Issue 3/2017 - Das Imperium schlägt zurück?

Cracks in the Empire

Monuments of Soviet Modernity—with reference to the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (VDNKh) and examples from Armenia’s architectural history

Wolfgang Kil, Georg Schöllhammer

Several types of Modernism can be distinguished in the Soviet Union’s history, and in particular after 1960 three parallel, yet nevertheless interconnected, forms developed. The first can be identified in the industrialization and urbanization of society—Modernism through the prism of residential construction or Modernism in the form of prefabricated construction, with standardized building typologies as part of extensive urban expansion schemes. In addition, there is a second form of Modernism, which focused to a greater extent on Constructivism in the 1960s, transposing this into practice in a range of different ways in the various Soviet republics. Finally, a third, internationalist form of Modernism also existed in this period, reflected in initial experiments by Soviet architects that incorporated Western architectural idioms. Below you will find excerpts from a joint presentation under the aegis of the research project The Empire Strikes Back?1 that reads the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (VDNKh) and Armenia’s architectural history as examples of this complex configuration of varying types of Modernism.

Wolfgang Kil: There are countless specific questions that could be raised concerning the Soviet Union’s architectural history, but I would like here to address the VDNKh, the Exhibitions of Achievements of National Economy. The first VDNKh—in a sense the original version—came into being in Moscow before the Second World War, during the heyday of Stalinism in the 1930s—the “years of terror,” when construction work on the Moscow metro also began. The war put a stop to all the grandiose construction projects, which is why the VDNKh variant generally known today is the second edition from the early 1950s, with the most important pavilions dating from that era. It is immediately apparent that pure eclecticism still ruled the roost in those days! This pandemonium of unleashed forms can certainly be read as an architectural style guide—as the apotheosis of Stalinist representations of power, and simultaneously a kind of procession of folklore-style/popular pedagogical architectural elements; nowadays that would perhaps be called “coerced regionalism.”
As the Soviet Union also understood itself as a multinational, and thus also multicultural, construct, the Stalinist architectural canon allocated “national forms” to the individual republics within the Soviet Union. There was therefore an attempt to transpose national particularities (including clichés) into architecture by drawing generally comprehensible decorative motifs. Particularly dramatic examples include the Uzbek Pavilion, with its Oriental motifs, or the Karelian pavilion, which is of course in wood, alluding to the endless Finnish forests.
A Lithuanian colleague has suggested that the Moscow VDNKh could be interpreted as the Soviet variant of historical colonial exhibitions— functioning analogously to reviews of annexed (or subjugated) held in Vienna, London, Paris or Lisbon, the epicenters of former empires, in events akin to popular festivities; the more colorful and exotic these events, the wider the reach of the empire's power. I find these cultural historical comparisons productive and shall look at them in more detail as we discuss “Soviet history.”

Schöllhammer: However, Stalinist architecture also fulfills an ideological function. On visits to the grounds, you’ll find Soviet music from the 1960s/70s playing—a period still familiar to the generation of today’s parents or grandparents, and music that young people are listening to again today. That is an ideological instrument to reinstate an imperial idea of Russia, using nostalgia for the lost Soviet power as a tool. It is strange to observe the ways in which imperialism is currently reflected in this location. Stalinist figures are perfectly suited to this, because they offer scope for open-ended projections, as they do not simulate the present, but rather an imperial past, which this, curiously, is depicted by means of Modernist music from Soviet-era films. The VDNKh grounds have become a huge ideology machine for Putin's Russia.

Kil: In general terms, too, there is currently a focus in Putin's Russia on the politics of history. The most important historical show in Moscow currently is presented in two huge, specially built new glass pavilions on the VDNKh site. This mega-show is advertised in posters at every turn right across the city.
As a slight counterpoint to the idea of the “colonial exhibition,” I would like to mention the other exhibition that looks like a miniature version of the Moscow original: Kiev also had a VDNKh full of delicate small temples (actually still well-maintained throughout the site) in the finest eclectic style, along with water features, planted sections structured along various axes and recreational areas beneath shady trees. Ukraine was always the second most important country in the Soviet Union and therefore enjoyed preferential treatment at times. Yet for all its formal similarities, the Kiev variant was not as politically controversial as its Moscow role model. This is not a question of triumphalism: it is simply the “little sister.” In the light of such a compact concentration of petit bourgeois accessibility, what springs to mind above all is the Marxist dictum that history repeats itself as farce. However, this farce offers a very pleasant visual feast, particularly for architects.
The problem that now arises in Kiev though is that “Communist symbols” have been forbidden in the entire country since the “Anti-Communist Law.” Such artworks have already been taken down or destroyed in downtown Kiev. The VDNKh pavilions are however embedded in, and indeed steeped in, Soviet symbolism. If the law were applied rigorously, the entire exhibition site would have to be demolished, although even economic considerations would argue against that. A general post-Soviet experience becomes apparent here: iconoclasm as a raison d'état ultimately fails, given that the unloved relics are omnipresent.
Let's move on now however to perhaps the most surprising point. There is a VDNKh in Tbilisi! Immediately after being appointed Prime Minister in 1958, Nikita Khrushchev began a series of official visits across the entire Soviet Union. Georgia's turn came in 1960 and he promised the citizens of this paradisiacal mountain republic that they would also receive one of these stunning exhibitions of achievements. As Stalinism was by this point fortunately over, the VDNKh in Tbilisi was allowed to shine with contemporary forms. Khrushchev is generally viewed as having paved the way for architectural Modernism in the Soviet Union; interestingly, in Tbilisi he drew on the “industrial trade show” motif. Unlike its counterparts in Moscow or Kiev, the Tbilisi VDNKh in is largely the work of one architect. By 1968 Levan Mamaladze, together with his collective, designed almost the entire, comparatively small park site as a cheerful ensemble that offers a very clear illustration of the optimistic, pioneering spirit during the “thaw” years. Earlier architecture in Georgia had also adhered to the eclectic style, hinting at the sense of liberation triggered when international trends could at last be explored. The Georgians are at least at ease with this heritage, and make an effort to market it in the context of the international trade fair business.
Let us come now to the questions that face heritage conservationists at VDNKh Moscow. Since the late 1960s the national-geographic focus of the pavilions has been replaced by themes from the world of science and technology (chemistry, biology, electrical engineering, EDP, space technology etc.). In addition, many countries distanced themselves from “their” pavilions after leaving the Soviet Union. Other countries (such as Armenia or Kyrgyzstan) that remain keen to have a presence on this central Moscow platform still present programs here to this day. Most of the pavilions are now curated exhibition spaces with rotating shows or are rented out by the municipal operating company as event venues.
Fifty tumultuous years have most definitely left their mark on the buildings. Some of the architecture that has not undergone refurbishment is quietly rotting away (a particularly painful sight in the case of Ukraine’s remarkably sumptuous palatial pavilion). Ambitious countries such as Belarus have carried out painstaking renovation work on their pavilions. In addition, in a number of cases, “modernization” was carried out in the 1960s, for example in what was originally the Georgian pavilion, or the Azerbaijani pavilion—in other words, their blatantly folkloric flair vanished under slick, unadorned cladding. They now look rather alien in the midst of all their exotic eclectic neighbors.
When the cladding was removed from one of those “camouflaged” pavilions in the 1990s, the ornately elaborate Oriental facade, or, to be more precise, what remained of it suddenly saw the light of day again. Some enthusiastic conservationist decided: Stop! Let's leave at least the cladding’s load-bearing truss frame! Looking between this grid, it becomes apparent that very little of the old pavilion was actually removed. Panels were simply placed over it, and the entire Stalinist decoration reappears as soon as those thin sheets are taken down.
The “modernizers” showed scant respect for the old structures, or even for the art integrated into the architecture: in the Volga pavilion, where oversize representations of soldiers on the facade recall the battle for Stalingrad, some of the battle scenes were simply sawn through in the middle, wherever the metal cladding ended. The amputated figures can still be easily identified under the cladding.
That means Moscow's conservationists are faced with a virtually unsolvable dilemma: the Modernist building envelopes—which are not particularly impressive, but then that reflects the zeitgeist of that era—are considered unpopular nowadays. The older pavilions from the 1950s are concealed beneath these thin metal envelopes. Which of the layers can now be viewed as “the authentic one?” If you ask the site's marketers, they immediately cite the Stalinist version, for ultimately the entire context is thus becomes visually complete. Yet aren't attempts at “modernization” in the sense of architectural “de-Stalinization” just as much a part of history? There have long been information panels in front of each of the pavilions in question, asking Muscovites for their opinion. A judgment on history by plebiscite? The outcome promises to be intriguing.

Schöllhammer: My contribution begins in 1918 and addresses Soviet Modernism in Armenia. The country is a special case, for after existing for 800 years solely as a diaspora and not as a state, it temporarily became a republic in 1918. Established after the genocide committed by the Turks in 1915/16, the republic existed for two years and was finally absorbed into the Soviet Republic of Armenia in 1920. Eastern Armenia consequently became a screen onto which the entire diaspora’s imaginings were projected, from Lebanon through Iran and Iraq to Anatolia. For two years the focus was in a certain sense on becoming a nation, which on the architectural front ultimately led to a conflict with Constructivism.
Alexander Tamanian, who had studied architecture in St. Petersburg and was taken on by the republic in 1918 to construct a new urban center, is the most important figure in this context. In those days Yerevan was a Russian colonial city on the periphery of the Silk Road, made up primarily of precarious wooden buildings, and above all resembled a Turkish city. Tamanian was interested in architectural history related to Armenian projections of the past—from the eighth, ninth and tenth century—and endeavored to create a new capital drawing on European planning and construction models. The capital was developed according to a nineteenth-century urban expansion plan, based on a rectangular layout, but Tamanian’s master plan proposed a radial emphasis that led to a different city structure. The most important element in Tamanian’s plan is the central axis, looking towards Mount Ararat, which at that time was in Turkey, as it is again today. Although it is the Armenians’ most sacred mountain, it is actually cut off from the country. Ararat is a 5,000-metre volcano, familiar from the Bible as the mountain on which Noah's Ark ran aground. The central axis now in a sense makes it part of the city, enfolded into the perspective opened up by the urban sight-lines although it is so remote. This conflict is central to Armenia's entire architectural development.
Tamanian’s plan envisaged entirely destroying the old layout, and replacing it with a new city plan with a historic and symbolic vista of this sacrosanct national site. However, funding shortfalls made it impossible to implement this plan in 1918–20. Tamanian remained Yerevan's City Planner until 1936 and subsequently faced the task of putting the plan into practice in the midst of the various strains of Modernism that clashed in Armenia. In the Soviet Union’s heroic age from 1920 on, Constructivist modernism began to make inroads, attacking Tamanian’s national romantic program as historicist and retrograde. In contrast, manifestos drawn up figures such as Gevorg Kochar and Mikael Mazmanian attempted to present Constructivism as the Armenians’ national architecture. They asserted that the Armenian people, now able to address their real social problems in the state given to them by the Soviet Union, should pursue Constructivist social architecture.
Tamanian’s organization of the downtown urban structure aimed to make the center highly flexible or modulated. He deployed a late nineteenth-century style influenced by Secessionism and laden with ornamentation. Everything is constructed in brown and red tuff, with an incredibly delicacy in the ensuing spatial figures, in contrast to later Stalinist architecture.

Kil: Amber-colored tuff with shifting yellow/red hues is used at times. It's important to realize that this stone is cheaper than cement, which is why the entire country is built from it. There is an incredible array of colors, and the architecture plays not just with ornamentation but also with how the stones’ coloring is positioned. In addition, as it is such a soft material, very detailed ornamentation can be developed. I have rarely seen such an agreeable national style with such compelling surface detail. When I visited, I immediately dropped my previous hostility towards this type of style.

Schöllhammer: Tamanian pursued a strand within national tradition that continued to run through the local architecture right up to the 1980s and 1990s, and even resonated in the most recent governmental buildings, which were constructed when the city expanded in the 2000s. However, around 1920 the Constructivists, all trained at Vkhutemas, the Higher Art and Technical Studios, arrived on the scene and began to implement the Vkhutemas program locally. A heated debate between the Tamanianian National Romantics and the Vkhutemas revolutionaries developed and continued until the advent of Stalinism in 1934; it is also manifested in Yerevan's urban fabric.
Tamanian attempted to fend off the Vkhutemas projects, but this endeavor failed, as the Commissars forced him to adapt these projects and integrate them into the urban environment. He repeatedly sought to ensure at least some urban planning homogeneity by means of the buildings’ materiality, making extensive use of tuff. As a result, Tamanian repeatedly tamed Constructivist projects; a white house becomes a tuff house, compelled, so to speak, succumbing to National Romanticism and becoming a Yerevan house, a Tamanianian house.
The Vkhutemas projects play an important role in the development of Armenian architecture, in as much as architects such as Kochar and Mazmanian, exiled in 1934, returned in the 1960s, sparking a kind of counter-revolution against the adaptations of the Tamanianian urban trope under Stalinism. Kochar had for example built a late Constructivist writers' house in 1930, already bearing traces of early Stalinist Classicism; in 1960 he added a horseshoe-shaped dining room, which was tantamount to a kind of victory over Tamanianism. Mazmanian, the second major Constructivist of the era, had also begun to “nationalize” at an early stage, as can be seen in his famous textile factory from the early 1930s.
1933/34 saw a caesura within Constructivism, and the advent of a reformulated approach with Stalinist leanings. Tamanian had always attempted to preserve Constructivism’s aesthetic paradigms, while at the same time adapting them to a kind of neo-Classicism. He pursued this approach until his death in 1936, in a sense using Neo-Classicism as camouflage while actually remaining an entirely Constructivist architect.
Yerevan subsequently expanded in size as a result of numerous Stalinist projects, which brought about a pronounced caesura, for many of the Stalinist projects are ultimately unthinking and clichéd. Failing to incorporate Tamanianian aesthetic values, these projects remain constrained by a program determined by Moscow—“nationalist in form and Socialist in content.” Some however succeed in disguising their true nature; they remain Armenian and Tamanianian.
In the midst of these rifts separating Constructivists, Modernists and National Romantics, another figure begins to emerge: architect Rafael Israelyan, who subsequently became a leading figure in Yerevan's architectural discourse in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Israelyan viewed Constructivism through the prism of radical proto-fascist National Romanticism and began to direct this again the banal Stalinist projects, completely contradicting the Socialist idea of Stalinist Modernism. Emulating Armenian architecture from the turn of the first millennium, he started to distinguish his work from Stalinism through an appellative, early post-modern rhetorical structure, developing a contrasting nationalist program of his own.
The famous market hall for example reveals the influence of Israelyan, who copied the motif from Mazmanian’s Constructivist factory. Based on the same underlying spatial structure as the Constructivist textile factory, it however displays a Stalinist veneer on the facade. It is positioned along a central axis in Yerevan, on Republic Square, which was completed in the1940s, still to Tamanian’s plans. Israelyan was keen to re-establish the sight-lines towards Ararat that had been disrupted by Stalinist urban expansion measures. Stalinist redevelopment had aimed to close off the round plaza, meaning that the buildings blocked the view of Ararat, in a sense attempting to eradicate the national dimension. Israelyan sought to clear away such obstacles to open up the vista again.
Around this time Khrushchev came to power, launching a radical new construction program. The Constructivists reappeared and began to produce their first designs in the 1950s, when a kind of late Stalinist rhetoric still prevailed. Although a highly monumental style was still favored in construction, this was already against the backdrop of very modern re-interpretations of Constructivist architecture, which furthermore had nothing to do with European or Western Modernism of the day. Instead, the Constructivists began to create entirely new structures.
One of the earliest examples of this upheaval is a monument on the motorway leading to Yerevan, at the entrance to the city—a dove of peace, which apparently provoked hate-filled tirades from Khrushchev: “You've got the money for that—but what we need are apartments!” This type of non-utilitarian architecture was however very important to the Constructivists.
From the mid-1960s stand-alone interventions around the city began, emulating and importing Moscow’s Modernist “internationalism.” This is the third form of Modernism that shapes Yerevan’s architecture. Tamanian’s plan was increasingly ignored and Modernist buildings, inspired by the Moscow, Leningrad or Kiev school, were slotted into the urban structure. While architects continued endeavors to modernize the urban area along Abovyan Street, one of the main axes in the Tamanian plan, on the whole a very tidy design style for public space gained the upper hand in the form of buildings created as a result of architectural competitions, in the form of a marvelous Brutalist building from the 1960s, in the form of the open-air facilities of the Moscow cinema, which is of particular interest as plans to demolish it a few years ago sparked a huge grassroots movement, which simultaneously became a pro-democracy movement, and which fought to save the Brutalist building.
That was also the period in which one of the first large abstract monuments in the Soviet Union was created (1965), the type of structure that subsequently became so frequent in Soviet urban space in the 1970s: the monument commemorating the Turkish genocide against the Armenians. It is no coincidence that this monument combines Armenian National Romanticism with a Modernist idiom. This type of abstract spatial program subsequently began to spread across the entire Soviet Union—a program of monuments that germinated in Armenia.

Kil: I am particularly fascinated by the monument as it has a central link to the “thaw.” Just as Khrushchev in a sense gifted the Georgians an exhibition, he also allowed the Armenians this monument as a grand gesture. Prior to this there had been a taboo about addressing the genocide; now public commemoration had become possible. That meant that a place that had previously been lacking had come into being, focused on mourning, on admonition. In other words, it was another gesture marking a turning point in domestic policy, which, interestingly, was couched in a resolutely modern form. Considered in a broader perspective, the impact of this “concession” by Moscow central government was exactly the opposite of its intended aim, for it strengthened national self-confidence, giving rise to unbelievably conservative forms in architecture. In this respect, this very modern memorial can ultimately simultaneously be read as the end point of Armenia’s “architectural modernization.”


Translated by Helen Ferguson