Utopia & Collapse: Metsamor

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[Image: Observation deck at the pond © Katharina Roters]

In 1966, Soviet authorities decided to situate a nuclear power station in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Armenian architect Martin Mikaelyan, assisted by Karen Tiraturyan and Griman Hovespyan, designed an entire city of Metsamor from scratch to provide residences for power-plant workers. The site was near an ancient settlement and rural villages but was on previously agricultural land. The power station was situated 4 km from the city and 15 km from the Turkish border. Work on the city and power plant began in 1969. Metsamor is an atomograd – an atomic city, developed in a way similar to the other single-function urban centres of science cities, academic cities and military cities in the USSR. The USSR had no restrictions in term of permission or public expectation and could therefore exercise complete control over the location and design of new cities. The design of Metsamor would include different zones of housing and public buildings. The centrally planned organisation of the city was apparent in the decision to use a central boiler for heating, with a communal laundry and bathhouse planned.

The first phase was executed and the power station was made operational in 1974. However, the city was never completed. A severe earthquake in 1988 and the dissolution of the USSR sealed the fate of the project. The political and economic support for the Metsamor had already peaked by 1990. The completed city was intended to house a population of 36,000. The actual population level reached a maximum in 1989 (11,959). Although the station produces 40% of Armenia’s electricity supply, the town population is decreasing, now down to an estimated 8,000 (as of 2016). The small population is living with facilities that it cannot adequately use and which are falling into decay and abandonment. The contrast between, on one hand, the optimism of the plan and the assertiveness of the execution and, on the other hand, the incomplete state and dilapidation of town is poignant.

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Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City publishes the plans, architectural drawings and archive photographs of the city alongside new photographs of the current condition of the city. Chapters cover the types of buildings, setting out specifications and notable features. Expert essays examine Metsamor specifically and discuss the metaphorical aspects of this stalled utopian project. There are essays on Martin Mikaelyan and a testimony from a long-term resident of Metsamor. For anyone with an interest in Brutalism and Soviet architecture and society, Utopia & Collapse will be a rewarding read. Not least, the new photographs form a melancholy and beautiful journalistic essay on the plight of people dealing with the ramifications of grandiose top-down central planning and economic stagnation. The views of abandoned buildings – with their littered corridors, emptied rooms and crumbling concrete – are juxtaposed with images of the current residents living in buildings modified in haphazard fashion.

The post-Socialist era saw the liberation of building restrictions. This led to the building of extensions (some multi-storey) attached to the back of properties. The city was redistricted – a tacit acknowledgement that the full plan would never be fully carried out. The removal of municipal control of maintenance has generated gaps, conflict and uncertainty with regard to common spaces in shared buildings. Property owners sometimes refuse to cooperate to clean and maintain common areas – a particular drawback in a settlement consisting largely of shared buildings. Open spaces have been neglected or appropriated by families.

All this is in stark contrast to the original plans. There was a city centre placed between the main residential area with kindergartens and a smaller residential area with a school. This original centre is site of the House of Culture, Music School and hotel. In the post-Soviet era locals found that this division – especially with the city in its current unpopulated state – was unsuitable and formed an ad hoc centre in the middle of the main residential zone, featuring small shops.

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[Image: View on the city with power plant in the background © Katharina Roters]

The majority of residential buildings were five-storey, five-storey-linked and nine-storey apartment blocks. These were from standardised designs, using prefabricated components including concrete panels and reinforced concrete pillars and beams. This was usual for Soviet-era construction. All had open balconies, most of which have now been covered. Photographs show the mosaic appearance of different panels, blocks, tarpaulins and windows. These blocks were elevated on pillars, allowing free access for pedestrians below the buildings. The ground level was left open until the proliferation of cars and the deterioration of the Soviet system around 1990, which led to open space being used for parking and being partitioned for commercial use. The linked buildings were blocks connected by multi-level walkways. These were arranged around common courtyards, with curved paths and water features, both made from concrete.

The nine-storey buildings had lifts. Soviet typology regulations stipulated provision of two lifts for buildings over nine-storeys, thus the limiting of Metsamor’s tallest structures to nine storeys was a cost-efficiency measure. The balconies of these are closed and incorporate kitchens. The interconnectedness of the courtyards, provision of walking spaces below apartment blocks and the relatively small low-rise accommodation all worked well. Build control is not discussed but this was often low quality in the USSR. Post-Soviet modifications have not been unsuccessful and the incomplete nature of the city has provided residents with a degree of flexibility. It is the absence of funds for maintenance, lack of varied economic activity and low population which are Metsamor’s principle problems.

On the eastern and northern edges of the city were the sports complex and hospital. The large sporting centre (opened in 1980) is now partially overgrown. Its outdoor pool is drained and matted with weeds. The interior basketball court is still used but most of the structures have been proved too costly to maintain. The city has a strange lopsided imbalance due to the absences of important buildings, facilities and people – that ghostly quality of a city hosting fewer than 15% of its envisaged inhabitants. A spectacular tall water tower – elegant in a clean Brutalist fashion – was never built. (A design for it is illustrated.) Construction on a whole residential district was not started.

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The five-storey hotel was designed with guest-room windows orientated to face holy Mount Ararat, tantalisingly just outside Armenia’s borders. Between Metsamor and snow-capped Mount Ararat are the giant cooling towers of the nuclear power plant. (The plant itself is not photographed or described in this book.) The hotel had a capacity for 130 guests but now only the lower floor is used, with the upper floors abandoned. The House of Culture (designed 1975, construction commenced 1979, completed 1986) is one of the few buildings kept in its unmodified original state and in reasonable condition. It is the most important communal building for the populace and well attended for events. The building houses the town library and art school.

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[Image: Interior view of the House of Culture © Katharina Roters]

There are some photographs which are heartening. The shots of the functional schools and kindergartens show fresh paint in pastel shades on re-plastered walls after renovation. The shabby Spartan kitchen displays a form of genteel dignity in making do with restricted means. The Music School and House of Culture are cared for as well as possible. Instead of the proposed Museum of Nuclear Power, a church was built in the 2000s, funded by ex-patriate Armenians. Yet the moribund character of the ghost city with its vacant buildings cannot help but recall for viewers Pripyat, the abandoned atomograd of Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The views of walls peeling paint, swimming pools missing tiles, climbing frames reduced to rusted skeletons and the graffiti has been incised on the plaster walls (the city seems relatively free of spray-paint defacement) make a deep impact. The books of photographs of the collapsing cinemas, decaying ballrooms and overrun townhouses in Detroit speak of the decline of an urban centre due to social and economic decline. Utopia & Collapse speaks of the failure of ideological totalitarianism and also the progressivist ideal of completely designed and controlled system being imposed on people. The project of Modernism – most apparent in the Brutalist architecture and centralised urban planning – offers profound problems for us in that it must work against human nature and the propensity of people to want to adapt, personalise and revise in an improvisatory manner. Both the decline of urban centres due to diminution of heavy industry in Detroit and the vulnerability of Modernist schemes in the face of changing political reality in Metsamor provide us with insights into life.

Metsamor faces seemingly inevitable decline, with its population is dwindling. The 1988 earthquake did not damage the power plant but it prompted concern that future earthquakes could cause serious damage. With obsolescence looming, closure of the nuclear power plant has been suggested for 2026. Although the Soviet experiment may be seen a distant event, its legacy casts a long shadow over the lives and land of today.

 

Katharina Roters, Sarhat Petrosyan (eds.), Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City, Park Books, 2018, 236pp, 229 col./82 mono illus., €48, ISBN 978 3 03860 094 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

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Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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Arshile Gorky (1904?-1948), born Vostanig Manoug Adoian, was an Armenian-American painter who became a seminal figure in the development of the New York School. His art fused European Surrealist painting and the art that would become American Abstract Expressionism. The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents is a new edition of Goats on The Roof (2009). This new expanded edition collects the artist’s letters, statements and interviews, along with newspaper articles, letters, statements, memoirs and interviews with people who knew him.

Gorky was probably born in 1904 in Armenia. He and his sisters lived through the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) though his mother starved to death. In 1920 Gorky emigrated to the USA. He began studying art in Boston and later New York before being appointed to a fine-art teaching job in New York whilst still young. He worked assiduously and became technically proficient, mastering multiple techniques which allowed him to make art similar to that of the Impressionists, Miró, Cézanne, Léger and Picasso. While this ability was admired, observers had reservations. Who exactly was Gorky when he wanted to be himself as an artist? Was this uncanny ability to adopt the mannerisms of senior artists an extended apprenticeship or a way of evading committing to an individual style?

Gorky complicated matters by embroidering his past: he claimed to be born in Russia or Georgia and be a relative of Maxim Gorky, he said he was a student of Kandinsky and that he had studied in Paris and Rhode Island. Gorky became seen as a living master and romantic figure who was a link to Europe, despite the fact that he came directly to the USA from Armenia/Turkey and never visited Western Europe. He was ambivalent about his Armenian past. He loved to Armenian music and dance and to spend time with ex-patriate Armenians; he wore traditional woven garments. Yet he also hid his true origins from others. His second wife did not know he was Armenian until after his death. He was committed to being an American and achieving recognition in the USA as an American painter.

Gorky made a great impression on people he met. His imposing height, distinctive handsome features and air of tragedy struck interlocutors. He stocked his immaculate Union Square studio with masses of the finest materials, dazzling visitors such as the young Willem de Kooning. His air of foreign sophistication further impressed people. He held himself aloof from artistic groups and chose mostly not to exhibit in mixed exhibitions.

Gorky worked in the mural section of the Federal Art Project, the government programme intended to support artists during the Depression. The programme was launched in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration, with the FAP mural division providing paintings for public buildings. Gorky’s ambitious design for Newark Airport was accepted and completed in 1937. (The mural was destroyed during World War II. Such large projects by the FAP mural division met similar fates.)

The majority of Gorky’s letters were to his sister Vartush and mainly dealt with family matters and news of his latest commissions and exhibitions, taking pride in his advances through the tiny and competitive art world of New in the 1930s. Gorky also wrote to his second wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he married on 5 September 1941. They had two children together. The brief notes that Gorky and Mougouch wrote to each other when apart testify to Gorky’s affection for his family but do not reveal much about his art. Mougouch’s letters to friends and patrons of Gorky give us more information.

In September 1939 the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Refugee artists and uprooted collectors converged on New York and the American artists, who until then had been outsiders, found themselves rubbing shoulders with legendary figures. Stimulated by dialogue and competition, American artists and collectors began to assert themselves as pioneers. Gorky was well placed to take advantage of the situation.

Stimulated by the art of young Surrealist Matta, Gorky changed his Miroesque abstractions into paintings that were more dynamic, organic and sensual. His biomorphic forms related to plants and animals he observed in New England and remembered from Armenia. Colours became richer and more expressive; his lines became energetic; his brushwork more varied. He did not fully back the automatist position of the Surrealists, preferring to develop his forms and compositions thoroughly in complex and heavily worked drawings, often with colour. Only now did he find a personal synthesis that marked him as unique.

A solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings (with a catalogue written by Andre Breton) in March 1945 at Julien Levy’s gallery in New York established Gorky as a major modern painter who presented a new link, connecting American art to Surrealism. However, the succès d’estime did not translate into financial security for him and his family. Additionally, the support of Breton and the Surrealists marked Gorky’s art as French, not truly American. By allying himself to Breton, Gorky had committed himself an artist seeking the stamp of sophisticated foreign tastemakers. Fellow painters felt that Gorky’s detachment was perhaps snobbery. Although that was not the case – many close associates realised that Gorky was shy and secretive rather egotistical – the idea took root.

Financial problems, a 1947 studio fire which destroyed much of recent art, a major medical operation which permanently debilitated him, marital breakdown and a road accident that left his painting arm weakened: these catastrophes weighed down the proud and sensitive man. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide. His loss was mourned by collectors, critics and – particularly – fellow artists. Many tributes were paid in the following years.

The two versions of this collection supersede another previous publication which included passages forged by a relative and ascribed to Gorky. Gorky was powerfully influenced by childhood memories but he did not write about this much. Much of his letter writing was brief, to the point and concerned with family and career news, not dwelling upon the past. The forging of childhood reminiscences came about because Gorky is a talismanic artist for Armenians. He is one of the few Armenian artists who achieved international fame, acclaim and influence. For such a prominent figure – especially one who personally witnessed the Armenian Genocide – not to have written more directly about his homeland is a nagging absence for Armenians seeking a public voice for their history, motivated by national pride and a desire to have a cultural hero for the Armenian diaspora. Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (two versions) has become a treasured icon memorialising the national tragedy.

It is impossible to do Gorky’s art justice in a brief review. The Plow and The Song is an authoritative source on the artist’s development. There are generous colour illustrations of art and photographs of Gorky and friends and family. This volume alone allows us an inside understanding of Gorky’s approach, sometimes seeing it through the eyes of the newspaper critics who reviewed the work as it was first exhibited. The Plow and The Song is a fitting publication documenting one of abstraction’s – and Armenia’s – most significant artists.

 

Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender (ed.), The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, Hauser & Wirth, 2018, cloth flexicover, 584pp, fully col./mono illus., £40/$50, ISBN 978 3 906915 08 1

© Alexander Adams