chauvinistic, nationalistic, debased form of stylization, the preservation of antiquated customs, and the historical development of the styles of our great-grandmothers.
In our contemporary language there is an exact term for this — counter-revolution.
All these are the obsolescent creations of the obsolescent bourgeoisie. Here, nothing is left of the audacity of such men as Haussmann, who in the days of their triumph boldly cut down the old body of Paris and therewith demonstrated their own strength. What is happening to us? These people go not only to Paris, but still further back to Alexandria, to Alexander of Macedonia, to Cairo, and whatever other beautiful towns there are in the world. They visit these places to derive inspiration, but once there they lose their heads in the futile raptures of aesthetic hypnosis. This is a criminal waste of time. There is not exactly a superfluity of time, and it must be used to advantage for the relentless study of the practical knowledge which is being accumulated in the building field at the present time. We cannot afford a romantic escape from the present day, to seek consolation for our lack of talent in Greek columns, Roman temples, and Parisian boulevards.
With regard to the factories and workers’ settlements, the attitude is even more counter-revolutionary. We have plans for factories — and some have actually been built — where the ‘artist-architect’ once again merely takes advantage of the opportunity to build a Roman temple. Countless rows of columns, endless masses of material squandered for the amusement for one single man — the architect. Too much is  done for the pleasure of a few dilettantes. We have a railway station, a masterpiece in the style of the ‘national’ pavilions in world exhibitions, which are built to stand for exactly six months; and they try to convince you that this is art.
Now they are trying to design the prototype of a one-family house for the working man.
Why spend money on projects? In the near future you will be able to get everything ready-made from Germany, America, or England. But is this what we need? Do we need the separate, private house in which all the comforts have been limited to the barest minimum which is considered necessary for the worker, so that the extras can be provided for the employer?
And are the workers in Russia satisfied with this? I have a letter from a railway worker, A. Smirnov from Orenburg, concerning the erection of a building complex for ten thousand railwaymen and their families. In it he asks for clear and positive responses to all the needs of a highly-cultured man of today. He ends his extremely interesting letter by pointing out that this is naturally a task which would take many years, but it must be conceived on a less philanthropic scale — ‘the proletarian is bound to be sensitive to this and does not want “estates for the workers”.’
Now here it is becoming clear that our venerable masters are concerned only with the art of architecture, and all the rest belong to the art of building. Let the builders design and construct the living frame of a factory or community center, and then the artist-architects will come along with their powder and paints, with wigs and false beards, and start sticking bits on and putting a stylish make-up on the unartistic work of the builder.
Must the building obtain its raison d’être from the art of architecture? Looked at in this way, does not architecture appear to be a parasite on the healthy body of building? Does this architecture need a whole faculty in the State Industrial Art Workshops? Was the two-headed eagle, adorned with blazons of all different styles, with the orb of Greece and the scepter of Rome in his claws, torn from the pediment of the Academy, only to be brought into the lecture-room and there consoled by the embraces of the young generation? What is it in this plucked eagle that is hypnotizing youth? Or is youth also powerless? Can it really still believe in diplomas received from geese whose ancestors saved Rome? Yet surely life demands creative men. But where can we expect to find them in the art of building, in that field which is facing the tremendous problem of remodeling the whole material environment of life to conform with its newly re-orientated purpose?” Pgs. 369-371.
(1921, from ISO, No. 1, March 1921)