Inventing Possibility: Models of the Cosmic City by Suprematist Architect Lazar Markovich Khidekel
By Emily Leon
What does it mean to master time and space? Does critical engagement with abstract form help us imagine new worlds? This paper considers Cosmism: Suprematist Compositions in Space as a model for human evolution in the cosmos. For this paper, evolution will be understood in terms of human cognition, as Khidekel’s abstract cosmic model expresses knowledge through the emptiness of the medium and the universal nature of the geometric forms. It can be contended that his model is not universal because of its historicity and its inability to assume its interpreter’s familiarity with its particular conventions, such as its intention to communicate a universal artistic philosophy where utopian thought alludes a possibility for humans to exist in the cosmos. The model may be understood as temporal; it has a historical narrative. It is also hard to argue the model’s universality given the interpreter’s inability to understand the criteria of the model outside of its historical context. However, the philosophies of Suprematism and Russian cosmism make contrary claims. The model of Khidekel’s cosmic city is dependent on the universal shapes it denotes. The universality of the geometric forms demonstrate that the model is also atemporal, existing without time. I argue that without the geometric forms, the model would not act affectively in its ability to rise above its history, suggesting that Khidekel’s cosmic city model can function as a plan for remodeling the world.
The vehicles of my investigation consider Suprematism and Russian cosmism. Suprematism was an early twentieth century movement focused on non-objective art, a term often used in describing the supremacy of pure form and geometric abstraction. More importantly, it was a movement that used geometric forms specifically for their universal comprehensibility. Russian cosmism was a philosophical and cultural movement that emerged in early twentieth century Russia focused on the study of the physical universe and the potential existence of the evolution of humankind in the cosmos. Both philosophies are inextricably tied to the universal character of Khidekel’s cosmic city model. Although Khidekel’s model for the evolution of humankind in the cosmos is difficult to understood as universal due to Suprematism’s intentional lack of reason, its universal characteristics can inspire plans for remodeling the world.
Cosmism: Suprematist Compositions in Space is a 9.3 by 8.3 centimeter India ink and pencil drawing, where the medium suggests a weightlessness, an interest in overcoming gravity. There is a connection between the finite extent of the paper and the infinite possibilities of space. Timelessness attaches to pure geometries, suggesting space can be understood in terms of how we move through and understand or interpret our surroundings. Khidekel’s model alludes to the boundless possibilities that exist in the cosmos, a term often used to describe the natural order of the universe or how space and time interact. The composition consists of sketched lines that divide the plane into quadrants. These lines are central to the character of the work insofar as they suggest a course of path, perhaps what Russian cosmist thinkers believed to be a path of evolution in the cosmos.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the two forms depicted. They exist together on the page, where the universalness of the space allows them to float independently of one another. The emptiness of Khidekel’s freehand sketches of circles and cruciforms on white paper carry the viewers through space. Time doesn’t seem to exist. The Earth isn’t depicted, suggesting a complete disconnect from the planet. The quadrants act as gravitational fields for the forms to interact in space and depth. Uncertain and dynamic relationships begin to form on the picture plane. Although the forms exist two-dimensionally on paper, their relationship to one another acts three-dimensionally, as the larger image pushes itself into the foreground, while the smaller image drifts further into the realm of space. The forms themselves are carefully balanced basic shapes, resembling rotating mechanisms merged with extended plane cruciforms. The image is abstract, without figuration, human activity, or industry. The image is free from technical constraints so often “encountered in real life.” The figures might be read as space stations, recalling humanity’s orbital ambition and interstellar travel plans. The circles act as an extension of the cruciform structure they surround. The circles could also be indicative of the structure floating in orbit or they could represent planets.
Cosmism: Suprematist Compositions in Space was produced only a few years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, when Russia’s autocratic government was dismantled in an attempt to put the Russian people in power. Tormented by extreme socio-political changes, the rise of industrialization, and the new government’s growing centralized control, Soviet artists desperately looked for ways to reshape society. This is evident in Khidekel’s cosmic city model, which seeks escape from the claustrophobic space of Earth. Overcoming gravity creates a sense of freedom from the chaos of the world.
In 1913, Kazimir Malevich founded Suprematism, an art movement focused on the supremacy of “pure sensation in figurative art”, objectless depictions usually focused on universal and geometric patterns: squares, rectangles, and lines. Malevich wanted to go beyond the canvas, and felt the best way to achieve this was by introducing the structure of Suprematist discourse into the production and design of architectural models. Malevich described forms of Suprematism as having “achieved utilitarian perfection,” where “they are no longer relevant to Earth, and they can be treated and studied like any planet or complete system.” Malevich’s statement is echoed by Khidekel’s Cosmism: Suprematist Compositions in Space piece, as it evokes a radical theoretical concept of architecture in the early twentieth century in regards to obvious technical constraints of the time. More than three decades before mankind would first orbit Earth, his cosmic city model is completely detached from the planet’s surface. Khidekel’s innovative model occupied by basic geometric shapes was developed freehand without precision instruments, giving his shapes their individuality and autonomy. His model for human evolution in the cosmos allows it to act as an autonomous agent, independently from the theory and the world.
The Suprematist utilizes objectless depictions, like those in Khidekel’s cosmic city model, as a way to remodel the world. This model was rendered at a moment in history when artists traversed unchartered territory, where they began to develop the visual information necessary to establish a new world. The forms in Khidekel’s cosmic city model act as sign-posts that may change how we view the world. This helps contextualize his preference for universal shapes. The shapes have an ability to act as powerful agents of aesthetic communication, revealing that objectlessness and pure sensation in art maintain unchanged over time.
The idea was to create something new through form, a new world in space. Early twentieth century Russian cosmist thinkers had an attraction to certain forms and imagined a life lived in the cosmos, where spiritual man would theoretically be able to master time and open “up a new media of habitation” Khidekel’s cosmic city model distinguishes itself from the Russian cosmist’s belief that the link between man and nature was strong enough to “conquer” it based on man’s ability to “cognize nature and exert influence upon it.” In contrast, Khidekel believed that man and nature were in a harmonious relationship, that it was essential to free the representation of solid objects, and purge them of underlying principles that no longer had bearing. In other words, traditional modes of representation were inapplicable to Khidekel’s model of the cosmic city. Russian cosmist Valerian Muravyov wrote in his essay “Mastering of Time” that “history should be actively and consciously built by a man by means of transformation of cosmos for his own benefit, by means of improvement of life, nature and cosmos.” Khidekel’s utopian cosmic city model expresses Muravyov’s vision. Shaken by the changes in Russia during the early twentieth century, Khidekel expanded on Malevich’s Suprematist vision to extend beyond the canvas, while sketching cosmic city compositions with the intention of bringing about a universal harmony between heaven and earth. Both Muravyov and Khidekel’s utopian visions allude to the cosmic city model’s function as a plan to remodel the world. Khidekel’s vision of a new architecture, although radical, attempted to repair the ecological and psychological damage of the time.
Khidekel’s cosmic city model acts autonomously, without rules. For instance, the model does not adhere to the “laws of linear perspective.” The cruciforms act as lines that define “the direction of motion.” Infinite space and objectless forms were essential features of Suprematist design. The cosmic vision of Suprematism was rooted in its “world-building potential.” Khidekel used the expansive and empty medium of the paper so his model could evolve organically, describing a specific moment in Soviet history, where man perhaps imagined an “evolutionary ascent” into the cosmos. Cosmism: Suprematist Compositions in Space depicts forms that co-evolve in space and time.
Khidekel’s cosmic forms describe a fascination with an aerial view. Distance contributes to both the integrated appearance of the land and the observer’s freedom. Russian cosmist thinker Nikolai Fyodorov believed that the essential features of space and time were “responsible for the organization of the content of knowledge…that the ideality of the categories of space and time would become reality.” The Russian avant-garde was interested in space as a platform for transformation, the building of new worlds.
Artist and founder of e-flux Anton Vidokle believes that the Russian cosmist philosophy can be considered more pragmatically in terms of utopian thought. Vidokle explains that Russian cosmists were more about a refusal to allow aggressive government control, and instead considered how to prevent widespread epidemics such as famine or reconsidering health care accessibility in order to restore and rethink the distribution of “resources so everyone can live healthier, longer life.” Improving the socio-political situation was exactly what Khidekel had in mind when he began sketching his cosmic city models. He was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and in 1921 in an unpublished excerpt from his manifesto AERO 2 stated that the future of architecture would rest on a set of new laws; “instead of destroying the natural environment, it will enter into a beneficial interaction with the world that surrounds us.” By utilizing universal geometric forms floating in space, Khidekel’s model of the cosmic city alludes to the possibility that man can experience the world in a new way at any moment in time, a consideration and discovery of unseen events that would lead to the birth of a more advanced culture, a foundation for a new world.
Cosmism: Suprematist Compositions in Space functions as an instrument to further the investigation of our world, where we fit in it, and how we can elicit universal change through the consideration of an existence in space. It raises questions about how humans dwell and where they think. Khidekel’s cosmic model in space suggests the importance of space’s emptiness, as a promise to transform the world, enhancing the longevity of humankind and the preservation of our ecosystem. Humanity and the preservation of our planet are the referent of Khidekel’s cosmic city model. His model is perfect insofar as it helps us rethink the archetype of geometric shapes as more than objectless forms, but as forms that determine their function to teach, to continuously renew themselves and acquire knowledge about how to proceed in the universe.
Malevich’s Suprematism and Russian cosmism allows Khidekel’s cosmic city model to be understood as an agent of change, independent from theory alone or the world. His model for the cosmic city maintains relevance today, as the composition’s explicit choice of universal shapes allows the medium’s message to continue to challenge contemporary architectural thought and design. Remaining true to the spatial ideas of Malevich’s Suprematism, while stressing the importance of the idea of a utopian way of life, Khidekel’s model of the cosmic city suggests the illusionary concept of time.
Though the model cannot divorce itself from its historical urgency, as a direct response to political revolution of early twentieth century Russia, Khidekel’s decision to free the plastic arts, leaving behind what already existed to develop a technique outside of tradition, has the ability to allow us to contemplate the future. Looking into the future is central to the character of Khidekel’s model and the function of our brains. Through the geometric forms of his model, Khidekel was able to reach a revolutionary level of abstraction that surpassed the period in which it was created. His model exists in the past and the future. Imagining and inventing future possibilities suggests that Khidekel’s model is rooted in universal concepts insofar as it addresses the underlying essence of all human beings. We are all looking to a better future. A future that is almost always tied to mankind’s utopian aspirations, and interest in remodeling the world. The “artistic approach” to the Suprematist model was developed with the intention of becoming “universally adapted.”
©2017 Emily Leon
 Ibid., 52.
 Kazimir Malevich, “Introduction to the Theory of the Additional Element in Painting,” The World as Objectlessness, (New York: Malevich Society, 1927), 187.
 Alla Rosenfeld, “Between Suprematism Utopia and Stalinist Reality,” in Lazar Khidekel & Suprematism, ed. Regina Khidekel (New York: Prestel, 2014), 36.
 Patricia Railing, On Suprematism, 34 Drawings: A Little Handbook of Suprematism (England: Artists Bookworks, 1990).
 This statement is in agreement with Margaret Morrison and Mary S. Morgan’s text “Models as Mediating Instruments”, where they argue that the autonomous nature of the model becomes a mediator in how we understand the world.
 Helena Knyazeva, “The Russian Cosmism and the Modern Theory of Complexity: The Comparative Analysis,” in Analecta Husserliana: The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research, Volume CVII, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka and Attila Grandpierre (New York: Springer, 2011), 229.
 Ibid., 230.
 Helena Knyazeva, “The Russian Cosmism and the Modern Theory of Complexity: The Comparative Analysis,” in Analecta Husserliana: The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research, Volume CVII, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka and Attila Grandpierre (New York: Springer, 2011), 230.
 Although Russian cosmism and Khidekel’s cosmic cities seem extreme by today’s standards, these imaginal landscapes seemed like potential realities for the Russian avant-garde in the early twentieth century. If we consider the advances of and experimentation with aerial photography, flight, industrialization, and technology, imagining a life lived in the cosmos doesn’t seem like such an extreme notion for the avant-garde at that time.
 Regina Khidekel, “Lazar Khidekel: The Trajectory of Suprematism; Between Sky and Earth,” accessed November 10. https://thecharnelhouse.org/2013/12/25/khidekel-and-the-cosmist-legacy-of-suprematism-in-architecture/.
 Tatiana Goriacheva, “Research in the Plane of the Suprematist Field”: Lazar Khidekel’s Suprematism,” in Lazar Khidekel & Suprematism, ed. Regina Khidekel (New York: Prestel, 2014), 18.
 Helena Knyazeva, “The Russian Cosmism and the Modern Theory of Complexity: The Comparative Analysis,” in Analecta Husserliana: The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research, Volume CVII, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka and Attila Grandpierre (New York: Springer, 2011), 233.
 Stephen Lukashevich, N.F. Fedorov (1828-1903): A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought (London: Associated University Presses, 1977), 113-114.
 Francesco Tenaglia, “Art Without Death: Russian Cosmism,” Mousse Magazine, 2017, http://moussemagazine.it/art-without-death-russian-cosmism-2017/.
 Lazar Khidekel, “The Path of UNOVIS” from AERO 2, 1921 (unpublished) in Lazar Khidekel & Suprematism, ed. Regina Khidekel (New York: Prestel, 2014), 101.
 Ibid., 101.
 Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism inspired the work of late contemporary architect Zaha Hadid. In 2012, she published a book titled Zaha Hadid and Suprematism. In 2010, Hadid curated an exhibition of the same name at Galerie Gmurzynska Zurich, where she merged Suprematist designs with her own works, transforming Russian works into contemporary pieces. Russian cosmism has also gained quite a bit of traction in the past six months. Recently, there was an exhibition in Russia titled “Art without Death: Russian Cosmism” that combined historical and contemporary contributions, and there was a symposium at MoMA in NY recently titled “Russian Cosmism: A Work of Art in the Age of Technological Immortality” that considered Russian cosmism and its relevance to our time today.
 Nicole Dubreuil-Blondin, “Khidekel or Fantasized Construction,” in Lazare Markovitch Khidekel: Suprematist Works 1920-1924, ed. Antoine Blanchette (Québec: Bibliothèque nationale du Canada, 1992), 52.