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Entries in USSR (7)


St Basil

St. Basil's cathedral, 1554. Restoration scaffolding, 1968

Found this 1968 photograph of St Basil's Cathedral undergoing a restoration.  Evidently during the Soviet era, the backdrop for news reports was generally one of the other more utilitarian modern faces of Red Square, but today its polychromed glory is the ubiquitous backdrop to anything coming out of Moscow.  

Somewhat surprisingly, for those of us who have never been there, this is a brick building, built in 1554. Previous churches throughout Russia and on this site had been wood, probably much like this one from the mid-1700s.

Richard Davies, photographer: Podporozhye, Arkhangel region, Church of St Vladimir , 1757

During a 1955 restoration of St Basil's, a wood frame was found inside its load-bearing brick walls.  This would seem to indicate that the long tradition of stud or stave churches (that date from the late 900s) was used as the internal scaffolding for the new, aggrandised St. Basil's.  It is, they say, a veritable textbook of experimental brick work.  The traditional tall thin volumes of Russian Orthodox stave churches suits brick well: spans are narrow.

St Basil was something of a mendicant himself, something his beautiful but gaudy presence on Red Square belies.


Melnikov's bricks

Konstantin Melnikov's Moscow house in construction, 1929. © / janvaneyck

The AD Classics description of Melnikov's house by Tim Winstanley  explains:
'Exterior walls finished with white plaster are constructed in a honeycomb latticework using local brick.... The shapes of the windows are a direct result of the honeycomb structure, with the angles determined by quarter lengths of the standard local bricks. Nearly 60 hexagonal windows employing nine types of frames establish the aesthetic quality of the rear cylinder, showering the interior with light. The manner of structure and glazing system employed also eliminated the need for structural lintels or sills. Voids that were not glazed in the honeycomb structure were filled with clay and scraps, adding mass to a wall system that helps to mitigate the extreme temperature differentials of summer and winter.'

Is brick the material for this?  In 1929, did Melnikov say, hey we could do a diagrid. Shukov did it in steel in 1896, but times are tight so we could do it in — BRICK!  

Probably.  Embargoes, economic collapse, 5-year plan failures, absence of the full spectrum of building materials is the spur to invention.  We need them as much as we need advances in technology.



Khirghizie Bishkek Cine, Russia. correction: Bishek, Kyrgyzstan. see the comments section,

So, things slow down a bit in the summer – not being very assiduous right now.

I love this building.  It is from a wonderful series of movie theatres posted by cinebxl on flickr.


divided cities

Border Town. Paul Graham Raven: I can get an infinitely reproducible copy of the iconic shot of Conrad Schumann leaping the checkpoint barricade within seconds of googling for it, but the symbolic buttons it presses get pressed much harder when one buys it as a postcard from a shop on Unter den Linden before sitting down among the glistening new constructions of Potsdamer Platz 2.0 to scribble a suitable message on it and send it to a friend back home.

On FOP, Friends of the Pleistocene, a section of Smudge Studio, I found this link to a studio held in Toronto on divided cities, Border Town
First of all it is interesting that one can initiate a 10-week design studio outside an academic institution simply because you want to investigate something.  This is how it should be.
Second, what constitutes a border town is predictably open, from those towns where the line between one country and another runs down the main street, New Brunswick seems to have several of these.  Or, between provinces, as in Lloydminster, Alberta/Saskatchewan.  Or a container port, where the containers and their contents are not in this country, only physically, but not in any other sense.  
The Border Town website has a number of provocative statements and diagrams as a group exhibition.  

It is, of course, the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall this year, and there have been many tv and radio documentaries recently: a terrible partition of a city and a people, released only with the economic and thus the ideological collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.  

Léon Krier. Master Plan for the New Hafenviertel, Berlin-Tegel (1980-1983)

What seems surprising now that Berlin and Germany are unified, is how Berlin was perceived in the early 1980s at the time of the 1984 IBA, the Internationale Bauausstellung, which focussed on the rebuilding of central Berlin, much of which had not been repaired since the war, and had further damage because of the wall.  A residential 'heart'  had to be re-established.  IBA Berlin was like a world's fair of architects who went on to be stars and others who died a graceful postmodern death: Koolhaas, Hadid, Siza, Krier, Hejduk, Portoghesi, Botta -- it is a long list
At the time, this was the only architectural conversation worth having, it dominated all conferences, publications from both Europe and the US, it made architecture a public conversation; pilgrimage to Berlin was mandatory.  

But not for me, I think I was struggling to survive the economic downturn after the collapse of the National Energy Policy.  However, discussions of the Berlin Wall are strangely absent in my memory.  It is as if it was some sort of geological feature, a cliff that one could not scale, a natural edge to the city.  What was beyond it was wilderness, not architecture's problem.

I wonder if IBA Berlin did not signal the death of architecture as an autonomous act, something that the Harvard Design Review devoted a whole issue to around this time.  I have it, I loved it then.  It gave architecture a kind of unfocussed and undeserved agency which is quite dangerous.  Nonetheless, this way of viewing architecture survives, and it cropped up again at the Musagetes Sudbury Café in a session about architecture and aboriginal sacred space.  There is much to blame architecture for: its linearity, its inhospitable cities, its dead and deathly materials (a tree has a spirit, cut down and made into lumber, the spirit is lost), and above all, its indifference to social and cultural realities.  It does not live, it does not understand the longue durée.  
In such a critique, both the role and the act of architecture are considered as having some sort of inherent power to blight one's life and one's culture. Its very indifference makes it malevolent. One can make the critique, but to make it one has to believe in architecture as an autonomous act with inadvertent social and cultural consequences.  

The Berlin Wall fall did not fall because West Berlin imported a lot of excellent international architects who rediscovered perimeter block housing and made the city complete again. It was the project of a very prosperous state, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was because of an unsustainable political edifice which had effectively lived under a western embargo for forty years.  Did architecture play a part in re-unification, other than to be yet another form of glamourous consumer durable?  

Architecture is a tool, the power is in the hand that wields the tool, not in who makes it. But there are other kinds of architecture with much wider, less ambitious possibilities, architectures which can resist being made symbols of political power.


USSR Pavilion at Expo 67

John Newcomb sent a note to the mention I made a while ago to Frédéric Chaubin's book on late Soviet architecture, saying ' one of the more interesting pieces of orphaned USSR architecture in North America is the USSR Pavilion at Expo 67', which indeed it is:

model of the USSR Pavilion, Expo 67, Montreal.

In the name of Man, for the good of Man. USSR Pavilion at Expo 67. photo: National Archives of Canada

Looking at all the Expo 67 pavilions on an Expo photo-collection site, the USSR pavilion has worn very, very well.  Not in place of course, it was removed at the end of Expo and rebuilt in the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, a permanent trade show site in Moscow.  

This exhibition site has a nice history of names: 1935 it was the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition.  Renovated after the war, by 1959 it was called the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy with engineering, space, atomic energy, culture, education and radioelectronics pavilions.  It was renamed in 1992 as the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, a flat name without any of the glory and exuberance of the soviet era.  This is what globalisation does for us, it removes hubris and pride and makes everything a bit humdrum.   Not unlike Edmonton changing its historic summer exhibition, Klondike Days, to Capital-X, something that sounds as if it is a mutual fund.  However, I digress.

At the time the iconic Expo pavilion was the USA geodesic dome, designed by Fuller, with the monorail shooting through it.  There is something Sant'Elia-ish about elevated trains cutting though buildings at high levels, and the massive geodesic dome creating a controlled environment still appears in apocalyptic survival visions of earth when we've run out of air and water; neither are pleasant references. 

I know it is a kind of cheat to show buildings in construction as they are inevitably much more beautiful than when finished, but the USSR pavilion in construction is the perfect diagram of an optimistic transparency which, growing up in the lee of American paranoia, we never were able to acknowledge.

The USSR pavilion in construction. Montreal, 1966. photo: Bill Dutfield


Frédéric Chaubin's USSR

The architecture faculty at Minsk polytechnic, with a succession of overhanging lecture theatres. Minsk, Belarus, 1983. Photographer: Frédéric ChaubinAbove: the architecture building at Minsk Polytechnic.  I would not be surprised had this been a photo taken on any Canadian campus.

Frédéric Chaubin documents 90 soviet-era buildings in a new book, Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (CCCP- get it?).  Some of the images are on the Guardian website, with the introduction:
'They reveal an unexpected rebirth of imagination, a burgeoning that took place from 1970 until 1990 and in which, contrary to the 20s and 30s, no school or main trend emerges.  These building represent a chaotic impulse brought about by a decaying system.  Their diversity announces the end of the Soviet Union.'

I find this commentary both spurious and confused.  1970 was a long way from 1989, must we continue to believe that Stalinism reigned implacable and as solid as concrete until the wall fell, and any sign of architectural exploration was necessarily aberrant and subversive?  The relationship of architecture to political systems is rarely thought of outside the use of buildings as deliberately partisan symbols which, as most architects in practice know, is the least of a building's form.

In that architecture is a cultural product and as such comprises an archive of cultural systems, yes, one can point to the transparency of the International Style of the 1950s and 1960s as part of the USA's optimistic demonstration of its 'openness' in comparison to Soviet 'closedness', but the architects of such projects were not building political manifestos, they were absorbed in the exploration of curtain wall technology. 
And since when is diversity seen as chaotic?  The language used when speaking of the Soviet Union is still so slanted it makes one wonder if the Cold War is actually over.  



Steve Chodoriwsky. Chernobyl, May 2010

Steve Chodoriwsky sent these two pictures of Chernobyl yesterday, from, as he puts it, a sunny and summery Kyiv.  Hard to believe that the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened almost 25 years ago, in 1986, before the Soviet Union disbanded.  The mid-1980s seemed to be when the USSR was at its darkest and most intransigent.  Chernenko had briefly succeeded the also brief Andropov after a long two decades of Brezhnev and in 1985 Gorbachev came to power.  And soon it was all over.
Chernobyl spread radioactive dust all over Europe affecting people, crops, livestock: the dawning that the environment does not actually have political borders in it.  Chernobyl itself was abandoned, although I've read several novels about a kind of feral life that goes on in the abandoned city.
No matter how hard-edged urban life is, this is what will happen within a single generation if we just let everything go.  All the stone, the concrete, the asphalt, solid as it seems, clearly needs much maintenance and attention: there is a symbiosis here in such architecture and infrastructure.  It needs us, while in our minds I sometimes wonder if we only think about how much we need it.  

Steve Chodoriwsky. Chernobyl, May 2010