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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The “Yolocaust” project conflates hate with foolish but innocent acts of joy

A montage of selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial layered above images of concentration camps risks shutting visitors out of respectful commemoration.

Ten years ago I visited Berlin for the first time. It was a cold and overcast day – the kind of grey that encourages melancholy. When my friends and I came across the city’s Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of over 2,000 concrete slabs, we refrained from taking photos of each other exploring the site. “Might it be disrespectful?” asked one of my non-Jewish (and usually outrageously extroverted) friends. Yes, probably, a bit, we concluded, and moved softly and slowly on through the Memorial’s narrow alleys.

But not all days are gloomy, even in Berlin. And not all visitors to the Memorial had the same reaction as us.

A photo project called “Yolocaust” has collected together images of the Memorial and selfies taken there that young people from around the world have posted to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. In the 12 photos featured on the website, one man juggles pink balls, a girl does yoga atop a pillar, another practises a handstand against a slab’s base. The last of these is tagged “#flexiblegirl #circus #summer”.

Most of the images seem more brainless than abusive. But the implication seems to be that such behaviour risks sliding into insult – a fear all too painfully embodied in the first image of the series: a shot of two guys leaping between pillars with the tag-line: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.”

Grim doesn’t begin to cover it, but the artist who collated the photos has thought up a clever device for retribution. As your cursor scrolls or hovers over each photo, a second image is then revealed beneath. These hidden black-and-white photographs of the Holocaust show countless emaciated bodies laid out in mass graves, or piled up against walls.

Even though they are familiar for those who learned about the Nazi concentration camps at school, these historic scenes are still too terrible and I cannot look at them for more than a few seconds before something in my chest seizes up. In fact, it’s only on second glance that I see the artist has also super-imposed the jumping men into the dead bodies – so that their sickening metaphor “jumping on dead Jews” is now made to appear actual.

The result is a powerful montage, and its message is an important one: that goofy, ill-considered behaviour at such sites is disrespectful, if not worse. Just take the woman who urinated on a British war memorial, or the attack on a Holocaust memorial in Hungary.

But while desecration and hate should not be tolerated anywhere, especially not at memorials, does juggling fall into the same category?

I can’t help but feel that the Yolocaust project is unfair to many of the contemporary subjects featured. After all, this is not Auschwitz but the centre of a modern city. If public-space memorials are intended to be inhabited, then surely they invite use not just as places for contemplation, grieving and reflection but also for being thankful for your life and your city on a sunny day?

The Memorial in Berlin is clearly designed to be walked in and around.  Even the architect, Peter Eisenman, has been reported saying he wants visitors to behave freely at the site – with children playing between the pillars and families picnicking on its fringes.

So how do we determine what is offensive behaviour and what is not?

A section at the bottom of the Yolocaust website also suggests (in rather sarcastic tones) that there are no prescriptions on how visitors should behave, “at a site that marks the death of 6 million people”. Though in fact a code of conduct on the memorial’s website lists the following as not permitted: loud noise, jumping from slab to slab, dogs or pets, bicycles, smoking and alcohol.

Only one of Yolocaust’s 12 photos breaks this code: the first and only explicitly insulting image of the jumping men. Another six show people climbing or sitting atop the pillars but most of these are a world away in tone from the jumpers.

The blurb at the bottom of the webpage says that the project intends to explore “our commemorative culture”. But by treating the image of the yoga performer – with an accompanying montage of her balancing amid dead bodies – in the same way as the jumping men, the artist seems to conflate the two.

In fact, the girl practising a yoga balance could be seen as a hopeful – if overtly cutesy and hipster – act of reverence. “Yoga is connection with everything around us,” says her tag beneath. And even if climbing the slabs is frowned upon by some, it could also be read as an act of joy, something to cherish when faced with such a dark history.

In an era when populist German politicians are using the past – and sentiment towards Holocaust memorials themselves – to rev up anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling, the need for careful and inclusive readings of the role of memorials in our society has never been greater.

Yolocaust may have intended to provide a space for reflection on our commemorative behaviour but the result feels worryingly sensationalist, if not censorious. Instead of inviting others in to the act of respectful commemoration, has it risked shutting people out?

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.