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  • Preserving Modernism A Russian Exception?
  • Jean-Louis Cohen

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Lost Vanguard Exhibition, Moscow, 2006. Photograph by Jean-Louis Cohen.

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This thematic issue of Future Anterior focuses on one of the most intriguing and exciting fronts of historic preservation in today's world, taking its cue from a rather surprising episode. In the summer of 2007, for the first time since its creation in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art devoted an exhibition to preservation issues. The event would be noticeable in itself, but it is still more remarkable considering the buildings in the focus of attention, thanks to Richard Pare's onsite Russian photographs, were the remnants—one could say the relics—of the extraordinary construction campaign undertaken during the first fifteen years of the Soviet regime.

An early, exploratory version of the exhibition opened in April 2006, with panels hung from the wooden beams in the rough brick wing of Moscow's architecture museum dubbed "Ruina"—the ruin. The hastily but elegantly assembled show was a sidebar to the unprecedented Heritage at Risk conference convened by a conglomerate of Russian and inter national nongovernmental organizations, at which four hundred experts met to discuss the situation of buildings throughout the former Soviet Union designed by the radical architects of the 1920s and 1930s.

One year later the exhibition was installed in the sleek architecture gallery of the Museum of Modern Art, under the title Lost Vanguard, Soviet Modernist Architecture 1922–32. It created the conditions for a less intimate but no less significant symposium on the preservation of these buildings, Vanguard Lost and Found: Soviet Modernist Architecture between Peril and Preservation, which was held in New York on September 28 and 29, 2007, with the participation of a meaningful number of Russian and Western scholars and architects. In the interval of time between the two sets of events, not much had happened on the front of official preservation policies in Moscow, besides the reshuffling of the Moskomnasledie, or City of Moscow's Committee on Heritage, which was put under the leadership of Valery Shevchuk. Yet, MoMA's show, the photography book of the same title, and the symposium challenged a set of received ideas about the experimental architecture of the early Soviet age, which were too easily accepted for decades both in the West and the East.

First, the architecture of the constructivist and rationalist groups and of their allies had always been considered as having [End Page xi] quantitatively a marginal share in the built production of Soviet Russia. If one extends the canon to the production that developed the types and the themes proposed by the most radical experimenters, and includes buildings erected in the constructivist manner, they appear now to represent an extremely significant part of the structures erected between the first years of the New Economic Policy (1920) and those of the Second Five Year Plan (1932–36), when the shift toward "Socialist" realism took effect.

Second, the geographical extension of this production had been misevaluated, because of the focus of most studies, surveys, and analyses on cities such as Moscow or Leningrad. Objective difficulties related to the vastness of the USSR and the fact that foreigners were unable to visit the so-called enclosed cities of the military-industrial complex, explain the obscurity in which the real visage of new industrial towns such as Magnitogorsk, Orsk, or Makeevka, partially built by German functionalist architects, has remained for long. In parallel, the censorship of publications or the use of doctored photographs and maps did not contribute to the visibility of the hundreds of factories built from the 1920s on. Even the remote buildings of such major figures as the constructivist leader Moisei Ginzburg, who built a large communal house in Sverdlovsk (now back to its original name, Ekaterinburg), a government center in Alma-Ata, and a large sanatorium in Kislovodsk, remained unexplored. Richard Pare has documented some significant structures in Baku, a city rich in oil money and therefore very productive in the 1920s, in Ivanovo or Ekaterinburg, but he has been so far unable to unravel the mysteries of Nizhny-Novgorod, for instance. Fortunately, the...


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