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SOVIET ARCHITECTURE

March 14, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

 

I believe that photography should be situated alongside general artistic practice - a part of it, informed by it and  justified by its artistic merit.  Encouraging photographers to look at their practice in this way is one of the reasons I write these reviews.  

A new exhibition at the Royal Academy - "Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935" - speaks to these themes on several levels.  It is, most obviously, curated around the interplay between art (particularly painting) and architecture during the heroic period immediately after the 1917 revolution; at this level, it shows how the breaking down of barriers between the two practices is far from new.  On another level, the exhibition is illustrated with contemporary photographs of many of the buildings by the chronicler of Soviet modernist architecture, Richard Pare, many of which show the current state of constructions also illustrated in vintage photographs. 

The interplay between artistic practices might have been completed had the RA included period Soviet photography (one thinks particularly about Rodchenko's work), but that's a quibble about a really fascinating exhibition for art and architecture fans as well as photographers.

 Whatever you may think of the Russian communist system, there’s no doubt that from 1917 to the late-20s the Soviet Union witnessed an eruption of avant-garde and experimental art which many of its practitioners saw as being in the service of the new society. Soviet Architects were part of this upsurge, and they fused engineering and city planning with communal ideals. Alexander Vesnin, Vladimir Shukhov, Moisel Ginsberg, Ilya Golosov, Yakov Chernikhov, Konstantinos Melnikovand many others all laboured to this end, designing and building workers' clubs, sports facilities, offices, theatres, factories, communal apartment blocks, cooperative kitchens, collectivist living spaces and much more - all designed with a classless future in mind. It didn't last long and, by the late-1920s, had succumbed to the dead hand of Salin's Soviet Realism.  

But during these years, constructivist and supremacist artists, like Malevich, Popova, El Lissitsky and Rodchenko, and architects sought out new forms in the service of the Communist ideals.  Drawing on European Modernism, but with occasional references to classical traditions, Soviet artists and architects created constructivist paintings and buildings whose utilitarian lines and formal language seemed to resonate with the society being created.  The almost complete fusion between painting and architecture is seen clearly in a series in the exhibition from around 1919-29 by Liubov Popova called "Painterly Architectonics" and "Spatial Force Construction"; spurred by the new thinking about tectonics, they are effectively artiststic constructions.  Another well-known supremacist from the period, Kasimir Malevich, stopped painting between 1919-29 to concentrate on making white architectural maquettes which he called Architectonics, exploring how two dimensional art could be translated into three dimensional constructions. 

Connections like these are traced in this exhibition through industrial, residential, state and governmental,  communications and health service buildings and show how This innovative period created a new visual language which linked art and architecture.   This language employed pure geometric shapes, banded horizontal windows, flat roofs,mall often raised on pilotis or pared down columns.  The functions of many buildings were redefined in the process - housing became communal, factories were reconfigured to accommodate mass production techniques and startling new forms such as radio towers grew upwards from the ground.

Examples of these remarkable buildings include Melnikov's. Rusakov Workers' Club in Moscow, a construction topped off with striking angled boxes.  Golosov's Zuev Workers Club is an interpretation of modernism, comprising a large glazed cylinder grafted onto rigorously rectilinear building.  The huge Gasprom building designed in 1929 for the new city of Kharkov in the Ukraine is monumental in scale and reflects the vast ambition of the bureaucracy it was built to house. 

Photographers should be captivated by the use of line, shape and form by these artists and architects and should find here many ideas.  If this were not enough, the contemporary photographs of Richard Pare are outstanding.  Richard Pare was born in England in 1948. In his early years he was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. Later he studied photography and graphic design in Winchester and at Ravensbourne College of Art before moving to the United States in 1971. In 1973 he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and since then he has beenworking as a photographer with a particular affinity for architecture.  

Pare's images are beautiful examples of architected photography, capturing the lines and shapes of these remarkable buildings in a straightforward way.  Some of the images, such as the panorama of the industrial scale bakery designed by Marsakov and the interior of the Red Banner Textile Factory in St. Petersburg, are huge in scale.

 

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His almost-monochromatic study of the  Shabolovka radio tower is now a well-known image.  His image of the Moges power plant in Moscow features the striking angular glass bays which sit alongside the classical facade. 

 

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Other images by Pare are more abstract, capturing the sweep and line of the modernist language - the curved ramp in the Tsentrosoyuz building, the remarkable spiral staircase in a Checkist housing scheme and the beautifully curved balcony and windows in the Pishchevik Club.

 

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Many recreate vintage photograph from the period, from which one cannot but be struck by the physical deterioration of many buildings.  Pare's images are themselves a kind of interplay between architectural, record and documentary forms and will fascinate any serious photographer.

Many of these Soviet artists and architects shared the rather elitist bossiness of their European modernist counterparts (one thinks of Le Corbusier here and, interestingly, he was directly involved in the design of some of the Soviet buildings in the period).  Herding families into communal living, designing better quality housing for the Party elite, seeking to change the soul of man through their work, these and similar aims lead us to question the motivations behind much of this work. Politically dubious it may have been; creatively inspired it certainly was.  

Go see!

 

 

 

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