Battsaligova on Udovički-Selb, 'Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes: Architecture and Stalin’s Revolution from Above, 1928-1938'

Danilo Udovički-Selb. Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes: Architecture and Stalin’s Revolution from Above, 1928-1938. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020. Illustrations. 264 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4742-9986-2

Reviewed by Liana Battsaligova (Yale University)
Published on H-SHERA (June, 2021)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)

Printable Version:

Architecturally speaking, one would be hard-pressed to find two buildings that differ more drastically than the main building of Moscow State University (the alleged symbol of Stalinist architecture) and a khrushchevka (the standardized multifamily housing introduced under Nikita Khrushchev). Yet both buildings belong to the same “architectural method,” even if only ideologically.[1] Such a paradox reflects the tumultuous history of the term “socialist realism” in architecture, the main style and artistic method to be adopted by Soviet architects following the example of Soviet writers and artists. In Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes: Architecture and Stalin’s Revolution from Above, 1928-1938, Danilo Udovički-Selb counters reductionist analyses of the period as conservative, revivalist, largely historicist, or totalitarian, and instead offers a more nuanced and complex reading of the modernist architectural forms that were incorporated into the eclectic silhouette of socialist realist architecture, even finding their way into the “historicist” forms of Stalinist architecture of the 1940-50s.

Udovički-Selb intends not to provide a catalogue of all buildings imagined and built in the 1930s but rather to “bring to light important examples that can support the claim of a strong presence of modern architecture” at the time (p. 3). Throughout the book, the author insists that modernist architecture and avant-garde movements coexisted with “proletarian architecture,” a vague term used to indicate new constructions that answered the immediate demands of proletarian revolution. In 1932, the term “proletarian architecture” was replaced by the equally ambiguous designation of “socialist realism.” The author creates an intricate map of architectural thought which challenges the widely accepted belief that 1932 signaled the death of the architectural avant-garde and the all-encompassing conservative turn in Soviet architecture. The author traces the chronological chain of political and public events that framed the last, yet active, decade of the second generation of constructivists, while inlaying the narrative with individual cameos of legendary figures, such as architects Ivan Leonidov and Konstantin Melnikov, and offering detailed and eloquent readings of their projects.

The first chapter opens with an innovative investigation of the role played by the Vsesoiuznoe obshchestvo proletarskikh arkhitektorov (All-Union Society of Proletarian Architects, VOPRA), created in 1929 by Lazar Kaganovich, Joseph Stalin’s closest ally in the Politburo at the time, in the dissolution of the constructivists’ main journal, Sovremennaia arkhitektura (Contemporary architecture, 1926-30); the closing of Vysshie khudozhestvenno-tekhnicheskie masterskie (Higher Art and Technical Studios, VKhUTEMAS); and the character assassinations of several modernist architects. Through a detailed analysis of reports of secret party meetings, Udovički-Selb shows how VOPRA acted as a “Trojan horse amidst the Avant-Gardes”; through the vulgar polemics and empty accusations of “formalism,” they destabilized the work of modernists and helped establish the state’s monopoly in architectural discourse and ultimately architectural forms (p. 16).

The second chapter focuses on the survival strategies and the institutional positions of the leaders of the avant-garde after the 1932 decree on the dissolution of independent artistic societies. In architecture, the transition to socialist realism was twofold and especially complicated. As Udovički-Selb notes, the international fame of the Soviet state as a hub of progressive architectural thinking made “the party’s supreme authority ... cater to at least two audiences—the conservative domestic population (meaning the nomenklatura) and the progressive international intelligentcija” (p. 48).[2] Here, as throughout the book, the author maintains that despite its wide use, the term “socialist realism” was elusive not only to constructivists but also to the trendsetters themselves. By analyzing numerous articles published by architects of different artistic inclinations, the author compellingly shows how the ambiguity of the term could become a reason for criticism in one case and for appreciation in another, depending on how well the architect could articulate the socialist meaning of his project. Moisei Ginzburg’s highly praised project for the Sanatorium of People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry in Kislovodsk (finished in 1937) is one example. With time, the ambiguous term “socialist realism” in Soviet architecture became associated with historicism and classicism. Yet Udovički-Selb compellingly argues (and here he echoes the ideas of Selim O. Khan-Magomedov and Vladimir Paperny) that in the 1930s, socialist realism as imagined by Stalin was embodied in Arkadii Langman’s sober modernist aesthetics of the building for the Gosudarstvennyi planovyi komitet (the State Planning Committee, GOSPLAN; the building was finished in 1935 and today houses the Russian Duma) and in Kazimir Malevich’s arkhitektons and the “power and stability” of American skyscrapers as shown in Boris Iofan’s Palace of Soviets in its 1933 rendition, rather than in Ivan Zholtovskii’s “classicism” as presented in his 1934 Dom na Mokhovoi (House on Mokhovaia Street) in Moscow (p. 48).[3]

The third chapter further problematizes the monopoly of socialist realist style in Soviet architecture. Here, the author focuses on the construction of the Moscow Metropoliten (begun in 1931) and the 1937 Soviet pavilion in Paris. Udovički-Selb considers Alexei Dushkin’s Maiakovskaia metro station (finished in 1938) an example of the modernists’ persistence in realizing their progressive ideas contrary to the demands to build “beautifully” (krasivo) and “solidly” (prochno). Dushkin’s original project for the metro station, notes the author, replete with details appropriate to socialist realist values, differed significantly from the final result: an innovative lighting system and wittingly concealed ventilation system replaced expressive murals and the futuristic stainless-steel arches triumphed over the granite veneering. Here, as in the case of Ginzburg’s Kislovodsk sanatorium, the author concludes that architects avoided censorship from the competition committee by first presenting them with a project that answered the needs of socialist realism only to change its forms in the process of construction. Udovički-Selb does not go into the details of or the reasons for such a transformation, but further investigation and research into this architectural strategy would likely yield fruitful results. In this chapter, the author, in his attempt to show that constructivist thought was still viable in the 1930s, expands the geographical area of his focus to also consider the construction sites of peripheral yet growing and strategically important centers, such as Kuibyshev, Baku, Voronezh, Rostov-na-Donu, Sverdlovsk, and Novosibirsk. It is there, as the author contends, far from the political center, that the architects had more freedom and opportunities to build in a cosmopolitan manner.

In the fourth chapter, Udovički-Selb continues his reevaluation of the creative power dynamics in Moscow and contends that even after 1932, the modernists’ presence in the leading positions of the architectural infrastructure was still very strong. The author shows that modernists occupied the editorial board and the pages of the internationally renowned journal Arkhitektura SSSR (Architecture of the USSR, 1933-92) through the end of the decade; they also headed half of the twelve ARKHPLAN (arkhitekturno-planirovochnye masterskie) workshops, created by Kaganovich. Through the juxtaposition of the polemics in the pages of Arkhitektura SSSR with the archival records of party meetings at the Soiuz sovetskikh arkhitektorov (Union of Soviet Architects, SSA), Udovički-Selb emphasizes not only the absence of a clear understanding of what socialist realism in architecture was but also the uncertainty of what direction Soviet architecture should take. Through close reading of the archival records, which document the controversial nature of Kaganovich’s involvement in the development of architectural thought, Udovički-Selb manages to evoke the atmosphere of confusion and fear that were present among architects and the members of the union during the preparation for the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects (Moscow, June-July 1937). Although, as Kaganovich stated, “the constructivists have housed millions around the country, and will build for millions more,” they could not be the prevalent artistic voice at the congress. The sad irony of the situation was that the only way Kaganovich could counter constructivism was to call for structures that were “literate, simple, and beautiful” (p. 144). Udovički-Selb demonstrates that the debates about the “creative method” that Soviet architecture was to adopt continued well into the third trimester of 1935, concluding that “notably, the modernists still maintained a prestige the historicists were losing” (p. 151).

The fifth chapter analyzes the year of preparation for the long-awaited First All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects. Udovički-Selb scrupulously lists the events leading up to the congress, painting a strikingly vivid picture of the poisonous atmosphere and mounting tensions among the architects. As throughout the book, the fifth chapter demonstrates the powerful position of modernists in architecture by analyzing their rigorous resistance to vulgar insinuations in the press. The author contends that while the press (and presumably Kaganovich behind the scenes) was attacking “simplism” and “box architecture,” constructivism was not the only architectural movement that was considered “vulgar”: historicist architecture was also severely attacked for being “bourgeois,” “a mechanical reproduction,” and a “combination of various styles” (p. 167). Also, not all constructivism was equally criticized: while the press scolded Melnikov’s avant-garde projects (for being “a conglomerate of concrete, steel, and glass”), as late as December 1937, the grand opening of Aleksandr Vesnin’s Palace of Culture in Moscow was celebrated with fanfare and a masquerade (pp. 167-68). Lastly, the chapter closes with Frank Lloyd Wright’s visit to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects in 1937, at which the constructivists themselves pronounced that constructivism was no more.

Overall, the book is clearly written and is difficult to put down, even if it could have benefited from more thorough editing to remove repetitions, inconsistencies in transliteration, and typos throughout. The narrative is absorbing and the incorporation of rich archival details gives the reader a palpable sense of the epoch. Udovički-Selb’s unique understanding of the period is apparent in his nuanced visual analyses of the architectural projects in their cultural and political context. For example, in the second chapter, Udovički-Selb’s attentive analysis grounds the aesthetics of Iofan’s unfinished Palace of Soviets (its 1933 version) not in the monumentality of historical forms as it is usually considered but rather in “American corporate modernity [and in] Soviet avant-garde art of the 1920s” (p. 61). Similarly, his formal reading of Iofan’s Barvikha sanatorium (finished in 1936) clearly places it in the realm of “constructivist montage” rather than considering it within the shifting nature of socialist realism.

Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes makes a significant contribution to the English-language scholarship on the history and theory of architecture during Stalinism and beyond. However, this publication might also be of interest to scholars of literature and film studies, as it grounds the constructivist method in Victor Shklovsky’s theory of estrangement (ostranenie) and Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage. The book builds on such precedents as Khan-Magomedov’s Arkhitektura sovetskogo avangarda: Mastera i techeniia (1996), Paperny’s Kul’tura dva (1985), Katerina Clark’s Moscow the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (2011), and others, and represents a valuable contribution to the history of the architectural avant-gardes. One of the book’s distinctive features is that it challenges the centricity of Moscow and explores the avant-garde beyond the capitals (for example, in Novosibirsk, Baku, Kislovodsk, and Ekaterinburg). Leningrad, surprisingly, is not treated at all, even though the architectural works of Noi Trotskii, Evgenii Levinson, Igor Fomin, and others in the 1930s would contribute positively to the book’s argument.

At the same time, the notion of constructivism in architecture itself should have received more attention. In the book, constructivism is presented as an established architectural method and style, the characteristic look of which can be understood as a structure reduced to a simple combination of verticals and horizontals, in which the exterior corresponds to the interior, and the construction of which involves “modern” materials, such as concrete, glass, and metal. While this is partly true, it is important to note that together with the ideologues of vague “proletarian architecture,” the constructivists themselves had difficulties in explaining how “boxy architecture” differed from constructivism. Ginzburg’s programmatic essay, “Zadachi sovetskoi arkhitektury” (The tasks of Soviet architecture), in which he again attempted “to define once and for-all what constructivism was,” is particularly telling. It originally appeared in the November 1935 issue of Arkhitekturnaia gazeta (Architectural newspaper, 1934-40), and the reason behind such an essay could only be that in the mid-1930s the term “constructivism” was no less ambiguous than “socialist realism” (p. 151). Since the 1920s, constructivists had been repeatedly emphasizing constructivism as a method of building and rejected the notion of “constructivist style,” which they themselves saw as formalistic and false. Among the imitations were Grigorii Barkhin’s Izvestia building (finished in 1927) and even Arkos by the Vesnin brothers (1924, unrealized). The rhetoric of “formalism” and “stylization,” which later would be detrimental for progressive architecture, was opened by the constructivists themselves. The book’s elucidation of some of the more opaque parts of history would have benefited from a more thorough engagement with the fluidity of the term “constructivism,” the distinction between constructivism as style and constructivism as method, its evolution, and its reflection in building. Nevertheless, Udovički-Selb’s engaging narrative style, his attention to and thorough analysis of previously untranslated and unpublished archival material, and his persuasive reappraisal of the accepted chronology and periodization of architectural development in the 1930s make this book a welcome contribution to scholarship on this period and Soviet architecture more broadly.


[1]. For a discussion of the “old” and “new” socialist realisms before and after Khrushchev’s decree from November 4, 1955, see Susan E. Reid, “Toward a New (Socialist) Realism: The Re-engagement with Western Modernism in the Khrushchev Thaw,” in Russian Art and the West: A Century of Dialogue in Painting, Architecture, and the Decorative Arts, ed. Rosalind P. Blakesley and Susan E. Reid (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2007), 217-39.

[2]. Throughout the book, the author uses inconsistent transliterations of Russian words, including intelligentsia. Also, nomenklatura usually refers to the highly privileged bureaucratic elite in the USSR and not to “the conservative domestic population” in general as this quote implies.

[3]. See Selim O. Khan-Magomedov, Arkhitektura sovetskogo avangarda: Mastera i techeniia (Moscow: Stroiizdat, 1996); and Vladimir Paperny, Kul'tura dva, 3rd ed. (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011), 15-16.

Citation: Liana Battsaligova. Review of Udovički-Selb, Danilo, Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes: Architecture and Stalin’s Revolution from Above, 1928-1938. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. June, 2021.

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