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.

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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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Art Falling Apart: Hidden Costs for the Contemporary Art Collector

As anyone with common sense is aware, much of today’s contemporary art market is populated with works that are eye-poppingly overpriced, let alone horribly clichéd. Collectors are paying astronomical sums of money to dealers and auction houses for works which were only created within the last few years, by artists whose long-term prospects remain, at best, uncertain. Such purchasers are largely engaged in a money game, hedging their bets that a piece which they purchase for $10 million today, will be worth $50 million five years from now when they re-sell it, or donate it to an art institution for a tax write-off. Yet now comes a new entity known as the Art Preservation Index, which is creating quite a buzz about a budding problem for these collectors, apart from the obvious one of their terrible taste: one which has largely been ignored or swept under the rug by the art market until recently.

Unlike more “traditional” materials – canvas, wood, stone, etc. – many contemporary works of art are created using non-traditional materials and methods. This experimentation is part of the art, as it were, but to the uninformed collector, it is also a potential minefield. Whereas an oil painting can last for centuries when properly cared for, many modern materials begin to disintegrate relatively soon after they have been employed in the creation of a work of art. The person or entity that commissioned a portrait painting or sculpture in 1700 reasonably expected that the object would last forever, or at the very least for many, many years. What is the reasonable expectation now, for a portrait or sculpture created in 2015 using non-traditional, untested materials and methods, whose long-term viability remains to be seen?  

The argument can be made that the more ephemeral nature of many pieces of contemporary art is part of the story being told by the artist. However, one wonders whether most art collectors, paying millions of dollars for objects which may well cease to exist within their own lifetimes, are being properly informed about the situation that they are getting themselves into by collecting such works. Perhaps as collectors, they are drawn to the idea of art as investment, i.e. anticipated resale profits, or as a form of liquidity. Perhaps they are drawn to the feeling of excitement and enhanced social standing which a savvy art dealer or auction house can evoke through the sale of a major work of art, and they are unconcerned with the long-term preservation of the art which they are purchasing. The rule of caveat emptor – buyer beware – applies to art sales just as it does to the sale of other goods, but of course the price tag in question is considerably more than that for a used car or a second-hand washing machine.

People have always traded in art as a commodity, just as people have always collected art because it makes them feel like they have one-upped their neighbors. Yet what has changed, in addition to the decline of standards in content and execution, is a corresponding decline in many instances of the understanding and use of materials to create works of permanence. In the past and still today, when a collector purchases a painting by Rembrandt, or a sculpture from Ancient Egypt, they anticipate that such works will endure well into the future, given that such pieces have already survived for centuries. Today, in many instances, the works accumulated by a contemporary art collector face a very uncertain future, to say nothing about the publicly-funded institutions which subsequently add these works to their permanent collections.

In art history, one of the complaints leveled against Leonardo da Vinci even during his own lifetime was his deviation from tried-and-true methods in the creation of his art, often with disastrous results. For all of his unquestioned genius, a review of Leonardo’s existing artistic output reads like a catalogue of failures: paintings that failed to stick to walls, bronzes that could not possibly be cast, projects taken up and never completed, etc. Today, we excuse the limited quantity of his artistic output, by focusing on the quality of those works which he did complete.

One wonders whether, centuries from now, the same excuses will be made for many of today’s contemporary artists, whose materials are often even more unstable than those employed by Leonardo, and whose work rarely if ever even begins to approach his in terms of technical study, masterful composition, and sensitivity of content.

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"The Last Supper" (detail) by Leonardo da Vinci