Revolutionary Design: A History of Russian Constructivism
The advent of the machine in the nineteenth-century had such significance that the subsequent years can legitimately be termed the Machine Age. Among the great number of cultural changes engendered by this new era was the adoption of a machine aesthetic in the fields of architecture and design. This was of central importance to the Modern Movement as it provided a means by which its practitioners could engage with what they regarded as the spirit of the age.
The practical use of the machine aesthetic is best illustrated by the Russian Constructivist movement. It is perhaps surprising that an aesthetic deriving from the machine - the foundation of capitalism - could flourish in the political climate following the Communist Revolution of 1917. Adolf Loos’ idea of the machine as labour-saving device was, of course, central in resolving this dilemma, as was the social liberation and classnessness revealed by Van Doesburg and Moholy-Nagy. Also instrumental, no doubt, was the fact that, in this era, Russia was still largely a rural, peasant country possessing no heavy industry. The negative aspects of the machine would therefore have been less obvious than the myths of its glorious effects.
The Red Worker, 1920
In this climate of rural poverty and political fervour, the machine seemed capable of transforming society, and the aesthetic became the perfect metaphor for revolution and nation-wide progress. Since this made the aesthetic an invaluable resource for Communist propaganda, many of the leading designers were commissioned to create works that mythologised the revolution. For example, Kotscherguin contributed a Communist poster to an issue of The Red Worker in 1920. Here, an army of revolutionaries is matching with red banners held aloft. The skyline is composed entirely of the dynamic shapes of factories, while the vast sun is drawn as a whirring cog. Penny Sparke has observed the widespread use of the cog and wheel as ‘graphic icons to suggest how the machine would transform society.’ Further examples include Vavara Stepanova’s dynamic textile and clothing designs, such as those completed for LEF magazine in 1923. In the same issue, her husband Rodchenko exhibited logo designs which invoked the iconography of airplanes.
LEF magazine, 1923
The propaganda function was soon recognised by the government, and agencies were set up to cultivate it. Proletkult, or the Organisation for Proletarian Culture, had been founded in 1906. Now, in the post-revolutionary era, Constructivists were recruited to create the Agit-Prop propaganda trains and boats that toured the country. These were adorned with Modernist graphic design that could spread the revolutionary message to Russia’s largely illiterate population.
Significantly, this situation did not only involve the government manipulating design to its own ends; many of the artists and designers were equally committed to the idea that they could serve the new society. The Constructivist movement was so named because its members saw it as their task to ‘construct’ the environment for a new society in the same way that engineers constructed bridges and so on. Proletkult promoted the unity of science, industry, and art: Vladimir Tatlin, for example, believed design was linked to engineering, and saw the designer as an anonymous worker building for society. Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919-20) reflects this ethos.
Monument to the Third International, 1919-20
This projection for a 400m tall tower (only a scaled-down model was built) clearly represents the union of art and construction – its sculptural form of two intertwining spirals and a soaring diagonal component is rendered in a lattice construction suggestive of engineering. As well as resembling a machine, the tower actually functioned as one: it featured four transparent volumes that rotated at different speeds (yearly, monthly, daily and hourly). These were intended to house government offices for legislation, administration, information and cinematic projection.
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