The Great Moscow, that Never Was

Buildings of the Soviet avant-garde in contemporary Moscow
Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair, Wolfgang Obermair [Ed.]

With contributions by Nikolai Assejew, Kirill Faradzhev, Sergei Nikitin, Iwan Sablin, Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair and photographs by Ulrike Boehm, Vera Faber, Julia Jungfer
Germ./Russ., 204 p., 16,5 × 21,3 cm, numerous color and b&w images, paperback
ISBN 978-3-85160-137-4

The book documents the architecture of the Soviet avant-garde in Moscow and the situation concerning it today. In addition to four essays by controversial Russian authors of the younger generation and a story by N. Aseyev from 1925, the book contains an extensive part of the picture. Central are the types of buildings from the 1920s: workers’ clubs, community kitchens, communal houses, bread factories, garages, public schools. Many of these so-called “construction of the second plan” were rediscovered only recently. The current issue between the preservation and demolition confronts the publication with a complex psycho-gram of a Moscow that never was. The editors provide an insight into the current discourse as a platform for the necessary and, in Moscow, still pending discussion over the architectural heritage and urban areas.

The title of the book “The Great Moscow, that never was” refers primarily to the urban plan, “Greater Moscow” by Sergei Shestakov from the year 1926. This plan provided for a fundamental restructuring of Moscow and regulated the distribution of key avant-garde works throughout the city. But after only a short time the plan was rejected. The avant-garde project of a new city remained only a fragment. Additionally, the book’s title alludes to the fact that many designs of the Soviet avant-garde architecture, even during their peak and despite numerous contests and competitions, were never created or if, only rudimentarily. In the sense of the book, the title also suggests a contemporary aspect: Constructivism, through its utopian character, gave the city the future vision that is obviously lacking in today’s Moscow.

The two main components of the book are obvious. Text and images seem to exist almost independently of each other. The picture series show, in the form of a documentary account, what remains of the constructivist legacy in Moscow. The photographs themselves have been taken on two trips, one in April 2007 and one in September 2008. In the book, they are divided into five groups – depending on the type of object: training facilities, utility facilities such as kitchens and bread factories, administrative buildings, recreational facilities, such as workers’ clubs and sports facilities, and, of course, the communal houses.

The texts do not comment on the images directly. There are individual essays of young Russian scholars. The authors belong to a special generation: though in their youth they still consciously experienced the Soviet system, they have taken their proper place in the post-Soviet society. Under different perspectives, they contemplate the non-homogeneous cultural heritage of the 1920s that is now – for many reasons – in a difficult situation.

Why is the cultural heritage of Russia so highly valued in the West and hardly worth anything in its own country? As ongoing, there is no functioning historic monument preservation in Russia. The constructivist buildings often fall to the way of commercial interests. This inevitably leads to their demolition or their incompetent reconstruction. In addition, everything that is reminiscent of the social and economic experiments in the spirit of communism evokes, in a large part of the population, only negative reactions. The visual culture in today’s “resurrected” Orthodox Russia is dominated by traditional ideas about their architecture. Constructivism hardly fits into this canon.

How the situation in Moscow is perceived by the average citizen is described by the sociologist Sergei Nikitin in his text ‘Graue, seltsame Gebäude’ (“Gray, strange buildings”). In the project Moskultprog he conducted numerous surveys on the streets of Moscow. He examined how constructivist buildings are seen by the younger generation of Moscow. What do the older city residents think about these buildings, what were their real stories like in their real city?

In his article ‘Stil und Stadtbild’(“Style and Townscape”) the St. Petersburg art historian Ivan Sablin writes about the artistic and architectural features of the constructivist buildings. His position, which, through skepticism and criticism, not only unloads on the fragments of constructivist past, but on constructivism itself, is not entirely uncontroversial in Russia (especially in Moscow). By challenging the myth of the Soviet avant-garde architecture in his text Sablin breaks a taboo.

Kirill Faradzhevs essay explores the intellectual context of constructivism. For the philosopher Faradzhev the main goal of constructivism lies – as the Symbolists formulated in their literary manifestos – in the organization of “new forms of being with the education of a new constructive people”. Therefore, the Constructivism was primarily an anthropological and not a social class related movement. The architecture of Constructivism worked as an unmediated designer of the new life environment.

The text by Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair, ‘Das große Moskau. Anmerkungen’(“The Great Moscow. Notes”) at the end of the book deals with the urban development of Moscow by the end of the 19th Century to the present. Along with basic information for understanding the problems presented in the book, the text also offers insights into the changing status of the buildings of the Soviet avant-garde in the current urban landscape.

Written right at the beginning of the book, is a futuristic story by an author hardly known in this country, the revolutionary poet and close friend of Mayakovsky, Nikolai Aseyev ‘Ein Detail. Moskauer Fantasie’(“A Detail. Moscow's Imagination”), 1926. The hero of the story Vanka Oblakov embodies the lifestyle of the 1920s. Oblakov is a visionary of the future Moscow.

The editors of the publication are the native Muscovite Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair and Wolfgang Obermair. Both are artists and curators in the field of contemporary art and architecture.

From the speech of Kirill Faradzhev in the Vienna Secession on 10.12.2008

Translation: Victoria Rowley