Early Soviet art and architecture flourished from the ruins of war
Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International was meant to be a triumph of both industrial production and machine aesthetics.
Designed in 1919 to celebrate the Bolshevik Revolution two years earlier, the building was a radical departure from Western architectural standards. By rotating the main steel structure of the tower 23.5 degrees while removing all unnecessary supports, the colossus on the banks of the Neva was designed as both a symbolic monument and a functional skyscraper for the ‘Newly Formed Communist International, or Comintern.
If it had been built, it would have been a modern marvel. But the tower was impossible to build. Not only was there a shortage of steel in the Soviet Union, but in Petrograd there were barely enough nails to complete the wooden model.
The context of Tatlin’s tower reveals a wider tension in the new Soviet Union. On the one hand, Russian avant-garde artists and architects of the 1920s had an ambitious new social and aesthetic vision. On the other hand, the entire nation faced concrete material limits of production, which made this vision difficult to achieve.
The Russian Civil War had destroyed much of the Soviet Union’s building materials industries, drastically decreasing the production of bricks, glass, wood, and cement. Factories and industrial facilities were left in ruins, while skilled industrial labor was scarce and scattered. To remedy this situation, the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced by Vladimir Lenin sought a mixed socialist-capitalist economy that fused centralized planning and decentralized forms of commodity exchange.
These limitations strongly influenced the vocabulary of Russian art and architecture at the time. What we recognize today as Soviet constructivism is a unique product of both the ambitious vision of the new nation and the material constraints it faced as it struggled to come into being.
In the years to come, Tatlin will channel his energy into designing usable objects rooted in the daily lives of workers. The story of Tatlin’s shift from speculative design to making practical, modest objects is described in Christina Kiaer’s brilliant book Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism. With specific regard to constructivism – the Soviet art movement in which Tatlin was a leading figure – Kiaer argues that the material constraints on production at this time had a drastic impact on Soviet society, including inspiring the creation of “socialist objects”.
One of the main proponents of the production of socialist objects was the intellectual of the movement Boris Arvatov. In Arvatov’s thought, socialist objects would strongly oppose the mystified and “dead” nature of commodities under capitalism.
Rethinking the relationships with objects encountered in daily life – their functions, their materiality, their design, and the social relations of their production – ultimately meant rethinking how life might be reorganized under socialism. Arvatov’s ideas intersected with the campaign of the 1920s to develop new customs, practices and daily habits that would transform domestic life in the Soviet Union – a project sometimes called novyi byt, or novyi means “new” and byte roughly translates to “everyday existence”.
After failing to build his tower, Tatlin set about redesigning the traditional wood-burning stoves that were part of ordinary Russian village life, revamping them with “maximum heat with minimum fuel” for workers. This project was a good outlet for his energies given the constraints of production, and it was also part of a larger trend of artists experimenting with socialist object design.
Similarly, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, in partnership with the constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko, created politicized advertisements for chocolate, bread and cigarettes, while the artist Lyubov Popova designed very popular mass-produced dresses from inexpensive textiles at the First State Cotton-Printing Factory in Moscow.
Tatlin may have turned his attention away from buildings for the time being, but constructivist architecture was still alive and seeking new ways to work with the material limitations that had prevented Tatlin’s tower from being completed.
As the Association of Modern Architects (OSA), the architectural arm of Constructivism, set about designing the emergent spaces of socialist domestic life, architects were content with little. This was the case of Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin communal house in Moscow. An architectural design experiment that addressed what Alexei Gan had called the inadequacy of capitalist spatial arrangements, Narkomfin was intended to be a prototype for housing communes that could be replicated throughout the Soviet Union.
Narkomfin itself would house two hundred people from various social and class backgrounds. Her design challenged the domestic division of labor, where social reproduction was traditionally imposed on women, through collectivized on-site child care and communal housework spaces.
While Ginzburg spoke of Narkomfin in rising Soviet rhetoric of industrial production and machine rationalization, the reality of construction was far more ad hoc, reflecting material shortages in Moscow. Narkomfin was the first residential building in the Soviet Union to use a cast concrete frame. On the one hand, it was an innovation; on the other hand, it was born out of necessity, given the scarcity of ordinary building materials.
Narkomfin blended avant-garde theory and cutting-edge design with inexpensive materials and techniques suited to the social conditions in which it was built. For the exterior walls, a blockwork infill was used, not mass-produced but hand-poured on site with slag concrete and recycled scrap metal. These were influenced by modernist architectural experiments in Germany, but they also referenced traditional Russian “peasant” block-building techniques.
Insulation was made of straw, while all interior walls were made of wood, and sawdust cement was used to cover the floors. The building speaks more to proto-industrial manufacturing methods than to metaphors of smoothly industrialized machine production. The resulting building was distinctly constructivist, with its combination of ambition and economy.
The same tension between an expansive vision and limited resources has imposed itself on the planning of OSA. In 1923 Yekaterinburg became the administrative center of the industrial region of the Ural Mountains. Renamed Sverdlovsk, it entered a dramatic construction phase, with OSA greatly influencing the formal and aesthetic features of the development. Experiments in collective housing, administrative buildings, workers’ clubs, sports centers and cinemas aimed to replace traditional domestic life with modern, collective forms of living. byte.
But with the city in recession, architects had to resort to whatever materials were available, often recycling and repurposing existing 19th-century buildings. Construction was concentrated mainly in the center of the city and, as architectural historian Tatyana Budantseva has suggested, existing buildings were often half-demolished, with the ground floors becoming the basis for new ones. constructivist ideas. The churches were dismantled, their bricks and wood recycled.
The “experimental capital of constructivism” in its early days was not rolled out from a factory, but sewn together and salvaged from the wreckage of the old. Again, we see that the avant-garde aesthetic of the time was not only sensitive but inextricable to the limitations of material production.
Meanwhile, workers’ clubs dedicated to the education, recreation and relaxation of workers were springing up across the country.
Often run by trade unions or political groups, these clubs thrived on the direct participation of members, reflecting large-scale trade union activity. Architect and historian Anatole Kopp has written about how workers’ clubs often arose spontaneously in homes, churches and sheds, and how this presented a challenge to architects designing both new buildings and transformed existing spaces.
For example, OSA architect Alexander Nikolsky was approached by workers from the Putilov factory in what was then Leningrad to redevelop a church. The Putilov workers had agreed to hold “workshop meetings everywhere”, to close the church near their factory and to turn the building into a workers’ club. By removing the steeple and dome of the church and stripping down the interior, Nikolsky miraculously managed to produce glass to create a strange faceted structure that was attached to the front facade of the church. The name of the new factory club, Club Red Putilovets, was painted on the front. In this process, the classical church was transformed into a bold, modernist and collective space.
The iconic interior of Alexander Rodchenko’s workers’ club, built and exhibited at the 1925 Paris Exposition, included a range of spaces for workers’ education and relaxation. Referring to his early days Spatial construction series, Rodchenko created a series of lightweight, transformable structures that included bookcase designs, mobile display units, projection screens for presentation, a chess table, and a reading area. The furniture was made from inexpensive painted wood given the budgetary constraints of the exhibition.
As Kaier writes, these were “not authentic examples of the latest mass-produced technological inventions” as shown in other pavilions at the exhibition, but “represented Constructivism’s overarching commitment to making face the material scarcity of the NEP economy by eliminating waste and excess. ”
With the exception of Yekaterinburg, constructivist architectural design was not common in the Soviet Union. By the 1920s, most new buildings were low-rise brick apartment buildings, schools, and cafeterias built using traditional methods. Large-scale orders were rare. By the time the full infrastructure for industrialization existed, the socialist realism sanctioned by Joseph Stalin had become the dominant Soviet aesthetic, overtaking the avant-garde.
In the years that followed, the Russian avant-garde proved influential to a host of neo-avant-garde groups who often stripped the work of any radical content. A cosplay constructivism has been an enduring feature of contemporary architecture in the West. The movement’s formal design methodology was appropriated and popularized by architects like Rem Koolhaas, then endlessly imitated to the point where we are surrounded by Constructivism-influenced imagery without knowing its source.
The novelty, however, of the Russian avant-garde cannot be reduced to a pure exercise in form. What gave constructivism its uniqueness was its proximity to the experience of revolution – the difficult and exhilarating task of building a new world out of the debris of the old.