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Architecture: the Royal Academy's Soviet Constructivism show celebrates two decades of experimentation which ended with the rise of Stalin. This movement did, however, have a surprising legacy in some of the last public buildings erected in the Soviet Union.

As buildings have a profound effect on human behaviour, no wonder that those who want to create a new society often dream of a new architecture. The French Revolution generated some extraordinary schemes--mostly unbuildable. The Russian Revolution was similar--except that much self-consciously modern architecture was, in fact, realised in the 1920s before the Stalinist reaction put a stop to it. Perhaps the most celebrated design was that for a Monument to the Third International by the constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin: a strange, leaning, spiral openwork tower. Only a model of this novel concept was constructed in 1920; now yet another miniature realisation of 'Tatlin's Tower' has been raised in the courtyard of London's Royal Academy of Arts, to announce 'Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935' (until 22 January).

Once building materials became available again after the years of war and chaos, building began. Some was on a vast scale, such as the Gosprom government building in Kharkov. Most was in Moscow: factories, schools, workers' flats and clubs. All was in a recognisable modern movement idiom; indeed, Western stars such as Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier designed buildings in Russia. But most of these new Soviet creations had a distinct constructivist character, resulting from the desire to express function and structure but also from an interest in symbolic geometrical forms. The history of this period is very complicated, with several collectives of architects distinguished by confusing acronyms debating with each other about the application of revolutionary philosophies and accusing each other of 'formalism'. What is clear is that some of the resulting structures, like Melnikov's Rusakov Workers' Club, were remarkable by international standards. Not everyone was impressed, however. Robert Byron, visiting the Soviet Union in 1931, could not admire designs of 'that gasometer or packing-case type' which 'might cause an ephemeral surprise in the suburbs of Wolverhampton'--especially when compared with the exotic, colourful buildings of Old Russia.

What now seems extraordinary is that this period of intense experimentation was largely unknown in the West until comparatively recently. Constructivism in general and the work of the inventive individualist Konstantin Melnikov, in particular, were ignored in the classic studies of 20th-century Modernism by Giedion and Hitchcock. This was no doubt because of Russia's isolation behind the Iron Curtain. But another reason was, perhaps, the fact that this period was short-lived and ended in tears. By 1932, with the rise of Stalin, experimentation was officially disapproved of in favour of an abstracted, monumental classicism; modernist architects were isolated, or purged.

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There is, however, an alternative interpretation. As the late Catherine Cooke--who did so much to draw attention to Russian avant-garde architecture --admitted, the concrete-factory aesthetic was not popular or much understood: 'It is clear that some of these failures of communications were the result of deep differences of cultural origin between the population and the relatively very small architectural profession, and within that profession amongst the architects themselves.' It is also true that constructivist buildings did not weather well. Reinforced concrete or rendered brickwork (a more usual response to material shortages) weathered no better in the harsh Russian winter than in the wet English climate. Concrete spalled, cement cracked and steel corroded. Even so, most of the buildings still stand. The fascination of the Royal Academy's exhibition is to compare contemporary photographs of the avant-garde buildings when new--lent by the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture (Fig. 1) --with superb new colour photographs of them taken since the collapse of the Soviet Empire by Richard Pare (Fig. 2). What comes across is both their deplorable condition and the formal originality of their designs. And now, generally unloved because of what they represent, many are now in danger.

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The exhibition ends with new photographs of Shchusev's Lenin Mausoleum, that austere and rather sinister red and grey stepped pyramid of marble and granite in Red Square. Completed in 1931, it can be seen to herald the architecture of Socialist Realism. Byron, however, considered that it 'deserves the highest rank among the architectural efforts of this age', as it marked a return to the real Russian aesthetic of colour and richness of materials. And there was much in Soviet architecture after the contemporary, ultimately abortive Palace of the Soviets competition which deserves respect--not least the gorgeous subterranean palaces of the Moscow Metro which constitute one of the wonders of the modern world. Unfortunately, more recent Soviet architecture is generally associated with those vast housing estates of serried ranks of cheap, grey concrete blocks, which disfigure not only Russian cities but all those which had the misfortune to lie behind the Iron Curtain. But that was not the whole story, even in the post-Stalin decades. Nor was the promise of Constructivism entirely extinguished.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions by the French photographer Frederic Chaubin is one of the most splendid of recent architectural publications and a revelation (Taschen, 2011). It illustrates late Soviet public buildings almost entirely unknown in the West. Chaubin discovered this recondite school of architecture by pure serendipity and then, over the last decade, sought out and photographed examples. Most of the buildings are not in Moscow or St Petersburg but in the outlying capitals of the various former Soviet republics. There are wedding palaces and sports centres, theatres and cinemas, bus stations and seaside hotels, government buildings and memorials--all conceived on a monumental scale and all astonishingly inventive in design. For it seems that, in the last decades of the Soviet Union, architects in places like Vilnius and Yerevan had the freedom, and the budgets, to experiment with impunity.

The Georgian Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, completed in 1974, consists of colossal inhabited horizontal blocks piled up on top of each other like a child's toy (Fig. 3). The Polytechnic Institute of Minsk of 1983, looks like a giant concrete beached ocean liner that might have been designed by Melnikov. For what is fascinating about many of these structures, which exploit the sculptural possibilities of reinforced concrete to the full, is that they draw on the fecund imagery of the Constructivism of the 1920s. But other influences--from the West--can be detected, in particular the late work of Frank Lloyd Wright and, from Britain, Brutalism and the unbuilt megastructures of Archigram. These obscure Soviet buildings are monumental and, often, monumentally vulgar, but they are highly original and, perhaps, irresponsibly inventive. In their creative use of recent precedents, they make the contemporary experiments of post-modern architecture in the West seem tentative, and the built masterpieces of Deconstructivism by such over-praised superstars as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry look trivial and insubstantial.

The future of these amazing Soviet structures must be uncertain: some have already been demolished. Happily, they have been recorded in Chaubin's superb photographs.
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Title Annotation:Joseph Stalin
Author:Stamp, Gavin
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Words:1127
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