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Tower of Power

An (unbuilt) tribute to the Russian revolution.

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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Spiraled, pointing, angled, closer in appearance to a giant telescope or piece of artillery than to a building, Tatlin’s work conveyed both an impression of coiled power and energy unleashed. This was an architecture parlante intended to roar, a stupendous symbol of the new age. Statues of men on horseback were, like the aristocrats—the individuals—they depicted, to be consigned to the past. Tatlin’s tower would be utilitarian, a manifestation of the collective will, a “living machine” made of industrial materials yet somehow organic, functional, more-than-modern and, like the revolution, in perpetual motion.

Of course, it was never built. The resources were not there; the political will was not there (those running the new Soviet state preferred their monuments representational, solid, and stolid); and the technology was not there. Failing to take account of the last was a rare lapse for Tatlin, the son of an engineer and a man who took pride in his technical savvy, unless the tower was (as plausibly claimed by John Milner in the fine monograph on Tatlin he wrote in the 1980s) not so much impractical as explicitly utopian from the get-go, a manifesto rather than a blueprint.

Tatlin did manage to build at least three large-scale models of his tower, photographs of which are included in Lynton’s book. The first stood around 15 feet high above a circular base (in which someone could crouch, turning the cranks that moved the tower’s halls); the second, slightly smaller and decidedly more elegant, was exhibited in 1925 in Paris, home of the Eiffel Tower that had partly inspired it; and the third, stripped down and simplified, made an appearance, like some futurist fetish, at a ceremonial parade in Leningrad the same year. All three have since vanished, long since lost like so much else in the Soviet junkyard, but Tatlin’s original vision itself endured in the leftist imagination as a statement of the what-could-be and, later, the what-could-have-been. Artistically, its status as one of the 20th century’s most influential icons of architecture unbound remains undiminished.

As for Tatlin, his career went into a decline in the culturally more conventional years of full Stalinism, neither out of favor, nor quite in. His became a life of smaller-scale projects, from furniture design, to stage sets, to art more traditional than anything he had produced for decades. What was left of his old utopian obsessions revealed itself in prolonged attempts to perfect the Letatlin, his final challenge to “the bondage of gravity.” A man-powered flying machine of remarkable beauty—oddly, no images of this craft are included in Lynton’s book—it was inspired by the work of Leonardo da Vinci, another artist uncomfortable with strict divisions between the aesthetic and the practical, in the same field. It never flew. 

Towards the end, Lynton includes a picture of an older Tatlin. He looks sad, beaten, crushed, an Icarus who had fallen to earth without ever reaching the heavens.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.

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