Of all the fantastic buildings in Russia and Belarus, the ones that I really wanted to see in the flesh were the buildings from the 1920s, that period of Russian architecture dominated by the avant-garde; the Constructivists. This group of architects first visualised the revolution through architecture and heralded a new age where architecture would forge social change. They really recognised the connection between the built environment and society, designing architecture which would embody the beliefs of the revolution: progress, collective action, equality and communalism.
At a time of great social upheaval, as well as great poverty, most of the buildings from this period were designed with a lack of access to basic building materials and no modernised workforce and machinery necessary to build large scale developments. Therefore the Constructivists built on a budget and the results were often very pared back, making use of simply constructed forms and ingenious solutions to design issues; truly rethinking how architecture could serve the masses.
This was a relatively short-lived period of freedom for Soviet architects and avant-garde planning. The diverse and innovative buildings designed from the 1917 revolution to the death of Lenin in 1924 was immediately and ruthlessly crushed with the influx of Stalinist Socialism Realism in the 1930s, and the resulting ‘official’ hostility towards Modernism. Pared back, clean lined architecture had to make way for ostentatious monumentalism, with Stalin’s brutal cult of personality at its heart. As a result, many architects gave up creativity in order not to serve the regime. Many were banned from designing and sadly, many ended up in those repressive gulags now so familiar to us through the words of Solzhenitsyn.
In the years following the demise of the USSR, there has been a lack of recognition for the avant-garde buildings of the 1920s, particularly in Russia. Many have failed to gain the recognition that they deserve and have fallen into disrepair, degrading in the arms of an indifferent state. Although some of the buildings have proved immediately popular and have, following the Soviet period, become monuments, many decorated with small plaques detailing the architect’s name and the year it was built, others, as I saw, have scandalously fell into states of disrepair: managed decline on behalf of the state.
Mosselprom Building, 1923-1924, David Kogan
The state-run Mosselprom department store became a symbol for the consumerism forwarded by Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Mosselprom (The Moscow Association of Enterprises Processing Agro-Industrial Products, which united flour-grinding, confectionary, chocolate, beer and tobacco factories) was one of the highest structures in Moscow at the time that it was built. Yet it wasn’t just the design of the building that made it notorious. This was very much down to the poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, advertising slogans plastered and painted onto the sides of the building. Not renowned for being an ad-man (Mayakovsky was one the greatest of the avant-garde poets from the 1920s, a charm and a curse that he paid for with his own life in the 1930s), his slogans “Everything for everyone – at Mosselprom” and “Nowhere but in Mosselprom” became famous in Soviet life. These phrases hit at the heart of the everyday Soviet man or woman, instilling themselves in the subconscious of the community. At a time when many products were scare these slogans functioned to make the general populace aware of what they could get in Mosselprom and nowhere else. The slogans were transferred into print form by Alexander Rodchenko, the renowned typographer and designer and together they created many works for Mosselprom, including innovative promotional techniques and advertising concepts which were new for the time. As a result, the colourful typography marked onto the sides of the building was no ordinary system of signage; it was functional yet attractive and could be seen from afar. The fact that the Mosselprom slogans are still so well known and remembered is testament to the success of the campaign, particularly when Mosselprom and its brands disappeared decades ago. Furthermore, amazingly, in 1997, the original graphics were completely restored and are still being restored to this day.
Rusakov Worker’s Club, 1927-28, Konstantin Melnikov
Melnikov is probably my favourite architect. The buildings he designed were original and individual; immersed in the original revolutionary principles of egalitarianism and equality. The radical forms he utilised were an embodiment of these principles. His visions of progress seep out of his buildings, where great wedges jut into the air and oblique, dynamic lines slash through his elevations. Melnikov was something else, a great maverick, the Russian bad boy of the avant-garde, yet his designs were too much for a backward looking, cult of personality pushing, Soviet government, who eventually banned him from practising architecture. As the ultimate slap in the face; the decisive attack, he was condemned by a hypocritical congregation of 800 of his fellow professionals; his fellow creatives.
Yet the architecture still stands to tell the story of this great visionary. One of his original designs, the Rusakov Club still holds its own in a world that looks very different to the revolutionary 1920s. Melnikov designed many worker’s clubs in the 1920s and early 1930s, and many, like the Rusakov Club, were built beside factories for ease of use, on what was then the fields that led out of Moscow. These new worker’s clubs were designed to replace churches (that “opium of the people”), as social gathering places, and primary sites of everyday ideological intervention on behalf of the state. I can just imagine the bemusement felt by the Muscovite workers, faced with this modernist, geometric, dazzling white structure, rising up amidst the grey Russian industrial landscape.
Rusakov Worker’s Club
The club itself is built on a fan-shaped plan, with three cantilevered concrete seating areas rising above the base. The forms of the overhanging volumes are extremely distinctive and it’s a building that seems to have been designed from the inside out; the exterior façade emphasising the forms of the interior spaces.
Its multi functional design is something that was characteristic of Melnikov’s clubs. At a time of scare resources this was an ingenious concept, which originated from a desire to produce new solutions for architecture relatively cheaply. When Melnikov conceived of this club the idea that rooms could be flexible in scale according to use was a completely new model of design. Inside the Rusakov Club were moving walls which divided the auditorium into five spaces which could employed at the same time for separate uses. The inventiveness of this design can be seen in the exterior: each of the huge volumes that protrude out from the sides of the building house the separate auditoriums. This was a concept that was used in many of Melnikov’s designs, and he often devised spaces that were separated by screens which could be easily moved to make rooms larger or smaller according to the needs of the users.
We see these themes still being drawn upon and utilised in present day design. Re-set: new wings for architecture was the exhibition in the Dutch Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. This exhibition highlighted the possibilities of transforming underused space. Inside the pavilion, curtains glided along tracks, constantly separating the spaces into new forms, so that the areas constantly changed and reconfigured every few minutes. Thus Melnikov’s early ideas to do with the possibilities of changing a space according to its use are still being applied, and it’s something that, with a continuing lack of resources in the world, we should be looking towards as the ingenious and shrewd concept that it is.
Complex and coherent the Rusakov Club is an absolute joy to walk round. Its imposing form changes as you walk around it, achieving different viewpoints. Although my favourite thing to do is to go and visit the buildings I most admire, I must confess that I’m often intimidated by their mass. I feel this way when walking underneath the Tyne Bridge, along the Quayside in Newcastle. The structure is so all encompassing and fills your vision to such an extent that I feel almost scared by its colossus. I felt the same way standing underneath the great overhanging forms of the Rusakov Club; I was intimidated yet I couldn’t stop staring.
Rusakov Worker’s Club
Melnikov House, 1929, Konstantin Melnikov
Melnikov’s house, the house he built for himself, is at the heart of the famous Arbat district of Moscow; once the home of many great Russian writers and artists. Melnikov’s individualism really comes to the fore in this creation, yet unfortunately I was unable to get any decent photos of this fantastic building as it is locked, deserted and surrounded by a high all-encompassing fence.
Completed in 1929 it was to be Melnikov’s last building: his final and most personal project. Made up of two interlocking cylinders covered with elongated hexagonal windows, the building was Melnikov’s haven. He ascribed each section of the interior to a part of the human body. The kitchen and dining area on the ground floor was the ‘stomach’ of the house, the bedroom and living room on the first floor was described as its ‘heart’ and the top floor studio was its ‘brain’, whilst the hexagonal windows were devised to cast light in an even, yet intense way. This separation of activities was typical of Melnikov’s ideas of how the use and design of space should complement the life of the user.
The current state of the Melnikov House
Criticised for designing a private home and going against the official Soviet ideology of ‘equality’ (i.e. standardised, cramped living spaces for all), Melnikov was cast out of architectural circles and remained an official disgrace until his death in 1974. Bust and broke he eked out a living teaching painting and doing small scale works for neighbours and friends. That the house still exists is due to the persistence and the dogged determinism of his son Viktor, a painter, who made its preservation his life’s work. Over the years this modest building has been threatened by physical deterioration; not sturdy enough for Moscow’s harsh climate, and then by faceless outsized property development which surrounds the site, dwarfing it, glaring in at it from above, and sitting in and stealing its sunlight. If it were not for Viktor the house would have disappeared beneath a postmodern hulking high rise; buried underneath another capitalist eyesore.
The Melnikov House as it used to look (Image: Arnsdorf (NY) Scrapbook)
Unfortunately the house has been the subject of a lengthy and fierce legal fracas, first between Viktor and his sister and now between Victor’s two daughters: Ekaterina and Elena. Ekaterina resides there and is determined to carry out her father’s last wish: that the house should be given to the state, to become a museum, yet Elena claims a crucial share of the house is hers. Without the permission to transform this building into a museum of Melnikov’s life, the house sits and crumbles little by little, year by year. This pure white structure at the heart of Moscow is now severely at risk. Cheaply built, and vulnerable to the country’s climate and rapacious property developers it is degrading fast. The Melnikov family must be careful that this delicate, iconic building of avant-garde Constructivism doesn’t fall to bits at their feet unnoticed, whilst they ignorantly continue to argue.
Narkomfin Communal Housing, 1928-32, Moisei Ginzburg with Ignaty Milinis
A project of great idealism and great architectural vision, the collective apartment block, Narkomfin, like the Melnikov House, is dissolving into the ground. A pioneer of new Socialist planning, Mosei Ginzburg created this semi-communal apartment block for the workers of the Commissariat of Finance (shortened to Narkomfin). The first of its kind, it provided an opportunity for Ginzburg to put into practice many of the theories on architectural form and communal living that were being advanced by the Constructivists in the 1920s, bringing the Communist ideals of collectivism and communalism into the core of domestic life. The apartments were an intervention into the everyday life (or, in Russian, ‘byt’) of the inhabitants. By offering convenient services such as crèches, laundry facilities, a library and a gymnasium, the blocks were designed to alleviate and remove women from their traditional roles as housewives and mothers, allowing them to become fully involved in Socialist life. Narkomfin was the visual embodiment of Ginzburg’s concept of architecture as a ‘social condenser’, having the ability to create socially equitable spaces. Ginzburg’s idea was to transform the design of public space, giving architecture the ability to influence social behaviour, and releasing spaces from the traditional hierarchies of social exclusion and class division that they were previously bound by.
The Narkomfin Building
Set within parkland, the building utilises cheap materials, yet it is solidly built. Made from reinforced concrete it is a simple, pared back structure, yet it retains an overall elegance with the inclusion of curved balconies attached to one end of the block. The use of the structure as communal housing can be seen in its long, unbroken façade, almost free of partitions. Not only was it the first of its kind in the USSR, it was also an international project. It caught the attention of the great father of Modernism, Le Corbusier, who made studies of the building on his visits to the USSR and was vocal about the part it played in the design of the duplex flats in Unité d’Habitation. It was also to become a prototype for modern apartment blocks and housing estates all over Europe.
Like many others, Ginzburg and Narkomfin also fell foul of Stalinism. The fact that this communal housing model failed to become widespread in the USSR was not necessarily a consequence of failures within the building, it is more a consequence of the failure of Soviet utopianism itself. Ginzburg himself initially defied Stalinist Socialist Realism, pleading with the state for artistic independence at the first Congress of Soviet Architects in 1937, but like many others, the pressure was too much and the punishment too terrible, and he too was made to conform to that very Stalinism, pseudo-classical strain of historicism in architecture.
Now Narkomfin is stuck, physically and metaphorically. Wedged between a fancy shopping centre and the Stalinist American Embassy building, this icon of utopian architecture has been badly neglected. In its grossly dilapidated state it is still inhabited in part – artists have now taken over part of the building for use as studios. Although it looks a pretty terrible state from the outside – its windows smashed or boarded up and its once fresh and level concrete now cracked and pierced – the building is, thankfully still standing firm and is structurally sound. Yet sadly, this is again an example of a piece of extraordinary Constructivist architecture that had been left to rot, its slow disintegration being watched over by an uncaring and disdainful state. This is an unconscious act of revenge on behalf of the Russian government: an attempt to wipe away the country’s difficult Communist history. Yet there’s also another side to this story. Placed in an affluent part of central Moscow the land is highly desirable, thus the government wants to reclaim the land for a new development. This uncompromising government is quietly scheming, whilst not calling for the building’s demolishment, they will not be part of the effort to save the building. They’re playing the waiting game in the face of all those trying to save the building, they’re waiting until Narkomfin is so unsafe and dilapidated that they must go in with the bulldozers. It’s a money making scheme on behalf of a lazy, crude and corrupt government who shows daily that it has little regard for the country’s past, present or future.
The Narkomfin Building
The Zuev Workers’ Club, Ilya Golosov, 1926-28
The Zuev Worker’s Club was designed to house various facilities for Moscow workers: to educate but also to entertain them outside of work. In his design, Golosov utilised the pure geometric forms associated with Constructivism yet, instead being obsessed with the logics of mathematics, which the Constructivists were so influenced by, Golosov was an absolute enthusiast for expressive, dynamic design. This is reflected in the building’s dramatic composition; consisting of cylindrical glazed staircases which meet at a sharp, forceful angle with the stacked rectangular floor planes.
Zuev Worker’s Club
Unfortunately part of the extensive glazing which covered the exterior of the building has been bricked up and many of the original balconies have been removed. However, the building still houses a cultural centre and a theatre and retains its flush of pink around the exterior.
Nothing prepares you for the Moscow subway system. So used to walking through London’s endless claustrophobic tunnels, with their utilitarian design, the extravagance of Moscow’s subway is one of the first things to hit you when landing in the city.
Opened in 1938, it was the first underground railway system of the USSR. One of Moscow’s most extravagant architectural projects, Stalin ordered that each station, each tunnel, should be decorated in all-embracing Socialist Realist style. It’s hard not to fall for the propaganda that oozes out of every metro station. You think to yourself, “Why not? Why not have grandiosity for the masses, beautiful design for the proletariat?” The power of these stations really is all encompassing: you can feel the propaganda thick in the air, written into every wall, every façade. The Moscow Metro made heavy use of the Stalinist device of control through awe; it was designed so that the passengers unconsciously absorbed the ethos of the dreadful cult of Stalin as they rode.
Ticket office, Moscow subway
Moscow subway station
The Metro was seen as the prototype of modern engineering, the cathedral of Communist technology. Each station is decorated with a different theme, retaining its own identity (all of course forwarding the great hoax of Soviet egalitarianism). Whether focusing on sports, culture, science, children, agriculture or the role of women, the artwork of each station is a model of hyper-indulgence: elegant yet excessive. Drenched in Stalinist nationalism, each station has managed to combine aesthetics, ideology and technology beautifully.
The experience of being in these stations, in the depths of the Muscovite earth, is strange. They’re really quite light and airy, combining ingenious lighting systems with high ceilings so you feel none of the claustrophobia normally associated with being tens of metres underground. This is not only down to the height of the stations but also due to the use of marble walls which reflect and reuse the light from the lavish chandeliers. These chandeliers are one of the most stunning yet technologically advanced aspects of the project. This was in part down to the vision of the chief lighting engineer, Abram Damsky. Not only did Damsky create lavish forms of lighting, such as the grandiose chandeliers, he also created very simple, yet effective and efficient lighting systems. Using light as an expressive form, his designs often made use of modest arrangements of bulbs, such as strip lighting, coupled with the use of a wide range of diverse, yet cheap, materials. He would often couple ordinary strip bulbs with soft metals such as aluminium or sheet metals. The results are simple, beautiful and modern creations as you can see in the photos below.
Red star light fixtures in the Moscow Metro
Light fixtures in the Moscow Metro
VDNkH: The All Russian Exhibition Centre, 1937, Various architects
Nowhere in Russia did I see the clashing of two ideologies so starkly than in the All Russian Exhibition Centre. Once a place of culture, education and Communist propaganda, its pavilions are now crammed full with repetitive kiosks selling the usual tourist nonsense: the commercial intrusion and large-scale advertisements of Capitalism. The All Russia Exhibition Centre is a place where you feel that you’ve landed in some kind of strange political limbo, between the left and the right, between Communism and Capitalism. A Vostok rocket lies, suspended above the square; once a symbol of Soviet supremacy, collective workers join hands with their industrial counterparts, whilst beside them sit commercial billboards, advertising the wonders of designer sunglasses and Capitalist junk food. Over the Tannoy our ears receive the same kind of propagandistic nonsense they would have heard thirty years ago, yet the sympathies and message has since switched.
Statue of Lenin in front of the House of Russia Pavilion
The entrance gates to VDNkH
The park was originally conceived as a temporary exhibition park showcasing the successes of the USSR. Each state had its own pavilion, offering them a stage for their economic, industrial and agricultural achievements, as well as providing an insight into their own diverse cultures. Largely built between the 1930s to the 1950s, the exhibition’s pavilions offer endless emblems and statements of Communist successes. Worker’s dance and cavort clutching hammers and sickles, red stars sit sternly on every façade and the stark, staring figure of Lenin is one of the last to remain in Moscow. Decorative and eclectic, the pavilions display some serious examples of Socialist Realism: symbols and signs galore. However brash and bold it is in its display of severe Stalinism, this development marks the end of Socialist Realism. In 1958, during the great Khrushchev Thaw, the exhibition park was renamed The Exhibition of the Economic Achievements of the People’s Economy, where thrift was to replace excess.
The Monument to the Conquerors of Space sits next to the Metro station of the exhibition centre. A soaring 100 metre high structure it pierces the sky with a spear which morphs into a rocket at its point. Faced in sheets of titanium it shimmers in the light, the sunlight illuminating its jetstream like the fire of a rocket. Yuri Gagarin would be proud.
Monument to the Conquerors of Space
Yet of all the weird and wonderful structures in the Exhibition Centre the most famous, and most prominent, is the replica of the USSR pavilion from the Paris Expo of 1937. Unfortunately the replica building isn’t really big enough for the sculpture that sits oversized and hulking on top of it like a wedding character on a cake. The huge Worker and Farmer sculpture – a combination of architectural form and visual allegory – represents the uniting of industry and agriculture; the hands of the figures are together, high in solidarity, jointly embracing the hammer and sickle, their clothes rippling in the wind behind them. Romantic and ruthless, this is the ultimate in Soviet persuasion. In its original form in Paris it stood facing the stern Nazi Pavilion with its menacing spread eagle glowering across the boulevard at the worker and farmer. Compared to its Nazi counterpart the Soviet structure had a carefree feel, whereas the opposing pavilion was every bit as authoritarian and militant as the regime. At a time of great tension between the two nations it seems that the placing of these two pavilions within the exhibition was deliberate. It’s as if they’re involved in a silent stand off, part of some kind of dogmatic spaghetti western – waiting patiently for the other to whip their gun out.
Worker and Farmer sculpture on top of the USSR Pavilion
A view of the main boulevard of the 1937 Paris Expo showing the Soviet Pavilion on the right and the Nazi Pavilion on the left.
Lenin’s Mausoleum, 1924-30, Aleksey Shchusev
At his death a wooden tomb was quickly erected in Red Square to house Lenin’s body. Becoming a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, it was replaced by a red granite (symbolising Communism) and black labradorite (symbolising mourning) structure, designed by the Egyptian revival architect Aleksey Shchusev. The erection of a permanent building to house the revolutionary’s embalmed body was intended to be more suitable for the continued viewing of the body by mourners. Yet it was also a propagandistic decision on behalf of the now Stalinist government.
This building, although squat, is a stepped pyramid, and whilst an obvious symbol for the mausoleum of a dictator, taking its lead from the great pyramids of the pharaohs in Egypt, it isn’t crude or too backward gazing. Shchusev managed to keep some of his Constructivist sympathies on show, creating a building that is free from the typical kind a classicism of the Stalinist era. While the mausoleum seems comparatively small from the outside, it has hidden depths. Famously, Lenin’s body has been the subject of some ground-breaking research into the embalming process. Within the mausoleum itself there is a laboratory for the on going embalming process and for Lenin’s twice-yearly chemical wash down.
On Stalin’s death he briefly lay next to Lenin, yet once Khrushchev’s thaw was in full swing he was removed and placed behind the mausoleum. The denouncement of Stalin’s terrible cult of personality was made clear in Khrushchev’s famous speech which was given outside the mausoleum. Thus, the mausoleum became synonymous with the Soviet state both at home and abroad, and became a common place for government officials to give speeches and for them to watch parades and celebrations in Red Square.
The government’s insistence to go against Lenin’s wish to be buried next to his mother in the Volkov Cemetery, Saint Petersburg continues to be a point of contention in Russia. It was initially a propagandist decision of behalf of Stalin – to associate himself more fully with a man whom he was becoming less and less akin to, yet the present leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, continues to support its presence in Red Square, stating rather ridiculously that to watch over the burial of Lenin would mean that a generation of citizens would feel that they had observed false values for decades.