Can Visionary Soviet Architecture Give Shape To Trump’s Designs On American Infrastructure?

Infrastructure can be powerful propaganda even when it isn't built, and it takes fortitude not to be fooled into thinking a barrier is inevitable.

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El Lissitzky. Cloud Iron, Ground Plan, View from Strastnoy Boulevard (1925)
El Lissitzky. Cloud Iron, Ground Plan, View from Strastnoy Boulevard (1925). Courtesy of Van Abbemuseum.

For Josef Stalin, infrastructure was propaganda. He lavished the most luxurious materials at his disposal on subway stations in Moscow, and dynamited the city’s largest Tsarist cathedral to make way for a Palace of the Soviets that was to be the tallest building in the world: a gargantuan neoclassical compound topped with a standing figure of Lenin taller than the Statue of Liberty, index finger pointing to the mausoleum where Lenin’s body was preserved for future resurrection.

Although Stalin’s epic vision were never realized – and the gaping hole in the ground was eventually turned into a public swimming pool – the Palace endured in the Soviet imagination as a potent symbol of Communist power even after the Stalinist era. A fascinating exhibition at the Design Museum explores the ways in which this work of architecture-on-paper attained an oversized presence – and served its propagandistic purpose – without ever being built.

In the USSR, imaginary architecture and infrastructure already had a storied history before Stalin came to power. The Constructivists were the great masters: In addition to Vladimir Tatlin’s legendary Monument to the Third International, there were visionary projects such as El Lissitzky’s Cloud Iron, a ring of horizontal skyscrapers intended to solve Moscow’s overlapping problems of insufficient housing and inadequate transportation. In practical terms the idea was to provide abundant residential and office space above metro stations, but Lissitzky was equally motivated by the prospect of providing Soviets with a “communist foundation of steel and concrete” by punctuating the skyline with radically geometric forms to revolutionize the workers’ state of mind.

Even without ever breaking ground, Lissitzky’s horizontal skyscrapers entered the public imagination through the medium of photomontage. With steel and concrete beyond his means – and shortages plaguing all forms of construction – his vision took form on the printing press. And the realistic rendering gave it grounding.

Stalin played a similar trick, only on a much grander scale. Lacking resources to build the Palace of the Soviets, he had its image printed on everything from magazine covers to porcelain plates and lacquer boxes. Through the sheer persistence of ceaseless reproduction and mass-distribution, the Palace of the Soviets became a part of people’s lived experience, and was indelibly imprinted on the Soviet psyche. In the process, Stalin’s autocracy bulldozed the Constructivists’ egalitarian idealism.

The Design Museum revives this history at an opportune time, as Donald Trump touts infrastructure, and as designs for his Mexican border wall start to appear in the media. Infrastructure can be powerful propaganda even when it isn’t built, and it takes fortitude not to be fooled into thinking a barrier is inevitable. […]