Rationalism By Vronskaya, Alla G.
Rationalism [Ratsionalizm] was a modernist movement in Soviet architecture that was current in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was led by the architect and prominent architectural pedagogue Nikolai Aleksandrovich Ladovskii (1881–1941). Constructivism and Rationalism were the two major rival approaches to architectural Modernism in the USSR. Whereas Ladovskii referred to his method as “rationalist architecture” or “ratio-architecture” [ratsionalisticheskaiaarkhitektura; ratsio-arkhitektura], the constructivists derogatively called Ladovskii’s school “Formalism.” The ethnically natural term “Rationalism” was introduced by the historian Selim Khan-Magomedov in the 1960s.
Rationalism [Ratsionalizm] was a modernist movement in Soviet architecture that was current in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was led by the architect and prominent architectural pedagogue Nikolai Aleksandrovich Ladovskii (1881–1941). Constructivism and Rationalism were the two major rival approaches to architectural Modernism in the USSR. Whereas Ladovskii referred to his method as “rationalist architecture” or “ratio-architecture” [ratsionalisticheskaiaarkhitektura; ratsio-arkhitektura], the constructivists derogatively called Ladovskii’s school “Formalism.” The ethically natural term “Rationalism” was introduced by the historian Selim Khan-Magomedov in the 1960s.
The earliest rationalist ideas were developed by groups Sinskul’ptarkh (from Synthesis of Sculpture and Architecture) and Zhivskul’ptarkh (from [The Synthesis of] Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture), within which future rationalists (Ladovskii, Vladimir Krinskii, Vladimir Fidman, and Aleksei Ruchliadev) collaborated with the cubist sculptor Boris Korolev in 1919–1920. The characteristic rationalist expressivity of style and the treatment of architectural form as sculpture stemmed from this collaboration. Within the Group of Objective Analysis at INKhUK (The Institute of Artistic Culture), where he collaborated with AleksandrRodchenko and other future constructivists, Ladovskii elaborated the cornerstone of his architectural theory: the psychologizing, subjectivist notion of architecture as space, developed on the basis of German formalist aesthetics (Heinrich Wölfflin, Adolf von Hildebrand) and the philosophy of empiriocriticism (Ernst Mach, Richard Avenarius). Space was construed by Ladovskii as a content of one’s mind, a subjective representation of material environment, which depended not on physical laws, but on the laws of sensual perception. Therefore, Ladovskii demonstrated a keen interest in psychological and physiological theories of visual and kinesthetic perception, collaborated with psychologists, and borrowed the methods of experimental psychology to develop the principles of his architectural theory.
In the fall semester of 1920, Ladovskii succeeded in establishing United Left Studios (Ob’edinennyelevyemasterskie—Obmas) within the newly created VKhUTEMAS, where he taught alongside his rationalist co-thinkers Krinskii and Nikolai Dokuchaev. There Ladovskii developed his famous sculptural model [maketnyi] method of design and his “psycho-analytical” pedagogical method, based on mastering one “element of architecture” after another. The typology of these elements was derived from Mach’s Analysis of Sensations, which suggested that reality was perceived as a combination of sounds, shapes, colors, and other elements (properties) of perception. Rationalist pedagogy started with an exploration of geometrical (such as size and shape of an object) and physical (weight, mass, volume, construction) elements, and culminated with an investigation of the rules of their composition, which facilitated the construction of complex spatial forms; these rules were based on the dynamics and rhythm of combinations of architectural structures and their elements. Obmas functioned until 1923, after which the so-called Basic Department [Osnovnoeotdelenie] was established for the purpose of teaching introductory courses to new students. Taught and elaborated by the first generation of Ladovskii’s VKhUTEMAS graduates (among them Viktor Balikhin, Sergei Glagolev, Mikhail Korzhev, Ivan Lamtsov, V. Petrov, Iurii Spasskii, and Mikhail Turkus), rationalist architectural propedeutical (introductory) courses became known as “Space” and, later, “Spatial Group [of Disciplines]” [Prostranstvennyikontsentr].
In 1923 the Association of New Architects (ASNOVA) was established to promote rationalist architecture. In adition to Ladovskii and his VKhUTEMAS colleagues and students, its members included El Lissitsky and Konstantin Melnikov. Lissitzky was also a co-editor, author, and designer of the only issue of Izvestia ASNOVA (ASNOVA’s Newsletter, 1926)—an attempt at establishing a rationalist periodical. As was common during this period in the USSR, ASNOVA members often entered competitions collectively as a “brigade.” However, due to their preoccupation with architectural pedagogy and theory, unlike the constructivists, they found few opportunities for realizing their designs. The most important rationalist commission—the Red Stadium on the Vorob’evy Hills in Moscow—remained unrealized, although construction began in 1926. An intensification and politicization of architectural discussion during the late 1920s as a result of a shift toward totalitarianism in politics and toward central planning in the economic life of the country, which preceded the development of “Socialist Realism” as the new unified style of Soviet architecture, led to a series of ardent polemical exchanges between architectural rationalists and constructivists in 1927–1928.
In 1927 Ladovskii opened a psychotechnical laboratory at VKhUTEIN, which, modeled after Hugo Münsterberg’s psychological laboratory at Harvard, focused on experimental investigation into spatial perception and on the development of objective criteria for the evaluation of students’ progress and work, and of their “architectural talent” (defined as physiological visual capacity) with the help of specially designed machines, such as prostrometr (from prostranstvo [space] and metr (from izmeriat’ [to measure]), liglazomer (from linia [line] and glazomer [eye-balling]), ploglazomer (from ploskost’ [surface] and glazomer) and others.
In the same year ASNOVA received a commission to plan a residential complex in the Shabolovka district of Moscow; the challenge was to design an expressive and artistically interesting architectural composition while using standardized construction blocks and keeping to an average construction budget. A group led by Nikolai Travin won the internal ASNOVA competition for the project, which was realized in 1927–1928. The complex, which still stand today, was defined by the buildings’ diagonal placement, which was emphasized by a system of views and vistas, and their unusual coloration, which did not reflect their tectonics, but did create novel visual compositions.
Towards the end of the 1920s, Ladovskii lost interest in the theory of composition and in 1929 founded a second architectural group, the Association of Architects-Urbanists (ARU), which was devoted exclusively to urban planning. Among its members were Ladovskii’s students and recent graduates, most importantly, Georgii Krutikov, Vitalii Lavrov, and Viktor Kalmykov. ARU put forward a concept of urban space as a dynamic form and explored the principles of its design. It treated landscapes and settlements as unified spatial compositions perceived by a moving subject. Among ARU’s projects was Ladovskii’s famous parabolic scheme for the development of the city of Moscow, which improved functionalist zoning by incorporating into the plan the possibility of unlimited growth.
In 1932, following the dissolution of independent architectural organizations, which were now merged into the Union of Soviet architects, Rationalism, in common with other architectural movements, quickly declined. However, rationalist ideas survived, in particular within the pedagogical school of the Moscow Architectural Institute (which, alongside other professional institutes, inherited VKhUTEIN); rationalist compositional theory, for instance, was published as a book (Vladimir Krinskii, Ivan Lamtsov, and Mikhail Turkus, Elementy Arkhitekturno-Prostranstvennoi Kompozitsii) as late as 1934 and a second, revised edition appeared in 1938. During the post-war period Krinskii, Lamtsov, and Turkus, as well as other former rationalists, continued to publish and teach architectural composition at the Moscow Architectural Institute.