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Building With Paper, Plaster, and Dreams

At a time when Russian architecture was all engineering and no design, two Muscovites kept their imagination flowing - in drawings

RUSSIAN architects Alexander (``Sasha'') Brodsky and Ilya Utkin gained notoriety not from the buildings they created, but from designs that have never been realized.

As ``paper architects,'' they spent a decade working in only two dimensions because of Soviet bureaucracy.

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Both sons of architects, Brodsky and Utkin graduated from Moscow's prestigious Institute of Architecture in 1978 with no real opportunity to use their skills. At the time Leonid Brezhnev was in power, architecture was all engineering and no design. In fact, anything that wasn't purely utilitarian, which naturally lent itself to mass production, was considered almost immoral. As beehive-style apartments went up, hope for architects went down.

So Brodsky and Utkin, along with other architects, began to render conceptual projects in the form of etchings on paper. Their group became loosely known as the ``paper architects.''

An exhibition of Brodsky and Utkin's work (which closed recently at the Portland Art Museum but will travel in part to Tacoma) reveals the scope of their ``imaginary'' structures.

Because they knew that their projects would never be built, the architects created fantasy buildings, cities, and situations. They also incorporated text with their pictures - a type of stylized poetry that often mused about the future. When these drawings were shown outside the Soviet Union, they won several conceptual-design competitions sponsored by Japanese architecture publications.

In 1982, Brodsky and Utkin's ``Crystal Palace'' - a design for a glass structure - won first prize in Tokyo's Central Glass Competition and is considered a classic of paper architecture.

At the time, the architects' work served as a kind of commentary, which allowed them to symbolically peck through the shell of frustration caused by Communist constraints. Moreover, they were free from the obstacles of ``real'' architecture such as building codes and budgets; they did not have to compromise their design.

With perestroika, Brodsky and Utkin were able to move into other dimensions. Their world was no longer flat. The pair was commissioned to design the interior of a Moscow cooperative restaurant called the Atrium, which they built themselves. They continued to show their paper work and did sculpture and installations, such as their monumental egg ``Portrait of an Unknown Person or Peter Carl Fabergs Nightmare.''

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Only in the past several years have Brodsky and Utkin gained international recognition as award-winning conceptual architect-artists. They have exhibited in Europe and the United States, with solo shows in New York, San Diego, and Seattle. The Portland show is considered the first to present the full range of Brodsky and Utkin's work, from their early paper works, sculpture pieces, and a model of their largest ``real'' design: ``Twelfth Street Pedestrian Bridge,'' which the team has designed for the city of Tacoma, Wash. (See story, left.)

At the Portland exhibition, various etchings surrounded the gargantuan 10-by-14-foot egg. They are given such titles as ``Villa Claustrophobia,'' ``A Style for the Year 2001,'' ``A Comfort in Metropolis,'' and ``Wandering Turtle in a Maze of a Big City.'' The drawings resemble oversized pages from a storybook with intricate renderings of structures and cityscapes, accompanied by beautifully scripted text.

Brodsky and Utkin make numerous references to literature, mythology, and philosophy in their etchings; one is dedicated to the late Italian film director Federico Fellini.

John Weber, curator of the Portland exhibition, writes that in their etchings, ``they propose buildings that metaphorically reveal the dreams, hopes, fascinations and fears of late-millennium city-dwellers.... Brodsky and Utkin create architecture not to provide physical shelter or solve `architectural problems'; rather, they engage the built environment, its history and its conventions as a way to reflect on the larger dimensions of the human condition.''

``Island of Stability: or the Open-Sky Museum of Stone Sculpture in the Centre of the Town'' depicts views of huge sculpture placed in the middle of a cluttered town. The accompanying text (in English) reads: ``For those who are tired of plastic reality, for those who feel sick of foam rubber life, for those who believe in heavy things that are difficult to move....'' Here, one sees how the idea of a gargantuan egg led to the three-dimensional installation.

Their other ceramic and plaster sculptures, such as ``Door Way'' and ``Still Life,'' suggest ancient artifacts from classical ruins. This could be a result of their education, which was steeped in architectural history. Gargoyles, heads, vessels, and columns with cracks and engravings all look like archaeological finds.

The team has even titled their Tacoma bridge project ``Trestle: Ancient.'' The real importance of the Twelfth Street Bridge is that it represents the team's largest opportunity in ``real'' urban architecture.

City officials in Tacoma wanted to explore the possibility that a public-works project could include artists. They first took notice of Brodsky and Utkin during the 1990 Goodwill Games, when their works were featured in an exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum.

Tacoma's challenge involves finding a way to connect the city to its waterfront; the two are separated by an 80-foot decline, a freeway, and railroad tracks.

``Along came Sasha and Ilya... It was an automatic and natural connection,'' says Michael Sullivan, manager of the division of cultural resources for the city.

After studying the history, geography, and industry of Tacoma, Brodsky and Utkin designed a bridge to be made out of heavy timber. (Local manufacturers suggest that special glue-laminated, treated wood would make the bridge as durable as, but less expensive than, steel or concrete.) In their plan, a linear park bordered by trees leads down to the waterfront by a switchback-ramp system and elevators surrounded by timber latticework.

``It's practical but aesthetic - a wonderful idea,'' Mr. Sullivan says.

All this has caused people to wonder if Brodsky and Utkin have put away their purely-for-paper renderings. Among some in the arts community, there's a bittersweet sadness to see Brodsky and Utkin executing ``real'' architecture - almost as if their imaginative work is not happening anymore, Sullivan says.

But they're doing what they've wanted to be doing all along.

``They see progress. They see themselves making great strides forward,'' Sullivan says. ``That's the real Grail that they're after: the possibility and the realization of what they're doing in three-dimensions and in full scale.

``Their resolve and relentlessness is very encouraging.''

* ``Brodsky and Utkin: The Twelfth Street Pedestrian Bridge'' will be at the Kathy Kaperick Gallery in Tacoma, Wash., Feb. 17 through May 19.

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