Building a new New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture

USA and USSR: a hate/love relationship

The Canadian Centre for Architecture exhibit Building a new New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture explores a new angle on old rivals.

Walking down the hall, before even entering the CCA’s main exhibition galleries, visitors are confronted by a towering lithograph titled “The Two Superman” by pop art designer Roman Cieslewicz. The print features two figures, or rather one figure, mirrored. Both figures are Superman –- the man of tomorrow himself –- but in place of Superman’s iconic S, their chests are branded USA and USSR, respectively. This unsettling idea of the Soviet Union paradoxically mirroring the United States is appropriate, proving to be the exhibit’s major driving theme writ large.

The exhibit presents a new paradoxical narrative of the Soviet Union’s relationship with, and understanding of, the United States that clashes with the prevailing image of the two superpowers being intrinsically dissimilar. Curator Jean-Louis Cohen, a French architect, architectural historian and architecture-history professor at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, unfurls this narrative in chronological order through the interconnected galleries via photographs, paintings, drawings, books, pamphlets, maquettes, magazines, music and film.

CCA installation view

The narrative takes form even before the formation of the Soviet Union and the exhibit outlines the beginnings of a glowing Russian infatuation with the United States as early as the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. Russian engineers in attendance were enthralled with American advances in mining, metallurgy and specifically prefabricated building techniques. All the while, contrary feelings emerged, again even before the 1917 revolution, characterizing the U.S. as an impossibly vicious meat-grinder built on slavery and greed, as is the case in Maxim Gorky’s “City of the Yellow Devil” (1906) in which Gorky writes of New York City:

  “…Entering the city is like getting into a stomach of stone and iron, a stomach that has swallowed several million people and is grinding and digesting them…”

But compare Gorky’s take on New York City to the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, in an excerpt from his 1925 poem Brooklyn Bridge. 

….I clamber, 


        On to Brooklyn Bridge.

As a silly painter 

        Into a museum Virgin



his optics’ fork,

so I

       From a height on heaven verging


through Brooklyn Bridge at New York.

New York….

Incredibly, Gorky’s pre-revolution attitude towards New York City and American society as a whole seems to be more in line with Marxist ideology than that of the post-revolutionary avant-garde poet Mayakovsky who highlights a powerful, phantasmagoric depiction of America, fetishizing its engineering and architectural marvels. Rather than being a fringe sentiment exclusive to Mayakovsky or the avant-garde, the sentiment was widely held in the highest echelons of Soviet leadership who were convinced from the very early days that emulating and adopting American methodology and building practices would prove instrumental to the success of the Soviet Union. The exhibit notes that Leon Trotsky himself stated In 1924, “Americanized Bolshevism will triumph and smash imperialist Americanism.”

This quotation highlights a deeply set identity crisis, suggesting that absorbing enough American know-how and beating out the U.S. at its own game would see the Soviet Union usurp the U.S. and become the world’s new rightful America: a shining revolutionary beacon on which other nations would base their own aspirations. The idea is further echoed in an excerpt by poet Aleksandr Blok in his 1913 poem appropriately titled “New America.” 

‘Tis the groan of the coal and the marshes,

⁠And the groan of the ore, near and far:

For I see o’er the boundless steppe rising

⁠Lo! Another America’s star!

The exhibit goes on to variously illustrate this American fixation throughout Soviet history with photographs of sprawling tractor factories that were built in the U.S. and transplanted piece by piece to the Soviet Union, plans for towering skyscrapers that would never be built, American-style cookbooks, Soviet jazz music, posters featuring rip-off versions of industrially made sausages, ketchup and mayonnaise, and even a lookalike Mary Pickford.

Moscow’s Hotel Ukraina

Yet these Russian versions all seem a little askew. The exhibit demonstrates that for the most part the Soviet Union only seemed able or willing to view the U.S. as if through a glass darkly, or, recalling the exhibit’s opening image, a mirror. This phenomena might be best exemplified by the handful of model airplanes hanging from the ceiling in one of the exhibit’s galleries. The models are of Soviet Tupolev Tu-4 strategic bombers, a strange, post-war copy of the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress that the Soviet Union painstakingly reverse-engineered from a handful of captured examples. The Soviet design team faced a litany of technical problems typified by their difficulty in reproducing the aluminum sheets used in the construction of the original B-29’s fuselage as the original sheets were produced using imperial measurements, whereas Soviet factories were tooled for metric measurements and wholly incapable of producing sheets to the same specifications. Incredibly the project was ultimately successful owing to the remarkable work of the Soviet engineering community, but the final result was still a strange imperfect copy. It proved to be an alternate-universe doppelganger that had somehow lost something in translation from a different unit of measurement — a different language. 

One of the most interesting reflections of America within the exhibit (and perhaps the most accurate) is American Photographs (1936), an essay produced by satirical writers Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov. The essay documents the pair’s 10-week road journey through depression-era America in a Ford Model T while travelling as correspondents for Pravda newspaper. Like Jack Kerouac or Paul Simon, Ilya and Petrov were looking for America, but upon reaching each of their destinations, they’re told (much to their comedic confusion) that wherever they are, it isn’t the real America. America is elsewhere, yet no one can say exactly where. 

The writing is light, mostly musing on small details and the general strangeness of living in America, but what was perhaps most shocking for the Soviet people were the photographs the duo snapped along their journey. The pictures failed to validate either of the two prevailing popular images of the United States. They didn’t portray a fantasy land of skyscrapers, self-cleaning kitchens, and imaginary airships, but neither did they portray a decadent cesspool populated entirely by cartoon pimps, stockbrokers, and junkies. The reality they managed to capture was an altogether more shocking third version that hovered uneasily between the two. It was a stark depiction of everyday American reality on its lonely highways and in its small towns. They captured a life that was hitherto completely unimaginable to the Soviet citizen — a strange mixture of crossroads, scrap yards, signposts, sleepy gas stations, quiet poverty and dust. ■

Building a new New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture runs at the CCA (1920 Baile) until April 5, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Wed & Fri–Sun, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Thu, $7–$10, free for students, children Friends of the CCA. Free for the general public Thursdays after 5:30 p.m. and the first Sunday of every month.