I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Richard Pare is a great storyteller, blessed with that felicitous fluency of tongue so many British happily possess. One story in particular caught me. It was about how, on a summer evening when Pare was about eight years old and an apprentice chorister at Canterbury, he was sent to retrieve some papers from the treasury. With an antique key to a side door, the boy let himself into the vast and darkening cathedral where, to his surprise, he discovered a full orchestra performance of Verdi’s Requiem being conducted in the nave. As he passed through the south transept, the music for the Tuba Mirum began to swell. Rooted to the spot, alone in the shadows, Pare listened for what seemed like hours as the spectacular tones of the Dies Irae resonated against carved stone.
It’s a memory that gives him goose bumps to this day. And so it was that Richard Pare, who spent days of his childhood as a choirboy practicing to make sounds big enough to fill a cavernous church building, associated architecture with music at an early age.
And so it was that when I first saw the Shabolovka Radio Tower in the cover shot for Pare’s new book, The Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922–1932 (Monacelli, 2007), I thought: “Oh! Mozart!”
There is a drama to the rhythm and fluidity of composition in Pare’s mature images that is undeniably melodic and often, truthfully, more beautiful than the structures they represent. So for a while I was puzzled that MoMA was planning to exhibit these lyrical photographs as architectural renderings rather than as—simply art. (The Lost Vanguard, an exhibition in conjunction with the book, runs through October.) Until, that is, Sarah Hermanson (in MoMA’s Department of Photography) sensibly explained that there is no law forbidding architectural photography from also being art, and Barry Bergdoll pointed out to me that their subject was not only completely architectural but also historically specific to a very narrow span of years. And now that, thanks to Pare, I know something about the Russian modernist architects and the fleeting, hopeful, and romantic dream their buildings represent, I cannot imagine another photographer better suited to his chosen project.
When I asked Pare about his heroes, he answered: Walker Evans for the razor sharpness of his vision, and Robert Frank for his humanity (which also implies that the character of the photographer can permeate his photographic work). And all during our several conversations I was reminded of C S Lewis’s famous comment that it’s usually the worst grown-ups who are the most adult, because, in opposition, it’s so easy to imagine Pare, with his shock of slightly untidy hair and his round, light eyes, as the schoolboy he once was; particularly since he retains an earnestness, a sense of wonder and adventure and a simple joy in what he’s doing that, for me, visibly infuses everything he makes.
Michèle Gerber Klein I’ve been around photographs now for a while and still don’t really know the difference between an art photograph of architecture and an architectural photograph of architecture. Where’s the line?
Richard Pare That question, in one form or another, is about all that I’ve been doing over the last 30 years. It’s really a question about the transformation of the subject: how it reads when you get it in photographic form, removed from context. It’s a question about time and memory; the way in which time recedes, not only from the object itself but also in its image. Even in that moment frozen in the photograph, the subject is still never completely free from the notion of time. It is bound to our understanding of that crystallizing event when the photographer chose to open the shutter of the camera and extract one picture from the continuum.
When I was gathering the photographs that became the collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, it became clear to me that I had very little interest in mere representation. The photographs had to be more than the rote record of a structure. The best pictures had layers of meaning beneath the surface of their subjects.
MGK Can you give some background on that collection?
RP It began simultaneously with my engagement with a project documenting more than 1,000 county courthouses, initiated by Phyllis Lambert in September 1974. I had moved to New York from Chicago, and one afternoon Phyllis and I were in Lucien Goldschmidt’s bookshop. There was a wonderful photograph from about 1860, the Capitoline Hill in Rome by Robert MacPherson. Phyllis asked, “What do you think?” I said, “It’s wonderful.” And so it became the first picture in what would become the photography collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, of which Phyllis was founding director. Fifteen years later, when I stepped aside, the collection had reached almost 48,000 images that traversed the entire history of the medium from the earliest years: from Fox Talbot’s calotypes, to recently completed works by the Bechers, and most recently to distinguished commissioned works by Dieter Appelt and Victor Burgin.
Forming that collection forced me to establish a view about what photography was as represented through the subject of architecture. It had to be a good photograph first, and in this way, the subject was given even greater significance. It’s the first photography collection to deal with the subject of architecture that was driven by precepts of photographic expression instead of being a columbarium of arbitrary photographs of fragments and buildings stored in drawers. In its making, it formally identified architecture as one of the great subjects of photography, more or less for the first time. The relationship had just been taken for granted before. So obvious that no one had noticed. It made me think about how architecture can be a significant and potent subject in photography rather than a mechanical reproduction of a building, which is the commercial side of the medium.
MGK So, at its best it’s not commercial … but if it’s not commercial, why isn’t it art? Or is it art?
RP In the beginning, in the 19th century, the two, art and commerce, seemed to coexist because the technical difficulties of the process winnowed out all but the most determined and the most talented. It was a golden age in which the language of photography was being invented. At the time those works were sold by print dealers and galleries for sums that rewarded the masters of the medium substantially. There were abundant commissions too. The finest works produced by the early masters are still unsurpassed. It is one of the gifts of photography to retain an immediacy that transcends the passage of time.
Some of the modern commercial practice also achieves high standards with panache and style. In the early 20th century, distinguished practitioners like Henry Feuermann worked for Frank Lloyd Wright; later Ezra Stoller made some fine pictures of the Johnson Wax building; and Julius Shulman made the iconic renderings for Neutra and the architects of the Case Study Houses. Hedrich Blessing in Chicago did really good work on Mies van der Rohe: pictures of the Federal Building and Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. These images have a thoughtfulness that rarely exists in the commercial realm now, the magazines and slick commercial publishing ventures, where much of the work is routine and executed without reflection. It’s volume stuff and rigidly formulaic, or it’s machined for a high level of description yet misses its subject’s core. So the photograph becomes essentially irrelevant, doing little more than inform you, with a kind of deadly emptiness, of its subject’s bare outline. The best contemporary work seems to be done, by volition or conviction, either outside the profession, or at the peripheries of it.
In assembling the Courthouse Project, it was important to show the environment with all the patina and texture. I realized it was possible to use the space allotted in a book to create a sense of the historical continuum, to build up a larger view of the totality of the subject and have some real depth that could also say something about the people who lived in and inhabited these spaces: presence in absence. Working toward the same encompassing attitude in the new book, The Lost Vanguard, the intention is to describe as fully as possible the sense of excitement that existed just after the Revolution, when these works were created. At the same time I wanted to give a sense of the history that surrounded the moment of creation and informs the condition in which they now stand: basically everything from utter disintegration, to the immaculately maintained culmination and terminal signifier of the end of modernism, represented fittingly by the Lenin Mausoleum. These are buildings built with fervor and a passion for creating the new architecture for a new society. They still look radical and innovative today, so it is not difficult to imagine the effect that they must have had when they were first completed.
MGK So many of them have been lost.
RP A surprising number have survived because there was never a time with sufficient prosperity to permit their destruction and replacement. Now, speculation in property values is rampant in the major centers and is exerting pressure on them that was unimaginable 15 years ago.
MGK What about the Russian modernists caught your attention?
RP Their muscular energy and vibrant reinvention of the fundamentals of architecture: even in decay, ironically with everything that could be carried away for scrap, some have returned to the transparency and openness of their original conception. There was a great flowering in that period that lasted hardly more than ten years. During the First World War no building was possible. The one significant exception is the Shabolovka Radio Mast, which was begun in 1919 and finished in 1922. It was supposed to be twice the height, but there were such shortages that they couldn’t get the steel, so the scale was reduced by half. Even so it stands as a perfect analogy, to spread the word of the hopes and aspirations of the first years of the revolution.
Lenin died in January 1924. From then on there is a sense that the members of the avant-garde swiftly realized that they were leaning into the wind, and yet there was a brief moment when it seemed possible, to the most adventurous, to invent a new system for living in a new world order. The leaders in avant-garde architecture began to build, taking a stance as far removed from the pre-revolutionary, state-sanctioned style as possible. In a curious inversion it was encouraged by the shortness of available materials. That vocabulary of stripped minimalism was the perfect voice for the whole idea of modernist expression.
MGK Why did it last only ten years?
RP It was stamped out by Stalin as being an unsuitable architectural language to represent his view of the socialist state. Strictly within that frame of reference he was right.
MGK Then you’re saying that these modernist buildings are the architecture of a fleeting dream?
RP Yes, the prescient dreams for a new system of architecture being born: a utopian experiment. And there are some absolutely astounding experiments, like the Narkomfin Communal House, which is one of the greatest examples of early 20th-century architecture anywhere, and is as radical as any of its European equivalents. In fact there really are no equivalents. The closest I can think of is the collective group of works that make up the Weissenhoffsiedlung of 1927 in Stuttgart. But that doesn’t have the same energy and unified vision that Narkomfin had from the moment it was completed as housing for employees of the Ministry of Finance. It is a building of remarkable ingenuity and it’s such an achievement, integrating many different functions and apartment types, apartments for single people, for couples, and apartments for families with children; all this integrated into the program in an extraordinarily intelligent and ingenious way. It’s a pleasure to work out how it all fits together when you’re inside. It’s still possible to imagine what it looked like when it was new. Although it is now probably 80 abandoned, and has suffered from great neglect and insensitive modification, its message still comes through.
MGK Really, it’s just not used at all?
RP It’s in dreadful condition, since I first was there in 1993 it has continued to deteriorate. I got in every time I was able, and the condition has got steadily worse in spite of the efforts of the remaining residents to stave off the destructive effects of the Moscow winters. And now they have rammed a slip road past the north end of the building.
MGK Why now, when Russia is getting richer?
RP That’s my point. The building stands on one of the most valuable plots in the whole of Moscow. It’s right next to the American Embassy; you can look over into the Embassy gardens. It’s across the river from the Whitehouse, the government complex, and therefore is located in one of the most desirable parts of the city. So the land it stands on is now worth millions. And it’s a decaying building with only five or six stories; everything around it is huge, so it’s severely threatened with potential destruction because of the value of the land that it stands on. So far its future chances of survival remain extremely precarious.
MGK How did you come to discover and fall in love with these buildings?
RP To go right back to the beginning, I had a fine teacher who loved the recent history of art. He was a brilliant lecturer and always looking for good pictures, even going so far as to make his own. It was remarkable that a high-school art teacher would be teaching classes of 15-year-olds about L’Esprit Nouveau and the Villa Savoye. The last lecture in the course was about modernism and dealt with Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Rietveld. Even earlier my father’s idea of going on holiday was to take the family to one of the European cities. We would go to the great museums. I was looking at the modernist painters at a very early age. So it was in the air, you might say.
MGK Does this Russian architecture relate to other modernist art and the writing of the period?
RP Totally. It’s exemplary of the theoretical positions that architects had been evolving in their studio practice in the years immediately preceding the revolution and during the period of great hardship that followed the ascent of the Bolsheviks. The Russians took from their European colleagues aspects of the modernist vocabulary that they could apply and extended those ideas according to need and function. There was a lively exchange between Russia and Europe. There are definitely parallels with the other arts. It is, after all, the time of Malevich, who made his abstract set for the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sunin 1913, while at the same time Kandinsky was inventing the idea of abstraction, and Tatlin was beginning to produce his series of Counter Reliefs in response to the heavily three-dimensional icon cases and his time in Paris where he had seen Picasso’s experiments with Cubist sculpture and painting.
When I was developing the collection for the CCA, the lack of photographs of the great Russian modernist buildings became starkly apparent as I began to have some hazy understanding of the Russian avant-garde in photography. So I knew that there was a void to fill in terms of the record. It seemed beyond improbable that the Soviet regime would disintegrate when I was working on that collection, and it was not until after the end of my tenure that the whole system came unraveled. Another four years passed before I was able to go and see for myself.
MGK Was the impossibility of it part of the fascination?
RP Yes, absolutely.
MGK What strikes me is that there are so many of these buildings; there is a huge amount.
RP You can see it in two ways. If you look at it from the point of view of the overall building program during the Soviet period, it is only a scattering of buildings in a few centers. However, when you gather them together in one place, something that the book does for the very first time, it seems like a revelation. It is only a small amount of material. It’s just that now they can be scrutinized and given the benefit of a critical gaze.
MGK Let’s look at some specific photographs.
RP This picture sums up a lot of what I have been trying to do in photography. It’s the interior of the double-height living room of an apartment in Narkomfin. The picture was achieved almost completely by accident on my second trip to Moscow, and I was loitering outside hoping that somebody would come by and let me in, and somebody did! Such extraordinary generosity: he was a very gentle man, and he just let me go wherever I wanted, while he sat downstairs at the table, which you can see here. So I had time to really look at his space with an intensity not very often given to a stranger appearing out of nowhere at somebody’s home. As I looked at the markings he and his family had left on the place, it became quite clear that the flat was a representation of the whole period, from the construction of the building to the present. The picture hanging on the wall in the center is a reproduction of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which came to Moscow from Dresden in 1945 as the spoils of war. His hanging it on the wall is an indication that keeps the Second World War clearly in the picture. And then below, on top of the radio, there’s a little porcelain model of the young Pushkin sitting at his desk writing and thinking; it’s a classic Soviet-era ornament that’s very well known, you see it everywhere. On the shelf there’s a whole array of objects, including two other little Soviet-era figurines, the young pioneer with a red scarf around his neck and a pair of skis, and a young peasant girl dancing with a blue skirt and a red hem… . There’s a souvenir from Odessa, a little sailing ship, which is a reminder of warmer climates, and a couple of plastic palm trees on either end of the bookcase. On the wall there’s a thermometer, a gloomy reminder of how low the temperature can go inside in the winter. The table has the usual remains of a meal from the night before and several bottles of vodka—another frequently encountered attribute.
MGK I love the tablecloth; it’s clearly handmade.
RP Actually it’s just an oil cloth. It’s the printing that makes it rise a little. It’s been wiped so many times that the printing has disappeared—which tells you how difficult the times still were. This is a paper pattern from, presumably, the wife who makes her own clothes. They love to have flowers; some paper ones here as well. So this photograph is like a short story telling of the way of life that had been going on in this one space over generations. Usually you’ll find that the parents lived in an apartment, and then, when they were gone, the next generation assumed the same space. Now the building is in such bad condition. Nobody knows quite what’s going to happen next. This man probably isn’t even there anymore.
MGK Didn’t you keep in touch with him?
RP No. I would have liked to.
MGK This is mysterious. Did you ever read that book by Alain-Fournier in which an adolescent runs away and arrives as if by magic at a castle all lit up in the night? There’s a grand ball going on, but after the boy leaves the next day he can never find the castle again.
RP It’s very much like that. When I was there, the immediacy was so intense, I was immersed in it. Then I walked away and the door closed. Try to walk back and you wouldn’t even know which door it was anymore, because there are 20 of them!
MGK Like going into another world.
RP And neither of us spoke the other’s language, so the communication was entirely visual.
MGK Then it was even more magical, if nothing could be verbally explained. Let’s do someplace next where they forced you through rapidly.
RP Well, speed was always the problem. Someone wanted to do an extended piece on Lenin’s mausoleum in one of the journals, but they had absolutely no idea the amount of difficulty involved in getting there in the first place! (laughter) So, that’s a good one to choose. It’s the last picture in the book, the mausoleum where Lenin is laid out.
MGK It’s so red; it looks like an opera set.
RP It is very theatrical, and meant to impress, which it certainly does. It was open only certain hours of the day and I knew it was impossible to take pictures, but I eventually got an introduction to the Deputy Minister of Culture, Pavel Khoroshilov. He’s a wonderful man, a great photography fan, and he knew my book Photography and Architecture. So that was a lucky entry card! He came in specially on a Saturday morning to see me, and I explained what I wanted to do. At last, the summons came. I had to present myself to the guard at the clock tower at the Kremlin, and the guard called his superior, and then a high-ranking officer arrived and escorted me along the back of the Kremlin wall into the office of the commanding general. Then there was a very, very long interview. The general wanted to be absolutely certain that my purposes were correct. Finally, he led the way down a wide corridor where a man in a white lab coat stood by a desk with a console and dials on the wall behind him. He snapped to attention as soon as we appeared. Presumably he was monitoring the temperature variations inside the mausoleum. I badly wanted to take this picture, but it was absolutely forbidden. We then passed through heavy bronze doors into the tomb chamber. I was given precisely ten minutes with the lights on inside the sarcophagus. Those were the rules. It’s very dark in there, so I had to guess at the exposure.
MGK How do they make these rules? They just invent them?
RP Oh, they invented them, no doubt according to the mood of day—and how much time they had to spare. It was such an unprecedented occasion that it is hard to imagine that they had a standard policy. Meanwhile, I was setting up and trying to focus in the dark, because it was very hard to see and there’s not much to focus on. I knew ten minutes wasn’t enough to get the overall illumination, but just enough for the body inside the glass sarcophagus. That’s his right hand there. When he died they built a wooden mausoleum almost overnight, and then they built another wooden one that was more elaborate, which evolved again into a third one.
MGK So this is like a reliquary?
RP Yes, it takes off from the Catholic tradition of saints and relics. It’s the sacred relic of Communism, Stalin’s way of asserting his own dominance.
MGK Lenin became the symbol of the regime?
RP It’s a very powerful symbol at the heart of the regime, the whole mystification and elevation of the cult of Lenin as the father of his country. So the mausoleum was an extremely important building. It’s built of incredibly luxurious materials. The red flag motifs are a mosaic of porphyry, a very rare semi-precious stone.
MGK Is that another exotic stone?
RP That is black granite from Ukraine; it has huge flakes of mica in it that glitter in the dark. You can see it picking up the light.
MGK Why is it red?
RP The main elements are red granite, which influences the ambient light all around.
MGK It’s breathtaking. I expect Tosca to come pouring out!
RP I’m trying to think who it would be …
MGK Bartók? Bluebeard’s Castle or perhaps The Miraculous Mandarin. So essentially you had very little time to take this picture?
RP Well, ten minutes wasn’t enough to soak up the light, so I had to just leave the shutter open even after they turned the light off inside the sarcophagus. I just left it open and made it look as if I had finished, and went around doing other things… . Then when it was done I just closed the shutter. It would have been better if I had left it open longer; it’s perilously near unprintable as it stands. They were draconian about enforcing the time limit. I suppose I should have expected that in a military setting. But it was a privilege to be in there in the first place. I had lunch the other day with a Russian who told me, “No one gets permission to photograph in there!”
MGK So now please tell me about the making of these photographs—the “developing”—that’s not literal.
RP I made them on negative film as I have been doing since I started shooting color in 1976, and that bit hasn’t changed; you still expose the film and send it off to the lab. When I began this project in ’93, I was still making conventional prints with an enlarger. Then about ’97 I started scanning the negatives. As soon as you go digital, everything changes completely. It doesn’t bear any relationship at all to the ways that one used to make a print, which is an extraordinary release. For the first time ever you have the color under your control. Now you can select any single element within the picture and treat it individually. You have so much more control over not only color, but balance, curves, contrast, shadow detail—it’s endless, and you can easily spend hours on a single image—days.
MGK You’re creating poetry.
RP The prints that I’m making now are vastly superior to anything I was producing before, so much more subtle. It’s a blessing and a curse, because I can get so immersed in the evolution of one image. It depends on the picture, of course—it doesn’t matter how great the print is, if the content is of no interest.
MGK It seems to me, looking at these photographs, that they’re as much about your feeling about what you’re looking at as they are about the subject.
RP Yes, I hope so, that’s very much what I’ve been about, without belaboring the point. I want to be invisible; there’s a commitment to the subject that is clear enough. I avoid making it an egotistical exercise or dominating the subject.
MGK No, no, no, it’s where you put the inflections.
RP Yes, there’s the old saying about photography where it’s as much what you leave out as what you put in, where you decide to draw the edges: framing. I’m trying to make a picture in response to the subject, so there’s a balance between the subject and the observer. The other day you asked who were my biggest influences: Robert Frank and Walker Evans are the great exemplars, Frank because of his incredible humanity and warm melancholy, and Evans because of his absolutely razor-sharp vision.
MGK What about more work photographing in the future? Are there still cities in Russia you haven’t seen?
RP There’s another sanatorium by Ginsberg with a staircase by Leonidov in Kislovodsk; it’s the only thing Leonidov ever managed to build, and he’s another one of the great visionaries of the Constructivist-modernist movement in Russia, so I’d like to be able to get there. And in Nijny-Novgorod there’s a vast automobile plant probably by Albert Kahn, the same man who did the River Rouge for Ford in Detroit and it’s still intact. Magnitogorsk I’ve never been to. It was a city literally laid down in the Urals, in the middle of the iron ore belt. They built the city so they could have blast furnaces and make steel near the ore fields, but the iron is now exhausted.
MGK It’s a ghost town?
RP It probably will be in the not too distant future, because the pollution is absolutely terrible: it’s one of the unhealthiest cities in the old Soviet Union, yet it was built as an ideal industrial city.
MGK That in itself is a fascinating topic, and it’s not just about Russia, but about the industrial world.
RP Yes, the end of industrialism and heavy industry. The original plan was set out by the German architect Ernst May. There were issues of the magazine USSR in Construction devoted to the “great new city on the plains.” Certain utopian ideas were being explored. I saw some of that in Zaporozhe, where the DneproGES Dam is: the furnaces were belching smoke, and the prevailing wind was blowing right over the city. The population lived in the shadow of all that pollution.
MGK That’s the beginning of another fabulous story. Richard, you’ve discovered and collected photographs and you’ve also made them. They’re both creative processes. Which one do you prefer?
RP Oh, the making. It’s the making I love best.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee