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Paper Tsars

Through years of repression, free-thinking Russian architects had little option but to indulge their creativity in secret. Only now is the scale of their extraordinary fantasy designs becoming clear. Andrew Solomon travelled to Moscow and met the Paper Architects.

Organic Family House, by Misha Filipov. From Paper Tsars, by Andrew Solomon, Harpers & Queen, February 1990.

Organic Family House, by Misha Filipov

“Soviet architects,” said Sven Gundlakh, a Moscow painter, when I told him what I had come to the USSR to investigate, “Soviet architects are the most neurotic people on earth.” A week in Moscow showed me that he spoke with reason; to be an architect there is to experience complete frustration at every turning in your life. There are, for example, only three kinds of window available; if you want to design a building that uses windows of different shape or size or proportion or construction, you are out of luck, unless you can find a wealthy co-operative that is permitted to import windows from the West.

Historically, of course, architecture in the USSR has been strongly associated with ideology, and architects wishing to design buildings outside the mainstream have been seen as subversive. But these ideological problems, seriously though they were treated by the world of officialdom, dwindled into nothingness in the face of this shortage of supplies that made the construction of any building in any way outside the norm completely impossible.

Today the ideological situation has improved, and under glasnost you are permitted to build what you like, But there are still none of the supplies necessary for variety. And even if you can find supplies, where do you find builders who can execute your designs?

Until two years ago, there was no question of bringing in windows from the West, and there was no question of breaking with ideological parameters for building. Architects would train at the Moscow Institute and graduate to work on entirely formulaic projects, in which their creative abilities were irrelevant. For anyone who had real architectural vision, the practical and the ideological situations were impossibly frustrating. “It was dreadful,” said one architect. “I would spend the day making plans for buildings I hated. Today I walk through Moscow and I see miserable buildings and I know that they are my own work. I can’t tell you how terrible that is.”

But he was, in his way, among the fortunate ones: he worked on buildings that got built in Moscow. Most architects were given the task of designing small details in horrible buildings, working with an enormous bureaucracy that changed and criticised every detail. When an emotional battle was won and some tiny element of the architect’s vision was incorporated into the building the builders would find it too difficult to realise, or they would misapprehend the plan, and the building would go up without that element. In many cases, intelligent people trained as architects simply did not practise architecture and became illustrators of children’s books or exhibition designers instead. And so the most creative of the architects, to keep their minds alive, began designing buildings in their spare time, buildings they knew would never be built. They would make up proposals for open spaces in Moscow, or for imagined spaces in other cities. They would show their work to one another and try to keep themselves versed in the language and habits of creativity — not because they ever imagined they might build the buildings they were sketching for one another, but because this was their only escape from boredom and frustration.

Space Bridge, by Yuri Avvakumov. From Paper Tsars, by Andrew Solomon, Harpers & Queen, February 1990.

Space Bridge, by Yuri Avvakumov

As time went by, the projects they designed became less and less likely. They were not held by the bounds of reality; it did not matter whether what they designed was buildable or not, since it would never be built. And so they designed the tower of Babel for one another, or proposed whole cities, or suggested a structure for a theatre that might float on the sea. Their creative energies were loosed, but they were always architects and their discourse — new and conceptualist though it was — used the basic grammar of architecture.

As for what was happening in the West, they had only magazines and photos by which to judge. Yuri Avvakumov, one of the leading exponents of this conceptualist movement, has compared his experience of those magazines to the experience of a pornographic magazine. “You see the picture, you imagine the building, you imagine yourself with the building, with the building in three dimensions, how you would go in and out of the building, what it would feel like around you. Your mind takes off into space, travelling through the building. And then you remember, suddenly, that you have only a picture in front of you, and that there could be gross deformities at the back, or a strange absence of sensation inside. You remember that all photography is trick photography.”

And so, cut off but determined, came the Paper Architects, working in what Jamey Gambrell called “the wishful spaces between imagination, history, and the dilapidated reality of Soviet urban planning.” In the late Seventies, they became aware that their abstract ideas might be relevant to various prestigious competitions in the outside world. They had learned of the strong Japanese interest in abstract thought in architecture, and they discovered that the foremost architectural magazine in Japan, Japan Architect, held an annual competition, often sponsored by Central Glass, with a subject that was always sufficiently abstract to permit a conceptual response. So began the era of the competitions, during which these architects won dozens of international contests, frequently triumphing over the best-known names of the Far East and the West. “It was because we cared so much about these competitions,” says Misha Filipov, one of the leaders of the movement and one of the most frequent winners. “The architects in the West did their entries swiftly, as a break from their real work of designing real buildings. For us, this was our real work; we could think for a year about what to do.” The entries were smuggled out of the country by a co-operative Aeroflot pilot on the Tokyo route. Before he took them, the Paper Architects would meet and judge one another’s work. “This year, I will get only an honourable mention, but you will have first prize.” Such hypotheses were part of their game, and their judgements were almost always right.

Atrium, by Misha Filipov and Nadia Bronzova. From Paper Tsars, by Andrew Solomon, Harpers & Queen, February 1990.

Atrium, by Misha Filipov and Nadia Bronzova

Of course, for architects in the West and in the Far East, winning these competitions is purely a matter of glory; the honorarium of perhaps $5,000 is very nice to have, but it hardly transforms the life of a working architect. In Moscow, finances are different. Misha Filipov and Nadia Bronzova bought their studio, their car, and all their food and clothing for a year on the basis of one first prize. Because there were relatively few people winning these prizes, and because the Union of Architects eventually gave its ideological imprimatur to the winners, the Ministry of Finance did not try to develop a scheme to keep the money from the architects, as they would later do with artists who were offered Western money; they paid almost the whole amount, promptly and efficiently.

Times have changed in the USSR. Glasnost and perestroika have transformed the lives of these architects, as they have transformed the lives of all creative people. Now their work, which was previously seen only in Japan and in the West, appears on the cover of Arkhitektura SSSR, the official magazine published under the aegis of the Union of Architects. They have exhibitions of their work abroad, and have begun to travel to the West. More importantly, they have started to build. A few of the most successful are being commissioned in the West; others work with building co-operatives in Moscow, trying to realise at least some of their ideas. Others enter architectural competitions in the USSR to design schools or foreign embassies.

The conceptual work has not yet disappeared, but it is on the wane; who has time to do everything? This year, none of the Paper Architects is going to enter competitions abroad. “We’re tired of them,” says Yuri Avvakumov. Of course it is wonderful when architects can build their buildings; it is like a dream come true. But it may also be the end of a movement of many profound glories. Misha Filipov was only half-right when he said that the Paper Architects won international competitions because they worked harder on their designs; they won them equally because they were untrammelled by the echoes of reality, because they lived in a world of Utopian and fantastical ideas. Their sheer originality and their ease with the abstract won them their successes.

To understand the Paper Architecture movement as a whole, it is necessary to understand something of the history of Soviet architecture, of building since the Revolution, a history totally separate from the simultaneous developments in the West. In the first ten years after the Revolution, there was almost no building at all in the USSR because there was simply no money for it. What was built was in keeping with Lenin’s Plan for Monumental Propaganda: tombs for heroes and impressive monuments. But by 1924, constructivism had arrived, and constructivist architecture soon became the official style. Some constructivist buildings are beautiful, and it is easy in the West to think of the movement as a matter of elegant stylistics, an intellectual version of art deco. But constructivism is based in ideology, and it is an anti-humanist style; constructivist buildings were meant not to accommodate the lives people led but to change them. Buildings would be built in which every room had a wall of glass so that all men could be held accountable before all other men; buildings went up in which there was only a communal dining area since cooking was the honest work of the few and not the slavish duty of a member of each household; life was stripped of its comforts. This was the period of building factories and the various proletariat clubs for which Moscow is so famous.

Perhaps the most important building in the history of Soviet architecture is one that was never built. In 1931, the international competition for the design of the Palace of Soviets was announced, and 160 designs were submitted, including one by Le Corbusier. Many of the designs were constructivist, but the winner was not: it was a monstrous, enormous building, designed by B.M. Iofan in a complex and highly ornamented style, surmounted by a statue of Lenin 75 metres high. Stalin announced that the constructivist architecture was a provincial copy of Western ideas, and dubbed it “formalism”; his own rococo style he termed “socialist realism.” Under Stalin, buildings were built in an elaborately neo-classical vein, richly ornamented, structurally complex; since there was no real break with late nineteenth-century neo-classicism, this was in some ways simply a continuation of an existing style, though it was heavy handed and often graceless where its antecedents had been light and beautifully proportioned.

Khrushchev was not in sympathy with Stalin’s expensive taste; in 1954 he declared what had been “socialist realism” the “over-decorated” style, and announced that what had been “formalism” was now “realism.” Until perestroika, this “realism,” suited to inexpensive mass housing as it was, remained the only acceptable architectural mode. Under Brezhnev also, all building was based on prefabricated parts and was a matter of engineering; design hardly entered the picture and serious discourse about design was morally unacceptable.

The man who has really created the Paper Architecture movement’s current form is Yuri Avvakumov. He has organised the exhibitions that have taken place in Moscow and he has orchestrated those that have taken place in the West. He has introduced architects to one another, encouraging their mutual influence. He has formed an archive of the work of all the architects. In the days of the competitions, it was Yuri Avvakumov who would arrange for the work to be transported from Moscow, and it was Yuri Avvakumov who would inform everyone of the deadlines. Today he meets with the people who come from the West to see this architecture, and provides them with telephone numbers and with crucial background information about the 45 or so architects involved. His work often plays second fiddle to his efficiency but it is good work in its own right; visually, he is an heir to constructivism, and his work looks to a future of pure and simple shapes in striking contrast to one another. With such architects as Vladimir Tyurin, he has initiated a movement he calls “compressionism,” in which size becomes irrelevant to design.

A Bridge, by Sasha Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. From Paper Tsars, by Andrew Solomon, Harpers & Queen, February 1990.

A Bridge, by Sasha Brodsky and Ilya Utkin

The best known of the Paper Architects are Sasha Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. Brodsky and Utkin were not in Moscow when I was there; they were in San Diego for an exhibition of their work which will open in expanded form on 24 March at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, where some of the best exhibitions of Soviet art in the West have taken place. The exhibition is of new work and consists of a plaster egg, four by five metres, covered with etched designs by Brodsky and Utkin and shown with some of their engravings, some shelves of objects, and some architectural details applied directly to the gallery.

Brodsky and Utkin have been in Paper Architecture for a long time. Their “Crystal Palace” of 1982 has become an emblem, a universally hailed classic work of Paper Architecture. It is a sign from a dream: in the city you walk down the main street towards a glittering palace of glass, whose strange domes, arches and pediments cross one another at remarkable angles. You do not leave the city; always the crystal palace glitters like a mirage on the horizon. If you were to enter the palace, you would find that it is made of flat sheets of glass cut into fantastic shapes and set firm in a base at a fixed distance from one another. It would be like a mirage: an object of no actual substance, made of flat surfaces and empty space.

Brodsky and Utkin’s more recent work is filled with strange gargoyles and grotesques, but it often tells or implies a narrative. The “Contemporary Art Museum” of 1987 is a dome with no floor, balanced at the intersection of two streets, its edge supported by the buildings at the four corners. The inside of the dome is somehow etched with doors and windows of every conceivable description; below, cars rush through the busy streets. The idea that the language of architecture can be used to tell a story is one of the key ideas of Paper Architecture and it has been used effectively by many of the architects. The story is sometimes explicit, like a children’s tale, and sometimes it is implicit. Its beauty and its poetry are not coincidental; it is important to these architects that architecture be allowed to tell good and moral stories, since it came into being when man decided to create his own world within the natural world. Its narrative meaning justifies its very existence.

Brodsky and Utkin, like so many of the Paper Architects, were frustrated by paper, and felt that they needed to build something; they accepted the commission last year to design a restaurant in Moscow. Knowing that no Soviet builders would be able to realise their ideas, they spent six months building the restaurant themselves, working fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. The Atrium restaurant is astonishing to behold. All Brodsky and Utkin’s strange intricacies are there in three dimensions, gargoyles twisting out of the walls, flat patterns realised, columns reaching half-way to the ceiling and surmounted by elaborate Corinthian capitals and strange animate figures that peer down at the diners. A fountain at the far end has a steady stream of water pouring from the pouting lips of a fat man. The restaurant, which accepts reservations most readily if they are made in English, is well worth a visit; it is at Leninski Prospekt, 44, and its telephone number is 137 30 08.

When I was in Moscow, I stayed with Misha Filipov and Nadia Bronzova, whom I first met almost a year ago in Moscow, and whom I had subsequently seen in London, when they came for an exhibition of their work at the Roy Miles Gallery in October 1989. Their work is a rejuvenation of the past, drawn from their keen sense of the history of Soviet architecture, and though some of the other Paper Architects have suggested that it is sentimental, it remains astonishingly beautiful, delicately drawn and deeply complex. Their interest is in the juxtaposition of architectural styles and their work draws on the relations that can be established among old styles, so that a single building may be composed of neo-classical, baroque and fully-fledged eclectic facades so proportioned that they read as a coherent whole. “I want to be as though I am history itself.” Filipov has said.

Filipov’s wife Nadia is oriented towards the narrative element of Paper Architecture: one of her recent projects was a village in which some children began to roll a snowball, which grew larger and larger and larger until it had rolled up the entire village; then it was left to melt, and when it melted, the city had rearranged itself. Together, they have designed a series of buildings from religious texts: the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Ark. Misha Filipov has very rigorous and exacting standards and he prefers not to work in the architectural co-operatives that are flourishing around him; he is waiting for a commission from the West, and has, in the meantime, entered an architectural competition sponsored by the Orthodox Church, to design a new cathedral. His entry synthesises the great baroque and the traditional Russian forms and boasts a panoply of onion and hemispheric domes.

Glass Platform of Stillness on a Stormy Sea, by Misha Belov. From Paper Tsars, by Andrew Solomon, Harpers & Queen, February 1990.

Glass Platform of Stillness on a Stormy Sea, by Misha Belov

Misha Belov is the champion of the competitions; he has won 22 of them. Unlike Brodsky and Utkin, or Filipov and Bronzova, or Yuri Avvakumov, Belov is actively pursuing a career building in the Soviet Union. He is one of the founding members of Moscow’s first architectural co-operative, called Brigada A (for architecture) in mocking reference to the famous Soviet rock group Brigada S; he is busy doing whimsical post-modernism for non-architectural co-operatives in the USSR. Misha Belov is the ultimate bourgeois architect: plump, with a tweedy overcoat, outsize spectacles, and a pipe constantly in his hand. His ideas are less deeply complex and less humanist than those of Brodsky and Utkin or Filipov and Bronzova, but they have a certain visual deftness about them, and they are beautifully realised, often almost surrealist. His Paper Architecture exploits narrative to its fullest, and his schemes almost always tell stories. Some are just for fun — like the “Ruby Bridge over the Rubicon” — and others address serious architectural questions, like his plan for “A Museum of the Twentieth Century.” Others still celebrate a pure poetry of architecture, like his “Still Plane in a Stormy Sea,” a glass platform in the ocean which would always reflect the sky above as smoothly as a lake.

Collaboration is central to the Paper Architecture. Dmitri Podiapolsky and Dmitri Bush, who work independently on actual buildings, almost always collaborate for their paper work. “In real buildings,” Podiapolsky explains, “I must tell lies, and I cannot do that when I work with Dmitri. But in my Paper Architecture I wish to tell only the truth, and if I work with Dmitri I can do nothing else.” Podiapolsky looks like Dostoevsky with his long disordered beard and aristocratic demeanor; Bush is clean-shaven and young-looking. They long to design real buildings. Podiapolsky won a competition to do the Soviet embassy in Cyprus, but describes the frustration of being allowed to visit the site only once, half-way through the construction, to find that dozens of errors and changes had been made. Now he has entered the competition to build a new Soviet consulate on the Bayswater Road, with an elegant design whose post-modernism has a distinct Soviet flourish. Bush is also designing buildings, but only ones that might be built in the vicinity of Moscow.

There are too many others to catalogue. Iscander Galimov is fascinated by Escher, and has worked out a complex mathematical system for work that remains interesting more for visual than for theoretical reasons. The Novosibirsky group does appositely bleak designs in Siberia. Another group, Art-biya (loosely translate: “fucking art”) works in pure game-playing terms; one of its founders, Andrei Cheltsov, has settled in London. Older members of the Paper Architecture movement, like set designer Sergei Barchin and graphic artist Sergei Resnikov, create delicate and deeply aesthetic work, in keeping with their greater maturity.

Sasha Rappaport is the spokesman for the Paper Architects, and he has given lectures and written essays which have provided a theoretical framework for their efforts, a framework that frequently outstrips anything imagined by the architects themselves. Rappaport is like a character from Chekhov — not like a particular character, but someone who could be added to any of the plays without seeming out of place. His manner is gentle, amicable and charming, and he quite happily rambles on and on about the ideas he has lately had with all the pleasure that must have been his as each of those ideas came to him. As he discourses, he polishes his small oval spectacles and he occasionally remarks on simple facts with the same delight with which he treats his own ideas.

Onion Domes, by Iscander Galimov. From Paper Tsars, by Andrew Solomon, Harpers & Queen, February 1990.

Onion Domes, by Iscander Galimov

Rappaport says that architects in the Sixties struggled with their position, but that architects in the Eighties prefer to play with their position, and that this is the origin of the Paper Architecture: “They have learned that only by playing with authority can you escape it. It’s very elitist,” he says. “But then Dada is elitist, so is irony, and so is nihilism. In fact Stalinist architecture is also elitist, as is Stalinism as a policy. What the Paper Architects love is the fairy-tale aspect of Russian architecture. Look at St. Basil’s, all those colourful domes. It’s all only a dream, and the Paper Architecture is a reflection of the dream.

Rappaport is right; the Paper Architects are free from above, from the government, and they are free from below, from responsibility for the lives of the people who inhabit real buildings. “The result of Paper Architecture is a feeling of freedom. The Paper Architects are people who, like all Russians, dislike compromise; they want everything to be extreme. All right! Then let it be extreme. Paper Architecture is the opposite of real architecture, because it is never about compromise.”