PRINT March 2020



Kazimir Malevich, Arkhitekton A11 à Manhattan, no 1, 1926, collage. From Praesens, June 1926.

THE COLD WAR is not remembered as a love story. More frequently recounted as a cautionary tale of mutual distrust, antagonism, and the looming specter of global nuclear annihilation, the era has been memorialized in literature, art, and cinema—think Dr. Strangelove or From Russia with Love—through caricatures that capitalize on fears of evil Russian ambitions to undermine American sovereignty. 

“Building a new New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture,” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, plumbs architectural history to suggest an alternative reading of the bilateral relationship: It was also a romance of sorts, kindled by Russian ambitions to build a “new New World” that would overtake America as a harbinger of progress and modernity. The Americans, for their part, never cultivated ambitions to fashion their own country into a “new Russia.” Yet Russian architects and engineers, in curator Jean-Louis Cohen’s interpretation, harbored strong, if complex, feelings for the fruits of American industry and culture since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The exhibition chronicles their enduring fascination with New World images and affectations, which persisted and permutated into the late Imperial period, under early Bolshevism, during the Stalin era, and as the Cold War escalated, normalized, and expired. The transatlantic westward gaze from Mos-
cow constantly imagined and reimagined the American object—the assembled pieces testify to the awe and occasional disgust, sometimes simultaneous, of their authors—across more than two hundred years of Russian cultural production. In provoking admiration and ire, the fantasy of America—unburdened by the past, a country of the future leading the forward march of technology—inspired Russian architects, writers, artists, and filmmakers to imagine their own milieu as the apogee of modernity.

Cover of Scientific American, March 10, 1917.

A longue durée survey of Russian architecture, the exhibition opens by considering the specter of Amerikanizm under the czars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Watercolors of American skylines and landscapes done by Pavel Svinin, a diplomat who toured the country between 1811 and 1813, account for some of the first-ever Russian impressions of the still-new country. Architects and engineers began to make trips several decades later. In 1876, Vladimir Shukhov, shortly after graduating from the Moscow Higher Technical School, visited the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, where he met the American engineer Alexander Bari, who later invited Shukhov to work in his Moscow drafting office. Shukhov became one of the most influential structural engineers of the early twentieth century—in Russia or anywhere—designing pipelines, naval infrastructure, and the first lightweight hyperboloid towers, several of which figure in illustrations of steel lattice structures in the second gallery. Nearby, a 1917 cover of Scientific American shows a Shukhov-designed lattice mast hitched to an American warship—the rare case of technical-knowledge transfer from Russia to the United States to be mentioned in the exhibition (the US Navy purchased his patents).

The ensuing galleries recount, among other things, a Russian fetish for towers and skyscrapers, so emblematic of the American metropolis. Avant-garde architects took to high-rises with enthusiasm in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Revolution. Architects in Russia relied on print media to learn about American developments, as very few early Soviets actually visited the United States; Erich Mendelsohn’s 1926 Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (America: Picture Book of an Architect), and a 1929 Russian edition of Richard Neutra’s 1927 Wie baut Amerika? (How Does America Build?) are prominently displayed. Those who were able to make the trip, typically members of the cultural elite like the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, were ambivalent. Which is to say: America as experienced secondhand, through photography, words, and renderings, became a chimerical notion for Soviet audiences, a gleaming fantasy of robust skyscrapers and booming industry.

Charles and Ray Eames, Glimpses of the USA, 1959, seven-channel 16 mm transferred to video, color, sound, 13 minutes.

This notional America inspired a yet more fantastical architecture among the avant-garde of the Soviet 1920s. In 1926, Kazimir Malevich, also taken with Amerikanizm, collaged a photograph of an Arkhitekton, modeled from plaster rectangles and resembling an abstracted tower, onto a view of the Manhattan skyline. At the CCA, audiences find a version of the image as reproduced in an issue of the Polish avant-garde magazine Praesens in lieu of the original collage. With the recent breakdown in bilateral relations, Russian loans were unable to travel to Canada for the exhibition, and Cohen—in a clever work-around—occasionally presented period publications in place of original artworks.

That Cohen assembled “Building a new New World” without access to the most comprehensive repositories of Soviet architectural drawings and ephemera (the Schusev State Museum of Architecture’s collection in Moscow, for example) is a notable feat. Instead, “Building a new New World” relies on private collections held in the West, among them the admirably comprehensive Alex Lachmann Collection, in its effort to reconfigure tired Cold War–era historiographical tropes, such as those that valorize 1920s avant-gardes while dismissing ensuing architectural production in the Soviet Union. Historicist architecture of the Stalin era, the return to architectural modernism under Khrushchev, and innovations in industrial-grade concrete prefabrication under Brezhnev have, until very recently, languished at the margins of architectural scholarship; they barely register, if at all, among practicing architects and the broader public.

Boris M. Iofan, Project for the Palace of Soviets, Moscow (detail), 1934, charcoal on paper, 65 3⁄4 × 74".

Among the more radical implications of the CCA’s show is its repositioning of Stalinist architecture as a precursor to the architectural postmodernism that emerged in Western Europe and North America several decades later. It would have been inconceivable a decade ago to see an image of the 1934 Boris Iofan–designed Palace of Soviets, a hallmark project of the Stalin era, emblazoned on an architecture museum’s facade. Critics and historians in the West have long dismissed the building as tasteless kitsch, “wedding-cake architecture,” and the conservative expression of a repressive regime. The CCA’s gesture, as well as Cohen’s inclusion of Iofan’s original drawings for the project and his photographs of New York skyscrapers from a 1934 visit, documents the architect’s fondness for the eclecticism of American prewar high-rises and acknowledges the period’s complex mechanisms of citation. Elsewhere in the gallery, a contemporary model of Lev Rudnev’s 1953 building for Moscow State University and original drawings for Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky’s 1957 Hotel Ukraina building in Moscow underscore the Stalin era’s inventive reconstitution of Italian sources. With their flagrant disregard for the rules of proportion and order that traditionally governed Renaissance architectural ornament, both projects show the affinity for decontextualized historical imagery, the urbanistic organization around grand avenues, and the “decorated shed” fetishization of facade and surface that would later manifest in the work of Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, and their postmodern sympathizers. Indeed, Rossi first traveled to the Soviet Union during the ’50s, later writing about his profound experience of Stalinist architecture and his admiration for its scale and ability to communicate in an emotional register. “I am proud that I have always defended the great architecture of the Stalinist period,” reflected Rossi in his 1981 Scientific Autobiography, “which could have been transformed into an important alternative for modern architecture but was abandoned.”

Among the more radical implications of the CCA’s show is its repositioning of Stalinist architecture as a precursor to architectural postmodernism.

In this way and others, the framework of Amerikanizm proves an inventive and useful, but occasionally limiting, approach to presenting the subject matter. The exhibition makes clear that the American architects had no comparable interest in building a “new Russia,” yet one can’t help but wonder if the vector of architectural exchange moved in more than one direction. Detailed maps, informed by an admirable depth of curatorial research and designed by Studio Folder, illustrate the travel itineraries of Russian and American architects, politicians, and their ilk between the two countries. Frank Lloyd Wright visited Moscow in 1937, when he was invited to attend the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects—did this Soviet experience influence his ideas and work? Wright had expressed adamantly pro-Soviet sentiments throughout the ’30s—praising the nascent state as a “heroic endeavor” in Pravda in 1933—and admired the collective farms he visited a few years later, whose ethos of rural development resonated with ideas about American de-urbanization Wright investigated that decade. Charles and Ray Eames traveled to Moscow in 1959 for the American National Exhibition, where they designed a hypnotizing seven-channel film installation propagating images of the capitalist good life, as did Buckminster Fuller, who built a geodesic dome to host the display. (The Eameses’ installation is reproduced at scale in the CCA galleries.) The duo’s work—alongside the American National Exhibition’s myriad displays of domestic conveniences—piqued Soviet state interest in diversifying and expanding the production of consumer goods to compete with the American way of life. Were the Eameses influenced by Moscow in turn? A Soviet National Exhibition also opened in New York that year, but it is only briefly mentioned, and its potential impact is beyond the purview of the CCA’s show.

Following the expansion of bilateral relations after 1955, a fascination for the glittering baubles of capitalism supplanted the Soviet fetish for American skyscrapers. As part of a broad effort to expand the manufacture of consumer goods, the Soviet state invited Raymond Loewy, among the most influential postwar American industrial designers, to create the Moskvich XRL car with plans to sell the vehicle internationally. It never went into production—drawings of the little-known 1975 prototype are a novel surprise, one of the numerous, thrilling archival discoveries in the exhibition. The show’s concluding display, a cassette tape of Nautilus Pompilius’s 1985 hit “Goodbye America,” strikes a rather different note of longing: pained disenchantment. “Your worn-out blue jeans became too tight for me,” the song goes. “We’ve been taught for too long to be in love with your forbidden fruits.” In eulogizing Amerikanizm, the lyrics lay bare its outsize significance: Though the view of the United States was exaggerated, it was also eminently inspiring. 

Anna Kats is a writer and curator based in New York, where she works as a Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art.