Lifelong Marxist and proletarian architect Berthold Lubetkin shed light on all things Russian, critically presenting the stories of avant-garde Soviet architecture, Constructivism and Socialist Realism to the rest of the world
‘To the English reader’, writes the editor of the Architectural Review in its May 1932 issue, ‘a discussion of architecture in terms of “ideology” will be somewhat startling. The very word may give him a headache’. So did the AR introduce ‘Berthold Lubetkin, one of the well-known proletarian architects’ to the English-speaking public, in a special issue on Russia. Here, for the first time, Georgian-born Lubetkin began his role as explainer of all things Soviet, one which he would resume 20 years later. Although he never built a single structure in the USSR and spent far less of his career there than in Britain, he was a semi-official architectural attaché of the Soviet government, working on its pavilions at international expos, before going into private practice first in Paris, then more famously in London. He was also a lifelong Marxist, and it is this especially that was expected to alarm the readers of the AR.
The AR’s special issue was dictated by an imminent (eventually cancelled) CIAM conference in Moscow, and the expectation that British architects − along with Le Corbusier, Ernst May, Mart Stam et al − would soon be travelling to the Soviet Union to work on the massive projects of the first Five Year Plan. Of course this didn’t happen, and we’ll never know what a Lubyanka by Lutyens or a communal house by Connell Ward and Lucas might have looked like; but the possibility was real enough. Lubetkin’s job here was to explain the differences between the various architectural factions of the USSR − the Constructivists of OSA (the Organisation of Contemporary Architects), the Rationalists of ASNOVA (the Association of New Architects), the Socialist Realists of VOPRA (the All-Union Association of Proletarian Architects) − with the likelihood in mind that ‘with one of these the English architect will be expected to comply if he stays in the country’. In the event, within a year of the issue’s publication, these factions were all wound up and drawn into a single Union of Architects, but it’s amusing to imagine this exchange of putative memberships from the RIBA to, say, the ‘psycho-technical’ school of ASNOVA. As balance to Lubetkin, the AR commissioned a travelogue from Robert Byron, whose photographs illustrate the issue; Byron was sceptical about both Modernism and Communism, being fascinated instead by the rich texture and colour of historic Russian precedent. After that, the reader was in unfamiliar territory.
The first part of Lubetkin’s contribution, ‘The Builders’, begins with an assertion of the value of architectural and social theory, as ‘the exhortation to struggle against blind chance is inscribed in gigantic letters on the pediment of socialism’. From there, he recounts the early years of Soviet architecture, recalling the model of Tatlin’s tower, ‘constructed of old tins and cigar boxes’, and the contrast between aspiration and reality in civil war-ravaged Russia; ‘herded together in overcrowded flats, with rain driving through the decaying roofs, [architects] dreamt of glass and concrete palaces, skyscrapers with batteries of lifts and moving staircases’. This soon developed into two schools, each with their own organisation. The first was ASNOVA, which stressed psychology and symbolism (‘public libraries modelled on oil-fired boilers’), which he illustrates with Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers’ Club, credited with an ‘ingenuity of planning’ as well as a ‘formalist’ stress on impression and drama. Lubetkin dismisses them on the grounds − striking for the AR, then as now − that ‘Marxian philosophy pitilessly unmasks the vague criteria of universalism, abstract humanitarianism and eternal values as figments of the idealist philosophy of the bourgeois world’, and demands that they adopt ‘proletarian, that is dialectic methods’. Of OSA, by then renamed SASS, ‘Section of Architects for Socialist Construction’, he finds an equally undialectical fixation with technology and process over emotion and affect, but concedes that Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building, looking stunning and snow-covered in one of Byron’s photographs, shows that ‘a very strong aesthetic preoccupation can be seen’. VOPRA, the incipient Socialist Realists, had then built little, but Lubetkin maintains a faint irony towards their gesturing and heroics − he approves that they wield ‘one of the proletariat’s most efficacious weapons, namely the emotional influence of art’, but is sceptical of the heaviness and ‘rather doubtful monumentalism’ of the results.
The second part, on town planning, tracks the attempts by planners like Mikhail Okhitovich and Nikolai Milyutin to create a new kind of city that will promote the dissolving of the town-country divide, not to mention the ‘liquidation of the family’. Here, as in the rest of the issue, was a source book for all attempts to tell the story of avant-garde Soviet architecture for the next few decades − until Catherine Cooke or Anatole Kopp began to travel there 40 years later, Lubetkin’s findings and opinions would dominate. Kenneth Frampton and Alan Colquhoun’s judgements on the era in their histories of Modern Architecture were both hugely in Lubetkin’s debt, and beholden to his prejudices. So too in his second homecoming trip to the USSR two decades later, when he produced a venomous account of the failure of Soviet Modernism.
In the Architectural Association Journal of May 1956, Lubetkin was even more critical than he had been in 1932. The Constructivists’ obsession with ‘maximum economy’ had ‘reduced architecture to the level of the activities of certain species of insects and mammals’, entirely ‘emptied of all emotional content’. He finally asserted that ‘all the aggressive self-assertion with which the functionalists asserted their creed could mask neither the barrenness of their doctrine nor the sterility of their practice … these buildings with their barbed-wire aesthetics remain for us grim forerunners of the lugubrious architecture of the concentration camp and the crematorium. Their stark harshness is full of a metallic mechanical clangour, a nail-biting pedantry’. For anyone who assumed that Lubetkin learned much from the likes of Melnikov and Ginzburg, it’s a shock. It’s hard not to wonder if he’s using them to settle scores with the Brutalists, who had denounced his move in the ’40s into patterned facades, ornamental details and Beaux-Arts plans − which began with an attack on his Priory Green estate by the AR’s editor JM Richards.
Lubetkin stayed enough of a Modernist to have some reservations about the ‘Socialist Realism’ that followed. He saw it as necessitated by the need to employ professionals who knew what they were doing; but explained it also by the fact that ‘in the light of Marxist philosophy, culture ceases to be regarded as a sanctuary’, but must ‘permeate the masses and be accessible to everyone’. However kitsch it might have been, Soviet architecture managed that, creating monumental ensembles like Moscow State University, whose pathos-filled spatial grandeur ‘no architect is likely to forget’, no matter how clad in ‘fragments from a monumental mason’s catalogue’. Here, Soviet architects showed that they had understood the premises of dialectical materialism, and for them Lubetkin predicts a bright future.