IDEAL CITY

Luis Gottardi 
Published in Ojodepez Magazine
 
 
The clusters of large apartment blocks in Moscow, which form the central subject of this series by Bee Flowers, are called 'microrayons'. Sharing design & historical DNA with public housing and high-priced, free-market condominiums in many parts of the world, microrayons became a universal form of housing in Russia. Land, being government-owned, available, and plentiful, resulted in these units sprawling radially from the core of the city to its periphery. The architecture and design was not due to costs or other market pressures, but from an idealistic Communist vision of what a city and nation could be.
 
This Utopian vision of a functional cosmopolitan worker's collective would be facilitated, in part, by design, materials, and layout of the housing. Homogeneity in design was supposed to eliminate competition and individuality, creating a viable alternative to Capitalism. Instead, it resulted in density increasing as one neared the edges of Moscow, left dead industrial areas nearer to the core, caused high transportation/ supply/ maintenance costs and alienation. The early five-story version of these structures were referred to as 'khrushchovkas', derived from Nikita Khrushchev who initiated their construction around 1954, having released thousands of political prisoners from the Stalinist era, creating an instant housing crisis in Moscow.
 
As the Industrial Age progressed in the 1800's, the great migration from agricultural communities to the cities accelerated. Owners soon realized the value of skilled workers and began providing housing for them near the factories. Robert Owen built housing for the workers at his cotton mill in New Lanark, Scotland, around 1800. In 1817, Owen made a proposal to the House of Commons in England to build large apartment blocks in the form of squares, as "functional communities". Later, he would originate Socialism, and start a community in New Harmony, Indiana, that failed after a few years. In 1849, his son, Robert Dale Owen, published his seminal book Hints on Public Architecture. In 1851, Titus Salt, an industrialist in the town of Saltaire, in Yorkshire, England, was the first to employ architects, Lockwood and Mason, to design worker's housing, in the form of small Italianate villas. In NY, and most other cities, public housing meant the tenements that Jacob Riis photographed in the late 1880's, and that still skirt the edges of many major cities around the world.
 
Karl Ehn oversaw the rise of massive socialist worker's housing in Vienna from 1919 to 1933 referred to as 'worker's fortresses'. From 1919-1930 there was a flowering of Revolutionary Soviet Modernist architecture: Konstantin Melnikov and his landmark Rusakov Club, and Ilia Golosov's Zuev Club for Tram Workers. In 1928-30, Russian Moisei Ginzburg designed the Narkomfin building to house workers for the Finance Commisariat. By 1932, individual architectural practice was abolished in the USSR. The influence of Ginzburg's Narkomfin design on Le Corbusier, who saw it on a visit to Moscow, can be seen in his subsequent early experiments with public housing in Russia, Holland, and Austria. These efforts culminated with L'Unite' d' Habitation, the prototype for the large Soviet structures comprising the microrayons. The first Unite' was built in Marseilles in 1952. Three others followed in Nantes, Brie-en-Foret, and Berlin. They were envisioned as modular, self-sufficient neighborhoods. 
 
Most photography of this type of housing has been documentation of either the architecture, or of the residents, as in Bruce Davidson's 100 E. St, (1970), a documentary work in NYC reminiscent of the Photo League. Lewis Baltz's work has dealt with industry and housing advancing into open USA landscapes since the 1970's. Robert Adams' work from the same era has focused on the encroachment of development and land use in the American West, as if covering the aftermath of a lost war on Nature and Humanity. The exteriors of the buildings began showing up in the art world sporadically in the mid-to-late '90s, mostly from the so-called "Struffsky" or Dusseldorf School.
 
Andreas Gursky did his famous "Montparnasse, Paris, 1993". A singlet on the topic, in which he shows a block of over a thousand apartments in a very flattened, formal, Mondriannesque space from his usual high, omniscient viewpoint and large-scale print.
Thomas Struth delved deeper into the subject with work in Shanghai and Europe in some ways similar to Gursky's, though far less operatic and from a variety of viewpoints. Gabriele Basilico used the architecture of Beirut as a metaphor for the resilience of its residents in the early 2000's.
 
Like the Struffsky-ites, Bee abandoned chiaroscuro in Megastructure. He chose a severely-restricted almost monochromatic palette and range of tones, reminiscent of the painting technique known as grissaille, popular in Northern Europe in the 15th & 16th centuries. The occassional bit of red stands out. These faintly glowing embers among the ashen grays and pale chromatics are like distant candles flickering in the gloom.
 
There are elegiac strains in these pictures of gigantic, uniform monuments to a failed idea, marking the confluence and passing of Modernism and Communism, anxious, with emotional shadows and only traces of the nostalgia for the Soviet era found currently in Postmodern Russian art. The artist brings us a studied contemplation hinged on largely colorless, cold, drab, austerely gray cosmopolitan outposts, looking more like fortifications than homes, simultaneously longing for, and contemptuous of, the recent past and the failure of its passionate ideology.
 
Most, if not all, of Megastructure is seen from the ground, giving the work a more egalitarian, humane, natural-looking, involved, inquisitive & less illustrative feel than Gursky's. The microrayons look oppressive, anonymously modular, everpresent, and enormous... nothing like the architectural maquette-like look of Gursky's building.

The artist's formal consistency gives an uneasy noir feel to these communities, one of isolation, insulation, and other social outcomes of the microrayons. Winter is an endtime season, a period of transition, reflection, rethinking recent history, here stripped of all pretense.
 
People are anonymous, tiny figures, all bundled up, threading their way between the snowbanks along wet, possibly muddy walkways as they come and go. In most pictures where they are found, they are not discernable as individuals, and often alone or in small groups. Only in one picture do we see people engaged in obvious leisure time activity, an image of children playing in the snow.
 
These pictures show the buildings, both as individual units and in clusters, and the context in which they exist: service areas, roads, and highways ringing Moscow sometimes in close proximity to these structures with their half-shell noise barriers, looking more like a lyrically organic visual shield against the ubiquitous microrayon.
 
The infrastructure around these buildings is carefully included: There are small nondescript buildings that look like shops; others are probably management, security, heating units, or electrical stations, roads, bus stops and a bus. Here and there, a smokestack punctures the horizon. We even see ground broken, awaiting the construction of another microrayon. 
 
Megastructure is divided into five chapters. The first dawns with fuzzy, mirage-like images, bringing to mind Sugimoto's 'Architecture', opening up to revelatory reflections and the distant microrayons through train or bus windows, as if the viewer is arriving. Treelines with the apartment buildings in the background, snow piled up in the foreground. Ground broken for the construction of a new structure. Access roads leading to the complexes. A feeling of an idea(l) taking shape as one approaches. A poetic, instead of objective, approach.
 
The Second Chapter, comprised of single images, brings us closer still to the clusters. Here there is exploration of construction sites, roads, infrastructure, people coming and going, even billboards. We learn what is around these buildings - their context.
 
In Chapter Three lie multiple, interrelated images, very interlude-like, some receding and fuzzy. Transportation in the form of roads, people waiting for the bus or train, gas pumps, a row of semi truck-trailers. A building towers majestically in uncorrected perspective. A bus. Some lights on in the buildings in the distance: a sign of life.
 
The Fourth Chapter leaves the artifacts of stitching various frames together and correcting perspective in a panorama digitally. Self-referential to the process, here the ersatz veracity is deconstructed yet simultaneously heightened by including entire microrayons, and connecting neighboring ones. The enormity of the microrayons becomes readily apparent. More undeveloped and developed land is shown, colors become more noticeable, and the tectonics between the snow and buildings is clearer. Construction cranes rise like skeletal beings above the land. The forest of structures is revealed.
 
In closing, Chapter Five, at dusk, brings color back. Rich darkening blues intensify as line softens and softly blurs. Lights are on in the units, signs of life inside. In the last picture, as we depart, we see one last blurry shimmering apartment block through the window, much like we did at the beginning. 
 
Spiritually, there is a similarity to James Joyce's Ulysses. This series could be seen as taking place in one day, marked by arrival in a bus or train, followed by a prolonged, labyrinthian walk around the buildings, and departure in the evening. The buildings, like the people in them, look the same, but the philosophy and the times that shaped, enveloped, and guided them is now gone. Time and ideals expire, paradigms shift, and the spirit lags under inertia until it redefines itself, adapting and coming to terms with the present.
 
The repeating representations of these units, looking like Super-Sized apiaries clustered around snowy, barren landscapes, blurs the line between utility and aesthetics. It would be easy to construe Megastructure as a Germanic, Becher-esque typology of microrayons & infrastructure en situ, but it is not anything of the kind.
 
Bee's appproach rejects the operatic, analytical, omniscient, explanatory viewpoint for a more direct poesis, a dialectic between the ideals of communism and its outcome. He has expanded our experiential menu via successive approximations, similar to movements in classical music- not by serving us on a silver platter, but by being our guide, taking us past snow-banked roads and fields, through a forest of manifestations of an ideal.
 
It is always Winter in Megastructure. Snow-covered ground, numbing cold, the dark tracery of tree-limbs and grey skies predominate in these pictures, a still and sparsely populated frozen landscape punctuated by these huge blocks of apartments, whose moment has come and gone, the artist shifting and redacting their codification as they become recontextualized in the Post- Soviet era, from the status quo to a monumental requiem for an ideal.
 
 
 
 
THE HISTORY OF AN ILLUSION

Liya Adashevskaya
Published in DI Art Journal
 
  
Living in a typical multi-story building at the edge of the city, and periodically admiring the elegiac view from the window of my room - showing the blue forest at a distance beyond the fields behind the rows of garages - it never came to my mind what a poetic story of bankruptcy can be told by looking at my house, and at the neighbouring twin house, and at this field, and at that forest, and at those garages and at everything I see practically every day, while rushing to the bus stop or to the nearest supermarket. It's not surprising it never occurred to me - fairy-tale characters do not know that they live in a fairy-tale. They just live in accordance to the plot and in predetermined ways - a life lived for the edification of others.

Generally, these typified buildings and the monotony of our towns with their none too great infrastructure, health hazards and so many other things, have already been talked and written about many times. But the thing with art is that one picture can replace a thousand words and the photographic project "Megastructure" by the Dutch artist Bee Flowers is a clear embodiment of the dramatic failure of a great anthropological Utopia concerning the equality of all people. This utopian idea was incorporated into architecture, and is thus corporally materialised in the blocks of concrete multi-storey buildings. Megastructure deals with an illusion which was destroyed by human reality, and with the people who have to live among the remnants of this illusion.

The artist's detached rational outlook on the world of the 'sleeping districts' within the megapolis becomes the expression of a whole world of ideas. The work is not tied to a specific locality, and does not resemble the notes of a traveller attracted by the exotics and the otherness of an alien country. And though such approach could have been the starting point for the project, at some point the topography of a specific place becomes part of the conversation in general, and evolves into a discussion or meditation on mankind's global problems. And the past, lingering in the present of a single country - of one city, of one area - is suddenly projected into a possible future.

Perhaps the first thing to catch our eye is the collision of the natural world with civilization. This happens at that level of consciousness where man correlates his actions with his aspiration for happiness. But man's happiness is not part of nature's functioning, and from this conflict of interests sounds a theme of forced assimilation, of hostile take-over; the conquest of nature, its submission and, seen in perspective, its destruction. This will be the consequence of man for himself - a lifeless desert filled with archaeological trash of iron, glass and concrete. And indeed some pictures evoke that sense of dead, ghost-populated cities.

However, let's go back to the Utopia of equal and equalising justice. The equality of all people is taught by religion and communists and democrats alike. But the most indisputable convictions can be the most dubious. Why could these views not just limit themselves to the realm of ideas? (religion does this when shifting its focus to a space and time after life.) Problems arise when ideas try to subdue human reality, to restrain it within the framework of a rigid theoretical scheme, while winnowing out all that will not fit. And what a sharp border it is indeed that outlines the city space in Megastructure. Rising like sentries, the high rise buildings seem to stand watch to ward off external enemies - not so much guarding the physical space within the city, but the idea that gave rise to it.

Reality, ever in revolt and striving to break free, will take any imposed scheme to its limits and then crack it open. A frame imposed too rigidly will always be destroyed, unlike ambiguous and adjustable systems. Herein, by the way, lies a principal difference between Christianity and Communism. Communism collapsed like a house of cards. The idea of general equality, of peace with no envy, went bankrupt. And this happened not through pressure of outside forces, but from within. Soviet Communism, embodied in the power of the state, that is to say actually existing socialism, turned out very differently from its imagined variety. The resulting reality was in fact the opposite of the anticipated: instead of collective creation, we saw total loneliness, alienation and isolation in one's own cell. A joyless and pedestrian existence.


  
In retrospect, the construction of socialism within the idea of communism seems as some collective artistic action: an ideological-aesthetic experience whereby viewer and actor (or manufacturer and user) were in essence the same person. The dissolution of personality in a pre-individual community.

It's interesting in this context to compare Soviet fine arts with the architecture of that period. Stylistically, socialist realism in the arts was a form of Academism, with later influences from the Peredvizhniki movement, while Soviet architecture was stylistically oriented towards Modernism. And architecture in this sense was essential to and reflective of the processes of rapid modernization taking place within the country. Therefore, it was architecture, and not the fine arts with its humanistic inclinations, that was the true manifestation of the Soviet State's ideas. Similar processes occurred in the West, too, but were met with much stronger resistance, due to the deeper roots of individualism, while Russia, with its inclination towards community and adherence to national roots, turned out to be more susceptible to the processes of modernization and collectivisation. In France, for example, the proliferation of  typified housing blocks is not popular, and today only the poor live in such areas which have fallen prey to high crime rates. Here in Russia, construction still continues along these very lines, with only modest attempts at cosmetic variations.
  
In Bee Flowers' photographs, this confrontation between individual and collective is shown through the contrast between the individuality and singularity of human figures within the urban landscape vs. the oppressive monotony of the architecture. The buildings' depersonalizing aggression lies in their facelessness. The artist reverses the hierarchical order of things by giving monumental meaning to the smallest parts. Still, the fragments of the Soviet discourse continue to function to this day. Whether the Great Construction perpetuates due to inertia or by deliberation is another question. In the world of ruined and bankrupted illusions, life goes on as if among the set pieces and props of a stage play.
  
Bee Flowers plays with the stereotypes of mass consciousness. It is Winter in his project. In the imagination of the rest of the world, Winter is Russia's quintessential attribute. And yet it could also be a reminder of the Cold War and the fading of a forward-striving, futuristic energy. But Winter is only a dream, and not death. The remaining construction sites may be filled once again with workers and their superintendents. Therefore, Winter itself may be interpreted as a prelude to the birth of something new. Only what will that novel future hold? Furthermore, the Soviet Utopia has become very topical in the context of today's utopia of globalisation. It is interesting that when the whole world is now infected with these ideas, Russia seems asleep. It has already lived through all of that.

In the telling of this sad story about the failure of the communist utopia, Flowers applies almost no special effects. No distortions, no sudden foresights, just an unbiased view of a man walking down the street. Everything is left as it is. Only the technique, by impression reminiscent of grisaille, a favourite of the 15th and 16th century artists throughout Europe, gives a feeling of something that has sunk into oblivion. Hyperbole is unnecessary where holding up a mirror suffices; the reflected image amply testifies to the absurd. Thus, reality as it is becomes the metaphor. The paradox being that a metaphor itself signifies an escape from reality, from having to speak forthright and directly. The artist overcomes brutal realism. It's at once a drama of ideas and a human tragedy.

Bee Flowers forefronts the problems of modernisation and globalisation, the difference between a concept and its realisation, and he includes in his project the small and the great, the idea and its reality, without judgement or solutions. He is speculating and… admiring. The rational detachment in the view cast on the landscape enables the artist to see the peculiar topographical beauty of Russia. A country of big spaces, big conflicts, big ideas and big delusions.