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.

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit