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Russia and America cross-pollinate at the Canadian Centre for Architecture

This Time It’s Personal

Russia and America cross-pollinate at the Canadian Centre for Architecture

Wolkenbügel, designed in 1925 by “Constructivist” El Lissitzky. (Courtesy Canadian Centre for Architecture)

My in-laws are Russian. In fact, they are Muscovites. And they have a very convincing way of narrating their still-fresh memories of life in the Soviet Union. I have not been to Russia since their daughter and I traveled along the canals that connect Moscow to St. Petersburg fifteen years ago. We do not discuss politics much when we visit her family in New Jersey. I have learned that there are differences of perspective, but that those don’t really matter. We have not discussed Russian interference in the U.S. elections. Still, I am quite sure that we would all agree, at some level, that such things are essentially trivial too. Eating a Russian dinner in New Jersey doesn’t feel strange, and despite the fact that this family is in the U.S. because of geopolitics, the very idea of personalizing those politics does seem odd. Upon further reflection, however, there might be no other way to connect memory to history.

Only after traveling to the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal to view the exhibition of Building a New New World, Americanizm in Russian Architecture, did I realize that personal view of geopolitics also has a history. The exhibition collects an enormous array of architectural objects and documents that trace the ideas, materials, people, trends that moved between Russia and America over the course of more than a century. Indeed, nations have relationships, almost like people do. And the Russian relationship to America, or more precisely Russians’ views of Americanism (America, as they saw it) is Jean-Louis Cohen’s curatorial theme for the exhibition. Cohen is personally involved in these geopolitics as well, but more on that later.

Pencil drawing of a flat, rail yard-like tractor plant in Russia
A drawing of the Soviet Diesel Tractor Assembly Plant, designed by Albert Kahn. (Courtesy Canadian Centre for Architecture)

In the forthcoming exhibition catalog, Cohen refers to the work of Reinhart Koselleck, a mid-20th century German practitioner of conceptual history, or Begriffsgeschichte. This historical method hinged on the changing definitions of cultural terms over time, which he called “the semantics of historical time.” The language that binds expression to understanding, according to this theory, is the thread that historians use to enter a period distant from them in both space and time. This is Koselleck’s concept of a “space of experience” that Cohen has drawn into the galleries at the CCA, to understand the contradictory nature of Americanism in Russian architectural culture. This concept, therefore, offers an empathetic entry into an alien world of Russian modernism: We must first accept the various Russian conceptions about America to enter their changing space of experience—in other words, to personalize geopolitics.

Of course, generalizations about America were not and are not unique to Russians; they were produced alongside the American Revolution, probably even earlier. Cohen begins the catalog’s introduction and the exhibition’s wall text with the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, who explicitly set “Anglo-Americans” and Russians into an incipient geopolitical rivalry, one based in their declared difference from traditional European values. Tocqueville’s theorization of American character for Europeans has, since, become the basis for most claims of national character. Indeed, Cohen is quite clear that Russian Americanism was always mediated by non-Russian interpreters. He and Hubert Damisch wrote on Américanisme et modernité (1993), and a Russian translation of Hugo Münsterberg’s book, Die Amerikaner (1904), appears in one of the beautiful cases designed by MG&Co.

The cases are crucial to building Cohen’s space of experience: they require close reading and immersive engagement. MG&Co’s beautifully designed curtains serve as transitions between the galleries, each focused on a theme. They also enclose six digital projections—one on each side of three thresholds—chosen to reflect on the contents of each gallery. The gallery walls and the curtains are color-coded, as are the cases that carry the essence of the show: models, drawings, and an overwhelming assembly of books and journals. The general impression is of density. In each one of the cases are numerous objects that reflect on one another, offering a guide from one object to the next. This composition feels like inhabiting a three-dimensional book; galleries are the chapters and the cases are subchapters within. The surprise for this reader came after turning around from the cases, as I faced the walls where the narrative of the chapter played out again, but now at a higher speed. The experience is hugely rich: There are places to stop and read, places to move and scan, and places where connections can be made as one watches a film, such as that of Colonel Hugh L. Cooper, an American engineer, dedicating a Russian hydraulic damn on the Dnieper River.

In addition to all this content, Studio Folder (“an agency for visual research,” according to their website) has composed a set of maps that illustrate the connections between Russia and America. Lines describe the “routes of architects, intellectuals, artists and politicians who traveled across the two continents, between 1813 and 1991.” The endpoints of each line are sometimes surprising (Des Moines, Fort Wayne, San Antonio: Baku, Yalta, Novosibirsk) and sometimes not (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C.: Leningrad, Moscow, Kyiv). The maps make evident the fact that Americanism was more than a generalization, more than political rhetoric, more than a literary fantasy. In fact, as Cohen has made clear in his selection of themes and objects, the very history of industrial infrastructure, from the late nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, was shaped by its transposition across the globe.

A pink and purple chart showing blue tracking lines from the US to Russia
Studio Folder created a chart tracking the connections between the U.S. and Russia. (Studio Folder/Courtesy Canadian Centre for Architecture)

The gallery named “Modernization of Czarist Russia” focuses on the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition and 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, sites that represent industrial exchange between the two countries as well as others. But this gallery also reveals the Maxim Gorky’s anguish in his book In America (1906), where he described the Americanism of New York City as “getting into a stomach of stone and iron, a stomach that has swallowed several million people and is consuming and digesting them.” The negativity abates in the third gallery, as the Gilbreths’ Motion Study is traced through the work of Alexey Gestev’s Central Institute of Labor, Ford’s tractors being built in the Putilov plant in Leningrad, and Albert Kahn’s company training over 4,000 Russian architects, draftsmen, and engineers from 1930 to 1931.

The exhibition traces a dialectic between Russians attracted to American modernity and those who found it repellant. Often times, these oppositions are enacted simultaneously. The gallery focused on the avant-garde shows this opposition: Adaptations of Hollywood (Buster Keaton and Charley Chaplin) in Russian movie-making are set against the disparaging words of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who found New Yorkers as beset by a “dormant and flaccid rural mindset.” Or, there are those examples of Russians who sidelined American influence altogether—the Nikolay Ladovsky’s Vkhutemas pedagogy or and El Lissitzky’s horizontal skyscrapers. Geopolitical borrowing moves its target when it is politically strategic. Some Russians chose other influences despite the continued interest in American factories and the culture industry.

Among the most impressive objects in the exhibition is the model of Boris Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets (1934). The image commonly associated with this winning entry for the international design competition depicts the building from below. A military parade marches in the foreground and fighter planes fly behind Lenin’s figure, who stands atop the neoclassical birthday cake of a building with a book (Das Kapital?) in his left hand, while his outstretched right hand points upward. It was the first time seeing Iofan’s design from above in his wooden model. Despite the monumentalizing efforts in drawing, Stalin’s architects could not overcome a model’s capacity to domesticate political bravado at a toy-like scale.

In the sixth gallery, model airplanes are hung from above as though they have escaped from Iofan’s drawing. Some documents below them display the Soviet capacity to build flying warcraft that equaled or exceeded their American counterparts (even if based in their industrial espionage). One object stands out on the wall, drawn from Cohen’s father’s collection of Soviet memorabilia. As a French reporter, he kept a brochure distributed in a 1947 airplane shows. That object opens a clear “space of experience,” an empathetic encounter with Russian Americanism mediated by the Cohen family history. It is touching to think of all those events that historians trace through their narratives that may also be passed along in bedtime stories. In this respect, geopolitics is as historical as it is personal.

The CCA, this winter, offered a unique platform to explore the richness produced by the mixture of memory and history, as well as the rigor and beauty of historical documents that display the critical role of architecture in constructing geopolitics. In a recent book by Keith Gessen, which has nothing to do with architecture, the protagonist makes connections among his life, his family’s travails, and the academic study of Soviet history. He sees the Russian tendency to borrow other nations’ advances as an addiction that finally leads to Gessen’s own suffering. I leave you with these musings as they so beautifully summarize the clarity afforded by interweaving human memory into a historical narrative.

“Suddenly everything I have been looking at—not just over these past months in Moscow, but over the few years in academia, and over the past fifteen years of studying Russia—became clear to me. Russia has always been late to the achievements and realizations of Western civilization. Its lateness was its charm and its curse—it was as if Russia were a drug addict who received every concoction only after it was perfectly crystallized, maximally potent. Nowhere were Western ideas, Western beliefs, taken more seriously; nowhere were they so passionately implemented. Thus the Bolshevik Revolution, which overthrew the old regime; thus the human rights movement, plus blue jeans, which overthrew the Bolshevik one; and thus finally this new form of capitalism created here, which had enriched and then expelled my brother, and which had impoverished my grandmother and killed Uncle Lev. You didn’t have to go and read a thousand books to see it; you just had to stay where you were and look around.”

Building a New New World, Americanizm in Russian Architecture runs through April 5.