Architecture and Revolution: Contemporary Perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe

By Neil Leach | Go to book overview

1

Sources of a radical mission in the early Soviet profession

Alexei Gan and the Moscow Anarchists

Catherine Cooke

Ten years after the 1917 revolution, there were several clearly identifiable theories of a consciously 'revolutionary' and 'socialist' architecture being practised, taught and debated in the Soviet Union. Some were purely modernist; others sought some synthesis of modernity with classicism. As soon as these various approaches start to be formulated with any rigour and launched into the public domain, we can evaluate them as more or less subtle professional responses to certain dimensions of Bolshevik ideology. 1 However, preceding that stage and underpinning it was a process of personal adjustment and collective refocussing whereby a relatively conservative capitalist profession faced up to a new context and started mentally defining its tasks or writing a new narrative for its practice.

This earlier part of the process, during the Civil War, is infinitely less accessible than what happened once building activity revived in 1923-4. The earliest stages of the process were also being conducted in a political environment which was very different from that of the mid-1920s, an environment that was more fluid and more plural than mainstream accounts from either East or West have suggested. In the phrase of Paul Avrich, who is one of the few (besides survivors) to insist on documenting the minority radical groups of the revolution, both Eastern and Western orthodoxies have to differing degrees been written 'from the viewpoint of the victors', that is privileging the Bolsheviks. 2 In reality, important voices were also coming from other directions. Such was the Bolshevik terrorisation of dissent that for decades the safety of individuals and their historical reputations demanded that these censoring filters be applied. In the new situation, however, it becomes possible to start opening up the early biographies of some key individuals to show a much richer picture.

In the context of architecture, the first person whom we find rethinking the city as an active political agent in Marxist terms is Alexei Gan in his typographically dramatic little book Constructivism, published in 1922. 3 Gan is well known for playing various roles as theorist, publicist and typographical designer at the heart of Moscow avant-garde art and architecture from 1920 onwards. His Constructivism opens with a lengthy quotation from the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and his reference point throughout is 'the proletariat with its sound Marxist materialism'. However, he is merciless in hi s critiq ue of the Bolshevik Pa cultural leadership.

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