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1930: De-urbanism

Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in the Time of Stalin contains the following wonderful analogy.

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Paperny uses it to describe the kind of ideal “horizontal society” imagined in the late 1920s in the Soviet Union in which all goods and population are uniformly distributed. Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov wrote of the possible evolution of mass communication and transportation and housing. He described a world in which people live and travel about in mobile glass cubicles that can attach themselves to skyscraper-like frameworks, and in which all human knowledge can be disseminated to the world by radio and displayed automatically on giant book-like displays at streetcorners.

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De-urbanism was the name given to this movement as an urban theory.

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I expect this comment refers to David Greene’s 1966 Living Pod for Archigram.

“The outcome of rejecting permanence and security in a house brief and adding instead curiosity and search could result in a mobile world – like early nomad societies. In relation to the Michael Webb design, the Suit and Cushicle would be the tent and camel equivalent; the node cores an oasis equivalent: the node cluster communities conditioned by varying rates of change. It is likely that under the impact of the second machine age the need for a house (in the form of permanent static container) as part of man’s psychological make-up will disappear.”

De-urbanism extrapolated developments in transportation and their implications for the city. The person responsible for it was Mikhail Okhitovich. This is the only known photograph of him.

Here’s a note of his. De-urbanism was the opposite of centralization.

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The question Okhitovich, and later Moisei Ginzburg, aimed to solve in 1929 was how housing should be organised for the entire USSR now it had its new society.

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The principle, if not the appearance, was not unlike Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City except Broadacre City didn’t exist as an idea until 1932. Ginzburg and Okhitovich developed an easily deployable collapsible and transportable dwelling unit.

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They designed buildings for 100 persons.

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These were to be distributed throughout the country in an isotropic grid with every place connected to every other place.

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In 1930 Okhitovich, Ginzburg, Zelenko and Alexander Pasternak produced a plan for the Green City Competition for the new city of Magnitogorsk. It was to be a ribbon city.

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The state would grant each person a prefabricated lightweight house, letting that person free to combine and arrange the modules, from the single unit to the family or community clusters, using highways, rails, automobile and airplanes to link them. The houses could join, grow and split according to the evolution of the family within. Sounds good.

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It was not to be.

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Lenin did not like this idea and Stalin was not pleased. Le Corbusier was none too happy either. You can skip these next two letters if you like, but you’ll miss LC’s objections to de-urbanism and Ginzburg’s response to them. I expect these communications were originally in French, and that what’s in bold was originally underlined.

Le Corbusier was to later compile his criticisms into The Radiant City.

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Other criticism came from Rationalist avant-garde architect Nikolai Dokuchaev of the rival architectural group, ASNOVA. According to Paperny,

“by the end of the 1920s, several competing creative organisations existed (OSA, ASNOVA, ARU, VOPRA and others), each of which independently sought its own commissions and, to some degree, protected the material interests of its members. Competition among these organisations was, in the main, commercial. Commercial rivalry led to the situation in which organisations exaggerated their creative differences.”

There’s no reason to assume LC was any different.  Over the the period 1928-1932 he was making frequent business development visits to Moscow [and which in another post I intimate prompted the hasty re-design of Villa Savoye] but they were to abruptly stop when he wasn’t made winner of the Palace of The Soviets competition.

De-urbanism and Mikail Okhitovich had an unhappier end. In 1932 came an edict announcing the union of all rival creative organisations under the same banner, outlawing creative difference. One of those rival groups was VOPRA – the All-Union Society of Proletarian Architects. Mikhail Okhitovich was denounced by VOPRA villain, Arkady Mordvinov arkadymordvinov.png , and was shot in 1937. Those who challenge the status quo are usually praised for challenging the status quo but Okhitovich is the only urbanist ever killed for his beliefs. Okhitovich believed in de-urbanism but it was his ability to convince others that was more likely the real threat.

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Михаи́л Охито́вич (1896—1937)

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It is no surprise that the freedom of movement imagined by Khlebnikov and re-imagined by Archigram never occurred. The closest we’ve come to savouring the sentiment was this re-enactment of its representation in an animated movie. That’s already four degrees of separation from any social or political meaning.

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This combination of the idea of a building, the whimsical representation of freedom, and the absence of any political significance or social utility made it the perfect architectural content for our times. Derrida may claim there’s no conceptual order amongst signifiers but how quickly we all imagined ourselves on board sailing away rather than left on the ground despairing the elusiveness of home ownership. It’s not that social or political meaning have ceased to exist as if by edict. We’ve just been groomed to not see architecture that way. One of these days some architect is going to come along and suggest architecture can be an agent of social change and we’re all going to be oh so impressed as if it’s some astounding new concept.

Meanwhile, governments instinctively discourage the free movement of people. In a world in which increasing numbers of them will have no fixed address, we’ve yet to see if our governments will be any more accommodating than Stalin’s.

7 thoughts on “1930: De-urbanism

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks for this kelman! I’m currently working on a post where micro meets co-housing meets mobile and this will definitely find a place in it. It should be about two or three in the future. Graham.

      Reply
  1. Farid Ziani

    Dear Graham,
    Would you please guide me to which work (poem/book) did Velimir Khlebnikov describe his “utopia?”
    or at least which book are the screenshots used in this bulletin from? (as they contains footnotes)
    cheers.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Dear Farid, the book is the one I mentioned at the top, Vladimir Paperny’s “CULTURE TWO: Architecture in The Time of Stalin”. The quote you mention is on page 32 (footnote 9) but unfortunately I didn’t photocopy the footnotes from my library copy. It mentions “early prose” so I suspect it will lead you to Khlebnikov’s “The King of Time”. You might also be interested in the reference on page 41 to the architectural projects of Andrei Ikonnikov (footnote 64) and the NER group (footnote 65) that also saw the city as constantly changing in response to wind, rain, mood of the inhabitants etc. I’m going to the library early next week so can check it out for you. Graham.

      Reply
      1. Farid Ziani

        Wonderful !! thank you very much
        being in Japan and far from Tokyo has this disadvantage of not finding architecture related libraries (I mean beside Japanese language ones).
        Yes those would be of a great interest for me as well, in fact I am curious to see the developments and the analogies between them and the archigram/superstudio/archizoom period …
        is this an early step to the (I know you hate this) so called: Everything is Architecture?
        thanks again.
        Farid

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