Despite growing international acknowledgement of Constructivism’s importance, many Constructivist buildings are in more danger than ever. In February plans were announced to dismantle Vladimir Shukhov’s groundbreaking hyperboloid radio tower in Moscow. Just days ago, one of the owners of legendary former communal housing block Narkomfin began a series of unlicensed renovations that could destroy this fragile building. There are pressure groups and concerned citizens campaigning to save these architectural landmarks, but they do not have the financing or the energy to take on intransigent bureaucrats and rapacious developers and protect the scores of buildings all over Russia facing a precarious future.
The struggle to preserve these buildings — which range from private homes, like the innovative double-cylinder domicile built by Konstantin Melnikov in Moscow, to monumental factories like Noi Trotsky’s Kirov Meat-Packing Plant — is important not only because they are architectural icons, but because they represent a time when Russian culture led the world in technical innovation and theoretical daring.
Constructivism was a broad and ambitious movement — in art, architecture, literature and life — that blossomed in Russia in the years immediately after the 1917, bringing together the imaginative freedom of the pre-war avant-garde and the emancipatory socialist energy of the Revolution. The varied figures that comprised the movement shared the belief not only that creativity could radically alter the way people lived, but also that this transformative power was a universal possession: the worker in the collective was just, if not more, creative than the solitary genius with a paintbrush.
Brutally curtailed by the rise of Stalinist Socialist Realism in the early 1930s — its reputation besmirched, its practitioners persecuted — Constructivism’s legacy has survived not only in buildings, but in ideas: the spirit and look of Constructivism was adopted and adapted by Bauhaus and other wellsprings of European Modernism and became part of the global grammar of the built environment. It is a terrible irony that, while this intellectual heritage becomes ever more established and acknowledged, what should be Constructivism’s most durable manifestation — the factories, workers clubs and apartment blocks made by Constructivist architects — is looking increasingly evanescent. For now, many of the buildings still stand and with them the evidence of a towering artistic achievement.
As Munich-based filmmaker Isa Willinger wandered around Moscow on her first visit in 2010, she kept coming across decaying buildings that seemed to her to be “from a time more modern than my own”. Over the next two years Willinger returned to the city to follow the personal stories of those either living in these Constructivist marvels or battling to save these futuristic relics. The result of her work, Away from All Suns, went on to win first prize at last year’s Istanbul Architecture Film Festival.