20-07-2021

PAPER ARCHITECTS

Ilya Utkin, Alexander Brodsky ,

Paper Architecture,

”We are still thinking outside the box, breathing our creativity inside your dead concrete boxes” -  Paper Architects



<strong>PAPER ARCHITECTS</strong>
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The evolution of Russian architecture offers us a very exhaustive picture of the socio-political changes occurred in the time span between the creation and dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic and of those connections that, impossible to elude, have heavily influenced its autonomy. At the beginning of the 1980s, to focus on the most recent phase, Russia, under a strongly totalitarian pressure, suffered over twenty years of stagnation, revealing more and more an increasingly evident decline of the regime. The state was facing severe trade sanctions, an economic system deeply rooted in its own political ideologies and complicated international relations with the surrounding countries, particularly with the United States, relations become really tense between the '50s and' 60s, after the Cold War and exacerbated again, after a period of relative calm, in 1979 with the outbreak of the Soviet-Afghan war. A widespread discontent started to emerge against a system that was slowly crumbling, criticism and outbursts of anger began to arise and manifest, opposing a government that had proven to be violent and brutal towards those who did not adhere, suppressing any personal freedom or individual right. As far as architecture is concerned, from an excessive neoclassicism, linked to the figure of Stalin, with buildings of great representativeness and expensive skyscrapers, a chapter followed whose primary target was the costs’ rationalization of building production. No space was left for forms of embellishment or initiatives, which were in some way an expression of originality and creative flair. The choice left to the artists was to work with the government or go into exile.
 
A group of young visionary architects, just graduated from the Moscow Institute of Architecture, decided to found their own movement, contesting this situation, which did not admit any possibility to affirm one's own voice. These young people devoted a desperate search to avoid the humiliating limitations of a bureaucratic apparatus that so heavily stifled their ambitions as artists. To counter the formal uniformity envisaged by the communist aesthetics, which penalized anyone who deviated from it, forcing to respect standard methods for cheap and quick buildings construction, rejecting any specialized workmanship, with no concern about users or their needs, they conceived a revolt strategy difficult to be deciphered, made up of allusions legible only by an attentive and above all intellectually and culturally trained eye. As someone wrote in a beautiful book dedicated to a couple of them, their work on paper should be considered the answer to a bleak professional scene in which only artless and ill-conceived buildings, diluted through numerous bureaucratic strata and constructed out of poor materials by unskilled laborers, were being erected”.
Paper Architects’ is how they are defined and slowly will be known outside the geographical limits of their homeland for their fantastic, utopian and, at the same time, dystopian projects, which will never be built, ideas that would never materialize but remain only on paper. Their radical architecture, mostly inspired by dreams, a sort of reaction to the loss of imagination, contemplates projects defined as an end in themselves, that, incorporating complex visions and concepts, give rise to possible, different interpretations or equally uncertain and contradictory futures. Their sketches, watercolours, etchings and serigraphs appear as impossible and absolutely original creations that, with satire and a lot of poetry and lyricism, denounce certain realities perpetrated within the Russian social or political context. The nonconformist group, sharing their frustration and helplessness towards a government that made authority and a general flattening a weapon of control, had found in the fine arts the way to circumvent the rigid restrictions and disagree on those inflexible orthodoxies, which were imposed without possibility of discussion. Using the silent but very subversive force of drawings that proposed colossal formations, dense ensembles of multiple combinations of emblematic presences and iconic references, obsequiously reproduced with an almost obsessive abundance of details, the ‘Paper Architects’ avant-garde seemed to be alluding to the danger that architecture was running in the country: the loss of a precious architectural heritage of the past that the 'standardization' of the moment would perhaps annihilate forever.
 
Ronald Feldman, owner of a famous gallery in New York, mesmerized and fascinated by their pieces, organized an exhibition in America, exceptionally successful, that brought them to the attention of the Western culture. As he writes, referring to their works, "architecture was presented as a theater, which created a context for the viewer to glimpse architecture as life…a pairing of Piranesi and Pirandello, combined with Russian history, theater, and literature”. In a world that seemed deprived of any vital creative breath, the two artists divulge a message that they hope will be grasped by others: " We are still thinking outside the box, breathing our creativity inside your dead concrete boxes ". And it is precisely these claustrophobic 'boxes', characterized by a sad, gray and anonymous repetitiveness, which often recur in their drawings, offering occasion to express that deep disappointment they feel for those boxes that hermetically contain so much sadness and do not reserve a kind of life that everyone deserves. Alexander and Ilya frequently accompany their works with inscriptions and writings, and in their etchingDwelling House of Winnie-the-Pooh, with reference to the book that had made especially Alexander dream during his childhood, the texts emphasize that people in a large modern city, like the one in their country, do not have three fundamental prerequisites for feeling happy. First of all, "a few windows lost in an ocean of the same windows on the huge facade of an apartment building " cannot allow us to think this is my home, then everyone " feels frustrated " because " they would love to decorate their houses distinctively, to make them different from all the others” and finally there is a lack of " especially dear places close to which everyone would like to live ". Man feels particularly isolated, without the comfort of reference points. He doesn’t have the sensation to belong to a real community, his privacy and individuality have been erased.

The book of A.A. Milne had always inspired the little Alexander, suggesting him a very different and very reassuring image of the city. The landscape that he fed in his mind was conform with the amusing map of the animals that lived happily in the forest on the trees. " In some way I saw life in a big city like life in the forest” he will recall,” …you know some roads and some places, you know the road to your friend, to the other friend there is a number, sometimes a very big number, of ways you use. And this reminds me of one little house, the other little house, and the forest”. An idealization that could not find any confirmation in the alienating urban planning of his hometown, Moscow, where one could only painfully find the total lack a familiar atmosphere and a pervasive, bleak anonymity. The techniques of the industrialized architecture, with their interlocking volumes all exactly the same, had cleaned up the Soviet streets of old buildings of the past, destroying entire historic districts and from this terrible discomfort the two architects-artists rise the enormous concrete mausoleums of the 'Colombaria' series, in which the old buildings threatened with destruction are preserved as urns of the ashes of the dead, "stacked on shelves like a kind of cabinet of curiosities ". However, it does not seem to be just an attempt to preserve external public facades but, representing in a sort of confused mixture public and private situations, the reference to the communal apartment appears quite clear, large apartments, once owned by the wealthy, and later densely overpopulated, shared by many families with their poor possessions.
 


The confiscated and shared apartment, which according to the Bolshevik revolution, in the name of a full communism of goods, should have celebrated the abandonment of any selfish desire, had made everyone's life particularly unpleasant and difficult, completely abolishing privacy and extending forms of forced surveillance present almost everywhere, even in the private sphere. Brodsky and Utkin are particularly sorry that the house, nostalgically lived as a place of childhood, full of memories, had been destroyed by the terror provoked by Stalinism, not allowing even the preservation of photographs of anyone who had possibly been reported as dissident of the system. Whoever occupies a house must preserve its memories, just “like a conservator or even a curator”. The house becomes an allegory of memory, that memory that Milan Kundera, a few years earlier from exile, in his 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, defined the most important act of resistance against the danger of control exercised by radical ideologies: "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting ".

In 'Ship of Fools', we can instead read the compendium of another aspect of the autobiographical experience of the two authors that can be recognized self-portrayed about to embark on a voyage in the middle of the sea among the "jolly company of their friends”. The small and poorly equipped boat easily suggests from its size the risks that they will have to overcome amidst storms and dangerous currents. The metaphorical evocation of the threats to which they are exposing themselves is evident: " these passengers are not only dreamers: they are part of a real resistance. They are putting on brave faces, their futures are uncertain ". These "architectural fairy tales on paper", as they were defined, narrate through precious, exquisite monochromatic etchings this long, difficult and painful story, made up of very courageous choices, studded with great sacrifices and renunciations, but that, unlike many others which have not seen a happy ending, was crowned with the deserved success.  In 1993 the two great friends decided to stop their professional collaboration, devoting themselves to individual practices. Alexander Brodsky, an extremely charismatic figure, object of a real reverential consideration by his companions, defined as 'the Architect of Russia’, moved to New York in '96, created large installations but, in the presence of his first construction commission as an architect in 2002, he declared to find particularly difficult to return from art to architecture, feeling alone in the presence of a responsibility he had never faced, his first experience of communicating with workers and clients.  He will complete a series of interiors and small projects built with local and recycled materials. To those who criticized him in his built works for the lack of radicalism, as perhaps they expected from that rebellious testimony of resistance, fueled in the past with so much intensity against the dehumanizing nature of an architecture without any interest in traditions, he will reply that his purpose is to design spaces that make people feel good. However, he continued to exhibit and create compelling, humorous and architecturally and sociologically engaged” drawings. Ilya Utkin followed his passion for photography, receiving the special prize as the best architecture photographer at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000, realizing the choreographic scenes of important ballets held in famous theaters as the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. He is also the author of architectural projects, awarded with prestigious recognitions.

Virginia Cucchi 

Credits:

Paper Architects :
Images of Alexander Brodsky & Ilya Utkin / Courtesy of Alexander Brodsky 
Ronald Feldman Gallery : https://feldmangallery.com/

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