Agit-kiosks and temporary stages

Over the past year or so, Wrights & Sites has been thinking about ‘ambulant’ or ‘portable’ architectures. I’ve therefore been fascinated to find out about the sometimes-portable kiosks and stands for disseminating information designed by artists in the early 1920s in Soviet Russia.
These range from Rodchenko’s kiosk designs of 1919 (below) to El Lissitsky’s podium for Lenin (1924) (based on a design of 1920), and include over thirty designs for agit-kiosks and stands by Gustav Klutsis (1922-5).

kiosk design
Rodchenko (1919)

Such structures remain somewhat enigmatic. Overtly, their function is to serve the didactic requirements of the state. They have been criticised for not inviting an engaged audience: for instance, Victor Margolin suggests that Rodchenko’s positioning of a clock on his tall kiosk suggests regulation and with its screens and loudspeakers, he argues that the only part of Rodchenko’s design that allows a dialogic engagement is the part that sells newspapers and books. Writing in 1997, he asserts that such designs have been discussed in terms of their ‘formal experiments’ but not their ‘political implications’ , which he argues comprise ‘a subordinate relationship of the Soviet citizen to state power’ through their ‘concentration of one-way information sources’ (1997:18-19). Similarly inflected criticisms of Klutsis’s kiosks are made by Klemens Gruber, who suggests that they resemble illustrations for ‘Walter Benjamin’s notes on the stage of the epic theatre’, except that they ‘make the human element superfluous’ and confront us, instead, with ‘a staging of the apparatus, which replaces man – while the technology itself becomes capable of speaking’ (Gruber 2010: 127).  

However, several of Klutsis’ designs do include rostra for live speakers – and rostra werealso included Rodchenko’s design mentioned above, as well as designs by Gan, El Lissitsky and Alexandra Exter. And after all, the Bolsheviks were not the first or last to put clocks on the top of towers.  

Despite his misgivings, Gruber notes the Klutsis stands’ (see below) vitality when he describes them as anthropomorphic, noticing that their outlines suggest ‘dynamic human figures’. They are also, he writes, ‘light-footed, sharp-edged, and sometimes prickly’, sometimes looking like ‘fabulous beasts’ (2010:126).  If these works are vital, humanoid, theatrical – and in many of their manifestations, portable and temporary – how do we reconcile these qualities with their supposedly utilitarian function (Gruber 2010:126) and the weight of the directives they are intended to carry?  

   Screen-Platform-Kiosk for the Fifth Anniversary of the Great October Revolution (Ekran-tribuna-kiosk k 5-i godovshchine Oktiabrskoi revoliutsii)  

It is interesting to bring what we know of theatre design and production into relationship with these kiosks. Recognised for its clash of machine and carnivalesque, for deep but not uncritical commitment to the intentions of the new state; for political didacticism and yet a hope for a more engaged spectator and participant, the 1923-4 production designed by Liubov Popova, Earth in Turmoil (an adaptation by Sergei Tretiakov of Night by Marcel Martinov, directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold), was made as a performance that could tour in the open air. Its crane-like structure carried posters and a screen for projections. At times, the crane was replaced with other serviceable structures – for instance, a garden arbour, a lightweight festival building – making the point that its purpose was functional, rather than aesthetic. This was theatre that aspired to blend with everyday life, and which made use of trucks, motorcycles, guns, field telephones, a harvester, a mobile kitchen and a (model) aeroplane (Braun 1998 [1969]:188). On the other hand, its playing still borrowed from the carnival, circus and folk traditions, so there is an element of fairground booth about it. In many ways it resembled a particularly dynamic ‘kiosk’, in which the new theatre saw itself as entirely compatible with new technologies and political propaganda. 

Sergei Tret’yakov, The Earth in Turmoil, produced by Vsevolod Meyerhold 1923
Earth in Turmoil, 1923

 If we consider Rodchenko’s 1919 kiosk design, and Popova’s 1923 set, these images suggest a movement that did indeed take place, whereby the theatre borrowed imagery from the actual city streets and the distribution of propaganda, and by developing it, provided inspiration or prototype designs for architecture in turn (see, for example, the Vesnin brothers 1924 design for the Pravda building).  

On the other hand, we can also look at these structures side by side, as occupying a shared conception of a dynamic new city space, within the same 5-year period. We can view them as structures that are in dialogue about their shared aims. If we do this, each has implications for the other.  

If Trotsky commented doubtfully on the ‘abstract’ nature of Meyerhold’s production (1984 [1924]: 481), there is something equally suggestive going on with the kiosks. Let us think about Rodchenko’s kiosk again.  

What if the clock, on top, didn’t only stand for the regulation of labour by authority, but invited us to think about experience in time? The clock, like all clock towers, is placed to be seen at a distance. As one approaches, the slogan appears. Moving a little closer, the screen with its projections comes into focus. Closer still and there is a speaker who we might stand and listen to. And then we might move in close and speak to the person at the window who shows us the published materials available. The tower has been designed to draw in the passer-by towards that engagement, and it potentially operates on all these levels.  

Another way of thinking about it is in relation to the montage techniques of Earth In Turmoil (not to mention Rodchenko’s own photomontages of the early 20s). Did Rodchenko pre-empt the idea that a spectator might be invited to seek the relationships between different types of material? If so, this does not necessarily imply an entirely passive recipient of state propaganda.  

The kiosks and stands, then, might invite and provoke as much as they impose a party line. Some of them, Klutsis’s particularly, swirl with undecided meanings. If we think about these lightweight, prancing, red and black structures alongside neo-classical elements of the previous decade (or the Socialist Realist projects of the next), they offer a retort to their earth-bound, heavy, immutable monumentality. Implicitly, the words that are spoken from them should be allied to their qualities of provisionality, gaiety and dynamism. These, like the theatre sets, can be seen as ‘magical folk machines’, with carnivalesque features (Barris 1998:121), provisional stages that belong to the moment of revolution, not to the coagulation of the emerging state. Such portable architectures are themselves speculative projections onto the existing city.  

Barris, Roann 1998,  ‘Culture as a Battleground: Subversive Narratives in Constructivist Architecture and Stage D esign’  Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Nov., 1998), pp. 109-123  

Braun, Edward 1969 (1998), Meyerhold on Theatre, London: Methuen  

Margolin, Victor 1997, The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy 1917-1946, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press  

Gruber, Klemens 2010, ‘An Early Staging of Media. Gustav Klutsis’s Loudspeaker Stands’ Film and Media Studies 2, pp.125-132  

Trotsky, Leon 1984 [1924], ‘Revolutionary and Socialist Art’ in Bolshevik Visions: First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, Ed. William G. Rosenberg, Ardis: Ann Arbor, pp.475-491