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Constructivist criticism

A brief but intense period of design and construction in Russia from 1915-35 is examined at The Royal Academy’s Building the Revolution exhibition, writes Abigail Gliddon

Soviet-era experiments in architecture are not so fashionable in the Moscow of diamante-encrusted 4x4s and champagne oligarchs ¹.

On a recent trip to Moscow, I spent time convincing friends that visiting the Melnikov House would be worth it, with an argument mainly based on the fact that it did at least ‘have a proper website’. When we found it, it didn’t look like a proper tourist destination or a classy Constructivist mansion. In fact, everyone was properly annoyed. Smashed window panes and a long-forgotten cat bowl were the only signs that anything living had ever been behind the padlocked gate. It looked sad, beautiful, but undeniably unloved.

The Royal Academy’s new exhibition shows how exciting the architecture of the revolution was. Building the Revolution looks at the period 1915-35, through the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution, civil war and finally, Stalin’s regime. The exhibition concentrates more on the flurry to create a communist Russia, and the industry and collectivisation that defined it, than chronology. Richard’s Pere’s photographs, taken during the 1990s, accompany original images of key buildings and the paintings and sketches that helped inspire them. They focus on the crumbling and neglect of the buildings, which makes the optimism and hope behind the works all the more poignant.

In Pere’s pictures, the Melnikov house is just as it was when I saw bits of it through a gap in the fence. Inside, it appears to be a not particularly unusual bright and airy studio. Outside, its strange and lovely exterior is composed of two interlocking cylinders, one eight metres high, the other 11, dotted with hexagonal windows. Odd, that at a time when communal housing was seen as an essential element to a communist society, this prestigiously located private home was sanctioned as a ‘reward’ for the success of Melnikov’s Paris pavilion (1925). Odd too, that the classical, apolitical and sanitised Royal Academy offers the only chance for anyone – not just mini-break-taking bourgeois tourists – to see the building.

A new design language, one based on function and geometry, was growing throughout Europe, formed by those in the Avant Garde movement and by Modernists such as Le Corbusier. Though Russia was not unique for wishing to rid itself of imperialism and engineer a new society based on equality, it was the only country to successfully create the opportunity in which to do so.

With Wassily Kandinsky as the first director of the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture (1920-24), the emphasis of art and architecture after the revolution was on composition and construction. The artist Liubov Popova’s Painterly Architectronics (1918-19) was an early signifier of the shift from the Avant Garde to a focus on form. There are several examples of her work here, each showing an increasing fluency of the Constructivist language, stopped short by her death from scarlet fever in 1924.

Building the Revolution also looks at the building types required in the new Russia. Communal housing, workers’ clubs and factories all had to be designed with a healthy and industrious proletariat in mind. Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkmfin communal house (1928) had a separate children’s block, communal crèches and kitchens to help free women from the domestic and move them into industry. New textile factories and bakeries also catered to this shift, with technology for mass production taken from Europe’s manufacturers.

The inadequacy of Russian construction and technology is a common theme. Le Corbusier beat his Russian contemporaries in a competition (considered the most egalitarian procurement method) to design the Tsentrosoyuz Building (1929-32). But his vision for the government building was never fully realised, due to the standard of Russian concrete available and the poor quality of the finish. He did, however, tackle the circulation of more than 2,000 office workers with a series of geometric ramps, which still look graphic and unreal in Pere’s pictures. Details like the ramps, the glazed cylinders of the Zuev Workers’ Club (1928), or the cantilevered segments of the Rusakov Workers’ club (1928) manage to be delicate and bold at the same time.

The size and ambition of Constructivist projects was made possible due to the exodus of rural peasants to urban areas, however poorly skilled and war-worn they were. Engineering technology also lagged behind Europe in the years before Stalin’s five-year plans put industry in fast forward. This exhibition is clearly concerned that these buildings are being allowed to become ruins, although it wisely refrains from glamourising or romanticising the decay. Whether the lack of conservation is political or based on the lack of original quality is never fully established. From Pere’s photograph Grigorii Simonov’s Tkachei ulitsa school in St Petersburg appears to be in a near-rubble state, yet is apparently still in use, suggesting another possibility; a lack of investment in public buildings in general.

It’s a hard exhibition to find fault with. The Constructivist sketches that introduce it were specifically intended by the artists to inspire architects and engineers. The drama and contrast of the resulting buildings then, and the state of them now, is fascinating and grounded firmly in its historical context. Ending with Lenin’s mausoleum, the third version of which is the one that now sits in Red Square, is a fitting finale.

Practically, the full-scale, in situ plywood maquette that was used to test the design characterises revolutionary discipline. Politically, the death of Lenin in 1924 also heralded the rise of Socialist Realism and the death of creative freedom among the Constructionists. Many of them, including Melnikov, were banned from practising once Stalin’s tastes turned to Classicism. Building the Revolution offers a concise journey through a complex period that is thoroughly worth exploring.

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, until 22 January 2012, £9, The Royal Academy of Arts, London W1

Footnotes

¹ Russia does, in fact, produce its own champagne.

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