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The Modernist #39

The Modernist #39

This latest Close-up excerpt comes from the always excellent The Modernist. Each issue celebrates a different aspect of modernism, and this issue adopts the theme ‘Killer’ to examine ‘buildings designed for taking the lives of our fellow human beings.’



The guest editors of the issue are historian and photographer Linda Ross, who lives in the Scottish Highlands, home to some of the best modernism around, and Alex Boyd, artist and author, whose work concentrates on militarised landscapes.

They explain of our excerpt, ‘Chernobyl is the ultimate killer building. It’s devastating story is familiar world-wide, but we wanted to re-focus attention in acknowledgement of its role as a workplace where people went about the mundanities of everyday life. This piece, authored evocatively by Darmon Richter, concentrates on the Soviet design elements which have come to symbolise a failed workers’ utopia.’



Over to Darmon…

It is 1972. Coloured lights blink on a steel-panelled console fitted with bank upon bank of inscrutable buttons and dials, while all around, affixed to corrugated aluminium walls, CRT screens and oscilloscopes twitch and flicker to the heartbeat of a machine of almost incalculable complexity. Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction art film Solaris was released to international critical acclaim, while at home in the USSR, despite a limited release, it screened for 15 years uninterrupted and developed a cult status. That same year, in the Ukrainian SSR, construction began on a state-of-the-art scientific facility that could almost have stood in as a real-life set for Tarkovsky’s fictional space station: the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant at Chernobyl. Both places, the real and the fictional, were characterised by early-1970s Soviet industrial design, a style of exaggerated modernity and function; and in a superficial sense, both might be read as a celebration of scientific progress. Yet in both these retro-futuristic control rooms, for all their technological splendour, it would ultimately be humanity’s own shortcomings that were called into question.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, as it is more often called – or ChNPP for short—was built along with its adjacent workers’ city, Pripyat, as part of the Soviet Union’s forward-looking atomgrad project. These were typically closed cities built around nuclear sites such as power plants, warhead factories, or uranium enrichment facilities. Often they wore the atom symbol as a brand, alongside the usual hammers, sickles and stars that decorated other Soviet cities. However, Chernobyl was always set apart as something special. Its first four RBMK-1000 type reactors came online in 1977, 1978, 1981, and 1983, and were capable of generating 1000 MWe apiece. By the mid-1980s two more reactor blocks were already under construction. It is alleged that the intention was to build six more reactors after that, at a site across the river; and this plan, if realised, would have made Chernobyl more powerful than any nuclear plant in the world today

The Ukrainian artist Mykola Lynnyk was a specialist in monumental design, and his workshop in Chernihiv was tasked with the creation of a series of new stained-glass windows to decorate a stairwell in the main administrative block of ChNPP. Lynnyk’s glass panels between them told the history of power: from Prometheus passing the gift of fire (and thus, self-determination) to mortal men, through to the splitting of the atom, and finally, scenes of Soviet cosmonauts exploring the reaches of space. It was a parable, of course, for the Socialist Revolution and the Party’s subsequent technological triumphs—and indeed, the figure of Prometheus was a recurring motif throughout numerous Soviet sites associated with power and heavy industry. Completed within a seven month period, the windows were installed by the artists themselves on 23 April 1986. Then just two nights later, in the early hours of 26 April, a safety test in Reactor 4 would go critical, resulting in the world’s worst nuclear disaster. What was initially blamed solely on ‘operator error’, would later be acknowledged as the result of a flawed reactor design – the Soviet atomgrad project had compared itself to Prometheus, but its own hubristic oversight was ultimately its downfall.


Read the entire article in The Modernist #39, available now.



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