Exciting the imagination

I don’t like the Royal Academy – it’s snooty, uptight, over-sponsored yet still expensive – but despite this I went this week to see their exhibition, Building the Revolution, about the art and buildings of the Russian revolutionary era, and in particular to see the scaled-down version of Tatlin’s Tower in the (sponsored) courtyard. The Tower, famously, was only an idea, and never built, but it was intended to be both a monument to the revolution and also a working building, the home of the Third International, the organisation to promote communism internationally. As a blog at RIBA notes, it would have

had four rotating elements inside (all rotating at different speeds) to house an information centre, meeting rooms, offices and a radio transmitter which all would have served as the headquarters of the Third International.

The scale version built for the Royal Academy is 10 metres high, a 1:40 scale model of a Tower that Tatlin imagined would be 400 metres high, taller than the Eiffel Tower, spanning the river Neva in St. Petersburg, as a picture at the RA conveyed. (The image here is from a 1999 CGI reconstruction by the Japanese artist Takehiko Nagakura.) In a Russia wracked by war and then civil war the chances of securing enough steel to build it were less than zero. The mechanics were complex too; the engineers who made a reconstruction for the Hayward in 1971 had to work them out from first principles, since there are few records of the original design. Indeed, had it been built, it’s likely that the mechanics of the building would have failed – the Russian constructivists quite often found that their ideas outstripped the limits of what was then technically possible.

In Tatlin’s lifetime, his Tower was realised only as a 15 foot high scale model, which was shown in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The picture of this model, and the one above, come from John Coulthart’s { feuilleton } blog. Even so, it fired the enthusiasm of his contemporaries: Viktor Shklovsky, the critic, reported on seeing Tatlin’s model, ‘The monument is made of iron, glass and revolution.’

Indeed, the design was inherently political. As Catherine Merridale writes:

The marvels of technology were one theme, but movement was another … as well as reflecting the dynamism of the dawning age, the building could double as a slow-moving calendar and clock, perhaps even as a means of measuring stars and space. In its restlessness and transparency, the building embodied the democratic challenge to authoritarian power that Tatlin so welcomed.

Tatlin’s unbuilt Monument has fascinated artists, critics, and maybe utopians ever since he designed it: I’m writing about it here more than 90 years after he conceived it, which I wouldn’t be had it actually been built. I was at an exhibition in Estonia earlier this year at which the artist Petko Dourmana had constructed an augmented reality piece in which the Tower was projected onto the cityscape of Tallinn. In some ways, such a virtual representation seems a fittingly democratic way to see Tatlin’s Monument. The purpose of the unbuilt building, after all, is to excite the imagination.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.



  1. Lovely blog. I thought it was a terrific exhibition too. I loved the massive size of the pictures and the immediacy and the gorgeous, monumental architecture. It holds its own very well in 2011.

    1. In the exhibition itself, Richard Pare’s photographs of Russia’s constructivist architecture were absolutely stunning – and to think that we saw perhaps 40 of an archive of 12,000 prints. I think my favourite was of the Dnipro Turbine Hall with its glass and functional steel; Richard Rogers, eat your heart out…

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