Exhibition Review: Building a new New World
When curator Jean-Louis Cohen introduces journalists to his new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, his enthusiasm bubbles over. Before he can mouth welcoming platitudes, he whisks across the entrance foyer, gesturing before an oversized reproduction of his friend Roman Cieślewicz’s “The Two Superman.”
The image, first published on the cover of Paris-based art magazine Opus International in 1967, shows two mirrored comic book Supermans—one with “CCCP” and one with “USA” marked on their chests. Cieślewicz, a Polish emigré working in France, intended it as political criticism: despite the superficial clash of contrasting ideologies, at the end of the day the two world military superpowers shared identical values and motives. Cohen includes the poster as a provocation to today’s architectural historians. “Thirty years after the Cold War,” he says, “It’s time to return to Cold War History and deal with it.”
“Building a new New World” uses design to examine the cultural, political, economic and, sometimes, architectural, relations between America and Russia over the last two centuries. With such a deep timeline, the result is necessarily episodic. Even though he is a well-known historian, Cohen does not attempt to explain historical change. Instead, he presents selected highlights of what, in his assessment, is essentially an unchanging relationship.
Cohen argues that ever since the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Russia has looked to America to imagine a progressive, technology-driven future. His goal, then, is to re-position the story of Cold War symmetry into one of an older and enduring asymmetry: rather than chart rivalries, the exhibition uncovers US cultural domination. It was, says Cohen, a “fantasy of Russian elites, technological and political, to become a new America.”
The show covers design writ large, spanning from architecture and urbanism—incorporating everything from film posters to tractors to skyscrapers to hydroelectric dams. On display are over 500 artifacts. The show begins with documents of early trips by Russians to the US, such as watercolours from Pavel Svinyin’s 1815 book Picturesque Voyage through North America, written while he was at the Russian consulate in Washington DC. It ends with the the lyrics to “Goodbye America,” a 1985 song by post-punk Russian rock band Nautilus Pompilius that proclaims “Goodbye America / Somewhere I’ll never be/Goodbye Forever.” The exhibition includes drawings, maps, photographs, books, posters and films. Cohen had a free hand. “The only limits were the limits of my research,” he says.
Some of the most stunning artifacts are worth seeing in the flesh. For instance, Cohen tracked down Boris M. Iofan’s sketchbook from a 1934 visit to Manhattan. He sketched the crowns of American skyscrapers on a voyage made to gather expertise on steel-framed skyscraper construction before work started in 1937 on the Palace of the Soviets, the ill-fated megaproject beloved by Stalin and hated by the avant-garde. A catalogue with over 450 illustrations and broader interpretive narratives is due for release this spring.
The show is elegant. Houston-based Noëmi Mollet and Reto Geiser of MG&Co. designed the exhibition using expanded metal panels, attached to vaguely constructivist square-section steel frames. The artifacts are spread over six galleries, each room with its own colour scheme—plums, reds, pinks, greens—a designer’s twist on the lively colours of the Russian posters and drawings.
Between the galleries sit small curtained projection rooms. Visitors can linger over looped excerpts from Russian and American films meant, Cohen says, to “condense the intensity” and “convey the phantasmagoric dimension” of Russia’s obsession with American efficiency. Film becomes a metaphor for the unidirectionality of technological exchange. As Cohen puts it when showing us a brilliant array of Soviet posters for American films, “Soviet screens were flooded with American productions,” but Americans were not watching Soviet films.
The exhibition also contains several compelling mini-scenarios, each with a simple story, striking artifacts, and captivating images. For instance, one important export from the US to Russia was scientific management—also known as Taylorism after its originator, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Following the 1917 Revolution, Lenin argued that managerial ideas developed in capitalism could be adapted to Soviet industry. Cohen tells this story by showing motion studies by American engineering consultants Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, meant to optimize workplace productivity, alongside a Russian translation of Taylor’s 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management. Nearby is a splendid post-Revolution collage by Lyubov Popova embodying the constructivist stage set she designed for a production by Vsevold Meyerhold, whose productions relied on precise physical gestures. In Cohen’s telling, American ideas passed through Soviet politics across the factory floor and on to art and culture. “Most art historical theatre was inspired by workers’ movements,” says Cohen.
Cohen has a gift for these conceptual tableaux. In another, he recounts the story of Henry Ford, using Fordism as a case study for socio-technical exchange. Russia imported first the Fordson tractor, and then, Ford engineers, in attempts to mass produce farm machinery. Quite rapidly, the image of the tractor became an image of Soviet agriculture, used like a logo on other mass-produced products. Somehow, Russia received a shipment of America’s penchant for celebrity along with American technology.
The twinning of Cold War superpowers is the show’s explicandum; postwar encounters only explicitly show up in the last gallery. One highlight is a projection of a thirteen-minute-long Charles and Ray Eames seven-screen multimedia project. Made for the American National Exhibition in Moscow, “Glimpses of the USA 1959” was first shown on seven 600-square-foot screens, hung in a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. The reproduction here is modest—all seven channels are shown simultaneously as a single image on one screen—but nevertheless, the spectacle appears as foreign and propagandistic today as it must have appeared to Moscovites sixty years ago.
One warning for visitors: the show includes a lot of books and book covers. “Books in the end are very important,” says Cohen. He points out that images of America in books were widely circulated and imitated in experimental art and architecture under Lenin, and even later under Stalin’s rule. And before that, Russian travelers to the US brought back American books, or published their own accounts of American life. Yet in an exhibition about architecture, design, and urbanism, the books remain mute. You may be able to tell some books by their covers, but the meaning of these tomes comes from reading the text on their pages.
And there’s the rub. This is, ultimately, a research exhibition. Rather than an experience, the visitor is offered information. Yet Cohen provides no explicit theoretical framework, so the only relationship established between various episodes and their associated artifacts is thematic. In other words, Cohen opts for description rather than causal accounts—more “what” than “how” or “why.” But the “why” is the most intriguing question. Why did Russia fantasize that it should be a New America, that Moscow should become a future Manhattan, full of monorails and high rises? For America’s exchanges with Russia are once again, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a matter of concern. Understanding architecture’s role in those past episodes may hold the keys to the unfolding of the future.
David Theodore is an Associate Professor at McGill University’s Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture.