Russia's aesthetic revolution: How Soviet building still influences today's architects

An exhibition of Soviet architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts will showcase radical work of great prescience and experimental power. And, says Jay Merrick, its influence is still felt today

Monday 24 October 2011 18:14 BST

In the courtyard of London's Royal Academy of Arts stands the 20th century's most avant-garde strand of architectural genetics. The veering red spiral, intersected by a girder jutting through it like a rocket launcher, is a copy of the original model of the Monument to the Third International, designed by Vladimir Tatlin in 1920. Had it been built to its intended scale as the headquarters of the Communist party, it would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower. In a world awash with "iconic" architecture, nothing comes even close to radiating the raw potency of this truly revolutionary form.

That is why the Royal Academy's new show, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-35, deserves to be stampeded. The word "revolution" has become discredited, and this show thoroughly re-energises its meaning in art and architecture. The key fragments of Russian revolutionary creativity still glow like radium, living on in its remaining art and buildings, and hard-wired into the imaginations of some of the 20th and 21st century's most influential architects.

Today, art and design is rarely prompted by bold and difficult ideas about human and civil improvement. Even Rem Koolhaas, architecture's most provocative intellectual, admits that his profession has been reduced to playing eternal catch-up with corporatised aspirations and trend data. Gil Scott Heron, the godfather of rap, once proclaimed that "the revolution will not be televised." But it has been, through the nose-cones of cruise missiles and the high-res prisms of global marketing strategies, in which we all have perpetual walk-on parts.

In the Royal Academy's Sackler Galleries, you will enter a creative world stripped back to its bare nerve fibres by the Third International, the meeting that created the Soviet bloc in 1919. The exhibits blow-torch the flaccid "designer" mentality that has robbed most contemporary art and architecture of fractiously humane otherness. This show is an irony-free zone, a laboratory containing some of the stark experiments that ignited the most radical movement that modernist art and architecture has ever known.

In the 1920s and 1930s European modernist designers, primarily influenced by the ideas and work flowing from the Bauhaus school of art and design in Germany, were mostly interested in luxurious forms – ocean liners, cars, aircraft, private villas. Their Russian counterparts preferred the imagery of warships and communal living blocks.

And the greatest of those was the Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow, which predated Le Corbusier's much more famous equivalent, the Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, by two decades. The Narkomfin building still stands and, as the superb recent photographs by Richard Pare in the exhibition show, physical decay has failed to blunt the power, originality and ethical heft of its architecture.

Russian revolutionary design continues to inform contemporary architecture. Zaha Hadid, for example, has always worshipped at the altar of Suprematist art from that period. The radically fragmented structures designed by Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl had already been thought of by Soviet revolutionary artists. And in London, the inverted L shape of Peckham Library was clearly prefigured by El Lissitzky's Cloud Iron, beating Will Alsop to that architectural punch by a mere 75 years.

The unique thing about Russian art and architecture in the 20 years after the October Revolution in 1917 was that it was specifically intended to create ideas and forms for a physically and socially recomposed Russia. It was the only avant-garde design movement in history embedded in government policy. In Britain, we are used to the opposite – statutory approval of mostly mediocre architecture marketed as being world-class, or even revolutionary.

In Russia, desperate times generated visionary responses. Vladimir Lenin and his Council of Peoples Commissars inherited a country riven by violent economic and social upheaval. Between 1916-17, industrial production fell by a third; there was mass unemployment and rioting against landowners; the buying power of the ruble plummeted; and Russia's national debt rose to 50bn rubles, a fifth of which was owed to foreign governments. Russia faced bankruptcy and even greater chaos.

Lenin invoked a shock-of-the-new policy that sought radical, collectivist solutions to housing, cities, and production that would re-educate the masses in a process called proletkult. The exhibits in the Sackler Galleries are among the key blueprints for this short, astonishingly experimental quest for a post-revolutionary utopia.

The art and design that was produced rapidly attracted the interest of western architects and writers. The French architectural magus Le Corbusier designed the Moscow headquarters of the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives. Erich Mendelsohn, who co-designed the marvellous De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, created the Red Banner Textile Factory in St Petersburg. Le Corbusier, Mendelsohn, Auguste Perret and Walter Gropius – director of the Bauhaus – were invited to take part in the design competition for the Palace of Soviets.

The vast metal frame of that unfinished project, designed by the Russian architect Boris Iofan, infuriated the visiting French writer André Gide, who wrote: "The Russian worker will know why he starves in front of this 415m-high monument crowned by a statue of Lenin in stainless steel, one finger of which is 10m long." America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, attended the 1937 Russian Congress and was equally dismissive.

The steel was re-used for fortifications and bridges in the Second World War. Stalinist priorities effectively put an end to avant-garde modernist art and architecture in Russia. Russia was in Cold War mode, and further creative adventures were out of the question. The proletkult ethos was revised. Stalin wanted buildings to be more obviously approachable and accessible, rather than physically or intellectually challenging.

That might, in a postwar situation, seem perfectly reasonable. But it was implicitly soulless and militaristic. Art became part of the "heroic" propaganda machine, and architecture more monolithic and barrack-like in form. The banal slab-blocks that soon scarred the historic cityscapes of Russia and eastern Europe represented a very different idea of social and cultural progress.

But in the 1920s, the sheer voltage of ideas that had seethed through Russian art and design generated two lasting phenomena: Suprematist and Constructivist art and architecture. The histories of these two strands of experimental design are complex and interwoven. Put very simply, Suprematism was invented by the artist Kasimir Malevitch in 1915, when he exhibited a painting called Black Square at the now legendary Last Futurist Exhibition in St Petersburg.

His other paintings were composed of circles, squares and crosses on white planes, which he referred to as the "zero of form". The salient point about Suprematist art is that it flattened geometry to avoid any hint of perspective or three-dimensional depth. The geometry was supposed to force the viewer to imagine, or synthesise, a mysterious fourth dimension of avant-garde forms and spaces.

At the same exhibition, Tatlin produced a series of constructions that experimented with abstractions of form and materials. We might, very broadly, think of Suprematism as the profoundly imaginative and philosophical basis of Russian revolutionary creativity, and of Constructivism as the search for a more physically obvious – and practical – expression of it in art and architecture.

More rewarding explanations can be found in the exhibition catalogue, whose authors include Jean-Louis Cohen, Maria Tsantsanoglou, Christina Lodder, Maria Ametova and Maria Rogozina. The catalogue is the most engrossing foray into early modernism since the V&A's superb publication, Modernism: Designing a New World.

But even the most thoughtful texts can't convey the raw effects of the art and photographs in the Sackler Galleries. It would be easy to say, for example, that Ivan Kliun's Study for Three-dimensional Construction is nothing more than a dry intellectual exercise involving an arrangement of geometric shapes. But look how rapidly they've been sketched and positioned, denying any possibility of a formal conclusion. By comparison, Tatlin was always sketching geometric arrangements which clearly begged to be made into maquettes or models – something potentially useful.

Art history nerds will be in their element. It's intriguing to discover links between, say, Tatlin's 1915 Drawing for a Counter-Relief, and Alexandr Rodchenko's Spatial Construction No. 5. Or between a tangle of blue angles by Rodchenko and Konstantin Vialov's designs for the Construction of a Radio Tower – revolutionary art transmuted into broadcasting for the proletkult.

Not all the art on show is visually gripping, or thought-provoking. Konstantin Medunetski's sketches, for example, are dull and unprovocative compared with the majority of exhibits; and, though it is heresy to suggest it, Malevitch's multiple skyscraper model, Architecton Zeta, seems nothing more than a stolid and pointless constipation of oblongs and cubes. Mind you, even a dud like that was prescient – it's exactly this kind of lumpen, vainglorious hulk that has become de rigueur in Dubai and China.

On the whole, though, Building the Revolution provides a stream of sharply edged revelations that slash through preconceptions, and which will be of great interest to the new wave of artists and architects. Why? Because there is no such thing as avant-garde art or architecture today. And because the "new" ways we see and experience art and buildings rarely have anything to do with purely experimental explorations concerning form or perception. Most current art and design merely heightens our feelgood sense of ephemerality, commodifying our thoughts and emotions.

The intellectual and imaginative provocations of the art and photographs on show are a bracing antidote. These Russian artists and designers were producing work with titles such as Flying Cities, and Dynamic Cities – utopian phantasms that would, nevertheless, excrete enough useable essence to produce some of the most remarkable modern art and architecture the world has ever seen.

For this reviewer, standout works in the exhibition are by El Lissitzky, Gustav Klutsis and, very particularly, the female artist Liubov Popova. One only has to glance at the complex fusion of flat-plane geometry and implied tubular perspective in Lissitzky's Sketch for Proun 6B to sense a hotline to Daniel Libeskind's multi-plane Micromega drawings in the 1970s. Gustav Klutsis's Construction series seems to prefigure aspects of the deconstructive forms suggested by Peter Eisenman at about the same time.

The range of visual and formal experiment produced by Lissitzky and Klutsis is remarkable. The former was perfectly capable of evoking both the tense contradictions of Suprematism and textured Constructivist three-dimensionality in a single work; Klutsis brought brilliant graphic skills to revolutionary art, producing tough, but inspiring conflations of different kinds of structure in a variety of media.

Popova was the wild card, producing fearless work that brought together elements of Cubism, Constructivism and Suprematism. To gaze into the geometric perspectives of brown, black and red oils and white marble dust on the big plywood sheet titled Spatial Force Construction is to experience a kind of ruthless breaching of the unknown. The other works in that series, and her stage-set designs and maquettes, are equally unsettling.

The architectural photography in the show is by no means of poor cousin status. Historic monochrome photographs of the Moscow City Electric Power Station, the proto-Brutalist and Steineresque buildings designed by Konstantin Melnikov, the vast Gosprom complex in Kharkov, and the magnificently strange Moscow radio mast designed by Vladimir Shukov in 1922, transmit with grainy force the sheer effrontery of Russian revolutionary architecture.

So, too, do Richard Pare's tenderly composed colour images of some of the great buildings that remain. The highly original architectural power still radiated by them has been captured with consummate skill, and may yet help to save superb buildings such as the Narkomfin block from ignominious ruin. Pare's internal views of the Dneiper dam and the Red Banner factory are masterpieces of atmospheric detail. I have not seen more compelling images of rotting modernist buildings since Dan Dubowitz's portraits of Cardross Seminary in Scotland, taken in the early 1990s.

Tim Tower's excellent interview of Richard Pare in the catalogue is a must-read for all architectural students: Pare brings an articulate and poetic sensibility to architectural visual history. He knows not just what he's looking at, but how to look at it.

And that, ultimately, is what is at the heart of this show. Building the Revolution challenges us to reconsider a unique way of seeing, designing, and believing, that refuses virtuosity or obvious reasoning. It is a vision that is still thrilling in its awkward intensity. The Royal Academy is harbouring a 21st-century proletkult.

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-35, Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000) 29 October to 22 January

'My own work first engaged with the early Russian avant-garde'

By Zaha Hadid

Ninety years ago the October Revolution ignited a most exuberant surge of creative energy. While some of the artistic seeds were present beforehand, they blossomed in the first 10 years of the revolution. This explosion of creativity developed under severe material circumstances – fuelled by the idealistic enthusiasm for the project of a new society.

The pace, quantity and quality of the creative work in art, science and design was truly astounding, anticipating in one intense flash what then took up to 50 years to unfold elsewhere in the world. The Russian avant-garde not only anticipated the urbanist concept of the 1950s, but projects were designed that anticipated the mega-structure utopias of the mid-1960s and the high-tech style of the 1970s. Leonidov's 1927 project for the Lenin Institute was 50 years ahead of its time and his 1934 competition entry for the Soviet Ministry of Industry – a composition of different towers placed on an urban podium – remains an inspiration for metropolitan architecture today.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this Russian work is the way these projects were embedded within an intense discourse; promoted by exhibitions, academic institutions and public competitions. These projects – in all their experimental radicalism – had a real social meaning and political substance; but their originality and artistic ingenuity transcends the context of the Russian social experiment. For instance, Alexandr Rodchenko's hanging sculptures are pure explorations of space, which opened up a whole new sensibility – the sensibility of the Space Age.

My own work first engaged with the early Russian avant-garde; the paintings of Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky's 'Prouns' and Naum Gabo's sculptures, but in particular with the work of Kasimir Malevitch. Malevitch stands here for the enormously momentous discovery of abstraction as a heuristic principle that can propel creative work to hitherto unheard of levels of invention. Mimesis was finally abandoned and unfettered creativity could pour out across the infinitely receptive blank canvas. Space, or even better the world itself, soon became the site of pure, unprejudiced invention.

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