Building a New World: Architectural Metaphors in Andrej Platonov

Mary Nicholas, Lehigh University

Numerous cultural histories of the Soviet Union argue for a binary model of Russian culture in the 1920s and 1930s. The dichotomy pits a dynamic, utopian, horizontally oriented society of the 1920s against a largely static, conservative, closed hierarchical system of the 1930s. This opposition can be found in discussions of literature, the pictorial arts, and, most notably, architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. The conceptual neatness of the binary model, which contrasts categories of open space vs. enclosed space, dynamism vs. stability, the horizontal vs. the vertical, and so on has made it attractive to a variety of commentators. These polarities provide an easily recognizable context and can be reversed at a moment’s notice, depending on the orientation of the critic.

Yet the reality that the binary model intends to describe was considerably more complex than its dialectic would suggest. This becomes clear when we look at the use a marginalized writer such as Andrej Platonov makes of such polar oppositions in his work. Various critics have seen his novella Kotlovan (1929–30), for example, as an anti-utopian blueprint, an expression of his disappointment with one side of the binary model and his rejection of the other. The building site that provides the title for the work fails, after all, to support any structure at all. As the “foundation pit” is reconfigured to serve as a burial plot by the end of the novel, we may be tempted to argue that Platonov’s architectural metaphors lead to a “negation of architecture” itself, as one side of the binary model is replaced by its opposite.

Yet it would be wrong to conclude, as some readers do, that Platonov’s work is either uniformly hostile to the architectural impulse or sympathetic to the dichotomy itself. His work is filled with architectural metaphors that lie on the border of two states, rejecting the binary model altogether. Windows, fences, borders, canals, even the boundaries of the human body come under scrutiny, and these architectural metaphors play a central role in Platonov’s work. Platonov engaged the architectural dichotomies of the period, but he used them to build a more complex, less programmatic approach to the concerns he and other Russian writers shared. By reconsidering the importance of the architectural metaphor in his work, we can demonstrate that, for Platonov, architecture is not only the tragic by-product of collective hubris but also the elusive goal that makes us human. His architectural metaphors can be read not in the context of a binary model, but rather as part and parcel of a multivalent societal response to questions about the importance of asymmetry in an otherwise symmetrical state.