A look at the fantasies of Amerikanizm born in the paradoxical relationship between the USSR and the United States.
Often the relationship between the US and Russia is portrayed as antagonistic, as indeed it has been for the bulk of the last seventy-five years. From the Cold War through the more recent “Russiagate,” the two countries have frequently appeared as rivals. But there was another side to this relationship: one of admiration and almost aspiration, despite the fact that these feelings were not reciprocated. In the period that preceded World War II, when the US and USSR were briefly allied, there was a high degree of enthusiasm for American culture both on the part of the popular masses and the political elites. Even earlier, during the nineteenth century, many reformers looked to the United States for an image of the not-too-distant future.
The Canadian Centre for Architecture’s exhibition in Montréal, Building a new New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture, examines this phenomenon through the lens of design. Jean-Louis Cohen, architect and architectural historian—a scholar, among other things, of the Soviet avant-garde—curated the show. He brings a wealth of expertise to the subject, as it is one of his enduring preoccupations. Cohen’s 1995 collaboration with the CCA, Scenes from the World to Come, dealt with the topic of Americanism from a broader European perspective. Novel forms such as the skyscraper, erected using cutting-edge technologies of construction, lent concrete shape to the fantastic visions of Russian architects. Visitors to the United States regarded the factories of Detroit and highrises of Manhattan as structures that could potentially be transposed into another, more revolutionary built environment.
Divided into seven rooms, the galleries feature hundreds of items. All sorts of different materials are included: books, models, photographs, posters, etc. Projectors loop paired films relevant to these materials in low-lit corners separated by curtains after every room, serving as a transition to the next. While the presentation is dense, and can at times feel overwhelming, the chronological sequence of the exhibit keeps it from being unmanageable. Inside each room, the items are arranged thematically within the given timeframe. Many of them come from the CCA archives, but most are on loan from elsewhere in North America (more about this later).
Starting with the vestibule at the entrance, which displays a massive polar-view map detailing all the trips taken by various figures back and forth between the two countries, Amerikanizm is defined in the introductory caption as “a state of mind wherein Russian strategies were based on American precedents.” Roman Cieslewicz’s 1967 illustration of The Two Supermen also appears, blown up to a towering scale, but the actual asymmetry of their situation is noted. Going back to 1776, when the thirteen colonies that would become the US broke away from the British crown, a fascination with the fledgling nation developed within tsarist Russia. By the turn of the nineteenth century, this had blossomed into a full-blown trend. Engineers like Vladimir Shukhov and poets like Maxim Gorky and Alexander Blok made pilgrimages to US cities during this time. Not long before the revolution kicked off in Russia in February 1917, Bolshevik luminaries Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and Aleksandra Kollontai were all staying in New York.
From there, the exhibition moves into the 1920s over the next two rooms. The first is devoted to the influence of industrial ideologies like Taylorism and Fordism, alongside the direct involvement of American builders. As Sovietologists have frequently noted, Taylor and Ford were more recognizable names than Stalin for the majority of this decade (at least until he consolidated power around 1928). US oil magnate Armand Hammer, whose father helped found the Communist Party in America, opened up a pencil factory in Moscow, while the Detroit architect Albert Kahn set up an auto plant in Stalingrad and army colonel Hugh Cooper supervised construction of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station in Ukraine. In the following room, the influence of Amerikanizm on modern architecture in the USSR is laid out in painstaking detail. Movie posters by the Stenberg brothers, many advertising Hollywood productions with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, are hung at the far end of the room. Lissitzky’s Wolkenbügel “horizontal skyscrapers” can be seen in their original urban context, as part of a much more ambitious plan to rebuild the capital.
Room 4 is devoted to the impact of American culture on the Soviet Union during the 1930s, the age of high Stalinism. Here there are also submissions by US architects to international competitions for the Palace of the Soviets and the Commissariat of Heavy Industry, as well as Russian designs for the Monument to Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo. Joseph Urban, Thomas Lamb, Percival Goodman, Simon Breines, and Alfred Kastner all submitted entries to the former, while Konstantin Melnikov, Iakov Chernikhov, and Ivan Leonidov did so for the latter. Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, who lived in New York for more than a decade, drew surreal sketches of Manhattan reminiscent of Hugh Ferris’ cityscapes. Next is a room spanning the period of Lend-Lease, when Russia joined the Allies, through the intense wave of postwar anti-Americanism that lasted up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Some of the bombers used by the Soviet air fleet to combat the Nazis were copied wholesale from downed B-29s. Canned goods were sent to the USSR, and later knockoff brands of ketchup and mayonnaise were made available to the public.
Last but not least, there is a room that covers the post-Stalinist decades. Despite the antipathies that persisted between the two countries during this period, distinct instances of emulation can still be detected. Victor Gruen, the American shopping mall architect, went to Moscow in the seventies. Raymond Loewy, known for designing cars, airplanes, and refrigerators, toured the Soviet Union at Brezhnev’s invitation. Earlier, R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome was the centerpiece of the US pavilion at Sokolniki Park in 1959. Fuller, who had belonged to the American-Soviet Science Society in the forties, made several subsequent trips back.
Moments of open hostility also make it in, such as the famous showdown between Nixon and Khrushchev in the so-called “kitchen debate.” One thing that the CCA exhibit might have gone into, which was sadly left unmentioned, was the fixation with American culture on the part of Soviet dissidents. Blue jeans, denim jackets, rock music—all these coveted goods from the West symbolized rebellion.
For the collection of materials assembled alone, Building a new New World was well worth the price of admission. Particularly effective is the use of cartography, which allows museumgoers to track the movements of different architects and officials over time. Cohen’s narrative is at once grandiose and convincing in its details, masterful at weaving together disparate threads into a cohesive tapestry. Yet as Samuel Medina astutely observes, the tidiness of the show elides important structural differences. The USSR never really came close to matching the sheer productive output of the US. Wastefulness and inefficiency plagued the Soviet economy from the 1920s onward, as economist Hillel Ticktin has shown, even if the breakneck drive to industrialization initially insulated it from cyclical crises. Still, further, the mechanisms that Bolshevik leaders felt could be lifted straightforwardly from the American example without a problem did not fare so well in the context of the USSR. Greg Vodden also points out, moreover, that the attempted facsimiles of American prototypes always seemed to be “a little askew” or a bit off, as if something essential were missing from the formula.
In fairness to Cohen, he never tries to claim otherwise. Moreover, he acknowledges that the relationship was rather one-sided. And given all the difficulties the exhibition faced in terms of procuring items, the results are miraculous. Numerous pieces that under normal conditions would have been in the show could not be physically transported due to an embargo. “Unfortunately for the show, geopolitical tensions have existed between the Canadian and Russian governments since the 2014 annexation of Crimea,” Cohen explained to me during an October interview in NYC. “Justin Trudeau strongly condemned Vladimir Putin following this event. Russia decided not to lend the CCA a number of pertinent works, drawings, and so on, meaning that I would have to search for other things.” Originals from the Soviet archives were off-limits, so he had to be creative. Hence the extensive use of pieces from private collections and university libraries throughout North America.
But what if Building a new New World were to travel abroad, say to Moscow or somewhere else not affected by these sanctions? Presumably many of the items excluded from the Montréal show might make it in. This raises questions about the continuity of the exhibition, however, for many of the items Cohen unearthed on this side of the Atlantic could by that same token not travel to Russia. A book based on the exhibit is in the works, scheduled to be released sometime in May, which would overcome these limitations by reproducing images of those artifacts that could not cross the borders. Furthermore, the text promises to flesh out Cohen’s arguments at greater length, filling in any of the gaps and straightening out any incongruities that remain.
Whether or not the exhibition will reopen once current lockdown measures are lifted is unclear. Right now activities at the CCA are suspended owing to the Covid-19 outbreak. Originally, the show was slated to continue through April 5, 2020. Hopefully, it will get the chance to extend its run and then proceed to new venues around the world.
Cover image: fragment of Roman's Cieslewicz The Two Superman. Montage published on the cover of Opus international, no.4, December, 1967. Estate of Roman Cieslewicz / Socan (2019)