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.


Starchitect: The Destroyer of Worlds

In an interview later recalling the first successful nuclear test carried out at Los Alamos in 1945, Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted a line from the epic Hindu poem, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  An apt description of what he achieved, the line may sound like the sort of bombastic speech one has come to expect from fantasy films and comic books.  In reality, the quotation is even more contextually appropriate for those who destroy in order to create, for it comes at a moment in which a prince realizes that his enemies on the other side of a battlefield are his family and friends.  The prince is reluctant to attack and try to kill them, but he is eventually persuaded by his charioteer to go ahead and slaughter them anyway, as it is his destiny.

In their sponsorship of much of contemporary architecture, this same sense of prideful, purpose-bent destruction seems to have infected the minds of many of those running our public and private institutions.  In the effort to appear hip and trendy, thereby attracting the fleeting attentions of donors and visitors, too many appear to have been possessed by the idea that in order to improve what they have, they must destroy or so alter it as to ruin what they possess.  Oftentimes they are helped in this endeavour by “starchitects”: those world-famous individuals who provide, albeit temporarily, a sense of cachet to a substantial building project.

One very well-known exemplar of this phenomenon is architect Frank Gehry, whose work and ideas I have deplored on this site many times.  A decade ago, Gehry was retained to add an extension to the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in downtown Washington, just across the street from the Old Executive Office Building.  The design, which would have tacked a huge bit of Gehry’s signature crumpled metal onto one of the most elegant Beaux-Arts buildings in the city, fortunately never came to fruition.  This was thanks to many factors, not least of which was the combination of public opposition and the inability of the Corcoran itself to raise the enormous sums required for building a Gehry project.

This week a group of students, faculty, and others filed a Complaint and Petition To Intervene in D.C. Superior Court, seeking to stop the trustees from breaking up the Corcoran.  Although only mentioning the proposed Gehry extension in passing, the pleadings focus on the inability to raise enough funds to renovate the existing museum, known as the Flagg Building, as evidence of the board’s neglect of its duties.  It may seem axiomatic or common sense to state that you don’t start building a new wing for your museum if you can’t pay for the upkeep of the old one, but the siren song of having a famous architect place his imprimatur on your institution appears to be too strong for many to resist.

Another “starchitect” well-known to the intelligentsia is Norman Foster, who turned the courtyard between the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery here in D.C. into a humid, chlorine-scented glass atrium reminiscent of a circa 1986 Marriott resort hotel.  The last time I strolled through the Kogod Courtyard, as the space is now known, I experienced rather an unpleasant sensation, as if I had wandered into an elderly lady’s bathroom.  I also wondered why on earth you would place such a massive, humidity-collecting space right next to two buildings containing art which is highly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.  Lord Foster’s work is yet another example of how a structure may look cool, but makes things worse, not better, for the institution that commissioned it.

Yesterday the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’s great art museum, announced that it had selected a local Russian architect to design its extension, after a very public falling-out with Lord Foster.  The Pushkin and local architects split over Lord Foster’s ideas for the expansion, which would have involved demolition of several pre-Revolutionary buildings on the site, and his refusal to come to Moscow to oversee the gigantic project. which will cost at least $640 million.  For some reason, in this context I can’t help but think of supermodel Linda Evangelista’s quote, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.”  To be honest, the design for the new addition is rather inappropriate as well, but I suppose at least it will cost less, since the architect is not at brand-name level as was his predecessor.

Meanwhile, a report in Roll Call this week indicates that investigators from the House Appropriations Committee are now looking into the efforts of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which selected a rather atrocious and expensive design by Frank Gehry to try to build on the National Mall.  Thanks to efforts by the National Civic Arts Society and others, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Gehry’s carbuncle will ever scar the Nation’s front yard.  Yet unfortunately, a few hundred miles away, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has just announced that Gehry’s proposed renovation and expansion of their magnificent temple to the arts, world-famous even to non-art lovers from the “Rocky” films, will involve alteration of its beloved steps in order to accommodate Gehry’s plans.  Although most of Gehry’s work will be subterranean, it will cost the city between $350-500 million *if* there are no overruns.  In a town still reeling from the recession, this seems rather a lot to take on at the moment.

This institutional obsession with engaging in destruction for the sake of self-promotion is a disturbing way of going about getting people’s attention, a bit like getting a face or a neck tattoo.  In light of the fact that so often the architects being selected for these projects are chosen because of their fame, rather than their merits as a talented and competent practitioner of architecture, engaging one of them for a project which is supposed to last for generations seems the height of folly. In destroying what such institutions are supposed to be preserving and honoring, the only purpose they serve is the further inflation of their own egos.

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art




The Foul and the Pussycat

As I was watching the BBC this morning, it struck me that probably not since Mrs. Slocombe had there been so much use of the word “pussy” on British television.  Members of the Russian punk band “Pussy Riot”, which most Americans will be forgiven for never having heard of, were today convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism”.  Their story has largely been ignored on this side of the Atlantic, as we head into a tightly contested and very close Presidential election, but the case is fascinating not only for the student of Russian history, but also as we consider the polarization taking place in our own Western society.

The Pussy Riot case stems from the arrest of three of the band’s members back in March of this year, after they performed a blasphemous punk rock tune, critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.  This performance did not take place in a concert hall, in a park, or on a street corner.  Rather, Pussy Riot performed their tune before the main altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

From a legal perspective, it is interesting to note several aspects of these women’s actions.  For one thing, this was not a spontaneous protest: the band informed members of the press, who were there to film and photograph the event.  In addition, apparently the band did research to determine what time services would be held and when the building would be open, so that they could have free and open access to the altar area for the filming of their exploits – at least until the police were called,  of course.

The band did not seek a license or permission from either the authorities or from the Cathedral to perform their piece, which permission would almost certainly have been refused in any case.  They were also repeatedly asked to stop what they were doing and to leave, by custodians who worked at the Cathedral, but these workers were ignored and, in at least one case, physically pushed out of the way.  In other words, putting aside for a moment the content of Pussy Riot’s “speech”, the band intentionally planned and carried out what in this country would be considered at the very least a trespass.

Turning to the speech side of the matter, the frustration felt by many Russians with their present government, as expressed by Pussy Riot, is not only understandable, but certainly felt by this country, in its diplomatic relations with Russia.  Mr. Putin is, of course, Russia’s once and current strongman, and there have been many of these throughout Russian history.  Not unlike the Spanish, of whom it is colloquially said “the Spaniard only understands the cudgel” (more on them later),  the Russians have an unfortunate history of falling to pieces and becoming ungovernable, without an autocrat at the head of the table.  Putin 2.0 – now with 20% more Botox – still intimidates many people, and squashes dissent within Russia just as well as his predecessors Peter the Great or Josef Stalin did.  Yet as anyone who has studied the history of Russia knows, nascent attempts at actual Russian democracy usually flare up only for a period of time, and then are stamped out by these types of men.

So what are we to make of the events surrounding this case? Pussy Riot  have been described as artists being persecuted for expressing themselves, and that all they did was perform a “punk rock prayer” to Our Lady, asking for deliverance from Vladimir Putin.  I am certainly no fan of Mr. Putin, let alone of his anti-American propaganda machine known as “Russia Today”, which has been at great pains to criticize Pussy Riot over the preceding weeks.  The women should simply have been arrested for trespassing or disturbing the peace, fined, and then set free, rather than jailed and prosecuted so publicly.  However we are talking about questions of degree, here, on both sides of this case.

For while there is no question that there is a political motivation behind such an extreme and uncalled-for level of prosecution of these women, the women themselves are simply foul.  You can make up your own mind on that point, of course, though if you choose to read the lyrics of the song which they performed, which I will not reproduce here, they are not as innocent as more vacant minds – such as those of Paul McCartney or Madonna – are so easily lead to believe.  In fact, one of the convicted members was previously a member of an “artistic” cooperative whose “art” is so irredeemably vile and stomach-turning, that I cannot even bring myself to write about it here.  In fact, I almost wish I had not done my research on it before writing this piece.

That being said, we cannot know whether the Pussy Riot trial is the tip of the iceberg in a string of deliberate political prosecutions aimed at quashing dissent carried out by the present Russian government, as many understandably suspect that it is.  Or perhaps this was simply an overly harsh punishment of some rather childish provocateurs, who went too far.  Yet a detail I noticed during the coverage of the verdict this morning has stuck with me, as I think about what happens next both in Russia and in our own society in the West.

In the broadcast from court this morning, one of the members of Pussy Riot was shown wearing a t-shirt with a logo of a raised fist and arm, bearing the words, “¡No pasarán!” (“They shall not pass!”)  For those unfamiliar with it, this was one of the leftist mottoes of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict in which quite literally half of the population of Spain died.  Horrific atrocities were committed by both the left and the right during the war, and Spain has never fully recovered from it.

It concerns me that a combination of historical ignorance about what our grandparents and great-grandparents witnessed in the first half of the 20th century, and the pop-glamorization of violent words, images, and actions as somehow being “cool”, is leading us down a path such as that Spain took in the 1930’s.  In this country for example, the clever put-down of one’s political opponent a la Benjamin Franklin or JFK has been abandoned, in favor of a type of bloodthirsty screaming, going beyond a sense of fun into language so perverse and repulsive, that it leads supporters to make and occasionally carry out threats of actual, physical violence.  Oftentimes, these actions are coordinated in advance, through the use of electronic means, which allow people of ill-will to find and encourage one another to physically harm someone else.

Fortunately, we are not Russia, and thus not dragged down by a millstone of totalitarian history around our neck.  Yet if we are not careful, we may not be able to escape such consequences ourselves, for very long.  We do not have to alter our political views to try and please someone else.  However perhaps we can refrain from the type of actions that bring our causes and positions no credit, and in fact bring them into disrepute, in the eyes of our fellow citizens.

Members of Pussy Riot in Moscow Cathedral