Years in the making, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes finally opened during the Spring and Summer of 1925. Because the chief goal, in the minds of the host nation of France was to display the superiority of all things “French” in the fields of applied arts. As a result, the committee in charge chosen the participants with care, keeping in mind the recent wounds of the Great War. Germany was invited but too late for the artists to respond. The invitation to the former nation of Russia was also slow to arrive. The French government had officially recognized the new Soviet Union in 1924, so the invitation to the Exposition was belated, but the artists sprang into action. The goal of the Soviet artists was quite simply to show off, to represent themselves as “engineers,” working for a new regime and a new governing philosophy in which they all believed. Putting aside their personal debates on the role of visual culture in this Revolutionary experiment, veteran artists worked together to show the world what workers united could accomplish. The result was a Soviet Pavilion that was as striking and as revolutionary and as futuristic as any dream of the recently deceased leader, Vladimir Lenin.
Along with Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, the Soviet Pavilion stood out as the two buildings resisting the blandishments of Art Deco and memories of early pre-war modern architecture. Only in these two buildings was the Bauhaus spirit manifested and only in these two buildings was ornamentation and decoration resisted for an assertion of the philosophy of Construction as Design.
The Soviet Pavilion which exists today only as a series of photographs, was a series of slices of architecture composed of slants and diagonals. The Pavilion was daring and simple: two triangular volumes sliced in half by a staircase. A glazed wall, windows stretching from roof to road, bend steeply to make way for a rising flight of steps. From the outside one could look through this sheet of glass and view all the exhibitions inside the building. Above the stairway, a series of diagonals crossed like swords above the processional also functioned like a faux set of roof beams supporting nothing, existing only as formal shapes.
The best analogy to this building would be the contemporary design for the Wexner Center designed in the late 1980s by Peter Eisenmann. Eisenman took his abstract philosophical theories of deconstruction as applied to architecture and refused the architectural dictates of straight lines and enclosure for broken angles and opened walls. But Melnikov was using abstract two dimensional shapes from painting as architectural slabs fitted together into a dynamic and daring pavilion. Moreover, Melnikov’s working method revealed a deconstructive mindset, for his preparatory drawings showed that he played with geometric shapes which he broke up and reconnected through causal intersections. Indeed, much of the building was glass, buttressed by an occasional slab wall here and there.
Topping the building was a tower of openwork trusses, suggesting the Tribune of El Lissitzky. The skeletal projection was also a flag pole, and it should be noted, that, at the closing of the Exposition, the flags of all nations were ceremoniously lowered, except for that of Russia. For days afterwards, the red flag with the gold hammer and sickle rode the late summer breezes. Clearly, Melnikov was experimenting with the language of architecture, as was Eisenman, almost one hundred years later, deconstructing the concept of structure at will in what was probably an experiment in formal language. Even Le Corbusier’s offering was conservative compared to the Russian architect’s design that was as savage and brutal as it was a fragile accumulation of teetering walls, leaning against each other. As if to emphasize the precariousness of the structure, a conglomeration of words suspended in air, somehow attached to the building, announced that this was the Soviet Pavilion. If anyone was in doubt, a hammer and sickle rose in the air, cutting into the sky.
The Soviet Pavilion and its interior exhibits was a container that was a Constructivist “thing” or object that, in turn, contained more “objects” from the utopian society. And yet, Melnikov’s design intention was never symbolic. He was concerned with the site itself only—where the building was located at the fair and the fact that it was temporary event, destined to be torn down. There is a thrown-together-soon-to-be-demolished temporary air of casualness about the Pavilion that reinforces the artist’s statement: “But do not think, for goodness sake, that I set out to build a symbol.” In addition, was with the displayed objects inside, the object/structure was an example of faktura or the practicality of industrial materials used as materials without disguise or cladding or decoration. Glass was glass, steel was steel and wood was wood. However, the architect intended the building to be read, as an independent Constructivist object in its own right, the Pavilion was understood by others as a propaganda document, advertising the modernity of the USSR, a newly arrived political entity which, by ingesting European modernism, forged forward on its own unique path. Inside, the Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin rose toward the ceiling, pointing to the sky and to the future of the Soviet Union.
Alexander Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, as an interior room and exhibit and object all at the same time, followed the utilitarian and ideological philosophy that an experimental construction or an example of studio “laboratory” work could become a practical object. An abstract sculpture could become a building, an abstract painting could become a pavilion, and faktura could be mobilized to build simple and useful tools for the workers to use. The Club, which is an ideal model, was conceived of by Rodchenko as a three dimensional design for education and comradeship among workers. There is an exchange between the workers’ bodies and the activities practiced in the space: The long table is a communal affair, a place where workers congregate on both sides, facing each other. The worker is contained in an enveloping chair that curves around in a semi-circle, embracing him or her with the arms of comradship.
Rodchenko imagined these Constructivist objects to be comrades in their own right, friends and allies for the workers, working in unison with the laborers. Unlike the rather rigid and uncomfortable chairs, the table top can flip up for writing or down for reading but based upon the photographs and reconstructions of the table, such alterations have to be communal at least on that side—everyone must read or everyone must write. And there are racks for magazines full of educational materials for the edification of the labor force. In describing these structures, Stepanova referred to them as “wall newspapers,” which like all the objects in the Club could be manipulated and controlled by the worker seeking knowledge.
While newspapers dangle like towels from a white rack, Lenin peers down benignly from a photograph a year after his death. This is the “Lenin corner” with the photograph of the recently deceased and embalmed leader taking the place of the religious icon. The corner is carefully designed, from the white square left blank, waiting for the requisite photograph to the timeline constructed of a series of arrows. This corner was conceived of as more than a cult site, for the worker was expected to peruse the archive of materials on Lenin that would, over time, accumulate as the heritage of the leader grew in Russia. In the place of religion there is now the cult of Lenin, who became the founding father about which all should learn. Rodchenko preferred the authentic record of Lenin, that is the many photographs taken of him to traditional portraiture. Lenin was modern, like the workers’ club and he was present, not in representation but in a substitute reality, hovering in the index of the camera’s record of his existence.
True to the desire to educate the worker, there is a speaker’s lectern and a movie screen, allowing the club to be turned into a site of saturation, where Communist philosophy could be absorbed by the now passive audience. As with his posters, Rodchenko demanded that the worker participate and manipulate the media stands in order to obtain the information contained in the various stands. Above the heads of the activated workers, electric lights hang, symbolizing the goals of Lenin–to electrify and thus to modernize the nation and the desire to educate the people in the ways of Communism. There is an air of efficiency, from the simple and inexpensive materials used for the furnishings to the sense that the Club was completely transportable and could be set up in any available room. Time was precious and could not be wasted with fun and must be used for edification, put to good use in this Club that has everything but relaxation and enjoyment.
The placement of the Club inside the Soviet Pavilion, suggested an alternative to capitalism, in the City of Light, Paris. In Paris, one wasted time and sat at a sidewalk table and sipped a café au lait while chatting with friends and watching the parade of fashion down the boulevard. Such capitalist customs were a scandal to Rodchenko who was in Paris for the first and last time in his life. The contrast between the austerity and discomfort of the rigidly designed Workers’ Club and the long lunches enjoyed by Parisians could not be clearer: the Club was the Soviet rejection of Western decadence. It is impossible to miss the artist’s assertion of totalitarian control over the lower classes, their minds and their activities and their movements and their time. The difference between the Leninist avant-garde and the Stalinist Socialist Realism is a distinction without a difference. It is clear, that, while the Workers’ Club was ostensibly a site of relaxation, complete with chess sets, this room was a site of propaganda.