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Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, London, United Kingdom

Monday 28 Nov 2011

Russian Constructivism's former glory

All images courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts 
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30/11/11 Michael Craig, Moscow
This is a superb exhibition which shows the role played by avant-garde artists and architects in the development of early 20th century architecture. There is also a film which touches many of the points made in this article. The film is called "Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde" and is available on DVD. For more information have a look at http://www.copernicusfilms.com
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Exhibition at London's Royal Academy reveals architecture's role in creating the Soviet Socialist state 

Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum, an austere, angular mass of grey and blood red in Moscow's Red Square, was originally built from wood by architect Aleksey Shchusev just days after Lenin's death. It was eventually replaced with a structure of marble, porphyry, granite and labradorite designed by Aleksey Shchusev, I.A. Frantsuz and G.K. Yakovlev some years later.

It is an enormous photograph taken from within the burial chamber - as imposing in scale as in subject matter - that concludes the Building the Revolution exhibition; a monument signifying the death not only of Lenin himself, but of this first era of a newly functioning Socialist ideology.

Following the Revolution of 1917 was the explosive emergence of Russian avant-garde architecture under Lenin's leadership, a burst of new design and construction that came into being as a direct result of the radical social change. In parallel with the development of the new Soviet Socialist state, a new architectural language was taking shape; and it is this initial era of societal upheaval made manifest through the medium of art and architecture that this exhibition at London's Royal Academy documents.

A complete remodelling of Russia's infrastructure was needed to reflect and accommodate that of the country's political landscape. Breaking away from the 'bourgeois' buildings of the past, architects began responding to the sudden demand for new kinds of buildings, such as working clubs, communal housing, factories and free schools, literally securing the foundations of this emerging utopia. Key architects included Konstantin Melnikov, Moisei Ginsburg, Ilia Golosov and the Vesnin brothers, with European Modernists Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn called in to help turn the vision into reality.

Organised by building type, the curation of Building the Revolution hinges on the contrast between the idealism of the designs and the buildings' fall into disrepair in the latter part of the century. Interspersed between the optimistic sketches are the ghostly photographs that Richard Pare has taken over the past fifteen years, depicting the architectural relics of this former ideology rising like apparitions out of barren industrial landscapes.

The architecture of this period embraced Russian Constructivist art, hence artists and architects worked symbiotically, sharing a radical vision for the future that materialised in a wave of flat-roofed buildings, subdued colours and fundamental forms. Colossal, sparse towers exposed architecture's bare bones. The utilitarian aesthetic was symbolic of the Socialist message: in the true sense of Louis Sullivan's famous phrase, form consistently followed function.

After 1932 the direction of architecture changed, in part due to a lack of materials and advanced technology but also as a result of Stalin's regime from 1929, in which radical modernity was criticised. The buildings in Pare's photographs are the crumbling veterans of this period of temporary elation, at odds with the twenty first-century society that now surrounds them. While some have been adopted for other uses - or in the case of one school, are still functioning despite their decrepit appearance - many have become obsolete.

A reconstruction of artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin's 1917 Monument to the Third International (Tatlin's Tower), the apotheosis of Russian Constructivist design, firmly sets the tone of the exhibition. Looming forebodingly over its visitors in the entrance courtyard, its power ultimately remains in the fact that it was never built; rather than a dilapidated reality, it is forever to remain a prototype sprung from the mind of a hopeful revolutionary. Like Lenin's tomb, which preserves the Socialist ideology despite the failings of its brief manifestation, it remains intact as the glorious emblem of a utopia that was doomed to fail in a twentieth-century world.

Amy Knight,
Arts and Media Correspondent

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