The ruins of Utopia eloquently testify to the impermanence of architecture
If the best kind of architecture is an armature for ideas, what happens when those ideas change or go out of fashion? Consider the plight of the Narkomfin Building in Moscow, Moisei Ginzburg’s Constructivist masterpiece built in 1929 to be a promulgator of a radical, communal, new way of living. Barely had the pioneering impetus of its creation subsided when Stalin denounced its Utopian principles as Trotskyite.
A long, slow decline ensued, exacerbated by municipal neglect, squabbles over ownership, and stalled renovation plans, despite hand wringing by UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund. Narkomfin is now a decaying hulk fitfully inhabited by Muscovite hipsters, whose self-regarding forays into a different sort of communal living make good copy.
Narkomfin was a brave attempt to initiate and consolidate ideas about changing social structures but instead it became a political and physical pariah. Generally, as one form of architecture becomes unpopular with the constituency it was designed to serve, this presages a paradigm shift into something else.
For all its promises of a brave new world, Modernism got inextricably bogged down in the swamp of mass housing, its ‘inhumane’ tendencies fomenting a sense of anomie and prompting an urgent reappraisal of the relationship between the forces of radical architecture and social progress. The photogenic demolition of Pruitt Igoe encapsulated this discredited marriage, becoming a convenient visual talisman for the end of Modernism.
The decline and fall of post-war housing estates is well-rehearsed, providing ‘oft-cited proof that modern architecture was not only dead but deadly’ writes Anthony Vidler. Yet it could equally be argued that if the inhabitants chose to modify the ‘rational’ housing provided for them by Le Corbusier, it showed that the architectural armature was robust enough to assimilate change. And by ‘demonstrating the nature of inhabiting’, occupants had effectively created a new kind of ‘socially differentiated space’.
Whether it’s French families or Russian hipsters tactically appropriating and reframing their surroundings, it points up the incontrovertible fact that architecture is an inherently social art. How buildings engage with and are engaged by their users and wider society can enhance or derail the best intentions. Moreover, how they wear, weather and work forms a crucial coda to the self-justificatory fanfare of their completion.
Yet such potentially valuable lessons are not always heeded. ‘Too little has been learnt from the architectural experiments of this century’, wrote Peter Buchanan in October 2011 as the AR launched its new Revisits series. ‘And failure is frequently more instructive than success.’ Architects, however, are notorious neophiliacs and aren’t in the business of looking back. But as history shows, they need to be able to honestly confront the past in order to cultivate a sense of future possibilities.