November 23: cantilever king

2012/11/23 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1890 Lazar Markovich Lissitzky was born.

The Russian designer ultimately dropped all of his fussy given names and was known simply as El Lissitzky.  Had the art academy in St. Petersburg not prohibited the numbers of Jews who could study there, his (and art’s) history might have been very different.  Unable to study in the traditional, academic setting, he left for Germany to learn architectural engineering at the Technische Hochshule in Darmstadt in 1909–a heady time to be in Germany indeed.  Even so, he was not immediately won over by the industrial nature of groups like the Deutscher Werkbund, and spent several years wandering Europe, painting and drawing very pretty things.

Returning to Moscow he again took up architectural studies, but shifted to the design of books, especially when the Hebrew language was made legal in the downfall of the antisemitic Tsarist regime and he found a way to celebrate his heritage.  Throwing himself into the study of Jewish culture and folklore, he might have followed some art nouveau-ish inclination.  But by 1919 he went to work teaching graphic design and architecture in a school created by Marc Chagall, where he would work with Kazimir Malevich, among others.  As will happen, inevitably, with virtually any such organization, the school split along the more traditional (although not exactly traditional) leanings of Chagall and Malevich’s abstractions (called by him “suprematism”).  Like a fought-over child of divorce, Lissitzky was forced to choose, and went with Malevich.  The rest of his career would exist somewhere between paper and buildings, and in the realm of abstraction.

By the twenties Lissitzky was established as a leader within the avant-garde, developing his own manner of representation (or, maybe, non-representation), especially in works that suggested architectural aspirations, if not quite feasible proposals.  A great believer in the power of books, he was a great writer.  (“Great” applies to quantity in that assessment.)  In an essay of 1925 (Die Kunstblatt, No. 2) he proclaimed that there was “no such thing” as modern architecture in Russia:

What one does find is a fight for modern architecture, as there is everywhere in the world today.  Still nowhere is there a new architectonic CULTURE.  Any isolated really new buildings were designed only to meet the need of the moment, and only by some anonymous character, some engineer, over the head of the artist. . . .  At the same time, modern architects in various countries have been fighting for some decades to establish a new tectonics.  The main watchwords remain the same: expedient, in suitable material, constructive. . . .  The trouble lies in the economic abnormality of the present time and the utter confusion of their intentions.

Although he recognized there were lots of things being built, Lissitzky specified “really new buildings” as being too highly engineered (we assume he saw plenty of boring, old-fashioned new buildings too); while he championed the constructive process, he demanded its artful consideration and realization.  Like most modernists, he believed various opinions and varying preferences to be evidence of zeitgeist confusion.

Although in a particular manner, Lissitzky contributed to general ideas across Europe and Russia to highlight the constructive process in design of all sorts–from posters to buildings–as a means of addressing the perceived realities of the modern era, as well as to diminish the willful artistry of old traditions.  His most concrete proposal was a series of eight large buildings in Moscow, each of them rising some 150 feet.  Stumpy towers bearing astonishing cantilevers, they were (technically speaking) pretty much impossible in 1925, but certainly have inspired a number of later architects who have had access to more advanced technology.  As such, Lissitzky is a bigger problem than, say, Theo van Doesburg, who had the good manners to inspire only a small number (like this one) to actually try to realize De Stijl ideas, and another small bunch to infuse other modernist idioms with De Stijl decoration (sometimes to brilliant results).  Lissitzky’s minions have been more all-or-nothing, and ultimately we may have him to thank for  such beauties as this and this and this and this and this among other cold metallic cantilevered monstrosoties that normal peole neither want to walk beneath nor live around.

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