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Anya Bokov / Cultural Convergence behind the Iron Curtain: Architectural Ideas and Parallels

In 1989 the German Museum of Architecture in Frankfurt held an exhibit titled Paper Architecture: New Projects from the Soviet Union [1]. This trend in Soviet architecture came about both from the shortage of architecture beyond the local standardized building practice and from the global undercurrent of utopian and pseudo-utopian postmodern sentiment that perforated the Russian design culture by the mid-1980s. Among the beautifully handcrafted works of the young Russian architects there were works of a dozen or so children – students of the Experimental Children’s Architecture Studio led by Vladislav and Lyudmila Kirpichev [2]. For me, a 12-year-old Kirpichev’s student, this was
the first participation in an international exhibit. Our drawings and paintings, executed on cardboard with tempera paints using, by now obsolete, drafting instruments, were inspired by the works of our fellow countrymen – Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Yakov
Chernikhov and other pioneers of the Russian Avant-garde. As children we were steeped in the Avant-garde tradition that came out from oblivion by the late1970s and became a legitimate part of the Russian cultural heritage [3], thanks in no small part to the western publications on Avant-garde by authors such as Larissa A. Zhadova [4] or Selim O. Khan-Magomedov [5].

What we did not realize was we were not just continuing the constructivist tradition, but also partaking in the then emerging postmodern western de-constructivist trend, pioneered by Daniel Liebeskind, Zaha Hadid, Lebbeus Woods and others. In fact this artistic overlap between East and West was not uncommon for much of the 20th century. Despite the iron curtain, the economic isolation and political antagonism, the intellectual exchange between the East and the West never seized to exist. Most key artistic concepts circulated between the two ideologically and politically opposite camps, contributing to the interconnected, if not common, cultural space. This was especially true for Soviet science but also for Soviet art and architecture. Theoretical physicists, such as Lev Landau and Pyotr Kapitza traveled abroad and maintained active
correspondence with their western colleagues. The exchange in the field of architecture also continued throughout the Soviet period with various degrees of intensity. Famously El Lissitzky spent the 1920s in Berlin promoting the young Soviet State. Karo Alabyan, the head of the Union of Soviet Architects, from mid-1930s through the 1940s, traveled to Italy and New York with his colleagues. The cultural exchange increased during the Khruschev and Brezhnev era during the 1960s through the 1980s. The European architectural periodicals found its way behind the iron curtain, but more importantly ideas were synchronized, both via import and export, as well as via the ever-elusive Zeitgeist.
For example, the Group NER [6] (New Settlement Elements) was in the same conceptual framework as their contemporaries – Archigram and the Metabolists, and was published, in turn, abroad. All this contributed to, what can be termed a cultural convergence, which, I would argue, became one of the major contributing factors in the eventual erasure of the ideological and political boundaries and resulted in the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

 

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1 Heraugsgegeben von Heinrich Klotz mit einem Beitrag von Alexander G. Rappaport, Papierarchitektur: Neue Projekte Aus Der Sowjetunion, 4 Marz 1989 – 14 Mai 1989, Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt am Main, 1988
2 EDAS (acronym for Experimentalnaya Detskaya Architekturnaya Studia, translated Experimental Children’s Architectural Studio) was founded by Vladislav Kirpichev in Moscow, in 1977. The studio is still active today.

3 Russian Avant-garde art and architecture was essentially in exile, starting from the 1932 Palace of Soviets competition until after Khrushev’s “ottepel'” (thawing) in the late 1950s.

4 Larissa A. Shadowa, Suche und Experiment : aus der Geschichte der russischen und sowjetischen Kunst zwischen 1910 und 1930, 1978

5 Selim O. Chan-Magomedow. Pioniere der sowjetischen Architektur: der Weg zur neuen sowjetischen Architektur in den zwanziger und zu Beginn der dreissiger Jahre, 1983

6 NER (acronym for Novie Elementi Rasseleniya), group aimed to design a city of the future, formed in 1968. Exhibited in Milan Trienalle, 1968 and in Osaka Expo in 1970. Members included I. Lejava, A. Gutnov, A. Baburov and others.

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