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Modern architecture can be summed up with a saying of Marcel Breuer, one of the famous modernist architects, “Modern architecture is not a style, it is an attitude 1.” Modern architecture focuses on simplicity and clarity of geometric forms and elimination of unnecessary details. There are not many things to do with the design, but its contexts. Modern architecture is a reaction to the social and political changes in the early 20th century such as World War I, Russian Revolution, Xinhai Revolution, and so on.
In this essay, I will compare and contrast mainly on the two readings, which are The Lost Vanguard, Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932, by Richard Pare and Modernism in China, Architectural Visions and Revelations, by Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren.
The development of Modern architecture in Russia and China were at a similar time period; Russian Modernism started in 1917 after the revolution and civil war in the same year, while Chinese Modernism started a bit earlier in 1912, which also started after the revolution.
Both Russian Modernism and Chinese Modernism are referred to the Modern architecture style in America since America was the place that made Modernism popular and they had the most advanced technology at that time. However, Russian Modernism and Chinese Modernism were not only referring to America Modern architecture but also the countries nearby by due to the geographic location. Russian Modern architecture is more related to Western European countries such as Germany, British, Italy and France since Russia considered herself as a part of Europe in that period.
However, Chinese Modern architecture is more related to Japanese Modern architecture.
Although there are a lot of similarities in the development of Modern architecture between Russia and China, there was still a big different in political issues. The Pare text documents the works of modernist architects in Soviet Union during the years after the Russian Revolution and civil war. It discusses the revolution of Modern Architecture in Russia under the regime of the Soviet Union and Stalin. The Edward text also talks about the modernist buildings in China and the development of Modern Architecture after the Xinhai Revolution in 1912. Both Russia and China developed Modern architecture after the revolution. The constructivist architecture was a form of architecture that established in the Soviet Union. After the Russian Revolution, Russia changed to Communist. The social demands changed under the governor of Vladimir Tatlin, who wanted constructivism to be absorbed in industrial production 2. Constructivism focuses on the material itself. With the help of advanced technology, glass and steel were the main architectural materials at that time. Tatlin’s Tower is the first and most famous Constructivist architectural project for the headquarters on Comintern. The new building materials meant to symbolize revolution and the dialectic3. On the other hand, China became Capitalist after the Xinhai Revolution, which overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty. The revolution changed the social values like the Russian Revolution; it opened China to the outside world. Western cultures were brought into China. Although both Russia and China developed Modern architecture after the revolutions, the former introduced Modern architecture in a strong attitude while the latter was in a soft way.
As I mentioned before, both Russian Modernism and Chinese Modernism referred to the styles of other countries, mainly America and Western Europe. A Russian poet, Vladimir Maiakovski, said that, “America reach the village4 (Pare, 10)”. His statement refers to the MOGES (Moscow City Electric Power Station), which was built by Ivan Zholtovski, a leading figure of neo-Palladianism. MOGES power station houses the necessary generators behind a glass façade that is the only new architectural element of a compact building that could be compared to the contemporaneous structures by Piero Portaluppi in northern Italy5 (Pare, 11). MOGES power station referenced from the Italian architecture to Russian architecture. In addiction, the power station on the Dniepr River is another project that cooperated with architects in different countries. The design of the power station was the work of Vesnin brothers and of Nikolai Kolli, who has been associated with Le Corbusier before. The technical project was developed with the help of German and American teams6 (Pare, 11). Furthermore, the Chinese reformers act as an important role to bring American Modern architecture to China. After the reformation, many students were sent abroad or went of their own volition to gain first-hand experience of Western technology and foreign customs (Edward, 84).
Yung Wing, the first Chinese to accept education in America. Yung Wing went to Yale and studied architecture. After his graduation, he hit upon the idea of setting up an educational mission to bring more Chinese Students to America (Edward, 84). China was forced to sign Boxer Protocol with foreign nations. American Senate passed a resolution modifying their indemnity payments, remitting half these and committing the balance to a scholarship to study at the universities in America (Edward, 85). It gave more opportunities for the Chinese students to study abroad. A foreign-trained architect, Lu Yan Zhi, opened the first private architecture firm in China (Edward, 85). It created job opportunities and encouraged more people to be architects. It helped training the architects as well. Similarly, Russian and Chinese architecture referred to foreign architecture style, but those architecture styles were brought to Russia through cooperating large building projects and experience from working with foreign architects, while China sent students abroad to get the education and working experience and then brought the western architectural knowledge back to China through opening school and firms. Additionally, Modern architecture started in the big cities in Russia and China at the very beginning because they have more resources, advanced transportation, and a higher population. After the revolution in Russia, there were a lot of refugees moved to larger cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. The government had to build a lot of public housing for them and it was a great opportunity to try Modern architecture. Meanwhile, in China, the new government opened China to the outside world. Many foreigners came to those trading ports cities in Eastern China like Shanghai and Tianjin. Those places had more resources to build Modern architecture building and the transportation cost was low because they were close to the ports.
Furthermore, many of the architecture school also located in those big cities Speaking of the big cities, one of the most interesting projects in those cities was the shopping mall. Shopping mall is an America culture, which is also known as Popular culture. The shopping malls in Russia were similar to Western Modern style; they use modern materials, glass wall and steel, to build the façade. However, the two Chinese department stores, Wing On and Sincere, that on Shanghai’s internationally renowned shopping street Nanjing Road were slightly different from Western Modern architecture (Edward, 98). They contained more classical antiquity like a cornice, a freeze, and round arches. However, the two department stores were built with modern materials as well. Russia just simply followed the characteristics of Western Modern architecture to construct the shopping malls, while China added the Chinese attitude towards Western architecture. To sum up, there are some similarities between the development of Modern architecture in Russia and China. Modern architecture started in a similar period in the early 20th century. Both of them started after political changes and referred to American Modern architecture. Modern architecture started appearing in the larger cities first in both countries. At the same time, there were a lot of differences such as different types of government; Russia was communist, while China was Capitalist. Also, the way of bringing other Modern architecture was different too.
Russian architects learned other Modern architecture from cooperating large building projects with teams from foreign countries and gained experience from working with American architects. Chinese architects and students were sent abroad to America to get Western architecture knowledge and first-hand experience, and trained the fellow through opening architecture school and firms. Last but not least, Russian architects simply follow the characteristics of Western Modern architecture, while Chinese architects interpret the architecture history and added Chinese elements into the buildings.
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