Architecture and Revolution: Contemporary Perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe

By Neil Leach | Go to book overview

2

The Vesnins' Palace of Labour

The role of practice in materialising the revolutionary architecture

Catherine Cooke

By the autumn of 1922, when the Moscow Architectural Society (MAO) began engaging with the prospect that Russian building activity would start again, circles outside the profession, as we have seen, were urgently prompting them to some theoretical engagement with the new Soviet ideology. Alexei Gan's Constructivism came out in December that year. But the professional issue of what a real Soviet building would be like, as a fully resolved work of architecture rather than a diagram, was not yet broached. Three-dimensional experiments being conducted among artists were to have enormous long-term importance as a source of new formal languages for architecture. By their very origins, however, they crucially lacked any input from that domain-specific knowledge which Gan had stressed as the essential partner of ideological understanding in creating the 'material-technical "organs" of the new society.' In his argument, it was only the practitioners in possession of such knowledge who could produce the catalyst to launch a new direction in each field.

By the time MAO started to publish its new journal Architecture in early 1923, even its stolid new fifty-year old President Alexei Shchusev was declaring: 'We must participate in the creation of life and not be passive contemplators of it.' 1 However, his strangely ecclesiastical vocabulary gave his words little conviction. The more committed voice of that generation came from the architect-planner Vladimir Semionov, whose engagement with radical politics had forced him to leave Russia in 1908 for four years of professional travel in Britain and Europe. Writing before the war, he had felt forced 'to eschew politics, though the centre of gravity of the whole question lies precisely in that.' 2 After losing a decade of professional life in the upheavals, he now urged his colleagues to embrace the fact that 'this new world...presents [us] with the task of an architecture which is genuinely public'; that 'the changed circumstances call for new methods and forms.' It was their task, he said, in a powerful agenda of 'priority tasks', 'to understand these new conditions...and to find forms which respond to the real situation.' 3

Editorials in the journal's two issues by a practitioner who was twenty years younger, but who also knew Europe and had built, started to connect the task with contemporaneous debates in Europe. As 'technical editor', the young Moisei Ginzburg contributed two pieces which reflected the recent arrival in Moscow,

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