Power and Architecture


9 June 2016

“This a not a definite answer, but a series of reflections.” So says Will Strong, the curator of Power and Architecture , a 12-week season at east London’s Calvert 22 foundation.

Comprising four strands – a conference and a programme of talks, a group exhibition, architecture workshops in London and Prague and digital content in the Calvert JournalPower and Architecture seeks to explore the utopian ambitions of Eastern bloc architecture, homing in on its psychological impact and its destiny in a post-communist age.

The exhibition is itself to be divided into four shows, with a new instalment opening every three weeks. “We’re trying to unpack a very broad topic by focusing on very different narratives,” explains Strong. The first chapter, Utopia and Modernity, serves as a sort of general introduction to the season’s aims. “Within the larger story,” says Strong, “it seemed that future-facing utopias was a place to begin.”

The show begins by juxtaposing artist Przemek Pyszczek’s Façade with photographer Dimtry Lookianov’s Instant Tomorrow. The former is a series of canvases that reference the prismatic patterns that have been applied to Poland’s communist-era apartment blocks since that country’s transition to democracy, in an attempt to sheathe a failed utopia in the skin of a new one. Many of Lookianov’s photographs show similarly painted units around Moscow along with the public space that surrounds them. “There’s a homogenised uniformity,” says Strong, “both in the blocks themselves and the sort of spaces they create. It’s almost like an IKEA catalogue.” Within these blocks, people are shown in a sort of minimalist idyll, an atemporal suburban paradise denuded of communist ideology. Lookianov and Pyszczek both ask whether you can redesign a failed utopia to create a new one.

The Russian artist Anton Ginzburg is represented with a pair of films that look at utopia’s ghostly remnants. Walking the Sea (2013) traces his journey across the Aral Sea, which has been shrinking since a Soviet irrigation project in the 1960s. The drained landscape, spotted with structures now themselves abandoned, spotlights the dystopic zones created in the quest for utopia.

Hyperborea (2011) is named for a fantastical city in the far north, referenced repeatedly in Greek legends. Numerous European peoples have claimed descent from its purported race of semi-divine inhabitants. Ginzburg’s video traces several locations that have claimed to be the geographic locus of this northern Atlantis. The project began in 2010, after a Russian newspaper article mentioned claims to have found the city’s site. On further investigation, it turned out to be the location of the first gulag, connecting an attempt to find a mythical, pre-USSR utopia spiralled back to the architectural expression of the USSR’s dystopia.

The final series on display, Architecture of the VII Day by Kuba Snopek, Iza Cichonska and Karolina Popera, is a photographic survey of the 3,597 churches constructed in post-war Poland. Erected without legal permission from an anti-religious government, they represent a sort of community-led rebellion against state precepts. Architects who built featureless housing blocks by day would design clandestine churches by night. The state’s antipathy towards Christianity meant that the churches were hand-constructed by volunteers. “It’s not a project about religion,” says Strong, “but rather one about how these churches were built – by hand, without cranes or modern equipment.”

The religious aspect is fascinating in itself, not least in that it shows the connection between faith and architectural might persisted throughout the 20th century. Graphs show a particular profusion of new churches in the mid-to-late 80s, many of which were built in proximity to Pope Jean Paul II’s birthplace. Some of these are now pilgrimage sites, tying to an almost medieval milieu that seems hugely out of step with Western depictions of the late Cold War era.

The churches were mostly constructed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), which caused a liturgical revolution by allowing mass to be spoken in national languages. The model of the priest as an aloof, elevated figure was replaced with a more pastoral, guidance-oriented one. This shift reverberated through to church design. The ubiquitous typology of Christian Europe – a rectangular nave leading to an altar – was replaced by more diverse, informal forms. “Architects started to look at the church as a theatre,” says Strong.

The churches themselves, 120 of which have been selected and photographed, form a casebook of experimental architecture. Many of them would be remarkable in any context; that they were built by hand under an antithetical regime makes them astonishing. There is rounded expressionism and spiky futurism; there are Corbusian barns and Niemeyer saucers. One building boasts five unfinished towers as uncompromisingly cuboid as those of San Gimignano; another looks akin to a medieval Chinese palace collapsed under its own roof.

The mix even includes more traditional takes, drawing on Poland’s pre-20th century architectural history. The most recently completed, the Basilica of Our Lady in Lichén, is a sprawl of untrammeled baroque. Finished in 2004, it is one of the largest churches in the world. Architecture of the VII Day shows people rejecting the functionalist utopia of 70s and 80s communism in favour of the sort visionary structures that could themselves seem the remnant of some strange utopian civilisation.

While the artists featured in this first instalment of the exhibition skew a little miscellaneous, the calibre of the work on offer makes it a suitable starting point for an ambitious season. This is, after all, only chapter one. Utopia and Modernity will be followed by Dead Space and Ruins, which looks at the decaying architectural footprint left behind by the Eastern Bloc. “It’s been fetishised in the west, with ruin lust and so on,” recounts Strong, “but it’s a very important topic. When a building no longer stands for an ideology, what then is left?” Thirdly there is the Museum of Skateboarding, a gallery-wide installation that uses the hobby as a lens through which to observe public space. Finally, The Afterlives of Modernity will look at the attempt to establish new identities for the structures left by the Soviets.

Soviet architecture has been something of a hot topic in the past few years, from the Royal Academy's 2011 exhibition Building the Revolution to Owen Hatherley's 2015 tome Landscapes of Communism. Through examining the half-lives and aftershocks of this era,Power and Architecture, looks to prove that the story doesn't close with the Bloc's collapse but rather continues on into the post-communist future.