Modernist architecture

Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (1971)

Bruno Taut’s “Russia’s Architectural Situation” (1929)

•September 27, 2011 • 1 Comment

All thoughts in Russia are dominated by industrialization and the concurrent opening up of its vast virgin territories, rich in natural resources but lacking the technical equipment for their exploitation.  Architectural thought is directed toward the same goals.  Industrial building and the industrialization of building are foremost among the concerns of Russian architects who have come to the West to study, to visit, and to collect information; they also feature prominently in the questions Russians ask when speaking to Western architects visiting Russia.  Russian industrial buildings are conceived in the same consistent, functional manner as are ours here in the West, in Holland, France, partially in England, and above all in America.  The Ford plant in Detroit could just as well have been built in Russia, with minor modifications necessitated by different climatic conditions, and the new plant by Ford in Nizhnii-Novgorod will indeed soon confirm this contention.  The architectural problem as such in the field of industrial building has ceased to exist, since the definition of purpose is unequivocal and, in terms of its goals, can just about be determined with mathematical precision, so that it is possible today to speak about a virtually universal reflex of appropriate architectural design habits.  Indeed, one is tempted to say that the difficulties that have surrounded this problem have been overcome.

Even though the USSR is totally committed to the economic exploitation of its territories, especially under the influence of the five-year plans, there are indications that there are areas of productive work that are not immediately affected by this tendency and that cannot subsist by virtue of a purely scientific point of view, even though the economy has been raised to the level of state planning, thus injecting elements of a moral and ethical nature into the situation.  This much is evident: when individual self-interest is superseded by work for the community, new sources of ideas, as well as new spiritual resources, have to be tapped to provide this higher usefulness with continuing purpose.

In the publication New Russia (Vol. 5/6, 1929) the Greek poet Nikolai Kazan writes in his ‘Banquet of Georgian Poets’ about an important conversation with the Georgian poet Robakidze, who is quoted as having said the following: ‘It is the purpose of art to epress the invisible breath of the father in a tactile and visible manner.  If man [168] does not succeed beyond merely expressing or describing the son, then his art must be considered superficial and insignificant…”; and further on: ‘The Russian Revolution is a visibl phenomenon of a larger cosmic revolution that is being prepared in our hearts.  The poet must come to understand the deep meaning of Bolshevism; he is its son, and only through it can he search and find the father…’ — And Meierkhol’d, whose theater was the precursor of purism, of mechanized ‘objectivity’ and the abstraction of acting, has recently confessed that ‘…beauty must now come to the stage.  We must inundate theater with beauty!’ Surely there is no danger that Meierkhol’d will conjure up an arts-and-crafts stage in the manner of Max Reinhardt of 30 years ago.  Nevertheless, by means of objectivity on the one hand and by abstraction on the other, art strives to capture all the human senses by illuminating the universal by means of concrete reality.

The absence of such a harmonious point of view, which possibly only the Mexican Diego Rivera has brought to realization in painting, may well have been what prevented Lenin in his time from becoming the friend of revolutionary artists, apart from the fact that he may not have considered the arts of great importance in general; at any rate, even the durable People’s Commissar, Lunacharskii, was unable to give these trends full priority.  As a result, we have the well publicized debate in the Soviet press — initiated by Gorkii — and reported in our press as well, which discussed the merits and value of a thorough study of classical literature.

Architecture cannot ignore these spiritual currents; on the contrary, it is fully part of them, particularly if it is to transcend the trite concerns of a purely functional approach.  Basically, there is no limit to such an approach; but, as mentioned before, the design of straightforward industrial buildings does not recognize this problem at all, or only partially, since, strictly speaking, the problem as such is in fact the result of pure functional necessity.  It was quite proper to reduce architecture to its basic functional aspects, thus ending the confusion of mixing or confounding it with painting and sculpture, and so at long last destroying its image as one of the decorative arts.  Even

though the Russians, and we as well, have thrown off this particular yoke, a new tendency has to be fought these days, namely, the tendency to proclaim that functionalism and objectivity are the highest aims of architecture.  Functionalism in the sense of trite utilitarianism or, even worse, mere consideration of cost and profit, would surely mean the death of architecture.  The dissipation of the achievements of the pioneers of modern [169] architecture shows very clearly how much damage can be done if such a thesis is accepted.  Function, understood in the sense that the whole building as well as all its component parts, its spaces, and ultimately even its exterior are permeated by a consistent spirit, will give architecture a new lease on life and re-establish it as an art in the aesthetic sense as well.  This is borne out by the fact that a number of existing examples already manifest the first ingredients of such new beauty.  A similar case can be made about the question of objectivity.  In a positive sense the consequences are the same as described above.  In the negative sense the results may turn out to be even worse: instead of seeing his task as one of building, the architect sees it as one of making programs for building.  Whereas in the past he did not concern himself at all, or only very little,w ith the needs and wants that led to building, he now attempts to deal with these questions all by himself.  A drastic example of this is the workingman’s dwelling, which the architect wants to reform according to his own ideas, and which is usually designed for the ‘new’ dweller, who is made to fit the preconceived notion of the architect in question.  Our own situation is full of examples that such experiments, should they become the rule, inevitably lead to an even more extensive proletarianization of the working classes than before.  In order to arrive at a true understanding of the whole situation, a knowledge of the worker’s life, and poverty in general, is necessary to provide food for one’s imagination.  Seen in this light, many of the exhibited plans and model layouts take on the semblance of a charity tea ‘for the benefit of the poor.’

In Russia these, as it were, self-induced dilemmas of modern architecture are quite naturally expressed in a different manner.  However, as soon as residential construction there overcomes its primitive form of organization, which so far has prevented it from arriving at any kind of concrete achievement, the same dilemmas as those described above will have to be faced.  Still, the Russians sense this danger, and it is quite possible that they are resisting modern architecture on the basis of their observations of developments abroad — often in toto — simply because they do not understand the exact nature of the danger.  Such an opposition, devoid of any real argument, and which because of a revolutionary ideology feels that it is being pushed toward a moral schism according to the laws of polarity, is now faced by architect-artists whose a priori worship of modern architecture, of construction, materials, concrete, steel, glass, etc. is essentially as unjustified as the position of their opponents.  [170] These moderns want to imbue the ‘new’ materials with revolutionary ideology, thus elevating them to symbols of their age.  Furthermore, it is really very difficult for an outsider to understand the difference between the so-called ‘constructivists’ and the ‘formalists.’  Often, these designs are accompanied by tables of [a] statistical or quasiscientific character, and the Scheerbart ‘lucky numbers’ are greeted with ecstatic delight.  Another import from the West: German city plans and/or building projects, covered with minute descriptions, the whole sheathed in scientific lingo, certainly may be partially blamed for all this confusion.

It appears that the inhibitions of both parties have the same basic source.  On the one hand ideology, science, materials; on the other, force, monumentality, representation, with both attempting to quench the thirst for beauty.  However, the real sources seem as mysterious as ever.

America teaches a good lesson concerning European weaknesses, insofar as it mirrors them as caricatures in their ultimate distortion.  I received a publication notice from New York, awaiting a book with the title The Logic of Modern Architecture. […]


In Russia the search for fundamentals takes on dramatic forms.  There, as anywhere else, human weakness becomes part of the struggle as manifested in competition work and its results, where over and over again we see the conflict between design for a functional purpose as opposed to the quest for beauty.  In a limited competition for the projected building of the Great Lenin Library on a prominent site in Moscow, the brothers Vesnin unquestionably submitted the best plans.  However, rightly or wrongly, it was found that their modern fa

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