Nathan Akehurst

Nathan Akehurst

Nathan Akehurst is a socialist activist and freelance writer, working in campaigns and communications.

The palace of the soviets
Wednesday, 12 April 2017 16:48

Take back control: inspiring revolutionary architecture from 1917 Russia.....and 2017 London

Published in Architecture

Revolutionary architecture should inspire us to take control of the built environment, says Nathan Akehurst 

Six visions of futures past, resurrected by London’s Design Museum in the exhibition Imagine Moscow, are a far better tribute to the centenary of the October revolution than most of the column inches written on it. It reveals designs for ambitious projects in the early Soviet Union and they’re six visions spanning culture, industry and education. But they have one thing in common — they were never built.

There’s a sketch of the outline of a rambling, jumbled communal house in which domestic labour is socialised and an internationalist design for a UN headquarters sitting in front of a city of education based on the solar system, with a replica sun seemingly floating at its centre. There are airborne monuments and fairytales of new skylines sitting alongside suprematist porcelain cups and painstakingly-drafted floor plans.

In spite of war and extreme privation, the desire to reimagine the world flourished in the early days and trains outfitted with library cars were dispatched to aid in the education of rural communities. “The streets shall be our brushes, the squares our palettes,” the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky proclaimed. Much of what was sketched out — minimalist colour schemes, the juxtaposition of blocky industrial typefaces and sweeping serifs, the reduction of landscapes to geometric signifiers — remain common features of contemporary graphic design.

It’s often believed that there was too much imagination, too much utopianism, for a drab reality to sustain. If anything, it is the opposite. The subsequent rolling back of many of the October revolution’s achievements coincided with rolling back the frontiers of possibility. Propaganda began to look more old-fashioned. For want of money, time and political will, bold visions remained on drawing boards. As doctrinaire thinking took hold and revolutionary heterogeneity dried up, radical experiments in reshaping space became fewer and farther between.

Yet the popular architecture competitions and the breathless drawing and redrawing of the city’s limits persisted for a longer period. Train lines were extended to grand new public parks. A planned giant palace of the Soviets on the site of a dynamited church was scrapped due to the second world war and later became an outdoor swimming pool. Whereas grim real-life history is, understandably, the focus of most centenary events, at this exhibition you can stand amid stark monochrome columns and watch myriad visions of what might have been unfold in front of you in breathtaking, larger-than-life detail. At Somerset House in London several months ago, a different exhibition chronicled the public art commissioned for the masses by avant-garde ’50s and ’60s planners, much of it now destroyed or privatised. 

1917 Russia isn’t the only place that these lost worlds can be explored. I saw them on the way to the exhibition as much as I did inside. My cycle route from home to the museum passed explosively colourful murals to the Poplar rates rebellion and the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street, near where a communist dockers’ leader now has a drab council benefits office named after him. It passed the “streets in the sky” that many planners in the ’60s hoped would provide proud modern homes for working-class people and yet often ended in disrepair, tight control and vulnerability to crime, and were eventually flogged off under right to buy.

These indulgent visions of the future are now the preserve of the wealthy. Half an hour into my route, I passed a shiny development on the riverside opposite the Tower of London. With a community garden and communal living spaces inside its walls and the industrial feel of its sleek, geometric exterior, it could have been dreamed by a Mayakovsky — until one notes that in the tiny proportion of social housing the council wrangled from its developers. Poorer residents are banned from the garden. There’s another garden over the river, dozens of storeys high, approved by planners as a public space and yet tightly regulated and ringed with bars and restaurants for the well-to-do. 

In London imagination has been consigned to the past or relegated for the wealthy. But it is still visible and legible. And, across the world, intensely political demands upon the shape of the inhabited landscape are still being made everywhere. On one side of the coin, Brazil’s largest city has banned advertising entirely, liberating public space from capital. But, on the right, the power of political symbols in architecture can be seen in the success of Trump’s call to “build the wall.”

However many 1917 re-enactment groups may exist on the global left, we are very far indeed from Petrograd. But lessons remain on the importance of not neglecting the battle to interpret and design our living spaces. The current Labour leadership has rightly issued a call to “rebuild and transform Britain.” It has bold plans to invest in upgrading our creaking infrastructure, from rail electrification to new social housing to school building improvement.

It’s for economists to explain how these transformative projects will pay for themselves. It’s for artists and engineers to help tell us what they will look like. And it’s for politicians to enshrine in policy ways of realising democratic control — even if in the form of simple things like enhancing the powers of neighbourhood planning forums to have a real say in what gets built on their doorstep rather than seeing their estates demolished for ever more luxury flats.

Political parties often tender policy consultations that are responded to by a handful of wonks. What about a more creative exercise for people to participate in, asking people to submit ideas to change their localities, in any form they wanted? It could end in the presentation of a visual plan for Britain, showing what our homes, stations, schools and hospitals might look like following sustained investment.

We have at our disposal the technical ability to go far beyond the architectural revolutionaries of 1917. We live in the era of self-maintaining gardens, “smart” homes and proliferating platform technologies. There is huge scope for a radical reforming government to give space back to the public in innovative ways and provide more open-access spaces for more enriching forms of enjoyment than crawling around a tightly-securitised Westfield shopping mall.

There is an ongoing debate about whether the left should reclaim the slogan “take back control.” If we do, imagining the shape, look and purpose of our towns and cities in the 21st century is a good place to start.

Imagine Moscow runs at the Design Museum until June 4, box office: This article was first published in the Morning Star.