The Russian Constructivists

An edited version of this piece first appeared on Creative Bloq.

Russian Constructivism was the most radical, intense, ambitious and ultimately tragic design movement of the last century.

The Constructivists burned brilliantly in the years immediately preceding and following the 1917 Russian Revolution. The only avant-garde design movement in history to be co-opted as an instrument of government policy, it sought to build shining new socialist cities on the devastated landscape of a Russia that had been ravaged by political chaos, economic collapse and the fallout from the First World War.

How Tatlin's Tower might have looked had it been built

Through the 1920s the Constructivists developed a radical new architecture, revolutionised graphic design, film and photography, and pioneered design styles for the mass production techniques made possible by new technology. All of this was inspired by a utopian vision: design had nothing to do with subjective artistic expression, it was thoroughly public, and thoroughly political, an instrument for the building of a new Soviet utopia.

But by the early 1930s it was all over. The movement was effectively outlawed following the rise to power of Joseph Stalin, who decreed a new conservative style, Socialist Realism, in its place.

Short-lived though it was, Constructivism left a significant legacy that continues to influence all fields of contemporary design.

Origins

The movement's roots can be traced to the high-minded theories of the Russian avant-garde, a shifting network of artists, designers and intellectuals that emerged during the first years of the 20th century.

Cubism was one important influence, an art movement that pioneered a new abstract style of painting that sought to depict objects from multiple perspectives rather than a single viewpoint.

Black Circle, Kazimir Malevich, 1923

Russian artists took Cubism to its logical conclusion, developing Suprematism, a philosophy that sought to move art and design beyond representation of the physical world to contemplation of a wholly abstract realm of pure form. Suprematist artists painted varying combinations of geometric shapes floating within fields of flat colour. They sought to clear a space for a new visual language, to free art, design and architecture from dependence on traditional forms of representation. This new grammar was designed to allow free combination of primitive shapes, which were to serve as the building blocks for strange new artistic and architectural worlds.

Figure dans un Fauteuil, Pablo Picasso, 1909-10

A parallel influence was Futurism, an Italian movement that, excited by the technological innovations of the industrial age, sought to develop a new aesthetic modelled on the sleek operations of the machine, idolising speed, efficiency and constant change.

The avant-garde perceived connections between these radical art movements and the revolutionary politics of the Bolsheviks: everywhere, in every field of art, design and politics, the old order seemed to be collapsing. The stars were seemingly aligned: the time seemed right for progressives in the artistic, scientific and political fields to join together in common pursuit of a bold new project to build a new world: revolutionary design and revolutionary politics were to march together to construct utopia.

When the Bolsheviks came to power the avant-gardistes got their chance. They were enlisted as the aesthetic wing of the Soviet project, tasked with designing a new urban architecture, and with employing all available communications media - including new forms of photography and film - to promote the aims of the new regime. Russia was their canvas, the building of the new Soviet nation an art project of gigantic scale.

Graphic design and photography

The Constructivists, as they soon became known, took up the challenge, applying an abstract visual grammar with remarkable consistency across a wide range of design disciplines.

Early Soviet graphic design is an unlikely mix of high avant-garde theory and political propaganda. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky repurposes abstract Suprematist motifs as war propaganda (referring to the post-Revolution civil war that pitted the pro-Bolshevik Red Army against the anti-Soviet White Army):

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, 1919

Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova's famous Books! poster employs a stark grammar of simple geometry and flat colour to promote the Soviet campaign for worker education:

Alexander Rodchenko, Books, 1924

With posters such as Books! the Constructivists pioneered photomontage, introducing photographic elements to the visual mix. El Lissitzky went further, pioneering the collage of purely photographic images, many decades before Photoshop:

The Constructor, El Lissitzky, 1924

And Rodchenko pushed the boundaries of photography by publishing an innovative series of photos that looked for abstract motifs in the real world, an elliptical style still characteristic of the work of many contemporary photographers:

Stairs, Alexander Rodchenko, 1930

Architecture

Constructivist architecture introduced a strange new alien dimension to Russia's ancient skylines. Through the 1920s stark unadorned structures modelling bold combinations perfect squares, cylinders and circles arose alongside the elaborate timeworn cupulas and spires of the Orthodox Church. As in the realm of graphic design, the Constructivists applied an uncompromising Suprematist visual grammar to the design of factories, high rise complexes, workers clubs and radio towers.

The surviving buildings of Konstantin Melnikov, for example, retain their otherworldliness, nearly 100 years on:

Rusakov Workers Club, Konstantin Melnikov
Melnikov House

The towers and skywalks of the remarkable Gosprom complex built in the late 1920s, rise from the plains of the Ukraine like some alien city:

Gosprom complex, Kharkiv, Ukraine

And the Shukhov broadcasting tower constructed in 1920 brought Wellsian sci-fi to the Moscow skyline:

Shukhov Tower

Fashion

Constructivist texture designers were amongst the first to think through the implications of designing clothes for mass production, and as such had huge influence on the subsequent development of 20th century fashion. They designed clothing with simple abstract patterns and ornamentation that revealed stitches and buttoning, anticipating the anonymous ready-to-wear fashions sold on today's high streets.

Lyubov Popova fashion design

A sudden end

The Constructivist experiment was stopped in its tracks when power struggles within the Communist leadership following the death of Lenin in 1924 ended in Stalin's dictatorial rule. The Stalinists considered the Constructivist aesthetic too rarefied to serve as an effective instrument of state propaganda, ruling that all future design should abide by the conservative neoclassical style of Socialist Realism, typified by the grandiose plans (never implemented) for the Palace of the Soviets.

Constructivist designers who refused to co-operate retired from public life, fled Russia, ended up in the Gulag, or received a visit from state police in the early hours of the night.

Legacy

Many Constructivist buildings from the 1920s still dot the contemporary Russian landscape, poignant reminders of an imagined future that never came to pass. As Richard Pare's fascinating visual record The Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922–1932 shows, nearly all are in a state of advanced decay, with no funds for restoration.

Socialist Realist design for Palace of the Soviets, 1934

The movement's true legacy, however, consists not so much in the specifics of what was actually built and designed during the 1920s, but in the realm of dreams: the manifestos, theories, blueprints, and plans they left behind, unrealised.

The Constructivist visual style of clean lines, pure shapes, flat colours and formal order is still instantly recognisable in design today. It was transmitted by way of the Bauhaus and the New Typographers of Weimar Germany to the Swiss designers of the 1950s and 60s, who developed the International Style that continues to set the parameters for much contemporary design: witness for example the current trend for 'flat' design amongst digital designers.

The Constructivist's rigorous, unsentimental, systematic methodology still informs professional design practices today, which continues to insist that design issues are problems to be solved through objective process, not opportunities for personal expression.

Commisariat for Heavy Industry in Red Square, Ivan Leonidov, 1934

And the blueprints and sketches left by Constructivist architects have been far more influential than the building projects they were able to realise.

The fantastic designs imagined by Ivan Leonidov and Yakov Chernikhov, for example, continue to inspire the fractured structures developed by contemporary avant-garde architects such Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl that outline the jagged skylines of London, Dubai and Beijing.

And no review of Constructivism could fail to reference Vladimir Tatlin's 1920 design for the Monument to the Third International, a projected headquarters for world socialism that was intended for St Petersburg, is still considered one of the great unbuilt buildings, described by Tatlin as 'a poetry of metal'.

The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms, Yakov Chernikhov, 1931

As Zaha Hadid herself has said:

The pace, quantity and quality of the creative work in art, science and design was truly astounding, anticipating in one intense flash what then took up to 50 years to unfold elsewhere in the world. The Russian avant-garde not only anticipated the urbanist concept of the 1950s, but projects were designed that anticipated the mega-structure utopias of the mid-1960s and the high-tech style of the 1970s.

But the nature of the influence of the Constructivist aesthetic upon today's radical architecture serves to highlight a crucial dimension of the movement that has not survived: the utopian element, the belief that design could play a leading role in the building of a radical new egalitarian world.

It's an extraordinary irony that the fantastic abstractions of Chernikhov, Leonidov and Tatlin, intended for the building of some socialist paradise, have instead inspired the construction of the world's financial centres. And the stark visual grammar the Constructivists employed for Soviet propaganda went on to provide the blueprint for the International Style that has branded global capitalism's biggest corporations.

The political dimension of Constructivism survived for a time, recognised and pursued through the middle part of the 20th century by designers and architects such as Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, and the town planners who built Britain's post-war garden cities and social housing. But the political idealism that animated the breakneck innovations of the Constructivists during the movements early years has all but disappeared.

CMA CGM Headquarters designed by Zaha Hadid, (Image © Iwan Baan)

Interest in the Constructivists is perhaps stronger today than for some time. The continued discovery of archives and surviving works has allowed several exhibitions in recent years, perhaps most prominently the Building the Revolution retrospective held at the Royal Academy in 2011. As architectural commentator Owen Hatherley pondered, in his review of that exhibition:

Perhaps the fascination that the 1920s still retains, however dimly we perceive it in such different circumstances, is the promise of another communism, unlike the one that committed suicide in 1989 – a communism of colour, democracy and optimism rather than a monochrome despotism.

Categories: