Monday, July 30, 2007

Vanguard of Brutalism

Context is helpful. A little more may have helped the MoMa’s exhibit Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922-32. However, the introductory notes do make an important point about the modernist architects whose surviving works are documenting in the exhibit through Richard Pare’s photography: “With the advent of Socialist realism and the larger cultural reaction that accompanied Stalin’s repressive regime, they came under violent criticism in the Soviet Union.” Yes, let us start with some understatement.

The earliest structures represented are indeed striking, including the Comintern’s Shabolovka radio tower used as the key art for the exhibition. However, the architecture soon evolves into something closely akin to the familiar brutalism of 1960s government buildings (large geometric structures of roughened concrete and recessed windows), with a few modernist flourishes thrown in here and there. Indeed, the communal houses commissioned by the Peoples Commissariat of Finance prompted Le Corbusier, the guru of glass and steel, to complain of them being:

“so cold, so impassive . . . that one is struck with melancholy not merely at the idea of living there oneself, but at the thought that several hundred individuals have been purely and simply deprived of the joys of architecture.”

Despite his complaints, Le Corbusier himself is represented in the exhibit with a classic example of the bureaucratic brutalist office structure, shortly thereafter. Truly aptly named, Soviet brutalist structures at their worst, exemplify drabness, always looking damp, and amplifying their state of disrepair, as Pare’s photos attest, more often than not.

One is still left with the question of what happened to the represented architects, particularly the more talented ones. In the case of Konstantin Melnikov, visitors get a hint of an answer. According to the title cards: “Melnikov was banned from building in the late 1930s because of his radical resistance to Socialist realism, and his house became his only refuge.” Again, there is some understated context.