The Constructivists are poorly understood. Constructivist art is often thought of as Russian Futurism and Constructivist architecture is often thought of as Russian Modernism. There is a kernel of truth in this.
Moisei Ginzburg – that’s him in front of the middle lady in white – he wrote the manifesto of Constructivist architecture in 1924. He did study architecture in Italy where he met The Futurists. He did generally agree with their stance – apart from their total rejection of history. He did most likely read Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture when parts of it were published in L’Esprit Nouveau. He did design the 1926 Gosstrakh Apartments that are said to be the first application in Russia of Corbusier’s Five Points.
Pilotis Free plan. Free facade. Horizontal windows.
- Roof garden.
It might have been better to say “the first application of one of Corbusier’s five points” but I’m sure Russians enjoyed rooftops Before Corbusier.
What I see are load bearing external walls and in those walls I see windows that are no larger than they need to be. I see those windows have secondary glazing – we are in Moscow. I see a plan with a structural core and minimal circulation that has natural daylight and ventilation. It’s little wonder the Constructivists are poorly understood.
The Bauhaus and the VKhUTEMAS existed over the same period. Their objectives, course content, activities and methods were largely similar. Both eventually closed for much the same reasons, the VKhUTEMAS in 1930 and the Bauhaus in 1933. In its first year, the Bauhaus had 150 students, the VKhUTEMAS 2,000.
Constructivist art was “constructed” out of diverse graphic elements, text and shapes. It rejected the idea of autonomous art in favour of art for social purposes.
In practice it was a tool and in spirit a metaphor for building a new society. It was only a matter of time before it translated into the construction of buildings. Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919-1920 Monument to the Third International was powerfully symbolic of the aspirations but was, alas, unbuildable. Over the years it has existed as models at varying scales but most recently as this artificially distressed CGI.
It was Alexander’s knowledge of engineering and construction management that made it possible. HE MADE IT WORK! The first the public saw of Constructivist Architecture was the Vesnins’ 1923 entry for the Palace of Labour competition.
1922-1925 were good years for the Vesnin brothers in terms of winning competitions.
1925 Alexander Vesnin and Moisei Ginzburg founded of the OSA Group (Organisation of Contemporary Architects).
Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture had been published in 1923, although some people had already read some of its chapters in L’Esprit Nouveau. Moisei Ginzburg was almost certainly one of those people.
Ginzburg’s 1924 book Style and Epoch is said to have similarities to Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture despite it being the manifesto of Constructivist Architecture and its concerns for technology, engineering and socialist social engineering. One curious difference is that the English version of Vers une Architecture was out within three years. It took sixty for the first English translation of Style and Epoch to appear. When it did in 1984, Kenneth Frampton wrote the foreword.
Frampton quotes the translator as saying the differences between the two books are as revealing as their similarities. Both books are concerned with the aesthetic potential of machines, but whereas Le Corbusier chooses the luxury liner, Ginzburg chooses the “perform-well-or-die” battleship and submarine. Where Le Corbusier chooses the luxury automobile, Ginzburg chooses the locomotive. Le Corbusier and Ginzburg both look at the same thing and see something different. These are more than just differences of interest. These are some of the first signs of the Style vs. Performance split architecture has never recovered from. In hindsight we can see that, in 1924, Le Corbusier was focussing on the rich and a socially ornamental architecture and Ginzburg was focussing on the ordinary people and a socially useful architecture. The biggest difference in the two approaches to architecture is that Ginzburg’s idea of constructivist architecture as not being a style but a method of building buildings. Constructivism was the opposite of L’Ésprit Nouveau and, incidentally, the opposite of Deconstructionism. Constructivism was about constructing buildings. Deconstructionism was about creating a false narrative for how a building shape came about. Moisei Ginzburg is best known for his 1929 Narkomfin Building in Moscow. It’s been undermaintained for the past 30 years. Occupying prime real estate between the US embassy and a shopping mall hasn’t helped. Here’s it’s counterpart, the 1930 Doma Oblsoviet building we first met in Getting Some Rays.
It’s in a city where, for three months of the year the average maximum day temperature is above freezing and the average minimum night temperature below freezing. Cyclic freezing and thawing can make water split rock. Doma Oblsoviet is looking pretty good for 85. 1924–1930 was a great time to be an architect. Right or wrong, people had opinions, believed in things. There were Ginzburg and the Vesnins on the Constructivist front with the OSA group. Nikolai Ladovsky led a rival group called ASNOVA (Union of Rationalist Architects). They were rivals because they thought things like this.
- Architecture is an art of handling space. Space is used by all kinds of art, but only architecture enables us to read the fabric of space correctly. Architects’ material is space, not stone. Sculptural shape in architecture is subordinate to space. Graphic arts are subordinate to both space and sculptural shape.
- Structural engineering belongs to architecture inasmuch as structure defines space. Engineers are here to obtain maximum output from minimal material inputs. Their approach has nothing common with art; it may satisfy the architect only by accident. … Exterior facade should not barely reflect the inner contents, but have a value of its own.
Ladovsky believed the architect must first conceive of a spatial composition as volumes and only when that has been done, transfer the formed composition to paper. His objective was to develop new methods and means of artistic expression. This doesn’t sound very rational. This photograph of Ladovsky is titled Students perform the task on the subject “Space”. It doesn’t look to me like the students are getting it.
Between these two schools of thought is a functional formalism best represented by Golosov who leaned towards ASNOVA rationalism
as did Melnikov,
and El Lissitsky, who leaned towards OSA Constructivism.
Another rival group was VOPRA led by Arkady Mordvinov. VOPRA were against the technology, engineering and socialist social engineering and anything else the Constructivists stood for and, at the same time, against the abstract formalism ASNOVA promoted. They wanted a conservative monumentalism constructed from modern materials. VOPRA was used by the state against free-minded modernist architects and to consolidate the profession under tight state control. It worked. All three groups were forced to disband in April 1932 to form an All-Union Association of Architects. The winning entry for the Palace of the Soviets competition showed which way the wind was blowing in 1932.
It’s interesting to see how the Vesnins’ entry was a gigantic Villa Savoye whilst Corbusier’s has contrivedly expressive structure. They clearly didn’t speak each other’s language. It didn’t matter. The 1934 competition for the Ministry of Heavy Industry showed how the future was going to be.
- Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius went on to do other things elsewhere.
- Hannes Meyer left Germany for the Soviet Union, and later on to Mexico.
- Leonid Vesnin died in 1933 – the same year as the government’s crackdown on independent art unions and modernist architecture. Victor continued a successful if unremarkable career in industrial architecture and administration of the Union of Soviet Architects. Alexander failed to adjust to the rise of official Stalinist architecture and quietly withdrew from public professional activities. It’s difficult to reconcile this with Alexander being chief architect for the Ministry of Oil Industry until 1950 and Victor being Chairman of the Soviet Academy of Architecture 1939–1949.
- Post-1933, Konstantin Melnikov unsuccessfully entered a number of competitions, winning none. His last design was for the Soviet pavilion at the 1962 New York World’s Fair.
- Solomon Lisagor was arrested and executed in 1937.
- Ilya Golosov had some success with a “post–constructivist” style described as neoclassical shapes without neoclassical detailing’
- Moisei Ginzburg fell out of favour and returned to Crimea where he had lived 1917-1921, and ran a practice there until his death in 1946.
- Ivan Leonidov worked 1934-41 at Moisei Ginzburg’s workshop.
- The career of VOPRA’s Arkady Mordvinov continued uninterrupted.
• • • 85 years later • • •
High-tech has a large and largely unacknowledged debt to Constructivism. Keno Tange’s office also has some explaining to do. Zaha Hadid’s early work drew strongly from the Suprematist – the apolitical – strand of VKhUTEMAS art, Malevich’s architektons in particular. Shorn of political content, Constructivist means could be used to Deconstructionist ends. None of this is a surprise. It is all part of the same historical plundering that occurs in music and fashion as high-turnover consumerism meets short-term memories. What’s more interesting is that historical memory of The Constructivists changes along the mood of the era. For many decades, the Constructivists weren’t mentioned at all. An historian or a lecturer could segue quickly from Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1923 Imperial Hotel to LC’s 1927 Villa Savoye to MvdR’s 1929 Barcelona Pavilion and skip The Constructivists entirely. Any link between 1920’s art and architecture in Europe could be described using either this pair of images, too close together in time
or this pair, too far apart. Five years was a long time in the 1920s.
A slightly more expansive history book would use either an Image of the Vesnin brothers’ 1924 proposal for the Leningradskaya Pravda newspaper offices or Konstantin Melnikov’s 1925 Paris pavilion to summarise Constructivist architecture in a single distancing graphic.
Later, contemporary photographs of Ilya Melnikov’s shapey 1927 Rusakov Workers Club came to be used, making Constructivism a little more real on the internet, although leaning towards the Rationalists. These days we like our Constructivism served up as Ivan Leonidov. His graphics allow us to admire the visuals from a comfortable distance like we did with San’Elia, and then walk away.
For all its annoying flaws, William J.R. Curtis’ Modern Architecture Since 1900 is probably the best overview of 20th century architecture in English we have. Curtis devotes his entire chapter 12 to “Architecture and Revolution in Russia” – and then proceeds to tell us about Le Corbusier in Russia (in yellow). On p210 is a description of LC’s 1927 Centrosoyus project. Curtis describes its double-glazed façade as if it were a new thing for the world instead of just being a new thing for Le Corbusier. This is one of those annoying flaws I was referring to.
On page 214, the Palace of the Soviets competition gives Curtis the opportunity to tell us
“[LC’s] entry must ranked as one of his masterpieces. The two auditoriums were arranged o the same axis and were direct sculptural expressions of the acoustically optimised forms of the interior profiles.”
If true, that would place LC in the ASNOVA camp with its use of performance criteria to generate expressive form. Expressive form seems to be what Curtis likes, as he ends his bit on LC with,
“Once again Le Corbusier demonstrated his ability to probe the underlying meaning of a social programme and to translate this into aesthetic forms.”
Sandwiched between the yellow bits is the following praise for Ivan Leonidov. Please read the bit in green. I can’t bear to type it. It’s not about Leonidov at all. It’s about Curtis. Leonidov was a star pupil at the VKhUTEMAS and his 1927 Lenin Institute of Librarianship was his diploma project. This is the only instance I know of where a student project has been incorporated into somebody’s history of architecture. Why would this be? I expect it’s because this project gives Curtis the opportunity to describe it in terms of the sculptural qualities, symbolism and expression he’s so keen to find and feed as insights to the contemporary consumers of architectural imagery whom, for their part, are all too keen to consume it. Instead of his history being an antidote to the current state of architecture, it’s clearly suffering from the same sickness.
• • •
Vast thanks to Victor, misfits’ man-in-Russia, for suggesting this post and contributing to its content in many ways, but also for pointing out various factual and naming errors, as well as mis-spellings and odd grammatical errors.