What About the Last Suprematist?
When one speaks of revolutionary art, two kinds of artistic phenomena are meant: the works whose themes reflect the Revolution, and the works which are not connected with the Revolution in theme, but are thoroughly imbued with it, and are Colored by the new consciousness arising out of the Revolution. -Leon Trotsky
October 1917 opened an architectural Pandora’s Box.
During the Russian revolution, the avant-garde exercises of the Cubo-Futurists, Rayonnists, Suprematists, and Constructivists, paralleled to the unmovable inflexibility of the Stalinist “establishment” to reveal the difference between architecture of the revolution and revolutionary architecture.
While architecture of the revolution responds to the iconoclastic demands of the moment and creates a profusion of icons that portray a specific historical period, revolutionary architecture strives to break with the current paradigms, establishing a new architectural language that detaches itself from “the image” of the revolution. When the revolt is over, architecture of the revolution works as a rear view-mirror that only offers longing looks to the past. Stubbornly indifferent to the effects of the uprisings, revolutionary architecture always looks towards the future, remaining refreshingly contemporary.
Still, as architecture of the revolution has been stealing all of the attention due to its muscular monumentality, revolutionary architecture has remained largely ignored because of its lack of political symbolism. Contrary to general knowledge, Constructivism is a form of architecture of the revolution, not of revolutionary architecture. El Lissitzky’s Wolkenbügel and Vladimir Tatlin’s spiraling monument to the Third International are windows that look to a nostalgic past of Bolshevik paraphernalia. Like built propaganda, these buildings cannot be detached from the ideological fuel that ignited their conception in the first place.
But if Constructivism –the avant-garde branch of the revolution—was a tool to the service of a specific moment of the 20th century, then what is left that can be considered a timeless form of revolutionary architecture from that volatile period?
Have we been ignoring a form of architecture that although born out of the spirit of the revolution, went beyond its visual implications?
What about the last—and only—Suprematist Architect?
In 1932 the Russian revolution reached the climax in the developing plot of both architecture of the revolution and revolutionary architecture. The first was incarnated in a building that embodies the cartoonesque summit of sheer kitsch; the second was represented in the ultimate manifestation of architectural abstraction.
Product of a competition held by Stalin’s collaborator Vyacheslav Molotov, Boris Iofan beat a star-studded field of international architects that included Gropius, Poelzig, Mendelson, Perret, and Le Corbusier with what later became a neoclassical concrete ziggurat 1440 feet tall. A grotesque contemporary Babel, the “winning” proposal of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets was topped with a monstrous 333 feet inhabitable Lenin pointing Kremlinwards with an extended arm that together with its 20 feet-long fingers would have been the world's longest cantilever.
That very same year far from the flash of the cameras and the coverage of the media, a disciple of Kazimir Malevich was envisioning an ensemble of even longer cantilevers completely stripped out of the historicist pastiche and archetypical political imagery of Iofan’s project. While Malevich Suprematist interest in architecture was not more than a volumetric flirt, his previous student and collaborator at the Unovis in Vitebsk, Lazar Khidekel was working on the antithesis of Iofan’s Palace through the exploration of the spatial virtues of the radical art philosophy. What was started by Malevich as abstract explorations of mass and form in his site-less architectons—with the exception of the one pasted on New York’s skyline—was later reincarnated by Khidekel as a series of horizontal volumes that were rhythmically deployed throughout naked landscapes like white, Cartesian clouds.
These abstract megaliths were the complete opposite of the propaganda fueled aesthetics, the banners and slogans, and the images of the metal and concrete behemoths that both the Constructivists and Iofan were sticking on the urban fabric of the Old Russian Cities. In these images nothing is left of the visual symptoms of the revolution. With each brushstroke of watercolor the Bolshevik utopia of utilitarian icons was painted obsolete. With the elongated appearance of each monochromatic volume a new form of revolution was achieved.
Khidekel architectural visions transcended the rhetorical games of the revolution by developing complete cities out of sublime architecture. Long before Friedman’s Architecture Mobile, Constant’s New Babylon, and Isozaki’s Clusters in the Air, Khidekel imagined a world of horizontal skyscrapers that through their Suprematist weightless dynamism seemed to float ad infinitum across the surface of earth.
Like a Nietzschean visionary clearly ahead of his time, Khidekel not only announced the advent of the suspended cities that would later become the tour de force of the avant-garde in the sixties but he, like Malevich in art, reached a level of abstraction that goes beyond a specific historical period, developing on its way a regenerating form of architectural avant-garde that always looks to the future and that even today—eighty years later—remains revolutionary.
WAI Architecture Think Tank