Red Dawn (1986)

Book review by David King

The Red Wedge monument by Nikolai Kolli, Moscow, 1919

In 1919 Nikolai Kolli designed and built a makeshift avant-garde monument in Revolution Square, Moscow, called “The Red Wedge”. It was a simple construction of light sheets of board and was hollow. Shortly after it was completed an impoverished student named Berthold Lubetkin, later to become the distinguished architect, was in Moscow looking for a flat. He forced open a small door in the back of the wooden construction, threw in some blankets, and in the dead of winter cold made himself a home there for several months. 

Lubetkin relates attending a meeting of agitation artists at this time, arranged by Vladimir Mayakovsky to discuss the future of Proletarian Art. The audience was unusually excited even for those days because the main speaker was to be none other than the co-leader of the October Revolution and founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky. Speech after speech of “formalist” thought calling for social change through art echoed around the hall that day until Trotsky ascended the platform to great cheers from the idealistic youth. “Comrades,” he said, “the future of the new Soviet State is indissolubly linked to the production of soap!” The audience was dumb-struck, but Trotsky was right. The whole of Russia was in the grip of starvation and bloody civil war, and surrounded by the hostile forces of imperialistic nations. The spectre of typhus, which was to take so many lives at this time, was upon them. 

None of this material appears in Constructivist Architecture in the USSR by Anatole Kopp [Academy Editions/St Martin’s Press, 1986], and the omission of many first-hand accounts highlights one of the book’s main drawbacks. Because he relies mainly on Soviet channels today, Kopp’s work sheds little light on the effect that the political struggles of the 1920s had on the new architecture. 

For example, Kolli’s only appearance in this book is as co-architect on the Dnieper Dam project, a massive engineering enterprise of the late 1920s. But what isn’t mentioned, and this is a symbolic example of what the book fails to do, is that the Dnieper Dam was initiated by Trotsky, who supervised its early stages of planning. After Stalin’s removal of Trotsky from the leadership of the USSR (following Lenin’s death in 1924) Dnieper became a huge propaganda weapon for the “great leader and teacher”, the centre-piece of the First Five-year Plan. So once again Trotsky has been expunged – unwittingly by the author. 

I have always been struck by something Nadezhda Mandelstam, the late widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam who perished in Stalin’s death camps, once told me about the Revolution period: “We all waved red flags in those days,” she said, “it was very exciting indeed. We had no idea what was going to happen later. Tatlin was one of our number in the avant-garde,” she continued: “That Tatlin! We looked upon him as something of a fool. He was always making clothes that fell apart … that ridiculous Monument to the Third I don’t know what! And he designed and built a stove that caught fire. It nearly burnt his apartment to cinders.”

Coming away from Mrs Mandelstam’s little one-room flat in Cheriomuskinskaya on the outskirts of Moscow that day, I saw in close-up the degenerated legacy of constructivism: the Stalinist micro-districts of workers’ apartment buildings. The spectator is mentally mugged by line upon line of bullying blocks, thuggish, motionless, hostile in their concrete clothing. Being lost in a micro-district can be a nerve-shattering experience. 

There certainly are problems with architecture on paper. The credibility gap between the first skilled promotional drawings, the beautifully executed models and then the (usually) hideous reality of the finished object standing there, or sometimes sitting there. 

Mrs Mandelstam’s view of the great Tatlin was history at first hand, a different perspective, in the same way as we are made to look down (or up) from a different perspective, in a Rodchenko photograph, a painting by El Lissitzky, or a Klutsis poster. 

Any new society demands a new vision, a new art. The revolutionaries in Russia demanded a new clarity of presentation in art and propaganda directly linked to the massive campaign for literacy. Today in the West, the same clarity in presentation is also needed because of the mass of so-called information and disinformation which assails us from all sides. There is also the question of clarity of text. Not the scientific neutrality that was sought by the Bauhaus masters, because Belsen, Hiroshima and Vietnam have shown us that such a neutrality cannot exist. 

Design can and must take sides. For example, already in the art colleges today there is an alignment forming against the obscurantist adolescent squiggles of “cocktail graphics” that has been fashionable recently in Thatcherite Britain. The pendulum continues to swing, the tumbrils continue to roll. 

Kopp’s text takes us through the various stages of constructivism’s life: the origins and doctrine, the state competitions, the failure of communal housing, the division between the architectural groupings, the final demise. He sets out the material clearly and interestingly. Unfortunately this fine approach is hampered by the graphic presentation which is disturbingly bad. 

Unlike his previous work Town and Revolution (Thames and Hudson, 1976) which was a modest and serious-looking book, Constructivist Architecture in the USSR is presented in traditional coffee-table dimensions. The photography and drawings are taken mainly from secondary and tertiary sources, that is, reproduced from badly printed magazines or newspapers. This is sometimes necessary, of course, because the originals are often lost or not available. But not much has been made by the designer of projecting this rough dimension graphically. The good quality black and white printing and expensive paper tend to make the quality of the originals look even poorer. The whole sits uneasily on the page. Worse still, there is a distinct lack of people inhabiting the photographs in this book. It is as if the whole town is empty. 

It is something of a travesty of justice that the exemplary work of such masters as Melnikov, the Vesnins, Leonidov, Ginzburg and others is junked together in an ill-considered mish-mash of layouts, meandering lifelessly across the pages of this volume, divorced from the social currents of the time, devoid of the excitement of revolution. Kopp should not be pleased. 

Colour, composition, typography; close-up, long shot, multi-shots, mixed media, contrasting photographs, film-style sequences … Build up, construct photographic essays like a documentary film! Vertov! Eisenstein! 

None of these graphic principles, as defined by the very people spoken of in this book, are used here. The typography is awful. Meanwhile I wait impatiently for S. O. Khan-Magomedov’s monumental work Pioneers of Soviet Architecture, to be published by Thames and Hudson in spring 1987. 

Originally published in Blueprint no. 24, February 1986, pp. 45–46. The photograph was used in the article