El Lissitzky, Proun IE
The Soviet Avant-Garde

The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 radically reshaped Russia. A new architecture
was imagined to meet the pressing needs of a new society.  Catherine Cooke
pointed out in her essay on “Professional Diversity and its Origins” that Russia had
a well-established architectural tradition, which rivaled that of the European
traditions.  Russian architects had been moving toward a more rationalistic
approach to architecture in the late 19th century, parallel to that in Europe.  She
noted four generations of architects at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.  
Progressive free-thinkers like
Leontil Benois and Fedor Shekhtel became the elder
statesmen in the early Soviet years.  Benois was the central figure as he tried to
balance stability and innovation in the architectural education program in Petrograd-
Leningrad. But the eventual leaders of the new movement came from the third
generation, who had benefited from the rigorous design programs but had decidedly
different views as to the direction of architecture in the new Soviet era.

The principal figures to emerge in this new era were
Moisei Ginzburg, the Vesnin
,  and El Lissitzky, who formed the basis for the Constructivist camp,
which would dominate early Soviet architectural thought. They would incorporate
some of the pre-Revolutionary trends in arts, including the “counter-reliefs” of
Vladimir Tatlin and the “supreme abstraction” of Kazemir Malevich into their
mechanistic, abstract vision of architecture.

Malevich retained a strong element of spiritualism in his art.  His highly abstract
paintings, which were a direct extension of Cubism, were laden with symbolic value.  
He published his manifesto,
From Cubism to Suprematism in 1915.  But, Malevich
seemed to reach the culmination of this line of thinking in 1918 with “White Square
on a White Background.”  

Tatlin had been exploring the possibilities of Cubist relief constructions, but viewed
his “counter-reliefs” in social and political terms, rather than spiritual terms.  His
towering achievement was the
Monument to the Third International (1919).   This
was the summation of his experiments, in which he arrived at a new formal
language, which he felt responded to the new society’s requirements for material
objects.    The projected monument would have stood nearly 400 meters.  It was a
spiral structure largely supported by a massive truss tilted at an oblique angle, from
which were suspended three glass volumes corresponding to the congressional
chambers of state. The chambers were designed to revolve at different speeds, in
relation to the different cycles of the year, day, month and year.  It was a highly
imaginative structure which was meant to serve as a proud and soaring emblem of
Marxist ideology. Visually, it seemed an amalgam of Boccioni’s spiraling “Bottle
Unfolding in Space” and fairground constructions.  Although it was impossible to
realize at the time, the elaborate model served as a catalyst for the new architectural
movement in the Soviet Union.

El Lissitzsky would reshape these painterly and architectonic ideas into a system of
Prouns, which he presented in a series of lithographs dating from 1921.  Ginzburg
had also devised an analytical program for assembling the functional components
of a building.  Eventually, these ideas would coalesce into a single unifying theory of
objective analysis, known as
Constructivism, which sought highly innovative
solutions to the principles of construction and composition.  The group had devised
a program, which involved building up a form from its constituent parts without
viewing it as a single perceived image.  The process of construction was more
important than the final result.

El Lissitzsky would leave the Constructivist group to pursue his interests in Europe.  
The mainstays were the Vesnin brothers and Ginzburg.  One of the best projects to
come out of this group was the
Leningradskaia Pravda building by the Vesnin
Brothers, submitted in 1924.  Although never realized, William J.R. Curtis noted that
“it exhibited a new degree of formal control – a more successful fusion of the
devices of abstract art with the articulation of function and mechanistic moving
parts.” It seemed to recall the architectural visions of Sant’Elia but with a more
rigorous geometrical and functional control, with the lifts expressed in a steel and
glass cage.

Ginzburg viewed his buildings as social “condensers” which would inspire change.  
He believed that buildings should be as tightly conceived as engines, with all the
parts working in unison to achieve a “holistic architectural system.”  He devised a
four stage analytical approach in which he “dismembered” the particular design
problem for close examination and then “reassembled” it in a way that produced “a
logical building … freed from handed-down models of the past.” One of his better
designs was the
Narkomfin Apartment Building in Moscow, built between 1928-30,
which incorporated much of this research into a fully functional design. It combined
living space, based on a 3:2 system of levels, with elevated “street decks” and other
communal functions meant to encourage social interaction.

Another group to form in the early Soviet years was the Association of New
Architects, known as
ASNOVA.  Nikolai Ladovsky and Vladimir Krinsky had been
instrumental in forming this new group, which stressed a rationalistic approach that
viewed architecture in plastic terms.  Rationalism had more to do with perceptions of
space rather than construction methods, which Ladovsky considered secondary. He
was deeply concerned with shaping the psychology of people through the “spatial
arts.”  In his Psycho-Technical Laboratory at the newly reformed
Vkhutemas School,
Ladovsky tested persons’ perceptions of forms under different conditions of vision
and movement, Catherine Cooke noted. The teaching program that Krinsky devised
encouraged free experimentation with basic geometrical shapes, producing
inventive students like
Armen Barutchev, who in collaboration with several
colleagues produced multi-function buildings like that in the Kirov district of
Leningrad.  Judging by these results, the group seemed to have more interest in the
external form of the building than the organization of functions inside, which
contrasted sharply to the Constructivist approach.

El Lissitzky served as an unofficial architectural ambassador for the Soviet Union,
bringing many of these ideas to Europe, influencing
de Stijl and the Bauhaus with
his concept of Prouns.  However, this became a cultural exchange as Lissitzky
brought many European ideas back to Russia.  Curtis noted that the influence of
is clearly visible on the Soviet architects of the late 1920’s.  Le Corbusier
had been invited to design the
Centrosoyus a large Central Union and Consumer
Co-operative in Moscow.  Although never realized, Curtis felt this building left a deep
impact on Soviet thinking, particularly that of
Ivan Leonidov, whose Lenin Institute of
formed a near perfect synthesis of form and function, which cut
through the Constructivist/ASNOVA debates that were raging at the time.

This period of experimentation came to an end with the competition for the Palace of
the Soviets in 1931.  There were numerous entries including a highly evocative one
by Le Corbusier, but the winning design was a Neo-Classical monument to pomp
and circumstance, by
Boris Iofan, which ushered in the new age of Stalinism. The
Soviet avant-garde broke apart, with many of its leading members fleeing to Europe
to escape the severity of this regime.

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Vladimir Tatlin, Monument for
the Third International (model)
Ivan Leonidov, Lenin Institute
of Librarianship
Armen Barutchev, Department Store
Abstraction in Art and Architecture