Interview with Vladimir Paperny

Vladimir Paperny received his MA in design from Stroganov Art School in Moscow and PhD in cultural studies from Russian State University for the Humanities. His PhD thesis “Culture Two” was published in Russian by ARDIS (Ann Arbor, 1985), NLO (Moscow, 1996 and in English Cambridge University Press, 2003). His collection of essays and short stories “Mos Angeles” was published by NLO (Moscow, 2004). He lives in Los Angeles where he has a design studio.

Yevgeniy Fiks: Moscow is no more. One might say that in the 2000s, one could call this city “Moscow” only for the purpose of convenience. The scope of changes that occurred in its demographics, including ethnic, political, and class makeup, since the early 1990s is exceeded perhaps only by the changes of its visual image. In your Moscow (a traveler’s diary), you wrote about the fundamental conflict in contemporary Moscow architecture. You described this as a conflict between two modes of simulation, that is a contest between the imitation of the West and that of the East. What’s the nature of this conflict? What has happened in Moscow architecture over the last decade? What’s the so-called “Luzhkov” style?

Vladimir Paperny: The phrase “Moscow is no more” could have been used on many occasions in the past. The 1934 transformation, for example, was more dramatic. Here is how Ilf and Petrov described it: “Gone was the Minin and Pozharskii Monument, erected by a grateful Russia, and the Iverskaia Chapel could not possibly exist because it had been attached to the gates, and the gates themselves were gone. Demolished. Nothing was there. He thought he knew Moscow, but he probably knew some other Moscow.” The transformations of the 2000s are interesting because, among other things, both the Iverskaia Chapel and the gates have been restored. The Minin and Pozharskii Monument was restored earlier. The demographic changes in the Russian cities in the 1930s were nor less profound: “The movement of millions of people,” wrote Vasilii Grossman in his novel Vse Techet, “resulted in that bright-eyed, high-cheekboned provincial people filled the streets of Leningrad, while in the barracks of labor camps, Ivan Grigorevich more and more often was meeting the sad Petersburgeans with their French sounding ‘R’s.” The paradoxical nature of Moscow: the more it gets destroyed and remodeled, the more it stays true to itself.

Luzhkov style has been described by Grigorii Revzin as a manifestation of Luzhkov’s personal taste. Even if this is true, the question remains: why these tastes resonate with desires and aspirations of a large part of both architects and the public. The answer, I think, is the same as in the 1930s: freedom. Constructivism requires strict discipline. Eclecticism allows freedom. Vse pozvoleno was Viktor Vesnins sad comment on the architectural development of the early 1930s. Eclecticism of the early 1930s was to represent the summing up of the world history. Eclecticism of Luzhkov style, with its emphasis on the Moscow tradition, is to cure the inferiority complex caused by the rapid exposure to the West: we are different so don’t compare us with the rest of the world.

'Hotel Moscow'.'Hotel Moscow'.

Y. F.: But Luzhkov style has a political dimension too. Architecture in the new Russia has been hijacked by the politics of trivial greed. The corruption of the Moscow government has become common knowledge. Crime is invading architecture. Because unlike contemporary art, architecture denotes a thing called real estate and rather unambiguous monetary values. Perhaps this is the tragedy of architecture as an art form in today’s Moscow. Destruction of swaths of the old city, demolition of century-old buildings is an everyday reality in 2000s Moscow. Historical monuments are destroyed and routinely knocked down under the guise of doing “reconstruction work.” Take for example the current destruction of the Hotel Moscow, or when it took the fire department a half-hour to react to the fire of the Manezh. Both became casualties of the construction boom. Moscow is a developers’ dream. What do you make of this peculiar alliance of architecture, crime, and the late capitalism in the new Moscow?

V. P.: Again, there is nothing new there. Alexander Vitberg, the author of the first cathedral of Christ the Savior, was exiled because of embezzlement of funds, in which he did not participate. Corrupt bureaucracy, the idea that a government position presents a license to line one’s pockets, is well described in the 19th century by Saltykov-Shchedrin, Leskov, and others. The idea of destroying something and rebuilding it anew could be seen in many areas of Russian culture. Military ranks of General, Major, Colonel, etc. were abolished in 1918 and reinstated in the 1930s, to name one of the most obvious examples. The only differences between the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (dismantled in 1930s and rebuilt in 1990s) and the Hotel Moscow are the time span and the fact that those dismantling the Cathedral could not possibly imagine its resurrection. The corrupt Luzhkov & Co. wanted to do the same but with full awareness. Yes, greed was the driving force, but they were subconsciously reenacting some mechanisms of Russian culture. Once again, a Western idea was turned into something Eastern, for lack of a better word. Socialism was transformed in Russia into Stalinism. Contemporary Western building practices (technology, bidding process, and marketing) were transformed into Luzhkism, i.e. a giant pocket-lining machine.

Y. F.: I’d like to ask you about the nostalgic tendencies in contemporary Russian architecture. It’s true that the Russian construction boom omnivorously consumes Russian pre-Revolutionary religious symbolism, historical Russian Avant-garde, and Stalin’s style indiscriminately, signaling global post-ideological tendencies. However, to me the use of Stalin’s style in contemporary Russian architecture is questionable on ethical grounds. The Triumph Palace that is currently under contraction in Moscow, a luxury apartment high-rise for the “new Russians,” closely resembles Stalin’s famous seven high-rises. I find this shameless commodification of the Soviet past to advance the Russian version of the late capitalism rather disturbing. What’s your take on this?

V. P.: Robert Venturi in his Learning from Las Vegas (1972) attempted to break up with the form-follows-function doctrine, advocating what he called “decorated sheds.” Stalinist architecture broke with this doctrine 40 years earlier. Constructivist buildings, and later steel structures of skyscrapers, were decorated with Greek, Renaissance, Gothic, Russian folk, elements. Stalin’s vysotki were in fact decorated sheds, prestigious but uncomfortable, with huge halls and staircases but small and poorly lit bedrooms. The Triumph Palace is a completely different structure with a rather sophisticated plan allowing for natural sunlight. It is shamelessly (I agree) styled after vysotki, while being something else. Apartments in the vysotki, unlike in the Triumph Palace, were awarded for ideological correctness, not for money. It could be argued, however, that the new money is based, to a large degree, on the past ideological correctness; therefore, the difference is superficial. The Triumph Palace is a contemporary housing structure decorated as a decorated shed.

Y. F.: If the Triumph Palace is a contemporary structure decorated as a decorated shed of Stalin’s era, then this building is more than just an improved Stalin’s vysotka. In the 2000s, the Triumph Palace manifests itself as a reenactment of the already nostalgic Stalin’s “decorated shed” architecture. This notwithstanding, the Triumph Palace is a site of nostalgia for the Soviet Union as well, a nostalgia that doesn’t discriminate and has infected all sectors of the new Russian society – from the unemployed protesting in the streets of Moscow to the rich looking at them through the windows of their luxury automobiles. However, while the critical nostalgia of the Russian working class feeds in part on their daily experiences of residing in the authentic remnants of khrushcheby and other decaying Soviet-era housing projects, the nostalgia of the upperclasses can be satisfied only by such postmodern artifacts asthe Triumph Palace, where apartments are unaffordable for the Moscow poor. In this context, perhaps it would be appropriate to ask you about the fate of the Soviet-era housing developments of the 1960-1980s – khrushcheby and the like. Or to rephrase it in the style of Komar and Melamid’s project “What should we do with monumental propaganda?” – what should we do with khrushcheby?

V. P.: My father once said: nasha kultura razvivaetsia korotkimi perebezhkami pod obstrelom [our culture develops by short dashes under heavy fire]. I think he meant the following: First they were killing bourgeois art and architecture. Then they were destroying avant-garde art and architecture, then they were fighting lakirovka deistvitel’nosti [varnishing of the reality] and izlishestva [excessive decoration], etc. In-between those battles, talented architects (artists, writers, etc.) tried to sneak in their masterpieces. Russian art history (as well as Russian history) consists of periods of discrediting or destroying previous period’s heritage. Nostalgia is a natural reaction to his dashed line of history. I understand why people are tempted to say (like some current Russian school textbooks do): Russia had great leaders, such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Putin. The nostalgia you’ve described is an attempt to make sense of the Russian history. But I see a great danger in this nostalgia, which becomes a contemporary version of lakirovka. Filling the gaps erases the memory of the gaps. When there was a public restroom on the site of the demolished Kazanski cathedral on the Red square, I was disturbed by the fact that nobody remembered the cathedral. Now nobody remembers the restroom, young people assume the cathedral has always been there, and that bothers me no less.

The question “what should we do with khrushcheby” is an easy one. The craftsmanship of the khrushcheby was so low that their self-destruction was in fact built in. No matter what we do they will collapse (and are collapsing). I was for the preservation of monumental propaganda. Khrushcheby is a slightly different case. Their preservation would be prohibitively expensive. I would take one of them and relocate it to the site of the demolished Moscow hotel, thus creating a Kabakov-style installation “a collapsing piatietazhka.”

'Hotel Moscow'.'Hotel Moscow'.

Y. F.: In conclusion, I’d like to ask you as the author of Kultura Dva: Are we witnessing culture 1 or culture 2 in Russia today? Or perhaps something else?

V. P.: Sweeping generalizations and grand narratives are out of fashion these days. Researchers now favor macro lenses, close-up views, and archival sources. Long before Jean-François Lyotard published The Post-Modern Condition, some Soviet art historians (Khan-Magomedov, Strigalev, etc.) had similar loathing for any kind of theory, not just for grand narratives. Art history, for them, was a form of collector’s activity. Their position represented a rebellion: they had been forced-fed with the Soviet brand of Marxism for too long and were fighting for “pure” history. My terms Culture 1 and Culture 2 were set against the backdrop of their refusal to accept any kind of theory or generalization. I believe that the need for large-scale narratives still exists, especially in the Russian context, and that the terms Culture 1 and Culture 2 are still applicable to current events in Russia. One can argue that the current situation shows presence of elements of both cultures and, therefore, that the distinction between the two is no longer relevant. But the same was true in the early 1930s. It was a transitional period that had elements of both cultures. Looking back at the events of the 1930s from 1970s was easy for me because I had known the outcome of many processes. Current events do not allow such luxury. Still, tracing the trends of the last decade, it’s possible to see that certain elements of Culture 2 are coming back: hardening, crystallizing, slowing down, vertical hierarchy, restoration of old symbols and emblems, interest in the past rather than in the future, special treatment of borders, etc. The Putin epoch is dramatically different from the Stalin epoch, but the terms Culture 1 and Culture 2 are not meant to deal with the economy or social organization. Rather they are designed to address something that a philosopher would call categories, psychoanalyst – archetypes, and art historian – zeitgeist.

Yevgeniy Fiks is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist and writer. His texts appeared in Moscow Art Magazine, Flash Art, Artforum, Tema Celeste, Art Journal, and pH Magazine.