Modernism and Destruction in Architecture

My point of departure is three pairs of photographs. The first pair juxtaposes the unfinished frame of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall in Los Angeles (photo 1) and the destroyed carcass of Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers in New York (photo 2). We are conditioned to expect a building frame to consist of (or at least contain some) rectangular elements. Gehry’s frame has none. We might see it as a “normal” rectangular frame twisted and distorted by the creative will of a modernist. The modernist vocabulary, as Anthony Vidler observed, has always included “displacement and fracture, torquing and twisting, pressure and release.”(Anthony Vidler, Warped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT 2002), 1.) Some, on the other hand, would see Gehry’s frame as precisely the opposite, as a postmodern or anti-modern attack on the rigidity of modernist thinking.

Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, Los Angeles.Minoru Yamasaki's Twin Towers, New York.

The other photo shows Yamasaki’s rectangular frame deformed by a terrorist act. This violent deformation, as we will see, is also open to different interpretations.

The second pair is, again, Yamasaki’s Twin Towers (photo 2) and his housing project Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis (photo 3) being blown up by authorities in 1972 after it had been repeatedly vandalized by its residents, and attempts to revitalize it had failed.

 Minoru Yamasaki's Twin Towers, New York.Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis.

The third pair shows the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the center of Moscow in 1931 in the process of demolition (photo 4) to leave room for the proposed (but unrealised) Palace of the Soviets and the unfinished frame of this Palace before its demolition (photo 5).

 Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow, 1931.Frame of the Palace of Soviets.

The questions I will try to address are the following. To what degree (if at all) is modernism responsible for the violence and destruction of the last two centuries? What is the relationship between modernism and political power? Does modernism have a built-in self-destructing mechanism?

1. Howard Roark

Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel Fountainhead is perhaps the most graphic representation of some central modernist categories. Ayn Rand (Alissa Rosenbaum) was born in 1905 in St. Petersburg and spent the first 29 years of her life in Russia. In the novel, one can see allusions to some themes of the Russian avant-garde.

a) Rejection of the “old”. The hero, architect Howard Roark, rejects the styles of the past: “I want to be an architect, not an archeologist. I see no purpose in doing Renaissance villas.”(Ayn Rand, Fountainhead (New York: Signet, 1952), 22.) New technology, he says, should dictate new forms: “Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marbles of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marbles of copies in wood. Why?”(Rand, 24.)

The buildings that Roark wants to create don’t have any ornaments and don’t imitate any old styles. They provide “the light, the air, the beautiful logic of the plan in their halls and offices.”(Rand, 44.)

There is one important implication of this attitude towards the “old” — aging is equally bad. To Roark and his friends, it’s better for a building to be violently destroyed that to die of natural causes. “I wish that in some future air raids a bomb would blast this house out of existence,” says Roark’s lover Dominique about his creation. “It would be a worthy ending. So much better than to see it growing old and soot-stained, degraded by the family photographs, the dirty socks, the cocktail shakers and the grapefruit rinds of its inhabitants.”(Rand, 287.)

Russian Futurism provides numerous examples of this anti-aging stance, from David Burliuk’s “everyone’s young, young, young, a devilish hunger in the stomach,”(Rzhanoe slovo. Revoliutsionnaia khrestomatiia futuristov (Petrograd: n.p., 1918), 21.) to Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “there’s not a single grey hair in my soul”(Vladimir Mayakovsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 13 vols. (Moscow: GIKhL, 1955–61), vol. 1, ??) as well as his often proclaimed desire to die young and never succumb to aging, which perhaps was one of the reasons he committed suicide in 1930.

b) Curved vs. rectangular. In Ayn Rand’s novel, both the new architecture and Roark’s body are made “of straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes.”(Rand, 15.) Roark’s antipode Guy Francon’s face, in contrast, “bore not a single straight line; it was an artful composition in globes, circles, arcs, and ellipses.”(Rand, 28.) Guy Francon’s building had a replica of the Hadrian Mausoleum (which is round) on its top, while Henry Cameron’s (Roark’s teacher) Dana Building was made of lines that “were hard and simple, revealing, emphasizing the harmony of the steel skeleton within, as a body reveals the perfection of its bones.”(Rand, 43.)

Clearly, not every modernist would have subscribed to such dichotomy. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, one of the most celebrated examples of early modern architecture, despite its overall rectangular structure, contains round elements. Ivan Leonidov’s unrealized Narkomtiazhprom building in Moscow (1934) juxtaposes a rectangular volume and a curvilinear cylinder. Le Corbusier’s last masterpiece, Chapelle de Ronchamp, contains almost no straight lines.

A more precise meaning of the opposition “curved-rectangular” would be “a shape that reveals the harmony of its skeleton” versus the one that doesn’t. This would be something that most modernists would have agreed on, as well as something that postmodernists attacked most vigorously. The idea of a “decorated shed” put forward in Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s 1972 book “Learning from Las Vegas”(Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1972).) is a good example of such attack, despite the fact that the authors repeatedly denied any affiliation with postmodernism.

c) Reaching for the skies. Roark’s teacher Henry Cameron “was among the first and the few who accepted the truth that the tall building must look tall.” Cameron “designed skyscrapers in straight vertical lines, flaunting their steel and height.”(Rand, 44.) The desire to erect the tallest structure in the world goes back to at least Louis Sullivan: “It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch of proud and soaring thing, rising in a sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”(Quoted in: Paul Heyer, Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America (New York: Walker and Company, 1966), 20.) With few exceptions, modernists wanted the buildings to be as tall as possible. Ivan Leonidov wanted his Narkomtiazhprom building to dwarf the Kremlin and St. Basil Cathedral.(Mastera sovetskoi arkhitektury ob arkhitekture, Vol. 2 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1975), 539.) For Le Corbusier, even the existing buildings of New York were “too small”.(Vidler, 61.)

Closely connected to the idea of reaching for the skies is the desire to fly. Aviation was a major source of inspiration for many avant-garde movements. Futurist Vasilii Kamenskii used to paint an airplane on his face. Mayakovsky wrote a poem “A Flying Proletarian”. Howard Roark, when we see him for the first time, as about to jump into a lake. His dive is described like flying: “He stepped to the edge, raised his arms, and dived down unto the sky below.”(Rand, 16. Emphasis added.)

d) Cult of the machine. For Guy Francon, architecture “is a great Art” based on “three eternal entities: Truth, Love and Beauty”.(Rand, 27.) Roark, on the other hand, is expelled from a school of architecture for neglecting the artistic side of his craft. “You have been excellent in all the engineering sciences,” says his dean at their farewell meeting, “why neglect what may be termed the artistic and inspirational side of our profession and concentrate on all those dry, technical, mathematical subjects?”(Rand, 21.)

The names of many avant-garde movements suggest the same allegiance to technical subjects — constructivism, functionalism. Roark would no doubt agree with Moisei Ginzburg’s words: “The best library on contemporary architecture is a collection of the latest catalogs and price lists of technical firms.”(Moisei Ginzburg, “Mezhdunarodnyi front sovremennoi arkhitektury,” Sovremennaia Arkhitektura, no. 2 (1926), 41–6, at 44.) However, many modernists, especially architects of the Russian avant-garde, were accused of the opposite: of using references to function and construction to justify their exercises in abstract art. Bruno Taut, for example, was shocked to see his Soviet colleagues working like “artists”. They sat, he wrote, “before their drafting tables and, as I observed with astonishment in 1932, very often did not visit the construction site; they even did not know whether the construction had begun or not and what stage it was in.”(Taut, “Kak voznikaet khoroshaia arkhitektura,” Article sent by Taut in Russian translation to the Union of Soviet Architects in March 1936. RGALI, fond 674, opis’ 2, ed. khr. 21, 275–6.)

Structure, function, construction, technology, machine — all these were, to a large degree, understood symbolically. To many modernists, especially to the members of the Russian avant-garde, these categories represented a new pantheon. Nikolai Dokuchaev, a member of the rationalist movement, tried to analyze this in 1927: “If in the West, where industry and labor in general are more mechanized and automatized than with us, a romanticism of technology can develop in artists-constructivists, then among us, in the years of economic collapse, industrial stagnation, and simple hunger, this romanticism of technology must inevitably acquire a literally mystical strength and significance.”(Mastera, 119.) Such symbolism and romanticism of technology could be seen in Le Corbusier’s work as well. His “machines for living” are, first of all, beautiful sculptures.

e) Hero and masses. “The client,” says the dean to Roark, “thinks of that above all. He is the one to live in the house you build. Your only purpose is to serve him. You must aspire to give proper artistic expression to his wishes.” Roark disagrees: “I don’t intend to build in order to serve or help anyone.”(Rand, 26.) He doesn’t notice people and is not interested in their petty lives: “Do you see how many men are walking and living down there?” he asks the dean. “Well, I don’t give a damn what any or all of them think about architecture — or about anything else, for that matter.”(Rand, 23.) He refuses to let “messy life” interfere with his design process. He refuses to work with others: “I don’t work with collectives.I don’t consult. I don’t cooperate. I don’t collaborate.”(Rand, 513.) When his design for housing for low-income residents is altered against his will, he blows it up. The jury (and obviously the author), finds him “not guilty”.

Of course, this blatant individualism represents only one, the Nietzschean, side of the modernist attitude to collectivism. Again, the Russian avant-garde provides quite a different picture — one can think of numerous houses-communes (by Ginzburg, Nikolaev and others), collective bedrooms (by Melnikov and Kuz’min), as well as of collectively designed dwelling units by Stroikom published with no names of individual participants.(See Vladimir Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 105-6.) On the issue of “messy life”, however, modernists, and especially the Russian avant-garde, would wholeheartedly agree: everyday routine, household chores, cooking, laundry, not to mention “the family photographs, the dirty socks, the cocktail shakers and the grapefruit rinds” — everything that is signified by the almost untranslatable Russian word byt — had to be expelled from new buildings. Byt is even mentioned in Mayakovsky’s suicide note: “the love boat has crashed against byt.” Characteristically, the postmodern attack on modern architecture began with Robert Venturi’s call “for messy vitality over obvious unity.”(Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: MOMA, 1977), 16.) Modern architecture, he wrote, “is dissatisfied with existing conditions. Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: Architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there.”(Venturi et. al., Learning, 3.) It’s also worth noting that Richard Meier, who is sometime called “the last modernist,” was fighting with workers of the Getty Museum over their desire to “clutter” his clean white space with family photos.(Author’s interview with Richard Meier on December 12, 2003, see

f) Art and power. Howard Roark doesn’t try to make a good impression on people with power. “Those who want me,” he says, “will come to me.”(Rand, 26.) The dean tries to reason with him: “You would sound much more convincing if you spoke as if you cared whether I agreed with you or not.” Roark replies: “I don’t care whether you agree with me or not.”(Rand, 26 His strategy worked. He didn’t go to the people with power — they came to him. Strangely, his strategy worked in his love life as well. He won love and devotion of Dominique by convincing her to marry two other men before getting her himself. One of Dominique’s husbands, a powerful publisher Gail Wynand, became one of Roark’s strongest supporters, which in the end cost Wynand his fortunes.

The Russian avant-garde seemed to have many proud independent Roark-like figures, such as Mayakovsky, for example. But we should not forget that Boris Pasternak broke with Mayakovsky’s journal LEF since “LEF depressed and repulsed by its excessive Soviet-ness, that is, its disgusting servility, that is a tendency towards unruliness with an official mandate.” Roark did not have an official mandate for unruliness when he was planting a bomb but he had a powerful publisher behind him. There were a few heroic constructivist and rationalist architects (Tatlin, Leonidov, Melnikov) who refused to accept socialist realism and chose to become marginalized (like Henry Cameron in Ayn Rand’s novel). But the leading architects of the Russian avant-garde (Ginzburg and Vesnin brothers) notonly actively collaborated with the Soviet government, they themselves became members of the government.(Paperny, 202.)

2. Minoru Yamasaki

The number “2” seems to have played a significant role in Minoru Yamasaki’s life. He has created two sets of twin towers (the first one was Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, California, 1963), two of his major structures were violently destroyed (the first was Pruitt-Igoe), there were two terrorist attempts to destroy the Twin Towers in New York — the first happened in 1993, but the structure was so sound that the huge bomb, 1200 pounds of urea nitrate, did not do any significant damage to the buildings.

He even married his wife twice.

Yamasaki could be defined as a soft modernist, a modernist with a human face. “There are a few very influential architects who sincerely believe that all buildings must be ‘strong’,” he wrote. “The word ‘strong’ in this context seems to connote ‘powerful’ — that is, each building should be a monument to the virility of our society. These architects look with derision upon attempts to build a friendly, more gentle kind of building.”(Quoted in: Heyer, 186. Emphasis added.) He admired Mies van der Rohe’s rectangular Seagram Building and said that this was one building in the United States he would most liked to have designed.(Heyer, 185.) With some stretch of imagination, the Twin Towers could be seen as two upside down Seagrams extended from the 38 to the 110 floors.(The top floors with wider window openings made Twin Towers look even more like Seagram but as Guy Tozzoli, former director of World Trade Center construction, indicated this was done by his insistence, against Yamasaki’s will. See: New York: The Center of the World. A PBS documentary, episode 8. For transcripts see:

Pruitt-Igoe. Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe residential project in St. Louis was blown up in 1972 (just a year before the Twin Towers were completed) because “it has been vandalised, mutilated and defaced by its black inhabitants, and although milions of dollars were pumped back, trying to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting) it was finally put out of misery.”(Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (Rizzoli, 1984), 9.)

Architectural critic Charles Jencks blamed the architecture. “Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 p.m. (or thereabouts),” he said, “when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.” Pruitt-Igoe, which was constructed in 1952-55 “according to the most progressive ideals of CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne),” was a failure, said Jencks, because its modernist “simplistic ideas, taken over from philosophic doctrines of Rationalism, Behaviorism and Pragmatism, proved as irrational as the philosophies themselves.”(Jencks, 10.) Jencks assumed that the “irrationality of Rationalism” has been sufficiently proven by philosophers. He was trying to use postmodern philosophy to legitimise his criticism of modern architecture. It did not work well: there was almost no connection between what was called postmodernism in architecture and in philosophy. Jencks’ definition of postmodern architecture was simple: “the end of avant-garde extremism, the partial return to tradition, and the central role of communicating with the public.”(Jencks, 6.) If anything, postmodern philosophy was the opposite: it displayed a great deal of extremism, it was breaking with traditions (of Enlightenment, for instance), and it was rather opaque to the public.

Even though Yamasaki, unlike Roark, had not blown up his residential project, he was percieved by Jencks and other postmodernists as the one responsible for the demolition. He was presumed (perhaps unjustly) to be indifferent to people and insensitive to their needs.

Twin Towers. “There’s nothing revolutionary about the World Trade Center,” wrote Lewis Mumford in the 1970s. “Tall buildings are outmoded concepts — this is Victorian thinking. Skyscrapers have always been put up for reasons of advertisement and publicity. They are not economically sound or efficient — in fact they are ridiculously unprofitable.”(Quoted in: Karl Koch III and Richard Firstman, Men of Steel. The Story of the Family that Built the World Trade Center (New York: Crown Publishers, 2002), 360.)

The Word Trade Center was built by the Port Authorities of New York and New Jersey (PA), a quasi-governmental organization with practically unlimited resources, reporting practically to no one. It was established on April 30, 1921, to administer the common harbor interests of New York and New Jersey. Its area of jurisdiction called the “Port District” was a bistate region of about 1,500 square miles centered on the Statue of Liberty. The ten million square foot office complex didn’t grow from any practical need for office space in Lower Manhattan. It rather resulted from the ambitions of the chairman of Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association David Rockefeller and PA’s director Austin Tobin.

There was strong opposition to the proposed World Trade Center from two sources. First, there were real estate developers, particularly the owners of the Empire State Building, which stood to loose the status of the tallest building in the world and possibly its tenants. “PA is using public money,” they said in their lawsuit against PA, “to unfairly compete with us.” Second, there were small business owners, whom the proposed World Trade Center would wipe out. Yamasaki, who personally walked the block from Vesey Street to Liberty, Church Street to West, concluded that “there was not a single building worth saving”.(Koch, 187.) Predictably, small business owners felt that in PA they were dealing with a “Kremlin-like organization”. In the words of Oscar Nadel, owner of a radio shop on Greenwich Street, it felt “just as though we were living in Russia or Cuba, where a man doesn’t have anything to say about what happened to him.”(Koch, 178.)

The community life in a few blocks that later became the World Trade Center was destroyed. “The people building it paid no attention to the consequences of what was happening with the wider idea of what the economy in New York should be like,” said New York writer Pete Hamill. “And I hated it, you know, I hated that, the arrogance of it, as a kid. I was young and I didn’t like that stuff.”(See New York: The Center of the World.)

Yamasaki worked with a structural engineer Leslie Robertson. The design they came up with and the design process itself were unique. First, Robertson, in his words, was the only structural engineer in the world using computers in the late 60s.(Ibid.) Second, unlike in all previous skyscrapers with heavy steel carcasses, the structure of Twin Towers was modeled after aircraft design. “It was built more like the wing of an airplane,” said Robertson. “And in the wing of the airplane, the strength is all in the surface of the wing.”

The “soft modernist” Minoru Yamasaki acted in a Roark-like manner when he agreed with the PA to wipe out a few blocks with established lifestyles and to turn them into a “clean slate”, which eventually became “Ground Zero”. In his Twin Towers, he wanted to have open, uncluttered interior space uninterrupted by support columns. This modernist desire resulted in an innovative design, which ultimately lead to the building’s destruction. Karl Koch III, one of the builders of the Twin Towers, tells how his father, also an experienced builder, visited the unfinished World Trade Center:

Dad shook his head. “The design is bad,” he said. “It isn’t strong. There should be steel columns across the whole floor to keep those ceilings up. Where are the beams and columns?”

“They’re spanning the open floor area with trusses, Pop. It’s a new, modern design.”(Koch, 339. Emphasis added.)

Floor plan of Minoru Yamasaki`s Twin Towers, New York.After the terrorist attack, “the exterior walls performed beautifully, as long as the floors were intact,” wrote Koch. “It was the ensuing fire that weakened the floor system (photo 10) and then caused them to collapse as if they were imploding.”(Koch, 369.)

“Would a less radical departure from traditional key structural elements have? yielded a less devastating result?” he asked. His answer is a careful and qualified “yes”.(Koch, 371.) In other words, if the office floors were “cluttered” with support columns, the wounded Twin Towers could still have been standing.

Perhaps it is safe to say that the modernist worship of technology understood symbolically played a role in the destruction of the Twin Towers.

3. Frank Gehry

Frank Gehry participated in the “Deconstructivist Architecture” show, curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988. The title was somewhat misleading. Although the participants were not united by a single style or theory, they were not anti-constructivist, postmodern, or particularly attached to Derrida’s deconstruction. “Deconstructivists,” as Anthony Vidler observed, “emerge as thoroughly modern and entirely constructive, confirming a century of experimentation and reaffirming a continuity with the Modern movement.”(Artforum, December, 2003.) Frank Gehry is a modernist with strong ties to Russian constructivism. He has Russian ancestors, spoke a little Russian as a child, and loves Tatlin and Malevich.(Frank Gehry in a conversation with the author, March 28, 1995. See: In 1980 he designed the exposition for the show “The Avant-Garde in Russia” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Gehry’s design process is unique. Like the Yamasaki-Robertson team, his office is on the cutting edge of computer design. Gehry is so advanced in his use of computers that he recently has formed Gehry Technologies, “a building design and construction technology company that provides integrated, digitally driven construction practice tools and methodologies to companies and their projects.” The company uses IBM’s CATIA software previously used mostly in the aerospace (another link to Yamasaki-Robertson), automotive and manufacturing industries. Gehry creates a model — out of crumpled paper, cardboard, plastiline clay, or such — which is scanned and turned into a 3-D model. In the end, the CAD/CAM(Computer assisted design/computer assisted manufacturing.) system directly controls the manufacturing of building parts.

Classical architecture stressed the relationship of a building to a human body, in its proportions and scale. Modernist architecture broke with this tradition. “Great grandmothers believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and the man was the measure of all things,” wrote El Lissitzky in 1926. “Learn to see what’s before your eyes. Here is man — a measure for tailors, but let’s measure architecture by architecture.”(Mastera sovetskoi arkhitektury ob arkhitekture, Vol. 2 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1975), 146.) Socialist realism tried to restore architectural anthropomorphism. A building had to base itself on “the architectonics of a life-loving, healthy, well-built person.”(V. D. Kokorin, “Obsuzhdenie tvorcheskogo otcheta rukovoditelia 10-i proektnoi masterskoi,” Akademiia Arkhitektury no. 3 (1936), 79.)

Gehry’s case is the ultimate step in the modernist direction. His process is “profoundly indifferent to our presence.”(Vidler, 253.) The objects are created in virtual space, viewed by the lens of a scanner. An important implication of this process is that the interior space becomes incidental. Unity of the exterior-interior space was a constant modernist motif, which could be seen in such celebrated buildings as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. Gehry’s Disney Hall has been criticized for the less than convincing contrast between the billowing swoop of stainless steel of the exterior and the more traditional wood-finished auditoriums. The usually mild and patient Gehry reacts to such criticism with anger.(Frank Gehry in a conversation with the author on December 16, 2004. See:

His relationship with “messy life” has been equally dramatic. His own “deconstructivist” house in Santa Monica, California, provoked a strong reaction from neighbors who feared that the unusual house would bring property values down for the whole block. Disney Hall’s polished surface had to be sandblasted after neighbors complained about blinding reflections and heat. In this case, Frank Gehry patiently listened to the complaints and agreed to sacrifice the integrity of his design.

4. Joseph Stalin

In 1817 the Russian government held an architectural competition for the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to commemorate the victory over Napoleon. The winner was a 30-year old artist Alexander Vitberg who had very little architectural experience. The site he selected was Vorob’evy Gory where the 32-story high Moscow University now stands. The structure was to consist of three parts: the bottom part was a parallelepiped symbolizing the body, on top of it sat a cube representing the soul, and finally, a cylinder with a dome signifying the Holy Spirit.

A century later, almost the same symbolism appeared in Vladimir Tatlin’s proposal for the Monument to the Third International where the cube was also to represent the body (this time the legislative body), the pyramid — executive powers (in place of the soul), and the cylinder —mass media (instead of the Holy Spirit). This symbolism underwent yet another transformation two decades later, going back to quasi-religious overtones. In the Iofan-Gelfreikh-Shchuko design for the Palace of Soviets, the bottom level represented “precursors of communism,” mid-level, the teaching of Marx and Engels, and from them the viewer’s gaze, according to the authors, “would turn to the statue of Lenin crowning the building” (photo 6).

Iofan-Gelfreikh-Shchuko design for the Palace of Soviets.

None of the three projects — Vitberg’s cathedral, Tatlin’s Monument, or the Palace of the Soviets — has been, or even could have been realized. Vitberg’s artistic vision of the cathedral was a structure 755 feet high (the Twin Towers were 1,353 feet), while the tallest building of its time, St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, had only 462 feet. Czar Nicolas I set up an architectural commission to investigate the feasibility of Vitberg’s project, and the commission’s verdict was “not feasible.” Subsequently, Vitberg was falsely accused of embezzlement of funds, wrongly convicted and spent the rest of his life in exile in Siberia.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was eventually erected in 1883 — by another architect, Konstantin Ton, and on another site, Prechistenskaia Embankment, in another style that could be roughly defined as pseudo-Russian revival. It replaced St. Alexius Monastery, which was dismantled and moved to another location — the move that angered some believers who predicted that the site was now doomed. The reaction of most art critics to Ton’s creation was negative: “Architects lacking inspiration and the understanding of the meaning of church building are always substituting spiritual elements with decorative ones… A typical example of such costly absurdity is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that looks like a huge samovar around which the whole patriarchal Moscow has gathered cheerfully.”(Evgenii Trubetskoi, “Dva mira v drevnerusskoi ikonopisi,” Filosophia russkogo religioznogo iskusstva XVII-XX vv. (Moscow: Progress-Kultura, 1993), 242.)

The idea of blowing up the “huge samovar” was first introduced in 1924 by a member of the rationalist movement Balikhin. In a procedure, which could be described as grabbing the flag from the dead enemy and running with it, Stalinism, having demolished both rationalism and constructivism, ran with the idea of demolishing the cathedral. Numerous attempts to blow it up failed, the brickwork was exceptionally strong. Eventually, it was cut into pieces and removed.

Vladimir Tatlin's 'Letatlin'.On 18 July 1931, newspapers published an announcement for an architectural competition for the Palace of the Soviets to be built on the site of the demolished Cathedral. The following fall 160 entries, including 24 from abroad, were displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, replacing Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin (from the Russian word letat’— to fly), the symbolic flying machine that was not capable of flying (photo 7). One of the foreign entries belonged to Le Corbusier (photo 8), and, quite predictably, it was rejected. When Le Corbusier finally saw the winning project, he was appalled: “It is hard to accept the fact that they will actually erect that odd thing which recently has flooded all the journals.”(Le Corbusier, letter to A. Vesnin of 10 August 1934, Vesnin family archive.)

Le Corbusier's design for the Palace of Soviets.

When Frank Lloyd Wright addressed the First Congress of Soviet Architects in 1937 he was very blunt about the “falsity” of the winning project of the Palace of the Soviets: “This structure — only proposed I hope — is good if we take it for a modern version of Saint George destroying the dragon.”(Frank Lloyd Wright, “Address at First All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects, 21 June 1937.” RGALI, fond 674, opis’ 2, ed. khr. 50, 26–8.)

Le Corbusier and other members of the CIAM wrote a letter to Stalin lobbying him to intervene in order to “stop this sensational challenge to the public from being executed.”(Mentioned in Le Corbusier, letter to A. Vesnin of 10 August 1934, Vesnin family archive.) Stalin, as it turned out, was the last person they should have asked. As architectural historian Dmitrii Khmel’nitskii recently discovered, the whole design belonged to Stalin himself. None of the official authors, says Khmel’nitskii, — Iofan, Shchuko or Gel’freikh — was capable of such “clear spatial idea, vigor, strength, dynamism, and at the same time such powerful barbarism, such neophyte courage in dealing with form, function and surface.”(See:

If we are to believe Khmel’nitskii,(He has worked on this subject for years and searched many archives.) then Stalin appears to have been a greater modernist than Le Corbusier, Wright, Ginzburg or Vesnin. His barbarian creation did not imitate any known style of the past, his Palace was to surpass the Empire State Building by a few feet, he did not collaborate, he worked incognito (just like Roark on the housing project), he disregarded community life and was not interested in people. Moreover, his structure was supposed to be age-resistant: “Centuries will not leave their mark on it,” wrote the official historian of the Palace Nikolai Atarov. “We will build it so that it will stand without aging, forever.”(Nikolai Atarov, Dvorets sovetov (Moscow: Moskovskii rabochii, 1940), 15. Emphasis added.)

When this turned out to be an impossible engineering task, Stalin ordered the unfinished frame of the Palace demolished.(The official explanation for the demolition was that during WWII the steel carcass needed to be recycled for military purposes.)

5. Mikhail Lifshits

In 1966, Soviet Marxist Mikhail Lifshits published an article “Why I Am Not a Modernist” (paraphrasing the title of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian”). Modernism is bad, said Lifshits, because it is “connected to the darkest psychological facts of our time; among those: cult of force, joy of destruction, love for cruelty, lust for thoughtless existence and blind obedience.”(Mikhail Lifshits, “Pochemu ia ne modernist?” Literaturnaia Gazeta (October 8, 1966), 2. Emphasis added.)

Lifshits (1905-1983) was trained as an artist in the famous Moscow avant-garde art school VKhUTEMAS under the tutelage of modernist painter David Shterenberg and religious philosopher Pavel Florensky. From 1929 he worked with Georg Lukács in the Marx-Engels institute in Moscow. Some of Lukács’ ideas — especially his belief that Nietzsche’s philosophy could be held responsible for Hitler’s atrocities — had a profound influence on Lifshits, who was 20 years younger. Both Lukács and Lifshits were repeatedly criticized for their excessive interest in Western philosophy. “In the ‘Contemporary Philosophy’ section of their library they have books by all idealist-obscurantist (Spengler, Husserl), but not a single book by or about Lenin,” wrote one of their colleagues in a secret report to the institute director. “Apparently they do not consider Lenin a contemporary philosopher.”(Quoted in: In 1950s Lifshits was expelled from the party and became a lone semi-dissident orthodox Marxist in a society where Marxism was reduced to a ritual.

The article “Why I Am Not a Modernist” was not well received by the younger part of the Soviet artistic community, which in the 1960s was struggling with the rapidly shrinking remains of Socialist Realism. Lifshits was called a dinosaur. His ideas sounded too similar to the anti-modernist attacks of the Stalin epoch when unmasking the “antisocialist tendencies of constructivism, functionalism, and formalism” was a signal for a campaign, which could (and sometimes did) end up in the physical elimination of constructivists and functionalists.

From Lifshits’ standpoint, however, such a sad outcome was what Marx called “the irony of history.” He commented on the fate of thinkers such as Henri Bergson (whose death possibly saved him from Auschwitz): “You wanted vitality, you were fed up with civilization, you ran away from reason into the dark world of instincts, you despised the masses in their quest for basic culture, you wanted the majority to be blindly obedient to the irrational call of the superhuman? Well, accept what is due to you.”(Lifshits, op. sit.)

Lifshits was careful not to give examples from Soviet history but these were plentiful. Here is one example. The literary historian Mikhail Gershenzon wrote in 1921: “What joy it would be to dive into the Lethe so that memory of all religions and philosophical systems, of all sciences, arts, and poetry would be washed away without a trace, and to come up on shore naked, remembering only one thing from the past — how heavy and constricting these garments were and how light it is without them.”(M. O. Gershenzon and V. Ia. Ivanov, Perepiska iz dvukh uglov (Petrograd: Alkonost, 1921), 11.) Five years later came the “irony of history.” On 31 August 1926, the newsletter of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) announced: “The housing section of the Central Commission on Improving Living Conditions for Scholars is familiar with several grave incidents when the anxiety, suffering, and ordeal brought on by housing problems led to the untimely death of scholars — the famous professor and writer Gershenzon.”(Izvestiia VTsIK (31 August 1926).) Professor Gershenzon had to accept, to use Lifshiys’ expression, “what was due to him”.

Lifshits was quite aware of another problem: his position’s dangerous proximity to the Nazi aesthetic. Even though one stressed class while the other race, both cultures had similar reactions to avant-garde art and architecture. For the German architect and Nazi activist Paul Schultze-Naumburg, new architecture was “immediately recognizable as the child of other skies and other blood.”(Quoted in Barbara Miller Lane, Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1918-1945 (Harvard University Press, 1968), 134.) For the Soviet critics, Le Corbusier’s Tsentrosoiuz in Moscow was an “alien building”(V. D. Kokorin, “Chuzhoi dom,” Arkhitekturnaia Gazeta (24 January 1935), 4.) and “a cultural anachronism.”(D. E. Arkin, “Dom Corbusier,” Arkhitekturnaia Gazeta (8 January 1935), 3.) It looked “gloomy and alienated from its surroundings.”(E. Kriger, “Oblik velikogo goroda,” in Slovo o Mosskve (Moscow: GIKhL, 1947) 317–99, at 336–7.)

Lifshits tried to deal with this difficulty. First, he said, “the official art of the Third Reich had some elements of a standard Modernist pose.” This was an astute observation (preceding Boris Groys’ analysis of Stalinism(Boris Groys, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin. Die gespaltene Kultur in der Sowjetunion (Hanser, 1996).))but to deny its applicability to Socialist Realism required some intellectual acrobatics. Second, said Lifshits, “social demagoguery always borrows certain superficial elements from its mortal enemy; according to the old legend, Christ and Antichrist look alike.” Third, said Lifshits, “the future is always born in agony.” Comparing Christ and Antichrist to Stalin and Hitler opened a whole can of potentially explosive questions for a Marxist. No wonder Lifshits was never fully accepted by the Soviet establishment.

Lifshits wrote with indignation about the reaction of Christian Zervos, publisher of the French journal “Cahiers d’art”, to the closing of the Bauhaus in Dessau by the Nazi government in 1932. Zervos had written the following: “The National-socialist party, for reasons unclear to us, demonstrates hostility towards genuinely modern art. This position seems paradoxical since this party wants, first of all, to attract the youth. It seems hardly acceptable to take all those young, full of enthusiasm, vital energy and creativity elements and to push them into outdated traditions.”(Quoted in Lifshits, op. sit.)

“This note reeks of kowtowing,” said Lifshits, “it shows the same worship of the alleged barbarian youthfulness, which led to the spiritual München of the 1930s.”

If Lifshits were aware of Le Corbusier’s letter to Stalin, written at about the same time as Zervos’ note, he would perhaps feel the same indignation but wouldn’t be able to express it publicly. If he were aware of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, he would possibly take it as the embodiment of everything he detested: readiness to discard culture, reckless fascination with youth, arrogance, cult of the machine, cult of a superhero, and worship of power. If he were aware of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, chances are he would repeat his words addressed to modernists: accept what is due to you.

6. Modernism and Destruction

Peter Oborne, political editor of The Spectator and a British TV personality, in a 2004 BBC program “I hate the 60s” said the following: “If I meet an architect who was active in the 60s I would ask him or her: what were you doing in the 60s? It’s a bit like if you meet — you used to meet — a German who had fought in the war you would want to know what they did. Maybe they were honorable people fighting for their country but maybe they were doing something terrible. And the same applies to an architect in the 60s. Were you knocking down town centers for us, thanks very much? Were you knocking down the center of Birmingham for us and putting in a bullring? Were you knocking down the center of Cambridge for us and putting in Petty Curie? Were you taking apart 18th century town centers and putting in concrete monstrosities? These people did evil things.”

Mikhail Lifshits was more careful is his pronouncements. “I don’t have anything against the moral reputation of these people,” he said about modernists. “Still, let’s judge historical events regardless of our views of individual personalities.” His final verdict: “There are good modernists but there is no good modernism.”(Lifshits, op. sit.) Compared to this rather reserved position, Oborn’s stance brings to mind the infamous Soviet interrogations of the 1920s: “What exactly were you doing before 1917? Were you exploiting the working class for us, thanks very much?”

There are many interpretations of the 9/11 events currently in circulation. Slavoj Žižek compares the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers to Stalin’s show trials.(Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates (London and New York: Verso, 2002).) If Stalin turns out to be a greater modernist than Le Corbusier, thanthe terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers might have been greater modernists that Minoru Yamasaki. They basically redirected two forces of modernity aiming them against one another: the most powerful airplane in the world (the result of the modernist fascination with flying) against the tallest buildings in the world (the result of the modernist fascination with verticality and height). If this was a show trial than the defendant was modernism. The show “unmasked” (to use Stalinist terminology), perhaps without the claimants’ intentions, some built-in contradictions of modernism: just as violence leads to more violence, destruction leads to more (and possibly self-) destruction. Disregard for existing communities and lifestyles, starting from clean slate, from ground zero, may lead to Ground Zero.

Coming back to the three questions I posed in the beginning, I must admit that I don’t have a definite answer to the first one (to what degree modernism is responsible for the violence and destruction of the last two centuries). I would tend to think that modernists are innocent in this respect. Even the anti-modernist Lifshits was careful to stress that he was talking about the logic of history and not about individual guilt. It is true, he was disgusted with Vsevolod Meyerhold who asked a security guard to arrest Ilya Ehrenburg with whom he was arguing about aesthetics and who had expressed the “wrong” views, but it was clear to Lifshits, and it is clear to us, that it was not Meyerhold’s silly outburst that created the GULAG. It is true that Mayakovsky wrote in one of his poem “I love to watch children die”(Mayakovsky, vol. 1, 48.) but this épater le bourgeois statement had absolutely nothing to do with his pesonal attitude and behavior. Our service offers you to come asking help me do my homework for me and get assisted helpfully.

What is the relationship between modernism and political power? Here, I am afraid, modernists demonstrated, at best, extreme naïveté. Zervos’s message to Hitler and Le Corbusier’s letter to Stalin are only few of many examples. In the field of architecture, this issue is more complicated, however. To build, one needs money and power. Soviet “Paper architecture” of the early 1920s was not an artistic statement, it was the result of extreme economic chaos. Whenever constructivists and rationalists could find some bricks and mortar, modernist buildings were erected, even if reinforced concrete structures had to be imitated with bricks and plaster. It’s hard to accuse Yamasaki (or Daniel Libeskind for that matter) of collaborating with the “Kremlin-like” Port Authority — who else would have the power to convert their architectural ideas into reality? The German Ernst May and the Swiss Hannes Mayer who worked in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s were perhaps naive counting on Stalin’s support for their modernist ideas, but they did not have much choice — the Bauhaus in Dessau was closed in 1932, and the whole of Europe was rapidly moving towards what was later called “activist state” systems. The best escort Lugano in this directory.

Does modernism have a built-in self-destructing mechanism? Le Corbusier wanted to wipe out most of Moscow and to replace it with what Tom Wolfe later called “row after Mies van der row of… worker housing pitched up fifty stories high”(Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981), 4.) Mies van der Rohe himself, after moving to Chicago and starting to build there admitted that he “rarely sees the city”, because he “takes taxis from his apartment to his office”, and doesn’t know anything about the “Chicago School”.(Heyer, 27.) It was these modernist sweeping architectural gestures and total disregard for the “existing” that created a backlash, a good example of which is Peter Oborn’s angry diatribes. In this sense, modernism has created its own enemies and detractors.

Modernist excesses created postmodernism in architecture, a second cousin twice removed of postmodernism in philosophy, the cousin that was not very bright and died young. Practically no architect whose name has been at some point associated with postmodernism wants to admit the relation. “I am not now and never have been a postmodernist,” says the caption, in the McCarthy era style, to Robert Venturi’s portrait on the cover of Architecture magazine.(May, 2001.)

Did modern architecture die on July 15, 1972, as Charles Jencks proclaimed? Far from it. The new generation of modernists, such architects as Thom Mayne or Steven Holl, having learned from the founding fathers’ excesses and failures, managed to shed arrogance, sweeping generalizations and disregard for “messy life” and to come up with unique creations combining innovation, vitality, as well as respect for the genius loci.

Vladimir Paperny, writer, designer and cultural historian, graduated from Stroganov Art School in Moscow and received his PhD in Cultural Studies from the Russian State University for the Humanities. His PhD thesis “Architecture in the age of Stalin. Culture Two” was published in Russian (Moscow, 1996, 2006) and in English (Cambridge, 2003). He works at his design studio in Los Angeles, alternating between design and research (visiting professor at USC, UCLA, and Bristol University, UK).

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