researcher, writer and curator of architecture and visual art

The rise and fall of Soviet technoutopias


For the whole summer, the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design was filled with cool Soviet design and visionary architecture. Specifically, these were the exhibitions "Modernization" and "Our metamorphic future", jointly compiled by Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian curators, and previously exhibited in the Vilnius National Gallery. The exhibitions are pair of thoroughly researched overviews of Baltic and Moscow design for building a socialist modern world in the 1960s–1970s. "Our metamorphic future", curated by Andres Kurg and Mari Laanemets, was introduced with a quote by Jüri Okas, stating that, "these exhibitions should be compulsory for all students, to realize early on that everything new is well-forgotten old." How true, but this was not the only mission of the exhibition: a dialogue of radical Estonian architecture, already well established as our heroic past with examples from the Baltic States and Moscow, put the former into a whole different perspective. This in turn helps to rethink the discourse of Soviet art and architecture in general, to notice undertones instead of rigid models, or to shift the question itself. 

According to the curators, one of the initial impulses was the substantial "Cold War Modern" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2008       (curated by David Crowley). The exhibition was subsequently exhibited in Vilnius, where design on the both sides of the Iron Curtain was seen as a phenomenon deeply embedded in politics and social issues. Regardless, design of the Eastern Bloc was considerably less researched and represented, so one mission of the current pair of exhibitions was clearly to fill in the gaps. And while both Marija Dremaite and Egle Juocevičiūtė remarked that "Modernization"was rather showing than interpreting the artefacts upon reviewing it, this was mainly because the field has not been very thoroughly charted yet in Latvia and Lithuania; unlike the quite active Estonian reinterpretation of the Soviet past. "Our metamorphic future" filled some important gaps as well, introducing a series of authors and projects previously unknown to the West, as well as forgotten at home – experimental Moscow urban designs have been scattered between different archives and countries, and the Latvian school of kinetism is almost completely forgotten. However, this does not imply that the exhibition would lack a curatorial position or interpretative narrative. 

The exhibition assembles Soviet experimental architecture, design, and art related to the novel scientific-technological worldview. The projects range from sincere attempts to engage new scientific discoveries and to arrive at progressive symbiosis of art and science, to more critical production related to the fatigue of hopeless Soviet "prototype culture"; as well as to international critique of utopianism and environmental issues. When the Soviet leadership declared in 1956 that it was steering the course of scientific-technological progress, it also meant better prospects for the arts able to reformulate themselves as a worthy and experimenting partner for the sciences. Artistic and design activities gradually moved from the aesthetic sphere to the technological one. This meant a new locus for the advanced arts: instead of galleries and museums, it could be found in the numerous newly established research institutes, universities, and technology plants. The creative production itself occupied an ambivalent position, being simultaneously a piece of abstract art and a functional object – a position perhaps not dissimilar to that of Jorge Pardo or Tobias Rehberger today? David Crowley has noted that such a creative position was a kind of "contract" or acceptance to confine oneself to mere rational issues of the technical world. Theorizing was unfavourable; the aim of experimentation was better practice. Thus, the issue of the author's ideological position was, if not suppressed (for not advancing the moralizing canon), rather set aside. So, while contemporary radical design and architecture in the West was mainly borne outside of institutions, marking a critical stance, it initially enjoyed remarkable official support in the East – regardless of the outcomes not always being public. Quite a few projects in the exhibition testify that in the Soviet context, "official" did not necessarily equal "public". Whereas it is internationally acknowledged ever more that the way to categorize Soviet art production morally – one could be either a "believer" or "brainwashed", a "conformist" or "underground resister" – is too black and white, overcoming it is sometimes still hard. Even the only exclusively Soviet chapter in the same "Cold War Modern" catalogue – one analyzing the group Dvizheniyeby Jane A. Sharp – sets the tone with a dramatic statement: "To create art out of the bounds of Soviet art academies was to acquire the reputation of pariah in an exclusive social network of artists, historians and functionaries – or to cultivate a deeply personal, often isolated world shaped by viewers, who were chosen among few trusted friends. Such work would be limited to underground venues that had little public and historical impact."   

The development of that same group Dvizheniye, led by Lev Nussberg and Francisco Infante-Arana, forms one of the symbolic axes of "Metamorphic". Their start was a shiny success story with the best working conditions and resources, artists cooperating with sociologist Georgi Djumenton to create monumental urban decorations for the 50thanniversary of the communist revolution, and spending a couple of well-paid years developing experimental learning environments for especially gifted Soviet children. Vyacheslav Loktev, the author of kinetic metamorphic future urban environments no less radical than Archigram, was similarly employed by Moscow University. Even more detailed future cities by the group NER were Soviet official exhibits at the scandalous 1968 Milan Triennale, and subsequently at the 1970 Osaka Expo. Vyatcheslav Koleichuk's tensile structures like a telescope antenna for outer space, or a self-erecting house, were inspired by Russian avant-gardist Karl Ioganson rather than Kenneth Snelson, Buckminster Fuller, or Frei Otto, however, they no less (or rather, even more so) withstood a dialogue of equals. All of this is a convincing display of reality far more diverse than the popular discourse of the East as periphery copying the more developed West. If one also thinks of the subversive human factor like Jerzy Soltan, teaching simultaneously in Warsaw and Harvard, or collector Georgi Costakis, introducing the 1960s generation to works of Russian avant-garde (stories not really represented in the exhibition, but more likely to be elaborated in the catalogue) architecture and design life behind the Iron Curtain begins to appear far more dynamic. And even if this is no surprise in principle, the variety, standard, and radicalism of the actual projects displayed are nevertheless startling. 

However, the age of losing innocence manifests differently: while the year 1968 marks a clear watershed in the West, things were more ambivalent in the East. The ICSID (International Council of Societies of Industrial Design) congress taking place in Moscow in 1975 shed some light on a reality consisting of parallel layers. Finding the recording of a multimedia programme by Yuri Rechetnikov and Yuri Sobolev, compiled for 16 synchronized screens, is among the curators' greatest achievements. In its space-commanding appearance and ambition to comment on the whole state of the world, this audiovisual Gesamtkunstwerkmay be compared to Le Corbusier's Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Bruxelles Expo. The multimedia programme consisted of five thematic sets commenting on the issues of design in relation to all spheres of life. The message of the programme was a critique of consumption, as anachronistic as it may seem. However, the party officials did not get the message – interpreting the depicted abundance of consumer goods as propaganda for Western consumer capitalism, and put the work under a ban. This exhibition is its first public display.  

The interpretative narrative of the exhibition shows two alternate paths for the disillusioned of the 1970s – either an absurd, self-consciously surreal world of science fiction as exemplified in the theatrical actions or UFOs of Dvizhenye or kinetic objects of Kaarel Kurismaa; or a return to the countryside. The technological person's return to the country is, however, essentially impossible and doomed to inauthenticity – this self-consciousness is acknowledged in rituals (Andrei Monastyrsky's Collective actions) or melancholy attempts at creating a hybrid environment (Tiit Kaljundi's New Visual Environment). Thus, the movement over time was towards being less official; the end of technological experimentation is the beginning of more critical self-consciousness. Utopias were replaced by fictions; authors' positions were rethought. People were transformed – but certainly not in the way the project of technological modernization would actually have prescribed.  

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