Thursday, April 24, 2008

From the Ground Up

When the people of Russia began their experiment in Socialism in the early twentieth century, they literally sought to build the world anew. Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution inaugurated an architectural revolution led by men such as Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Tatlin. Tatlin's Tower (above), designed to be a Monument to the Third International (aka, the Comintern), epitomizes the brand of architectural constructivism Tatlin and others patterned after the Constructivist art of Alexander Rodchenko and other Russian artists. Tatlin’s Tower, if it had been built, would have risen higher than the Eiffel Tower, surrounding work spaces shaped like a cube, triangle, and sphere with a network of iron, glass, and steel. In Architecture and the Russian Avant-Garde, writer-producer-director Michael Craig and Copernicus Films examine the concrete results and unfulfilled promise of that exciting time in architecture in Russia when all the rules of building were being rewritten as fast as the rules of society.

The same faith in the power of technology to forge a better life for all that marks all of early Soviet society marks the architecture of the time. Architects saw the old forms as “imprisoning” people yearning to be free. The same almost reckless experimentation seen in the innovative painting of Matisse and Cezanne in France and in Russia’s own Kandinsky helped inspire architects to think outside the boxy structures of the past. Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist art and it’s almost messianic desire to transform the world drove architects to reevaluate the role of geometric forms in the designing of living and working spaces. Melnikov’s Rusakov-House of Culture on Strominka Street (above, from 1927-1929) exemplifies this use-centered approach to building, keeping the needs and desires of the people inside as a central focus. Classical ideals fell by the wayside as architects designed using space and volume as their materials rather than stone, freed by the technical innovations of steel and glass. Buildings were now “living sculpture,” created not for the bourgeoisie elite but rather for the people. Architecture now interacted with people on an unprecedented scale, achieving a social relevance in such public works as Melnikov’s cultural center that helped generate a new sense of community.

Melnikov often worked, as he put it, “at the very edge of the possible,” but a surprising number of his “impractical” designs were actually built, including many multi-story parking garages in Moscow that alleviated the growing parking crunch as more people moved to the city and more automobiles hit the streets. (An example of one of those garages, featuring staggered entrances, appears above.) Although many of these buildings seem impractical fantasies today, they addressed many of the pressing needs of the day with such features as huge public kitchens in which meals could be prepared for the fast-growing population of workers. These architects often worked hand in hand with industry to create functioning factories that still left the individual worker empowered. Ample archival footage of these workers amidst huge, whirling machinery gives a sense of the thrilling energy of those places at the time, which became secular cathedrals to technological progress and the hope of a better standard of life for everyone.

Recognizing that those incoming workers needed a place to live, Melnikov addressed the need for cheap, efficient housing as well. Picturing a series of interconnected cylinders, in keeping with the geometric, Constructivist credo, Melnikov tried but failed to get his solution to the housing crunch built. Determined to prove his design’s feasibility, Melnikov build a home for himself following that idea. Melnikov, who was also a painter, appears above painting in the great living cylinder of his home, bathed in the light streaming through the series of decorative yet functional diamond-shaped windows climbing up the walls. This period of architecture marks a great cognitive leap in the ways buildings were imagined that rippled through all world architecture and continues to influence builders today. Melnikov’s willingness to “experiment” on himself and his own home shows just how personally committed and engaged these architects were in the mission to build this brave new world.

Craig’s film brings the spirit of innovation and community driving these people at this time vibrantly back to life. By showing a computer animation of a painting by Malevich transform into an architectural blueprint and then into a three-dimensional model and, finally, the real-life building, Craig bridges the same gap between art and architecture that these Tatlin, Melnikov, and others had to bridge. As with his other film I’ve reviewed, Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Avant-garde, Architecture and the Russian Avant-Garde bristles with a kinetic energy thanks to the quick pace of the insightful narration and the endless parade of juxtaposed archival footage of the time and photography of the buildings that still stand today. Looking at many of these buildings today, a little worse for wear, it would be easy to pass judgment on them as failures because of their link to the broken promises of Socialism. However, as with the Rodchenko film, Craig resists editorializing on the political ideology and maintains a laser focus on the art and the architecture. By ignoring what never was, Architecture and the Russian Avant-Garde wonderfully presents what could have been.

[Many thanks to Michael Craig and Copernicus Films for providing me with a review copy of Architecture and the Russian Avant-Garde and for the images from the film.]

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