Friday, June 16, 2006

"The future is here, comrade!"

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us - Winston Churchill

Look at elegant curves of this building. They seem to sweep up to heaven. I hope you feel some sense of thrill when you look at these shapes. This style of architecture, common in the former USSR and unheralded in the west for reasons mentioned below, I call “Soviet Utopianism.”

When people are confronted with the idea of a uniquely Soviet architecture, they usually think of Constructivism, an appalling melange of early twentieth-century modernism and worship of the Machine, the latter a frequent motif of Soviet film and art. Constructivism was a bit like Bauhaus, but grimmer. And I suppose there are Constructivist elements in what became Soviet Utopianism, but Utopianism is about, essentially, something else: optimism.

This optimism was social and political, but I also think it was na├»ve and arrived on the scene a bit too late. Constructivism, with its bunker-like blocks of concrete and occasional adornment of public sculpture, was probably the most soul-numbing and oppressive architectural form in history, and was the perfect complement to Comrade Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lavrenty Beria – the whole sorry lot of killers and scoundrels.

But Soviet Utopianism? It was the last gasp of an almost-realizable Brave New World. The future is here, comrade! The lines are gently curvilinear, graceful. The scale is bold, the facades are futurist.

These structures weren't dwellings, but grand bureaucratic centers, collective shrines to Soviet progress, and were modern incarnations of the sort of utopian icons that were popular in the early Stalinist era, such as the Moscow Metro.

Never mind that the stylistic elements of this architectural school were derivative of western modernism, a fad that had petered out by about 1970, just when Soviet Utopianism was getting started. Their architects borrowed from westerners such as Wallace K. Harrison, Oscar Niemeyer, and Eero Saarinen.

above, Dulles Airport, photo by Peter Krogh

below, Dulles Airport, photo by Chris Sloan

Saarinen's Dulles Airport in Washington, a classic of modernist design, brings us to Baku and my favorite structure in that city, my second home: Respublika Serai (the Republican Palace). Now called Aliyev Serai in keeping with the personality cult devolted to the late president Heydar Aliyev, it was constructed in the early seventies by two Soviet architects, an Azeri and his Armenian colleague. (“The Armenian’s role was minor,” I was told by someone at the Architecture Ministry in Baku. I wonder what they say in Yerevan…)

Respublika Serai is, I would argue, graceful, elegant, and dizzyingly optimistic: the future is here, comrade! In the early seventies, there was a brief moment in Soviet space-time when catching up to the West and surpassing it was thought to be a reachable goal. Culturally, politically, even ethically, Soviet potential must have seemed limitless, and the West was bankrupt. This chimera was exposed for what it was in the Gorbachev era, but these priceless artifacts—many of them now abandoned—constitute oases of timeless design in the midst of so much that is kitschy, shabby, or desultory.

So here are three photographs I've taken of the Serai, all with my Nikon FA. The first two, featuring the elegant lines of the colonnade, appear above. My favorite is the night shot below, which I took late one evening in 2004, after a concert. This week (the week of June 19, 2006), Herbie Hancock will appear at Respublika Serai. Alas, due to my financial difficulties, I won't make it in time (and won't make my interview with the Iranian foreign minister), and for now am stuck in the US. But Herbie? He'll be playing at the Serai...