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.


New Life For DC’s Old Library

News broke yesterday here in Washington that one of the most visible white elephants in the city, the former Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, will become home to a new Apple flagship store. Renovation and conversion of the property, which has been closed off for some time now due to a serious mold problem, will be undertaken by Foster + Partners, the architectural firm headed by Sir Norman Foster. Foster also designed the nearby Kogod Courtyard, a space covered with one of his signature undulating glass roofs, which sits between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.

The Carnegie Library (also formerly known as the Central Library) was built in 1903 as a gift to the city by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who spent a significant part of his considerable fortune building libraries all over the country. It was designed by Ackerman & Ross, New York-based architects who specialized in Beaux-Arts style buildings. Carnegie particularly liked their work, and a number of the libraries which he donated were designed by the firm, including those in Columbus, Denver, and East Orange, New Jersey. This particular library ceased to operate as one when the present, Martin Luther King Central Library, designed by Mies van der Rohe, opened in 1972.

Since then the building has been the subject of various redevelopment proposals, but nothing has really “stuck”. When I was in college for example, Placido Domingo and the Washington National Opera were trying to acquire the library to turn it into an opera house. At one point the building housed a DC City History Museum, but that closed due to a lack of interest. More recently, the Spy Museum attempted to obtain a long-term lease in the building, but was unable to come to agreeable terms with the city, so that institution is building a new museum elsewhere in town.

While I’m not a fan of Apple, they certainly have the wherewithal to make this building a functioning space again. And although my more classically-minded friends in the world of architecture will no doubt be aghast, personally I think that Sir Norman Foster is going to do a great job on both preserving and bringing this building up to date. It needs the help: it is not by any stretch of the imagination a particularly spectacular example of its style, unlike nearby Union Station, one of the most beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings in the world. Plus, the library’s position on what is essentially a giant traffic island makes it seem uninviting and inapproachable.

My ideal solution would have been to restore the building and turn it into the special collections home of the DC Public Library. It would have honored Carnegie’s original intent, and provided much-needed space for this public service. However, since I’m not in charge of these things, this new venture promises to bring back life to what has become a rather sad part of a revitalized downtown, and that does not seem to me such a bad thing.


New Life for the Old Georgetown Theater

When I first moved to Washington as a Georgetown undergraduate many years ago, I would wince as I walked past the old Georgetown Theater on Wisconsin Avenue, with its iconic but crumbling neon sign spelling out “Georgetown” on the facade.  I never knew the building in its original incarnation as a movie theater, since it had long been sold and gutted on the inside, having been turned into a jewelry store where signs in the front window prominently announced that one could buy lengths of gold and silver chain by the foot.  Back then there were still a number of other small cinemas in the neighborhood, which more recent transplants to the city would not be familiar with, but eventually they all faded away, replaced with the rather grand multiplex Georgetown AMC-Loews Theater down on K Street at the waterfront.

Now it has been announced that architect and longtime Georgetown resident Robert Bell has purchased the property, and hopes to redevelop it as a mixed-use retail and residential space.  As happy as I am that this building will be brought back to life, I must admit that I am slightly jealous.  Those who know me well can attest that in conversations about what one would hypothetically do with one’s winnings if one won the lottery, buying and restoring the Georgetown Theater has always been one of the top items on my list.

Of course, while it is probable that Mr. Bell will restore the current mock stone, post-war facade of the building as he renovates and reconfigures the interior, my own preference would have been to recreate the rather unusual – for Washington, anyway – facade of the building from when it began life as the Dumbarton Moving Picture Theater back in 1913.  You can see in this photograph in the collection of the D.C. Public Library, taken about the time the theater was inaugurated, that it was a rather exuberant look for a city not known for innovative architecture.

Named for neighboring Dumbarton Street, the theater as it originally looked would have been perfectly at home in turn of the century Barcelona or Prague.  Its mixture of Neo-Gothic elements, swooping Art Nouveau, and pure imagination, would have fit right in to the urban landscape which those cities took to extremes between about 1880 and 1920.  Washington however, is a city which I overheard several tourists in Union Station yesterday describe as a “city full of rules”, and so perhaps it is not a surprise that this fantastical decoration was torn down in 1949, and replaced with something rather more bland and sensible.

Even though Mr. Bell may not be bringing back the whimsy of the old Dumbarton, his efforts to secure the renovation of this space is of long-standing duration and we should all pleased that someone who cares so much not only about this building but about his community has managed to obtain it.  I am looking forward to seeing what will become of the place, and if rumors are correct that the ground floor may become a second branch of the excellent Politics and Prose bookshop and cafe, so much the better, for Georgetown desperately needs a place where locals and visitors can gather and linger.  Just as the village’s many movie theaters disappeared long ago, so too our many bookshops have, with one or two exceptions, all but vanished as well.

These types of commercial spaces which lend themselves to community interaction are always very much needed to help bring life and a greater sense of neighborliness to urban areas.  They serve, in a modern context, what the old assembly rooms of towns and cities in the 18th and 19th centuries did: as a bridge between the public and the private, where all are welcome.  Given the success of these types of venues in revitalizing corridors in other cities and indeed in other DC neighborhoods, we can hope that this particular stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, which has suffered from retail blight and neglect for decades, will get a new lease one life through a creative and well-executed revival of this local landmark, one which both we villagers and those who visit us can come to enjoy and appreciate.


Current, dilapidated state of The Georgetown Theater