It is quite hard to know where to start with Hannes Meyer in Moscow. It’s hard because, while there is plenty of documentation on him and his team in the Bauhaus Brigade—as well as other Western designers and architects (of these, Ernst May is at least as significant as Meyer, as is the Dutch designer Mart Stam, and each went on to produce more substantial work than Meyer after their respective Russian episodes)—the legacy of his work there presents certain difficulties in evaluating. Thus, some questions that arise when considering the presence of Western designers in the USSR are these: how can we measure significance?; what was the potential importance of the work and vision of such planners and architects in the structures and unfolding of the first and second five year plans that reorganized Russia on a scale of necessity beyond their real capacity to intervene?
In the end Meyer and the others dropped out, left their teams in chaos, accepted defeat. The report of a visit to Russia in 1936 (the year of Meyer’s departure) entitled Moscow in the Making, written by Sir Ernest and Lady Shena Simon—planners of the suburb of Wythenshawe in Manchester—together with academics W.A. Robson and J. Jewkes, contains no reference to any of these men, nor other teams who had set up shop there. It is as if these British industrialists and economic specialists, typical of curious travelers from the West, encountered no trace of Meyer and the others, no visible impact of their work; and this at a moment when the fame of the Bauhaus in exile was spreading throughout the world.
We know enough of Meyer to understand the logic of bracketing his work in Moscow between his previous projects in Germany and his later Mexican activities. Claude Schnaidt’s book Hannes Meyer, Bauten, Projekte und Schriften (1965) remains a good reference. but we can’t set out in our search by studying any one building, nor indeed a successful piece of city planning on the scale that he envisaged for Moscow, Nishni-Kurinsk, Sozgorod-Gorki or Birobidjan. We can speculate from, interrogate or interpret plans or other archival records, according to the well-worked relationship between modern(ist) architecture and design on the one hand, and socialist rationality on the other—that is, within a framework of architecture and design history—along with critical theory—as they have developed in the last three decades. We could draw up a dossier of Meyer’s pedagogical projects in Moscow and map his design methods and his thinking around architecture as a collective process. But once done, what might this show? That Meyer, the socialist director of the Bauhaus, was a missing link? To what end? Perhaps, in the final analysis, to nothing. Or to nothing other than the complexity of our own historical delusions and desires for a better outcome to the last century than the one we are currently living through?