Tatlin’s Tower is one of the iconic images of Constructivism, that great burst of Russian energy which so puzzled Rem Koolhaus, who asked the question: “Where did all this vigour go?” Presumably with the understanding that matter cannot be created or destroyed, he hypothesized in Delirious New York that it all travelled - actually swam - to America to become the driving force behind the International style: and the rest is history. Tatlin’s tower is familiar to most of us as two-dimensional images - a beautiful drawing; a graphic image; or a photograph of the model. It appears in a variety of contexts, on posters, stamps and in magazines. The image always seems to illustrate one aspect of the tower, the lean of the trussed beam to the right, wrapped in the wonderful sweep of the prophetic double helix supported by zigzagging props. Sometimes the mirror image is shown.
Model of Tatlin's Tower 1919
The complexity of the form intrigues. One always assumes that everything comes together beautifully without really comprehending the intricacies of the making of the massing or its functions. The void of puzzlement is finally overcome with a leap of faith, allowing one to appreciate the real beauty of the tower exhibited in these limited aids without the distraction of unanswered questions. After all, there was a model built, so it must work. Indeed, there is a model of the tower at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, Sweden and at Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In November 2011, a 1:42 model of the tower was built in the entrance courtyard of The Royal Academy of Arts in London.
What a surprise to stroll in and discover this completed structure that has always been so captivating! At last one could meander around the three-dimensional form and understand the mysteries of its assemblage; to actually see what one has always hoped might be - the tower as an integrated possibility, complete, albeit it in model form. It must have been wonderful to have been part of the team preparing the shop drawings for this structure. Imagine not only interpreting the sketches and other images, but also defining the articulation of the joints, shaping the junctions and drawing the details of all the various pieces - reworking Tatlin’s thoughts. The photographs published here are a few images that help illustrate how the familiar two-dimensional hypothesis - that leap of faith - becomes real, towering steel.
Constructivism can still entrance. The viewing of the model only makes Rem Koolhaus’s question become more real, adding more sense to it, because the energy is indeed astonishing. What must it have been in its’ own time? The vision of a tower higher than the Eiffel Tower accommodating moving masses, various functions and a spiralling transport system - see the notes below. Consider also, in a similar context, Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov. His work was better than Le Corbusier’s early work, (Corbusier met him when he travelled to Russia), but, alas, the Russian Institute of Architects knew better and squashed this stunning start, limiting his career to ten brilliant years:1923-1933. Corbusier learned from him. Melnikov’s work is amazing.
Bruce Chatwin wrote a short story about visiting him in his wonderful house, that double, intersecting cylinder with hexagonal windows (1927-1929), that he was still living in, in the early 1970’s. Chatwin tells how he left the home with the sad, departing gesture of Melnikov’s arm sweeping up and then sharply dipping down to finish with a sideways flick. Chatwin noted that the locus of this motion shaped the graph of Melnikov’s career: a quick rise and a sudden fall with its’ terminal aside. But Constructivism was a lot more that this, even though this diagram marked its’ fate as well, with the work of Tatlin, Malevich, Lissitsky, Pevsner, Gabo, and others, all falling out of favour as the Russian State demanded its own centralized vision of art through the Union of Artists - the Academy - that defined the required subject, style and technique: Socialist Realism. ‘They had to abandon their total prophetic claims and resign themselves to becoming good workers in a single productive sector. Tatlin concentrated on theatre design and ceramics, Lissitsky on exhibition layout, Rodchenko on typography and photo-montage; Malevich retired from public life altogether.’ John Berger, Art and Revolution, Writers and Readers, London, 1969, p.48.
The work of this era still astonishes with its depth, strength and freshness. Yet it was so suddenly terminated. Little wonder that Koolhaus assumed it had to go elsewhere - to become the buzzing, exuberantly mad energy of New York in the early twentieth century, where, in private clubs, men ate oysters with boxing gloves, naked.
Tatlin’s Tower or The Monument to the Third International is a grand monumental building envisioned by the Russian artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin, but never built. It was planned to be erected in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, as the headquarters and monument of the Comintern (the third international).
Tatlin's Constructivist tower was to be built from industrial materials: iron, glass and steel. In materials, shape, and function, it was envisaged as a towering symbol of modernity. It would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The tower's main form was a twin helix which spiraled up to 400 m in height, around which visitors would be transported with the aid of various mechanical devices. The main framework would contain four large suspended geometric structures. These structures would rotate at different rates of speed. At the base of the structure was a cube which was designed as a venue for lectures, conferences and legislative meetings, and this would complete a rotation in the span of one year. Above the cube would be a smaller pyramid housing executive activities and completing a rotation once a month. Further up would be a cylinder, which was to house an information centre, issuing news bulletins and manifestos via telegraph, radio and loudspeaker, and would complete a rotation once a day. At the top, there would be a hemisphere for radio equipment. There were also plans to install a gigantic open-air screen on the cylinder, and a further projector which would be able to cast messages across the clouds on any overcast day.
The Monument is generally considered to be the defining expression of architectural constructivism, rather than a buildable project. Even if the gigantic amount of required steel had been available in revolutionary Russia, in the context of housing shortages and political turmoil, there are serious doubts about its structural practicality.
Symbolically, the tower was said to represent the aspirations of its originating country and a challenge to Eiffel Tower as the foremost symbol of modernity. Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky is said to have called it a monument "made of steel, glass and revolution."