Made of Wood and Dreams

tatlin070909.jpgAmbitious Soviet architecture plans are a real favorite of mine.  Right up there next to the planned-but-never-built Palace of the Soviets is the work of Vladimir Tatlin, an architect whose tremendous Monument to the Third International also never made it past the modeling stage.  The sheer, Stakhanovite scope of imagination is something to reckon with though.  A new book has been published about Tatlin’s work, reviewed over here by Catherine Merridale.  Interesting stuff.

Tatlin’s tower, more accurately known as the Monument to the Third International, remains his most famous creation. It was commissioned in 1919 as a monument to the Bolshevik Revolution, which had taken place just two years before. As Lynton observes only in passing, the entire project was undertaken against a background of civil war, food shortage, political terror and epidemic disease (the last of which had killed several of Tatlin’s colleagues by the mid-1920s), so the artist’s bravado was breathtaking. What he planned was to be the tallest structure in the world, and also the most innovative, though elements of Eiffel’s tower in Paris (which Tatlin had seen) and of Athanasius Kircher’s famous seventeenth-century representation of the Tower of Babel were evident in the design. Conceived in deliberate contrast to the lifeless, useless busts and memorials of the previous regime, it was also to be functional, to include a massive conference hall, meeting rooms (the building was to be the headquarters of the Communist International), and a space for projecting films and disseminating messages of brotherhood, harmony and peace (the top tier would also function as a radio mast). The marvels of technology were one theme, but movement was another, so each of the four main function spaces, suspended within an open framework, was designed to rotate, each at a different but predictable speed. In this way, as well as reflecting the dynamism of the dawning age, the building could double as a slow-moving calendar and clock, perhaps even as a means of measuring stars and space. In its restlessness and transparency, the building embodied the democratic challenge to authoritarian power that Tatlin so welcomed. As Viktor Shklovsky, the critic, approvingly observed when he saw Tatlin’s model, ‘The monument is made of iron, glass and revolution.’

In fact, the tower was nevermade of anything but wood and dreams. A fifteen-foot high model wasexhibited in Moscow and St Petersburg, and pictures show workersprocessing past a simplified prototype on the 1925 Leningrad May Dayparade, but the 400-metre colossus of Tatlin’s vision was never builtand soon even the artist’s models had been lost. Tatlin was neitherarrested nor disgraced, but times changed, and the Soviet regime of thelate 1920s had little time for transparency in architecture orpolitics. While constructivists like his friend Alexander Rodchenkomoved into photography, quietly dropping the experimental art that wasnow deemed un-proletarian, Tatlin (who defied the narrow definitionimplied by any artistic ‘ism’) became fascinated by flight, studiedbirds, and began to make sketches for a personal flying machine, theLetatlin (the Russian verb ‘to fly’ is letat), which was to be a wickerframe supporting wings and powered, like a bicycle, by pedalling. Hedied, never having soared as he had hoped, in May 1953, just weeksafter the death of Joseph Stalin.