Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Yekaterina Maximova, forgotten architect of the Soviet avant-garde

Last week I was contacted by my friend, architect Vitaly Stadnikov about the Hammer and Sickle Factory Canteen in Samara once more - the story of which was the first entry in this blog. It is at risk again as the local government is threatening to replace it with a replica, rather than restore it, as was agreed with the Ministry of Culture three years ago. 

This is a good moment to look back at the past few years and the research that has come to light about its architect, Yekaterina Maksimova, one of the Soviet Union’s first female architects, who died tragically in the same year that the factory canteen opened in Samara. 

The research below came to light half way through the campaign for the building. Information for this blog post is taken from Stadnikov’s findings, and that of  architectural historian Alexander Isakov. 

The Hammer and Sickle Factory Canteen, Samara, from the air.

In addition, the campaign led Stadnikov to be appointed Chief Architect of Samara in 2012. I met him in Moscow in 2004, shortly after we launched the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society. Soon afterwards I visited Samara with him and we published a report with SAVE Europe’s Heritage. His zeal, fired originally by his interest in the city’s forgotten Constructivist heritage, led him to become deeply involved in the architectural development of Samara. For example, he devised a model for regenerating and restoring the historic centre of Samara, built on a grid system under Catherine the Great in the 18th century. During his time as Chief Architect of the city 2012-2014, Stadnikov successfully secured the future of the Factory Canteen: he managed to get the listing increased to regional level, and, working with local politicians, attract central government funding for its restoration and conversion into an arts centre.

This was possible thanks in part to Alexander Isakov’s research, undertaken during his Masters degree, which has provided new depths for the historical and sociological understanding of the building. Now we know more about its architect Maximova, in addition to research made by Stadnikov into NARPIT - a merger of the first three letters of the two words: National and Nutrition - i.e. the National Nutrition Board. Maximova was one of the main architects for NARPIT, which grew out of the Commission for the Fight Against Hunger in 1923. It later turned into the All Union Society for National Nutrition and led to the construction of Factory Canteens all over the Soviet Union. NARPIT was born during the first five-year plan, at a time of intensive industrialisation. By 1930, 175 Factory Canteens were functioning all over the country, fuelling shock workers to industrialise and modernise the Soviet state in double quick time.

NARPIT’s lead ideologue was Artemiy Bagratovich Khalatov, who developed the ‘rationalising of catering,’ in order to make food cheap and available to all, and to free up the work force for the creation of socialism. He was the prototype of the odious Andrey Babichev in Yuri Olesha’s novel, "Envy".
Artemiy Khalatov 1894-1938. Taken from Прожектор website 
During his research, Isakov came across a reference to the fact that the architect of the building, Ekaterina Makismova, was buried in Moscow’s prestigious Vagankovskoe cemetery, clear evidence that she had been an important figure in her time. He decided to look into her history and visited her grave. After searching for a couple of hours, Isakov found the grave and left a note on it, hoping that Maximova’s family would find it when they visited (in Russia grave visiting is a strong part of the culture). They did, and they allowed Isakov access to Maximova’s archive and hear the fascinating and tragic story of her life and that of her brother. Because of the regular dramatic political shifts in the Soviet Union during the 20th Century, and the persecutions, most archives are private and kept at home, except for those of major figures.

Yekaterina Maximova
Maximova was a graduate of the St Petersburg Higher Polytechnic College for Women, that had opened in 1906. She commenced studies in 1909, and became one of Russia’s first trained female architects, and one of the first active ones in the Soviet Union. Her brother Vladimir was also an architect. After the revolution she assisted the great Russian architect Alexei Shchusev on the flamboyant Kazan Railway Station in Moscow, following in her brother Vladimir’s footsteps, who had also assisted Shchusev on some projects before the revolution. After the revolution, Vladimir Maximov, a deeply religious man who had been close to the Tsar, indeed the Tsar was godfather to his son, stopped practising - he refused to work for the Soviet authorities due to their atheism. From then on, Yekaterina supported the family: Vladimir helped her with her projects but never put his name to them. A monograph about his life was published in 2006, detailing his pre-revolutionary work including his work at Tsarskoe Selo for Nicholas II.

Maximova worked on several other Factory Canteens of radical design, in architecture parlante, like the Hammer and Sickle factory (see my first blog post below, for details about this building). She was technical supervisor for the very first Factory Canteen, at 7 Leningradsky Prospekt in Moscow, by architect A. Meshkov. The forerunner for the Samaran Factory Canteen is that on Botkinsky Proyezd in Moscow, in the former of a MIG fighter. The wings were the dining halls, the fuselage the kitchen, and the engines contain the glazed stairwells. As Stadnikov writes of this building: “For the first time here Maximova and her colleagues tried to join the symbolic form with rational catering technology.”

This was later developed at the Factory Canteen in which the food is prepared in the Hammer and carried by conveyor belt to the dining area in the Sickle. 

Over seven years, 1925-1932 Maximova went on to build further Factory Canteens all over the Soviet Union, including in Dneprostroy, Ekaterinburg, Magnitogorsk and elsewhere. The Hammer and Sickle Factory Canteen was the last one she was destined to be involved with. Later in 1932, Maximova was crushed by a train and killed. 

In 1932 a Five Year Plan of Godlessness commenced as part of the ‘War on Religion’, and in April of the same year, Vladimir Maximov was arrested on trumped up grounds. He was a member of a secret orthodox organisation called ‘the true Orthodox Church’ (Istinno-Pravoslavnaya Tserkov) which is likely to be the real reason for the arrest of him and his son. Vladimir Maximov died in the camps in 1942. 
Restoration Project for the Hammer and Sickle Factory Canteen

Today, Vitaly Stadnikov is continuing in his crusade to save the building, with the full support of Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, who initiated the project to restore the Factory Canteen and convert it into an Arts Centre. The Russian Federal Government committed the majority of the money on the condition that there was some local money also forthcoming. This original intention appears to have got lost in translation: the Samaran local government put the restoration project out to tender, and the cheapest proposal came from a contractors who proposed full demolition and reconstruction as a replica. This would involve de-listing the building, which makes a mockery of the entire process, and puts the building into double jeopardy (once de-listed, why bother reconstructing at all?) SAVE Europe’s Heritage has written to Minster Medinsky asking him to intervene and to get the project back on track.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Liza, Summer 1990. Gateway to Moscow.

I met Liza on her return from a ten month stint studying in Moscow in 1990, as part of her university degree. She came to recover at my cousin’s house on the North Norfolk coast. Our family were renting a cottage on the farm and I was kicking around looking for people to hang out with. I’d been studying Russian for a year.

On the lawn of the Hall lay an open book - its pages gently fluttering in the sea breeze. It was a yellow bound book with faded gilded writing on the spine. There were no pictures and the lines of text were neat and impenetrable. I’ve since heard someone say that Russian is particularly hard to read because in printed cyrillic few letters have tales, riding up or below the line, and the eye has nothing to latch on to. I had been learning Russian for a year by the time I saw that book, and the reality of reading it was as far off as the country itself. It was The Brothers Karamazov - I was impressed. 

I found Liza in the kitchen. She was slowly broadening her post-Russian diet of porridge and bread  to include tomatoes and raspberries from the kitchen garden, but after a year in Russia she found even tomato soup overwhelmingly rich. 

There was a tangible sense around Liza that summer of a ‘otherness’ - she brought a breath of the road in with her, and a feeling of other ways of doing things. In Moscow, she had started to draw, and continued in Norfolk. She drew me sitting in the barn where the barn owl roosted and that was full of junk, with a marsh developing at the bottom of the former grain tower flung up after the war from breeze blocks. While she drew she told me stories, and it was these stories that made me want to stick with Russian. 

Liza and I used to go swimming on Cley beach - a shingle beach. Liza would stay in the water for a long time - I would sit on the shore and watch her and think about the Russian stories. Once when it rained we stayed in for almost an hour, Liza mostly lying on her back letting the rain fall on her face. Then back at the Hall we made a Russian feast - русский пир. She made those salads that I’d had in the Intourist hotel, which I’d visited as a schoolgirl, except from fresher more delicious ingredients - but the same idea - vegetables and some meat, diced up and thrown together with some fresh herbs, and mayonnaise added and placed in crystal dishes. We made pirogi with meat and with mushrooms; we somehow located black bread so we could have the obligatory black bread and white bread on offer in a basket. Instead of salmon eggs, red caviar, we had cod’s roe from the local smokehouse where I was working as a summer job, hanging herring roes on wooden rods and placing them in the smoker like so many old grey socks. 

We chilled vodka, and even made a syrup from raspberries to add to it. We cooked lots of beetroot and grated it with fresh raw garlic, and added walnuts, a drop of sunflower oil and a scattering of parsley. We sliced cheese and laid out fresh herbs - parsley and fennel (in Russia there would have been coriander, dilll and tarragon too). Liza found tins of sardines, the equivalent of Russian sprats, and cut the tomatoes, that would have been so precious in Russia, into eighths. 

A few months later, Liza’s best friend from Moscow, Ira, came to stay with her in Chiswick. Liza lived in a flat above a school uniform shop. Her front door was dark green and dusty with a steep flight of stairs up to her flat. The kitchen was higgledy piggledy, and, I was later to discover, quite Russian. There was a row of shelves around the top of the walls in the bedroom, that held rolls and rolls of drawing kept in place with slender copper piping. In the main room was another bed, surrounded by bookshelves holding Russian books. The bed was for reclining and reading, Oblomov style. 

I was invited around so that Ira could have a look at me and decide if she liked me. If she did, I could go and stay with a friend of hers in Moscow. Round I rushed in my paisley shirt, listening to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan on my walkman. Ira was sitting in an armchair in the sitting room, I went over to ‘show her my face’ - we had no common language at that time. She took my face in both hands and decided that yes, I could stay with Lex, a classical guitarist, who lived on the outskirts of Moscow.

That evening Liza laid her table with newspaper, Russian style, and cooked kidney and liver with huge sprigs of rosemary, thyme and coarsely chopped onions, that she seemed simply to throw into the oven after the meat. We drank vodka in little sips and sang sweetly mournful Russian songs.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Drawing Your Way into Space

To the science museum for the Cosmonaut: Birth of the Space Age exhibition which was unexpectedly moving, and transporting. I went with old friend, photographer of Russian churches Richard Davies.

The exhibition, rightly, gives full credit to Russia for the development of Space travel - something that was later lost in the politics of the Cold War. 

It opened with some 1920s drawings by Georgy Krutikov a Soviet avant garde architect that I’m interested in because he became a fierce defender of historic buildings in his later years, after meeting Pyotr Baranovsky, the giant of Soviet conservation, in Kiev in the 1930s. However, he is known for his Flying Cities, sketches which envisage humanity living in great floating structures that Richard and I agreed looked like elegant 1960s Soviet light fittings. There was also a wonderful pencil drawing by Krutikov, of a tear-shaped pod containing what looked like a deckchair and an ashtray, but perhaps it was a gear stick, hurtling through space.
Even more extraordinary, because much earlier were the sketches by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) the father of Soviet space travel. He was concerned with space travel as early as 1890s, though the sketches on show here date to the 1930s. They are drawn with a thick blunt pencil and show rockets and people in space suits, connected to the rocket via curly wurly attachments, cosmonauts hovering over a window in the space craft, looking out into space. Another drawing shows a spaceman floating off, when his curly wurly string breaks off, and another scenario in which he is saved. And, extraordinarily, diagrams of how an air lock works. 

Photographs of Tsiolkovsky, the subject of an excellent historic novel by Tom Bullough, shows him with a giant ear trumpet - through which he could doubtless hear the sounds of the cosmos. Tsiolkovsky was immensely influenced by philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, who believed that humanity must prepare for the Day of Judgement when all the dead shall rise again. There will not be room on earth and so we need to explore and colonise space. By many he is considered the true father of the exploration of space, and he remains a huge influence on Russian thought. 

Tsiolkovsky's drawings of how man could reach space, as well as his research into rocket fuel and the creation of spacecraft, became reality thanks to Sergei Korolyov (1907-1966) a spacecraft designer and rocket engineer, who was at the centre of developing space travel technology right up to his death. This was despite being sent to a Kolyma Gulag at the height of the Terror, in 1938. His tin mug from the camps is on display. 

Many other rocket engineers did not even survive this period and he was fortunate to. The Terror set back Soviet space research by many years. Nevertheless, as the exhibition demonstrates, the Soviet Union sent the first man into space. 

Seeing the actual capsules that were sent up into space, with their strange, burnt exteriors, was mesmerising. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, at the age of 26, in 1963. Later that year, she married a fellow cosmonaut: above her capsule in the exhibition is film footage of her getting married - a toothy grin, raising a glass of soviet champanskaya in her white dress and veil - a bizarre contrast to the grimy pod, which carried her around the earth for 3 days in total isolation. The wedding was only a few months later: their child was the first child to be born whose parents had both flown in space.

And then more drawing - cosmonaut and amateur artist Alexey Leonov took his pencils into space in 1965. These Soviet crayons are displayed in a cabinet - each with a piece of string attached to them which he in turned tied to an elastic band around his wrist. As he circled the earth, he drew the sunrise and sunset, that would have happened every 45 minutes. Exhibited for the first time in the UK is one of these sketches - the first drawing from space of the earth  - executed in what must have been the most awkward conditions possible for an artist: cramped, unable to move, and with zero gravity, probably suffering from nausea. It is a tender, awe-inspiring little sketch, created some 30 years after Tsiolkovsky's imaginings of man in space.