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The Royal Academy's exhibition on Soviet art and architecture in the years after the revolution is inspiring, poignant, and tragic - and it shouldn't be missed, writes Charles Brown.

Shabolovka tower

Rising above today’s Moscow skyline stands a tapering geometric form, a 150-meter steel lattice spike that is a symbol of not one but two revolutions. Completed in 1922, the Shabolovka Radio Tower, designed by Vladimir Shukhov was the first industrial structure completed after the October Revolution. It was also one of the first expressions of architectural modernism in the new workers’ state.

Built around a principle of simple, repeating, mutually reinforcing geometric elements, Shukhov’s architecture was truly ahead of its time, anticipating the work of later architects like Buckminster Fuller by decades. Shukhov had formulated his ideas some years before the Revolution, but it was the fall of Tsarism that enabled him to put his ideas into practice.

The Shabolovka Tower is one of the highlights of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Like the tower itself, Building the Revolution is in reality about two revolutions underway in Russia in 1917 – one political, the other artistic. Building the Revolution charts the development of the relationship between these two transformative movements and shows how, in the years immediately following the October revolution, Soviet artists and architects sought to transform ideals into physical form.

The story which Building the Revolution tells is at the same time inspiring, poignant, and tragic: inspiring because it provides a valuable reminder of the wave of creativity and innovation unleashed by the worker’s seizure of power; poignant because it is also a record of how that wave reached its high water mark and then receded; tragic because it points to both the failings of the experiment and its crushing by Stalinism.

Building the Revolution is a well-conceived exhibition, bringing together not only paintings, designs, models and photographs of the newly built buildings of the new workers’ state, but also stunning photographs of the surviving buildings by English photographer Richard Pare.

These images attest to the brilliance and far-sightedness of the emerging generation of architects, some of them students of Vkhutemas, the state art and technical school founded following decree by Lenin in 1920, others, like Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn, attracted from aboard. These designers and architects sought to combine the skills of the fine artist (and the sensibility of modernist, non-figurative art) with those of the engineer and the architect. However, Pare’s photographs also provide evidence of the almost insurmountable problems faced by the new society.

Working during and immediately after the Civil War, these young architects were confronted with chronic shortages and skills shortages, and behind the stunning, futuristic designs were often materials and building techniques that owed more to the 16th than the 20th century. A lack of steel meant that wooden frames and trusses often had to be used, and straw was often packed behind plaster to provide insulation. Peasant builders, working in the major cities between harvests, performed miracles with few resources, but the buildings they constructed were often not meant to last. A surprisingly large number of apartment blocks, factories, workers’ clubs and cultural buildings remain in existence, but many are in a near-terminal state of disrepair.

Building the Revolution is instructive because it is a tale of mistakes and dead-ends as well as innovation. The style dominating the period immediately after the Revolution was known as constructivism, which grew out of the international futurist movement, strongest in Italy. Both movements prized technology, the dominant role of machines and speed as the most admirable qualities of the modern age. Whereas Italian futurism was to mix its vision with a love of violence, warfare and authoritarianism (ultimately with fascism), Soviet constructivism was concerned with solving the problems of the new Soviet society.

El Lissitzky, Sketch for Proun 6B, 1919-21The projects of the early 1920s sought address many of the social ills inherited from Tsarist society and to bulldoze away the repressive conditions limiting the lives of working people. Lenin had argued that the liberation of women was impossible as long as they were tied to their home, and so a number of initiatives were introduced creating factory kitchens serving whole districts (such as the Narvskii Factory Kitchen and Department Store in Petrograd). Industrial bakeries were introduced for similar reasons.

Many of the projects were designed to provide social and cultural facilities like Rusakov and Zuev Workers’ club. The latter, a glass cylinder within a rectilinear building, is the equal of many Bauhaus and art deco structures being built in the west, and in design terms it was on the cutting edge of architecture. The Zuev Workers’ club contained reading rooms, meeting spaces and an 850-seat theatre.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the vision was always perfect or that the failings of some of these projects were simply a matter of execution and the privations of the period following the Civil War. One cannot ignore the fact that these projects were also experiments, and experiments are never guaranteed success.

The tension between vision and reality is perhaps most clearly expressed in the collective housing projects of the era. Collective housing was not an entirely new phenomenon, as it already existed in the Tsarist era. In the period immediately following the Revolution the acute housing crisis was often met by commandeering and subdividing the palaces and mansions of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. A longer-term solution was required, and this took the form of plans for integrated collective apartment blocks where only the sleeping areas were allocated to individuals or families. The rest of the space – kitchens, bathing areas and social space – was to be shared (to a greater or lesser extent).

Some of these projects had their own theatres, cinemas, bakeries, stores and restaurants and met with a certain degree of success, at least in their early years. Others proved an unpleasant experience for inhabitants, either because of their flawed construction and lack of key amenities, or because of the lack of privacy and personal space they allowed.

It would be unfair to place these failures solely at the feet of Bolshevik planners and policymakers. The modernist vision of a house as a ‘machine for living in’ was not the exclusive property of the left, even if the left did go further to embrace it. Moreover, making such visions a reality arguably required time and resources the new state lacked.
Nor can one abstract the failures (and the decline) of the new architecture from its political, social and economic context. The most successful of the housing projects of the era – in implementation if not always design - were perhaps the VTsIK Residential Complex in Central Moscow (also known as the House on the Embankment) and the Chekist Housing Scheme in Ekaterinburg.

Both were designed to house members of different parts of the bureaucratic elite. VTsIK was for high ranking party members, and residents at various times included Georgi Dimitrov, leader of the Comintern, Marshal Tukhachevsky, Artem Mikoyan, Alexei Kosigyn and Nikita Khruschev. In many respects, VTsIK stands as a symbol of the process of bureaucratic decay and the privileges being accrued by a small caste.

Tatlin tower

Not that life in the VTsIK complex can have been too pleasurable. The building is also emblematic of another aspect of the Stalinist ossification – terror. In a building containing 550 apartments, 766 residents were arrested during the terror in night time visits by the NKVD, a large proportion of them being executed. Some flats are said to have had as many as four tenants in single year.

As Pare argues in an interview in the catalogue: “It was the most radical experiment ever attempted. It did not succeed, but it was not from lack of will. The regime became ultimately so repressive; it was impossible to deviate from the Stalinist norm. You can feel the sense of optimism seeping out of the work around 1932. After that the heavy catechism of the Stalinist regime imposed itself.”

In practice, that meant a return to neoclassical architecture and didactic, socialist realism in painting and sculpture.

But Building the Revolution is not a pessimistic or gloomy exhibition. The optimism and hope embodies in these buildings and the art of the period jumps off the walls.

And it is there from the minute you enter the Royal Academy. There you are greeted by one of the most famous designs of constructivist architecture, a large recreation of the model for Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. Never built, this structure at 400m tall would have dwarfed the Eiffel tower and would have housed the Comintern and a number of other bodies in a series of rotating rooms. It is a feat of soaring imagination and reflects the revolution that gave it birth. It – and the exhibition, Building the Revolution – should not be missed.

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 is at the Royal Academy until January 22.

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