Modernism on the Moskva


14 February 2017

The image in this photograph is one of many reconstructions of Constructivist buildings and environments that have been made in the last 30 years. These have stretched from models to entire rooms; three dimensional showcases of the promised revolution of everyday life.

Tate Modern's reconstruction a few years ago of Aleksandr Rodchenko's Workers Club for the 1925 Paris Expo, with its chess set that you couldn't play and chairs that you couldn't sit on, was a good example. These reconstructions are thrown into a political and historical environment so utterly alien that they resemble the way that the sentient planet in Tarkovsky's Solaris simulates a Russian dacha to please the film's nostalgic, haunted cosmonaut.

This reconstruction of El Lissitzky's putative design for a flat in Moisei Ginzburg's Narkomfin building, made for the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), has a similar discomfort. Lissitzky's room wasn't laid out in real space when the building was constructed, between 1928 and 1930; he made a photomontage to show how the duplex flats of this collective apartment building could be furnished. This was in turn translated into actual chairs and real fittings – lightweight, tubular steel, sleek and clear – by Henry Milner, for the RA's show. What does it mean to put something like this into Burlington House?

Bar the unusual geometric order of the design, which shows Lissitzky's background in the abstract art movement Suprematism, this could be any environment of interwar high modernism – you could imagine it in Wells Coates' Isokon, a building similar to the Narkomfin both in its collective facilities and its well-heeled clientele. But the Russian avant-garde is different. Its link to a real and seismic social revolution – and its shocking degeneration into Stalinism's almost incomprehensible brutality – gives it something that once, the modern movement fought against – an aura, the numinous glow of sacred relics. When real relics of the saints couldn't be found in the middle ages, they got made, instead.