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Pared Back Soviet Modernism

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, Royal Academy of Arts

Poverty, as is well known, is the best conservator. Gentle decay is better than crass renewal − at least for the perceptive student of historic Modern architecture. Richard Pare’s photographs of the ‘heritage of Constructivism’, taken over the past 20 years, which form the core of the Royal Academy’s exhibition Building the Revolution, show the varying states of decay into which most of it had fallen. With the growing wealth of Russia and other former member states of the USSR (mainly due to high raw material prices), his photographs have in part themselves become historic documents, because ‘refurbishment’ works have since been carried out, often with a heavy hand.

For example, the massive Gosprom office complex at Kharkov − now Ukrainian Kharkiv − one of the most spectacular products of the Constructivist era, was atmospherically photographed by Pare with its original streaked grey bare cement render and black steel windows intact. The render has reportedly since been painted and the windows largely renewed.

We are not shown the result, but on the basis of other such schemes carried out in the former Soviet Union have reason for concern. Those who restore are rarely as sensitive as those who designed in the first place. But at least the Gosprom has survived as a structure, and was not destroyed as whole during the War, as once reported, Kharkov having been the scene of intense fighting. Indeed on the evidence, Constructivist heritage has escaped remarkably lightly from the three-fold menaces of commercial pressures for total development, insensitive restoration or ‘modernisation’, and warfare − up to the point at which Pare photographed it. The rust-red Tuf-Stone, with which Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Nikolai Kolli’s Centrosoyus Building of 1929-36 is clad, has naturally survived better than rendered surfaces and comes across beautifully in Pare’s colour image.

Photographs of the complete project never appeared in the Oeuvre Complète as Le Corbusier was not happy with the execution, and indeed neither the exterior view nor the twin ramps shown in an interiorview match the published plans. But the resulting building still looks more elegant than anything else on show.

Pare has travelled widely, so there are a number of interesting photographs of lesser-known Constructivist-heritage buildings from places such as Baku, Sochi, Ekaterinburg (sic, rather than Sverdlovsk, all place names being current rather than Soviet), as well as more familiar examples in Moscow and Leningrad/StPetersburg. Some of the images evoke the world of John Le Carré or Ian Fleming: the towering flats for the staff of the Cheka (later known as the KGB)in Ekaterinburg, for example (by Antonov, Sokolov and Tumbasov 1929-36); or the luxurious Voroshilov Sanatorium seaside resort for higher-ranking military officer sat Sochi on the Black Sea (1930-34), by Miron Merzhanov, reminiscent of the opening scene in From Russia With Love, where Smersh agents receiveintensive bodily training in a luxury resort. Sochi, incidentally, is to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The evocative Shabolovka Radio Tower

The evocative Shabolovka Radio Tower, as photographed by Richard Pare in 1998. Pare’s photograph captures the energy and optimism with which the tower was built. Norman Foster has joined a campaign to save the historic tower, which is currently at the top of UNESCO’s endangered buildings list

On the other hand, an impressive work in good condition such as the Vesnin brothers’ ZIL Palace of Culture in Moscow of 1933 is not displayed. Neither are plans shown for any building, which for an architect is frustrating − though a considerable amount of background information and detail concerning dates and designers is provided in the captions, and there are original black-and-white photographs against which to compare Pare’s images.

Running in parallel with the photographs is a selection of works from the same era, derived from the famous George Costakis Collection now in Thessaloniki.Although these seem mostly to have been selected because they are suggestive of architecture, their direct relationship to the architecture shown is not very evident, except in the case of Gustav Klutsis, who was both a designer (mainly of kiosks) and an artist. Liubov Popova, by whom alone are substantial oil canvases on show, rather than drawings, emerges as the most significant artist.

What for me, however, is missing from this exhibition is, above all, architectural drawings, which would have held more direct relevance to the architecture, and would illustrate the many schemes from the period that exist only in graphic media. The drawings of the Vesnin brothers’ unsuccessful Palace of Labour competition entry of 1923, for example, are magnificent and often reproduced, but never to my knowledge shown.

The work of Ivan Leonidov survives more or less only in the form of drawings. OA Shvidkosky’s pioneering book Building in the USSR 1917-1932 has more drawings than photographs, and they are often highly dramatic, the windows white to reflect the sky, the walls black. Like nothing else, they convey architectural intention. The major collection of architectural drawings from this period is held in the Schusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow (founded in 1934, by the Vesnins among others) − let us hope they’ll be kind enough to lend us some soon!

Russian Constructivist architecture, perhaps because of its hardness and ‘mechanolatry’, has appealed to High Tech architects, reflected in the sponsorship for this show from the Rogers and the Foster camps. Le Corbusier, on the other hand wrote, ‘the work of art should not resemble a machine − the error of Constructivism’, while remaining a hero of the Constructivists. Le Corbusier’s vision was ‘green’; that of the Constructivists was not.

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), of which a large model stands in the Royal Academy’s Courtyard during the exhibition, has always seemed paradoxical, and was not accepted by core Constructivists such as Moisei Ginzburg. Tatlin was not an architect. But his work can perhaps increasingly be seen as anticipatory of more recent ‘bio-tech’ and ‘iconic’ architecture. It is a pity in that case that the boxes suspended within the lattice-work spiral, claimed by Tatlin to be accommodation for the offices of international communism, are not presented as the solids they would have been required to be, but as transparent cages, and do not revolve at varying speeds as originally intended.

This would have underlined their fantasy − it is not clear what benefit was to have been derived from the rotation, even had it been possible to resolve questions of access − or alternatively their prophetic quality which was to be evoked or fulfilled in a recent creation such as the ‘moving gallery’ in Foster + Partners’ Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York.

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935

Where: Royal Academy of Arts, London

When: Until 22 January 2012

www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/building-the-revolution

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