3 November 2011

Constructivists at the RA

Back in June I posted about the 2011 Tate St Ives Summer Exhibition which had included works by Naum Gabo. Gabo and his wife moved to Cornwall from Hampstead at the outbreak of war in 1939, but Gabo had been born a Russian in 1890. He studied in Germany, returning home after the Revolution in 1917. Avant-garde art, in particular the Suprematist movement led by Malevich, had already appeared in Russia. After the Revolution the associated Constructivist movement in art and architecture, which Gabo joined, embraced the Communist cause. It did so by drawing on the non-bourgeois abstract language of Suprematism and by adopting new materials and three-dimensionality.

The Royal Academy exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, examines the Russian avant-garde architecture which its designers intended to reflect the energy and optimism of the new Soviet Socialist state. As well as some Suprematist pictures, the exhibition shows black and white photographs and drawings of the buildings when newly-constructed alongside excellent large-scale colour photographs taken by Richard Pare, mostly in the 1990s. I thought the Melnikov House and the Gosplan Garage to be particularly striking. The difficulties of long-term maintenance of these and later Modernist buildings, given the nature of their steel and concrete construction and the large flat rendered surfaces, were apparent in many of Pare’s photographs (see an English Heritage Conservation Bulletin article about the restoration of the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill). The Chekist Housing (left), perhaps not surprisingly, seemed to be one of the few exceptions in terms of its condition.

Of all the many striking images available, the one chosen by the RA for publicity is a vertical view through a piece of engineering as much as architecture, Vladimir Shukhov’s Shabolovka Radio Tower, innovatively formed by steel-lattice hyperboloids (left). This was planned to be taller than the Eiffel Tower but was never fully implemented due to steel shortages. Never realised at all was Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, (known as ‘Tatlin’s Tower’). It was intended to be constructed as the headquarters of the Comintern in St Petersburg (Petrograd, then Leningrad, at the time) with a height of 400 metres. The courtyard of the RA is currently exhibiting a 1:40 scale model built by Dixon Jones Architects, probably the first to be seen in London for decades. In 1971, a similar model appeared on the balcony outside the Hayward Gallery during the British Council’s tribulated exhibition, Art in Revolution: Soviet art and design since 1917. The Soviet Ministry of Culture, a major source of the exhibits, demanded and achieved the removal of all works by Malevich, and insisted that a reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s Proun Room be blocked off.

Tatlin's Tower; USSR 1920, London 1971 and 2011

In 1934 the Lawn Road Flats (known as the Isokon Building) opened in Hampstead, London. Now a Grade 1 listed building, this is a clear descendant of the Moscow communal housing constructed in the previous decade. The restaurant and bar, the Isobar, soon became a meeting place for Hampstead’s artistic community including Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and Naum Gabo after his arrival in 1936.

The Ove Arup and Norman Foster Foundations, and Richard and Ruth Rogers have supported the exhibition. Lords Foster of Thames Bank and Rogers of Riverside are the UK’s most prominent architects, with international practices, and Ove Arup is one of the world’s leading consultancies providing related services. Building the Revolution runs to 22 January 2012.

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