It’s rare enough for a family to produce one genius. Two is even more rare. One thinks of the romantic literary critics Karl and August Schlegel, the brothers William and Henry James, and maybe the basketball siblings Reggie and Cheryl Miller. A family with three geniuses is almost unheard of. Sure, there were the Brontë sisters. But only Charlotte lived long enough to really make a name for herself. For the first few decades of the twentieth century, however, there was one family that dominated Russian and Soviet architectural production: the Vesnins.
Leonid, Viktor, and Aleksandr Vesnin — brothers born in 1880, 1882, and 1883, respectively — were each trained in the traditional Beaux-Arts style that was standard within the academy at the time, yet would come to embrace the emerging avant-garde movement in building. More than that, though. They played a pivotal part in defining the movement, as well.
Particularly Aleksandr, whose abilities outshone those of his older brothers, made a name for himself early on as a painter of some talent. Vesnin came under the influence of Kazimir Malevich’s suprematist school of abstract, mystical geometry. Eventually he went on to design a number of monumental street displays for festivals and street parades during the revolution, between 1919 and 1923. Here he collaborated with the great artist Liubov Popova, who along with Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, and Varvara Stepanova were beginning to form the constructivist current in modern art.
At this point, he began to work on stage design in conjunction with Popova. They worked together on a project for Vsevolod Meirkhol’d’s play The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) and a production of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Both sets were groundbreaking in terms of their mobility, scale, and artistic composition, fully functional for the proscenium or surrounded by an audience on all sides. Some of the futurists and constructivists of the early 1920s advocated bringing art and live theater into factories themselves, as part of their general program of collapsing art into life.
Beginning in 1924, Aleksandr rejoined his brothers Viktor and Leonid for a competition entry for a proposed Palace of Labor in Moscow. El Lissitzky reflected in 1929 on the context and content of their submission, having had time to assess its significance:
In 1923, Soviet architecture was presented with its first new task. A plan was advanced to build a massive complex in the center of Moscow, a so-called “Palace of Labor,” for the new collective ruler, the worker. It was to serve for large congresses, mass rallies, meetings, theatrical productions, and so on. The task was as colossal as were the times. However, time had yet to produce a crystallization of definite architectural concepts. Thus, most of the proposed designs were amorphous and fragmented conglomerations, drawing their inspiration both from the past and from the mechanistic present, and based to a large degree on literary rather than architectural ideas. The design of the three brothers Vesnin marks the first step away from destruction toward new construction. By elevating a closed plan by means of an exposed reinforced concrete frame, a clear stereometric volume is produced. The whole is still conceived as an isolated, single object, independent of urban design considerations. The compulsion to rely on columnar organization remains pervasive. The complex is crowned by a romantic allusion to radio-tower technology, and the large space designed to accommodate 8,000 persons is still completely conventional. Nevertheless, this design represents the first attempt to create a new form for a social task that in itself was still ill-defined at the time. The ensuing period offered an increasing number of more concrete tasks, their purpose and aim becoming gradually more defined, and what was accomplished improved accordingly.
In 1924, the brothers A.A. and V.A. Vesnin worked out a design for the office building of the newspaper Leningradskaia Pravda. The building lot measured a mere 6 × 6 meters. The design of this building represents a characteristic solution in a period yearning for glass, steel, and concrete. All accessories — which on a typical street are usually tacked onto the building — such as signs, advertising, clocks, loudspeakers, and even the elevators inside, have been incorporated as integral elements of the design and combined into a unified whole. This is the aesthetic of constructivism.
Moving on from this competition, the Vesnins continued to work with one another on further plans. From the Arkos building to the Likachev Palace of Culture, the Palace of Soviets, and People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry [Narkomtiazhprom], the Vesnins blazed a trail across all the major concourses over the next decade.
They met the architect and theorist Moisei Ginzburg in 1924, allowing him to become the main spokesman for OSA, the Society of Modern Architects. Ginzburg edited its primary organ, Modern Architecture, while the Vesnins spread constructivism in architecture through their pedagogy at VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN in Moscow.
Ginzburg on the significance of the Vesnins’ Palace of Labor entry:
In 1923 we have a landmark for constructivism in its first concrete architectural action — the Vesnins’ project for a “Palace of Labor” completed for a competition which the Moscow Architectural Society was commissioned to announce by the Moscow Soviet.
For the first time we see embodied in this work the vital principles of the new approach to the resolution of architectural problems. This work is uniquely important and valuable for its new plan. Instead of an intricate, involved configuration, with many courtyards and passages, giving a better or worse, but almost always a stereotyped symmetrical and purely ornamental impression; instead of, in other words, an old-style specific plan, the Vesnin brothers alone, for all the defects and shortcomings of their work, nevertheless provided in this competition a new approach to the same assignment, concentrating all the locations in a new way, rejecting all internal courtyards, attempting the creation of a new social organism, whose inner life flowed as a whole not from the stereotypes of the past, but from the novelty of the job itself. The whole of its further development was subordinate to and anticipated by an elliptical hall for 8,000 people, joined by a sliding wall to another hall for 2,500 people, providing in this case a colossal meeting-place for the representatives of the working people of the whole world — an architectural conception of grandiose proportions. Such is the simple monolithic three-dimensional expression of the “palace” from the outside, flowing logically from its internal conception, and interrupted rhythmically only by the few horizontal and vertical lines of a reinforced concrete framework as well as some utilitarian additions, such as a radio mast, a clock, and so on.
There is a curious comparison between the Vesnins’ palace and Walter Gropius’ project of a building for the Chicago Tribune, which was also completed in 1923, and which — in the laconic simplicity of the same framework of horizontal and vertical lines — in fact has close parallels with the palace.
But these two almost simultaneous projects, which arrived at a single system of external partition as the function of a single construction, clearly highlight the difference between the tasks confronting each other.
At a time when Gropius’ Chicago Tribune, a brilliantly executed, radically constructed object designed with a new simplicity, has for its inner content the typical American conception of the “Business House,” the Vesnins’ “palace” originates from a new social conception of the organism of a building, so establishing a fundamental characteristic of constructivism.
The similarity between Gropius’ Chicago Tribune tower and the Vesnins’ Palace of Labor was more material than formal. Not material in the sense of what the building would be made of, or the way it would be built, but the function it would serve within the social totality.
Here later, on the Vesnins’ Arcos project:
Although the Vesnins’ next work — the joint-stock company ARCOS building — is on the surface completely unlike the Chicago Tribune building, it comes far closer to it in its essence for the simple reason that by dint of the peculiarities of the job and the site, it represents the typical planned conception of comparable banks, and reduces all the revolutionary achievements of the authors to a mere external design.
Accordingly, only the Palace of Labor can be regarded as the first landmark of genuine constructivism, for while the ARCOS building, with its system of vertical and horizontal planes, with the clarity of its proportions, the restrained simplicity of the whole and its details — is a beautifully executed object, it lacks the authentically revolutionary stamp of constructivism. Nevertheless, the Palace of Labor did not receive the appreciation it deserved, and the ARCOS building made an immense impact in the broader circles of modern architects and on our student youth. The explanation of this phenomenon is extremely simple. The Palace of Labor was the first realization of the method of constructivism. It cannot be imitated. It can only be followed — along the thorny path of independent, thoughtful, and creative work. The ARCOS building is a new formulation of the “conception of façades.” It is externally revolutionary and internally inoffensive. It is the line of least resistance, which the majority takes.