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Fantastic Voyage: Soviet Visionary Architecture

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday April 26, 2007

cccp.jpgCCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions, the title of the new show at Storefront for Art and Architecture, conjured up images of a grim military-industrial state and its massive concrete apartment blocks. What I found instead is a collection of photographs of utopian places for the people, all built during the last 20 years of the Cold War.

In his travels through the former Soviet satellite states, Paris-based photographer Frederic Chaubin uncovered an assortment of startling architectural gems. These grandiose constructions, mainly for public use, housed a technical school, an opera company, a circus and a crematorium, to name a few.

The architects of these 27 structures, many of which seem inspired by science fiction, worked in isolation from their counterparts in the West. According to the wall text, those who lived far from the major capitals were allowed tremendous freedom of expression. So the creativity on display here comes as a surprise to most viewers. The opening reception, heavily attended by young architects, was punctuated with exclamations about the daring designs and the beautiful materials and workmanship.

Most of the buildings in Chaubin's collection have never been seen in the West. One, a villa built for Boris Yeltsin, was never even published in Soviet architectural magazines of the time; its luxurious furnishings and indoor pool would have raised all the wrong eyebrows.

storefront.jpgOne of the most futuristic buildings is a health spa built on the Black Sea for the proletariat in 1986. Like a Jules Verne fantasy, it has an almost intergalactic appeal. It occupies an unbuildably steep slope, perched on three towering slabs that leave the beach below almost undisturbed. The compact round building, with 360-degree views, used the sea's thermal energy as a free resource for heating and air conditioning. Photograph above, © Frederic Chaubin. Photographs of Storefront for Art and Architecture, right, by Peggy Roalf.

Storefront's narrow floor provided space for a Cold War timeline that includes facts that bridge political and architectural moments, such as: 1986: Gorbachov ends economic aid to Soviet satellite states; 1979: Shah of Iran overthrown; Charles Eames dies; 1974: President Nixon resigns; 1973: Ceasefire in Vietnam; The World Trade Center towers open in New York; 1969: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius die.

Storefront also produced a tabloid newspaper with reprints of Soviet architectural magazine articles about some of the buildings Chaubin photographed, with text in English translation.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions is on view through May 26. Visit the Storefront for Art and Architecture website for details.

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