When looking at contemporary architecture all too often the result is underwhelming. There is a tendency to go for the ‘safe’ option - something that is boringly satisfactory, practical, economical, reassuringly clinical and wholly uncharismatic. It only takes a few moments in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy to realize that in the early 20th century, Soviet architecture could be accused of none of these attributes.
The Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky once wrote of his envisioned socialist future as a place where ‘architecture will again be filled with the spirit of mass feeling and moods, only on a much higher plane, and mankind will educate itself plastically, it will become accustomed to look at the world as a submissive clay for sculpting the most perfect forms of life. The wall between art and industry will come down’.
Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy primarily focuses on the short but intense epoch of Russian Constructivism, between 1922 - 1935, when this metaphorical wall seemed to be toppling: art, architecture and politics came together to create a society rooted in a synthesis of Modernist ideology, embedded within the short-lived optimism of post-revolutionary Russia, before being crushed by the Stalinist regime and a move towards Social Realism.
Prior to the emergence of the Constructivist Movement as a cohesive ideology, Soviet artists were experimenting with the very concepts of art practice. Kazimir Malevich had created his Suprematist Black Square paintings, which sought to move away from traditional figuration and explore painting as geometric, abstract forms; while Vladimir Tatin was challenging the foundations of traditional sculpture through the creation of his three-dimensional, non-objective ‘counter-reliefs’. It was experiments such as these that led to the arrival of Constructivism. The geometric forms and diagonal, linear functionality produced by these artists, along with their explorations into space and dimension, lent itself perfectly to new ideals in architectural theory and the framework of a new way of thinking. Both the art and architecture at the time looked to the future and sought to shed the manacles of its Tsarist autocratic past - and this was achieved in part by distancing themselves from the lavish art and architecture steeped in historical tradition that had gone before, in much the same way as the Italian Futurists had done in Italy, in their support of a Fascist future.
In this exhibition we see the extent to which Constructivism relied on experimentation, and as with all experiments, was not always guaranteed success. Faced with a lack of materials and resources, artists and architects were forced to seek out cheaper alternatives to the traditional materials and construction techniques, and this often meant delving back into architectural history and adopting techniques reminiscent of 16th Century architectural practice, to realise their futuristic Utopian projects.
Over the past 70 years there has been a tendency to view the development of European Modernism and that of the USSR as two distinctly separate enterprises, but this exhibition draws upon new research to present the idea that this was not the case and that in fact there were many strong links between the two; an example of this can be found in the interaction between Russian architects and high-profile European Modernists, such as Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn. The exhibition also offers a great opportunity to view Constructivist works of art and architecture side-by-side to show how they developed and informed each other and in many ways became indistinguishable from one another. It is evident in the works of artists such as Gustav Klutsis and Liubov Popova that paintings and sculptures quickly began to resemble architectural plans, whilst buildings started to resemble giant three-dimensional works of art. In their quest for reformation these artists even changed artistic vocabulary: sculpture, art and architecture now became interchangeable with terms such as ‘reliefs’, ‘constructions’ and ‘compositions’. Despite the strong theoretical groundings, or maybe because of them, above all, the most prominent aspect of Constructivist art and architecture is just how visually compelling and strikingly alluring it is.
Despite the optimistic outlook of the show, there is an underlying feeling of sadness running throughout provided by the beautiful photographs taken over the last two decades by photographer Richard Pare, who captures these once fantastical and striking monuments of Modernist design in their now often, neglected and derelict form - crying out to be restored and seemingly moments away from being lost to the world forever.
I’m sure the irony of this exhibition's location has not been lost on the curators or the Academy itself. You would be hard pushed to find a building more distant from the ideals of this early Soviet architecture than that of the Academy's home in Burlington House - but if anything, this juxtaposition in style and ideology only helps to intensify the poignancy of the exhibition.