How Russian Architects Tried to Build a New Socialist World Using “America” as Their Guide
Building a new New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture, an exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, examines the USSR's ardent fascination with American technology and culture.
In the young Soviet Union, few images were as ubiquitous as the hirsute troika of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. By the time Stalin had concentrated power around himself at the start of the 1930s, his hard-boiled mug—deadass gaze, implacable mustache—adjoined this dialectics-club roll call. But only a few years before in 1927, an American reporter could still venture that in a popularity contest among the country’s peasant millions, Uncle Joe lost out not only to his rival Trotsky but also to a capitalist: one Henry Ford.
To the illiterate toilers of the Russian expanse, the name of “the man who makes the ‘iron horses’” rang out with the promise of progress greater than that brought by October. Trotsky apparently alleged that the peasants, recalling the insignia on tractors that were beginning to flood the USSR, spoke of “the Fordzonishko—dear little Fordson—gently, lovingly.” The selfsame tractor assumed a starring role in Soviet theater and film; in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic The General Line (1927), a fleet of Fordsons emerge balletically from a Leningrad factory, imbued with a poesie borne of the confluence of American technology and revolutionary voluntarism.
Soviet fascination with Ford is just one chapter among many in the prolonged saga of Americanism, the now-rickety byword for the ardent reception American developments in manufacturing and culture have met with around the world, perhaps nowhere more so than in the USSR. The formidable architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen has assembled an ambitious, consistently insightful—if overly tidy—exhibition on the theme at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, where it runs through April 5. Building a new New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture brims with material, spanning the disciplines of film, literature, planning, and, naturally, building, all putatively attesting to an analogical relationship between the two countries. In the show’s unfolding, however, analogy congeals into reality, whether in the hundreds of factories that the mercenary Detroit engineer Albert Kahn designed for Soviet Russia in the 1930s, or in the belligerently inventive skyscrapers erected in Moscow under High Stalinism. But just as quickly, the real, too, sheds its bulk, evaporating back into the ether and resurfacing as images in the televisual waves of the 1959 American National Exhibition, glimpsed in one of the concluding displays.
The geographical scope is cyclopean (how could it not be?), and yet, in Cohen’s show, distinguished names, visitors-of-state, and research delegations crisscross land and sea seemingly without effort. The exhibition evokes their trajectories through lines on a map (projected azimuthally to further draw the comparison), arrows and colors indicating velocity, i.e., movement in directional space over time: Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 trip to Hollywood, from which he was soon ejected, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1937 visit to Moscow, adumbrated by his earlier disparaging comments to Pravda that capitalism was a “gambling game” and capitalists themselves incurable gamblers. Nikita Khrushchev, on a whirlwind 1959 American tour that began in New York and ended at Camp David, makes a sudden pit stop in Coon Rapids, Iowa, where transpired a fateful encounter between the blustering First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the humble corn crop.
Although the United States formally tendered diplomatic relations with the USSR only in 1933, technical expertise had already been transmitted across the two territories. From these regimes of exchange and planning, an “inter-urbanity,” per Cohen, arose and not solely between Washington and Moscow; deep in Siberia, the steel city of Novosibirsk emerged as a new Chicago, while the industrial model established in Dearborn, Michigan, was replicated in Chelyabinsk, Verkhnyaya Salda, Tomsk. Later, with the federal Lend-Lease Act of 1941, equipment ranging from aircraft to commodity goods like tinned ham streamed into Russia through back-door routes.
Cohen’s time frame is not limited to the 20th century, however. Making inordinate use of exposition, his dense narrative posits a long nineteenth century, citing Alexis de Tocqueville’s augury that the fortunes of Russia and America were fatefully entwined; as frontier nations, they certainly shared a family resemblance, and the nearly concurrent abolition of serfdom and slavery would have appeared as providential. But the comparison was asymmetrical and would remain so, Russian veneration of American invention going unrequited. That veneration shaded into infatuation and thus into distortion. Watercolor impressions recorded by Pavel Svinin, who became the first Russian statesman to visit the United States in 1811, limned a new world in embryo, populated with factories, steel infrastructure, and transport innovations like the steamboat; America as vision board.
During the great age of World’s Fairs in the second half of the 19th century, industrial capitalism became conscious of itself, breaching the borders of nation and the imagination alike. The fantasia spun by commodity production was one of impossible growth and distinctly American cityscapes unburdened by the old. In illustrations from the period, communities of skyscrapers are interlinked by skybridges, where more seems to be happening at 2,000 feet than on terra firma (though exactly what remained vague). Airplanes weave in and out of these stalking structures, while highways and train lines penetrate them mid-torso. Such images enchanted not only Russian visitors to the 1876 and 1893 expos (in Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively) but also their compatriots at home; on the eve of World War I, Moscow’s largest candy maker released a commemorative set of illustrative plates depicting a future metropolis-on-the-Moskva. For those unable to gain their footing amid the torrent of machines and construction cranes sweeping through this nouveau Moscow, there was still the Kremlin, untouched by Chicago School pretenders, blimps, or airborne trams.
It was America that had ushered in the ideal of the New World, and the bias of such an orientation would not be easily dislodged. Not even Maxim Gorky’s eviscerating appraisal of the country, which he visited in 1906, could temper Russian enthusiasm for American capitalist technics; contemplating New York City, the writer bristled at the “haughty pride in its height” and its obeisance to coin, that “Yellow Devil.” Yet, for every Gorky there were plenty Alexander Bloks. In a 1913 poem, Blok waxed lyrical about the “new America,” baptized by industry, shining in its productive example, its vitality a liberatory contagion.
It would be left to the Marxist revolutionaries to run dialectic interference between the two positions. American industry could be saved from American capitalists, who, being bound to the law of profit, were impeding its further historical progression; transferred to the Soviet context, this industry would encounter no such obstacles.
Cohen doesn’t linger on the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, or the heinous civil war waged in its defense, though he does point out the role that American socialists and humanitarian groups played in ameliorating the conflict. Rather, he is more concerned with what the Bolsheviks did with all that power, and how they struggled to steer a landmass that at its height constituted one-sixth of the world.
Crucial to the survival of the Soviet state in its salad days, in which utopian optimism mingled with a morbid bloodlust, was the New Economic Policy of 1921. The decree reintroduced private markets to Russia and so opened the door to American business interests, including Ford’s. Against this backdrop of avarice, it was Lenin who emerged as the gambler. Russia had been completely unprepared for the socialism Marx had, in his more speculative moments, foretold. The few extant factories in the country were concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, whose working classes were but a parasitic mosquito on the body of the Russian peasantry. If the capital cities had limped across the threshold of the 20th century, then the rural towns were not only several centuries behind but an entire world away, still ploughing the family tract in the ritual-bound realm of feudalism. And yet, as the novelist Francis Spufford has observed, “the Bolsheviks tried anyway to get to paradise by the quick route.”
The Soviet experience would seem to suggest that space could be more easily conquered than time. But this was not readily apparent in the post-revolutionary decades covered in Cohen’s account. In an astonishingly brief period, thousands of factories were willed into being. The first Five-Year Plan, launched in 1928, and its subsequent iterations produced national growth rates that were the envy of capitalist and noncapitalist countries. Fifteen years after the revolution, the country celebrated the delivery of the 50,000th tractor. Urban Russia in the 1920s was a crucible of avant-garde art, literature, stage design, photography, and most importantly, film, while Constructivist architects advanced the Modernist project to a point unreached by their Western counterparts for decades. Le Corbusier mused in 1929, “One feels in Moscow, be this artificial or deeply motivated, the forthcoming signs of a new world.” Indeed, throughout the 1930s, it appeared as though the Communists had grabbed the levers of space and time exactly as Marxist doctrine—or dogma—had promised.
But had they? Soviet society, compelled ever onward by ideology and extra-economic coercion, was fixated on the future, while the present vanished under a veil of sacrifice and recrimination. Time eventually caught up with the Party: As industrialization picked up, growth leveled off and ultimately drifted into stasis; oil production in the 1970s staved off the worst for a time, but the mangy growth of Leonid Brezhnev’s eyebrows and economic abrasion were, in a sense, inversely connected. Rearmament in the 1980s precipitated Soviet downfall. The Bolsheviks had erred in believing that the alienating forms of modernity adopted from America would be qualitatively, automatically, transformed under the mantle of socialism. Cohen’s argument for isomorphism alleges a structural relation between American and Soviet manufacturing, but, as the philosopher Christopher J. Arthur observes, Taylorism was “tailor-made for capitalism.” Ditto the factory and the assembly line.
The Soviet Union’s “never-in-time” economy (Arthur’s characterization), in which production inputs were never where planners held they ought to be, wasn’t able to develop beyond these inherited models. There were vigorous, but short-lived experiments with, for example, linear programming in the Stalin period and, later, cybernetics in the Khrushchev era. Arising from Norbert Wiener’s research at MIT for the U.S. military, cybernetics in particular was held out by certain Soviet technophiles and dirigentes as the basis for necessary economic reforms in the mid-1960s. Only mildly entertained by the Politburo, the project was eventually subsumed within the Soviet academy, where it languished; what was bad for research was good for architecture, however, if B. I. Artiushin and S. V. Savin’s optimistic Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics (completed in St. Petersburg in 1987) is any indication. Architecture’s metaphorical dimension was, in any case, intrinsic to the discursive elaboration of cybernetic concepts and systems. That the entire period is left out of the CCA exhibition feels like a missed opportunity.
This and a few other minor oversights aside, Cohen is a proactive historian and has made more than a few discoveries, many of which are drawn from private collections far from Moscow. Diplomatic relations between Russia and Canada apparently frustrated more direct routes, such as through the Shchusev Museum of Architecture, but the experience proved fruitful. It was through these backchannels that Cohen stumbled across the figure of Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, the Moscow-born skyscraper specialist who learned his trade from a stint at the offices of the American architect Harvey Wiley Corbett. Within the context of Building a new New World, Oltarzhevsky emerges as a thematic avatar, a historical actor caught between both societies. (Cohen, evincing a kind of custodial warmth for his subject, dubs him the “Russian Manhattanite.”) The rare draftsman with engineering expertise, he was present at key moments—he authored the runner-up proposal for the 1929 competition for a memorial to Christopher Columbus, where Soviet Constructivism was given its belated due on an international stage—though his luck fluctuated. Returning to Russia in 1934, Oltarzhevsky assumed responsibility for the architecture of the Soviet Agricultural Fair to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the revolution, but his designs struck a seditious cord among the authorities. Thrown into the gulag, he continued to work as a designer, and was later rehabilitated when Soviet engineers realized their deficit of experience with high-rise construction. His penchant for setbacks and decorative ceramic cladding, betraying an unconcealed “cosmopolitan” pathology, became the improbable basis for the postwar Stalinist skyscraper.
Manhattanism was one among many “oft-delayed manifestations” of Americanism “in various fields of the social practice” that Cohen records in the stunning catalogue (also published by the CCA). But within the discipline of architecture, the one-way knowledge transmission from America to Soviet Russia was, in retrospect, not so direct. While it remained the default mode for factories, commodity depots, and workers’ housing and clubs well into the 1930s, Modernism had been ousted by a cultural revolution. The aesthetic order that replaced it, Socialist Realism, has been described among arch PhDs as a form of proto-Postmodernism, and the claim has some validity. By this time, the functionalist program had fulfilled its historical role in developing the country, and the Party found a more virtue-espousing aesthetic amenable to its aims of cultivating the “new” socialist subject. The cycle of architectural revolution and counterrevolution—that is, the lapse from efficiency of program into historicist representation and the syntax of symbols, from Modernism to a post-Modernism—was here underway before Charles Jencks was even a glint in his father’s eye.
In the show’s strongest gallery, this well-known conflict is illustrated by the 1933 international competition for the Palace of the Soviets. A handful of Americans participated in the scrum, with the annoying British transplant Hector Hamilton placing third (he used his press contacts to extract favors from his hosts), but their designs paled in comparison to visionary proposals by Le Corbusier and his Russian counterpart Moisei Ginzburg. With his Corbusier-inflected entry, the communist-sympathizing Percival Goodman proved the exception to the Americans’ poor showing. (Goodman went on to become the leading architect of synagogues in the United States.) But on the whole, the jury preferred American technical experts to its architects, Cohen concludes. If an attitude of high-handedness predominated in the first period of Americanism, always tailed by a parallel anti-Americanism until the breakout of the Cold War, when it was forced to the surface, it gave way to a short-lived policy of mutual respect and competition under Khrushchev. His successors were not so susceptible to their own propaganda, however, and content to produce second-rate counterfeits of their rival’s consumer goods and technologies.
Although it paved the way for a cultural policy lasting two decades, Boris Iofan’s winning design for the palace was never built. Its eclectic melding of American cocksureness with Russian imperial grandeur did, however, provide the template for Moscow’s Seven Sisters. Today, this sphinxian, sororal set looks out onto a city under the thumb of a different, subtler sort of despotism, which has its roots not in some overarching program to remake society, nor even in the singular drive for power, but rather in the accumulation of profit. How very American.
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