NEW YORK -- For sheer exuberance and volume it would be hard to match the outpouring of artistic ideas that took place in Russia just before and after the revolution of 1917. For simple irony it would be hard to top the coincidence of momentous, violent political change with this effervescent cultural activity, or the momentary, doomed alliance between the avant-garde and the new political authority.
Despite dire external circumstances -- a world war, revolution, economic collapse, civil war -- or perhaps even because of them, it was a time when anything seemed possible. Painters, poets, sculptors, writers, dramatists, designers and architects shared in the intoxicating fascination with the new. Vladimir Tatlin, one of the more creative and prolific of the artists, spoke for many when he affirmed his belief that these artistic labors were models "in our task of creating a new world."
The architectural aspects of this truncated but vastly influential cultural episode are examined in "Architectural Drawings of the Russian Avant-Garde," an extraordinary exhibition culled from the A.V. Shchusev State Research Museum of Architecture in Moscow and on view at the Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 4. The exhibition is revelatory in more ways than one. There is immense variety in these works on paper, immense competence and, indeed, virtuosity. Contrasting and contradictory impulses are fully examined.
All of the drawings in the show were done after the revolution. Although most of the 35 architects represented were greatly influenced by the precedent-shattering works created before the revolution by artists such as Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich, most were busy with other things during World War I. The need for postwar reconstruction, however, and new construction to meet unprecedented social demands, assured that architects would be deeply involved even if much of their energy, especially early on, would be devoted less to actual building than to defining the new order and the role of architecture in it. The fecundity of their experiments and intensity of their convictions give the show its unusual blend of aesthetic and ideological oomph.
A series of early drawings for imaginary or experimental projects conveys the heady spirit of the postwar years, the vast impatience with the old order and with received cultural norms. If the world had been turned on its head, the reasoning went, so too should its buildings and indeed its basic spaces. Hence, proposals by Vladimir Krinsky, Nikolai Ladovsky and others in which the fragmented space invented before the war by cubist painters was used as a starting point for houses from which the rectangle was banned -- towering, tottering structures, presumably unlivable but provocative and unquestionably beautiful.
More than a dash of utopianism informed the debates, of course, and was applied with vigor to projects far more ambitious than dwellings. The aesthetics of the machine, a constant in early modern architecture throughout the world, were embraced with special ardor in the Soviet Union. Iakov Chernikhov's visions of an industrialized future in his book "Architectural Fantasies: 101 Compositions" are among the more compelling images of this kind ever made -- huge, spatially complex, benign factory-like environments conceived with great exactitude. Not all of the Russian architects were so humorless, thank goodness; high spirits and good humor provided a wholesome leavening to projects as simple as a beer-selling kiosk for a fair and as outrageously complicated as a proposed "City on the Aerial Paths of Communication."
The irony of this attachment to new materials and advanced technology in a war-ravaged country without much in the way of either has often been noted. Catherine Cooke, in her skillful catalogue essay, points out that when Tatlin proposed redoing a section of Moscow in structures of steel and glass he "might as well have been specifying platinum and diamonds." Indeed, the impracticality of many a design by the avant-garde architects was used against them by their enemies and was perhaps a factor in their ultimate demise.
But many of the designs were eminently buildable and, indeed, were built -- the Moscow headquarters for the newspaper Izvestia, to cite one example from this show, was as sleek an essay in modernist asymmetry and functionalism as was constructed anywhere during the 1920s. Not without reason did architect Leonid Vesnin, one of the leading constructivists, react to his second reading of Le Corbusier's famous early manifesto "Towards a New Architecture" by stating, "We have gone further and we look more deeply."
The major reason for the modernists' fall from grace was, of course, ideological. Hostility to individual artistic creativity forms a basis for any totalitarian state and was, in any case, built into the Bolshevik definition of "democratic centralism." The surprise is not that these diverse and talented groups of architects were defeated, but that they lasted so long. If the end was predictable, even then, the particular direction Soviet architecture would take was not. As it happened, this direction was pathetic.
The triumphant doctrine of "socialist realism," as it applied to major public artifacts, was an especially bloated blend of classical and modern architecture with an overblown kind of figurative sculpture. This, too, was an international trend, as Washington's many stripped classical buildings testify, but Washington's buildings of this type are mostly gentle. In Stalin's Russia, as in Hitler's Germany, the style proved to be thoroughly stifling.
It is a tale told, in this show, in a series of designs for major architectural competitions. Probably the most amazing drawings in the exhibition -- in terms of size, virtuosity and content -- are those done in 1934 by Ivan Leonidov and another set by a team led by Konstantin Melnikov for monumental buildings to house the Commissariat of Heavy Industry in Moscow. Leonidov's proposal for three stunning skyscrapers -- a cylinder, a hexagon and a stretched-out rectangle -- was a sign of a self-confident Soviet future that was not to be. The Melnikov team envisioned a massive, turgid, towering complex approached by gigantic escalators and topped by King Kong-size allegorical figures. It was altogether mad and, even though it did not get built, it remains an apt sign of its times.