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.

Accident in Orange

ONE EASTER DURING the late 1990s, we drove to Provence in the south of France. There, we hired a lovely rural cottage (a ‘gîte rural’) located on the edge of a village next to an orchard of trees overladen with ripe cherries. That year, there was a heatwave in the south of France, daytime temperatures reaching and staying at 37 degrees Celsius. We were pleased that our Saab saloon car had built-in air-conditioning and that our gite had a large garden and a shady terrace.

Roman amphitheatre, Orange, France

Despite the high daytime temperatures, we managed to do plenty of sight-seeing. One day, we decided to explore the delights of the city of Orange, which was not far from our gite. The city is rich in Roman remains including a magnificent open-air theatre with steps, on which the audience perched, arranged in a circle.

In the 12th century, Orange and its surroundings became a principality within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1554, William the Silent, Count of Nassau, who had possessions in the Netherlands and became a Protestant, inherited the title ‘Prince of Orange’. The Principality of Orange was incorporated into what became the House of Orange-Nassau, whose royal family continues to rule the Netherlands today. One member of the family became King William III of England in 1689. Orange remained a Dutch possession more or less continuously until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, under whose terms it was ceded to France.

So much history and clambering around the Roman ruins made us ready for lunch. We had no idea which restaurant to choose in the centre of Orange. My wife had the bright idea of entering one of the local shops, a shoe store, to ask where its workers went to eat their midday meal. They told us about a small restaurant around the corner. This busy eatery had a name which brought to mind associations with the American Wild West, ‘Le Buffalo West’, or something similar. It was a good recommendation and the food it served was excellent quality, reasonably priced French fare.

After a decent meal, we drove to a parking plot near a Roman triumphal arch. To enter the parking area, one had to drive below an arch designed to keep out large vehicles, and then down a steep ramp. Unfortunately, I turned the steering well before the car was fully off the ramp. We became grounded on a large concrete rock. The engine cut-out. I could not restart it. The car was well and truly stuck on the rock. Some people nearby saw our plight and told us that there was a repair garage a few yards away. We walked there.

The garage people sent out a team with a tow truck. Sadly, the truck was too high to pass beneath the height-restricting arch. Seeing the problem, three garage employees set to work with spades to dig around the rock on which our Saab was marooned. After at least an hour and a half’s hard toil in the baking afternoon heat, they removed the boulder and thus freed the car. Then, they pushed it beneath the arch so that it could be attached to the towing truck.

Raised on a ramp, it was easy to see where the rock had ruptured the Saab’s fuel line. It did not take the engineers long to replace the fractured section. Luckily, little other damage was visible beneath our car. Finally, we were ready to leave. It was with some anticipation that I asked to settle the bill. Imagining how expensive this labour-intensive episode would have been in the UK, I was expecting a bill of at least £300. So, I was not surprised when I was asked for about 300 French Francs. Then, a moment later, I could not believe my luck. A quick calculation  had revealed that I was being asked not for £300, but for the Franc equivalent of about one tenth of this amount.

We returned to our gite, highly relieved that the car was back in service so quickly. That evening, as the sun set, we sat outdoors and enjoyed glasses of the local rosé wine whilst the charcoal on our barbecue began to reach the glowing stage that is best for grilling the meat that we had bought in one of the local markets.

The Saab remained in use for several more years but, to the surprise of our local dealer who serviced it annually, it began developing ominous cracks in its chassis. It was providential that these did not develop immediately after my driving misjudgement in that car park in Orange.