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.
Berlin, 26 October
I arrived today at 9:25. It’s now 1:30 and after my travels and brief look around I am formulating my first impressions. Though I don’t have an opinion about the country yet as a whole, concerning these people my first thought is merde (pardon my French, but yes, merde). Architecturally speaking, Berlin is revolting. The buildings are identical, the streets are identical, and everywhere there are little cupolas and pastry-like trimming. I generally have a good sense of direction, but I do not understand a single thing about this city. Somehow even more appalling is the grandiose monotony. I miss Moscow terribly and the people there… Tomorrow, I’m going to the American Consulate to get a visa and get away from here.
Berlin, 29 October
About Berlin, I don’t even want to write about Berlin; I don’t feel like myself here. The number of stores here on the verge of bankrupcy is striking since people are buying damn-all. The depression here is unbelievable. Piles of useless goods lie around that no one can buy since no one has money. It seems impossible to believe that these burgers can hang on. And why do they earn a living at all? What do they do with their money? They squander it on idiotically dreary entertainment like the local bars.
Berlin, 30 October
I’m on my way back from the “Scala” music hall. What rubbish! No, really, what’s with this city! There must be something interesting here other than that museum. The Pergamon part just opened, and even there the architecture is lousy.
Berlin, 1 November
Everything here is unbelievably foreign and inscrutable, it’s so completely incompatible with my views and habits that you don’t know what to do with yourself. I hope that America, where I will have some actual work, will be better. I’m totally unaccustomed to doing nothing. This is not a vacation. This is forced idleness; yes that’s what it is. Idleness. This, and this idiotic 14-day quarantine, and this impossible one-and-a-half-weeks of just sitting on a boat is simply infuriating.
New York City-Hotel Manger [formerly on 7th Ave between 50 and 51st, now a Sheraton], 19 November
Well there, I am finally in America! We came in at 7 last evening, and they had us sleep on the boat. This morning we really lucked out on the “Island of Tears” where they dragged on with the examinations until 5 in the evening. I received permission to stay for six months with the possibility of an extension should it be needed for work.
Upon first impression, I really liked the city, although it is not what I expected. First of all, its streets are filthy and the pavement is disgusting. Also the illuminated advertisements are absolutely phenomenal. I’m in living in this hotel on the twelfth floor. It’s an amazing room, about 2.5 by 3 meters. In general, it’s wonderfully comfortable.
From the sea, the skyscrapers look just like they do in the photographs, but they’re even uglier…
New York, November 20
It has been almost a month since I left. I do not wish to judge America too rashly or hurry to lambast it as I have Europe. Here I will have more time to acquaint myself with things than I did in Europe.
Nonetheless, I want to share my first impression of New York. New York, squeezed by two rivers, produces the impression of a boil and the higher the skyscrapers the worse the boil. New York is the most grandiose social, architectural, urban absurdity that I’ve ever seen. Today I sent you a postcard from the Chrysler Building, which I have examined. Seventy-seven stories tall, it is very simple at its base and simply abominable at its top. Inside, it’s exactly the same. The walls, made of smooth, polished marble, are very nice, but the ceilings are straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and looking at them makes you want to vomit. But this is still small stuff. Next to this they built (or rather are finishing) the Empire State Building, eighty-five stories with a mooring mast for an airship, and another hundred meters to the left starts a sweep, block after block, of three- or four-story hovels. They could tear it all down and build skyscrapers encircled by gardens, with light and fresh air on every side instead of these ravines. But this is, of course, impossible because then this wouldn’t be New York, America… capitalism. Again this abracadabra that was in Europe, but grandiose like everything in America, like American catastrophes.
And in New York there is absolutely no green, or rather there is Central Park, but it is a depressing eyesore…
I insist that there is an American architecture that is terribly true to and characteristic of American culture.
New York, 24 November
I’ve just left the movie theater; it was simply impossible to watch the filth they were showing. This entire time, I have seen only one decent film, and it was French Sous les toits de Paris. The rest, German and American, was just trash, trash, trash. I now understand why nothing of Eisen[stein] and Grisha [Grigori Aleksandrov—ed.] came out in Hollywood and why they came home. Now about the ballet. First of all there there the blacks. Splendid! I saw two who danced like Josephine Baker, only hotter…
Detroit, 26 Novemember
About the cars: If you walk out onto the streets on a Sunday or a holiday, you will feel the horrible sensation of an empty sidewalk, while on the streets there is a solid pack of cars, from old $15 Fords up to cars that cost $10,000. Everyone drives. I even drove here and understand what a fabulous system of traffic signals they have here. They don’t use their horns unless they get caught at a stop, in which case they honk “don’t delay us”—but even this is considered rude. There are cars here everywhere, and not just for business. Cities are built here such that traveling in a car you are more likely to be late than you are to make it. In the center you can’t just stop on the street, and you need a place for parking. It costs 50-53 cents per day to park, so people take the bus to work, but then after work they will drive 50 or 60 miles. To nowhere in particular—they just drive. They’re like gypsies. There is no need to think (and for Americans this is a great relief); you just keep your eyes on the road and talk with your traveling companions…
A man without “wheels” is not a man. He doesn’t know what to do with himself.
Here the automobile is not a means of transportation; it is a god, it is love, it is the meaning of life… The automobile has changed daily life for the people here, but not their architecture or their cities. They can’t keep building like this. How can they not understand this?
Detroit, 27 November
Today is an American national holiday, and it is suggested that one eat a small turkey. It’s called Thanksgiving, and it’s the official holiday in the U.S. on which to remember the first colonizers of Massachusetts (it’s always the last Thursday of November). When the first pioneers had more or less settled themselves, they decided to give thanks, and since they needed to give thanks for something they went out into the woods and killed a bunch of turkeys. I also ate some.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Andrei Budrov’s adventures in the US!