CHERNIKHOV: FANTASY AND CONSTRUCTION [Iakov Chernikhov’s Approach to Architectural Design]. London: Architectural Design AD Editions, 1984. Catherine Cooke

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[Iakov Chernikhov's Approach to Architectural Design]

Catherine Cooke

Catherine Cooke: CHERNIKHOV: FANTASY AND CONSTRUCTION [Iakov Chernikhov's Approach to Architectural Design]. London: Architectural Design AD Editions, 1984. First edition. Slim quarto. Thick printed wrappers. 88 pp. Fully illustrated with black and white and color reproductions. Unobtrusive former owners inked name, date and address to first page. Wrappers lightly worn and scratched. A very good copy.

8.75 x 11 softcover book with 88 pages devoted to the early Soviet Avant-garge architecture of Iakov Chernikhov. Contents include: Chernikhov in Context (constructivism in the USSR in the 1920s); His Theory and Programme; and His Principal Treatise (the first translation of Chernikhov's book “The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms,” from 1931).

“Architectural fantasy stimulates the architect’s activity, it arouses creative thought not only for the artist but it also educates and arouses all those who come in contact with him; it produces new directions, new quests, and opens new horizons.” — Iakov Chernikhov, 1927

Straight fromThe Charnel House: “Iakov Georgievich Chernikhov was one of the most outstandingly original artists of a period which produced many great talents. He was born on December 17, 1889 in the Ukrainian provincial town of Pavlograd, and studied first at Odessa College of Art, from which he graduated in 1914, and then at Petrograd’s famous Imperial Art Academy, now the Russian Academy of Art. Here he studied painting and education before switching to the architectural faculty in 1916. One year later, Chernikhov completed his teacher training and his degree thesis on methods of teaching drawing. He was called up for military service in 1916, but managed to continue studying, working, and teaching, though he was unable to resume his studies at the architectural faculty of VKhUTEMAS [the Higher Art and Technical Studios, previously the Academy of Art] until 1922. By the time he completed his degree in 1925, he had gained many years’ experience of educational theory and practice.

“From 1927 to 1936 he worked for various architectural firms, designing and building a large number of projects. Until his death in May 1951, Chernikhov also continued to teach a wide variety of graphic arts subjects, including representational geometry and construction drawing. He became a professor in 1934, and was granted tenure the following year. By the standards of his time, he was simply a successful and fulfilled architect. His publications earned him a favorable reputation among his colleagues between 1927 and 1933, but after the Stalinist era his name disappeared from the scene. Only now, many decades after his death, are some of his books and examples of his wide-ranging graphic art being republished, and the magnitude of his unique creative genius becoming more widely recognized. Chernikhov’s first book, The Art of Graphic Representation, was published in 1927 by the Leningrad Academy of Arts. It was a textbook for the drawing course which he had devised but, despite its title, its purpose was not to teach readers how to draw. Even in Chernikhov’s time, the title had an old-fashioned ring to it, but he wrote the book with much more modern aims in mind. It is about graphic, spatial, and abstract compositions, and seeks to encourage students to use lines, planes, and solid to express beauty and movement without depicting anything known or recognizable, experimenting with all the boundless possibilities open to them. This thin volume is actually an extract from Chernikhov’s wide-ranging work. It was aimed at young secondary school and university students with no training in (or experience of) drawing or painting, and was ambitious in its aims. Publications like this were very unusual, since for the previous fifteen years, modern art had been used to express slogans, manifestoes, and statements of principle.

“Few of the leading figures in modern art were teachers, but as a passionate educationalist, Chernikhov regarded his books primarily as textbooks, and his superb graphics simply as illustrations. He used his exceptional talents in the service of education and, unlike many other gifted and famous artists and architects, did not prescribe specific styles or techniques, instead focusing on such down-to-earth subjects as the use of materials or ways of depicting form and space. The importance of the imagination to Chernikhov is apparent in the title of the first chapter: “Fantasy and Object.” The Art of Graphic Representation is primarily a way of depicting imaginary spaces, something at which he excelled, and his drive toward systematization compelled him to share this knowledge with others. To his mind, the ability to sketch and draw were essential, but the most important thing was imagination. Chernikhov’s work, which even his harshest critics freely admitted was unique, provides impressive evidence of the dominance of the imaginary over the factual and representational.

“Chernikhov’s first publication was revolutionary by the educational standards of the time, but remained almost unnoticed by commentators. In his philosophy of education, realism was simply not an issue; ideally, the depiction should accurately represent what happens in the artist’s imagination, and graphic expression is far more important than creating the illusion of reality. “If we can in any way convey our thoughts and ideas in visual form, with no claim to correctness, and if this image mirrors our imagination, when we can have a clear conscience.”

“Chernikhov tended to use his own particular terminology in his theoretical works. The concept of Suprematism, first employed by Kazimir Malevich in 1915, was one of the few key concepts of the artistic avant-garde which Chernikhov adopted as obvious and universally valid. He understood it as the creation of abstract compositions divorced from preconceived canons and procedures.

“He divided his teaching curriculum into three sections: Lines, Surfaces, and Solids. Each of these was further subdivided into Architectural, Spatial, and Dynamic Considerations. “The underlying thread is the rhythm of construction, which logically consists of two components: composition and color.” The book has seventy-two chapters, each setting a particular problem that requires resolution and together showing the sophistication of Chernikhov’s concept. These tasks would undoubtedly have fired the enthusiasm of any student with sufficient imagination, and each is accompanied by several dozens of outstanding illustrations, of which there are 1,163 in total. Sadly, this book contains only thirty-eight high-quality but very pale black-and-white graphics, which is probably why it went largely unnoticed.

“Chernikhov’s theory of learning was closely related to the “psychoanalytic” method developed by leading figures at ASNOVA and professors Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, and Vladimir Krinskii of VKhUTEMAS [unrelated to Freudian psychoanalysis]. This was used at VKhUTEMAS from 1923 onwards to teach the principles of spatial depiction, and is described in a 1927 publication by the college’s architecture faculty as follows: “The new method explains the laws applying to artistic forms, and their elements, properties, and nature, based on individual psychophysiological perception. It is divided into chapters based on their degree of difficulty.” It is clear that Chernikhov, like Ladovskii and his colleagues, used similar methods to resolve similar problems. The main difference lies in their target readership, since the “psychoanalytic” method was intended for the education of architects. However, Chernikhov wrote in his introduction: “I have achieved interesting results in a whole series of educational institutions — ordinary schools, village schools, and colleges for women, workers, etc.” The 1927 publication provides an introduction to the depiction of space for those with no experience of graphic design, and was the only good textbook of its kind at the time. It was not widely read, though it remains an important work. The word “architecture” does not appear once in The Art of Graphic Representation, even in the chapters where Chernikhov describes the use of graphics in the arts, science, technology, and business. This is probably because this book was intended for students of professions other than architecture — and year his teaching methods are extremely important in the training of architects.

“Chernikhov’s book Fundamentals of Modern Architecture was published by the Leningrad Association of Architects in 1930, though he probably wrote it earlier, since the contents page is dated June 12, 1927. Like The Art of Graphic Representation, this new title is a composition manual, but this time explicitly for architects. Chernikhov discusses the theoretical and philosophical principles of modern architecture, with more than two hundred outstanding illustrations by himself. This book was undoubtedly a challenge to the architectural world, since it makes a claim to universality and yet cites not a single fellow architect, ignoring such renowned constructivist theoreticians as Moisei Ginzburg and Aleksei Gan. Even the title is a deliberate provocation.

“Chernikhov’s biographer, Anatolii Strigalev, comments: “The abbreviation of the title, OSA, which appears prominently on the cover, is also the acronym of the well-known Association of Modern Architects, the central creative focus for Soviet constructivist architects of the time.” This publication is not simply Chernikhov’s personal definition of constructivism. It raises issues which had been discussed in large numbers of books and architectural journals for many years, and had sparked bitter conflict between architects’ associations.”