Socialist Worker

Building the Revolution : Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935

Noel Halifax visits Building the Revolution, a new exhibition on the lost architectural legacy of Russia’s revolution

Issue No. 2278

The model of Tatlin’s Tower

The model of Tatlin’s Tower


You have seized power, the workers are in control and the capitalists have fled. Now is the time to build a new world, a new way of living shorn of the rubbish of history and hierarchy.

That was the prospect facing the artists who supported the revolution in Russia in 1917.

There are problems. The country is on its knees, exhausted from the First World War with the factories barely functioning. You have few materials, communications are in a mess and the revolution is literally fighting for its life.

Yet from this mess came one of the most exciting architectural movements. Constructivists and futurists flocked to the revolution to put their plans and ideals into practise.

You can glimpse a shadow of this lost world in this show. It includes items never before seen in Britain, and is worth seeing for these alone.

There is also a large model in the outside courtyard of Vladimir Tatlin’s never-built Monument to the Third International tower. It is free to view and accompanied by a small separate show about the tower.

But it is an exhibition put on by architects and historians of architecture who have depoliticised the period, seeing it as a history of architectural style.

In reality these artists were revolutionaries who wanted to get rid of the concept of art as a separate activity from ordinary life.

Transform

They sought to help redesign and transform society not just make picture but to make a new world.

After the defeat of the revolution it did become a question of style and what was appropriate for the new ruling class, but this is not the story told by the exhibition.

However if you ignore the guide and know some history you can track the demise of the revolution, as plans for new living give way to modernist factories.

These were built to maximise production, not for the needs of the workers. Housing was downgraded as a priority with the Five-year Plan.

What new housing there is consists of schemes for the elite—such as the Soviet Doctors’ Housing Cooperative in Kiev, or housing for the officers of the Cheka secret police in Ekaterinburg.

These have communal canteens and kindergartens, but they were not on offer for ordinary workers.

By the 1930s architecture had reverted to its normal function, making lovely houses for the rich and factories and cheap housing to get the most out of the rest of us.

Some of the exhibition is nostalgically Stalinist. It is separated into sections like housing, education, industry, recreation and health rather than time periods.

This further obscures the politics, so that the building in 1923 of the Dinamo Sports Clubs in Kiev is alongside the Voroshilov Sanatorium in Soshi for the Red Army in 1930-34.

One was intended for the proletariat, the other for high up party members.

Appropriately the last section is on Lenin’s tomb. This was first built as a temporary wooden structure and later replaced by a tomb built of the most expensive marbles and stone.

They probably needed something so heavy to stop him spinning.

Building the Revolution : Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 on until 22 January 2012 at the Royal Academy of Arts London. Tickets £9


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Tue 15 Nov 2011, 19:02 GMT
Issue No. 2278
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