While evoking the memory of Lenin, Stalin wiped out evidence of his accomplishments, suppressing or killing artists and architects along with other political dissidents. Only recently have there been cautious and reluctant gestures towards what remains of avant-garde architecture still extant in Moscow and other Russian cities. These efforts however tentative are significant because little of the important movement of Constructivism remains today. Black and white photographs stand in for objects now lost and ideas never realized. Models of proposals exist but many plans remain on paper, preserving a poignant record of an artistic desire to change society. When one moves beyond the photographs and drawings and asks the pointed question—what has survived?
Unfamiliar names emerge, standing alongside that of the leading Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin (). Despite the fact that Tatlin is better known, one could argue that it was Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974), who left the most extensive record of the Constructivist and architectural avant-garde behind in a scattering of remarkable buildings still standing and in the memory of his grand prize at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, won for the Soviet Pavilion. Like many of the Russian Constructivist movement, the architect Melnikov taught at the VKhUTEMAS school, an acronym for the Higher Art and Technical Studios. Fairly or not, the VKhUTEMAS is often compared to the Bauhaus in that it combined industry and design and art under one roof.
Like the Bauhaus, the school was the result of a merger between two pre-existing institutions, the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts, but unlike the Bauhaus which was a very small school, the Moscow college had 2500 students compared to the 200 annual enrollment at Dessau. Like the Bauhaus, the faculty was distinguished, with Aleksandra Ekser teaching “color in space,” Alexander Rodchenko was in charge of construction, and Nadezhda Udaltsova presided over “volume in space.” Most famously, it was Varvara Stepanova who was in charge of the textile department. It was Stepanova who stated the goal of her department and of the entire school succinctly as being “devising methods for a conscious awareness of the demands imposed on us by new social conditions.” Regardless of its good intentions, in ten years, also like the Bauhaus, the VKhUTEMAS was closed by political opposition from Lenin’s successor Stalin.
The word “Constructivism” was a Russian word that came from multiple sources in Russia and spread to Western Europe very quickly, as soon as the Civil War ended in 1921. In fact, the slogan of the 1920 Dada Fair in Berlin was “Art is Dead: Long Live Tatlin’s New machine art.” That same year, the term was in circulation at the Düsseldorf Congress in May where it signified a Bauhaus approach of using new construction materials rather than using conventional means of building and the Dada interpretation of anit-art or anti-traditional art.
Constructivism in Russia, however, had an institutional home the job of which was to take the word from a name and an idea to a Soviet reality. The task of the VKhUTEMAS, a new art school in Moscow, to apply Constructivism to the Revolution and its needs. It was Vladimir Lenin himself who established the VKhUTEMAS institution in 1920 and gave it his qualified blessing by visiting the classrooms in 1921. He was disturbed by the lingering presence of Futurism and Suprematism, evidence of a past era still present among the students and faculty.
Seeking to reassure Lenin, at the VKhUTEMAS, Alexi Gan wrote Constructivism in 1922 a year after Lenin’s visit, stating that “Our Constructivism has declared unconditional war on art, for the means and qualities of art are not able to systematize the feelings of a revolutionary environment.” As the leading theorist and agitator, Gan was responsible for the phrases that would be linked to the post-revolution Constructivist movement and its anti-art stance. “Art is dead!” he insisted, “There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique and organization!” Gan set up the First Working Group of Constructivists, also known as “artists-engineers,” turning theory into application.
In response to the need to honor Lenin, in Saint Petersburg—Petrograd–Tatlin built the Monument to the Third International in 1919, a model for a structure that was never built. With his Constructivist experiments, Tatlin himself was the source of inspiration at VKhUTEMAS. At 1300 feet, the Monument, which was to have been the tallest structure in the world, was often on display, becoming the image of all that the Revolution aspired to. In 1925, Rodchenko, Tatlin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Konstantin Melnikov came together to display the Constructivist philosophy and practice at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1925, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.
It was here, at the heart of an Exposition that would later be thought of as the home of a new decorative movement, Art Deco, that Constructivism was manifested for the world in terms of a building, a workers’ club and a symbol of the Revolution. In 1925 Melnikov had already separated himself from the VKhUTEMAS because of his desire to combine his dedication to the Revolution with his assertion that the individual should also assert him or herself in art. It was this set of seemingly contrasting beliefs that he started the New Academy at the school as a separate program but he was marginalized when his department was absorbed into the Academic workshop. Now an independent, Melnikov became the architect for the Soviet Pavilion in Paris. If the Constructivists had introduced themselves in the New Russia Exhibition in Berlin, their philosophy of new architecture was viewed and experienced by the thousands who attended the Fair, most of whom were seeing the Russian Revolution in action for the first time.
Manifesto of the Collectivist Group:
Who We Are (1922)
Manifesto of the constructivist group
Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and Aleksei Gan
We don’t feel obliged to build Pennsylvania Stations, skyscrapers, Handley Page Tract houses, turbo-compressors, and so on.
We didn’t create technology. We didn’t create man.
Artists yesterday constructors today,
- we processed the human being
2. we organize technology
1. we discovered
3. clean out
What’s needed—is no rest
Who saw a wall….
Who saw just a plane—
everyone . . . and no one
Someone who had actually seen came and simply showed: the square.