From the famous Kitchen Debate between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon to the popularity of Henry Ford within the USSR, the hundreds of factories designed by Detroit engineer Albert Kahn for Soviet Russia, and skyscrapers erected in Moscow, the Cold War had a peculiar side to it, that is the Russian fascination with American culture and technology.
The exhibition Building a new New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture, curated by architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen and hosted at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, illustrates the dynamics at play between the two countries across centuries and the Russian take on American culture and architecture.
During the 19th century age of World's Fairs, industrial capitalism fascinated the world and sparked the imagination. Russia was not immune to the charms, and there has been a constant "transfusion" of technical expertise and cultural motifs between the two countries. The exhibition showcases examples of Russian architecture, inspired by the American counterpart, like the project for the Palace of the Soviets, unbuilt and with multiple iterations, but drawing inspiration from Radio City Hall and the Statue of Liberty.
The industrial, productive, highly technological USA held the ideal of a new world and parallelism was drawn between the two countries: Moscow as Washington's equivalent, while Novosibirsk emerged as a new Chicago. During the 1930s, it had appeared that Russia's development had gained momentum, with high national growth rates and a cultural stage competing with the most appraised western counterparts in the avant-garde arts, literature, film. The Constructivist architects took Modernism far beyond what the West succeeded in doing, gaining the appraisal of Le Corbusier himself.
The exhibition, gathering material from an array of private collections, also brought to the surface a less known figure: Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, a skyscraper specialist born in Moscow and trained in America, in architect Harvey Wiley Corbett's offices. He brought back to Russia his expertise in high –rise construction and set the basis for Soviet skyscraper architecture.
One crucial part of the show is the gallery dedicated to the international competition of 1933 for the Palace of the Soviets, which illustrates the crystallization of the socialist-realist skyscraper, with the winning proposal of Boris Iofan. The exhibition curator compares the design to Emery Roth's residential towers neighbouring Central Park, thus illustrating once again the architectural influence of America upon Soviet architecture.
To learn more about the exhibition and the cultural dynamics and influences between Russia and America, read the full article on Metropolis Magazine titled: How Russian Architects Tried to Build a New Socialist World Using "America" as Their Guide.