Iron Curtain, Concrete Wall
Looking back 75 years, Barry Bergdoll brings revolutionary design to New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 6/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
The last time Barry Bergdoll delved into early 20th-century avant-garde architecture in the Soviet Union, he was detained by guards for taking photographs of Moscow's Centrosoyuz Building by Le Corbusier. That was back in the 1980's. With the experience safely behind him, he's revisiting the subject in "Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922-1932," at New York's Museum of Modern Art from July 18 to October 29.
The second in a trilogy of exhibitions marking both the 75th anniversary of the architecture and design department and Bergdoll's debut as chief curator, "Lost Vanguard" comprises over 80 photographs by Richard Pare, who set out across the former U.S.S.R. in 1992 to document what was left of its early modernist buildings. (A more extensive selection of images is appearing in a book of the same name.) Sitting in his sparsely decorated office at MoMA, Bergdoll sheds light on Pare's discoveries and why they're worth saving.
Why do we know so little about the Soviet Union's avant-garde architecture?
One reason is that these buildings fell out of favor under Stalin, so there was no encouragement to study them. And they couldn't be smuggled out, unlike paintings, graphics, decorative arts, or even film.
What's the scope of the show and the book?
It's really an extraordinary body of work, a revelation. For one thing, Pare went out and photographed the buildings of a movement that we largely think of as theoretical and shows us the sheer number of realizations—not just in Moscow and Leningrad but on a continental scale as well, from the edge of Siberia to the Crimea and Ukraine.
What or who influenced this movement?
After the revolution, there was political impetus to imagine a new architecture for a new society. Obviously, there was a dialogue with other avant-garde trends, particularly in Western Europe. For example, El Lissitzky's encounters with the Bauhaus. Or Konstantin Melnikov, who became quite well known after representing the Soviet Union at the 1925 Paris exposition with a pavilion that looked like nothing else there. Also at the fair, Aleksandr Rodchenko's workers' reading room introduced a program of social clubs, workers' clubs, and communal centers intended to be the basis of life in the Soviet Union.
The influence goes both ways, of course. When Le Corbusier went there at the end of the 1920's, he was exposed to an incredibly fertile body of housing research that had an enormous impact on his development. He came back with as many ideas as he took with him.
How did all of this translate into interiors?
Because the revolution was not simply about the administration of political power but also went right down to the organization of daily life, there was a revolution of the interior. However, it had less to do with style. There was a lot of thinking about the relationship between spaces for individuals and spaces for the collective. The Soviets were going to cultivate a new communal life that, in its most radical form, even called into question the building block of the family.
Perhaps the most famous example is Moscow's Narkomfin Communal House by Moisei Ginzburg. Kitchens in individual family units were deliberately small, so people would take many of their meals in the communal kitchen in a separate wing.
Was there an impulse to integrate furniture and interiors?
Sure. We know of designs for some of the workers' clubs—Rodchenko's reading and gaming chairs were exhibited at the 1925 Paris expo. Relatively little was produced, though.
In a slightly different vein, Rodchenko designed clothes, something we usually associate with art nouveau or the Wiener Werkstätte—Henry van de Velde and Josef Hoffmann created clothing to be worn in their interiors. But in the Soviet Union, these were not just styles of clothing. They were emblematic of a radical socioeconomic program. The buildings are looking pretty dilapidated.
On one level, Pare's pictures convey a poetry of ruins about the lost dreams of a lost society. But as these structures play such an important role in our understanding of the achievement of 20th-century architecture, it's also a call to arms. The Wild, Wild West cowboy capitalism in Russia is so rampant now that these buildings are really in danger.