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Monument to the Third International: The Crazy Skyscraper Planned for the Soviet Government

People in power like to leave their marks on society, whether this is by having portraits painted, statues made or commissioning sculptures or even whole buildings. After Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, the revolution caused ripples throughout all areas of society, including those of art and architecture. Lenin’s plan of “Monumental Propaganda” coincided with the rise of the Russian Constructivist art movement which led to the design of one of the craziest looking and most avant-garde skyscrapers ever, the Monument to the Third International, also known as Tatlin’s Tower.

Background

Third communist international

The year is 1919 and in Russia, Vladimir Lenin is setting up the Third Communist International in Moscow. The aim of the Third International, also known as The Communist International or Comintern, was to overthrow capitalism and implement a system of global communism by any and all means necessary. Spoiler alert, the Third International was dissolved in 1943 when Stalin, who had succeeded Lenin after his death in 1924, thought it prudent to err on the side of diplomacy with his Western allies against the Nazis. Anyway, back in 1919, riding on a wave of revolution, Lenin implemented his “plan of monumental propaganda” to create sculptures, slogans and building decorations intended to visually advertise and propagate communist ideas. The most ambitious work to be commissioned from his plan was for that of the Monument to the Third International itself. Artist, carpenter and architect Vladimir Tatlin got the nod and started designing the tower, which would also act as Comintern’s HQ, that same year. Tatlin was a graduate of the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts and in 1913 had made a trip to Paris where he was exposed to Pablo Picasso’s early Cubist works and also got to see the still fairly new Eiffel Tower in all its glory. Both of these encounters would leave their mark on his future monument design. Tatlin was known for his assemblage sculpture works and dynamic corner reliefs at the time – artworks which used the spaces they were set up in as part of the piece. He was not the most obvious choice of architect for the headquarters of world communism but certainly an interesting one.

Design for the Monument

What Tatlin came up with was a building that would symbolise the essence of revolution, both figuratively and literally, would declare the aspirational future that communism was going to have and was also a way to spread communist propaganda to the masses. On top of all that, it would also be a working headquarters for Comintern and its various branches. The plans for Tatlin’s Tower were for a huge, ambitious, abstract structure never seen anywhere before, least of all in Soviet Russia. Imagine that the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower had a baby. Now imagine a large helter skelter growing around that. The Monument to the Third International is simultaneously curved and straight, almost an optical illusion of arching metal and severe lines. Now take a look within the frame and you’ll see the structures of a glass cube at the bottom, a pyramid above that, a cylinder above that and a hemisphere at the top. Sounds pretty out-there, right? Well, now imagine that these internal sections all also rotate at individual speeds to match various solar journies. The large cube at the bottom was designed as Comintern’s lecture hall, general offices etc. This would rotate the slowest at a rate of once a year. The pyramid above would rotate once a month and would be the home for the executive branch of Comintern. The cylinder level would be for the press bureau and would be whizzing round at a rate of once per day. The hemisphere at the top was intended to house a radio station and projectors for beaming out propaganda across the skies on cloudy days like Lenin’s own Bat signal. This would revolve once per hour. The tower was touted to be built from steel and glass and would be located in Petrograd, now St. Petersburg, which was seen as more of a portal to the rest of the world than Moscow. The tower would lean towards the west, dominating the skyline and announcing the triumph of communism over capitalism to the Western world. The steel framework of the building was to symbolise strength, hard work and the use of modern materials. The internal rotating glass structures represented the apparent transparency of the Comintern organization as well as symbolising how it was all going to run like a well-oiled machine. It was technologically forward-looking too – beaming messages across the sky was not a regular occurrence in the early 20th century, or even today, and the radio station would have been broadcasting from the world’s highest antenna.

If you’re having trouble working out how all these internal sections would fit into the structure, Tatlin designed this tower to be about 1300 ft (400 m) tall. This would have made it the tallest building in the world at that time. For context, the monument to the Third International would have been almost a third taller than the Eiffel Tower which stands at 1063 ft (324 m), taller than the Empire State Building which is 1250 ft (381 m) tall and comfortably within the current top 40 tallest buildings in the world. The design was so extraordinary that Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky summed it up by saying: “The monument is made of iron, glass, and revolution.”  

The Monument’s Next Stage

So, what happened to this futuristic skyscraper that was going to be the symbol of global communism? Well, not much. Tatlin made some 20ft tall wooden models of the tower which were displayed at parades, festivals and political meetings all the way through to 1925 but only photographs of these original examples remain. Post-revolutionary Russia was not flush with the huge amounts of metal, money or building skills needed to pull off such an ambitious project and it seems that Tatlin knew this from the beginning, designing it as more of a utopian symbol than a feasible building. He never made any very detailed architectural plans and some of the drawings he did make differed quite significantly to the physical models produced. The avant-garde style was only really popular during a small window in Soviet history and, as is the case with all art forms, opinion was split. Critics of the Monument included Leon Trotsky who, probably fairly, called it “impractical and romantic,” but you know what, Trotsky, you could pretty much say the same about the whole idea of global communism. 

The tower did find fans in the future, though. Although Tatlin’s wooden prototypes were lost in the 1920s, a reconstruction was made in the late 1960s under the supervision of Pontus Hultén, a museum director in Sweden. He went on to be the first director of the Pompidou Centre in Paris where he commissioned another reproduction to be put on display there. There are a couple of other models that travelled around the world and in 2007, artist Ai Weiwei created “Working Progress (Fountain of light)”, an illuminated version of the Monument that floated in the Royal Albert Dock outside the Tate Liverpool gallery. The tower was also immortalised on a Russian postage stamp in the year 2000.

Reconstruction of Tatlin Tower
The Tatlin Tower at Royal Academy by Andy Roberts is licensed under CC-BY

Although he is tagged as one of the founders of the Constructivist art movement, Tatlin didn’t really like the label as he disagreed with the ethos of design for propaganda coming at the cost of artistic expression. Looking back, the non-traditional and somewhat radical artist seems like a strange choice to have been picked to design the Comintern HQ. This was his first architectural project and he dropped out of the limelight in the 1930s when his preferred modernism gave way to the socialist realism movement. Tatlin then went on to be criticized in the 1940s for allegedly anti-communist views. Nevertheless, even as just an architectural model, Tatlin’s design for the monument, or tower, is held up as a prime example of Russian Constructivism, using traditional construction materials and having an abstract as well as industrial aesthetic. Even though it was never built, it remains in the cultural memory as it perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the Bolshevik revolution.

Credits:

Thumbnail/featured image photo by cea is licensed under CC-BY

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