The 'Venice: may we be proud of architectural masterpieces of the Stalin repressions epoch?

The 'Venice: may we be proud of architectural masterpieces of the Stalin repressions epoch?
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Experts considered the choice of the focus for the Russian pavilion at the ‘Venice controversial. Why so?

This year Russia brought the «V.D.N.H. Urban Phenomenon» project dedicated to  the important for the Russians territory – Exhibition of Economic Achievements (VDNKh) to the architectural biennale in Venice. Hardly had the biennale opened when the discussion started in the Internet, why this project? The topic was immediately defined as controversial. Is it really so?

Unique monument or Stalinism’s hangover?

VDNKh is often represented as a symbol of Stalinism, of Potemkinism, happy Kuban Cossacks who had never been so much happy. Is it really necessary to revive this symbol, and if so – then how should it be done?

Some people were sure that the VDNKh has nothing to do with the announced theme of the festival - «Battle line broadcast», focused on social problems. It was proposed by Alejandro Aravena, Chilean architect, Pritzker Prize laureate.

Meanwhile, the Russian pavilion managers in Venice think that the choice was right. VDNKh – is a unique monument of the Soviet period which needs preservation, care and considerate use.  


«Unmerciful time but architecture is not at fault»

The argument on this issue continued within the discussion “Russian pavilion at the’Venice-2016: pro и contra».

Experts gathered in the library named after F. Dostoevsky on Chistye Prudy: Sergei Kuznetsov, the pavilion manager, Chief architect of Moscow; Grigory Revzin, architectural critic; Alexei Novikov, Dean of Higher School of Urban Planning; Yuliy Borisov, Head of architecture bureau; experts, journalists, guests. Operating Director of the Higher School of Urban Planning, Vera Leonova was the discussion moderator.

So, is the symbol to be revived? And is it to the point at the international architectural exhibition? May it be an attempt to avoid sharp social problems of the modern world?

Sergei Kuznetsov stood in the breach.

— Avoidance? I do not agree, — he said sharply and explained: — We have the heritage of difficult time: some people think it the best time in their lives, others call it monstrous. Nevertheless, in Stalin period unique objects were erected which are to be preserved.

According to Sergei Kuznetsov, VDNKh is a really social project. An attempt has been made to turn the monument of the past into a modern public space, comfortable for everybody, to breathe new life into it.

— And here we align with the biennale’s topic, he stressed. — Architects received a very interesting task in this context. Now the architect’s profession is quite different from the one it used to be. Today an architect’s task is not just to design a building but to develop the environment.  

Sleeping empire, but it may wake up

…Within biennale a film by student Lina Dudareva was shown: half-destroyed pavilions of the exhibition covered with a film. The broken buildings are the symbol of the empire which is sleeping but may wake up any time.

— One should remember that the time when the exhibition itself was created was the black time of the Russian history: the period of collectivization and repressions, — the architecture historian and publisher Marina Khrustaleva reminded those present (from California via Skype). —VDNKh is known to have been built by prisoners, and the chief architect of the exhibition, Viacheslav Oltarzhevsky was imprisoned.

— The painful for all of us theme seems to have been ignored in the project presented, — Marina Khrustaleva continued. — The events of those years should have been reflected (as a kind of repentance in artistic form) and then present the new VDNKh. The Russian pavilion has not revealed the theme in full. Thus, the exposition of 2016 is a well-made ideological project, that everything is wonderful. However, from the historian’s standpoint, the approach is too simple.


Bloodthirsty regimes sometimes had great architecture

There is a problem of work with undesirable heritage – and VDNKh is just the case. But people managed. 

— Yes, the architecture was created in the time of bloodthirsty regime, — Sergei Kuznetsov did not argue. — But let us remember how many objects of great architecture were created by bloodthirsty regimes, and it does not derogate its artistic values. Yes, there were persons deprived of liberty and political prisoners. But there was great Vuchetich who created wonderful statues decorating VDNKh even now, there was Prokofiev, who wrote music for the exhibition. And they did great things! It must be preserved!  

So, where is our front line?

— It is in our minds, — Yuly Borisov, the author of one of the newest VDNKh pavilions – the Rosatom pavilion. — We are struggling against our own demons...

Too imperial, isnt it?

The pompous and even imperial look of the Russian pavilion was noted by many. In this regard, Russia gets out of the general background as other countries prepared rather modest pavilions. The exhibition, as you remember, is dedicated to the architecture solving social problems. Such as, for example, the project by Alejandro Aravena, the biennale supervisor, who invented the ½ formula (the problem of housing provision of the poorest people is solved originally: his architecture bureau builds half a house for free, and the other part is built by the owner of the house).

And the Russian pavilion with its giant Worker and Farmer statue, women with sheaves, tractor drivers – and all these, made of bronze, in the best traditions of socialist realism, move on huge screens. 

— I have been decorating the Russian pavilion for many years, — architectural critic, Grigory Revzin, speaks. — And we have always been blamed of something, so we are accustomed to criticism.  

  • Why should we make pavilions about refugees, or floating schools in Africa? We have our own problems. And I think that the present and the future is more important for us than the past, good or bad, — Sergei Kuznetsov is sure.

The main thing for VDNKh today is the upheaval of the existing area and filling it with new contents: the largest in Europe skating rink, new interactive museums in reconstructed pavilions.

Today VDNKh is the ground where people experiment, remake, construct. It is really time to stop making culture a battlefield for politicians.