February 24, 2012

Book review: "Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed," by Frederic Chaubin

Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, by Frederic Chaubin

Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed
By Frederic Chaubin
Taschen
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
The words "exuberant" or "idiosyncratic" don't usually pop into one's mind when one hears the words "Soviet architecture." The usual description of Soviet architecture involves unimaginative gray concrete structures created to fit the vision of a totalitarian state. Photographer Frederic Chaubin sought to prove otherwise upon his discovery of a radically energetic architectural aesthetic that arose during the latter days of the Soviet empire. Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, despite its gimmicky title, offers a revisionist overview of this architecture.

Chaubin's introduction is written in an arch yet playful manner, throwing references to Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and the movie Zardoz. The buildings photographed fall into five general categories (entertainment, science, sports, health, and monuments). To get the flavor, the section on health is entitled "Health and Resorts: from seaside phalansteries to hidden villas" and the entertainment section is "Entertainment and Culture: variations on monumental lyricism." However, don't be thrown by the intellectual pretentiousness of the section titles, since visual wonderment is in store. In each section, we are presented with examples of Soviet architecture that debunk the mythology that associates Soviet State-directed architectural projects as boring, gray, and oppressive. Chaubin chose examples from the geographic periphery. The structures exhibit signs of a specific ethnic heritage or the idiosyncratic whims of the architect.

Chaubin puts forward two theories on this late-flowering creativity:

Hypothesis: the inertia of the Soviet machine, too busy putting off its own demise, let work it commissioned on its margins float free of its control. In this sense it is surely no coincidence if most of these specimens came into existence on the fringes -- the Polish border, the Caucasus, or on the Black Sea.

Counter-hypothesis: these projects were not ignored but actively encouraged. After Brezhnev and nearly twenty years of stagnation, Russia under Andropov suddenly grew bolder. The need was felt to freshen up the image of a country disfigured by several decades of architectural cloning. After the Second World War, the proletarian paradise was covered with forests of concrete housing, the "khrushchevka."

Chaubin doesn't provide a definitive answer to this. How could he? The challenges are many. The post-Soviet Russia demolished many of these buildings. The autobiographies, monographs, and academic journals that chronicled this late period movement remained opaque since Chaubin didn't speak the language. Funding difficulties would also arise, since many New Russians would simply not waste precious income supporting and preserving buildings associated with the dark night of Soviet totalitarianism.

What we are left with is Chaubin's "archaeology of the present." What began as a whimsical photographic hobby became more important -- socially, historically, aesthetically -- as the times changed and buildings disappeared. With the tools available, Chaubin gives the reader an important overview of a little known facet of Soviet history. The book is perfect for fans of Dark Roasted Blend, self-styled architecture nerds like Ted Mosby, and those curious about the USSR's later history.
 
Out of 10: 8.9

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Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, February 24, 2012. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Photography | Reviews |