PRINT October 2017


THE REVOLUTION IS STILL WITH US: A century ago, the Russian uprising of October 1917 defined the world order we know now, in which the struggle between individual and collective, capital and welfare, identity and authority continues to rage in new and unexpected ways. And though the Soviet state ultimately failed, it nevertheless left smoldering the embers of unrealized utopias and potentialities—visions of life and experience that challenged Western realities of oligarchy, democracy, colonialism, and war.
Art was at the center of these transformations. More so than Thermidor or Tahrir Square, the October Revolution posed the perceptual as political. Changing the way we see and sense could change the way we acted and thought. Forms, materials, making, organizing—these were, and could still be, the elements of a new society. In the essay that follows, critic Owen Hatherley looks at revolutionary architecture and its seditious possibilities in the present.

Iakov Chernikhov, Kompozitsiia 49 (Composition 49), 1933, letterpress on paper, 12 × 8 7/8". From Arkhiteturnye fantazii: 101 kompozitsiia v kraskakh, 101 arkhitekturnaia miniatiura (Architectural Fantasies: 101 Compositions in Color, 101 Architectural Miniatures) (Mezhdunarodnaia kniga, 1933).

THERE’S ONLY ONE surviving piece of architecture that can be said to be of, rather than about, or inspired by, the 1917 revolution in Russia. In Petrograd, the city’s Soviets (as in the term’s original usage as “workers’ councils”) commissioned the young architect Lev Rudnev to redesign the Field of Mars. This square was originally a czarist parade ground near the Neva River, overshadowed since the late nineteenth century by the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a florid, polychrome structure of asymmetrical onion domes. In his design, Rudnev broke with these dominating surroundings completely, creating instead an antihierarchical space, a monument without monumentality—a burial ground for those killed in street fighting, a processional route for revolutionary events, and a place that could connect the victorious workers of Petrograd to the failed revolutionaries of the past. The texts on the monument’s tufa stelae, written by Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky, link Petrograd to the Paris of 1789 and 1848, and especially to the Commune of 1871: TO THE CROWDS OF COMMUNARDS ARE NOW JOINED THE SONS OF PETERSBURG.

It’s hard to reconnect this thoughtful, sensitive public space with the often bombastic state that ruled in the name of 1917. That’s why it seems to represent what happened in the Russian empire a hundred years ago with particular acuity—because nothing quite like it was built by the Soviet state. Generally, the early USSR is better known for what it didn’t build. These lineages can be traced. Nowhere was there so much paper architecture as in the Soviet Union, especially between the starting shot of Vladimir Tatlin’s model Monument to the Third International in 1920 and Iakov Chernikhov’s Architectural Fantasies of 1933—a span of thirteen years that saw the sketching of dozens of buildings that remained unrealized until capitalist clients began to construct approximations of them in one form or another in recent decades. El Lissitzky’s horizontal skyscrapers, the glass lifts of the Vesnin brothers’ Leningradskaya Pravda building, the suspended ball of Ivan Leonidov’s Lenin Institute, right through to the space capsules of Georgy Krutikov’s Flying City: All were well beyond the abilities of the war-devastated USSR but were later approximated in London’s Lloyd’s building, in the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It is doubtful whether this proves much, save for how easily revolutionary form is stripped of significance when its functions shift from housing organizations dedicated to fomenting planetary revolution to housing insurers or edutainment centers.

For that reason, the more questionable remains of that era seem more pregnant with possibility. Late in his career, decades after his plans for the Field of Mars, Rudnev became one of the major designers of Stalinist architecture, the regime’s analogue to Albert Speer or Edwin Lutyens—an imperial architect. His work in Moscow, Baku, and especially Warsaw can seem like the worst of Sovietism—hierarchical, kitsch, colonial, grossly overdecorated castles of bureaucracy surrounded by chilling open space. Yet something like his Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science of 1955, a “gift” from Stalin to the Polish people, bears the traces of 1917 and its enormous social ramifications; it is not as far from the Field of Mars as it first looks. Its scale was the effect of land nationalization, its designation as the definitive building of the city the result of central planning, and its contents—a bizarre and wholly public, noncommercial program of bars, cinemas, youth clubs, swimming pools, congress halls, and museums of evolution and technology—simply unimaginable as a proposition for the central structure of a capitalist capital city.

It is this structure, and those that have a similar sense of public splendor—the metro systems of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kharkiv, Kiev, Tbilisi, or Minsk; the Moscow workers’ clubs of Konstantin Melnikov; clear, elegant streets such as Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin or Lange Straße in Rostock—that suggests that 1917 did something more for architecture than provide a stylistic crib book for generations of Western modernists. It led, circuitously and by way of appalling mistakes and unforgivable crimes, to brief flashes of a different sort of city, one where the interests of property simply became irrelevant, and, as a consequence, space could become flowing, collective, and endlessly fascinating—a place of communal luxury, in Kristin Ross’s phrase, describing the aim of those Paris communards whom the commissar of enlightenment considered to be the Soviets’ forefathers.

Owen Hatherley is a writer based in London and the author of eight books on architecture, politics, and culture.