22 April 2008

Wittgenstein on Moscow Architecture

My aversion to Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is long-standing. It is not, unfortunately, based on a thorough critique of his intellectual works. Rather, it is a distaste founded on the dodgy grounds of guilt by association. I simply cannot think about reading Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus without the image of those ridiculous stoner undergraduate boys popping into my head with their would-be deep questions about the nature of language, reality and metaphysics. “Have you read Godel, Escher, Bach, man?” (Nope.)

All the same, Ludwig W. forced himself onto my desk today, with the report of his VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) handler written during a September 1935 trip to the Soviet Union. And for the first time, I thought the guy seemed interesting, if only for his colorful feedback on various excursions.

Apparently, LW had been planning on a possible relocation to Soviet Russia in the mid-1930s and had studied the language for a year previous to his visit. [Link for those with academic affiliations here; sorry to those without subscribing institutions.] But upon arrival he was less than impressed. According to his guide, he kept on nagging Russians about what they thought of Tolstoy. He complained that Intourist was inattentive and that the country as a whole was dirty, with the specific gripe, “I still have not seen a single clean bathroom, and that is the criterion of a culture.” («Я не видел еще ни одного чистого ватерклозета, а это есть критерий культуры.») VOKS arranged for him to see the popular N. Pogodin play The Aristocrats, a dramatization of rehabilitation at a labor camp; LW walked out after the first act, claiming that the play made no sense to him and that the actors’ jokes fell on deaf ears.

But his biggest problem, according to the guide, was Moscow’s architecture. Having designed and built a home a decade earlier, the philosopher had a good idea of what his ideal buildings would look like. And in LW's estimation, Soviet architecture missed the mark by a long shot: “The only revolution in which I would take an active part—that would be a revolution against your architects.” («Единственная революция, в которой я принимал бы активное участие—это революция против ваших архитекторов.»)

Judge for yourself.

Wittgenstein House:

Soviet architecture of the time & type that LW might have seen:

Personally, I'm in the "six of one..." camp on this question. Feel free to write in with your own opinions.

(Interested scholars can see the Wittgenstein archival material in GARF 5283/3/657.)


Anonymous said...

My first thought is that the Soviet buildings look much more expensive to heat. All that glass!

lizzie b said...

I hear you on the exteriors, but come on, his stairs are brilliant. And so Escher (Godel, Bach)!

kg said...

What troubles me is that GW's own house looks not as "futuristic" (less curvilinear, more generally square, no fun cantilevers or all-glass walls or oculi and things) but generally in keeping with the "form follows function" aesthetic that the Constructivists adopted, too (as near as I'm aware). In just even the most obvious way - they both are keenly interested in the effects of light on their spaces. Here are some more pics of his house:
http://www.suzfoto.com/arc/wittgensteinE.htmlDoes he have more specific complaints about the buildings he found in Moscow? (Also, can you indicate the adresses of the buildings you posted and what they are?!)
As for the WCs... yeah... it all had to get much worse before it could begin to get better :)

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

In order:

Rootless: Yeah, but it's double-paned, I'm sure... if that's any solace.

lizzie, don't even start with the Escher.

kg, the Soviet buildings are, in order, (1) Melnikov's Gosplan Garage (1934-1936); (2) Zuev Workers' Club (1926-1928); (3) Baku Palace of the Press (1932).

No specific complaints were recorded by the VOKS guide, other than that quote and the general impression that Soviet architecture was taking an "incorrect direction," in LW's opinion.

Who knows, maybe LW was worried about the turn away from this type of architecture to the more beastly Stalinist beauties, like the Duma building which had just gone up. Or the Hotel Moskva, which is also of that period. Perhaps that makes more sense. I haven't read the book on W's house (the aversion stands), so I couldn't comment on his architectural reasonings.

Maybe there are other takers?

Darren said...

aversion to wittgenstein due to an image of stoners? please. do yourself a favor and study the "philosophical investigations" for a a few years. does a body good.