Building Castles in the Sky

Architect and curator Yuri Avvakumov on the “paper architecture” phenomenon.

“Personal perception theater” (1978) by Nikolai Gorkin, Leonid Pavlov, Michael Bartenev, Viktor Shteller.

Yuri Avvakumov is an artist, curator, and the mastermind behind the “paper architecture” phenomenon. The term was adopted in the 1980s by a group of young graduates, mainly from the Moscow Institute of Architecture. At a time when Soviet architecture, limited by ideological controls and unfavorable economic conditions, had fallen victim to standardized construction, paper architecture offered freedom of expression. Inspired by the works of Piranesi and the Russian avant-garde, these visionary projects were never intended for realization, and were conceived from the start as drawings.

At the height of perestroika, when many architects – such as Mikhail Belov, Alexander Brodsky, Mikhail Filippov, and Ilya Utkin – focused on their architectural careers, Avvakumov dedicated himself to the paper architecture tradition. He took on the role of participant, architect, and curator in hundreds of exhibitions and twice represented Russia at the Venice Biennale. In 1993, Avvakumov established the “Utopia” foundation, an archive of unrealized projects in Russian architecture.

JA: Soviet architects were required by the authorities to execute standardized projects. Did paper architecture emerge as a result of these professional restrictions? Was it ever subject to censorship?

YA: Paper architecture is a highly individualistic form of a professional activity. Free from the ideology of a client and the dictates of a builder, paper architecture can tell a personal story. This was something very unusual at the time.

Before the 1980s it was absolutely impossible to independently take part in Western magazine competitions. In 1981, we changed this, taking advantage of new leadership at the Union of Architects. And because the entries of Soviet architects began winning these international competitions, those in charge decided to applaud them rather than disapprove. Nonetheless, comments about architecture being “hard-earned bread” while paper architecture was “a sweet dessert” continued for a long time. Paper architects were called deserters, escapists, and dissidents. But the practice was never banned.

In fact, I only encountered censorship once while entering work in international competitions. The Union of Architects blocked the submission by Filippov-Bronzova for the 1984 “Style 2001” competition because one of the officials discovered a church with cupolas and crosses in their series of “retro-futuristic” images. I appealed to the secretary of the union, who overruled the initial ruling. The project was submitted and received one of the top prizes.

“Intelligent market” (1987) by Michael Filippov, Nadezhda Bronzova.

JA: The phrase “paper architecture” is often loosely interpreted. What does it mean to you? What is paper architecture: a phenomenon or a genre?

YA: Until the 1980s the term was only used as professional slang and had negative connotations, referring to an architectural project unfit for realization. It could be used in a positive sense about the projects of Ledoux, Boullée, Piranesi, Sant'Elia … but lightly, in passing. The term had no freestanding definition. When, in 1989, an exhibition was being planned at the German Architecture Museum, its director Heinrich Klotz suggested the name “Castles in the Sky” as something more understandable for a European audience. But in both the first and in subsequent paper architecture exhibitions, there weren’t only competition projects on display, but also pictures by children, art by architects of the older generation, and architectural maquettes.

In Soviet architecture, paper architecture is a phenomenon, without a doubt. Selim Omarovich Khan-Magomedov ranked it third after the Russian avant-garde and Stalinist neoclassicism. In world architecture, it’s a genre, known as “visionary architecture,” which has a long tradition and ancient beginnings.

“Remains of ancient buildings” (1750), “Ancient temple” (1743) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

JA: Is paper architecture a self-sufficient phenomenon, and how did it progress? What was your role in the process, and what has happened to the paper architects?

YA: The active phase of paper architecture did not last long. From 1981 to 1988 paper architects focused their energy on architectural competition submissions – winning over 50 international contests, primarily in Japan. I was then in the youth division of the Union of Architects, where I was responsible for all submissions to magazine competitions and ran monthly so-called “competition reviews” at the House of Architects.

Exhibitions of paper architecture were popular from 1984 to 1992. My own attitude also changed. I felt that architects were not respectful enough of the artistic side of their work, so I tried to change this mindset. I went from studio to studio collecting sketches and persuading people to take part in different exhibitions. In 1992, my efforts culminated in the exhibition Stanislav Morozov “Paper Architecture. Alma Mater” at the Moscow Institute of Architecture. The collection was sold to SBS Bank and the participating artists received a symbolic sum of money. I thought that was the right thing to do: sell the work rather than donate it.  (Ten years later, the bank’s collection ended up in a Russian museum.)

Following a 1988 exhibition in Paris, I began to place 1980s paper architecture in the context of Soviet architecture. In 1994, to mark the tenth anniversary of the first paper architecture exhibition, a catalog of collections was released, and I put together an exhibition called “Factory of Utopias” at the Architecture Museum, where paper architecture was presented as part of the visionary history of 20th-century Soviet architecture.

YA: What happened to the paper architects? They continue to work as architects, just as they always have.

JA: Do you consider yourself the curator behind the emergence of paper architecture in the 1980s?

YA: In the 1980s, there was no concept of “curator” in Soviet art criticism. But I carried out many of a curator’s responsibilities: communicating with exhibition sponsors, selecting, preserving and photographing works, and so on. The term “paper architecture” was coined by me when I happened to use it to describe a display in the editorial office of the “Yunost” (Youth) magazine. Yes, I’m a curator, and paper architecture is my curatorial project.

“Man with a sad face” (1972) by Stanislav Morozov.

JA: What linked those who worked within paper architecture? Did they share a theoretical approach, or did each person work in their own way?

YA: There was no shared theory. There were shared motives. Fundamentally, what linked everyone was where they lived: in a totalitarian state. Many projects were based on the idea of a local utopia in a total dystopia which consciously restricted the ambitions of the architect. Some of the projects could be called anti-utopias. In this way, we differed from the 1960s generation of architects, who aspired to the transformation of the whole world.

JA: How do you view paper architecture in a historical context? How is it linked to the utopian ideas of 18th-century European architects (Piranesi, Boullée, Ledoux) or the fantasies of Soviet architects in the 1920s (such as those of Leonidov and Chernikhov)?

YA: Paper architecture is, in my opinion, more closely connected with “architecture parlante” (speaking architecture) – so let’s add Jean-Jacques Lequeu to your list. All these buildings in the form of ships, housing developments in the form of still lifes, monuments in the form of rivers, bridges in the form of scales, and so on and so forth, are undoubtedly connected to speaking architecture. At the same time, many paper architects had their own individual preferences: Brodsky and Utkin liked Piranesi; Bush, Khomyakov, and Podyapolsky liked Tessenow and Shpeer; I liked Tatlin and Melnikov.

“Villa Claustraphobia” (1985), “Bridge over the precipice in the high mountains” (1987) by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin.

JA: The Russian architecture theorist Alexander Rappaport states that it’s impossible to treat paper architecture as a revivalist or futuristic movement. But in certain projects, specifically Mikhail Filippov’s and yours, there are stylistic references. This raises the question of the time and place in which the work of the 1980s paper architects exists. To what are they referring?

YA: You can’t argue with Rappaport. I would suggest that paper architecture existed in a kind of idealistic realm of architecture and culture – in a parallel, utopian world. In this kind of place, the architect is an iconic figure, a worshiper. They can be from the past, like the architect-priest in the case of Brodsky-Utkin, or from the present, like the architect-partisan in Belov’s case. But they are always a secret mason or a liberated bricklayer.

JA: Would it make sense to turn paper architecture projects into real constructions?

YA: Paper architecture works are “projects of projects.” They are not intended for direct realization but for mediated realization. However, it’s possible to realize any project. When Belov and I were designing a self-erecting burial skyscraper, we had no idea that in 30 years, vertical cemeteries would be built to economize on cityspace.

“Space for communication” (1987) by Andrei Savin.

JA: You have said that you practise daydreaming as a professional activity – like an architect – but are not a dilettante dreamer. What are you doing at the moment, and how has your experience creating projects on paper influenced your work?

YA: My most important project at the moment is the reconstruction of the Golitsyn estate on Volkhonka Street. At the request of the State Museum of Fine Arts, the space will be a gallery for the former museum of new Western art, with the collections of the Moscow merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.

About experience and work … no, it’s better to talk about breathing. You resuscitate a drowning person by filling his lungs with air: mouth-to-mouth, lung-to-lung, form-to-form, inhale-exhale. That’s often how project design works, through copying other people’s forms and accepting outside help. And then there are people who just breathe. Their breath doesn’t take on forms; although, if need be, it can blow up a child’s balloon or save a drowning person. Paper architecture is unrestricted breathing.

JA: But aren’t your exhibitions a logical continuation of paper architecture?

YA: Paper architecture is clearly a type of conceptual art but, in contrast to art, it uses the same instruments as architecture with a capital “A” – diagrams and sketches. Ilya Lezhava introduced some entertaining criteria into his evaluation of a project: done with talent and conceptual; done with talent and non-conceptual; conceptual, but no talent. I never thought of paper architecture as a formal technique.

“Peak” (1986) by Leonid Batalov, Dima Zaitsev. “Bulwark of revival” (1985) by Totan Kuzembaev, Vyacheslav Aristov, Andrei Ivanov.

JA: Your project for the sixth International Architecture Exhibition (the Venice Biennale), “Russian Utopia: A Depository,” presents a unique collection of 480 unrealized projects from the past 300 years of Russian history. When did you begin collecting works of your fellow paper architects? And what allowed you to bring such different projects together? After all, at one time, though you may not have directly contrasted fantasy with utopia, you certainly distinguished between the two words.

YA: I did not collect works by my colleagues and friends. They just stayed with me between different exhibitions. Certain things were occasionally given to me as gifts. I was occasionally given things that everyone had long forgotten about in the feverish late 1980s.

About fantasies and utopias – it’s true that, as a matter of principle, I applied the term “utopias” to avant-garde projects of the 1920s and “fantasies” to the work of paper architects in the 1980s. Now, of course, there is no such ideological opposition. There are designed utopias, and there are architectural fantasies. The difference lies in the design approach.

“Club” (1986) by Alexander Zosimov.

JA: In 2015 you curated the exhibition “Paper Architecture. The End of the Story” at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. You and your colleagues have also gifted the museum with 31 pieces, which raises the question of the status of paper architects’ work today. How important are these works? Are state institutions trying to preserve them?

YA: Works by paper architects can be found in the State Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Museum of Fine Arts, and the German Architecture Museum. There are works by Brodsky and Utkin in the Tate Gallery, and there are some of mine in the Centre Pompidou. I think that, in museums, these works will survive the many actual buildings of our time. Because museums should, by definition, preserve culture, and a city isn’t a museum. Interestingly, there are no works of paper architecture in the State Museum of Architecture in Moscow.

JA: The 2015 exhibition seemed to be a eulogy for hand-drawn diagrams. Has paper architecture ceased to exist as a genre? At the moment architectural drawing is seeing a move in the opposite direction, a move away from hyper-realistic drawings and toward abstract representations and collages.

YA: Paper architecture did not aspire to the realization of projects, but, most likely, the move in the opposite direction is the hybrid presentation of real projects using the medium of paper. However, all is not lost.

“Sepulchral skyscraper or metropolitan self-elevating columbarium” (1983) by Yuri Avvakumov, Michael Belov. “Information ocean” (1987) by Ivan Shalmin, Sergei Chertkov. “Third hemisphere” (1986) by Nikolai Kaverin, Andrei Myznikov. “Red tower” (1987) by Yuri Avvakumov, Yuri Kuzin. “Intelligent market” (1987) by Vladimir Tyurin. “Dwelling for tomorrow” (1984) Totan Kuzembaev, Vyacheslav Aristov, Andrei Ivanov.