Paper architects and the razing of Moscow

The U.S.S.R. Paper Architects grabbed top international prizes with projects never built. Yuri Avvakumov, who was at the center of the movement, spoke to RN about preservation and the grim future for Russian architecture.
Can you describe Russia’s Paper Architect movement, the social atmosphere at the time, and what these architects were reacting to?

Paper Architecture was a genre of conceptual architecture in the USSR in the 1980s, designs that were never built, “projects of projects”. Historically Paper Architecture was a pejorative term that appeared in the late 1920s and referred to hare-brained schemes far removed from the vital tasks of the national-economic complex. Purely technically it was the happily found chance to send one’s projects abroad to international competitions of architectural ideas, bypassing the restrictions imposed by Soviet censors. It was also a utopian group of young architects, graduates of the Moscow Architecture Institute, who were all friends and passionate about the competition game.

Do you have a favorite story about official reaction to one of your entries that won an international competition?

In the Mayakovsky Museum in 1984 there was an exhibition in which, in addition to the historical part, the organizers put together a small section of works by contemporary artists continuing the tradition of modernism. I decided to show my City-Club project there. It had won first prize in Japan at the Style 2001 Competition. The project was made in a real situation, Nagornaya Street in Moscow where I was living at the time. Well they took it out of the exhibition on the third day because it hadn’t passed military censorship. A year later, at an exhibition of young architects, that same project was noticed and praised by Boris Yeltsin. He was then the top Party boss of Moscow and in charge of construction. I was immediately accepted into the Soviet Architects’ Union. Less because of the project, I think, than because of Yeltsin’s praise.

Do you think the paper architects, like other artists, contributed to perestroika? How?

Paper Architecture began in 1981 with the competition win in Japan. In 1984 the first exhibition with the name Paper Architecture took place and changed the meaning of the Soviet concept to its opposite. In the mid-80s we were sending hundreds of projects to competitions in Japan, by 1988 only a few. The excitement among participants had faded. I began focusing on exhibitions instead. That year, for instance, Paper Architecture was shown in London, Paris and Milan. Perestroika broadened communications, from epistolary to passenger, but by then the competition adrenaline had run out, and not everyone wanted to spend their life in art. I was one of the few who, not for the sake of a competition but on my own initiative, began making art out of architectural material, and a few works then were indeed dedicated to perestroika.

Do you see an increasing interest in the Russian avant-garde in Russia? How is their work relevant today?

In the 1980s I was almost the only architect who declaratively used constructivist and Suprematist styles in their work. Now, at a competition of Russia’s best buildings, the main prize went to a Moscow school of general education that looks entirely constructivist. If not for Luzhkov [the longtime mayor], Moscow would now be a constructivist city.

What is the state of Russian architecture today? (in crisis, transition, innovative.. )

Construction here, as everywhere, is in crisis, and that’s good because the speed with which historical Moscow was being razed and replaced with malls and office buildings during the fat developer years was off the graph. Architects, as the last Russian festival of Architecture showed, now work more on social projects.

RN Dossier

Yuri Avvakumov is an architect, artist and curator. Born in Tiraspol (now capital of the breakaway Transdniestr region of Moldova) in 1957, he graduated from the Moscow Architectural Institute in 1981. He has participated and curated art and architectural exhibitions since 1982, started AGITARCH studio in 1988 and established the Utopia Foundation.

What is your favorite building in Moscow and why? Favorite buildings in other cities?

My favorite buildings in Moscow are the ones now in danger of being pulled down: Childrens’ World by Dushkin, the Ogonyok printing plant by Lisitsky, the Central House of Artists by Sukoyan…

Do you think Russians should be concerned about the preservation of modernist buildings? Why?

I wouldn’t divide architecture according to style into what needs saving and what doesn’t really matter. Architecture cannot last forever and in fact the life span of an architectural construction is no longer than the life of an archival photograph. Buildings should be preserved as monuments of material culture, also for the simple reason that any construction, much more the destruction of a living building, harms our immediate environment. The future in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is already here, only in Russia they’re not burning books but destroying architecture.

What do you look for when you make an architectural photograph?

I love architectural, or rather, urbanistic photography as a way to pass the time, dolce farniente – to walk, to look and sometimes photograph what I’ve seen. But the culling of those pictures is done according to the laws of composition, the ratio of black and white within the frame, etc.

Can you briefly talk about the role utopia plays in Russian architecture, in Soviet times and today?

You know, during my close studies of Paper Architecture, I insisted that it was sooner based on fantasy than on a utopia. I wanted to distinguish our private exercises from Sovietspeak, from the state utopia. Now, 25 years later, I realize that both our association and our naïve ideas were a utopia, a colony and a brotherhood of dreamers.

How about in your own work?

I don’t see the point of changing.

Tell us about your current projects?

They are mostly exhibition projects. I just curated a new exposition in the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art, in the old building (1793) designed by Matvei Kazakov. Part of the building’s history was transmitted to the works of the contemporary artists. I would like finally to make a book about Paper Architecture.

What do you hope for Moscow architecture/cityscapes in the next decade?

I know that there’s no hope for anything better, never was and never will be, but I can’t quite believe it. I think that I’ll wake up tomorrow and the bank now blocking our view of the Kremlin won’t be there.

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