The Afterlife of Constructivism in Stalinist Gardens

An Uneasy Metamorphosis: The Afterlife of Constructivism in Stalinist Gardens

Pages 16-41 | Published online: 26 Jun 201

If a failed hope could still have an afterlife, then what happened to the people who believed in constructivism? For these architects, professional survival was a top priority. Many—like Moisei Ginzburg, Ivan Leonidov, and Mikhaïl Korjev—tried to find a specialized niche wherein they could work according to their artistic convictions and become specialists in designing gardens. The abstract geometry of the Le Nôtre gardening school was for them a source of inspiration between the use of history and the modernization of that legacy. Strangely enough, the absolute Sun King gardener became in the USSR a model, organizing nature like a suprematist abstraction. Imitating Versailles became a way to satisfy the Stalinist USSR’s need for magnificence. Through gardens, the constructivists were still given a chance to experiment, changing the meanings of places. Meanwhile, they invented a daring aesthetic afterlife for constructivism, enabling a singular conceptual and political creation.

Metaphorically speaking, the attitude of the USSR toward its citizens often seemed like Kronos devouring his children. Or, perhaps another mythological image might be even more apt: Daphne’s metamorphosis into the laurel tree illustrates well the transformation of former constructivist architects into designers of Stalinist landscapes. In the 1920s and 30s, a number of architects who had served Soviet modernity were either put aside by the regime or had to envisage a radical adaptation to its new cultural context. Indeed, if a failed hope could still have an afterlife, then what happened to all those people who believed in constructivism?

Metamorphosis is indeed a keyword. Creating Soviet gardens demanded a reordering of nature, both at the level of the landscape itself and at the level of public perception and taste. However, landscape architecture is almost absent from political texts. If a number of essays considered the role of the city in the new socialist world, neither Lenin nor Trotsky nor Bukharin said anything specific about the use of nature in the city center. According to Trotsky, “The man will be incomparably stronger, more intelligent, more subtle. He will have a more harmonious body, more rhythmic movements, a more melodious voice; daily life will assume eminently theatrical forms” (Service 2011Service, R. 2011TrotskyParisPerrin. [Google Scholar]).11 All quotations in the essay were translated by the author.View all notes Yet to achieve such a goal presupposed building both sport and cultural facilities: stadiums, theaters, and gardens would be some of the architectural programs likely to enable this sovietization of habits. Using similar logic but with more practical words than the ostracized Trotsky, Anton Makarenko (2012Makarenko, A. 2012Kommunisticeskoe vospitanie i povedenie. In La fabrique du soviétique dans les arts et la culture: Construire/déconstruire l’homme nouveau, ed. L.Kastler and S.Krylosova, 21. ParisInstitut d’Etudes Slaves. [Google Scholar]), an educator in labor communes, insisted on outside activities being a key ingredient for the education of a “new Soviet man.” These requirements asked for new constructions and landscaping without giving any guidelines regarding the forms that these constructions and landscaping should take. Actually, except for the requirement for fresh air and some public gardens near workers’ homes, architects had a free hand to choose what a Soviet garden should look like. In fact, the frontline was located elsewhere.

For constructivist architects, organizing their professional and artistic survival was indeed top priority. Finding programs where they could still work, in a fragile balance between their convictions and what was expected from them, led them to reconsider more carefully the design of parks. Since landscape architecture was now part of the milieu of the new Soviet citizen, parks of leisure and rest took on new importance as essential places for experimenting with political education and mastering propaganda.

Revolution and Landscaping

“The Russian revolutionary enthusiasm, combined with American efficiency, this is the essence of Leninism”; thus spoke Stalin (1939Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages. [Google Scholar], 87). If such a sentence seems more like a slogan than a true guideline for artists in charge of creating Soviet facilities, the insistence on spirit, undergirded by U.S. efficiency, seemed likely to promote the creation of new forms supposed to embody the revolution. Consequently, the decree “On Reconstruction of the Way of Life,” signed by the Central Committee in May 1930, discussed the best blueprints to build a socialist way of life in conjunction with the Five-Year Plan. First of all, the party organization was supposed to help this movement and to direct it ideologically. Then, blaming hurried attempts to reconstruct a way of life in one leap, the decree urged for new rules guiding the construction of workers’ cities near great industrial centers, collective facilities, schools, and laundries.