History Repeating #1: Tragedy

Yess – it’s The French Revolution! In his book, Russian and French Revolutionary Architecture, Adolf Max Vogt saw a parallel between what happened to French architecture after the French Revolution and what happened to Soviet architecture after the Russian one. In Architecture in the age of StalinCulture TwoVladimir Paperny put it like this:

This next example is a Soviet example of those conservative, representative forms from 1934. It’s usually called Post-Constructivism because it happened next rather than because of any continuity of approach.

Post-constructivism, 1934

But what is this Culture Two?

The first type of culture – and that includes the Constructivist architects – was a Culture One and the culture that replaced it – that of Stalinist architecture – was a Culture Two. It’s a tidy model that organises so much information into a very dense book that, for almost three years now, I’ve been putting off trying to summarize in less than 2,000 words.

Instead, I will focus here on the shift in the use to which architecture is put when there’s a shift from a Culture One to a Culture Two. Basically, it’s the shift away from the rational use of building materials and volume for useful social purposes such as housing people,

to the expressive use of shape and ornament for the social purpose of reminding people who their oppressors are –  thus keeping them in line.

The former is good for people. The latter is good for oppressors.

We might want to think a bit more about the power structures to which architecture has traditionally given shape, and about what today’s might be. 

We don’t know if Le Corbusier’s proposal for the 1932 Palace of the Soviets Competition would’ve been any better for the people than the building that eventually won the competition, but 1932 is generally regarded as the year the wind changed.

In 1934 it was still not clear what was going on.

Some of the clarity of Paperny’s book comes from him being able to look back from the distance of 2002. In 1937 there was still no clarity, but positions had solidified somewhat.

Why FLW was invited to Russia and why he accepted are no great mystery. It’s tempting to think there was some giant ego vacuum to be filled now LC had vowed never to return, but the tedious truth is business had been slack since Midway Hotel (1923) and wasn’t to pick up until Fallingwater came online (1937). Saying yes to everything was the prudent thing to do.

Culture One and Culture Two aren’t just different – they’re complete opposites and Paperny’s book is organised according to them.

  • Centrifugal vs. Centripetal: This is the fundamental, all-encompassing opposition. Culture One wanted everything dispersed and spread horizontally and equally. Culture Two wanted it centralised (controllable) and dispersed hierachically. This opposition played itself out with De-urbanism, fatally so for Mikhail Okhotovich who proposed buildings for 100 persons, dispersed in a an isotropic grid with every place connected to every other place.

    Culture One/Culture Two may be a model but what it describes weren’t abstractions.

  • Uniform vs. Hierarchical: Culture One wanted everything to be evenly spread amongst all and across all. It wanted to erase differences between city and country and replace it with uniformly distributed agri-cities.  It wanted minimum standards for human occupation so everybody could be assured of a certain amount. A. Pasternak wrote in the first issue of Contemporary Architecture that “It is incorrect and impractical to think that only … a city’s business centre is the place for tall buildings. We believe that our new life compels us to place skyscrapers in the rest of the city as well.”  The first declaration, in 1928, of the Association of Architects-Urbanists mentions the “complete destruction of social inequalities, the simplification and gradual extinction of the class structure, and the nationalisation of land.” (p74)In contrast, Culture Two formalised the idea of hierarchy, with Moscow as the major city, St. Petersburg second, and Kharkov third. Each city had a centre of power and a subservient periphery.  Proximity to Moscow, and to the centre of Moscow was an indicator of power. Something that was possible in Moscow was, by definition, impossible elsewhere. Even within Moscow, architectural ideas were judged on their appropriateness for their position within the spatial hierarchy. As Paperny put it, “the value of selected parts (Moscow, for example, or the centre of the city, or the facades of a building, or the main axis of a facade) becomes significantly higher than the value of all remaining space.
  • Horizontal vs. Vertical:  This is easily understood architecturally but it went further. The horizontality of Culture One went beyond borders. Magazines were printed with titles in three languages and their contents in two. Articles from foreign magazines were translated. People were curious about other places. This stopped with Culture Two as it was thought nothing could be learned from other places. 
  • Beginning vs. Ending: Culture One rejected everything that went before it. The basic stance was, like The Futurists, to trash it all and begin again. Culture One saw itself as standing at the beginning of a new history. It was interested in the future. Culture Two regarded itself as perfection and as standing at the end of all that went before. Culture Two’s interest in the past was only to find out how it came to be so perfect.
  • Movement vs. Immobility: Culture One wanted culture and population spread across the entire country. In 1929 Ginzburg and Okhitovich’s proposed mobile and transportable dwelling units for the new town of Magnitogorsk. Culture Two rejected anything that would facilitate the movement and dispersal of the population or their desire for it.

Okhitovich theory

As part of this desire for permanence and immovability, Culture Two rejected all buildings that, like Le Corbusier’s newly completed Tcentrosoyuz Building raised on columns, did not “grow naturally out of the ground” – that implied mobility. LC was never a fan of de-urbanism but, for many, pilotis meant legs and legs meant movement.

LC desurbanism

  • Collective vs. Individual: Culture One saw people as inherently equal. Collective housing with communal facilities enabled women to be equal members of the workforce. This was to disappear with the ascendance of Culture Two when, in 1930, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued its resolution “About Work on the Reconstruction of Daily Life: We are seeing extremely unfounded, almost fantastic, and therefore, extremely harmful attempts of some compares … to jump ‘in a single leap’ over the barriers on the path to the socialist reconstruction of daily life.” Whilst not naming names, the gist was clear. The family unit, and its accompanying hierarchies, was back in vogue. Culture Two valued individuality, but only as affirmation of the specific place, person, or building within the hierarchy. As always, Paperny puts it well.

Moscow State University

Group collaborations were characteristic of Culture One. In Culture Two, authorship was celebrated in proportion to mediocrity. 

  • Mechanism vs. Human Here’s where it starts to get nasty. “Buildings were regarded more as humans as humans became less so”. Culture Two accused Culture One with its focus on technical solutions and minimum specifications, of having a mechanistic view of humanity. Attempting to a provide a minimum level of housing was seen as being in thrall to technology rather than the wanting to do so representing a concern for humanity. The word “living” was also misconstrued, with a decrease in the thickness of panels from three millimeters to one millimeter being presented as “living people being motivated by a living task”. Building became anthropomorphicised, culminating in the 1950s when the facades of all building were finished in rose-pink tiles.
    Being denouced as mechanical”, “logical” or “abstract” was a precursor to arrest. “Merriment”, “joy” and “warmth” were the new qualities desired of architecture, with “warmth” being most valued. This is Ivan Sobolev’s 1938-9 Apartment House of the Peoples’ Commissariat of Sovkhozes. Despite filling up with snow for five months of the year, the balconies of this building radiate warmth, or rather a cooling Mediterranean outlook, rather than the mechanistic coldness of Culture One architecture.  Moscow streets in the 1930s were alive year-round with vendors for ice-cream and sold drinks. Beer would first be warmed to allow it to be drunk. [p131] Balconies are a persistent feature of Soviet architecture 1930-1950. In general, Culture Two celebrated warmth as a concept rather than as keeping warm as such.

The differences between a Culture One worldview and a Culture Two worldview are so many and so completely opposite that, at times, it seems as if any pair of opposites can be brought into service. The third part Lyrical-Epic contains chapters titled Mutism-Word, Improvisation-Notation, Efficatious-Artistic, Business-Miracle, Realistic-Truth.

  • Improvisation vs. Notation: Culture One believed that the result of an activity cannot be known beforehand and that the difference between spontaneity and calculation was merely one of method as either would give a true result. Culture Two believed the result was known prior to an activity and that the only point of the activity was to lead to the desired result. Culture One would have insisted the path at least agree with some rule or method, but for Culture Two the path had to agree with the result that was already known. Culture Two believed that “not only do events in the present influence those in the past, but the result precedes the activity that leads to it.”
  • Realistic vs. Truth Culture One understood truth to be what exists in the world. Architects were encouraged to take steps towards reality. It was thought architecture could not exist outside of real demands. Truth for Culture One was the truth of purpose, function, construction, material and perception. Culture Two believed that representations of something not only conveyed but contained the qualities of the original. For example, something that was large could only be represented by something that was large. The representation took on the qualities of the thing represented, as we have seen.

Also, Culture Two believed that “truth” had nothing to do with fact and truth of that kind was derided as pathetic factographysomething we have come to identify today as “truthiness”. Paperny relates a story of how the architecct Burov designed a building to have a band of stone slabs that, classically, had been used to distribute weight better across the masonry even though that task was no longer required of it. A Culture One critric would call this band illegitimate but a Culture Two critic would call it valid because it could exist. For Culture One, truth was that which is or that which will be. For Culture Two, truth was that which could be. 

Clarity of construction was not something that could be unlearned, and so Post-constructivism was rendered more truthful by ornament representing clarity of construction and which looks like something from our own not-too-distant past.

Post-constructivism, 1934

• • •

Culture Two in the Soviet Union ended with the death of Stalin and the country embarked on a program of housing that, by the end of the 1970s saw the entire population housed in blocks such as the 1-447C and its variants.

In the West however, Culture Two was just beginning. In his introduction, Paperny draws a parallel not with Stalinism but with the neoliberalism of which Post-Modernism was the opening act.

Untitled 12

• • •

History Repeating #2: Farce will be the title of a follow-on post that will take a set of Paperny’s oppositions and map them to our present. I expect it will be possible to identify any recent trend and find a pair of oppositions that will map cleanly – for example: 

“Naturalistic architecture was more celebrated the more contrived the needs it satisfied,” [I’ve always enjoyed this photograph and how the birds use the structure that exists to observe them, to conceal themselves from the birdwatchers] or, in a similar vein,

“The projects most awarded did the least for the greatest amount of people” 

and not to forget the haunting,“Authorship came to be celebrated in proportion to mediocrity.”