Self-Erecting Prefabricated

Houses of Cards

“Made on the scale of toys, yet with the precision of an engineer, Avvakumov's constructions are as linguistically playful as they are critically incisive. In the end Avvakumov's work proposes no political solution; rather it favors the subtle critical mechanisms of irony and humor, humbling and shrinking social and political ambition to a sculptural display placed under the gaze of more careful scrutiny. Avvakumov's witty House of Cards - an ironically stable structure - can be repeatedly erected and collapsed. It is tempting to relate the phallic construction to the present Soviet State, built like a house of cards somehow glued together and rising up in repeated displays of power”. Michael Govan, 1991

Yuri Avvakumov constructs paper buildings with the help of commercial decks of cards and a clever folding mechanism. Towards the end of his architecture studies in Moscow, Avvakumov focused on "paper architecture" - a term the artist coined in 1984 and which he uses to refer to the kind of models and designs which are entered for architecture competitions. Furthermore, these buildings also refer to a conceptual design that is not necessarily intended for transformation into "concrete" buildings. Drafting and discarding as constructive and destructive principles of three-dimensional design are brought to their highest point in this term.

Yuri Avvakumov demonstrates this approach using houses of cards which in themselves are so unstable that they would literally have to collapse. The two works "Fort Asperen" and "House in a House" actually do this, intentionally and in an ordered way.

"Fort Asperen" is built in a circle around a wooden rod. In times of threat, the strings which link the playing cards to the rod can be tightened. Like a roller-blind that is pulled upwards, the playing cards rise up to form a tower. Small embrasures offer defense possibilities, while the only access point to the protective circle is across a drawbridge. There are little flags on the battlements of the fortress. The artist takes us back to childhood, but instead of sand castles he builds a fortress out of cards that is in no way less fragile. The rod in the middle is a drumstick, which transposes the drum-roll of the music corps as an acoustic signal to take up position for combat. In times of peace, when the cards are let down again, the building looks more like an arena for sports contests.

In the work "House in a House" Avvakumov links the playful element with a rather sober high-rise architecture. A small house made of the kind of cards used in a memory game is surrounded by skat cards. The little building looks like a house of cards built as a test of skill. However, as soon as the four surrounding heaps, are raised, like a lift, the little house disappears inside a residential block. Face cards - sorted according to color -have been used to design the facade. A further aspect of Avvakumov's artistic approach to architectural design is addressed when the surrounding building turns out to be the burial urn of a family house. This implicit critique of contemporary architecture is not without its humorous side: the house inside the house recalls the traditional Russian doll inside the doll - the matryoshka - and in turn, a popular children's toy.

Ideally, an architect designs and constructs buildings. The models serve him as a three-dimensional translation of his idea of how the building could later look and be used. Through their capability to change, however, Yuri Avvakumov's paper buildings remain in the world of the fictional. It's as if an astonished Gulliver, in the land of the Lilliputians, were looking into homes which he perceives as doll's houses. Yet the artist prefers the fascination of the construct, which, for all its fragility, turns out to be stable.

Barbara Wagner, BODYCHECK 2007

''Still, contemporary Soviet Conceptualism is in at least one fundamental respect opposed to the spirit of the Constructivist movement. In place of the Constructivists' faith in a Communist utopia is a meditation on broken promises and squandered opportunities. The gap between the two movements is summed up perfectly in Yuri Avvakumov and Sergei Podyomschikov's 'Space Bridge,' a sculpture in playing cards that is at once a homage to Constructivist design and a symbol for the collapse of the Constructivist dream.'' NYT, 1990

As he was finishing his architecture studies in Moscow in the early 1980s, Yuri Avvakumov focused his practice almost entirely on drawings and models that might be entered in architectural competitions. Freeing himself of the requirement to turn his ideas into physical buildings (which at that time in the Soviet Union would have been unlikely in any case) Avvakumov reconsidered the aspirations of early Soviet Suprematist and Constructivist architecture and developed a hybrid art/architecture practice he dubbed "Paper Architecture".

The utopian spirit of the historical Russian Avant-Garde is perhaps best exemplified by Vladimir Tatlin's 1920 never-built proposal for a spiraling steel Monument to the Third International, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower but intended for government use. Incorporating offices as well as radio broadcast facilities, the futuristic tower embraced the technological age in what the the artist described as "a union of purely artistic forms for a utilitarian purpose." Today, Tatlin's revolutionary ambitions for architecture--pictured in a few extant ghostly black and white photographs of his model for the tower--are considered romantic if not tragic. After spending his last years in a failed effort to build a personal glider, Tatlin died, unrecognized, as an artistic Icarus--symbolic of the failure of his and his compatriots' high-flying hopes for art and architecture to transform society and government.

Avvakumov's "houses of cards" are made on the scale of toys, yet with the precision of an engineer. They are as linguistically playful as they are critically incisive. The feat of stacking playing cards into a fragile mock-architecture based solely on friction and balance is a centuries-old tradition. Avvakumov's witty structures can, ironically, be repeatedly erected and collapsed as they are stitched together with tape, thread, or rubber bands. Perhaps a playful reference to the last years of the Soviet State--a fragile "house of cards" somehow glued together and rising up in repeated displays of power--the artist's phallic skyscraper-like constructions, however, resonate with ever present questions about the aims of art and technology expressed in architecture.

Avvakumov is fascinated by the role of towers, and has, with ambivalence, occasionally built his own functional structures. Recently, for an exhibition of paintings by contemporary artists staged in a huge hangar-like gallery, he created a mini city of several tall pavilions made of cargo storage racks. Shifting the usual vantage point for paintings to a higher plane, he remarked: "I had in mind a town center, complete with a tower they could climb for a better view."

In the end Avvakumov proposes no ideological or political position. Utilizing the subtle critical mechanisms of irony, humor, and engineering, his work engenders a critical consciousness about our human ambition for reaching greater heights, in design, or in civilization.

Michael Govan, The Future of the Skyscraper. SOM Thinkers. 2015