The Russians are coming!
At least — I thought — the ghosts of early-20th-century Russian Constructivist architects, as I surveyed the burgeoning New Orleans skyline along I-10 near Jefferson Davis Parkway.
But I was wrong. Never judge a book by its cover.
When I first saw the gleaming new Woodward Design+Build headquarters building at night, with its glass-enclosed, four-story communication stairway, radiant vermillion walls and bold white lettering displaying company slogans, I was convinced that the architects were channeling designs from the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Erik Wismar, one of Woodward’s three senior architects, quickly disabused me of that notion.
“The building grew functionally out of what we needed as we grew as a company,” he explained. “We wanted to facilitate interaction between departments, and I hope the communication stairwell does that.”
No abiding love of Russian Constructivist architecture? Say what?
What I now realize is that architecture is a continuum, and influence moves from one practitioner to another over time. What was considered revolutionary in the 1920s has become mainstream over the decades.
With the yoke of Czarist oppression cast off, and the atrocities of Stalin a decade or more in the future, Russian artists and architects, playwrights and poets, had reveled in a new creative freedom that encouraged bold innovation that would herald a Utopian future.
The iconic monument to this new spirit, “Tatlin’s Tower,” a stark spiral reaching Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-like to to sky, remained a dream. Designed as both headquarters and a monument to the new governing Comisariat in St. Petersburg, it was to be deliberately taller than the Eiffel Tower, with the projected height of an 80-story building. Within the spiral, offices, propaganda screens and meeting rooms, all in geometric shapes, would be suspended.
In the revolution-weary country, with little steel or glass available, and only unskilled laborers to aid in construction, Tatlin’s Tower, like so many projects that would color design in the German Bauhaus in the 1930s and the European Modernist movement that followed, would gain influence but not substance.
So the rank of solar panels atop the Woodward building may look like the arcade above the bisecting exterior staircase of Konstantin Melnikov’s glass-and-wood Russian pavilion at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs (which gave us the term Art Deco), but it’s there as part of the building’s innovations to win LEED Gold certification, though the arrangement and orientation is reminiscent of solar screens in earlier buildings.
The dramatic four-story, glass-enclosed staircase may conjure images of the design for a tall, narrow glass-and-steel tower for Pravda — that anticipated Mies van der Rohe’s Seagrams building in Manhattan by decades; but it’s purely coincidental.
The roof garden of the building reflects the priorities of convention-rattling architect Le Corbusier, who never met an open roof-level space he didn’t like — and offers a view toward the Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff’s Office’s complex across I-10, whose opposing planes of intense colors had convinced me that the architects at Sizeler Thompson Brown also were playing the Constructivist card; but there’s no proof of that either.
It’s fun, nonetheless, to speculate; and, along Jefferson Davis Parkway, you can see two fine examples of 20th-century buildings that sit along the continuum of architectural design. The Louisiana Coca-Cola Bottling Company building, across the street from Woodward, is a fine example of a Bauhaus-style industrial block, with its brick facade, rows of ribbon windows, and contrasting thin stone lintels that emphasize the horizontal orientation of the building.
Architect Wismar points out that he and others at Woodward referenced the brick, and the narrow vertical side-street windows, of the Coca-Cola building in the exterior of their structure, which incorporates three ground-floor retail spaces into the equation. The first occupant, Gracious Bakery+Cafe, already is drawing pedestrian traffic to the area.
Just past Washington Avenue is Blue Plate Artists Lofts, originally home to Blue Plate mayonnaise and other delicacies, with its sleek white stucco envelope and curving walls of glass block, an emblem of mid-century Modernism. Artistic activity now abounds in the area.
But lest you think the Russians are coming solely to central New Orleans, check out the newest, or recently-remodeled, Burger King in your neighborhood. I hope they’ll open one like these in St. Petersburg, bringing things full circle.
Tatlin and Melnikov would be proud.