Published  22/04/2008

Book review: The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932

The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932

Richard Pare and Jean-Louis Cohen. Introduction by Phyllis Lambert
New York: Monacelli Press, 2007

This remarkable survey was synchronised with an exhibition of the same title presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from July to October 2007. It fills a major gap in modernist studies, describing the extraordinary surge of commissioned modern buildings that occurred after the Russian Revolution and continued until after Lenin's death. It is the first fully illustrated survey of Russian modernism in the critical decade 1922-1932. It follows a Soviet compendium, Pioneers of Soviet Architecture: The Search for New Solutions in the 1920s and 1930s, assembled by the historian Selim O Khan-Magomedov, published in 1987 in London (and in 1983 in Dresden) and edited by Catherine Cooke, herself author of Russian Avant-Garde: Theories of Art, Architecture and the City. Her early death was a major blow to research in this field.

Earth-moving events have shaken the world since, over two decades ago since the Soviet compendium was published over two decades ago, but this new publication sets out to reveal the truth of the great wealth of modern design that emerged basically during one key decade. The collaboration of the photographer Richard Pare and historian Jean-Louis Cohen has been a formidable one. Andrei Gozak, who has recently worked with Juhani Pallasmaa on documentation of the Melnikov House is also perceptibly an influence in the reappraisal of this remarkable building and much else.

The works covered are drawn from all across the former Soviet Union from cities such as Kharkov, Sochi, Ekaterinburg and Baku as well as Moscow and St Petersburg. What is particularly useful is the authors' list of some seventy-three structures in various degrees of use and decay. This has never been achieved before: Architecture of the USSR (1917-1987) had aimed to be comprehensive but there were many omissions.

Historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner, Sigfried Giedion and Bruno Zevi seemed to have constructed a world of their own, often overlapping, yet to all intents and purposes a parallel universe to actual reality. The Soviet modernists, as Jean-Louis Cohen points out, could find only a marginal place in this: it was not until Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co published Architettura Contemporanea in Italy in 1976 and Kenneth Frampton published his Modern Architecture: a Critical History in 1980 that true recognition came. Barbara Kreis (in Oppositions 1980;21) had by then published her definitive article, 'The Idea of the Dom-Kommuna and the Dilemma of the Soviet Avant-Garde', with it special focus on the housing communes. Particularly relevant here are the designs of Melnikov for housing at Serpukhov Ulitsa, Moscow (1923) and the subsequent design by M Ginsburg and I Milinis for the Narkomfin block in Moscow, housing for the employees of the Finance Commissariat (1929). A year later this last project was sharply criticised for 'uncritical acceptance of Western capitalistic architecture and', for its formal transference of Western constructional and aesthetic methods. The honeymoon period was over. Fortunately, although Melnikov's project was not realised, the Narkomfin building survives as an icon of all the aspirations - social, political and architectural - of the decade. It is well documented here. Richard Pare's photographs capture the romanticism, domesticity and incumbent decay. Ginsburg's linear window boxes are still perceptible, and convey both the dream and also the still-surviving poetry.

In all this, the work of Konstantin Melnikov, now exemplified by his iconically famous house in Moscow, acted like a lighthouse beacon. His USSR Pavilion, a powerful and temporary timber structure erected at the 'Exposition des Arts Decoratifs' in Paris (1925) blazoned the way of the Russian avant-garde to the wider world. Apart from his house, Melnikov's Rusakov Workers' Club has also suffered neglect but today stands out clearly with its powerful cubic volumes. Pare has performed with special skill in capturing in detail certain key structural assemblies. Evidently from his account, the acoustic quality of the auditoria has survived. However, the condition of his Gosplan Garage is revealed as lamentable. The Voroshilov Sanatorium (by Miron Merzhanov, who ended up as Stalin's personal architect) steps down its sloping site on the Black Sea coast with great elegance and accomplishment. The now maturely landscaped site adds to the sense of quality here.

Outside Russia proper, the Central Post Office at Kharkov in the Ukraine (1928-1929) exudes a remarkably confident white modernism, designed by the little-known architect Arkady Mordvinov. In Azerbaijan there is a gem of a piece of iconic symmetry by Leonid Vesnin. He also teamed up with Aleksandr and Victor Vesnin to produce the Club of the Association of Pre-Revolutionary Deportees (1932), which has survived its vicissitudes - not dissimilar to those of its occupants - remarkably well. Surprisingly, Eric Mendelsohn's Red Banner Textile Factory (1925-1937) had survived too, at least at the point that this book was prepared, and was still operating spasmodically. The Vyborg District Factory Kitchen (1928-1933), located in St Petersburg, was contemporaneous with Aalto's Viipuri Library in neighbouring Finland. The thought arises as to the extent to which Aalto's office were aware of what was going on across the border. There is little documentation. This incidentally raises another question. Aalto and Moholy-Nagy were firm friends. The Bauhaus had explored links with Moscow. Later Moholy-Nagy attempted to interest Aalto in the Russian developments. Aalto took it all in, and the Swiss trainee architect Walter Custer from the Aalto office wrote back from Moscow enthusiastically. But something constrained Aalto. In any event, the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne meeting set up in Moscow for 1933 was cancelled by the Soviet hosts. Aalto's instinct seems to have been well founded.

In this book the magic is in the photographs. Some buildings in the book give the impression that they could as well be languishing in London's East End, or somewhere in a wasteland between Croydon and Kingston. However what this encyclopaedic survey really reveals for the most part is the full extent of the Russian talent sidelined earlier by Western critics, not entirely through paucity of facts. It has to be admitted as to what extent German, Italian and Finnish architects observed and learnt from the trauma, but also the high points, of the Russian experience of the period 1922-1932. Few post-war critics have truly been prepared to confront this major influence, and to amend their own findings in a new light.

The task of restoration in Russia today is momentous. But the co-operative and painstaking attitude that Russian architects and officials have applied to collaboration with architects from Finland on Alvar Aalto's Viipuri/Vyborg Library in Russia demonstrates the potential that exists to restore Russia's lost masterpieces of the Modern Movement.

Michael Spens

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA