A tower of the mind

The Royal Academy hosts a scale model of the greatest piece of architecture never built.

Imagine a construction 100 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower, significantly wider and in perpetual motion. This is Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. Designed in 1920, it is the greatest piece of architecture never built.

Now, London's Royal Academy has commissioned a 1:40 scale model of the tower, by artist Jeremy Dixon, to sit in its open-air courtyard and welcome visitors to the gallery.

It is an impressive sight. But at just 10 metres high, it is a mere echo of Tatlin's monstrous 400m high Constructivist model, with its distinctive twisting double helix design (you can see pictures here).

Tatlin's Tower was designed as a celebration of Bolshevism, assisting Lenin in the propagation of the revolutionary tradition and commemorating the 1917 uprising, in much the same way that the Eiffel Tower does the French Revolution.

When the state came under Bolshevik control - in a revolution that saw the Winter Palace captured and Tsar Nicholas II executed - the arts came with it. Tatlin's objectives (and indeed those of all Soviet artists of this era) were to promote the regime in a way that could be perceived as collective. It was no easy task to create a structure that captured the huge influence of the party, its ruthless ambition and desire to be at the centre of world government.

Tatlin turned to time itself for inspiration. He designed a space for offices, meeting rooms and a propaganda centre, housed in one of four geometric shapes. These were intended to rotate at the speed of an hour, day, month and year, essentially making it the world's biggest perpetual calendar.

The tower was to promote Bolshevism as a regime in motion - progressive, active and ambitious. Its flowing spiral design was intended to suggest the resolution of all earthly conflicts (presumably by the conversion of all countries to Communism), and its almost skeletal structure hinted at the idea of man and machine as equals in a classless society.

Tatlin's tower was both a Soviet Utopia - a vision of the bright Bolshevik future - and a fully functioning government building. It was hailed by his contemporaries as an artistic revolution and opened the doors to an exchange of ideas between Moscow and Berlin. Such luminaries as George Grosz paraded signs around the streets, reading 'Long Love Tatlin's Machine Art'. This was Constructivism at its most daring and egotistical -- the progress of art into industrial production, albeit under the watchful eye of the state.

Needless to say, Tatlin's vision was destined for failure. He was not an engineer or architect, so the building was structurally questionable. And there was a shortage of materials, particularly iron. The popularity of Constructivism was also on the wane.

Today, Tatlin's Tower is often hailed as a symbol of modernism's decline: a too-ambitious project, which encapsulated the arrogance of the age. But it can also be viewed as a symbol of experimentation and collective hope. For this was the first true Communist building (albeit never built) - a Bolshevik wonder of the world to rival the Tower of Babel and Hanging Gardens of Babylon, from which is draws inspiration.

It has also influenced many artists. The work of Zaha Hahid and Richard Rogers has echoes of Tatlin - and Rogers' Pompidou Centre in Paris must owe something in its dynamic design to his vision.

Anish Kapoor, too, has taken inspiration from Tatlin's Tower for his ArcelorMittal Olympic sculpture, designed for the London 2012 games in Stratford. (Although with the majority of the cost being covered by steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, it can hardly claim any anti-capitalist leanings.)
And in the Far East, imposing megastructures are rising out of ancient cities - their sculptural steel frames a modern interpretation of Tatlin's radical concept.

Did Tatlin ever intend his tower to be built or was it destined to live in the mind? We may never know. But one thing we can be sure of: it has endured where many political regimes have fallen.

The model of Tatlin's Tower is on display at the Royal Academy until March 2012.

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood