Between 1922 and 1932, Soviet architects enjoyed one of the most fruitful decades of the century. Commissions were plentiful (some called it the “golden season”), and architects had amazing freedom to experiment with new ideas about how Socialism expressed itself at home and in the workplace. That all came to a severe halt in 1932, when Stalin consolidated Russia’s architects into one centralized, neoclassical school. Until the Iron Curtain fell, some of modern architecture’s most important buildings remained completely inaccessible.
The Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922-32, is an eponymous book and exhibition documenting the work of modernist architects in the Soviet Union in the years following the 1917 revolution and the period of instability during the subsequent civil war. In little more than a decade, some of the most radical buildings of the twentieth century were completed by a small group of architects who developed a new architectural language in support of new social goals of communal life. Rarely published and virtually inaccessible until the collapse of the former Soviet Union, these important buildings have remained unknown and unappreciated. The buildings featured are located in a wide territory spanning the former Soviet Union that includes Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia, and are drawn from an archive of approximately 15,000 photographs taken by British photographer Richard Pare during extensive visits that began in 1992. Pare’s photographs offer the first contemporary documentation of these buildings, some still in use, others abandoned and decayed, and many under the threat of demolition.
Pare’s photos show some buildings both before and after restorations funded by contemporary Russians. Konstantin Melnikov’s personal home–a cerebral, elegant cylinder punctured with diamond-shaped windows–became a recurring subject. Other buildings, like the famed Narkomfin apartments in Moscow, are still falling apart and show plenty of scars inflicted by new highways, pollution, and time in general. In one interior shot, a table riddled with vodka bottles and flowers sits beneath the thin light cast by Moisei Ginzburg’s ribbon windows (which predate Corb’s, for the record). Above the table, a vignette of images feature famed works of Russian art, each representing a different regime. A few oligarchs have said they’ll restore the blocks–none have followed through, yet, and the building is on UNESCO’s Endangered Buildings List.
Pare’s work illustrates how passive architecture can ultimately find itself, before the whims of politicians, billionaires, and history in general. The difference between razing Penn Station and restoring Crown Hall, for example, is smaller than historians and architecture buffs would like to hope. Pare’s fate as an artist now seems linked to the country he says he was fascinated by as a 7-year-old child in Britain. Right now, he’s completing a series of photographs on Le Corbusier’s work for Moscow’s Pushkin Museum–the first exhibit on Corb in Russia.