What Did the Constructivists Ever Do For Us?

With the exhibition Building the Revolution now closed in London,  it is worth reflecting on the way in which the achievements of the Constructivists have been revisited and reinvented. Indeed, I would argue that this process rather than any slavish homage to the original form is the reason why this fascinating architectural moment has best been remembered.

Let’s take the The Tatlin Tower as a start. The version of this proposed structure was exhibited in the Russian Pavilion at the 1925 Exposition Internationale in Paris was already the second model of the proposal in existence. Sitting beneath a portrait of Lenin, the tower by this point had already begun its strange other life: not as a realisable project but as symbolic expression of the contributions art and technology can make to revolution. At the May Day parade in Leningrad of that year a notably different Tatlin model, flatter, more elongated in plan, was put on display. The pair of latticed spirals and the cross-bracing were there but the actual form of the building had changed. Subtly the exact form of the tower had ceased to be important.

Jean-Louis Cohen suggested in his Royal Academy lecture in December 2011 that there ought to be an exhibition of all the models made of the Tatlin. This is not as ludicrous as it sounds. As Nathalie Leleu says of the Tatlin: “this lost work has been reconstructed several times and each artefact synthesises and formalises a different state of knowledge in a given form and time.”  A largely thwarted attempt by Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1968 to investigate the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, used two drafts and three photographs of the first model published in 1921 to create a 1:10 scale model, This was then adapted through information gleaned from a photograph of the 1925 model, (Leleu doesn’t specify which) together with a high-angle view of the top of the first tower under construction.

In 1971, for an exhibition on the Russian avant-garde at the Hayward Gallery in London, Jeremy Dixon, among others, rebuilt a model of the Tatlin based on drawings rather than photographs of models. Making more of the arches at the base than those extrapoloted from Tatlin’s models, Dixon’s effort is effectively the one that was rebuilt in the courtyard of the Royal Academy. The project had to be remade and remade, whenever the Russian avant-garde was addressed. The French rebuilt the Tower again in 1979 for the Paris-Moscow exhibition following, but theirs was ultimately a reworking of the Swedish model. Bizarrely the Swedish model was damaged and in turn reworked according to its French copy following an insurance payout. Note that it is the model that is remade, and not just an image which is reproduced. By rebuilding it there is an attempt to recommune with the purpose, even if only for a short summer. It has been rebuilt again from Dixon’s first model 40 years later in the court of the Royal Academy in London as part of the aforementioned Building the Revolution exhibition.

The way in which the Tatlin represents revolution is not straightforward or easy. A work which originally proclaimed the social purpose of art and architecture, it is apparently purposeless. In one sense it is utterly useless because it never achieved the practical goals of housing the congresses of the Third International. Purpose was everything to the constructivists, even if that purpose evolved. The contradictions pile on with each new iteration. Not having ever lived, it lives on. The critic Nikolai Punin noted that the monument was the anti-ruin par excellence because it departed from the Classical and Renaissance traditions. This has come true more than he could have expected, not having been built it cannot be corrupted. The tower operated primarily as a cri de guerre for the constructivists in the early 1920s and still does to those who sympathise with its origins. By remaking a model, you have to re-imagine the original purpose transmuted to a contemporary world. A network of artists including Lucy Skaer are attempting to rebuild the tower in full scale in pieces around the world.

Of course, the constructivist moment is not just visited through this architectural laying on of hands. As strange as it may seem, its impact on the development of architectural practice and theory is only now being understood. We are beginning to reappreciate the role of constructivism in a wider historical history after it was trashed within the Soviet Union due to the rise of Stalin and outside because the Soviet Union was closed to the West. A lot of the disregard was based on Cold War antipathy. For example, Reyner Banham did not feel that the Constructivists warranted their own chapter in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, despite our understanding now that it is one of the major sites if not of technological then certainly of organisational and theoretical development during his book’s period of study.

It is only now that the movements intense relationships with European architectural discourse are being understood.  A story that Cohen tells illustrates this perfectly. Le Corbusier brings back the blueprints of the Narkomfin with him following his trip to Moscow. An act, according to Cohen, that helped Le Corbusier to the design of the Unite in Marseille. Constructivism was an incredibly inventive moment. This is not, as Owen Hatherley  would have it because they prefigured a number of different architectural styles, but of more fundamental ideas about spatial organisation and construction. Fundamental design innovations were made by the Constructivists which are now such important parts of our designers vocabulary for creating space that we don’t recognise it: the social efficacy of multi-storey living, the division of domestic functions in a duplex. These are ideas that Le Corbusier took directly from Ginzburg and his Narkomfin.

It must be stated that the focus on the transfer of knowledge is not intended to devalue the work performed by the Constructivists in Russia. Constructivists were not just itinerant avant-gardists but committed communists. This retelling of the influence of the Constructivists is quite the opposite. It is an attempt to readdress the subsequent critical isolation of Constructivism, partly out of ignorance and partly of ideological distaste and to show that the limited number of buildings they created – many now under threat of demolition – is in many ways in inverse proportion to their skill and influence. Daniel Talesnik is currently doing interesting work in charting the relationship between the Bauhaus Red Brigade which arrived in Moscow from Weimar (just as the constructivists were forced out of power it must be said). Their leader Hannes Meyer later emigrated to Latin America, like many others.

The internationalism of the Constructivists is important and best understood through their interest in publishing. In his book, Pioneers of Soviet Architecture, S. O Khan-Magomedov explains how the Constructivists became the dominant school of the Russian avant-garde from 1921. According to Khan-Magomedov, the Constructivists were very interested in guaranteeing the political veracity of new architecture through a focus on the aesthetics of constructivism. He relates how the Vesnin brothers won the prize to design the Headquarters for Arcos, an Anglo-Soviet trading company. When they did so, they were the only purely constructivist project of 1924. One year later, the brothers also entered a competition for the Central Telegraph Office and the House of Textiles. All of these entries were in the constructivist style.

Frightened that Constructivism might turn into a purely external and formal style, Constructivists concentrated on the formulation of a set of artistic beliefs and the foundation of an organisation uniting the movement – the OSA. The OSA established the magazine Contemporary Architecture or SA as it is known in Russian. It began with the slogan ”Contemporary architecture must crystallize the new socialist way of life.”  The way Khan-Magomedov describes it, if there was going to be a repetition of the constructivist style then they at least would ensure that it adhered to the political motive behind it. Editorial meetings had a relatively fluid membership but the eldest Vesnin sat over it all.

The magazines are astonishing documents. Although utterly seductive in appearance, the text constantly interposes on the image and asserts the revolutionary social purpose of the architects work. The traditional hierarchy of the magazine page is attacked – graphics cut over images, floor plans float in white space. There is frequent use of the signature axonometric viewpoint to drawings used by Malevich, which throws the viewer over the project. Focus pieces covered industrial architecture and small studies of work in other countries, Frank Lloyd Wright in the USA, Andre Lurcat in Paris. The editors used French and German on its cover lines in 1927. Captions were translated into German even earlier acknowledging the small but avid readership the publication had in the West.

Rodchenko’s contribution is obvious in the design but compared to his other work it is restrained, and the plans – loads and loads of plans – have primacy over photography or even elevations. The organisation of the magazine meanwhile is driven towards technology. In every other magazine published before or since the technical section is in the back, to sit near the advertisers of materials who are a publishers mainstay. The technical section moved in SA. In one issue in 1927, it is at the front of the magazine. Technical skills were at the vanguard of state-led architectural production.

From this perspective, the photographs at the heart of the Building the Revolution exhibition can be seen as exceptional documents of architectural ingenuity rather than art themselves. (They are also a testament to the construction workers who built them. Working seasonally with new concrete technologies as Chinese workers do today, they helped produce new forms for new types of housing which have held up well even in their disregard.) The ones that make up the bulk of the Royal Academy exhibition are not essentially documents which fixate on disregard, although that disregard is clear. We are now so used to the site of ruined modernism in contemporary art that it has become a cliché; a lame cipher that gestures to the idea of a lost utopia without really engaging with the often very specific reasons why a building has become ruined.

When filtered through the lens of the rebuilt Tatlin tower it is clear that Pare’s photographs are in fact documents not of derelict buildings but appreciations of architectural ingenuity:  the split staircases at the Narkomzem, the use of the four storey corner towers on a three storey block at the Proletariat Club; it’s a catalogue of ingenuity. Pare’s photographs were first published in his book Lost Vanguard in 2007., with a foreword by Phyllis Lambert and like the exhibition, it shows the scope of the constructivist project: The Central Post Office in Kharkov in the Ukraine. The Palace of the Press in Baku in Azerbaijan. It is a programme integral to the DNA of the CCA; reinstating a vital moment in the evolution of architecture through vigorous research, commitment and, perhaps most importantly, the use of a camera. It is Pare’s greatest achievement, next to his role in founding the photography collection of the CCA.

Of course it is right that some of these buildings are retained. Clem Cecil, the indefatigable champion of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, has done an incredible job in convincing a new generation of wealthy oligarchs that they have a role in conserving the architecture of the Constructivists. This is the only strategy open to the conservationists and it’s a parlous one. For example, the oligarch who was supporting the Melnikov House withdrew at the first sign of the economic downturn. There are truly great works and one would hope to see some of them remain as examples of the way this group of architects practiced. However, the strongest heritage that the Constructivists offer contemporary architects is their exemplary practice.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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5 Responses to What Did the Constructivists Ever Do For Us?

  1. Robert Bowers says:

    I enjoy your writing immensely but have no idea what you are saying in the sentence: “The social efficacy of multi-storey living and within that the division of domestic functions into the duplex.” If you could take a moment to explain I would be very appreciative.

  2. G Brown-Manrique says:

    Specifically, it was from Dessau that Hannes Meyer and others from the Bauhaus departed [he succeeded Gropius, then was chased out by the Nazi-leaning new municipal government]. From the CCCP [USSR in English] he went to Mexico, where he was involved in a rural schools program and a graphics arts program. Don’t discount his importance!

    • cosmopolitanscum says:

      Absolutely – i note that the Barbican has an exhibition on the bauhaus coming up. A post on the relationship between Bauhaus and Constructivisim to coincide, i think.

  3. Pingback: Mikhail Okhitovich and the Disurbanism : socks-studio

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