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Architecture and World History


Tatlin's Tower: The Monument to the Future that Never Was

Ralph Croizier


     In the fall of 2011 a strange structure rose in the courtyard of London's Royal Academy of Arts. It was a circular, spiraling tower with far more visible lean than the Tower of Pisa and a very different building material, open structural steel framework in a double spiral attached to a large central vertical beam. The whole thing tilted at a 23.5 degree angle. Through the reddish or rust colored steel framework one could see various geometric glass forms—a large cube, a smaller inverted pyramid and, nearer to the top, a cylinder and globe.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Tatlin's Tower at the Royal Academy of Art, London, 2011. Google Images.  

     Industrial sculpture, astronomical observatory .Twenty-first century updated English "folly"? One had to know something about early 20th century art, architectural and political history to recognize it. Or notice the sign indicating the current exhibit at the academy, "Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture, 1915–1935". 1

     Actually, it was not the first time a replica model of this most famous unbuilt monument to the world revolution of communism would arise in London. In 1971, the same architect, Jeremy Dixon, had built a similar temporary model to be placed on the rooftop of the Hayward Gallery for Modern Art's exhibition, "Art in Revolution, Soviet Art and Design since 1917".2

     At the time there still was a Soviet Union, although both the state and its art had long since ceased to be revolutionary. In 2011 there was just the memory, the historical and art historical memory. And that is what this essay is all about: the memories in world history of a building that was never built and a world revolution that never happened.

Tatlin in his Time: The Historical Background to the Tower Project

Vladimir Tatlin (1883–1953) was a leading figure in the modernist art movement that flowered in Russia during the second decade of the Twentieth Century. Before 1917, it was generally apolitical, though an important part of the generally disaffected intelligentsia that identified Russia's backwardness with Czarist autocracy. These artists, very much in touch with modernists currents in European art before the war—cubists in Paris, expressionists in Germany, futurists in Italy – saw the Bolshevik revolution as ushering in the kind of modern, idealistic social order in which they would be the cultural voice of the new . Art, no longer the plaything of the rich, would be a vital part of the new society in the new scientific age. It therefore had to be practical, linked to everyday life as well as modern in form.

     Tatlin had already made a reputation for himself as one of the artists who went furthest in exploring the use of new materials to create new art forms, constructions made of modern real life materials (glass, iron, wire, wood) rather than oil on canvas. Hence, the name for the group in which he was a leading figure, "constructivism". The revolution gave them the chance to apply their ideas to art linked to life, building the new utopian society. Many of them helped the new Soviet government with decorations for street demonstrations, art publicizing the new order ("agitprop"), and industrial design. Tatlin did everything from working clothing (proletarian chic) to teacups (pure form, no handles) to proletarian furniture (good for posture if not comfort). But by 1919 he turned his "artist-engineer" mind to one great project, a design for a monument to the revolution which would serve as the headquarters for the new world communist government to be introduced by "The Third International".

     That project occupied most of Tatlin's time for the next two years, 1919–1921. It was supported by the cultural ministry ("Commissariat for Enlightenment") of the new Soviet Government. Lenin had a keen appreciation for the political value of propaganda art, though little use for modern art. However, his cultural minister, the veteran Bolshevik, Anatoly Lunacharsky, was much more tolerant of the new. In the early years of the Soviet Union "the left" in art was very much allied to the political left. By the mid 1920s , as utopian visions of an imminent world revolution faded and were replaced by the practical tasks of building "communism in one country", idealism in art and politics was replaced by a dictatorship more conservative in its social, political, and artistic policies . In a nutshell that is the explanation of why Tatlin's tower was never built. But it does not explain why the ghost of this visionary monument hung around through the 20th Centuries' rise and fall of communism and into the post communist , postmodern , post almost everything 21st Century as a reminder, in art and politics, of a global utopianism that was not really so very long ago.

Paper Architecture in Revolutionary Times: From Paris to St. Petersburg

In reality, great revolutions are not good times for great architecture. The revolutionary atmosphere may generate radically new ideas for buildings to represent the visionary ideals of the times, but almost always the "fever stage" of the revolution is too chaotic, too much concerned with practical issues of survival, to do much actual building. In the political sense "revolutionary architecture" is mainly "paper architecture, visionary plans for symbolic structures that will not be built until much later, if ever.

     In the French revolution, the closest thing to a precedent for Russia, neoclassicism entailed a rejection of the elaborate ornamentation characteristic of the baroque style in favor under the monarchy and a return to the classic simplicity of Greek and especially Republican Roman architecture. 3 But at the height of revolutionary fervor in the 1790s most of the neoclassical revival went into temporary decoration for mass public demonstrations or designs for buildings and monuments that were never built as the new regime struggled to survive against enemies internal and external. In other words, "paper architecture," often visionary in its size and geometric simplicity, but only surviving in drawings and designs. Some of these, particularly those by Claude Le Doux and Etiene Boullee, would have a long afterlife in architectural design and theory, very similar to Tatlin's unbuilt tower over a century later.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Etienne Boullee, Design for Cenotaph to Newton, 1784.  

     For example, Etiene Boullee's design for a cenotaph to Newton featured simple geometric shapes on an enormous scale stripped of almost all ornamentation. It was to be a tribute to the power of pure reason incarnated by the scientist who had discovered the laws of nature. During the revolution itself after 1789 Boullee continued to design grand public projects, all unrealized. They include towers which by their height would symbolize the revolution's lofty ambitions. One of his lesser known designs seems to point forward to Tatlin's spiral form in the 20th Century. It is a tall but truncated tower, again intended for commemorative purposes with a spiral design on the smooth surface. There is no evidence that Tatlin ever saw the drawing, but the design shows that Tatlin was not the first architect to see the spiral as a dynamic and symbolic form.

Figure 3
  Figure 3: Etiene Boullee, Design for Cenotaph as Circular Tower with Spiral Decoration, Google Images.  

     Such ambitious projects were not even begun during the idealistic "fever stage" of the revolution.4 The most central and famous monument to the era of the revolutionary wars, L'Arc de Triomphe, came much later, started in 1806 finished in 1836. Though neoclassical in style, it and other post revolutionary monuments were anything but revolutionary in design or spirit, foreshadowing what would happen to Soviet architecture a century later under Stalin.

Figure 4
  Figure 4: L'Arc de Triomphe, Paris, 18061836. Google Images.  

     A much more direct French influence on Tatlin was the world famous monument erected even later, in 1889, to commemorate the centennial of the Revolution. During a brief visit to Paris just before the War Tatlin actually saw the Eiffel Tower. He also visited Picasso, another link in the close affinities between Russian and Western European modernism, but it is the tower that is directly relevant to Tatlin's sudden turn from artist to architect in 1919. It was impressive in its height, three hundred meters (1050 feet), the openness of its construction (no walls hiding what was inside) and above all in its modern material, steel, not the granite or marble of traditional monuments. It represented the new, the modern, the coming of the industrial age.

Figure 5
  Figure 5: Eiffel Tower, 1889, Paris. Google Images.  

     All this would be relevant to Tatlin just five years later when he took up the challenge to design an even greater monument to the next revolution, an even greater one that was to bring about world communism. So the Eiffel tower was the predecessor of Tatlin's tower just as in the Marxist theory of history the French Revolution was the predecessor of the Russian Revolution. There is no evidence that any of this was present in Tatlin's mind when the apolitical artist visited Paris in 1914, but it soon would be.

1919: The Future is Now

Figure 6
  Figure 6: Digital Image of Tatlin's Tower on the St. Petersburg Skyline, Google Images  

Thanks to Twenty first Century digital imagery, we can envision how Tatlin's Tower would have looked in situ in St. Petersburg. 5 It would have dwarfed the neoclassical architecture the czars had built on Russia's face to the Baltic and Europe, its diagonal thrust linking it to the outside world which would soon join in the world revolution. Or so was the premise with which some Russian Marxists (Lenin's Bolsheviks were a distinct minority at the beginning) justified revolution in a relatively backward country without a large "proletariat" or industrial working class).

     However, when the world did not join in a global revolutionary effort in sufficient numbers for that premise to be validated, the revolution turned inward. The modernist (in Russia mostly called "futurist") artists, architects and designers who flocked to the revolutionary banner were shunted aside as more practical revolutionaries established a one party dictatorship "in one country." The dreamers' future, a technological paradise that liberated creative thinking and fully realized universal human potential, never came about. Their monuments, notably Tatlin's Tower, never rose in St. Petersburg or elsewhere, but as an idea the tower never really died and since the collapse of communism it has even had something of a revival. We will discuss its revival in academic and cyber circles at the end of this essay.

     But the real history, the world history significant story of the tower, centers on 1919, what happened then and what did not happen. That was the year the tower design took shape. The year in which the revolution militarily survived the counter revolutionary attacks of the various "white" armies and their foreign backers. And the year in which the imminent prospect of world revolution evaporated with the suppression of the Sparticist (German communist uprising in Berlin and the collapse of the short lived Communist government in Hungary.

     Communism would have to survive in one country and to do so it had to mobilize as much popular support and enthusiasm as possible. This is where Tatlin and other left leaning artists came in, almost all of them modernists as more conservative artists had little enthusiasm for the radical new government. In the major cities these leftist artists designed sets and decorations for mass public demonstrations, not unlike the "revolutionary festivals" of the French Revolution. They decorated the "agitprop" trains and river boats that spread the revolutionary message across Russia's vast expanses. And they did designs for new buildings and monuments to mark the arrival of a new age.

     In the spring of 1918 Lenin called for a program of "monumental propaganda" wanting to replace the pulled down monuments from czarist days with more or less conventional statues of past heroes of socialist. There is a photograph of him as he delivers a speech on the first anniversary of the October revolution. He is dressed as always in a conservative business suit and stands in front of a slightly larger than life realistic statue of Marx and Lenin. It was not the kind of public art Tatlin and other modernist artists had in mind. Their designs would be more symbolic and geometrical, modern forms for a new age.

     When a competition for a monument to The Third International was announced Tatlin dropped his work on practical constructivist designs for the new workers' state and began planning the biggest monument imaginable. Already dedicated to making art part of real life, he envisioned a gigantic steel tower of radically new, even futuristic, design. It would not only serve as a monument to the new world order brought about by The Third International, but would also be the functioning headquarters for the new world government it would bring about. The site would be in St. Petersburg, where the October Revolution had broken out in 1917, and Tatlin moved there from Moscow with a team to help on the design.

     This in itself was an act of faith in the future of the revolution for in early 1919 the fate of the city and the revolution as a whole was still very much in the balance with Yudenich's white army threatening from the West and armies of the newly liberated Finnish state from the north.

     Tatlin wanted to site his monument there for symbolic reasons, very important symbolic reasons. After all, a monument, even if it is a building with practical uses, is all about symbolism. St. Petersburg was Russia's window to the West and to the world. Since its establishment by Peter the Great, it had been the portal for modernizing Western influences, and the constructivists certainly saw themselves as part of the latest modernisms from the West. Even more important, the gigantic Western facing, western leaning tower would now send the ultimate modernizing message to the West—the final triumph of world communism. Moscow faced inwards to the Russian heartland; St. Petersburg faced the world.

     The transfer of the Bolsheviks' capital to Moscow in 1918 had made strategic sense for the survival of the revolution in Russia with German armies still on Russian soil. Putting the head quarters of the Third International in St. Petersburg would reaffirm the revolutionaries' confidence in the coming of the world revolution.

A Tower Rises in Wood and on Paper


Figure 7a

Figure 7b

  Figure 7: Monument to the Third International, front and side elevations  

The idea for the tower therefore started in Moscow but most of the design work took place in St. Petersburg. Tatlin, the artist, was a good draftsman producing large scale front and side elevations, some almost ten feet in length.

     Even more important for the constructivist artist, he had to build a "working model" almost seventeen feet high, but made of wood to be portable for showing in revolutionary street festivals.6 The monument itself, bigger and taller than anything ever built, was to be a spirally ascending, diagonally leaning tower of steel and glass approximately 400 meters (1575 feet) high.

     Many have commented on the ironic contrast between the massive structure to be made of the most modern building materials (high test steel for strength, glass for openness) and the flimsy wood and paper used for the model. But the model was important in those early years when utopian dreams sustained faith in the revolution. As one enthusiastic supporter, the literary critic, Viktor Shklovsky, commented when the project was first announced in 1919. "The monument is made of iron, glass, and revolution".7 For postwar chaotic Russia, in the throes of revolution and counter revolution, only the latter was available.

Figure 8
  Figure 8: Tatlin (with pipe) before a wooden model of his tower, St. Petersburg, 1920  

     The tower thus functioned in the revolutionary years solely as a symbol of faith in the revolutionary future, the global triumph of Marxist socialism. As that, it played an historical role preserving the revolution in Russia. As late as 1925 the model was still being carried through the streets of Moscow in the May Day celebrations. And when the Soviet Union first showed its artistic face to the outside world by building a pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of that year, a rebuilt, slightly smaller version, of the model was on prominent display.

     So Tatlin's tower existed only on the symbolic or inspirational level but what exactly did the materials and the design symbolize, in those times, and after?

The Tower as a Symbol

To start with the materials, a good starting point for dialectical materialists. Steel and glass with the latest in electronic technology to make it an active functioning monument spreading news by radio from the world's highest antenna, illuminating the surroundings with searchlights and the glow from its open glass interior. There were also plans for projectors to beam messages onto the clouds on overcast nights. Anticipating the age of electronic media? In sum, it was to be a monument to industrial technology as well as world socialism triumphant. Steel, not stone or marble symbolized this new age. The building looked forward, not back.

     And, since it was to be a building for the people, it should be open to the people. No stone or concrete walls to block visibility. The steel framework would support the enormous weight without blocking the view into the glass walled rooms of the interior. Three large geometric shapes diminishing in size as the tower rose: rectangular for the great hall where delegates from around the world would meet, an inverted pyramid for the executive offices of the new world government, and the cylindrical tube and sphere at the top to house communications equipment. All would be open to outside view. The people's government of the whole world would not hide behind impermeable walls.

Figure 9
  Figure 9: Kremlin Wall, Moscow, google images.  

     Nothing could be further from the solid brick walls and cloistered buildings of the Kremlin. The fact that that czarist structure became the center of Soviet Government tells a lot about what happened to the populist ideals of The October Revolution.

     Also nothing could be farther from Tatlin's design than the monumental stability of the Kremlin. Tatlin's three glass walled interior structures were intended to revolve, to be in motion. This too seems to be more for symbolic than practical or sightseeing reasons. It was not a prototype for Disneyland. The great glass rectangular hall would make a complete revolution (that word again!) exactly once a year. Delegates would have to be in session for a long time to see every view of St. Petersburg!

     The next, executive, level would rotate at a rate of once a month—slowly changing scenery for the leaders. The upper level for the communications equipment would rotate once a day, sending out its world wide messages in all directions.

     It was not itself a revolving tower of the kind made popular for tourist places and some cities in the late 20th century and the purpose was evidently much more serious than mere sightseeing or a revolving lunch. Apart from contributing to the dynamism of the entire monument—diagonal thrust into the sky, moving revolving components—these revolutions had cosmic significance: a year, a month, a day. The tower with its central tube oriented to face the polar star also had cosmic symbolism.

     Lynton links this to earlier Russian utopian thinking based on Christian eschatology and the orientation of monuments. 8 Quite possibly, but that lies beneath the surface of the monument's more immediate globally political message. Dynamism, movement, the new age of motion celebrated by the Italian futurists who had a major impact on Russian modernists, including Tatlin, just before the war.9 That dynamic spirit seems to be the major factor in why this building could not sit still, or stand on a conventional vertical axis.

     This preference for dynamic shapes over the usual square, rectangle, or circle was common among constructivist artists. Perhaps the most famous example was Lissitsy's diagrammatic propaganda poster, "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge". A more modest expression of revolutionary optimism but one that was actually realized.

Figure 10
  Figure 10: El Lissitsky, "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge," 1919, Google Images.  

     The sheer size of Tatlin's building was also perhaps more based on symbolic power than actual need. Four hundred meters was not only an impressively rounded number, but it happened to be exactly one hundred meters higher than that symbol of industrial capitalism as well as French glory, the Eiffel Tower. Tatlin had seen the Eiffel Tower and there are some strong similarities between its steel girder structure and what Tatlin proposed for his very differently designed tower.10 He was deliberately setting out to show that socialism would surpass capitalism.

     There was also the location, in St. Petersburg, home of the revolution and facing outwards. This has already been discussed but it is worth noting that by the early 1920s Tatlin was willing to consider sites in Moscow. By then Soviet officialdom and top Party leaders were in no mood to consider utopian visions.

     But the size or site of this monument, or even the building materials, were not what caused the most excitement then and afterwards. It was the spiral design and the lean. Right away, they raise questions about its stability, or even buildability. However, Tatlin was not designing an architectural fantasy, something that could never be built. His constructivist principles were dedicated to melding art with real life, so his scale model, along with the architectural drawings, were intended to demonstrate the practicality of his vision. Lynton points out that the leaning tower is not as unstable as it appears. No part of it extends beyond the perimeter of the circular steel base.

     The visual effect, however, is either inspiring or unsettling as attested to by the very mixed reactions to viewers at The London Royal Academy's show in 2011. And that was only a forty foot model.

Towers in History: Real and Mythical

Towers are not ordinary buildings and they can cast a long historical shadow, even ones that were never built. Before turning back to the shadow cast by Tatlin's imaginary tower ( the model at The Royal academy that opened this essay is just one recent manifestation) we should look at some of the predecessors for Tatlin's idea, both actual constructions and mythical.

     The unusual double spiral design, plus its failure to be realized, has often provoked comparisons to the Biblical Tower of Babel. It is not just the project's promethean aspect—human ambition defying the gods, but the ultimate failure of both the tower and what it represented that inevitably evokes the biblical parallel. In the Biblical Book of Genesis, the descendants of Noah are so divided by a variety of mutually unintelligible languages, or "babble," that they cannot finish their Tower to Heaven, a failure that became a parable for any monument representing human arrogance. In may be stretching the comparison, but were not those seeking to build world communism divided by competing ideological and even national ambitions? At any rate, Tatlin's monument to one world under The Third International was never finished, nor was the world-wide triumph of communism achieved. But there is more to it than that. Since The Renaissance at least artists have generally depicted the biblical tower as an incomplete ziggurat, the type of spirally ascending tower from ancient Mesopotamia. Tatlin is almost unique among modern architects in drawing on that design.

Figure 11
  Figure 11: Hendrick van Cleve, d.1595, "Tower of Babel," Google Images.  

     But would this biblical fable with its message of punishment for overweening ambition have been on the mind of a futurist artist and communist revolutionary? Not the moral of the tale, but possibly the spiral form. Hegel had spoken of history as ascending in a spiral process and metaphysically; at least, Marx was a thorough going Hegelian.11 Stone or brick and mortar construction imposed limitations on how high the spiral could reach, but structural steel offered new possibilities. Tatlin didn't copy a ziggurat but he may have been inspired by the spiral form seeing it as potentially more dynamic, and symbolic, than Eifel's tower.

     Paradoxically, an ancient civilization and a biblical myth may have inspired this 20th century monument to modernity. If so, it was an influence Tatlin did not publicly acknowledge.

     Nor did he acknowledge his debt to Eiffel, but there the visual evidence is clear. As for other influences, some have suggested The Colossus of Rhodes bestriding a harbor entrance just as Tatlin's tower would bestride the mouth of the Neva in St. Petersburg. Others refer to the Pharos of Alexandria with its beacon welcoming the world as a predecessor for Tatlin's electrically illuminated tower on the Baltic. Tatlin did not write of these ancient precedents and it is probably better to see him as a thoroughly modern man, the artist-engineer he proclaimed himself to be.

     But skepticism about links to ancient monuments does not mean we should exclude Tatlin's unbuilt tower from a global history of monumental structures, real or imagined, that have left a lasting impression on the human imagination. Height is often linked to the idea of greatness or, in modern times, progress.

     So the tower had a past in the history of the global architectural imaginary, and it would have a future. But in the real time real history of the Stalin era it was dead, both as an ideal and a metaphor. "Communism in one country" had little use for utopian global visions.

'Afterlife': The Tower Lives?

Once the Soviet Union was stable enough for much new construction more conservative ideas took hold, politically and architecturally. A stodgy somewhat grandiose neoclassicism became the only architectural style and all others were suppressed. The official policy of "socialist realism", adopted in 1932, killed any further modernist adventures. 12 Tatlin himself gave up architecture to work on a self propelled one person flying machine, pedal powered. It too never got off the ground. He lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity mainly doing stage designs. He died in 1953, the same year as Stalin.

     Afterwards when modern art gradually became acceptable again in The Soviet Union, he was gradually resurrected as a pioneer of modern art and design. There was a modest exhibition in 1980 as some Russian art historians showed interest in a past that had been buried in the Stalin era. Then, at the very end of the Soviet Union , in 1990, one of his three dimensional corner constructions dating from 1915 was accepted by the State Russian Museum in Leningrad along with a wooden model of the of the tower. After seventy years Tatlin's tower had returned to its birthplace, if only in spirit, and in miniature. The next year the regime it was intended to celebrate collapsed.

     Outside The Soviet Union "modern architecture" had flourished in the 20th Century but with no contact and little recognition for the Russian pioneers. " The International Style" which provided the smooth glass fronts for New York and Chicago skyscrapers was identified with the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany or Corbusier in France, not with ideologically isolated constructivists in the post revolutionary Soviet Union.

     Glass and concrete did indeed become the modern building material of choice, but not for ideological reasons. In any case, the aggressively industrial look of Tatlin's exposed steel girders had few architectural followers. Perhaps, paradoxically, by mid 20th century it looked too much like first stage industrial revolution material. Had Tatlin's vision of modernity become outdated?

     In some respects, yes. What later twentieth century revolution has been spearheaded by the industrial working class, Marx's "proletariat"? What modern constructed monuments feature raw steel?13 Whether or not technically Tatlin's design could have been built, even after The Soviet Union produced plenty of steel, its time has long passed ,first in Russia and then in the rest of the world. It looks nothing like the futuristic monuments of the late 20th early 21st centuries. Even its unimaginable height has been passed, although only recently. On a list of the world's tallest buildings it would now rank twelfth.

     Then what is this "after life" that keeps the tower from fading into history? I think it is sustained by two things, one related to Tatlin's social-political utopianism, the other to his role in modern art, or 'modernism". In our cynical post idealistic world there may still be some appeal to recalling a time when social and political idealism did not sound either foolish or dangerous.14 Second, and probably more important, there is post modern nostalgia for when modernism seemed like a beacon leading to a bright and exciting future.15

     Officially forgotten in Russia, Tatlin's tower surfaced again in the West at the height of interest in modern art and its history. It has stayed visible with the rise postmodernism as conceptual art makes the idea more important than the artifact.

     In 1968, the newly founded Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm tried to borrow Tatlin artifacts, including the tower model, from The Soviet Union. At the time this was not so innocently apolitical an act as it appeared. In the postwar years modernism had become a weapon in America's cold war ideological arsenal equating modern art with freedom of expression and stylistically conservative "socialist realism" with unfreedom.16 It was a tricky decision for Soviet art bureaucrats. "Peaceful coexistence" was still the official policy in the early Brezhnev era but already threatened standards of politically correct socialist realist art had to be defended. The Soviet Union's massive art and cultural bureaucracy depended on it. Would international recognition for one of Russia's own well buried modernists further undermine socialist standards in the arts and maybe spill over into other social and even political realms? 17

     In the end, none of the requested items were forthcoming although there was some cooperation from Russian art historians and one even visited the exhibition after the Swedes decided they could rebuild the tower model themselves using extant drawings and old photographs. Here he is photographed in front of the new model with Pontus Hulten then the Museum's director and driving force behind the exhibition.

Figure 12
  Figure 12: "Model of Tatlin's Tower" in Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm, 1968.  

     This, however, was just the beginning for the resurrection of the tower that was never built. As the art historian, Nathalie Leleu, explains, "… in the years to come the museum in Stockholm was regularly approached for loans of the replica and documentation of the various re-creation projects."18 In 1979, the Centre-Pompidou wanted Stockholm's cooperation for a more accurate new version of the tower for the Centre's exhibition, "Paris-Moscow, 1900–1930." The tower rose again in miniature with certain corrections bringing it closer to the original model.

     Since then it has been rebuilt or borrowed at a number of venues for exhibitions on the Russian avant-garde or just Tatlin. The Royal Academy 2011 exhibition is just one instance. Other exhibitions, with or without reconstructions, occurred in Europe and beyond reaching the Pacific Rim with a new tower in Tokyo and an exhibition on Russian Constructivism in Seattle. No new model there, but the catalog for the exhibition had a photo of the tower model being paraded through the streets of Moscow in the early 1920s.

     From Seattle the exhibition traveled to Minneapolis and then back to Moscow for an opening at The State Tretyakoff Gallery. Now world celebrities, art world anyway, Tatlin and his tower came home just in time for the demise of the socialist state he had dedicated his life to.

Figure 13
  Figure 13: Cover of "Art Into Life: Russian Constructivism. 19141932." Google Images.  

     And how have the tower and its creator fared in post Soviet, post socialist Russia? There is a new model at The Tretyakoff and Tatlin has a place in the new Russian art history books as the avant-garde is rediscovered. No plans to build the real tower. It is safely historicized, appearing on a Russian postage stamp in 2000 paired with one of the most iconic images of 1930s Soviet Socialist Realism, Vera Mukhina's statue of a heroic male proletarian and a female collective farm worker. Both commemorate an era safely past, but the constructivist design and socialist realist statue do make an odd pair.

Figure 14
  Figure 14: Russian Postage Stamp, 2000. Google Images.  

     One more ironic twist to the tower's historical legacy in its birthplace. The Russian oil and gas giant, Gazprom, wanted to build a 400 meter high business centre very close to the tower's proposed site in St. Petersburg. The style would have been different, functional not utopian and it would have been a monument to capitalist success in what had been the fatherland of world communism. But it too was not built, not yet anyway. Popular protest and concern for preserving the historic character of the city has at least temporarily derailed the project.

     For now it seems that Tatlin and his tower now have a safe if minor place in the historical consciousness of his homeland, in contrast to the state fostered amnesia for most of the 20th Century. But the tower's strongest after life is international or, more accurately, in the global imaginary.

     Global now means more than Euro-America. At the same time that the reconstructed tower was on display in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London, 2011, the original non-Russian model from the 1968 Stockholm Exhibition was on display at the brand new Saadiyat Museum in the Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi. It drew the attention of an online British art journal, Art Newsletter. The bemused reporter commented:19

     There is a fascinating resonance between the wild, ambitious idealism that once inspired Tatlin's tower, and the 'remarkable, miraculous, limitless possibility of thinking' that has inspired the development Saadiyat Island.

     Apparently, in the modernizing world as well as the modern or postmodern West, the tower is a source of contemporary inspiration. Perhaps more for its spirit, its ambition and audacity than for its specific form.

     Spirit and ambition, not the specific design and certainly not the ideology behind it. That might be a good place to leave the tower, but it is hard to resist commenting on where its after life is strongest and most global, the Internet. Failing to materialize in real time and real space, the tower has risen again and again in cyberspace. A casual google search for tatlin's tower turns up 500 results. Extending it to "Vladimir Tatlin", "Tatlin", or "monument to the third international" increases the number, not just regular URL sites but postings on YouTube, blogs, and twits.

     To contrasting websites which seem to capture the two extremes of the web—fanciful, perhaps idealistic, and dreaming on one side, mixed educational and commercial possibilities on the other. The first,, has a small picture of the tower with the Eiffel tower and the Statue of Liberty beside it to indicate respective sizes. The site calls for responses to a call to build the tower according to original plans out of the original materials (steel, glass, wire) but not in one country or in one piece. It is to be built in various places around the world but left where they have been made. "The sections will not be assembled, but the tower will exist in the world". There we have it, disassociated globalism connected by the idea and the internet, though physically fragmented. Has any piece of conceptual art ever been more whimsical but somehow appealing?

     The other website offers something more concrete, something you can own. It not only disseminates an idea but offers a product for sale. The Online Engineering Museum sells a 1:400 scale model of the tower, 100 cm (39 inches) high made of glass, Plexiglas, steel and brass with a motor to turn the revolving parts. Price, $12,500 plus shipping.20 At last, the tower is available, with a price tag!

Figure 15
  Figure 15: Model of Tatlin's Tower built by The Online Engineering Museum, 2012.  



1 Herbert Wright, "Rebuiding Tatlin's Tower," Blueprint: The Leading Magazine of Architecture and Design (December 20, 2011) at'php/everything-else/rebuilding-tatlins-tower or, alternatively, Google "Tatlin's Tower" for this and much other online coverage.

2Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917 [Exhibition catalog] (London: Hayward Gallery, 1971).

3 The two pioneering books on art and political symbolism in the French Revolution are James Leith, Art as Propaganda in France, 17501799 : A Study in the History of Ideas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965) and Warren Roberts, Jacques Louis David: Art, Politics and The French Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

4 The fever analogy and the idea of stages in a revolutionary cycle was first put forward by the historian of the French Revolution, Crane Brinton, after the Russian but before the Chinese revolution. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1938, 2nd revised edition, 1965). Brinton's theory can be linked to art in prerevolutionary, revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods. But it hasn't.

5 The color chosen is somewhat arbitrary. We don't know what Tatlin would have chosen, but given its political symbolism and industrial look, red is likely. Later model builders would choose various colors. See illustrations 10 and 13.

6 In their enthusiasm for involving the masses in large scale street demonstrations the Bolsheviks took a page straight out of the French Revolution's playbook as described and illustrated in Leith, Art as Propaganda in France.

7 Cited in Lynton, 96

8 Lynton,136–8.

9 Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, 18631922 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986) and John Milner, A Slap in the Face: Futurists in Russia (London: Philip Wilson Publishing, 2007).

10 Milner, Tatlin's Tower,158–9 has two photographs side by side comparing the supporting girders of the Eifel Tower under construction with Tatlin's model. Although Milner points out the much sounder understanding of structural mechanics by the French engineer turned architect than by the Russian artist turned engineer, the influence and inspiration from the French tower seems indisputable. There was also, close to the Eifel Tower, another gigantic steel structure that actually moved. It was the ferris-wheel, named La Grande Roue which had been built for an International Exposition in 1900.

11 Milner quotes Hegel directly, "history is a union of irony and tragedy; from the point of view of the whole it is a cyclic or spiral advance." Emphasis mine. Milner, 160. Lynton cites Engels and Lenin using the spiral as a metaphor for progress. Lynton, 135.

12 Lynton, 86. Lynton speculates that Tatlin would have seen photographs of the two steel structure together and it helped convince him to give mechanical motion, the revolving interior spaces, to his monument.

13 A somewhat sympathetic account of this art can be found in Mathew Cullerne Bown, Art under Stalin (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1991). Much more devastating in its criticism is the post-Soviet émigré, Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art in The Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China, (London: Icon Editions: London, 1990).

14 There has to be an exception to every rule and counter evidence against every generalization. In my article for the "Art History" forum in World History Connected, vol. 9, no. 2 (June 2012), I explored the 2008 Beijing Olympic stadium, nicknamed "The Bird's Nest." The girders of this structure are prominent as an exoskeleton; the overall design of a mainly horizontal building is very different. Stability more than dynamism. See

15 I wrote this before reading Catherine Merridale's eloquent review of Lynton's book on Tatlin. She is Professor of Contemporary History at St. Mary's University of London and author of several books on modern Russia including a cultural history of a very real building complex, The Kremlin. She starts her review by expressing, much more eloquently, my views of how utopian thinking has disappeared from contemporary global consciousness, but was very real in the early 20th Century. "All Wood and Dreams: Tatlin's Tower: Monument to Revolution," The Literary Review, April 2003. See

16 The intriguing idea that Marxist socialism and modernism were "co-dependent" is advanced by the art historian Timothy Clark in his book, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999). He posits this question in the introduction, particularly, pages 8–10 where he comments on the two being born at roughly the same time, late 19th century, and dying at the same time, late 20th Century. Lest this seems like a strange term for the strained relationship between artistic innovators and political commissars wherever Marxist socialism took power, he points out that "Co-dependency, we know to our cost, does not necessarily mean mutual aid or agreement on much," 9.

17 See Serge Guibaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

18 See Ralph Croizier," The Avant-garde and the Democracy Movement: Reflections on Late Communism in the USSR and China "Europe Asia Studies (Formerly Soviet Studies) vol. 51, no. 3 (May 1999), 483–513.

19 Nathalie Leleu, "'Let Us Place the Eye under Control of the Touch': Replicas and Replicators of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International: The Great Adventure of Pontus Hulten" in Tatlin: New Art for a New World (Basel: Museum Tingley, 2012).

20 Henry Hemming, "A Century –old monument highlights Abu Dhabi's ambition," The Art Newspaper, 17 November 2011, at www.The's-ambition/25105.

21 In fairness to The Online Engineering Museum, I should point out that it is not a "toys are us type site" at They do serious reconstructions of historical machines and arrange workshops at creditable real space universities. Their website is worth consulting by anyone interested in the world history of technology. The tower model, small as it is, is probably the most visually elegant version ever created and the most accurate. It would fit well in the office of some globally minded but space constricted organization, such as the World History Association.


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