Friday, April 30, 2010
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Dancing Slowly, Lit like Photographs
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Southampton to Moscow
Will mostly not be posting for a bit, as am in transit, but there's a review by me of a (really rather good) installation in and on Southampton in BD this week, plus the promised reflection on the Rusakov Workers' Club. There'll be a post or several about the former Russian capital sooner or later (possibly later*) but until then, anyone in the vicinity of the current one should be spending Mayday with The Commune of Creative Workers, who are holding a Congress on 29-30 April, which promises to be excellent, and better than getting frisked on your way to see bad sots art at 'Garazh'.
* (so until then, I recommend you go and read Mr Tiso at what is possibly the most underrated and consistently surprising and excellent blog around, Bat-Bean-Beam, on the subject of a travel guide to Leningrad from 1963.)
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Barking is potentially going to become the first place in Britain to elect a Fascist MP. Although electing Fascists is considered normal in much of oh-so-civic continental Europe (a cheap shot, I know, but the point remains) in the UK it is often still, rightly, considered alarming that such a thing could potentially occur. There are some excellent, sharp analyses of this, as well as some stupid and knee-jerk ones (here is the best I've read so far), but I won't pretend this post is anything other than a light skimming of the (architectural) surface, based on a walk with someone whose natural territory this is. We walked there from Canning Town, not for sexy urban degradation frisson, but because she's currently working there, and thought I would find it interesting. Which I did.
The area we saw was Barking Central (in regenerator's order), rather than, say, Becontree, a huge 1920-30s estate which by some accounts is where lots of the BNP support is concentrated. This is a shame, as from what I know about it - council cottages in very close vicinity to a giant Ford works - it sounds a lot like one of the places where I grew up, but time was short. The area has been subject to a very ambitious regeneration scheme, which local MP, unctuous Blairite and spectacularly philistine 'culture minister' Margaret Hodge has described as 'her kind of architecture'. This is hardly a recommendation, but the comprehensiveness of the whole thing is at least impressive - there's a typically detailed and scrupulous analysis by Ellis Woodman here. Barking feels like a different territory very quickly. As soon as you pass under the flyover, the difference between the terraced density of east Ham and Barking's sprawling suburbia is noticeable, with a straggling collection of dodgy pomo, Victorian factories, '30s semis, tower blocks and wasteland announcing it, which then fades into a quite pleasant town centre, marked by medieval remains, pedestrianised shops and town-centre office blocks, all on roughly the same scale as, say, Dartford - though significantly more multiracial than the latter. This is one of the tiny handful of BNP strongholds that actually has a high level of immigration. Customarily, this is presented as being about housing - no new council housing has been built for decades, and right-to-buy has warped the perception of what exists - although to suggest that racism has nothing to do with it would be foolish. As Laura points out, the Fascist sympathisers in places like Bethnal Green didn't disappear in the 1990s - they went somewhere.
The edges of the town centre are where the tensions lie. One side features a large, derelict shopping parade, which has flats at the back, curving around a car park and some lumps that might or might not have been public art of some description, or mere traffic-controlling blobs; whether its been a recipient of Regeneration or not, it's surely undeniable that leaving a load of housing derelict in the middle of a housing crisis is rather grotesque, especially in a place this charged. It's hard to decide which side is the more depressing, the flats - which, I suspect, are probably of decent Parker-Morris proportions - or the shops, which were in the following case no doubt even more depressing when they were open. The race to the bottom, not even jollied up or glorified.
The eye is drawn, though, to two pieces of very jolly architecture. First, the Town Hall, proof that there are simply no uninteresting town halls in London, a Dudok-Georgian mashup with a wonderfully unscholarly silliness. The belltower appears to be full of suspicious-looking telecommunications equipment, and Bobbies On The Beat walk back and forth in front of it at a more regular rate than I'm used to seeing, presumably to make sure the place doesn't explode, although the centre seems calm enough on a superficial level. Then there's AHMM's Barking Central development. AHMM are some sort of exemplar of Blairite architecture at its most thoroughly developed, a glossy, brightly-coloured neomodernism that feels like CGI even when you touch it, Bruno Taut relocated to DOSAC in The Thick of It - their tendency to the rictus grin occasionally conceals talent, but if there's a better exemplar of New Labour architecture than the atrium of Westminster Academy, I don't know what it is. In the article linked above, Woodman is scathing about the contrast between the Fun of the facades and the grimness of the small, single-aspect flats - leading to 'the sense that the architect has allowed itself to be cast as a variety of Butlins Redcoat, ladling on the jollity in an attempt — both tyrannical and hopeless — to keep the poverty of the underlying conditions from mind.' I can't add much more to that.
Some of it is 'affordable housing', that all-purpose get-out-clause, and it bears constant repeating that affordable housing is not council housing, is usually shared-ownership or slightly cheaper to-buy, and so makes virtually no difference to the problems that are purportedly stirring up the BNP vote. Let's imagine for a moment, irrespective of the crappy space standards, what a gesture it would have been if a development this large, this shiny and optimistic, were let to council tenants - how many political arguments would then be won at a stroke. As it is, the place is not altogether hideous, for all its fiddling-while-rome-burns nature, and part of that is due to extraneous things, extras on the architecture which are surprisingly clever, and suggest how much more could have been done here - the colonnades (which may be by Muf rather than AHMM, though I'm unsure) are great, the size of the site letting the architects do something they couldn't have squeezed into a tight plot of inner-city CABEism - it's an actually quite pleasant and successful public space. The main occupants of the space appear to be the pigeons.
Across from this is - honesty here, at least, in the choice of name - the Folly, designed by Muf. It's rather asking to be judged as a description for the entire project, an act of expensive futility - but the sheer aggression of it marks it out as something perhaps more interesting, one of the few built instantiations of the recent ruin-mania of any consequence (cf). It's a compellingly weird urban object, from the headless creatures lined up and inset into it, to the gates leading nowhere -and there is after all a ruined abbey nearby - but the suggestion that it might be some comment or satire on the surrounding scheme, or on AHMM's refusal to imagine the possibility of ageing or weathering in their buildings, seems a bit much, although placing a sheep atop the whole thing has at least some tongue-poking symbolism. It derives from a much more interesting kind of architectural thought than the rest, but I can't help wishing Matthew Darbyshire had got the job instead. If he hadn't already.
Two other things in the middle of Barking that caught our eye....
One is Barking Station, one of Ian Nairn's favourite modern buildings, given typically forthright praise in Nairn's London, an angular roof in concrete so richly, darkly shuttered that it's hard to remind yourself it isn't wood, a bespoke station which suggests Barking could be somewhere quite special, a local centre far from Zone 1 which nonetheless has a sharp, defined identity for itself, which isn't reducible to being just another notch in the commuter belt. The other is a shopping mall, a glass and fibreglass atrium that resembles the iron-and-glass canopies of Leeds City Markets relocated to Thorpe Park, picked out in pink, with a false top-floor and an interesting selection of shops. Here, we found two images which fit certain Barking stereotypes...one of them doesn't need much comment.
The other exemplifies the pandering that, as the NS article above makes clear, runs through Barking politics. You could see it in the notorious edition of Question Time, where the other politicians asserted how tough they would be on immigration, in a spectacularly misbegotten attempt to lessen Fascist support by telling them their policies were justified - but while they say it because they're racists, we say it because it's true (well done all). So everything is advertised as being for The Locals. At least they don't use the term 'indigenous'. Aside from the tacit racism, it doth protest too much - the implication is that there's something to prove here, that when they aren't loudly pointing it out, housing and jobs might not be going to 'locals'. But looking at the way a huge swathe of Barking has been redeveloped neither in the interests of council tenants or the poorer incomers, and how large-scale and blaring a development that is, you have to wonder who is fooling who here.
Me on Lubetkin, for the so far very interesting, if unfortunately named new left politics/theory website Counterfire.
Monday, April 19, 2010
What follows is a fittingly enormous post on Moscow. It's appropriately, if somewhat vaguely subdivided, so for ease of reading, I'd recommend a heavy cup of tea inbetween sections, a precaution we didn't always take on the visit...
We started in St Petersburg, where we stayed most of the week, and from there went to Moscow for two nights, then back. I will start with the capital, because it is a dramatic place, and one that I ought to get off my chest. As soon as you get off the train at the Leningradsky Vokzal a song plays to welcome you into the Russian capital - a gigantic, bombastic brassy tune declaring 'MOSKVA! MOSKVA!' It sets the tone, to say the least - this is a city in capital letters, the biggest in Europe, a place that makes an adoptive Londoner feel provincial.
The song accompanied entry into the Leningrad Station, unprepossessing on the outside but on the inside a lovely, delicate, patterned midcentury modern design, centred on a bust of the man himself. All the railway stations - metro, overground, termini - we saw in Russia were beautiful, although cliché as it undoubtedly is, the bureaucracy there is very real indeed, as it is everywhere. At this station we waited alongside several equally disgruntled Russian travellers for 40 minutes while various impenetrable exercises with multiple slips, receipts and forms were performed in order to get us a ticket.
The train in question was the 'Sapsan', an extremely plush high-speed link between the old capital and the new. It replaced some commuter routes through the villages and industrial towns inbetween, which means it is subjected to regular attacks - rock-throwing, etc from angry former travellers. On our return, we learnt that the Sapsan train carrying us back to Petersburg had been shot at. The image above is Moscow in a nutshell - crowds, giant adverts, and soaring, demented Stalinist architecture. This, the Hotel Leningrad, was the smallest of the 'Seven Sisters', a series of skyscrapers built on Stalin's personal orders (and frequently receiving his personal architectural intervention - a spire here, an extra few storeys there) after 1945. The eighth, the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science, marks the dead centre of a city - but these encircle the centre, in a vaguely occult fashion. The Hotel Leningrad used so little of its site that, soon after completion and the death of its patron, the architects were stripped of their Stalin Prizes by Khrushchev.
The Kosmos and the Exhibition of Economic Achievements
Monumentalism didn't stop after Stalin, it merely adapted itself to the new circumstances. We were staying in the building above - the Hotel Cosmos, designed by French architects in the late 1970s, for Intourist (hence the statue, which is of De Gaulle). It's fairly astonishing, with a ramp creating a ceremonial route for the awed pedestrian - who is then steeled to face the horrendous flyover and multiple-highway chaos on the other side.
Inside, the Cosmos is much as it was designed - a place to impress and obtain currency from tourists, with a variety of themed shops selling everything from Constructivist posterbooks to Russian dolls of Soviet and Russian Federation leaders - from Lenin to Medvedev, usually leaving out Khrushchev. Clocks or plates of Putin and Medvedev abound, ironic authoritarianism where they can both watch you and you can laugh at them. Apart from the newfound self-reflexivity and the enormous gap between rich and poor, it's all what you would expect a gigantic Intourist hotel to be like - spectacular, unnerving.
The Chinese restaurant is called Happyland. It is astoundingly expensive and so glossily futuristic that the exorbitant price is almost explicable. Television screens show (while playing different music altogether) extremely harsh, hypersexualised music videos, and prostitution in the lobby seems to be an accepted part of the concessions, along with the shops selling watches and the variety of themed restaurants.
On the other side of the snarling highways is something rather special - a park of ideology, VDNKh, the 'Exhibition of Economic Achievements'. At either end of it are monuments to the two poles of the defunct state - on one side, the Monument to the Cosmonauts, a titanium sweep up to the stars that conveys with some success the sheer absurd romance of the space programme, and in the rocket at the top (which is going where, exactly?) its military root; and at the other side, the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, the statue for the Paris World's Fair of 1937, designed by Vera Mukhina.
This monument, memorably featured in the old Mosfilm jingle, was dismounted recently so an underground car park could be built underneath. When re-erected, Mukhina's steel figures now surmounted a plinth in a vague approximation to Boris Iofan's original sumerian-futurist structure, with some inexplicable added barcoding. That it would be rebuilt and made actually more monumental in the process is a reminder of how the current government takes up Stalinist imagery and architecture with few qualms. What they do have a problem with is 1920s, Constructivist imagery and architecture, as we would soon see.
The next morning we had a walk round the 1938 Exhibition of Economic Achievements. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas talks about how the 'culture of congestion' - the cramming of function, administration, consumption and entertainment into multi-purpose, irrationalist structures, the use of the circus as urban organising principle - begins in Coney Island. As they were clearly fans of Delirious New York rather than the city of the International Style, Stalinist planners built their own Coney Island, as Alberto pointed out, right here.
As much as the Palace of the Soviets, this is the birthplace of Stalinist architecture, and its dream-nightmare vocabulary of statuary, encrustation, proud and soaring things, and an adaptation of 1900s/1910s American architecture into something not tied to the Manhattan grid, but able to create imposing vistas and ideologically-driven urban alignments.
It has all the kitsch you could possibly imagine, but this time pressed into the service of J.V Stalin rather than P.T Barnum, although no doubt both would agree that there's a sucker born every minute. Some Stalinist projects are stunningly, undeniably convincing - the Moscow Metro alone probably made more converts of bedazzled western visitors than anything else, and it's still the most incredible thing in the city (albeit one which prosecutes photographers), the palatial motor of its hyperactive congestion, the super-speed underside to the gridlock of the highways - but VDNKh is not somewhere that Brecht was ever going to write a poem about. It is a series of pavilions, originally all dedicated to the various components of the Imperium, themed according to the national culture of each - as the Stalinist jingle went, architecture must be 'national in form, socialist in content'. There was always piped music at VDNKh. The fountain below is silent, but the sound - surely an irony intended - is Richard Marx's 'Right Here Waiting'
The content was originally exhibitions about how much everyone had to eat, and is now a mix of tourist boards for ex-Soviet republics, vegetable markets, and kebab shops. The national form remains. Karelia has a particularly beautiful/bizarre wooden pediment, due to the timber industry there - others have a vaguely Islamic form, a unity of Muslim ornament and Communist imagery to please any Harry's Place contributor.
The health-and-wealth theme glorifies the peasantry who lost the near-Civil War of 1930, and starved as a result - even the lamp-posts are giant sheafs of some crop or other. Jonathan Meades has an interesting architectural theory of dictatorial longevity - that the more a regime embraces kitsch, the more it will be entrenched in power. The Nazis, with their middlebrow neoclassicism, their Kingsnorthian mountain retreats, didn't get long - Stalin, meanwhile, died of old age, his regime gilded by gold leaf and freakish hypervictorian ornamentation.
The other side of VDNKh is an exaltation of something considerably less Volkish, the space programme. The futurism of the Khrushchev and Kosygin years is heralded by the Ostankino television tower - still the tallest building in Europe - and a series of cosmic-themed ornaments, sputnik gates, busts of cosmonants, and so forth.
This is the Space Pavilion, which still has a rocket in situ. Nearby, the ominipresent pollution makes the very close Ostankino tower seem rather distant. For a city that has so many skyscrapers, Moscow doesn't seem to do skyline, as the gasoline all rather gets in the way.
Following the Constructivists around the Garden Ring
The real reason why I'm here is research, for the part-time PhD - roughly three-quarters finished, honest - on Americanism and Socialism in Weimar Berlin and the early USSR. So I imposed a punishing regimen on my two co-tourists, causing some painful blisters in both them and me, to see as many Constructivist buildings as we possibly could in two and a half days, descending upon them like architectural paparazzi. What is so striking about Moscow Constructivism is how intimate and small-scale it all is, in the context of generations of soaring gigantism - whether Tsarist onion domes and neoclassical office blocks, Stalinist skyscrapers and hulking apartment blocks, or Brezhnev-era attenuated modernism. Even the most brutally powerful buildings - like that ur-brutalist masterpiece, the Rusakov Club - refuse to dominate their users. Perhaps this is why they're so neglected - just not Bolshoy enough. The building below, Gostorg, designed by Boris Velikovsky in 1925, was supposed to have a tower at the top, but even then one suspects it would have been lighter and more delicate than most things in the city.
This is one of a cluster of Constructivist structures around the Krasnye Vorota ('Red Gates') metro station, designed by Nikolai Ladovsky, Rationalist architect and enthusiast for 'psychotechnics' and 'psycho-organisational' planning - although the latter term describes Stalinist planning rather well, this station was perhaps the last avant-garde building in Moscow, a deep red seashell ushering you into the depths, where you will find a similarly lush neoclassical design by Ivan Fomin, immortalising the Tsarist triumphal arch that it replaced. Even though here we were in no danger of the Militia corralling us, it was damn hard to get a picture of the entrance without mess or signage. The area around is vague car parking space, as is any vaguely vacant area, and sometimes, half of the pavement.
This is the northern part of the deceptively named Garden Ring, where there's a mess of office blocks of differing eras, into which the Constructivists slot uneasily - they were mostly planned for a different road scheme than the one instituted in 1935, so are crammed into uneasy, cramped sites, inbetween neoclassical palazzos and generations of office blocks. Narkmozem, the Ministry of Agriculture - a fun place at the turn of the '30s, no doubt - designed by architectural chameleon Alexei Schusev in 1929, is the most eye-catching of them, merging the ideas of others - the sweeping curves of Erich Mendelsohn, the intersecting cubes of Alexander Vesnin - with some panache.
Due to a wish not to get run over, most of my pics were close-ups of those typically Constructivist 'components' - clocks. Ivan Fomin's classical-constructivist Railways Ministry, from the same era, has a similarly neat Taylorist time-piece to go along with its glass stair-tower.
It's loomed over by one of the 'sisters' - just to see one of them unexpectedly loom into view is always alarming and thrilling in equal measure, with their crusting together of kitsch, terror and Eisensteinian skyscraping ecstasy.
But the most famous building in the area is considerably more small-scale - Centrosoyuz, a government building designed by Le Corbusier in 1928 and finished nearly ten years later, mostly to his original design, only without the air-conditioning he specified. This is the first time - bar reconstructions - that I've ever directly experienced a Le Corbusier building, and though I couldn't see much of the magnificent and correct play of forms in light - especially this murky, polluted spring light - I did find it a rather strange experience. You can see it's supposed to have more space - the expanses commanded by the sisters - in order to see the intersection of its long glass facades, to walk under the pilotis to the semicircular theatre at the back - rather than being elbowed into a tight corner, stuffed behind randomly parked cars, and fenced off from the hoi polloi.
It seems somewhere inbetween Corb's various periods - the smooth bureaucratic sides incarnating his technocratic '20s, the theatre and the tufa stone the organic sensuality to come. On the other side of the Garden Ring, another building uses the same stone and glass combination I've seen in the photographs, and initially I wondered if it were Centrosoyus. The perils of excessive influence...
Moscow features one of the very few buildings that Le C was magnanimous to admit to being influenced by - the Narkomfin housing complex, designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis in 1928. You ought to already know about this building - read this, if you don't. It's the ur-building of collective housing, the 20th century's phalanstery - the Isokon building, the Unite d'Habitation, Park Hill, all derive from the combination of collective facilities, walkways and parkland designed into this structure. So it's only appropriate that in a time which sneers at both modernism and communism that this should be in a state of advanced decreptitude.
But all this is what we already know about the Narkomfin - the weird and interesting thing is how this one-time model building interacts with the real environment of Moscow. So the rear facade backs onto the 70s (brick, vernacular) US Embassy, a massive and heavily guarded walled compound - the guard looks at us highly askance as we take photos. Someone has been throwing random heaps of concrete off the roof of either the Narkomfin or the Embassy - or, more worryingly, it's a bit fallen off the penthouse at the top.
People still live in the Narkomfin, as it falls to pieces - we watch one person get in, punching in a number - in London I'd blag my way in at this point, but here it seemed ill-advised....In the back garden by the embassy someone has left a magazine promising 'beautiful living, building and renovating', as some sort of sick joke. Either that, or some enterprising Narkomfin tenant has hopes to keep at least their corner of the damn thing looking half-decent.
The Narkomfin is secluded behind a small park, which makes it feel at something of a remove from everything around it. There are three ages of what followed -
This was designed by Lev Rudnev in the '30s, shelved, and resuscitated at the turn of the '80s as the parliamentary 'white house' under Brezhnev's neo-stalinist regime. One hopes Charles Jencks approved of this then-zeitgeisty postmodernist turn.
This is another of the sisters, apartments allocated mainly to the 'cultural elite' - mixed feelings here...
And directly adjacent is this, and this I can't even be ambiguous or (ahem) 'contrarian' about. It's horrible. Lots of Moscow now looks like this, like a giant neo-Stalinist casino. Stalinist architecture, horrible as it often is, at least has a certain demented power to its kitsch, the ornamentation is frequently weird and original, the mish-mash has a delirium and terrible ambition to it. This stuff - which is still getting built - is something far worse, lifeless kitsch, kitsch without conviction. It's like an entire gigantic country's architects all forgot how to design, all at once - an impression which would be nuanced only slightly over the course of the trip. More comforting, at least initially, is a relatively well-treated workers' club by Ginzburg's Constructivist colleagues, the Vesnin brothers. Across the Garden Ring from the Narkomfin, and next to a (very nice) cafe with 1920s imagery on the walls, the sweeping glazed stair now has a strange little shed next to it, but at least it isn't falling down.
The building sprawls along its cramped site, refusing to fit into any streetline - accordingly, cars are parked randomly around it. It was built in 1930-2 by the Society of Former Tsarist Political Prisoners, most of whom were swiftly re-imprisoned and killed - then it became the House of Film Actors, and now seems to be a theatre of some sort. The stepped cubes here are still very, very sharp and chic, a place where you can see the architects' heritage in Suprematist painting...
But nobody seems interested in anything ever being 'in keeping'. Not in general - Stalinist buildings are well-kept, and even copied - but 1920s buildings are treated with as much disrespect as 1920s politics. So stone-cladding, a bolt-on sign, a neo-baroque streetlamp, and peculiar little pitched-roofed kiosks go next to the almost appropriate futuristic 'SLUMVA' sign sticking out of the building. Moscow is not the place for architecture fans who are fastidious. I'm not one for shouting at satellite dishes in conservation areas, but it's hard not to want to cry, often, round here.
Depressingly, clubs that are still clubs or local theatres treat their buildings abominably - restoration only occurs when either multinational companies or - as we'll see later - oligarchs' wives buy up Constructivist buildings, which is something of a Scylla and Charbydis situation. Even then, the imperatives of architectural preservation and 21st century advertising are often in conflict. A longish walk from this Vesnin club is their 1926 Mostorg department store. As an indication of how Venturi/Scott-Brown-esque Constructivism can be, this building is basically two things - a sign, and a big glass show-wall. When they bought it recently Benetton re-instated the sign, and stuck adverts over the glass wall.
We had a drink in a pretend English pub over the road, where a man in a union jack waistcoat and several waitresses in short kilts provided a surreal English experience, to no English people (bar two of us). We read the news and were startled that a fragment of time-future was so assertively outside the window, advert or no advert. Especially as the competition looks like this -
Next to this, the imminent 65th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War is heralded by some oddly familiar iconography...
One last Constructivist building that we saw in this vicinity, was the Planetarium. It's a sad story, which you can find here, or here. I won't dwell on that - I do so at length in a forthcoming article for print - but only indicate how it fits beautifully into Moscow Zoo. Here, nature and the cosmos are kept under strict control - and the Planetarium's botched restoration still provides a few architectural pleasures, the odd glimpse of the place Rodchenko hailed as 'the martian' shining confidently in the sun.
Appropriately, given that Moscow-trained Constructivist Lubetkin was a noted designer of zoos, the best Constructivist building here, now, is one where I know neither the architect nor the date. It's an enclosure for lemurs, a steel globe reached by a series of walkways and stairs. It's Leonidov in Lemuria.
Melnikov and the Arbat
At night, plans went awry and we got generally lost. The most interesting finds here were under the ground, in the metro - such as Alexei Dushkin and Alexander Deineka's Mayakovskaya station, the single finest thing I found anywhere in Russia, a breathtaking work of art, and one which - unlike the statue to him above the station - would no doubt have pleased Mayakovsky himself. But, of course, no photos. So what we found at night was a little random - such as these two 1970s hotel towers, transformed into hyper-revanchist supergraphics, near a Gazprom propaganda poster where the semi-governmental conglomerate are alleged to be, er, 'green'...
When watching a funk-rock band play an impromptu gig outside Arbatskaya station (oh yes), I found the first draft of the supergraphics - the Mosselprom state department store, designed by Daniel Kogan in 1923, which was redecorated with graphics by Rodchenko - all recently restored, happily if irrelevantly.
We had heard the Arbat was a 'bohemian' area. This seemed unlikely, but we proceeded up two very different Arbats - the Novy Arbat of the 1960s, the former Kalinin Prospekt - massive wide streets flanked by gigantic blocks. The blocks are residential on one side, and are hardly illuminated, but the retail and restaurant floors are hyperactive with the neon. We know which is the more important.
The other Arbat is a pedestrianised area of somewhat less blaring restaurants. At one corner of it, if you take a small side street to some large apartment blocks, is the Melnikov House, the house the most original of Soviet modernists built for himself in 1927. The lights are on, meaning Melnikov's grand-daughter - currently in a dispute with landowners in favour of a museum stipulated to be built in the architect's will - is at home.
There's a little alleyway behind one of the apartment blocks, which leads to the house's most famous façade - tens of diamond-shaped windows. The alleyway leads nowhere but to this view, implying that the city authorities once wanted people to come here, and look at this. As well they should, because there's nothing else like it anywhere in the world. There's something very pleasing about the fact that, for all its flaws and petty brutalities, the first decade or so of Soviet power led to one of the finest architectural embodiments of individuality here, alongside the collectivity of the Narkomfin. There was room for both, in a brief moment.
....and due to the aforementioned blisters and such, the next day we initially planned to be a bit calmer. The only thing I insisted upon was a visit to Melnikov's Rusakov Club, commissioned in 1927 by the tram workers' union. It's near to Sokolniki - another astonishing station - and a park which is now looked over by this thing. Modernism is back in Moscow, but it's not our modernism.
I can't write about the Rusakov, because I do so in a BD column very soon and I'll get my wrist slapped/spiked if I replicate any of that here. These photos are clues as to what I might be writing about.
After this, some more vague walking, where we ran into several Constructivist buildings by accident. Outside Frunzeskaya metro station we admire a spaceage mosaic and then, a swish 'Constructivistic' apartment block...
...and then chance upon Melnikov's Kauchuk Workers Club, commissioned by the union of a nearby rubber factory. It's now a karaoke bar. The Mayor of Moscow, whose wife runs the city's biggest property developers, declared his intention to build an elite apartment complex here, but now it seems to be under refurbishment, and no matter how inept that may or may turn out not be, that implies it's here to stay...
As we get progressively more vague about where we're going, the best way to orient yourself seems to be via the 'sisters'. Seeing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs means that we're near the Arbat. This is the most alarming we see of the various sisters, a building which seems to indicate the Soviets were quite content to take the role of The Baddies in the Cold War - a neo-Gothic horror, as exhilarating and terrifying as the most malevolent medieval cathedral.
The Moscow State University means south...
But the tallest buildings in the city offer fairly little help - the International Business Centre, which is mostly obscured by other tall buildings in the way. Appropriately, most are designed by American firms, and are fairly rote, the only exceptions in drama being the stepped twin towers of 'City of Capitals', which in their disciplined irregularity imply, maybe, that one of the architects at 'NBBJ' remembers that Russia was of some significance in the history of modern architecture. But given that these are the tallest buildings in Europe, it was a surprise to only see them rising out of the rest of the city twice.
Professors and Oligarchs
Another chance find was the Housing Complex for the 'Red Professors', designed in 1929 by Dimitri Osipov and Alexei Rukhlyadev - several courtyards filled with trees, with sharply modern details - balconies, signage - all now crumbling, albeit not to a Narkomfin-like extent.
Eg: the neat sign above, which reads 'SPORT', something which was presumably meant to occur in the courtyards.
This is actually a very big building, but again, never dominatingly so. The Red Professors clearly didn't want to make too much of a fuss of themselves. It was recently listed, another indication that the general philistinism may be lifting.
I once attended a lecture by Clementine Cecil of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society in London. It was very interesting, and she knows lots more about these things than I do, but what stuck out was the contention that the only way to save Constructivist Moscow was probably to talk to the oligarchs. Apparently they find their lack of knowledge of the Russian avant-garde embarrassing when asked about it at parties by other art collectors. So far, the main upshot of this is the purchase by Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abramovich's partner, of the Bakhmatevsky Bus Garage. This building by Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov was half-demolished when Zhukova took it over as 'Garage - Centre for Contemporary Culture', which was then restored with original 1926 lettering and all. It does look fabulous, at least until you notice inside the botching of the roof, now partly held together with masking tape.
In order to get in, you have to pass through a metal detector and a frisking by security guards, who outnumber gallery-goers ten-to-one. There's a free pamphlet which informs visitors of Melnikov's importance, which is all very laudable - it's just a shame it happened like this. Garage was showing some mediocre post-sots-art, this time by young artists who remember Communism only as iconography, passionless and smug, with none of the bitterness and danger of original sots art.
But things are happening - the last time I saw a photo of this housing co-op, built in 1927, it looked like it had already half-fallen apart - now it's quite spruce.
Just round the corner from it, two new buildings indicate the polarities at work here. One of them looks a neo-Constructivist Melnikov tribute in a city where his buildings are mostly roundly ignored. The other is a 'new' Orthodox Church, fashioned out of blocks of raw concrete, in situ before the gilding is applied.
We end with the Zuev Workers' Club, where I really got lost - on my way back from a last-minute visit to this place, designed by Ilya Golosov in 1928.
It's a glazed corner, with lower wings adding conflicting geometries. So this, outside the Kiev Vokzal, is Zuev's fault.
The area near the Zuev Club is an ex-industrial one where former factories have been replaced with some gigantic hulks - elite flats, hotels, offices. It's not enough just to look at them and say 'ugh!' because they're busy, or tasteless, or aggressive - Constructivism cared not for taste, and the lunatic architecture of the 1940s piled on the ornament and the extraneous. It's the passionless nature of their aggression, the way it seems almost accidentally obnoxious - ignorantly so, without enthusiasm or purpose. Still, the whole glazed-cylinder-at-corner idea has had some traction since 1928.
When built, this was a low-rise industrial area which Golosov took care to disrupt in a subtle, small-scale manner, but as you can see the Brezhnev-era was as uninterested as subtlety as its successors, albeit with rather less pretension to luxury. When you see the Zuev Club from the end of the street, you can see a little pitched roof on top. Another reason to despair, and here I almost give up and sulk off in the other direction. Closer, though, it disappears from view. I perch myself on a fence and stare at it for some time. The windows might be infilled, the balconies long since disappeared - what all this damage proves is that buildings with this much power and conviction can still carry you away with them. Or it carries me, anyway - I look at this and I can still feel radiating off the bloody thing the promise of a better society. The owners are no doubt more concerned with how on earth they're going to keep the rain off. So it will remain, until some robber-baron buys it and turns it into a tourist attraction for art-tourists. I don't want to accept that this is too good for ordinary people, anyway.