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 title of a new exhibition at Chicago’s Graham Foundation, The Lost Vanguard, describes the rarefied, almost mythological aura surrounding Russian architecture from those years. The show, opening October 11, collects the images of Richard Pare, one of the first photographers to seek out the remnants of the movement after the Soviet Union collapsed. Pare has spent the past two decades visiting buildings in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia, taking more than 15,000 shots. The resulting images have been exhibited at MoMA and published in an eponymous book. Thanks to two recent grants from the Graham Foundation, Pare continues to seek out lost monuments from what he calls the singular decade of modernism.
How did a 42-year-old fine art photographer find himself traveling across post-Soviet countries in search of 70-year-old buildings? As Pare explained in a lecture at the Carter Presidential Library, it was pure chance. At an art fair where he was looking for new work, he ran across a rare print of Tatlin’s famously unbuilt tower. He bought it and initiated a conversation with the seller, who invited him to come along on his next trip to Russia. “I accepted with alacrity,” Pare remembers. When he made his first trip, in 1992, he found many of the buildings he had only read about–albeit, in disrepair, covered in mold or falling apart. “At the time, it was just coming out of a time of total neglect,” he says. He was seeing buildings that had been left largely untouched since they were built.
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.
The Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922-32 will be on view at the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House until February 16, 2013.