September 2015 | Barbara Basbanes Richter

Paper Architects Draw the Unbuildable, Inspire the World

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Precise glass towers soar along an alluring coastline, a cozy treehouse named in honor of Winnie-the-Pooh, and a dollhouse that bears a greater resemblance to a totem pole than a child's plaything - these are a few of the eccentric illustrations created by Moscow natives Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin during a fifteen-year span from 1978 to 1993. (After viewing a set of images, I thought the work was an unexpected marriage of illustrations in Diderot's Encyclopédie with the unsettling whimsy of Edward Gorey. Take a look for yourself, and tell me what you think.) Though graceful handwritten text often accompanies each etching, it rarely deciphers the image at hand and serves more as a written counterpoint to the Soviet demand that everything be purely functional and devoid of beauty.
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Brodsky and Utkin collaborated on dreamlike illustrations of homes, gardens, and entire cities with the ultimate goal of creating drawings whose futuristic components are solidly rooted in historical precedence, evoking an imaginary utopia at the turn of the 20th century, where utilitarian Soviet structures do not exist and citizens coexist happily among each other in well-planned (if totally fanciful) spaces. Though the men did not travel outside the USSR, their local library provided inspiration on topics like Egyptian tombs, French urban planning, and the Japanese obsession with refinement and precision. In a bid to undermine their work, Soviet detractors called Brodsky and Utkin 'paper architects', but the men embraced the moniker, and their art became illustrated architectural criticism of the Soviet Union and its ideology. These monochrome etchings have remained valuable educational tools for city planners, politicians and even set designers. 

A compilation of their work, entitled Brodsky & Utkin, was first published by Princeton Architectural Press in 1991. The book was reprinted earlier this month (again, by Princeton) in the same navy blue, clothbound cover as the original. This latest printing coincides with a display of Brodsky and Utkin's etchings at London's Tate Modern art museum. Part of a larger exhibition called Poetry and Dream, these illustrations highlight that, no matter how experimental or abstract contemporary art may be, there is often a strong desire to connect with the past, whether it ever existed or not. 

Brodsky & Utkin, with a new preface by Aleksandr Mergold, and original introduction by Lois Nesbitt; Princeton Architectural Press, $50.

Poetry & Dream is an ongoing display at the Tate Modern art museum in London.

Top Image: Doll's House, 1990. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Inc. Bottom image: Dwelling House of Winnie-the-Pooh, 1990. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Inc.

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