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.

Advertisements

If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer

The Bilbao Effect: Frank Gehry’s Garbage Can Turns Twenty

There is a very interesting article – or rather, pair of articles – in Apollo about the so-called “Bilbao Effect” on cities, twenty years on. Bilbao, as you probably know, is the Basque industrial city in northern Spain, that suddenly became a major international tourist destination even before the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenhiem Museum opened to the public in October 1997. With its reflective titanium surfaces and abandonment of convention, it was the urban cause célèbre of its time: suddenly cities around the world wanted to have something like it, in order to demonstrate their wealth, status, and trendiness.

As the writers point out, the myth of the “Bilbao Effect” is not an entirely accurate one. Bilbao had already made significant efforts to try to improve itself before the arrival of Mr. Gehry. Other cities such as Sydney and Paris had been undergoing significant changes decades earlier, building unusual Postmodern structures long before the crumpled Canadian garbage can rose on the banks of the Nervion River.

Bilbao was of course something new however, in that it was a place which most people had never *wanted* to visit before – not if they could help it, anyway. Despite lacking a history of significant architecture or particularly attractive natural surroundings, and being plagued by some of the most depressing weather in Spain, it suddenly became the belle of the international urbanism ball. The city even managed to find a role as a giant set piece during the frenzied opening sequence of the Bond film, “The World Is Not Enough” – an entirely contemporary confection, since one doubts that Sir Ian Fleming had ever heard of Bilbao.

In a way, the “Bilbao Effect” is no different than the competition to build ever larger and grander cathedrals, which dominated Christian architecture for centuries and turned growing towns into the major commercial centers which many became. Some of these structures were so expensive and complicated to construct, that they were only finished long after they were begun. The massive and imposing Cologne Cathedral in Germany for example, which looks like something out of Gotham City, was begun in the 13th century but only completed in the late 19th century.

These religious structures are, in a way, a moral two-edged sword, which secular structures like the Guggenheim Bilbao are not. The great churches were designed to honor God, and to celebrate the lives of the saints to whom they are dedicated. Yet they are visual expressions of the great sin of pride, as towns vied with each other to see who could build the tallest, longest, widest, or most lavishly-decorated building, in order to draw in the punters. For tourism, be it pious or secular, comes hand-in-hand with income, and what burgher or alderman doesn’t yearn for some more taxation flowing into his coffers?

There are also some more fundamental differences between these ancient religious structures and the secular confections of contemporary starchitects like Mr. Gehry. There is no question that the former were built to last, for despite their great age, most of them have managed to survive major disasters from plague to invasions to bombing raids relatively intact. Meanwhile, the formerly undulating and sparkling Guggenheim Bilbao looks increasingly lumpy and dirty, a fact which the architect blames on the people for whom he built it, rather than himself (natch.) This is as if Leonardo da Vinci – although Mr. Gehry is no da Vinci – blamed the Dominican friars at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan for the rapid deterioration of his “Last Supper”, despite the fact that he was the one who chose an experimental and ill-advised painting method.

Moreover, the world’s great churches serve a supernatural purpose. Even if pride was involved in their construction, their underlying function remains that of praising God, not man. The motivation for the construction of structures like the Guggenheim Bilbao however, and indeed their underlying function, is to honor those who are already far too pleased with themselves to begin with. Both types of building have elements of pride involved in their construction, but whereas the church leads to the worship of God, the “Bilbao Effect” leads to the worship of oneself.

While none of us will be around to see it, my guess is that roughly two centuries from now, when the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres turns 1000, she will still be filled with worshipers and visitors every Sunday, while the Guggenheim Bilbao will be long gone. It is an easy bet to make, I grant you, because no one will be around to point at me and laugh like Nelson Muntz if I am incorrect in my assumption. And yet, when we take a step back, we can see that throughout human history pride and self-worship, at some point, inevitably fails – particularly when it comes to architecture.