Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Monumental failure

Frederic Chaubin, in his book, has managed to capture some of the ugliest modern buildings in the world. Page after page of structures that were a product of the failed Soviet state. They seem devoid of any discernable style other than, mostly, being big and brutal. I wonder if this has anything to do with the Soviet planners and their Five Year Plans which had a quirky view of production, in lots of cases it was based on weight rather than quantity, which is why Soviet products tended to be chunky and heavy. Factory managers could achieve their output goals by making heavier but fewer units. Maybe architects got their plans approved by using as many bags of cement and tons of steel as possible.

The author, in his rather rambling essay, mentions the Soviet obsession with the future, especially space travel. The design of many buildings seems to be inspired by flying saucers with another influence Saarinen's curvy TWA terminal (now modified to be a hotel) at JFK, New York. Soviet architects of the brutalist school couldn't keep things simple, they had to add bits and pieces to the external walls or cut oblong and circular shapes into them. So much of this appears to be just decoration for the sake of it.

Chaubin's photos reveal an interesting side to Soviet buildings, a lack of attention to the finish. Moisture stains appear on walls, walkways have badly fitted concrete blocks, railings with supports that aren't upright, tiled floors that have not been laid in a straight line, gutters aren't upright, big patios outside buildings are not flat. As the only client was the state why should the builders worry about the look of the finished place ("So long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we'll pretend to work"). Though some of the structures are less than forty years old they are crumbling, probably through lack of attention because they are uneconomic to use now that the state doesn't cover their costs.

The book is perhaps as monumental as it's subject. I found it too large (ten inch square would have been ideal) because the photos are big enlargements and most don't reveal lots of detail to take advantage of the book's size. All the buildings are captioned for location, date, architect, place and sometimes a comment from the author.

Chaubin's photos of ninety Soviet buildings is a fascinating record of structural failure.

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