Paper Architecture: The Columbaria of Brodsky and Utkin

 This essay appeared in the catalogue for the Postmodernism. Style and Subversion 1970-90 Exhibition at the V&A Museum in London in 2011.

Architects in the Soviet Union experienced a strange premonition of postmodernism fifty years before its domination of the architectural scene in the West. The monumental classical style known as Socialist Realism which was required of almost all buildings during the Stalin years (1928-53) not only laid a claim to be sensitive to the regional and national character of architecture, it was promoted by its champions as a sublation of modernism. In ways that anticipated arguments in the West about the ‘end of history’, Socialist Realism presented itself as the culmination of all that had gone before it, including modernism.[1]  ‘According to Stalinist aesthetics,’ writes Boris Groys, ‘everything is new in the new posthistorical reality … There is no reason to strive for formal innovation, since novelty is automatically guaranteed by the total novelty of superhistorical content and significance. Nor does this aesthetics fear charges of eclecticism, for it does not regard the right to borrow from all ages as eclectic; after all, it selects only progressive art, which possess inherent unity …’[2] In other words, Socialist Realism – like postmodernism – had the potential to synthesise all that was best about the past, or so its champions claimed.

Postmodernism ‘reappeared’ in the last decade of the Soviet Union, a particularly feeble period of architectural production when the central economy was grinding into bankruptcy even as intellectual life was energised by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s programmes of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Critique was at that time more stirring than the conventional Soviet rallying cry of ‘construction.’ Postmodernism in the Soviet context has been closely associated with the phenomenon of ‘paper architecture’, visionary or impossible schemes designed by architects for entry into competitions and exhibitions.[3] These fantastic cities and buildings often functioned as forms of architectural and social critique rather than as propositions for actual structures. Paper architecture also became an important site for the exploration of utopia, a forlorn concept in the last decade of the Soviet Union. Enlightenment temples of reason and science conceived by Étienne-Louis Boullée in France on the eve of the French Revolution and the floating cities of the Suprematists from the Leninist years were revisited with the hindsight that came from living in a failed social experiment. Foremost amongst the paper architects were AlexanderBrodsky and Ilya Utkin who had studied at the prestigious Moscow Institute of Architecture (MArkhl) in the 1970s. They drew early international acclaim in 1982 when their design for a fantastic Crystal Palace formed from a series of massive glass wall ‘sections’ won a competition organised by Japan Architect magazine.

Columbarium-Habitabile-Brodsky-Utkin.-1989.-Shinkenchiku-Competition-DHAUS-BLOG Brodsky+and+Utkins+Columbarium+Habitabile+01Brodsky and Utkin’s ‘Columbarium Architecturae (Museum of Disappearing Buildings)’ of 1984 and its sister work, ‘Columbarium Habitabile’ of 1989 share the same concept. Both etchings depict a memorial structure in which old buildings threatened with destruction are preserved like the ashes of the dead. Yet these buildings have not quite expired. They demand the careful attention of the viewer, whether the occupant of the building or the passerby. If a building is forgotten or overlooked, the massive ball in the centre of the structure swings into action to destroy it. The ‘Columbarium Habitabile’ places the highest pressure on the occupant. According to Brodsky and Utkin, each building has its place on the concrete shelf, ‘only if the owner and his family continue living in the house … if they cannot live in these conditions any more and refuse, their house is destroyed.’ Reading these words engraved in English bas-de-page and figuring out that the dark frame is a niche in the Columbarium, it becomes clear that you too are one of these terrorised occupants.

Brodsky and Utkin’s schemes were explicitly critical of the processes of modernisation which had swept old buildings from Soviet streets. Moscow, their hometown, has periodically been the site of acts of domicide, with historic districts destroyed to make way for new monuments to progress. The paper architects’ fascination with antique structures like Columbaria as well as the use of the traditional medium of engraving emphasise the melancholic character of their interests. Other works by the duo from this period ripple with nostalgia for epochs marked by architecture of excess. Lois Nesbit points out that ‘they prefer the overripe classicism of the Stalinist period to what came afterward.’[4] From the late 1950s, Soviet architects were asked to master the techniques of industrialised architecture. Curiously, the grid-like concrete structure of Brodsky and Utkin’s two Columbaria invokes the high-rise blocks of the 1960s and 1970s known as novostroiki. Prefabricated panel construction and standard parts turned architectural construction into an exercise in slotting square boxes into square holes. ‘Everything about the Novostroiki  – their location on the city’s edge, their sameness, the sameness of their tawdry furnishings – proclaims that the private life of Moscovites is marginal, an afterthought, a coda to their ‘real’ lives as Soviet citizens and workers,’ wrote one commentator in 1989. ‘Privacy and individuality must be created and celebrated despite this spacelessness, in defiance of it.’[5]

Both schemes by Brodsky and Utkin seem to address the human need for privacy and individuality, albeit in different ways. The ‘Columbarium Architecturae’ presents itself to the street as a section of a three storey-house with a smoking chimney, a visual cliché symbolising the happy life. A private world is projected onto the public face of the building. By contrast, many structures – distinguished by their exterior forms – are stacked in the interior of the ‘Columbarium Habitabile’. Public and private conditions are blurred. This had, in fact, long been the Soviet experience.[6] One of the most common types of Soviet home was the communal apartment. Large pre-revolutionary flats, once occupied by the wealthy and their servants, were sub-divided after the Bolshevik Revolution to provide homes for a number of working class and peasant families. In his Moscow diaries Walter Benjamin, employing a characteristically surreal metaphor, described how these private homes had become common property and were now over-populated by numerous families and their meagre possessions: ‘Through the hall door one steps into a little town’.[7] He could have been describing Brodsky and Utkin’s collections of houses.

Once imagined as a temporary stage on the path to full communism where mankind would abandon selfish desires, the communal apartment became a standard feature of Soviet life. In 1989, for instance, one-quarter of the population lived in communal apartments, sharing a common kitchen, a common toilet and a common telephone in a space subdivided by flimsy partitions, sometimes little more than curtains.[8] Life in shared quarters often became an unpleasant theatre, filled with strangers, arguments, intrusive noises and unpleasant smells.[9] Famously, the communal apartment was adopted by the Russian nonconformist artist, Ilya Kabakov, as the setting for his domestic dramas. ‘Ten Characters’, an installation which takes the form of a series of cell-like rooms off a dark, shabby corridor lit with exposed electric light bulbs, presents the possessions and living spaces of ten absent Soviet citizens. In their absence, their lives are described in a series of vivid extended texts (often in the heterogeneous voices of official reports, newspaper articles, diaries and ad hominem reflections) and, of course, their possessions. The viewer is invited to be a psychologist, archaeologist or perhaps a secret policeman, extracting meaning from the debris of life and fragmentary reports. Conventionally art historians have turned to Kabakov’s ‘Ten Characters’ as a comment on the forms of horizontal surveillance which operated not in only in the communal apartment but throughout Soviet society. Constantly aware of one’s movements and opinions being detected by others, the individual modifies his or her behaviour. Life is reduced to an interplay of vigilance and performance; as Boris Groys elegantly puts it, ‘the communal turns everyone into an artist’.[10]

Although related to Kabakov’s explorations of anomie (and sharing his non-conformist sensibility), Brodsky and Utkin’s schemes emphasise different values. Their collections of dream-homes are full of memories and desires. Each functions nostalgically as what art historian Andrzej Turowski has called ‘un utopie rétrospective’.[11] Such places idealise settings and times – like the homes of childhood – which can no longer be accessed. They become all the more perfect by acts of recall. Yet memory-work in Brodsky and Utkin’s projects was not just a subjective matter. The threat of destruction – issued by the wrecking ball – and the duty to watch over the homes of the past makes the occupant something like a conservator or even a curator. In a society where the terror of Stalinism had penetrated so deeply into the home that the mere possession of a photograph of a ‘purged’ relative was viewed as an act of sedition, remembering could be understood as an act of resistance. Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, described this in rather lofty terms when he wrote ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’[12] Viewed in this way, the ‘Columbarium Architecturae’ and the ‘Columbarium Habitabile’ represent not just the preservation of all buildings (whether ‘progressive’ or not) but also of all memories.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Location, 1992).

[2] Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism. Avant-garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, translated by Carl Hanser (Princeton, NJ, 1992), 49.

[3] See Deutsches Architektur Museum, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York, 1990); Alexey Yurakovsky and Sophie Ovenden, Post-Soviet Art and Architecture (Location, 1994).

[4] ‘Man in the Metropolis: The Graphic Projections of Brodsky and Utkin’ in Lois Ellen Nesbit and Brodsky & Utkin: The Complete Works (New York, 2003).

[5]  Sally Laird in Lisa Appignanesi, ed., Novostroika (London, 1989) p. 5.

[6] Marc Garcelon, ‘Public and private in communist and post-communist society’ and Oleg Kharkhordin, ‘Reveal and Dissimulate: A Genealogy of Private Life in Soviet Russia’ in Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar, eds., Public and Private in Thought and Practice. Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy (Chicago and London, 1997) pp. 303 – 365.

[7] Walter Benjamin, ‘Moscow’ (1927) in One Way Street (London, 1979), pp. 187-88.

[8] See K. Gerasmiova, ‘Public Privacy in the Soviet Communal Apartment’ in David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, ed., Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc (Oxford and London, 2003), pp. 207-30.

[9] For a vivid account of the intrusions of others in the Communal Apartment, see S. Boym, Common Places: Mythologies of EverydayLife in Russia (Cambridge, Mass., 1994) pp. 121-68.

[10] Borys Groys, Ilya Kabakov: The Man who Flew into Space from His Apartment (London, 2006), p. 63.

[11] Andrzej Turowski, Existe-il un art de l’Europe de l’est? : Utopie et idéologie (Paris 1986).

[12] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans. Aaron Asher (New York, 1999) p. 4.


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