Saving The Soviets: The Art Media Loses Its Mind In Moscow

Much of the city of Moscow, as you are probably aware, was scarred with hideous buildings during the Soviet era. Films such as “The Bourne Supremacy” show the bleakness of 20th century Muscovite residential architecture in a way that brings home why we won the Cold War. Because honestly, who would *want* to live in these sorts of places? As it turns out, a number of Muscovites do, but not for the same reasons that architectural experts want them to stay right where they are.

Over the past few weeks, the art press has been wailing and gnashing its teeth over plans by Moscow’s mayor to demolish a large number of low-rise, Soviet-era apartment buildings. The reaction has been predictable, for those who follow the arts. “Moscow’s architectural heritage threatened by development plan” screams Apollo Magazine. The Art Newspaper had the gall to compare the proposed demolition of these buildings, which were built in the aftermath of a murderous land grab, to that very land grab itself. “Describe [sic] by many residents as a property grab akin to the forced collectivisation of property under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the demolition plan has proven so unpopular that thousands turned up for a demonstration against it in Moscow on Sunday 14 May carrying signs with slogans like ‘My house is my castle’.”

What’s most telling amidst all of the histrionic reporting on this story is the fact that almost none of the reports provide any images of the buildings proposed for demolition. There are plenty of photographs of protestors, in the half-dozen or so articles from the art world that I’ve read on this story. The media always likes covering protesters (apart from pro-life protesters, of course.) For the most part however, not one image of these apparently precious apartment blocks appears anywhere in the reporting itself.

Why is this the case? Surely, buildings of such architectural significance ought to be shown by the art media to the international reading public? How else do they expect the outside world to develop a collective sense of concern, and galvanize support for the preservation of these important structures? In the interest of their cause, then, I present to you one of these architectural wonders, which is currently slated for demolition:

Now, if I was arguing this case in court, at this point I’d probably say something to the effect of, “res ipsa loquitor.” This particular gem was one of the first low-rise blocks built under Khrushchev, a figure not exactly known for his innate sense of good taste. If this building was located in the U.S., I’d expect there to be a strip mall across the street with a cracked parking lot, a gas station, a Chinese takeout place, and a nail/threading salon, along with several boarded-up shop windows bearing “For Lease” signs.

There’s a further wrinkle to this story, beyond the perhaps inescapable conclusion that the art press has lost its collective mind, and that is a consideration of what the residents of these buildings themselves want to see happen. They know, and freely admit, that these structures are ugly, dangerous places, which are always falling to pieces and in need of constant repair. The only thing pleasant about them is the fact that they are mostly low-rise apartment blocks, rather than high-rises. Older Muscovites, in particular, do not want to live in high-rise apartments, particularly ones that are built to (questionable) Russian standards, and that’s fair enough.

When you drill down into the reporting, it turns out that what the inhabitants of these apartments are really concerned about is not architectural preservation, or the alleged glories of socialist style. Rather, these people are worried that they will not receive new apartments which will be better than the ones that they currently live in. For the majority of these apartment dwellers, their concerns are focused on money and square footage, not celebrating the supposed brilliance of Soviet-era design.

Among the cognoscenti of the art world however, the demolition of these buildings – which of course, they themselves do not have to live in – would wipe away large swathes of the kind of hideous, leftist architecture which they and their predecessors have promoted and fetishized in our cities for nearly a century. For those focused on the preservation of these sad reminders of the evils of socialism run amok, such oppressive structures represent the good that leftism can do, when it ignores conventional ideas of both beauty and individuality. It is as if Captain Picard would have been better off remaining in the Collective as Locutus of Borg.

Having seen but one specific example of the hundreds of Soviet apartment blocks slated for demolition, I’d certainly be willing to consider whether Moscow’s urban renewal plan is going too far. Perhaps there is some work of significant architectural beauty that is going to be torn down, which my readers could share with the rest of us in the comments section of this post. Yet given the reticence of the art press to provide even one example of such a structure to date, I’ll be very much surprised if you can find any.

Demolition Delhi: Attacking Ugly Architecture

Recently the government of India decided to demolish several large, 1970’s Brutalist concrete buildings in the capital of New Delhi, in order to redevelop the land upon which they were squatting. All were located inside the Pragati Maidan, a convention and trade fairgrounds area which was inaugurated in 1972. They were typical examples of the bad taste and bad design that have come to dominate modern and contemporary architecture. And unfortunately, the major international institution which advocates for the preservation and restoration of old buildings has fallen to pieces in reaction to their demolition.

The Hall of Nations at the Pragati Maidan was a vaguely geodesic structure, consisting of a glass building covered by a honeycomb of concrete triangles. I suspect that it was an influential reference point in the matte paintings of the Klingon home world created for “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. The Halls of Industries were a series of four buildings related to the design for the Hall of Nations, whose interiors resembled the ice rink of a minor league hockey team. The Nehru Pavilion looked like nothing so much as a site for ritual human sacrifice, such as the Aztecs would have appreciated, had they access to poured concrete during their day. The buildings were linked by the type of vast, bleak plazas and ramps that one sees in other horrible places roughly contemporary with their construction, such as Boston’s 1960’s City Hall Plaza.

In reaction to the very sensible demolition of these awful structures, the World Monuments Fund launched an online campaign via Instagram, asking participants to nominate Modern buildings worthy of preservation in addition to those nominated by the Fund itself. Among the buildings being cried over by the Fund is this Soviet-style monstrosity in Montenegro, which should have been hit by a bunker buster when the Wall fell. As is often the case on the left when it comes to the arts, although the Fund has done much good in the past by drawing attention to historically important and aesthetically beautiful buildings in need of rescue, the idea that virtually everything needs saving, particularly when it comes to an architect whose identity is known and whose politics were of the left-leaning variety, is ridiculous.

Take the Fund’s reaction to the demolition and renovation of the hideous Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York. The building was designed by architect Paul Rudolph of Yale, one of the founding fathers of the Brutalism that pockmarks the faces of most of our cities, towns, and college campuses like giant acne scars. There is not a single structure on the planet by Rudolph that can be described as beautiful, inspiring, or functional. All of them are ugly, all of them are constantly falling to pieces, and all of them deserve to be demolished.

Yet the Orange County building was described by the Fund as having a “distinctive façade”, which was unfortunately “stripped bare, leaving only the framework behind.” This was done as part of the County’s efforts to try to make something out of this giant eyesore, whose razing would have proved too expensive for the taxpayers to bear, in order to turn the building into something that actually works, rather than serving as an incubator for mold spores. In this kind of advocacy the Fund merely reflects the bad taste and mindless gobbled-gook philosophy of those who serve on their board of advisors and speak at their events. The late starchitect Zaha Hadid for example, one of the most overrated architects in contemporary history, actually argued that the ugliness and lack of functionality in the Orange County building was an expression of democracy.

The world is a far, far better place now that the Pragati Maidan buildings are no more. Fortunately, the nomination list generated by the Fund in response to their destruction can serve as a source of inspiration. One could do far worse, as a government official, than to go through the list of Modern buildings listed by the Fund, select almost anything built between 1955 and 1980 out of concrete and pebbledash, and slate it for demolition. I assure you, the only people who will miss it are those with the bad taste to have asked the public to ignore the ugliness and lack of functionality in these spaces to begin with, because somehow they know better than common sense would seem to indicate that they, in fact do.

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The Non-Luxury of Architectural Preservation

Of late I have been thinking a great deal about the topic of historic preservation in architecture, thanks to a number of news reports which I believe the reader will find interesting.  While spread across centuries, continents, and cultures, all of these stories bring home to us two key points.  The first and perhaps most obvious is that we lose pieces of human history all the time, often without realizing what has happened until they are gone.  Yet the second and perhaps more contentious is whether the question of historic preservation is something which only matters to those with the luxury to pursue it.

You may have read, gentle reader, of the destruction of a Mayan pyramid in Belize, which was bulldozed to be turned into road fill.  This took place despite the fact that the archaeological site, and the structure itself, have been known and marked for well over a century now, as part of a far larger complex which has yet to be scientifically excavated.  Even today, with all of our technology, the jungles of Central and South America still have many secrets yet to reveal to us.  There are many more things to be discovered in these areas, and which continue to occur on a regular basis, such as was announced recently in the discovery of a large statue from a pre-Columbian ball game court in Mexico.

In Egypt, scholars are alarmed at the increasing rate of destruction at the site of the ancient Roman city of Antinopolis, built by the Emperor Hadrian to honor his boy toy Antinous, who accidentally drowned – or was murdered, depending on whom you believe – in the Nile near this spot in 130 A.D.  Here, the nearly intact Roman hippodrome has been swallowed up both by the desert sands and an encroaching modern cemetery.  In addition the area of the ancient necropolis, or “city of the dead”, which has yielded numerous superb mummy portraits, is being converted into farmland for the burgeoning population of actual living people in the area to work.

Even in the United States, we can see the shocking destruction of buildings which are, if not as ancient as the aforementioned, not only old, but beautiful.  Take the demolition of old St. Patrick’s Church in suburban Albany. New York, a Neo-Gothic building from around the turn of the previous century.  Due to various factors including declining mass attendance, many of these old churches now serve shrinking populations.  Often this leaves the diocese or religious community which maintains these structures no choice but to put them up for sale.  In this case, the church is being replaced with a supermarket, which is perhaps rather too-telling

The story of architectural loss in the Americas, Egypt, and elsewhere is one not only based on values, but on resources.  It is all very well to pass a law saying that historic buildings must be preserved.  However if there is no enforcement mechanism in place to impose that law, nor the budget to fund it, then all the good intentions in the world will not halt demolition or decay.

There is also a kind of absolutist tendency among some in the historical preservation world to argue that anything more than a few years old is “historic”, and worth preserving.  We saw this in the battle over the hideous Third Church of Christ Scientist by “starchitect” I.M.Pei here in D.C., which unfortunately has yet to be demolished.  And indeed similar arguments are being made to preserve the even more egregiously awful and failing FBI Headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue.  How anyone with an advanced degree could argue that, “I think if it can be saved, it should be,” with a straight face is beyond me.

As in everything in life, the key here is to strike a balance.  For many poorer countries, preservation of architectural monuments and important buildings or ruins is simply not possible.  There are organizations like UNESCO to help them, but as we saw in the destruction of ancient structures in Mali during the Islamist uprisings, even international organizations can only coordinate restoration efforts up to a point.  These are often viewed as a luxury which wealthy, first-world countries alone have the means to play with.  For all of us, the loss of these pieces of the past, however they come about, are tragic, and call for our attention and, yes, our financial support, if we care about history, or architecture, or art.

Yet even at home, we can do our part in our own communities.  Rather than worrying so much over whether it is historically appropriate for our neighbor to paint his front door fire engine red, as is so often the kind of in-fighting that goes on in well-to-do historic neighborhoods, perhaps we ought to be looking with a more keen eye to see what is actually worth our time and effort to preserve.  Nothing built by the hands of man will last forever, after all, and by tailoring our preservation efforts to those structures which are not simply old, but exemplary of the best that human beings can do when they push themselves, we will all be better-served.

Watervliet

Demolition underway at St. Patrick’s Church
Watervliet, New York