Iakov Chernikov – Constructivist Dreams
The Royal Academy in London has currently got a show on about the legacy of the Constructivist architecture during the early stages of the Russian Revolution, from 1915-35 – a.k.a before the reactionary Stalinist forces really destroyed the radical aspirations of the nascent avant-garde.
They’re showing photograps and drawings of all the major figures involved in the Constructivist movement; from Malevich to Melnikov, from Tatlin to Ginsburg, and Popova to the Vesnin Brothers. The exhibition plays off the incredibly fertile middle ground between art and architecture, the revolutionary approach to structured design that represents the most memorable incarnation of the Constructivist vision. But I was left puzzled by the conspicuous absence of Iakov Chernikov, surely one of the most visionary of the Constructivists.
According to Catherine Cooke – who’s excellent monograph provides my main insight to his work, there’s an easy distinction to be made between Chernikov and the rest of the Constructivists. He was a peripheral figure operating as a contemporary to a very tightly defined group of thinkers, artists and architects – and whilst he shared a common grounding in Constructivist philosophy, he operated alone. He was known as a dedicated professor, an unrelenting student and proponent of the architectural drawing, he was a fantasist, a dreamer – what we now call a ‘paper architect’, who never really got much built, but published more books on Constructivist architectural theory than any of his contemporaries. More than an artist and teacher he was a visionary, obsessively sketching out an emergent architectural future where the productive social apparatus was to be fused firmly with the operational processes, rationalist ideology and machine aesthetics of the industrial technology which created it.
A relentless drive towards social and technological progress categorised his thinking;
In its steadfast forward movement, the architecture of our time has made more than a few mistakes, but in the final result will be a powerful embodiment of the human vision in spatial and volumetric forms. One must create; one must manifest one’s own creative capacities and summon to creativity those who are inert, in order that life within the art of architecture should be in a state of maximum movement.
Shaking loose the nineteenth century’s shackles of romantic historicism, Chernikov’s work crashed headlong into the visceral mechanics of the emerging machine age. In the preface to Chernikov’s book “The Construction of architectural and machine forms” published in 1931, the art historian Erik Gollerbakh wrote;
This book, by its very essence, constitutes a complete rejection of out-dated canons, historical prototypes and that idealistic, contemplative aestheticism which is an end in itself, cut off from the seething current of real life and the powerful concerns of the contemporary world.
Like many of the other Constructivist artists and architects of the time, the revolutionary confidence and clarity of vision is clearly manifested in the drawings which preserve a utopian purity even in today’s ideologically jaded climate. The series of drawings for which he is most remembered, the 101 Architectural Fantasies, are bold and unflinching, unashamedly proud and exuberant whilst simultaneously eschewing frivolity or superfluity. There’s a structural elegance to his pieces born out of the reductive rationalism of his mechanistic aesthetic, but the ‘construction’ he practices reveals a sensitive human talent for composition both at the macro scale in the volumetric arrangement of forms, and at the micro scale in the methods of joining elements together.
Chernikov’s sketches, the purported 17000 of them that he completed during his 40 year career, are effectively blueprints for the development of the brave new world where man placed his faith in the logic and beauty of the machine. At that time, during the early 20th century, the understanding of the synchronicity between technological and social progress had taken off across the political divide, with Taylorist production principles being developed in America and eagerly emulated in the young Soviet Union. European architects of the early modern period were also framing their designs in increasingly expansionist technological terms, to the committed modernist architecture had been transformed into a ‘machine for living in’; whilst the democratisation of design took on hitherto unseen global proportions with the establishment of an “International Style”.
The frenzied euphoria of the shock of the new. Chernikov’s work still bristles with an electric energy.
Today things aren’t quite the same, there’s been a lot of water passed under the bridge since these young radicals picked up their pens and started to plan the future. Although aspects of the Constructivist agenda were universal in their ambitions – spanning the ideological divides, the movement’s social philosophy, aesthetic and impetus will always be attributed to the ferment of revolutionary Communism. When that died so did belief in the emancipatory potential of revolutionary politics, and by proxy – of revolutionary design. The Constructivists operated in a climate where the belief that design could effect mass social transformation was widely accepted and encouraged. Today that belief has largely been debunked, both by the failures and horrors of totalitarian governance, and the aggressive expansion of neo-liberal individualism. At the dawn of the new millennium belief in the return of socially unifying political grand narratives seems totally misguided.
Cooke mentions in her monograph that Chernikov’s career operated with a much narrower investigative remit than the rest of his Constructivist peers. Effectively he was merely a dogmatic draughtsman, who’s work took inspiration from the world around him, but never really engaged with it beyond the realm of his visions and fantasies. This intensity of focus has been both a blessing and a curse, since it leaves us the legacy of a pure vision with no real application. Perhaps that’s all one man’s dreams deserve, but his drawings endure with us as a vision of the world which uncannily resembles our own – a world which he helped conceive, and which we occupy to some extent today.
His work reminds architects that there is a value in thinking within larger frameworks, and that the architectural fabric is one of the most significant realms for charting and influencing social transformation.
The images above were all scanned from Cooke’s monograph.
If you want to see more work by Chernikov refer to the comprehensive online catalog of his work over at the Iakov Chernikov International Foundation