Issue Number: 113
Building the Revolution: Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935
Sackler Galleries, until 22 January 2012
Russian Constructivism had a powerful impact on the architecture of the West. Hugh Pearman introduces the 2011 Stirling Prize winner, Zaha Hadid RA, who pays tribute to the revolutionary vision
'The Great Utopia', (study in white) 1992, by Zaha Hadid RA, for ‘The Great Utopia’ exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York, in 1992 © Zaha Hadid Architects
Zaha Hadid RA, 'Malevich’s Tektonik', 1976-77, made for her Architecture Association diploma. © Zaha Hadid When Zaha Hadid first burst upon the scene at the end of the 1970s, a prodigiously talented product of London’s Architectural Association school, what interested her in particular was the power and originality of Soviet Constructivism. Very different from mainstream European modernism of the period, this was extraordinary stuff. Architects and artists were striving to create a new aesthetic, new types of buildings, incredible engineering, for a new society. For a few years, as the RA exhibition ‘Building the Revolution’ demonstrates, they succeeded. Then came the Stalinist clampdown, and the movement died.
Hadid’s remarkable early paintings were her way of describing designs such as her unbuilt Peak club in Hong Kong, of 1982-83. Their energy and verve were inspired by the early Soviet precedent: she was re-establishing an architectural lineage. Here, in a commentary first published in the Independent, Hadid describes the influence of the movement on her work.
Zaha Hadid Architects’ Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton, London Photo Hufton + Crow. “Ninety years ago, Russia’s October Revolution ignited a most exuberant surge of creative energy. While some of the artistic seeds were present beforehand, they blossomed in the first ten years of the revolution. This explosion of creativity developed under severely curtailed material circumstances – fuelled by the idealistic enthusiasm for the project of a new society.
The pace, quantity and quality of the creative work in art, science and design was truly astounding, anticipating in one intense flash what then took up to 50 years to unfold elsewhere in the world. The Russian avant-garde not only anticipated the concept of urbanism in the 1950s, but projects were designed that anticipated the mega-structure utopias of the mid-1960s and the high-tech style of the 1970s. Ivan Leonidov’s 1927 project for the Lenin Institute in Moscow (unbuilt) was 50 years ahead of its time and his 1934 competition entry for the Soviet Ministry of Industry – a composition of different towers placed upon an urban podium – remains an inspiration for metropolitan architecture today.
Ivan Leonidov, Model of the project for the Lenin Institute, Moscow, 1927 Archive of Pavel A. Aleksandrov and Selim O. Khan-Mgomedov/Published in the book Ivan Leonidov, Moscow, 1971 (Stoj-izdat). One of the most refreshing aspects of this Russian work is the way these projects were embedded within an intense discourse, promoted by exhibitions, academic institutions and public competitions. These projects – in all their experimental radicalism – had a real social meaning and political substance; but their originality and artistic ingenuity transcends the context of the Russian social experiment. For instance, Alexander Rodchenko’s hanging sculptures are pure explorations of space which opened up a whole new sensibility – the sensibility of the Space Age.
My own work first engaged with the early Russian avant-garde – the paintings of Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky’s ‘Prouns’ and Naum Gabo’s sculptures – but in particular with the work of Kazimir Malevich. Malevich stands here for the enormously momentous discovery of abstraction as an experimental process that can propel creative work to hitherto unheard of levels of invention. Mimesis (representation of reality) was finally abandoned, and unfettered creativity could pour out across the infinitely receptive blank canvas. Space, or even better the world itself, soon became the site of pure, unprejudiced invention.”