Articles and Reviews


BUILDING THE REVOLUTION at Royal Academy of Arts
October 2011 - January 2012        









The exhibition was criticized for the small size of, and hence difficulty of viewing,  the photographs. There is no problem with the catalogue which arxitecture highly recommends.

The Royal Academy of Arts 2011
Illustrated with original photographs and contemporary ones by Richard Pare

The book is the catalogue for the exhibition; and is curiously relevant to those seeking a new paradigm for affordable housing during the current financial crisis.

It documents with original photographs and current ones showing the state of the buildings today, the new building types, including housing ones, following the October Revolution of 1917.

Artists and architects sought to forge a new visual language that would proclaim the political ideals of the new Socialist era……

they produced radical and highly innovative designs for buildings created to fulfil new functions of the state, new Socialist canons for living, work and recreation, and new industrial programmes. (p8)

As well as magazines, books and exhibitions the new lifestyle, for it was more than simply a style, was proclaimed in film, the new medium of the time. The architectural style was influenced by Europe and America, but the flow was two way.

Between 1912 and 1921 Russian avant-garde artists explored abstract forms, which created a new style of sculpture that replaced sculpture with construction, such as the Tatlin Tower, and was soon applied to architecture.

Popova and Rodchenko, featured in an exhibition at the Tate Modern in February 2009, are examples of artists whose abstract work turned increasingly architectonic, and indeed Rodchenko turned to architectural design. The Constructivists were originally a group of artists, but Constructivism is now better known as an architectural style, after architects showed that it could transcend the limits of representation and be given practical application. (p26)

A model of Vladimir Tatlin’s famous tower, itself only ever a model, was erected in the RCA forecourt for the exhibition. A paragraph in the catalogue gives a good summary.

Tatlin exemplified this novel fusion of the arts: he was a painter who had become a sculptor in 1914 when he had started making his relief constructions, and he had subsequently become involved with architecture when he designed his Monument – a gargantuan skeletal structure, a third higher than the Eiffel Tower, that was to act as the headquarters for the Communist body responsible for fostering world revolution. Tatlin’s nine-metre model was a paradigm of utopian possibilities, demonstrating how the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture could be synthesised. It appeared at a crucial moment, acting both as a summation of artistic achievements and a stimulus for future experimentation, leading directly to the emergence of Constructivism in early 1921. (p96)

In 1922Vladimir Shukhov’s150m high radio tower in Moscow had an innovative design using straight steel members arranged as trusses to prevent buckling. It also was intended to be higher than the Eiffel Tower but was limited by a steel shortage. Rodchenko photographed it and it became a symbol of Soviet progress.

Megastructures were another innovation. For example the Grosprom Building in Kharkov, the new Ukrainian capital housed over 25 government institutions in a series of tall blocks linked by high level bridges, or skywalks which created a new architectural language for communal life.

Part of the social revolution was to free women from domestic chores, especially cooking, so that they could engage in the new industrial activity. This ranged from providing communal kitchens in housing schemes to factory kitchens like those in St Petersburg which provided meals for whole districts and included canteens and a department store.

At a smaller scale it also meant that kitchens in new housing schemes did not need stoves with baking facilities. The industrial bakery operated 24 hours per day, using a mass production technique with a different stage of baking on each of its four floors.

An example of the new housing types, here showing the architectural influence of le Corbusier, is the Narkomfin Communal House built to serve the staff of the Finance Ministry. It was conceived as a block of 42 flats with associated communal kitchen and dining hall, sports hall, laundry block, and a children’s block which was never built. Ginzburg’s plans optimised use of space, economy of construction and efficient patterns of living. The units were open plan, thus eliminating the need for internal corridors…. Access corridors were on alternate floors, so the flats, which almost all extend over two levels have the benefits of dual aspect. (p168)

Similar complexes were built to house students who often lived away from home. One in Moscow housed 2000 students in an eight storey dormitory block, with double bedrooms just six square metres in area. These were for sleeping only and there was a separate sanitation block and study centre, as well as sports centre, dining hall and assembly hall.

So what can Constructivism teach us today? – not a style though it coped with lack of resources, and not a social system, though the nature of society is changing. It is an encouragement to do something new when new circumstances arrive, particularly affecting housing. We should be challenged by the mid 19th century movement, largely led by Christians, to provide decent affordable housing for the working classes. This responsibility was later taken up by local authorities and council housing was born.


A century later churches were amongst the first organisations to pioneer housing associations, and the Salvation Army continues to house the homeless.

The challenge is to pioneer a new way of providing affordable housing for all, perhaps with a new architectural language as well.


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