In the Fall of 1930, Soviet architect Andrei Konstantinovich Burov was part of a team assembled by Moscow to visit Detroit’s state-of-the-art factories and to establish links with America’s leading industrialists. What follows are excerpts from his letters to his wife Irina in which he describes his American adventures. Originally published in Mir Khudozhnika: Andrej Burov, 1980, they are reproduced here in translation. This is Part 2 of the series. Part 1 is available in the October 9, 2009 issue of the Nassau Weekly and online at beta.beta.beta.nassauweekly.com.
Detroit, 27 November (cont’d.)
[After eating some turkey] we decided to drive around together in “the car” (here everyone calls automobiles “cars”).
We spent an hour trying to crank up “the car.” It turned out that the battery had died and we ended up shoving it to the nearest gasoline station. The shoving was rather difficult as it is beastly cold out, everything is covered in snow, and we were slipping around like we were on skis. Eventually we got going in the direction of Ford’s Hayland Park Factory, but we had to spend an hour looking for the right route. We arrived. Frozen, we went into a bar to drink coffee and even there they were photographing us. If I ever get the prints, I’ll send some.
Detroit, 28 November
My work is little by little starting to come together, but it’s difficult to seize the bull by the horns in America and make a good assessment of industrial construction. But nevertheless, I will figure it out! Around here, the architecture is very boring. Along with the architects themselves there are these enormous bureaus. It’s a “business,” and these days it’s a dirty one at that. I will tell you at great length about how they do design here. Upon first impression, it seems that one guy does the draft, a second does the plan, a third the façade, a fourth the interior, a fifth, sixth, and on into the -teens and so forth the electricity, the construction, the plumbing, the sewage, the ventilation, the heating and cooling, and so on. The office boss then approves all of this without having any actual connection to any of it. What you get is an American work of art.
About technology, I will say little, since this idea has its own meaning in America that has no perceptible relationship to tempo. It seems that this is because no one here actually does anything; they try to build and produce as little as possible, so that they don’t all go bust. Nonetheless, they build new buildings—what actually goes on in them is unclear. It seems entirely unfathomable—why? Stranger still is the answer. It turns out that if a factory owner builds a new building, he doesn’t pay any taxes on it. But in order to build he needs money, so he sacks 5000 workers, leaving him with money in his pocket and new buildings. These buildings and factory shells do nothing. It’s phenomenally absurd. And about the skyscrapers: If this is some kind of stupid joke, I don’t get it. They are downright pustules on an idiotic urban plan, the consequences of which affect the whole system. When you ride the express elevator down from the 70th floor, your blood pulses out your ears. The pressure hits you just like in an airplane.
Detroit, 29 November
Another word on Paris. Of course it is an exceptionally beautiful city. Absence has made my heart grow fonder still, especially when one compares it with the others—Berlin, New York, London…
Concerning Corbusier: He is an exceptional master, but if you won’t see his defects, then you’ll never surpass him yourself. I’m glad that I can discern these defects.
More about this and other matters another time. Today, my head is empty…
Detroit, 30 November
…I sent you two pictures of me with our engineers. They’re great guys! The photographs were taken before our trip out of town on the “Holiday of the Turkeys.” As you’ll see in the pictures, I haven’t exactly been “wasting away.” I’m looking at some structures and chatting with some of the local architects including A. Kahn. His brother had told me that he would introduce me to [A. Khan] “the greatest architect in the world.” Swell, huh? He built all the Ford plants, and they’re really not bad, except that as architecture they are simply awful.
Talking about my stuff, he said that it was very talented work, but that in 200 years we would see who’s right–him or me.
I answered that I have absolutely no pretensions to the classical or faith that my buildings will still be standing in 200 years. We must hurry to make the architectural industrial, but any industrial thing will age quickly, because industry does not stand in one place, and new things appear quickly.
How wonderful that they pretend to History, to Eternity! How tasteless and pretentious.
Later he showed me a project for a school and asked what I thought.
I said that the principles of horizontality and verticality were inverted.
His answer: “I acknowledge neither principles nor theory in architecture. I desire beauty.” Really, huh? Like a little birdie of grace. We then examined his project for the “Fischer Building.” Before seeing it, I was warned that I was about to see the greatest building in the world. But once again, the most spectacular spaces turned out to be the closets. Walls of white tile and partitions of thick black glass held together by nickel-plated bolts. Everything else was of marble and bronze.
And again experience, no sort of theory, no design, it’s all very vague. Upon arriving I gave an excellent little speech in American about the cities, the toilets, and “experience” in architecture. All the secondary things are done well here. If America had no architects, it would have been a much prettier—or at least a much less ugly—country. What’s more, if you ask an American: “Why? Why have you done all this?”—“I don’t know. That’s how they do it. Experience!” That’s how it goes…
Detroit, 1 December
…New York is the most loathsome city in the world. I have written you before about this. Staring tomorrow, I will be surveying factories, and the next letter, probably, will be about the Ford plants and some others. In a few days, I’ll be going to Chicago since they have buildings there with steel walls. All the time, I think about what interests me most about America—the mass production of houses. But it’s not at all well-advised—they don’t need to mass produce houses, since may old ones stand empty. The whole notion of business here is extremely lousy. They build little, buy less, and yet sell everything. Only the movie houses are full, and what filth they produce and screen! The sole entertainment here is the automobile, but today was the first day of sunshine.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of Andrei Konstantinovich’s adventures in the U.S.!