From izbas to the Seven Sisters

Model of the Monument to the Third International (1919-20) Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) Reconstruction (2011) by Jeremy Dixon and Chris Milan. Sainsbury Centre, Sculpture Park, UEA, Norwich.

Some months ago I rashly promised to lead a session on Russian secular architecture for the Architecture Group at Sudbury U3A. As the day approached, I started to wonder why I had agreed to do it.  My knowledge of architecture, while quite extensive, is strictly that of an amateur; I have little clue about the appropriate terminology, or, indeed, what makes buildings stand up.

As I began to assemble a lot of pictures (useful to hide absence of technical knowledge), I realised that the task would be easier than I thought.  Over the years I have created talks about the founding of Saint Petersburg,  Russian country estates and dachas, and have collected many well annotated images, which largely served my current purpose.  I was able to deal with izbas, carved and plain, boyars houses, the baroque and the neo-classical with little problem.

It was the Twentieth Century that proved more daunting, but with the help of the internet, plus William Brumfield’s ‘magisterial’, ‘A History of Russian Architecture, in the end my survey from pre-revolutionary eclecticism, through rationalism and constructivism, to Stalinist Empire style convinced even myself. 

I was assisted by the fact that, in September, the Arts Society Stour Valley organized a brilliant trip to the Sainsbury  Centre at the University of East Anglia.  Having dutifully paraded around the current exhibition, we wandered outdoors. The students had just returned, and the atmosphere was vibrant with the sense of new beginnings. The park like campus was bathed in bright autumn sunshine. 

My feeling of optimism was further enhanced when, as part of UEA’s notable sculpture collection, the structure pictured above came into view and I was able to photograph a scale model of Tatlin’s iconic constructivist work, Monument to the Third International (1919/20).

The building, planned to be 400 meters high, was supposed to accommodate party workers  within the red spirals in revolving cubes.  Not surprisingly the project was deemed to be unworkable at the time, but nonetheless, even in diminished form, the structure stands as an icon to the avant guard dreams of the 1920’s.

The recently caught image certainly enhanced the session which, in the end, seemed to be very well received.  In fact I have courageously decided to add  ‘A survey of Russian Secular Architecture from Izbas to the Seven Sisters’, to my list of talks, and am thinking now of moving on to churches…

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