A JOURNEY OF ARCHITECTURAL DISCOVERY. “The Lost Vanguard” Exhibition: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932

Natella Voiskounski

Magazine issue: 

The exhibition of work by Richard Pare in New York’s Museum of Modern Art features one of the most immediate and tragic phenomena in the history of Soviet (and Russian) modernist architecture. The exhibition “The Lost Vanguard” highlights some 75 photographs by the architectural photographer Richard Pare, who has worked from 1993 to the present day, making eight extensive trips to Russia and the former Soviet republics and creating nearly 10,000 images to compile a timely documentation of numerous modernist structures, including the most neglected. The exhibition was made possible by the Russian Avant-garde Fund and Senator Sergei Gordeev, its founder and president.

Needless to say this show stimulated great interest both from experts, and from the general public which - as is always the case at MOMa - proved both numerous and international. The viewers were captivated by the large-size colour photos of real masterpieces of Soviet architecture, in most cases almost destroyed by time, weather, negligence and ideology. What made it so interesting to the interested public? Surprise, or curiosity? A discovery of another life and lifestyle? Most probably, all of those factors. Each photograph was given special commentaries on the place and time when the buildings concerned were erected and of course, with detailed notes on the architects. These commentaries made such a valuable addition to the visual material that sometimes viewers had to wait for their turn to come closer and be able to read the text.

One could occasionally hear Russian speech, including exclamations like that of this writer, "Look, it's the house next to ours!” (this referred to the Mosselprom built in 1923-1924 by David Kogan and decorated according to the colour scheme and graphics of Alexander Rodchenko), or "Oh, it's Baku, it's Azerneshr”: that is how the Palace of the Press was called by all those who lived in Baku - the capital of Azerbaijan. My father worked there for many years. This edifice was built to a project by Semen Pen in 1932.

Some recognized Kharkov or Kiev, others Baku or Nizhny Novgorod, Ekaterinburg or St. Petersburg, Zaporozhie or Ivanovo, Sochi or Moscow... Viewers would even remember a communal apartment - its colourful picture vividly demonstrating the shabby existence of its elderly inhabitants like a screaming splash on the wall.

The name of Richard Pare is known to the Russian public - to photographers, architects and interested viewers: in 2001 Muscovites had the opportunity to see Pare's exhibition "Russian Constructivism: A Province” in the framework of Yuri Avvakumov's project "24”.

It seems all Richard Pare's previous activity - his albums "Photography and Architecture 1839-1939”, "The Colours
of Light. Tadao Ando Architecture”, "Egypt. Reflections on Continuity” - have made him a leading name in architectural photography. He determines the significance of architectural subjects for the art of photography and the significance of the art of photography for history of art. He thus might be titled an "architectural) photographer”. He received the AIA monograph award for "Tadao Ando: The Colours of Light”, which was published in 1996.

What was shown at the 2001 Moscow exhibition "Russian Constructivism: A Province” might be regarded as a witness to an epoch - and a verdict on it. As Yury Avvakumov put it, "major architectural works of universal significance have been erased to such an extent that one should take pains to recognize the former heroes in them.” The Soviet avant-garde was totally defeated - in visual arts, in literature, in the theatre and in architecture - and not due to a certain sequence of changes in styles, but forcefully, deliberately, and cruelly. Many Soviet avant-garde artists and architects, men of letters and producers were killed - some literally, some by being completely ignored, and their works were neglected, consigned to or simply buried in oblivion.

Buildings, apartment houses, industrial structures - those architectural monuments of the 1920s and 1930s cannot be made invisible: no ideology can forbid viewing them. The Soviet ideologists followed their own methods: no need to destroy - just neglect, and weathering and erasure alongside the merciless path of time will swallow up such "inimical” constructions. Or bring to life other methods: marginalize them and change their image to an unrecognizable extent. Faded colours, crashed steel constructions and broken concrete, plus reconstructions and random additions - such was the verdict on the once glorious, if not ever great, epoch of revolutionary creative activity and professional craftsmanship.

Richard Pare says he has felt the otherness of Russia for most of his life. He started to study this Russian "otherness” in 1993 when he came to Moscow looking for the legacy of the modernist architects who believed in "the idea of creating a new way of life in a new society”. Curiosity and knowledge were his guides in his travels through the former Soviets republics and Russian regions. The result was really amazing. This archphotographer managed to do something absolutely unexpected - he made specialists and connoisseurs look at Russian modernist architecture from a new perspective, to re-consider and re-open architectural achievements from the period of post-revolutionary construction which seemed so promising, but turned to be a "lost vanguard”.

The exhibition at MoMa opens with the Shabolovka Radio Tower - it is also on the cover of the catalogue devoted to the "Lost Vanguard”, a publication more comprehensive than the exhibition itself. Muscovites will recognize MoGES, by Ivan Zholtovsky built in 1926; the Izvestia building by Grigory Barkhin and Mikhail Barkhin, erected in 1925-1927; the Zuev Workers Club by Ilya Golosov from 1926. But they will never recognize the ruins on Novinsky Boulevard as the famous Narkomfin Communal House. Internationally known structures were represented too, among them some special masterpieces by such classics of architecture as Konstantin Melnikov, the Vesnin brothers and Le Corbusier. The Moscow modernist structures appeared to be so numerous that they would have made a special publication in themselves: the Rusakov Club, AMO Automobile Factory, Lenin State Library, the Student Housing of the Textile Institute, Centrosoyuz building, VTsIK Residential complex, the Pravda building, and Kauchuk Factory Workers club, just to mention a few. The Melnikov House and Lenin's Mausoleum were accorded so many details that they formed a separate exhibition within the format of the wider one.

As for St. Petersburg, Pare proves highly original: there is no Winter Palace or Mikhailovsky Castle, no Stroganov Palace or world famous views of the Neva, nor of Nevsky Prospect - nothing of the kind. In Russia's northern capital he found something really very different from the elegant beauty of the 18th century European style architecture; he was attracted by shabby communal houses, workers clubs, sometimes no longer in use, and old industrial constructions... Pare featured the Red Banner Textile Factory, built in 1925-1927 (architect Erich Mendelsohn), the Tractor Street Workers' Housing, built in 1927 (architects Alexander Nikolsky with Alexander Gegello and Grigory Simonov), the Kirov Palace of Culture, so popular with the citizens, built in 1930-1937 (architect Noi Trotsky, who was commissioned to make a project of the OGPU (State Political Office) housing). And factory kitchens - in the Narvsky, Vasileostrovsky and Vyborgsky regions - all built in 1928-1933 by Armen Barutchev, Isidor Gilter, Iosif Meerzon and Yakov Rubanchik.

The majority of American viewers could know nothing about these factory kitchens, nor could they even guess what they were and what they meant. The answer, satirical as it is, can be found in the Russian bestseller "Zavist” ("Envy”) by the famous Russian novelist Yury Olesha, published in 1927: his hero dreams of building a massive cafeteria that will service all the dining needs of the new society and "give [housewives] back the hours the kitchen has stolen from [them].” Once the slogan "industrialization of kitchens” is formulated, the development of the first-class Soviet vegetable cleaning machines has started. The great plan for the future kitchens is to be realized: to create potatoes that peel themselves.

But the wandering spirit of Richard Pare dragged him away from both Russia's main cities to the provinces, and where they could do without factory kitchens. It was in the Russian provinces and in the former Soviet republics that Pare discovered real pearls of the architectural avant-garde.

The town of female weavers, Ivanovo - "the Red Manchester” - was one of his destinations. There in Ivanovo he features the Red Talka Textile Mill built in 1927-1929 (architects Boris Gladkov and Ivan Nikolaev); the first settlement for workers (1924-1926, architects Leonid Vesnin and the team of Standard company); the Tenth Anniversary of the Revolution Secondary School - the date of its erection is clear from the name (architect Vasily Pankov). Pare's travels to Nizhny Novgorod resulted in a number of real discoveries in this former city of merchants: the residential block №8 (1935-1937, Vesnin workshop, Nikolai Krasilnikov and Nikolai Poliudov); and the Chekist Communal house (1929-1932, architect Alexander Typikov) - a threatening view of dereliction...

In Ekaterinburg Pare pictures architectural monuments that are regarded as absolute masterpieces - first and foremost the Water Tower for the Socialist City of Uralmash (also called the "Belaya”, or white, tower), erected in 1929 by Moisei Reisher. Another attraction for the arch-photographer was the House of Justice (1929-1930, architect Sergei Zakharov) and the well-preserved Chekist Housing Scheme (1 929-1936, architects Ivan Antonov, Veniamin Sokolov, Arseny Tumbasov) whose plan mirrors the hammer and sickle. Its staircase forms a funnel (if we look down) or a crater (if we look up), with curves resembling those of the dollar bill sign.

The main attraction on the Black Sea coast was and still is Sochi, a major health resort of the USSR for high ranking military men, party functionaries and shock-workers, and nowadays a fashionable place for having a good and highly expensive rest. For Pare Sochi became another source of information on architectural modernism, since a number of the best architects realized their projects there: Alexei Shchusev with his Sanatorium for Army Officers; Alexander and Viktor Vesnin with their "Gorni Vozdukh” (Mountainous Air) Sanatorium; Miron Merzhanov with his Voroshilov Sanatorium. They took advantage of spectacular hilltop sites on the coast of the Black Sea at Sochi.

Pare visited Ukraine, concentrating his attention on Kharkov and Kiev. In Kharkov he featured the world-famous building of Gosprom - the State House of Industry (1929, architects Sergei Serafimov, Mark Felger and Samuil Kravets). The project was to realize one of the great dreams of the builders of socialism. As Sergei Serafimov formulated it: "the house of state industry was to become a part of the organized world - a factory constructed like a palace.” Renowned foreign visitors were brought to Kharkov to see this construction and praise it to the utmost; among them were the French author Henri Barbusse and American writer Theodore Dreiser who said he "saw a wonder in Kharkov”. Soviet writers were no less admiring - the great proletarian writer Maxim Gorky and great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky praised this "organized world”, and were really enthusiastic about it. The photograph of this construction is honoured by its appearance on the back cover of the catalogue. Pare's "Kharkov” list included the Palace of Culture for Railway Workers (1927, architect Alexander Dmitriev), the Central Post Office (1928-1929, by Arkady Mordvinov), and the Automated Telephone Exchange (1930-1931, by P. Frolov).

Moving to Kiev Pare pictured the Soviet Doctors' Housing Cooperative (1927-1930, by Pavel Aleshin); the apartment complex for militia personnel (1933-1935, by PF. Savich); the Apartment Complex for Arsenal Plant Workers (c. 1935, by Iosif Karakis); the "Metallist” Palace of Culture for Bolshevik Plant Workers (1928-1932, by B. Moisevich) and the "Pishchevik” Club for Food Industry Workers (1931-1932, by Nikolai Shekhonin). Naturally, Pare focused his attention on the other object in Ukraine - on the famous DneproGES Dam and Power Station (constructed in 1927-1932, architects Alexander Vesnin, Nikolai Kolli, Georgy Orlov and Sergei Andrievski) which was one of the biggest hydroelectric projects of its time and is still very impressive in scale.

Baku, the capital - as people used to say - of sunny Azerbaijan appeared to have many modernist architectural innovations. In the distant 1920s and 1930s such outstanding figures of Soviet architectural design as Semen Pen worked there. Pen was responsible for the project of the Palace of Press; Lev Ilin designed the Mountain Park; Anatoly Samoilov and Alexander Ivanitsky developed the housing project of the Shaumian Settlement; Gavriil Ter-Mikelov, the project of the Kirov Physiotherapy Institute; and Leonid Vesnin - the architect of the Palace of Culture, Shaumian Works and Workers Club in Surakhany, a suburb of Baku.

As was stated by one of the organizers of the exhibition "The Lost Vanguard”, Barry Bergdoll, "Pare's photographs capture a lost heroic, political, and architectural experiment. Many images depict daring architectural innovations in dynamic interiors with bold ramps, dramatic cantilevers, and double-glazing systems, which are startlingly advanced for their time. The forms also speak of aspirations for a new collectivized society, with institutions giving rise to unprecedented designs, particularly in projects for workers' clubs and collective housing." According to the guest curator of the exhibition Jean-Louis Cohen, "The photographic expeditions that Richard Pare led make it possible to measure the effect of time on places whose creators intended to break with the past. The rusted steel, the scarified concrete, and the cracking paint captured by the lens of Richard Pare remain that way, beyond any melancholy, as if animated by this past life in its hopes as in its illusions."

This exhibition, so topical for Russians who are witnessing the decay of the architectural monuments of the post-revolutionary epoch with indifference, demonstrated the result of the mutual creative activity of the best architects and engineers alongside the heroic efforts of construction workers, aiming to achieve a happy future in a happy state in which pragmatic functionality would coexist with a new aesthetics, and harmonize with the new socialist life style.

On August 23 during my stay in New York I received an e-mail with the "Declaration of the Foundation Shukhovskaya Tower” issued to mark the 154th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Shukhov, a great architect, engineer and scientist whose investigations and inventions merited universal acknowledgement, and a passionate photographer himself. The declaration appealed to the general public and state institutions to join efforts in order "to save and preserve the historical legacy of Russia”... The best constructions designed by Shukhov are threatened by inevitable destruction and decay. These are those "still alive”: the Shukhovskaya Tower, the steel and glass roofs of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Kiev Railway Station and Upper Trading Rows (GUM) - all in Moscow, and the tower on the Oka river.

The exhibition "The Lost Vanguard” is thus of indisputable significance. After New York Pare's pictures will travel to Moscow, and here they will undoubtedly arouse not only interest, but certainly attract the attention of all those interested in, and all those responsible for, the problems of preservation of this avant-garde architectural legacy.

On a final note: the last pages of the catalogue issued to mark Richard Pare's exhibition on Russian architectural modernism are given to the Lenin Mausoleum erected on Red Square in the very heart of Moscow. Does that hint at the obvious fate of avant-garde Soviet architecture - to be buried in public?





Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play