Russian Architecture: Between Anorexia and Bulimia

The Russian visual sensibilities (if there is such a thing) are formed by two contrasting influences. On the one hand, there is a natural attraction to decorative surfaces, to richness of colors and shapes. Historians tell us that in the 10th century Prince Vladimir decided to convert to Christianity mainly because of the visual experience his emissaries had had in Constantinople: “The Greeks led us to the building where they worship their God,” they wrote to the Prince, “and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it.”(James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe. Vintage Books, 1966, p. 7.)

Cathedral of the Intercession on the Moat (Temple of Basil the Blessed) on Red Square in Moscow.“The Russian gift for decorativeness is well known,” the German architect Bruno Taut wrote in 1936, after visiting Moscow. “For an architect , this gift could be dangerous if it was not kept on a leash.”(From a typewritten Russian manuscript sent by Bruno Taut to his Russian colleagues, RGALI, f. 674, op. 2, ed. khr. 21, l. 267.) A clear architectural manifestation of such a gift is the Cathedral of the Intercession on the Moat (Temple of Basil the Blessed) on Red Square in Moscow. In the 19th century, the same gift could be seen in the building of the Historical Museum, the same one which Le Corbusier in the early 1930s proposed to blow up. In the 1990s, the same sensuous attitude towards the surface of a building may be found in the so-called Kobzon House.

Kobzon House.The second tendency to be mentioned here is the opposite of the first, a deep distrust of anything related to the senses, a Platonic rejection of this world for the sake of the higher world of ideas. An example of such a rejection is the reaction of Prince Evgenii Trubetskoi, a well known critic of religious art, to a painting by Rubens in which he finds nothing but “fat, flabby, shaking flesh, enjoying itself, devouring and killing for the sake of devouring.” He reasons that “this is exactly what must be stopped and pushed away by the blessing hand.”

By contrast, the Russian icon, according to Trubetskoi, is incomparably different in that it announces the “extra-biological meaning of life, [. . . ] an end to the animal kingdom.”(Evgenii Trubetskoi, “Umozrenie v kraskakh,” Filosophia russkogo relogioznogo iskusstva XVII-XX vv., Moscow, Progress-Kultura, 1993, p. 208.) Trubetskoi’s reaction was by no means an exception. For example, another Russian religious thinker of the 19th century, Sergii Bulgakov, experienced nothing but shocking “male feelings, male love, male lust” in front of Rafael’s Sistine Madonna and felt that the Russian Church was right in its rejection of “sentimentality and sensuality.”(Quoted in: Leonid Uspenskii, “Na putiakh k edinstvu,” Filosophia russkogo relogioznogo iskusstva XVII-XX vv., Moscow, Progress-Kultura, 1993, p. 365.) In fact, the position of the Orthodox church on icon painting had a profound influence on many aspects of creative activity in Russia, including architecture. The resolutions of the Synod of 1551 (Stoglavii Sobor), in addition to sounding warnings against depicting flesh and invoking carnal feelings, limited the artist’s activity to copying the ancient patterns. Artists were expected never to use their own (inferior) ideas on how to depict Divine entities, but to strictly follow the approved examples.(“Ot svoego zamyshlenia nichtozh pretvoriati, ot samomyshlenia i svoimi dogadkami Bozhestva ne opisyvat’.” Quoted in: Leonid Uspenskii, “Moskovskie sobory XVI veka i ikh rol’ v tserkovnom iskusstve,” Filosophia russkogo relogioznogo iskusstva XVII-XX vv., Moscow, Progress-Kultura, 1993, p. 325.)

Indeed, the Russian icon presents such a rich combination of shapes, colors, materials and textures that it seems that both, the Russian church leaders and the German expressionist architect B. Taut seem to be struggling with the same national “gift for decorativeness.” This ambivalence towards the flesh is curiously reminiscent of the anorexic/bulimic attitude towards food. Russians appear to be infatuated with the flesh, yet ashamed of this infatuation and consequently ready to accept their due punishment. This is the leitmotif of almost all of Dostoevsky’s novels, particularly The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. How can this attitude be linked to the most common eating disorders of our time? Contemporary psychology offers a wide variety of theories concerning such disorders. There are a few common themes, however. Eating disorders are related to self-punishment, they imply a desire to please an internalized parent, and they represent an anxiety concerning the prospect of adulthood and independence.(“Eating Disorders,” The Harvard Mental Health Letter, October & November 1997.) All three themes are highly relevant to Russian cultural development. The whole history of Russian architecture could be seen as a history of attempts to reconcile these two conflicting traits, either to find a higher justification for the feast of shapes and colors, or to reject one for the sake of the other.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.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 the Sparrow Hill region of Moscow (now the site of Moscow University). His project had two things in common with the competition entrees by the acclaimed architects Giacomo Quarenghi and Andrei Voronikhin: all three designs clearly belonged to classicism, and all three were crowned with domes. What set Vitberg’s project apart, however, was its strong sense of symbolism. 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, there was the cylinder crowned with a dome that was supposed to signify the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the reason why Vitberg’s proposal was selected was not its architectural merits but rather the dualism it represented, a design that used shapes as references to the realm of ideas. (One should not forget that the organization which handled the competition was the Ministry of Spiritual Affairs!).

Monument to the Third International (1932).A century later, almost the same symbolism appeared in Vladimir Tatlin’s proposal for his Monument to the Third International (1932) where the cube was to house the legislative body, the pyramid ‹the executive powers, and the cylinder ‹ the mass media. This symbolism underwent yet another transformation two decades later, in the Iofan-Gelfreikh-Shchuko design for the Palace of Soviets (1936) where the bottom level represented the “precursors of communism” and the middle level‹the teaching of Marx and Engels. From here, the viewer’s gaze would, according to the authors, “turn to the statue of Lenin crowning the building.”

Palace of Soviets (1936).None of the three projects ‹ Vitberg’s cathedral, Tatlin’s Monument, or the Palace of the Soviets‹has been, or even could have ever been realized. Vitberg’s cathedral was supposed to be 230 meters high while the tallest building of its time, St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, was only 141 meters. Czar Nicolas I set up an architectural commission to investigate the feasibility of Vitberg’s project, and the commission’s verdict was “not feasible.” Vitberg was subsequently accused of embezzlement of funds, wrongly convicted and spent the rest of his life in exile in Siberia.

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument was described by a contemporary critic in the following way: “Least of all you should stand and sit there, you should be propelled upward and downward, drawn against your will.” (N. N. Punin, “O pamyatnikakh,” Iskusstvo kommuny, 19 March, 1919.) There is something in this description that reminds us of the mythical Labyrinth: “The famous builder, Daedalus, designs and then constructs this maze. He tricks the eye with many twisting paths that double back [. . . ]. The clear Meander delights in flowing back and forth.” (The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Harvest Book, 1993, p. 253.) As if to complete the analogy, Tatlin, after falling out of grace during high Stalinism, spent the rest of his life working on the famous Letatlin, his flying machine, in a studio that was located in the bell tower of the Novo-Devitchii Monastery in Moscow. Interestingly, Tatlin, like other Russian avant-garde architects, had come to architecture from icon painting, and hence working in a bell tower must have been quite natural for him. His flying machine, of course, never flew. Just like the Monument or Vitberg’s Cathedral it was all about shapes and symbols, and not about structural engineering, aerodynamics, or cost analysis.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was eventually built in 1883 by another architect (Konstantin Ton), on another site (Prechistenskaia Embankment), in another style that could be roughly defined as pseudo-Russian revival. Evgenii Trubetskoi, predictably, was not impressed: “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 all of patriarchal Moscow has gathered cheerfully.”(Evgenii Trubetskoi, “Dva mira v drevnerusskoi ikonopisi,” Filosophia russkogo relogioznogo iskusstva XVII-XX vv., Moscow, Progress-Kultura, 1993, p. 242.) In the 1930s, the Cathedral was demolished to make room for the Palace of the Soviets. Its architects (Boris Iofan, Vladimir Gelfreikh, and Vladimir Shchuko) did not fall out of grace but their project was never carried out anyway. Some architects have suggested that the Palace of the Soviets could never have been built because of structural problems with the huge dome that was supposed to be incorporated into the building. The first sixteen stories of its metal structure were demolished during World War II. In the 1960s its foundation was turned into a swimming pool. At that time, rumors were spreading that religious fanatics with scuba-diving equipment were dragging unsuspecting swimmers into the water to punish them for desecrating the site. In the 1990s, new religious fanatics declared that the swimming pool, despite the contrary intentions of its builders, functioned as a giant font for baptizing all unsuspecting swimmers–therefore, anyone who had ever swam there had unsuspectingly become a Christian. The building site thus turned out to be guilty of same crime of which some Christian critics accused Mother Teresa, coercive baptizing.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Konstantin Ton, 1883.The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Konstantin Ton, 1883. Huge dome that was supposed to be incorporated into the building.The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Konstantin Ton, 1883. In the 1960s its foundation was turned into a swimming pool.
In the late 1980s, several projects for restoring the blown-up cathedral started to emerge. The most interesting one was Yuri Seliverstov’s idea to restore the building as a “wireframe,” an empty metal outline that would serve as a pure symbol of humility and repentance. I might also mention my own proposal for recreating the Palace of the Soviets as an inflatable clear plastic roof that shaped like the Iofan-Gelfreikh-Shchuko project and hanging suspended above the swimming pool.(That was an entry for an exhibition of design proposals for preserving Communist monuments, sponsored by Komar and Melamid.) My idea, despite its playfulness, had something in common with Seliverstov’s more serious project, for both were devoid of materiality. Yet, alas, “all of patriarchal Moscow”, to use Trubetskoi’s expression, cheerfully rejected all attempts at conceptualism in this context, and the cathedral was restored exactly as it had been designed by Ton.

Recreating the Palace of the Soviets as an inflatable clear plastic roof that shaped like theIofan-Gelfreikh-Shchuko project and hanging suspended above the swimming pool.Ton’s pseudo-Russian revival turned out to be the style of choice in the early post-Communist days. Modernism was rejected together with socialism and liberalism. Perhaps, Ton’s style was seen as a symbol of Alexander III’s conservatism. Yet it is important to note that Russian postmodernism was not identical with its Western counterpart. Western postmodernism was essentially a rejection of oppressive “grand narratives.”(Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 37.) In Russia, on the other hand, postmodernism became exactly that: a grand narrative, a unifying national idea.(Grigory Revzin, “Postmodernism kak kultura dva,” Novaia Gazeta, January 25, 1997.) The first thing that strikes an observer of the new postmodern buildings in Moscow is their poor architectural quality. With very few exceptions, they simply do not look professional. Russian architectural critics have, by the way, shown exactly the same reaction. (See, for example: ibid., p.1.) The explanation may lie, among other things, in the peculiar fate of modernism in Russia where it was rejected twice. While in the early 1920s, architectural modernism was understood not as a method, but as a set of readymade patterns to be replicated, in the early 1930s, the elimination of all traces of Constructivist architectural design was perceived by the majority of Russian architects, as well as by the public, as a newly acquired freedom.

The second wave of modernist influence occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. Both waves were too short to influence, in the long run, the way Russian architects think. The language of modernist architecture was never fully accepted in Russia. Western architectural postmodernism did not reject the language of modern architecture, it just deprived it of its universalist pretensions. The modernist architectural language is no doubt still a significant part of the Western (postmodern) vocabulary. Meanwhile in Russia, modernism was rejected completely. Perhaps, this is what makes most contemporary Russian buildings appear unprofessional–they look like a text written on a typewriter with a few missing characters.

In Russia, as shown by Grigory Revzin, the profession of an architect was an innovation introduced by Peter the Great. By contrast, traditional church building, just like icon painting, was to a large degree limited to the replication of approved canonical examples. “In Russia,” writes Revzin, “the very status of the architect as a profession was contingent upon his departure from the Old Russian tradition.” (Grigory Revzin, “ŒRussian style¹ and the professional tradition,” Project Russia, No. 3, 1996, p. 22.) In this way, I would suggest, the “bulimic” appetite for a more traditional architectural language in Russia during the 1990s can be seen as a retreat from professional adulthood. The next step, perhaps, would be to find an appropriate spiritual justification for the feast of shapes and forms we witnessed during the 1990s. Boris Yeltsyn’s call to find a new “unifying national idea” is perhaps a first step in this direction.