My uncle and the USSR

THE MARXIST SOCIETY of the University of East Anglia had just held a meeting around it, so we were told by someone working in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the university campus in Norwich. The object around which the political gathering was held is a 35 feet high model of a structure that was never built full size. The Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) had planned to build a futuristic tower in Petrograd (aka ‘Leningrad’ and ‘St Petersburgh’), an example of Constructivism. The tower, which was to have been 1300 feet high, was planned to celebrate and house The Comintern (3rd International). Hoping to rival Paris’s Eiffel Tower and to symbolise the modernity of Soviet Russia, the tower was never built.

Model of Tatlin’s tower with the Sainsbury Centre behind it

Sometime, back in the early 1970s, it was decided to construct a model of the Tatlin Tower near the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. This was not a simple task because the structure is complex, and proper detailed blueprints were unavailable. To make a model of the Tatlin Tower that was faithful to the designer’s original idea, and which would not topple over, the services of a structural engineer were required.  My uncle Sven, who worked for the firm of Felix Samuely and Partners, proved to be the man for the job. Working with the project’s director, Jeremy Dixon, my uncle had to unravel the plans of the structure using photographs of a 17-foot model of the tower that Tatlin had created in 1920 and a few existing images of plans that Tatlin had prepared. There were inconsistencies between Tatlin’s plans and the model produced in 1920. In 1971, Dixon:

“…built small models in balsawood to get it right, and he worked with Sven Rindl of consulting engineer Felix J Samuely & Partners, who generated detailed freehand drawings as they talked” (quoted from “Blueprint”, December 2011)

Dixon wrote about this in Sven’s obituary as follows:

“I particularly remember working with him on the reconstruction of the remarkable tower that Vladimir Tatlin produced as a monument to the Third International, the communist organisation founded in 1919, for the Art in Revolution exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. The project required us to go back to first principles to reinvent its extraordinary geometry and structure.

Sven would sit listening and commenting during our complex voyage of discovery, and at the same time he would be drawing. These drawings would be remarkable, elegant, three-dimensional sketches straight off the sketch pad, finished and complete. They were graphic works of art as well as documentation of engineering ideas.”

(https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/apr/30/obituaries.mainsection)

The model was built with timber inside the Hayward Gallery before being exhibited outside it in 1971 as part of an exhibition called “Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917”.

Forty years later in 2011, another model of the Tatlin Tower was produced, this time made of a more durable material, steel. Once again, the project was overseen by Jeremy Dixon. The completed model was first displayed in the courtyard of London’s Royal Academy. In an advance notice of the project (www.architectsjournal.co.uk/archive/ra-unveils-tatlins-tower), my uncle, who had died in 2007, was given a prominent mention:

“The 10.5m high steel structure in the Annenberg Courtyard was designed by architects Jeremy Dixon of Dixon Jones Architects, Christopher Cross, Christopher Woodward and engineer Sven Rindl. The tower will form part of the Royal Academy’s forthcoming exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 which opens on 29 October 2011.”

I remember going to view the model and then seeing a small exhibition about it and its construction. The exhibition, which was held inside the Royal Academy, included images of some of the beautifully drawn plans and diagrams created by my uncle.

The steel model of the Tatlin Tower, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2011, has been lent to the Sainsbury Centre by the academy. Painted in red, this model of an experiment in futuristic architecture stands outside and close to the magnificent building that houses the Centre. The edifice, which is now over 40 years old, but looks like new, was designed by the architects Norman Foster and Wendy Cheesman.

We had no idea that there was a model of Tatlin’s tower next to the Sainsbury Centre when we visited it in September 2021. My wife and I were pleased to see this reminder of a much-missed relative whom we both loved dearly.

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