June 1, 2007
A new book of photographs captures the brief Soviet period when architecture symbolized the egalitarian promise of Communism.
Richard Pare’s stunning new book, The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922–1932, sheds light on a largely overlooked moment in architectural history: that sliver of time in Russia when the faint promise of a “worker’s paradise” coincided with the rise of Modernism. Released this month, it is the product of eight trips the photographer took to Russia (and the former Soviet republics) between 1993 and 2002, a period of great change there, particularly as the economy began to heat up and the buildings he was shooting became threatened. “After the second trip I started showing Phyllis Lambert the results,” Pare says, referring to the founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), where he long served as photography curator. “She thought it was something the CCA should be supporting.”
Even with funding, the logistics proved daunting: the architecture was largely undocumented; many of the buildings were inaccessible, their conditions unknown; and the photographer doesn’t speak Russian. Pare asked the estimable historian Jean-Louis Cohen—who acted as project adviser and later wrote a comprehensive essay for the book—to compile a preliminary shopping list of potential sites. “His knowledge of this subject is encyclopedic,” Pare says. “That list provided a basis from which to begin. Initially, it was just Moscow and St. Petersburg, but after a while it seemed worthwhile to see how far I could go.”
Pare visited dozens of Modernist sites in Russia and the former Soviet Union—factories, industrial plants, government offices, housing complexes, workers’ clubs. “Just after the Soviet collapse, access was pretty easy,” he says. “Nobody knew who was in charge. Things like the clubs you could just walk into. I tried to look like I knew what I was doing and where I was going, and I would just march in for as long as I could before they’d throw me out. But as the new economy settled in, a lot of the old bureaucrats got behind the desk again and began exercising a very Soviet kind of bureaucracy, preventing access.” Fortunately, he met Pavel Khoroshilov, deputy minister of culture and a photography collector, who owned one of Pare’s previous books and helped open doors.
The photographer has created a compelling and historically important volume, and next month the Museum of Modern Art will present a companion exhibition of selected photographs from The Lost Vanguard. There are 74 structures in the book—buildings by Erich Mendelsohn, Le Corbusier, and Konstanin Melnikov (including his iconic, and threatened, house in Moscow)—making a strong visual case for the connection of Russian Modernism to the International movement. Pare smartly included buildings whose completion dates overlapped with the onset of Stalinism, so a curious crossbreeding of Modernism and state-sanctioned classicism is evident. “The idea was to show the seeds of what was coming next,” he says.
Richard Pare’s new book, The Lost Vanguard, is actually a testament to the unique, almost indispensable role that the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) plays in architecture culture. Who else but Phyllis Lambert and the CCA would fund a project dedicated to unearthing the lost history of Soviet modernism? Many organizations might enthusiastically show the results of such an undertaking—as MoMA will next month with an exhibition based on the book—but few would have the resources or inclination to make that initial leap of faith. Earlier this spring I spoke to Pare, a photography curator at the CCA for many years, about the new book, how he found the buildings in it, their chances for survival in oil-rich Russia, and the nascent modern preservation movement there.
How did you determine the time frame for the book, 1922 to 1932?
The Shabolovka Radio Tower [it appears on the cover of the book] is completed in 1922. It began in 1919. As a structure, it’s like the herald of the revolution. And before that, immediately after the revolution, there was so much chaos, then World War I, the civil war, and all were compounded by the collapse of the economy. No one could build anything. So the radio tower is the first major structure erected after the revolution. Stalin hands down his fiat in 1932 and dissolves all the clubs and organizations and brings them all together under the single organization of the House of Architects, which was to enforce the use of the heavy handed Stalinist classicism as the state sanctioned style.
In what ways was the Soviet architecture from this period unique?
It had an energy and vigor that is distinct from its European counterparts. With the untrained labor that the architects had at their disposal, it never had the kind of finesse in the details of the European Modernists. There are no Miesian details in the Russian avant-garde, because it was so experimental. Materials were also incredibly scarce. Though the vocabulary is modern, much of the construction follows methods that had been in use for centuries.
How many buildings from this period are we talking about?
It’s a lot more than people think. The problem is that a lot of it has been so modified and corrupted over the years. Some of them had the façades totally rebuilt in a Stalinist vocabulary. Then you go into the courtyard and it’s still a very modernist. There is a lot of housing in places like the Armenikend district, but it’s now very tumble down. Everybody has filled in the balconies, often with discarded bus windows, so it’s difficult to find a salient point of view that gives a clear enough idea of the original intentions.
Were there any surprises?
Occasionally I would find things that nobody knew existed, like the Baku Theatre by Leonid Vesnin, the white one with the towers on either side. That’s barely known. There is a lot of stuff that we had to find, because there were often no street addresses in the journals or publications where we found the listings. So we would drive around and I just developed a nose for which direction to go in—slightly away from the center usually. It also helps to look at the main thoroughfares and work out when those roads were built. You can sort of feel it by the way the city was likely to spread.
In documenting these buildings, did you feel you were engaged in a race against time?
I was terrified that things like Narcomfin were going to be ripped down because they were such in bad condition. The density of inhabitants on the site is very low for today’s real estate values in Moscow. It is adjacent to the American embassy and has to be one of the most valuable plots in the whole city. At the time of construction it was considered high-density housing, now it’s very low density, so it’s threatened. The present condition is absolutely appalling. It is one of the great buildings of the century, in any country, and every effort should be exerted to secure its future.
What’s the current status of the Melnikov House?
It’s beginning to seem as though it’s secure. The son, Victor, who died last year, made half of the house a conditional gift to the state. He devoted his life to saving this extraordinary house, which became his mausoleum in a way. There’s a new Russian Avant-Garde Foundation that owns the other half of the house. They have acquired at least one of the other social clubs as well. I understand that they’re proposing to use the Burvesnick club as the foundation headquarters.
Moscow is a boom town right now. What chance do these other buildings have of surviving?
Slender. A lot of these modernist buildings are a bit away from the city center, but even so the pressure is intense on any land in Moscow. The Melnikov House occupies a small plot in the Arbat, only a few hundred yards away from Pushkin’s house, which is now across the street from McDonald’s. This suggests the commercial pressures on the land. I think the Melnikov house is in a slightly better situation than it was a year ago. But its future is still a matter for great concern.
What’s the preservation movement in Russia like today?
It’s really in infancy. The first symposium on the conservation of modernism was in Moscow last April. It got token support from the city. They had a reception for the participants but there was no one present from the city. There was this huge room with boards groaning with food and vodka, but there was no welcoming introduction, nothing. They just opened the doors and everybody walked in, so it was a very passive support, shall we say. That was when the first show of the pictures went up. Jean Louis Cohen called me and asked me if I knew about the symposium.
Clearly Cohen has been instrumental in helping the preservation movement in Russia.
He’s certainly involved with all the major players. He knows all the people involved in architectural history in Moscow. The other person who’s taking a wider view of preservation is Clementine Sessel, who is director of relatively new organization, the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society (MAPS). She’s making as much noise as she can. Jean-Louis calls her the “La Passionaria for preservation.” She’s British, lives in London, but visits Moscow often. The World Monuments Fund was there for the symposium. They’ve registered the Melnikov house and the Rusakov club. They’ve considered adding the Textile Institute, because that’s another severely threatened masterpiece.
Did you meet many contemporary Russian architects during your visits?
Quite a few: Evgeny Asse, Yuri Avvakumov, Alexander Brodsky, Oleg Kozinsky, Natalia Dushkina. Nobody has built anything much yet because they were coming of age during a period when it was impossible to build. Now, it’s still impossible to build unless it falls into the category of speculative construction. Nearly all the stuff that’s going up is brassier than Trump.
So what are their lives like?
Evgeny Asse teaches, but not to support himself. It’s more of a pro bono thing. The salaries are ridiculous. They have to practice to support themselves but they teach on the side because they enjoy it and feel a commitment towards the students. Sasha’s projects tend to be smaller ones: houses, apartment renovations, office interiors, clubs, dining places. That’s his vocabulary. Still the present generation is gathering momentum. Sasha is highly regarded. He’s got such an amazing imagination: a wonderful connection between nostalgia for the past and hope for the future. A contemporary vocabulary rooted in history.
Will there be second book on this theme?
It’s possible to do an addendum. If I’m able to continue the work, it would be a slimmer companion volume. I’ve got plenty of material that I’d like to go back and revisit. The archive is 10,000 negatives, plenty more than the 73 projects in the book.