Bruno Taut’s “Russia’s Architectural Situation” (1929)

All thoughts in Russia are dominated by industrialization and the concurrent opening up of its vast virgin territories, rich in natural resources but lacking the technical equipment for their exploitation.  Architectural thought is directed toward the same goals.  Industrial building and the industrialization of building are foremost among the concerns of Russian architects who have come to the West to study, to visit, and to collect information; they also feature prominently in the questions Russians ask when speaking to Western architects visiting Russia.  Russian industrial buildings are conceived in the same consistent, functional manner as are ours here in the West, in Holland, France, partially in England, and above all in America.  The Ford plant in Detroit could just as well have been built in Russia, with minor modifications necessitated by different climatic conditions, and the new plant by Ford in Nizhnii-Novgorod will indeed soon confirm this contention.  The architectural problem as such in the field of industrial building has ceased to exist, since the definition of purpose is unequivocal and, in terms of its goals, can just about be determined with mathematical precision, so that it is possible today to speak about a virtually universal reflex of appropriate architectural design habits.  Indeed, one is tempted to say that the difficulties that have surrounded this problem have been overcome.

Even though the USSR is totally committed to the economic exploitation of its territories, especially under the influence of the five-year plans, there are indications that there are areas of productive work that are not immediately affected by this tendency and that cannot subsist by virtue of a purely scientific point of view, even though the economy has been raised to the level of state planning, thus injecting elements of a moral and ethical nature into the situation.  This much is evident: when individual self-interest is superseded by work for the community, new sources of ideas, as well as new spiritual resources, have to be tapped to provide this higher usefulness with continuing purpose.

In the publication New Russia (Vol. 5/6, 1929) the Greek poet Nikolai Kazan writes in his ‘Banquet of Georgian Poets’ about an important conversation with the Georgian poet Robakidze, who is quoted as having said the following: ‘It is the purpose of art to epress the invisible breath of the father in a tactile and visible manner.  If man [168] does not succeed beyond merely expressing or describing the son, then his art must be considered superficial and insignificant…”; and further on: ‘The Russian Revolution is a visibl phenomenon of a larger cosmic revolution that is being prepared in our hearts.  The poet must come to understand the deep meaning of Bolshevism; he is its son, and only through it can he search and find the father…’ — And Meierkhol’d, whose theater was the precursor of purism, of mechanized ‘objectivity’ and the abstraction of acting, has recently confessed that ‘…beauty must now come to the stage.  We must inundate theater with beauty!’ Surely there is no danger that Meierkhol’d will conjure up an arts-and-crafts stage in the manner of Max Reinhardt of 30 years ago.  Nevertheless, by means of objectivity on the one hand and by abstraction on the other, art strives to capture all the human senses by illuminating the universal by means of concrete reality.

The absence of such a harmonious point of view, which possibly only the Mexican Diego Rivera has brought to realization in painting, may well have been what prevented Lenin in his time from becoming the friend of revolutionary artists, apart from the fact that he may not have considered the arts of great importance in general; at any rate, even the durable People’s Commissar, Lunacharskii, was unable to give these trends full priority.  As a result, we have the well publicized debate in the Soviet press — initiated by Gorkii — and reported in our press as well, which discussed the merits and value of a thorough study of classical literature.

Architecture cannot ignore these spiritual currents; on the contrary, it is fully part of them, particularly if it is to transcend the trite concerns of a purely functional approach.  Basically, there is no limit to such an approach; but, as mentioned before, the design of straightforward industrial buildings does not recognize this problem at all, or only partially, since, strictly speaking, the problem as such is in fact the result of pure functional necessity.  It was quite proper to reduce architecture to its basic functional aspects, thus ending the confusion of mixing or confounding it with painting and sculpture, and so at long last destroying its image as one of the decorative arts.  Even though the Russians, and we as well, have thrown off this particular yoke, a new tendency has to be fought these days, namely, the tendency to proclaim that functionalism and objectivity are the highest aims of architecture.  Functionalism in the sense of trite utilitarianism or, even worse, mere consideration of cost and profit, would surely mean the death of architecture.  The dissipation of the achievements of the pioneers of modern [169] architecture shows very clearly how much damage can be done if such a thesis is accepted.  Function, understood in the sense that the whole building as well as all its component parts, its spaces, and ultimately even its exterior are permeated by a consistent spirit, will give architecture a new lease on life and re-establish it as an art in the aesthetic sense as well.  This is borne out by the fact that a number of existing examples already manifest the first ingredients of such new beauty.  A similar case can be made about the question of objectivity.  In a positive sense the consequences are the same as described above.  In the negative sense the results may turn out to be even worse: instead of seeing his task as one of building, the architect sees it as one of making programs for building.  Whereas in the past he did not concern himself at all, or only very little,w ith the needs and wants that led to building, he now attempts to deal with these questions all by himself.  A drastic example of this is the workingman’s dwelling, which the architect wants to reform according to his own ideas, and which is usually designed for the ‘new’ dweller, who is made to fit the preconceived notion of the architect in question.  Our own situation is full of examples that such experiments, should they become the rule, inevitably lead to an even more extensive proletarianization of the working classes than before.  In order to arrive at a true understanding of the whole situation, a knowledge of the worker’s life, and poverty in general, is necessary to provide food for one’s imagination.  Seen in this light, many of the exhibited plans and model layouts take on the semblance of a charity tea ‘for the benefit of the poor.’

In Russia these, as it were, self-induced dilemmas of modern architecture are quite naturally expressed in a different manner.  However, as soon as residential construction there overcomes its primitive form of organization, which so far has prevented it from arriving at any kind of concrete achievement, the same dilemmas as those described above will have to be faced.  Still, the Russians sense this danger, and it is quite possible that they are resisting modern architecture on the basis of their observations of developments abroad — often in toto — simply because they do not understand the exact nature of the danger.  Such an opposition, devoid of any real argument, and which because of a revolutionary ideology feels that it is being pushed toward a moral schism according to the laws of polarity, is now faced by architect-artists whose a priori worship of modern architecture, of construction, materials, concrete, steel, glass, etc., is essentially as unjustified as the position of their opponents.  [170] These moderns want to imbue the ‘new’ materials with revolutionary ideology, thus elevating them to symbols of their age.  Furthermore, it is really very difficult for an outsider to understand the difference between the so-called ‘constructivists’ and the ‘formalists.’  Often, these designs are accompanied by tables of [a] statistical or quasiscientific character, and the Scheerbart ‘lucky numbers’ are greeted with ecstatic delight.  Another import from the West: German city plans and/or building projects, covered with minute descriptions, the whole sheathed in scientific lingo, certainly may be partially blamed for all this confusion.

It appears that the inhibitions of both parties have the same basic source.  On the one hand ideology, science, materials; on the other, force, monumentality, representation, with both attempting to quench the thirst for beauty.  However, the real sources seem as mysterious as ever.

America teaches a good lesson concerning European weaknesses, insofar as it mirrors them as caricatures in their ultimate distortion.  I received a publication notice from New York, awaiting a book with the title The Logic of Modern Architecture. […]


In Russia the search for fundamentals takes on dramatic forms.  There, as anywhere else, human weakness becomes part of the struggle as manifested in competition work and its results, where over and over again we see the conflict between design for a functional purpose as opposed to the quest for beauty.  In a limited competition for the projected building of the Great Lenin Library on a prominent site in Moscow, the brothers Vesnin unquestionably submitted the best plans.  However, rightly or wrongly, it was found that their modern façade was not the logical solution to the problem because its large glass areas.  And so it apparently decided to give the commission to an academicioan who responded more positively to the craving for monumentality with corresponding sacrifices of functional clarity in the layout.  In accord with the above-mentioned American ‘logic,’ a case like this does call for monumentality, thereby helping this kind of logic to victory, simply because of the weak spot of the counter argument was easy to spot, in spite of the fact that there was no question about its advantages in terms of all its other qualities.  Another such situation exists with respect to another building in a large governmental complex near the Kremlin.  Le Corbusier’s design for the building of the Centrosoyuz illustrates a similar process, albeit with a different set of characteristics: in place of monumentality we are here dealing with pseudorational artistry presented by a brilliant talent, far beyond the comprehension of Moscow.

A number of functional and important buildings point the way in the direction of future developments, even in Russia.  Among these are the buildings of the Electrical Technical Institute, the Textile and Aerohydrodynamic Institute, the Stadium, the Institute of Mineralogy by Vesnin, the Moscow Planetarium and, to a certain degree, the Kharkov Administration Building.  In time the present overriding tendency to express the heroism of the Revolution in monuments will hopefully be overcome.  The provisional Mausoleum of Lenin, which is currently being replaced by a permanent structure, has in general been treated in a restrained manner, the exception being the small Greek temple at its top, which illustrates the common error of mistaking architecture for literature.  The Lenin Institute, completed in 1925, is another example of a building designed to express ‘dignity’ and ‘strength’ by its great black bulk of stone.  The extent to which its real architectural performance has suffered may be gauged by the gloomy and extremely heavy appearance of the building, especially [172] with respect to the striking contrast this produces within the charming cityscape of Moscow to its immediate vicinity.  One may also note the complete inability to provide a good solution for the urbanistically very important Palace of the Soviets, which now will be very difficult to save.  The gloomy and ponderous character of this effort represents the hallmark of a period for a whole school of architects who designed not only office buildings but also apartment houses and clubs in this particular manner.  Still, these are not half as bad as the horrible academic misconceptions of the Main Telegraph Office, in which both plan and façades are equally hopeless.  As far as the Lenin Institute and its companions are concerned, one can see these as the first ponderous attempts of the Russian muzhik trying his first steps in a new direction.

The task of Russian architecture can be seen as an attempt to bring these new ideas into harmony with the traditional Russian closeness to the soil.  In Russia this is no empty phrase, but a fact; for in their colors, dances, music, and folk-art the Russians reveal in a visible and tactile manner a true national tradition.  Therefore the transformation of something modern into something heavy and cumbersome merely means that a synthesis has not yet been achieved; but it also means that a start has nevertheless been made.  Indeed, if one has some feeling for such imponderables, one can sense that this process is at work even now as far as the above-mentioned buildings are concerned.  Just as the Russians accept as natural the idea of a fusion of opposites in their philosophy, so they may possibly also succeed in eventually translating the fusion of apparent contradictions into concrete reality.  The artists among the architects are not being taken seriously as such by practicing professionals and engineers.  However, when obliged to work together with the latter group, the artistry of the atelier changes under the influence of the practicians into heavy, earthbound construction and form, and, in spite of some vague references to Western ideas, the results eventually wind up having typically Russian traits.  This is best exemplified by the new stadium.  Even though the overriding influence of the engineer is quite evident in its design, its peculiar ponderous quality really belongs to the sphere of the Russian conception of art.

—   Unpublished manuscript, November 2nd, 1929.


~ by Ross Wolfe on September 27, 2011.

One Response to “Bruno Taut’s “Russia’s Architectural Situation” (1929)”


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