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The Bully Architect


29.08.2007
Nicholas Wapshott, The New York Sun


Of all artists, architects are surely the most authoritarian. Painters, poets, composers, musicians, all approach their audience with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. If you don't like my sculpture, keep walking. Can't bear my symphony, that's fine. But architects seek far more. At best they can liberate with a finely crafted, good looking, optimistic building, like Grand Central Station or the Chrysler, that makes the spirits soar and is a joy to be in; at worst, such as Penn Station, they offer a sordid experience that is tantamount to incarceration.

Frank Lloyd Wright had little compunction about bullying his clients into following the lifestyle he modeled for them. He was not content with building a home that was good to look at, he offered his patrons a whole new way of living. He designed everything, inside and out, from stained glass windows to door fittings and furniture, and woe betide clients who dared rearrange things when his back was turned. Wright liked to make surprise visits to restore furniture to its original places and to scold the owners for daring to depart from his vision.

If architects, by the nature of what they do, are prone to become petty dictators, their tendency to confine is magnified when they team up with authoritarian regimes. Take the case of Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov, one of the subjects of MOMA's fascinating small exhibit, "Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922Â-32. Photographs by Richard Pare," accompanied by an excellent book by the same name published by The Monacelli Press. Ostensibly about the fate of endangered jewels of modernism, Mr. Pare's photographs provide a salutary lesson in how architects fell in with the social engineering implicit in Soviet communism. If a single building were to sum up the horror, hypocrisy, and dehumanizing failure of Marxism-Leninism, you need look no further than the Narkomfin Communal House, built in the 1920s for workers at the Soviet finance ministry. From the outside it looks like many apartment blocks of the same period, with curved balconies and ribbons of glass windows. The brief for the architects, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignati Milinis, however, was guided by a policy aiming at the "reconstruction of daily life" designed as a first stage toward ending the autonomy of the family unit. The size of individual apartments was kept deliberately small so that the occupants would be obliged to live in the larger spaces devoted to communal cooking, eating, and socializing. Even Le Corbusier, the master of modernist architecture who has often been accused of demeaning human existence, could find nothing in the Narkomfin House to praise. "One is struck with melancholy, not merely at the idea of living there oneself, but at the thought that several hundred individuals have been purely and simply deprived of the joys of architecture," he wrote.

Two further aspects of the house offer insights into the failure of communism. The party official who commissioned the building ordered for himself an exclusive luxury duplex penthouse, which sits atop those whose lives he had defined so meanly. But Mr. Page also provides evidence that, notwithstanding the many constrictions imposed on those who lived there, humanity prevailed.

An interior shot shows that, despite the peeling paint on the walls and the cramped conditions, the occupants made the small space their own, giving pride of place above the hearth to a print of the Madonna and child, crowding the mantelpiece with sentimental trinkets, and adorning the walls with uplifting images culled from an advertisements, among them a galleon in full sail.

The exhibit offers more evidence of the hellish intrusions the Soviet government imposed upon its citizens in the name of a brave new world. The VTsIK Residential Complex across the river from the Kremlin housed the party elite all in one place so that the NKVD secret police could keep a close eye on them. During Stalin's purges, the disappearance overnight of whole families who had offended the regime caused the building to be dubbed "The Ghost House." The apartment complex remains a favorite place for the well connected to live even to this day.

Then there is the home the Soviet star architect Konstantin Melnikov built for himself, an ingenious round tower lit by diamond shaped windows that makes it a light and airy workspace for an artist. There were few more loyal servants of the communist cause than Melnikov, who designed the flashy Soviet pavilion at the 1925 Paris exhibition, which was intended to inspire all workers to join the Russian experiment in socialism.

Melnikov became a celebrity but was soon accused of indulging in "the cult of personality." In 1937, Stalin, the only personality deemed worthy of cult worship, banned Melnikov from practicing architecture and the fallen Soviet star lived out his remaining 34 years in his glorious home which became a form of prison, eking out a living as an art teacher.

One building in the exhibit caps all the lessons about Soviet communism: Lenin's tomb. Despite all the claptrap about equality, when Lenin died his embalmed corpse was laid to rest in a specially constructed mausoleum, projecting from the Kremlin wall to stress his links to Russia's bloody past. The luxurious red and black marble tomb, like a Pharaoh's ornate death chamber, contains a pompous Napoleonic plinth for Lenin's casket. And there is one last irony: The glass sarcophagus in which Lenin lies in perpetuity was designed by Melnikov.

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