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Critical Post-Functionalism in the Architecture of Late Soviet Central Asia

Igor Demchenko

Résumés

À l’appui de textes critiques aujourd’hui pratiquement oubliés, produits en Asie centrale au cours des dernières décennies de l’ère soviétique, cet article analyse les stratégies discursives employées par les architectes, les critiques et les historiens pour justifier le glissement qui s’est opéré d’un fonctionnalisme rigoureux propre aux années 1960 vers une architecture ménageant le caractère local dans les années 1970 et 1980. Les architectes et critiques soviétiques, avertis de l’insistance du gouvernement sur la persistance essentielle des traditions constructives régionales et ethniques, et de la nécessité de les incorporer dans le nouveau style socialiste de l’architecture en Asie centrale, ont utilisé la quête idéologique de formes nationales comme moyen d’expression de leur méfiance croissante envers un fonctionnalisme préfabriqué et comme opposition à une version locale du style stalinien. Cette critique a surtout protégé l’architecture de la période soviétique tardive de l’idéologie dogmatique, garantissant une impressionnante flexibilité formelle. En explorant de manière critique deux distinctions intellectuelles, tout d’abord entre formes architecturales nationales et contenu (ou essence) socialiste, puis entre caractère national et caractère international de l’architecture socialiste, l’article restitue les conditions intellectuelles singulières régissant la profession d’architecte en URSS. Les architectes œuvraient dans un contexte caractérisé par l’impossibilité d’obtention de commandes privées, par la quête d’une objectivité esthétique, l’intérêt grandissant pour la conservation du patrimoine et la mutation progressive d’une construction nationale socialiste contrôlée vers un nationalisme brutal dans les années 1990.

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  • 1 Philipp Meuser, Ästhetik der Leere: moderne Architektur in Zentralasien / Éstetika pustoty: sovrem (...)
  • 2 Architecture and Building of Uzbekistan: Despite its name, the journal covered the whole region of (...)
  • 3 Architecture of the USSR: the main architectural journal of the Soviet Union published in Moscow.

1The late Soviet architecture of Central Asia, characterized by abundant use of ethnic ornaments carved in gypsum and wood and by medieval Islamic forms cast in reinforced concrete and tiled in blue, still fascinates scholars, tourists, and architects alike1 (figs. 1-2). Yet, even the general framework of theoretical discussions that legitimized post-functionalist architecture in the region is unknown internationally, and all but forgotten in the former Soviet Union. That is not entirely unfair, since the discussions preserved on the pages of Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana,2 a journal of Central Asian architecture, and occasionally covered by Arkhitektura SSSR,3 were primarily used as post factum justification of the new forms. This criticism reflected the general disillusionment in post-Stalinist functionalism of the late 1950s and the 1960s. In that, with their vague formulations and inconclusive resolutions, the architects and critics were almost certainly intentional: the object of their reflection was not post-functionalist architecture as such (a dangerously radical position under the regime that officially praised prefabrication and industrial construction), but two scholastic distinctions, first between the national form and the socialist content or essence, and second between the national and the international in socialist architecture.

Figure 1: Kazakh TV Complex, Almaty. Architects: A. Korzhempo, M. Ezau, V. Panin, 1983.

Figure 1: Kazakh TV Complex, Almaty. Architects: A. Korzhempo, M. Ezau, V. Panin, 1983.

Source: Igor Demchenko.

Figure 2: Tea-House on Lenin Boulevard, Tashkent, 1970.

Figure 2: Tea-House on Lenin Boulevard, Tashkent, 1970.

Source: Soviet Architecture of Today: 1960s–early 1970s, Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1975, fig. 35.

  • 4 Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR [The National Architecture of the Peopl (...)

2The stated aim of both distinctions was to draw a clear line between the accepted and the unwanted channels for borrowing national, regional, or local formal motives for contemporary architecture. By the 1980s, however, Soviet scholars surprisingly achieved the point of least clarity on this matter—especially compared to the almost exact certainty from which their discipline departed in 1926, with Moisei Ginzburg’s manifesto of nationally conscious constructivism. In it, Ginzburg postulated that the architecture of the higher classes is a bad source, and that the constructivists should learn from the traditional architecture of the poor.4 So far removed from Ginzburg’s clarity in 1989, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, M. Abdullaev, an architectural critic from Fergana, in a manner almost certainly intentionally confusing, returned the subjective aesthetic judgment to the differentiation between mechanistic reproduction of traditional elements and creative borrowing from authentic tradition:

  • 5 M. Abdullaev, “Natsional’nye traditsii i internatsional’naia napravlennost v esteticheskoi culture (...)

In the aesthetic practice different approaches to the [national] tradition are reflected in the methods of the stylization [stilizatorstvo] and the stylizing [stilizatsiia] common in the architectural practice. If an artist, in an object created according to the canons of this time, reproduces almost documentarily the decorative details taken from the artistic heritage of the past—this is stylization. Stylizing does not presuppose the exact copying or borrowing; here the creator just alludes to the object of his inspiration, often exaggerating the forms that he finds important or overlooking the others, i.e. freely operating with the forms.5

3This was a counter-manifesto of pure subjectivism, lacking any class consciousness whatsoever. As I will show below, with all its intentional ambiguity, this type of confused reasoning was directed both against pre- and post-World War ii functionalism and against the rigid neoclassicism/Art Deco of Joseph Stalin’s empire. Moreover, it provided the much-needed discursive flexibility that allowed for the rise of new design principles formally close to the Western postmodernism of the 1980s.

Rejecting functionalism

  • 6 A. Kosinskii, “V poiskakh natsional’nogo svoeobraziia [In search of national originality]” [1rst p (...)

4National forms, such as traditional ornaments or recognizably Islamic morphological elements, were anathema to the Soviet functionalists. In 1978, Andrei Kosinskii, an active Central Asian opponent of architectural functionalism and the architect of Tashkent, began his article “In Search of National Originality” by listing the functionalist principles he and his like-minded colleagues rejected:6

“ornament is a crime,”

“forms follow function,”

“geometry is the basis of everything,”

“more means less,”

“the work of an engineer is high art,”

“the house is a machine,”

  • 7 Ibid., p. 83.

5There is no need to name the authors of these and many other premises—everyone knows them.7

  • 8 Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR”, op. cit. (note 4), p. 113.

6Ginzburg, the leading theoretician of early Soviet architectural functionalism, was certainly among Kosinskii’s villains. For Ginzburg, national form was a regionally specific projection of a socially relevant function. He made it clear: in Soviet socialist society, not all functions were relevant. In Central Asia, an Islamic religious school was among the irrelevant—and Ginzburg begins his abovementioned programmatic article “The National Architecture of the People of the USSR” (1926) by literally crossing out the Ulugbek Madrasa in Samarkand (fig. 3).8

Figure 3: Moisei Ginzburg’s Dead Orient (mertvyi vostok).

Figure 3: Moisei Ginzburg’s Dead Orient (mertvyi vostok).

Source: Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR [The National Architecture of the People of the USSR]”, Sovremennaia arkhitektura, vol. 4‒5, 1926, p. 113.

7For Ginzburg, the stereotypically retrograde and delusional Orient of mosques and madrasas was dead; but next to it was something very much alive, something to learn from—the traditional urban fabric (fig. 4):

  • 9 Ibid., p. 113. On Ginzburg’s attitude to the historic heritage of Central Asia see also Boris Chuk (...)

The typical residential neighborhood of a kishlak, aul or a town is a starting point for the development of the new national culture of the Orient; it is a valuable material for further national building. The particular features of climate and everyday life reflected in the structure of these streets and squares, in the organism of a house, are the national premises that would serve as a background and as an ensemble for the growing new Orient.9

Figure 4: Moisei Ginzburg’s Live Orient (zhivoi vostok).

Figure 4: Moisei Ginzburg’s Live Orient (zhivoi vostok).

Source: Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR [The National Architecture of the People of the USSR]”, Sovremennaia arkhitektura, vol. 4‒5, 1926, p. 113.

  • 10 A. Kosinskii, “V poiskakh natsional’nogo svoeobraziia,” op. cit. (note 6), p. 84.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 84.

8Certainly, for Ginzburg, the function of traditional houses could not be reduced to the standardized spaces of prefabricated apartment blocks that overwhelmed Soviet cities from the mid-1950s on; that is, after the end of Stalinism. However, for Andrei Kosinskii, mass-produced urban blocks embodied the crisis of late-modernist functionalist architecture: “although rationalism solved the practical questions of housing, it created a number of artistic and moral or ethical questions that today have no answer”10 (fig. 5). According to Kosinskii, pragmatism and the cult of technology relegated the architectural profession to “technical construction” or to the unsophisticated recombination of geometrical figures. Besides, in the real world of the Soviet 1970s, triumph of functionalism—whether or not it was informed by the traditional urban fabric of Central Asiaresulted in the massive demolition of historic houses and their replacement with prefabricated apartments, while the crossed-out Ulugbek Madrasa was exiled to the category of architectural monuments “with its completely unclear relation to modernity.”11

Figure 5: Microrayon (or microdistrict) in Shevchenko (Aktau), Kazakhstan, 1960s.

Figure 5: Microrayon (or microdistrict) in Shevchenko (Aktau), Kazakhstan, 1960s.

Source: Soviet Architecture of Today: 1960s–early 1970s, Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1975, fig. 29.

Is vernacular local?

  • 12 For the classical late-modernist program of learning from the functional repertoire of traditional (...)
  • 13 V. E. Kim, “Natsional’noe v arkhitekture–real’nost’ ili mif? [The National in Architecture–Myth or (...)

9Was there anything in particular to learn from the traditional Central Asian urban fabric? After Ginzburg, Soviet architects rhetorically asked this question time and again with an implied positive answer,12 but by the early 1980s skepticism and the distrust of functionalism reached such a level that the Central Asian architect and professor of architecture V. E. Kim, in his article “The National in Architecture – Myth or Reality?” eventually questioned the necessary validity of the affirmative response.13 Kim discovered exact formal parallels to regionally sensitive functionalism across the globe: courtyards, large balconies, shady niches and sunscreens. Basically, all the functional elements supposedly specific to Central Asia could be found as far away as in Britain, the Unites States, West Germany, and Japan. Clearly no architects in these countries used the old cities of Bukhara or Samarkand as a prototype.

  • 14 John Fizer, “The Theory of Objective Beauty in Soviet Aesthetics,” Studies in Soviet Thought, vol. (...)

10This discovery allowed Kim to develop a distinctly Schopenhauerian concept of representation [predstavlenie] surprising for his Marxist-Leninist intellectual milieu with its cult of objectivity.14 Kim argued that:

  • 15 V. E. Kim, “Natsional’noe v arkhitekture–real’nost’ ili mif?,” op. cit. (note 13), p. 30.

the assessment of the same object by different people depends not only upon the particular qualities of the work [of art] but also upon [its] representation in [the minds of] people. There always will be considerable and at times fundamental differences in the characterization and evaluation of every architectural work, the differences related to the individual artistic experience of a person, to the stable stereotypes of his mind, to the current and acting joint (professional, etc.) attitudes.15

11Kim himself was not exactly comfortable with the potential power of subjective judgment, or at least he felt like he had to present it as an unavoidable evil in order to remain within the limits of ideological loyalty. Therefore, he considered such conditioned representation “inadequate” in relation to the professional standards of Soviet architecture. Still, his article marks the opening of a Pandora’s box of uncertainty associated with the figure of the customer, who could like or dislike the project for no objective reason, and whose opinion nevertheless had to be taken into account. It is a real mystery how and why in 1982, with Leonid Brezhnev still alive and the state being the only commissioner and consumer of architectural design and production, Kim felt the need to account for the problem that just ten years later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, completely redefined his profession.

  • 16 M. Abdullaev, “Natsional’nye traditsii i internatsional’naia napravlennost’ v esteticheskoi cultur (...)

12Still, for the most part, as much as Soviet architects might disagree between themselves about acceptable professional methods and standards, they never doubted that good standards must produce good architecture, regardless of what the users’ intentions or subjectivities make out of it. This was not just the architects’ professional snobbism: in a system where individual users or corporations could not substantiate their judgment of taste through monetary power (the former had too little money to purchase buildings, most of which were distributed via non-market channels anyway, while the latter were tightly controlled by the state), architects had to deal exclusively with the state bureaucracy. Indeed, bureaucrats occasionally played a role of aristocratic clients (M. Abdullaev mentions that just in 1983 the Uzbekistan Gosstroi, or State Building Department, cut 40,000 sq. meters of granite and marble from the projects in the republic)16 but for the most part they respected the expertise of professional architects, as long as architects paid lip service to existing ideological guidelines.

Competing objectivities

  • 17 Sh. Dzh. Askarov, “Mezh administrativnoi derektivoi i tvorcheskoi sinusoidoi [Between the administ (...)

13In 1989, the architectural historian and professor of architecture Shukur Askarov, still within the framework of the national vs. international discussion, asked “is there at least one single scientific-research or project institute of architecture with a successfully functioning sociological department or a sociologist?” His answer was “no.”17 Ironically, Askarov wanted a scientific—that is, objective—answer to the problem of representation outlined by Kim. The neoliberal ethos of triumphant subjectivity, already entrenched in Western postmodernism by this time, was fundamentally alien and incomprehensible to Soviet architects. Even when acknowledging the formal qualities of experimental designs Askarov dismissed them as “individualistic exercises.”

  • 18 A. V. Shchusev, “Arkhitektura sovetskogo Vostoka[The Architecture of the Soviet Orient],” Arkhitek (...)

14In fact, these “exercises” fell into one of two main categories: the formally sophisticated ones praised within the profession, but almost never built, and the more straightforward projects that were functional, structurally simple, and—in Central Asia in particular—national in form. The second group of projects certainly carried an imprint of Ginzburg’s “national premises... for the growing new Orient,” but even more so reflected the national version of Stalinist Art Deco theorized by Alexei Shchusev in his 1934 article “The Architecture of the Soviet Orient.”18 In this article, Shchusev essentially took Ginzburg’s constructivist concept of “people’s architecture,” assumed to be the houses of lower and lower middle classes, and turned it upside down, equating “people’s architecture” with the outstanding canonical Islamic monuments of Central Asia.

  • 19 Ibid., p. 8.

15Shchusev began by asserting that “the primary material” for the Soviet architect designing architecture national in form “is the people’s creativity that for many centuries occupied a large place and produced significant values in the culture of the nations.”19 Yet this type of creativity is best reflected in the buildings that display the same qualities as the classical monuments of Greco-Roman antiquity and the Italian Renaissance:

  • 20 Ibid., p. 9-10.

The architecture of the Oriental countries (both of the Middle East and of Asia) is similar in its features to the Western European classical [heritage], which has its roots in the architecture of Mesopotamia and Egypt. … The same can be said about Muslim monuments that were built in Palestine, Africa, Spain, and Persia beginning from the 7th century. Both Byzantium and the Muslim Orient directly continue [the tradition] of Classical architecture [of Rome and Greece]; they originated on its ruins, and every building of these countries has all the features and particularities in planning, proportioning, and the design of interior spaces that are characteristic of the theory of Classical architecture. … As for the period between the 13th and 17th centuries in Persian architecture, it should also be perceived as the time of the highest flourishing of Islamic architecture; and we have all the rights to call it the classical [heritage] of the Orient.20

  • 21 Ibid., p. 10.

16The buildings preserved from “the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries in Persian architecture” were primarily mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums like the Ulugbek Madrasa crossed out by Ginzburg. But according to Shchusev, “if the architects, studying this rich heritage of Muslim architecture, approach its principles with restraint, they will discover a rich source of inspiration.”21 Thus Shchusev elegantly justified the borrowing of purely formal motives from the repository of Islamic architectural heritage—the same justification put forth by both the Stalinist architects of Central Asia and the late-modernists of the 1970s, although these two groups rejected the functionalist paradigm.

  • 22 Iosif I. Notkin, “Sinusoida garmoniziruet prostranstvo [The Sinusoid Harmonizes Space],” Arkhitekt (...)
  • 23 Ibid., p. 26.

17The last generation of Soviet architects in the region did not oppose Shchusev’s logic as such; rather they were concerned with the rigidity of the resulting amalgamations. In 1985, the Tashkent architect and urban planner Iosif Notkin, in his article “The Sinusoid Harmonizes Space,”22 criticized “orthogonal and polygonal architectural thinking” of existing architecture “national in form” by pointing out that it denied the possibility for a “rhythmicized inhabitation of space” and “it is also lacking in the continuity of... playful action that could penetrate into the large contemporary ensembles and increase the role of flexible background fabric, thus saving material and creative resources necessary for the individualization of separate buildings.”23 Here Notkin was concerned both with the facelessness of pure prefabricated functionalism and with its over-decoration with national ornament, which became a common practice in the production of mass housing of the 1970s. Interestingly, his idea of the dynamic function is not dissimilar from Ginzburg’s extraction of optimal function from the traditional urban fabric of Bukhara:

  • 24 Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR,” op. cit. (note 4), p. 113.

In this labyrinth of crooked and narrow streets with distorted axes, in the asymmetry and the transverse elongation of squares, in the division of a house into several separate parts and courtyards, in the precision of volumes of this primitive architecture, in the flat roofs and the peculiar interpretation of the wall surface on which the openings of the window or a door are absorbed by the ascetic whiteness of the flat edges – in all of that, numerous purely functional premises of the Orient are reflected... They should be carefully studied... to create the architecture of the new and the living Orient.24

18Thus the sharp opposition to functionalism in Central Asian architectural criticism was more a reaction against the specific Soviet late-modernist interpretation of function, and it most certainly left space for more sensitive functionally oriented design strategies. At the same time, the concept of playfulness brought Notkin’s criticism of late-modernist rigidity in line with Kim’s notion of representation. It is almost intentionally imprecise, even though Notkin, as a true Soviet scholar, made an effort to capture his meaning through the at least superficially scientific concept of the sinusoid.

19In the late 1970s and the 1980s, the objectivity of professional standards was time and again brought into discussion and progressively diluted. Mentioned at the beginning of this article, Abdullaev’s distinction between stylizing and stylization eventually reduced objectivity to a discursive figure of opposition, which de facto juxtaposed two imprecisely defined and apparently intersecting multitudes. Thus, under the aegis of national form, a conceptual space of uncertainty emerged, where the last Soviet generation of critics could defend post-functionalist and post-historicist architecture in Central Asia.

Constructing tradition

  • 25 Sholpan K. Utenova, “V poiskakh natsional’noi formy [In Search of the National Form],” Arkhitektur (...)
  • 26 Ibid., p. 9.

20Possibly the most impressive exercise in postmodernist criticism in Soviet Central Asia was the article “In Search of the National Form” published by the Kazakh scholar Sholpan Utenova in 1988.25 The focus of Utenova’s article was the contemporary architecture of Soviet Kazakhstan. She begins by paying lip service to the successful introduction of traditional local forms in the architecture of national republics. Yet Utenova immediately points at the discontinuity of historic tradition in Kazakhstan, which was interrupted in the 1930s with a forced settlement of Kazakh nomads and only recently “consciously and purposefully” reestablished. She links the tendency towards the “programmatic creation of national architecture” to the rise of nationalism, which—as we now know—eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1988, however, it looked like a benign search for identity or, as Utenova put it, “the growing role of deep historical and cultural memory in social consciousness.”26 The fact that, in the same paragraph, Utenova acknowledges the rupture of historic tradition and attests to the surfacing of a deep historic and cultural memory might seem delusional, but it was a common trope of Perestroika journalism. The writing, still grounded in the Marxist-Leninist practices of “dialectical” thinking, expected contradictions to meet and create a superior new synthesis.

  • 27 Ibid., p. 10.

21Utenova next presents national Kazakh forms extracted from the depths of social memory by contemporary architects, whose work “testifies to the active interest in the historical and stable means for expression, which therefore are close and intelligible to [ordinary] people.”27 Note the objectivization of the needs and expectations of users, who had no means of expressing them anyway. Why should they recognize traditional forms in the situation of cultural rupture in the first place? Certainly, Utenova was aware of this paradox, but presenting her own ideas as a simple reflection of people’s needs was the safest tack for her to take, in order to stay within the limits of ideological loyalty.

  • 28 Ibid., p. 10.

22The classical Kazakh national forms, and the first ones that Utenova discusses, are the dome and the shape of the yurt (fig. 6). She presents the medical spa Arasan as an example of organic unity between the traditional form of the dome and a socially useful function, which constitutes the form’s socialist content. According to Utenova, the domed silhouette of the building convincingly embeds it “both in specific urban environment [of Alma-Ata] and in the specific historical and cultural context, thanks to its associative coordination with the multi-domed compositions of traditional monumental architecture.”28 It is unclear precisely what she is referring to here, since Alma-Ata had no pre-modern Islamic architecture at all, while the shape of the Arasan domes is hardly similar to the domes of Turkestan or Taraz, the two main historic settlements and religious centers of pre-modern Kazakhstan. But on a more practical level, Utenova did not let herself dismiss even this example of Kazakhstani post-functionalism, which she most certainly found imperfect, and she was able to do this within the system of oppositions between the national and the international, completely destabilized towards the end of the 1980s.

Figure 6: Arasan Baths (Medical and Healing Complex), Almaty. Architects: V. T. Khvan, M. K. Ospanov, V. V. Chechelev, K. R. Tulebaev, 1979-1982.

Figure 6: Arasan Baths (Medical and Healing Complex), Almaty. Architects: V. T. Khvan, M. K. Ospanov, V. V. Chechelev, K. R. Tulebaev, 1979-1982.

Source: postcard, Minsviazi SSSR, 1990.

  • 29 Ibid., p. 10.

23Utenova was even more skeptical about the national form of the yurt cast in reinforced concrete or reproduced in steel and glass. She mentioned the project for the Museum of the akyn (epic poet) Dzhambul (which was not built), based on three intersecting yurts, which “would be unrecognizable, not just by unsophisticated users, but also by colleagues-professionals.”29 Setting this unsuccessful project aside (which unfortunately she did not reproduce in her article), Utenova proceeded to the Kazakhstan pavilion in the Park of Arts built by the architects T. Suleimanov and M. Simonov for the XII International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow (1985) (fig. 7). She interpreted it as a combination of the yurt and the Timurid ribbed dome—but the forms are so generic that, following Kim, in any other context we could convincingly deny any reference to historical heritage or national culture in it whatsoever.

Figure 7: Kazakhstan Pavilion at the XII International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. Architects: T. Suleimanov, M. Simonov, 1985.

Figure 7: Kazakhstan Pavilion at the XII International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. Architects: T. Suleimanov, M. Simonov, 1985.

Source: Sholpan K. Utenova, “V poiskakh natsional’noi formy [In Search of the National Form],” Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, vol. 6, 1988, p. 10.

  • 30 Ibid., p. 10.

24After the initial survey of national forms in the contemporary architecture of Soviet Kazakhstan, Utenova proceeded to the theoretical discussion of the matter. She was mildly dismissive of functionalism, insisting that “above all the form in its visual expressivity (as much as it is defined by function, planning, and the structure) is the final product of architectural creativity at all of its levels—from the city to the single object and its details.”30 Yet Utenova was more concerned with the criteria, preferably objective, for assessing the quality of national forms generated by Kazakhstani architects. She found the solution in history read, in a very Marxist-Leninist way, as a progressive succession of the stages of development.

  • 31 Ibid., p. 12.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 12.

25Progress in Marxism-Leninism had an ethical dimension: every subsequent state of historic development was seen as inevitably and objectively better than the previous one. The theoretical scheme that Utenova constructed proceeded from the authentic pre-modern tradition, necessarily interrupted by industrial development. Later, in the process of nation building, it was reconstituted: first, in the imperfect “illustrative” manner and finally in the sophisticated “metaphorical” mode. According to Utenova “the illustrative tendency is characterized by the reproduction of traditional forms as close to the prototype as possible; the signs of the past are mechanically copied.”31 At the next stage of historical development, in its metaphorical mode, the traditional form turns into “a symbol of culture”; it doesn’t send a message but rather evokes a general feeling or a particular mood. Utenova concluded her theoretical excursus with an unequivocal statement: “undoubtedly, the tendency to the metaphorical embodiment of national specificity presents the higher level of development of the national form.”32

26Still, this cumbersome theoretical scheme did not bring the Soviet scholar any closer to an objective assessment of post-functionalist architecture in Kazakhstan. Fundamentally, it was grounded in the personal experiences of the aesthetic subject or, in Kim’s words, in the object’s representation within the mind of an individual. What if you don’t know the exact prototypes reproduced by an architect? Wouldn’t the building then seem metaphorical to you? Utenova praised the Russian Art nouveau architect Fyodor Schechtel for the metaphorical qualities his neo-Russian buildings—yet in fact they had clear Old Russian prototypes, merely blurred by his taste for the then-fashionable style of Art Nouveau. Her distinction was hardly more precise than Abdullaev’s opposition between styling and stylization, but its imprecision and suppressed—yet apparent—subjectivity allowed Utenova to defend her taste for creative post-functionalism in the architecture of Soviet Kazakhstan.

  • 33 Ibid., p. 12.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 12.

27Utenova proceeded with juxtaposing the “illustrational” Central State Museum of Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in Alma-Ata (fig. 8) to the “metaphorical” Valikhanov Museum (fig. 9), both completed in 1985. In her view, the State Museum was essentially a modern classicist building thinly veiled by the usual Islamic features: it had domes, pointed arches, geometric ornamentation, and an iwan. Its national forms were almost textual in their message. In contrast, the Valikhanov Museum was a completely different matter: it reflected “the pre-Islamic period of national history.”33 This is most certainly an exaggeration. Even if Utenova was correct and its architects were inspired by the form of the “saganatam,” the domeless mausoleum common in the nineteenth- and early twentieth- century Kazakh steppes, it is equally “Islamic.” Yet the Islamic references were already so discredited in her eyes that she went so far as to interpret the pronounced drainage spouts of the Valikhanov Museum as “the phallic symbols of Kazakh ancestors”34—a perceived locally specific element of pagan heritage.

Figure 8: Central State Museum of Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, Almaty (Z. Mustafina, Iu. Ratushnyi, B. Rzagaliev (arch.), 1985).

Figure 8: Central State Museum of Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, Almaty (Z. Mustafina, Iu. Ratushnyi, B. Rzagaliev (arch.), 1985).

Source: Igor Demchenko.

Figure 9: Kazakhstan, Shankhanai, Almaty region, Shoqan Walikhanov Memorial Museum (Altynemal) (B. Ibraev, R. Seidalin, and S. Rustambekov (arch.), 1985).

Figure 9: Kazakhstan, Shankhanai, Almaty region, Shoqan Walikhanov Memorial Museum (Altynemal) (B. Ibraev, R. Seidalin, and S. Rustambekov (arch.), 1985).

Source: Aleksandr Petrov, http://silkadv.com/​en.

  • 35 Ibid., p. 13.

28In reality, the architects of the Valikhanov Museum were considerably less metaphorical and hardly qualified for Utenova’s standards of perfection. Their own interpretation was explicitly literal: “Each corner of the building has a different height according to its meaning in the system symbolizing the Universe. The terraced floor reflects the seven levels of the Universe. The black and red floor, red walls, and the white ceiling symbolize the color hierarchy of the three worlds (the subterranean, our level of the Universe, and the heavens).”35 Still, setting all the Soviet interpretations aside, the museum is certainly as original and as non-Soviet as the Soviet architecture of Kazakhstan ever got. It clearly has the quality of an abstract sculpture and most probably it does not reflect any real national forms at all.

National form, socialist content

  • 36 M. P. Kim ( ed.), Istoria SSSR: Epokha sotsializma [History of the USSR: The Socialist Era], Mosco (...)

29A standard Soviet history textbook maintained that “the Marxist-Leninist ideology constitutes the unshakable foundation for the cultural unity of the people of the USSR; it defines the common socialist content of all their cultures, different in form.”36 The government’s insistence on the continuity of regional and ethnic modes of artistic expression from the ancient to the medieval, the capitalist, and ultimately to the socialist era allowed Soviet architects and critics to justify any experimental design. Beginning from the 1970s and up until the actual collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asian architects and critics used the ideological quest for authentic national forms as a means of expressing the growing distrust in prefabricated functionalism and their strategic oppositioKosinskiin to Stalinist regionalism. They successfully reintroduced the concept of subjective judgment to mainstream architectural discourse and intentionally blurred the early Soviet sharp distinction between acceptable and unacceptable sources of inspiration for designing locally sensitive architecture.

30The theoretical discussions explored in this article rarely influenced the process of design in direct. On a pragmatic level this process was often shaped by the unacknowledged and indirect learning from the “capitalist” colleagues, mostly through professional publications. Yet, the conceptual flexibility of architectural criticism essentially shielded the late-Soviet architecture from the ideological dogma allowing for its impressive formal experiments. That situation was only possible because in the post-Stalinist era the self-referentiality of architectural discourse was never seriously challenged by the political authorities occupied with more urgent social issues. Under these conditions, the distinctions between the “illustrative” and the “metaphorical” modes of assimilating traditional forms—or between the “stylizing” and the “stylization”—was sufficient to allow for de facto jettisoning of functionalism—at least in selected original projects with separate funding allocated for non-standardized design.

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Notes

1 Philipp Meuser, Ästhetik der Leere: moderne Architektur in Zentralasien / Éstetika pustoty: sovremennaia arkhitektura Tsentral’noi Azii, Berlin: Braun, 2002 and Katharina Ritter and Architektur Zentrum Wien (eds.), Soviet Modernism 1955‒1991: Unknown History, Zurich: Park Books, 2012.

2 Architecture and Building of Uzbekistan: Despite its name, the journal covered the whole region of Soviet Central Asia and occasionally Transcaucasia; it was a journal broadly speaking devoted to the architecture of the Soviet Orient.

3 Architecture of the USSR: the main architectural journal of the Soviet Union published in Moscow.

4 Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR [The National Architecture of the People of the USSR]”, Sovremennaia arkhitektura, vol. 4‒5, 1926, p. 113-114.

5 M. Abdullaev, “Natsional’nye traditsii i internatsional’naia napravlennost v esteticheskoi culture [National traditions and the international orientation in the aesthetic culture]”, Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, vol. 8, 1989, p. 15.

6 A. Kosinskii, “V poiskakh natsional’nogo svoeobraziia [In search of national originality]” [1rst published in Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, 1978], Natisonal’noe v sovetskoi arkhitekture: daidzhest, Moscow: Stroiizdat, 1989, p. 82-87.

7 Ibid., p. 83.

8 Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR”, op. cit. (note 4), p. 113.

9 Ibid., p. 113. On Ginzburg’s attitude to the historic heritage of Central Asia see also Boris Chukhovich, “Local Modernism and Global Orientalism: Building the ‘Soviet Orient’,” Hintergrund, vol. 45, 2013, p. 34-35.

10 A. Kosinskii, “V poiskakh natsional’nogo svoeobraziia,” op. cit. (note 6), p. 84.

11 Ibid., p. 84.

12 For the classical late-modernist program of learning from the functional repertoire of traditional Central Asia architecture see: I. A. Merport, “K voprosu o preemstvennosti v arkhitekture [The question of continuity in architecture],” Stroitel’stvo i arkhitektura Uzbekistana, vol. 3, 1969, p. 18-20.

13 V. E. Kim, “Natsional’noe v arkhitekture–real’nost’ ili mif? [The National in Architecture–Myth or Reality?],” Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, vol. 3, 1982, p. 30-33.

14 John Fizer, “The Theory of Objective Beauty in Soviet Aesthetics,” Studies in Soviet Thought, vol. 4, no. 2, 1964, p. 102-113. URL: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF01044663.pdf. Accessed 6 September 2018.

15 V. E. Kim, “Natsional’noe v arkhitekture–real’nost’ ili mif?,” op. cit. (note 13), p. 30.

16 M. Abdullaev, “Natsional’nye traditsii i internatsional’naia napravlennost’ v esteticheskoi culture,” op. cit. (note 5), p. 15; Boris Chukhovich, “Za ‘vostochnymi motivami’ [Behind the Oriental motives],” Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, vol. 10, 1988, p. 31.

17 Sh. Dzh. Askarov, “Mezh administrativnoi derektivoi i tvorcheskoi sinusoidoi [Between the administrative directive and the creative sinusoid],” Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, vol. 6, 1989, p. 27.

18 A. V. Shchusev, “Arkhitektura sovetskogo Vostoka[The Architecture of the Soviet Orient],” Arkhitektura SSSR, vol. 8, 1934, p. 8-10.

19 Ibid., p. 8.

20 Ibid., p. 9-10.

21 Ibid., p. 10.

22 Iosif I. Notkin, “Sinusoida garmoniziruet prostranstvo [The Sinusoid Harmonizes Space],” Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, vol. 11, 1985, p. 25-31.

23 Ibid., p. 26.

24 Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR,” op. cit. (note 4), p. 113.

25 Sholpan K. Utenova, “V poiskakh natsional’noi formy [In Search of the National Form],” Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, vol. 6, 1988, p. 9-14.

26 Ibid., p. 9.

27 Ibid., p. 10.

28 Ibid., p. 10.

29 Ibid., p. 10.

30 Ibid., p. 10.

31 Ibid., p. 12.

32 Ibid., p. 12.

33 Ibid., p. 12.

34 Ibid., p. 12.

35 Ibid., p. 13.

36 M. P. Kim ( ed.), Istoria SSSR: Epokha sotsializma [History of the USSR: The Socialist Era], Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 1965, p. 400.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Kazakh TV Complex, Almaty. Architects: A. Korzhempo, M. Ezau, V. Panin, 1983.
Crédits Source: Igor Demchenko.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-1.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,9M
Titre Figure 2: Tea-House on Lenin Boulevard, Tashkent, 1970.
Crédits Source: Soviet Architecture of Today: 1960s–early 1970s, Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1975, fig. 35.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 386k
Titre Figure 3: Moisei Ginzburg’s Dead Orient (mertvyi vostok).
Crédits Source: Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR [The National Architecture of the People of the USSR]”, Sovremennaia arkhitektura, vol. 4‒5, 1926, p. 113.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 144k
Titre Figure 4: Moisei Ginzburg’s Live Orient (zhivoi vostok).
Crédits Source: Moisei Ginzburg, “Natsional’naia arkhitektura narodov SSSR [The National Architecture of the People of the USSR]”, Sovremennaia arkhitektura, vol. 4‒5, 1926, p. 113.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 146k
Titre Figure 5: Microrayon (or microdistrict) in Shevchenko (Aktau), Kazakhstan, 1960s.
Crédits Source: Soviet Architecture of Today: 1960s–early 1970s, Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1975, fig. 29.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 393k
Titre Figure 6: Arasan Baths (Medical and Healing Complex), Almaty. Architects: V. T. Khvan, M. K. Ospanov, V. V. Chechelev, K. R. Tulebaev, 1979-1982.
Crédits Source: postcard, Minsviazi SSSR, 1990.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 195k
Titre Figure 7: Kazakhstan Pavilion at the XII International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. Architects: T. Suleimanov, M. Simonov, 1985.
Crédits Source: Sholpan K. Utenova, “V poiskakh natsional’noi formy [In Search of the National Form],” Arkhitektura i stroitel’stvo Uzbekistana, vol. 6, 1988, p. 10.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 169k
Titre Figure 8: Central State Museum of Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, Almaty (Z. Mustafina, Iu. Ratushnyi, B. Rzagaliev (arch.), 1985).
Crédits Source: Igor Demchenko.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-8.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Titre Figure 9: Kazakhstan, Shankhanai, Almaty region, Shoqan Walikhanov Memorial Museum (Altynemal) (B. Ibraev, R. Seidalin, and S. Rustambekov (arch.), 1985).
Crédits Source: Aleksandr Petrov, http://silkadv.com/​en.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/4509/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 133k
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Référence électronique

Igor Demchenko, « Critical Post-Functionalism in the Architecture of Late Soviet Central Asia », ABE Journal [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2018, consulté le 19 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/4509 ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.4509

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Auteur

Igor Demchenko

Lecturer, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USA

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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