A revolution that Stalin stopped: Catherine Cooke looks at the work of a Russian pioneer condemned for bringing colour and style to industrial architecture

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The Independent Culture
WE HAVE become accustomed to buildings of all kinds that have a touch of the industrial about them. Yet little is known of one of the pioneers of the 'industrial vocabulary', the Russian architect Iakov Chernikhov. A dazzling exhibition of his drawings made in the Thirties is currently on show at the Architecture Foundation in London.

A recent example of the appeal of the industrial aesthetic in architecture is Nicholas Grimshaw's headquarters for the Western Morning News in Plymouth. This close runner-up for the Royal Fine Art Commission's Building of the Year shows that boundaries between 'technology' and 'art' have ceased to trouble us.

We have also become happy with buildings that are 'coloured', as consciously and artificially as any other object might be, in subtle and complex ways.

Neither this factory aesthetic nor the free use of colour were really ideas that characterised the Modern movement as we knew it in Europe or North America. Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe raised their technology to the level of art; Gerrit Rietveld and Le Corbusier applied colour touches in a way that was derived from painting. But the vigorous pragmatism of form that characterises engineering was really allowed to influence the shapes of buildings only to a timid extent. And any colour not inherent to the material itself remained a little immoral.

Chernikhov was an exception. In the early Thirties, when virtually everything about achitecture was printed in black and white, a beautifully designed and produced book of his - Architectural Fantasies: 101 Compositions in Colour - started circulating in the West.

It introduced a new vocabulary into modern architecture. Here were imagined, but entirely realistic, buildings - superb coloured drawings that made an extraordinary new civic architecture from a purely industrial language, and coloured it in ways then only found on the wilder frontiers of fashion.

This man had never been in the public eye abroad (nor indeed in Russia) during the peak of the avant-garde movement in the Twenties. The book had been published in 1933, the year after Modernism's demise in Russia. In the notorious competition to design a vast Palace of the Soviets beside the Kremlin, during 1931-32, Stalin's commissars had rejected the efforts of Le Corbusier, our own Berthold Lubetkin and other great Western architects, as well as their own world-famous avant- garde, in favour of the first prototype of all those Socialist Realist 'wedding- cakes' which later littered Eastern Europe. So in 1933, this book by 'Leningrad artist-architect Iakov Chernikhov' was manifestly something of a freak. And thereby hung his fate.

Two years before, he had published another volume, all black and white but theoretically far more polemical, called The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms. This was anathema to orthodox Bolsheviks. Through boldness or folly, he had sent copies with a specially printed dedication to Stalin and other party bosses. His books were banned in the USSR in 1935. Chernikhov appealed in vain to Stalin for readmission to the architectural profession.

In today's uncertain times this extraordinary work is unlikely to leave Russia again. For superb execution and sheer joy of invention, it is not to be missed. Iakov Chernikhov's drawings can be seen at the Architecture Foundation, 30 Bury Street, London SW1, to 9 July (closed Mondays).

(Photograph omitted)

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