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Soviet avant-garde architectural negatives (mid-1920s to early-1930s)

Blueprint abstractions (all blueprints, really, are anticipatory abstractions) of modernist building projects by Soviet architects Ivan Leonidov, Leonid Vesnin, Aleksandr Vesnin, and Nikolai Krasil’nikov.

From Sovremennaia arkhitektura [Modern Architecture], 1930 (no. 5, pgs. 2-3):

In publishing projects for the Palace of Culture to be built on the Simonov Monastery site as discussion material, the editors of SA observe that not one of them provided a generally and entirely satisfactory solution to the problem. The arguments which have developed around these projects in the press, higher education establishments, and in public debates have mainly emphasized the design submitted by I. Leonidov, and as a result have come to assume the character of an undisguised persecution and baiting of the latter.

The editors of SA are perfectly well aware of the shortcomings of certain of I. Leonidov’s projects: ignoring the economic situation today at the same time as indulging in certain elements of aestheticism. All these features are undoubtedly a minus in Leonidov’s work.

Architectural blackprints.

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But the critics of Leonidov’s work totally fail to see what from our standpoint is a great plus in it, which for all these shortcomings makes it in certain respects better and more valuable than the work of his competitors.

…The editors of SA, whilst recognizing that some of the accusations made against him are correct (abstractness, schematicism, etc.) consider that despite this the works of Leonidov are highly valuable as material of an investigative and experimental character, and they most forcefully protest against the groundless persecution of him.

Signed,
The editors of Modern Architecture.

Nikolai Krasil'nikov, final diploma project (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov’s terrifying planar urbanism (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov
Sovremennaia arkhitektura
Vol. 3, № 6: 1928, 170-176
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Problems of modern architecture
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……Final diploma project for Aleksandr
……Vesnin’s studio at VKhUTEIN

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In order to really know an object, it is necessary to comprehend, to study all sides of it, all its internal and external connectivities.

— Lenin

It is necessary to pursue and elaborate the implications of this proposition in every specialized field.

Central tower to Nikolai Krasil'nikov's "New City" (1928)

Nikolai Krasil’nikov’s “New City” (1928)

My initial premises:

  1. The environment in which an organic body exists has an influence upon its form.
  2. The forms of the various parts of the organic body are determined by their functions. Thus in a tree the forms of the root, the trunk, and the leaves are determined by the purposes they serve.
  3. To put it mathematically, the form of every body is a complex function of many variables (and the concept of form embraces the internal structure of the body matter).
  4. A scientific theory of the design of form can be developed through the dialectical method of thinking, with the application of mathematical methods of analysis; analysis, that is, which uses the infinitesimal quantities of analytical geometry along with both differential and integral calculus, and the theory of probability and mathematical statistics.
  5. A theory of the design of architectural form must be based on the physical, mechanical, chemical, and biological laws of nature.
  6. Socialist construction is unthinkable without the solution of economic aspects of the problem such as would yield the maximum economic effect in the very broadest sense.  So the constructional economics of a building for human work or habitation must be measured in terms of:
  • the material resources expended in erecting and running it;
  • wear (amortization) and repair of the building;
  • the time expended by people on all forms of movement in and around it;
  • impairment of the health of individuals, which depends on the extent to which the sanitary-technical norms and laws on safety at work and leisure are observed; and
  • the working conditions which would promote an improvement in the productivity of labor in general and mental work in particular, or in the conditions for leisure.

7. Under present Soviet circumstances [destvitel’nosti], the
……achievement of maximum constructional economics in
……architecture is also a vital necessity for the successful
……realization of socialism.

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Richard Stites’ chapter “Utopia in Space: City and Building” from his book Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life (1981)

Cover to Stites' book on utopianism

If there is truly a proletarian concept, it is the word “We.”

— Anatoly Lunacharsky

The Soviet government in the 1920s was the first in modern history to possess such mammoth power to design living quarters for its population; to determine the number, size, and style of buildings; to plot the density of the population on the land and within each structure; to decide where to place such structures; to plan future cities and variants of the city; to shape the balance of the population between town and countryside — in other words to proclaim the layout and location of all human services — factories, offices, schools, hospitals, and homes.  Town planning in a planning state — which is what Soviet Russia became in 1928 — was not simply a minor occupation; it was in fact “nation planning,” macro-community design — in other words, Utopia building on the ground and on the grandest possible scale.  Faced with such possibilities for the expression of their talents and imaginations, what planner, architect, economist, sociologist, or geographer would not have become breathless with anticipation?

City planning and the design of future living space requires a mentality and an imagination closely resembling the concoction of science fiction and Utopia.  As S. Frederick Starr has written, “the architect could leap into the future even more easily than the novelist.  Sitting at his drafting table, he could simply obliterate present reality with a few strokes of the pen and create a new world with a few more strokes.” ‘ Even in “normal” times and in developed nonrevolutionary milieux, city planning is a blueprint for living in the very near future.  In the Russian Revolution, architects and town planners had visions of reshaping an entire nation, of aligning the structures and anti-structures with high-speed economic development plans, of providing “social condensers” for the nurturing of a new socialist race of people.  Soviet architects, bound by material limitations and political considerations, could not match the global fantasies of the all-world cities of science fiction.  They had to design for real people and for the imminent future.  Yet the architectural imagination in Soviet Russia in the late 1920s and early 1930s often verged upon the fantastic, and its treatment of space, privacy, interaction, mobility, social harmony and community, work, family life, and domestic labor intersected continuously with the major themes and issues of Utopian speculation of the revolutionary period.

Since socialism in all its variants, including the Marxist one, implies community — some sense of sharing life, residence, and work in a spirit of harmonious and fraternal interaction — socialist architects and town planners had to pose certain questions.  What measure of social distance or popular density is required to achieve it? How far apart can people live and still be called a community? How much private space (and time [191] within that space) does the individual require without violating a sense of community? These questions remain pressing ones in the contemporary world of development, dispersion, town and regional planning, and ordinary edificial architecture, and they shaped the vivid debates, blueprints, and presentations made by Soviet architects of the Russian Revolution.

The Antiurban Impulse

The history of the Russian city as a social organism and as a public concept reveals that many Russians were possessed of a vague “antiurban” sense.  The fear of what the Germans called the menace of “civilization” or “Kultur” lay at the heart of intellectual and moralizing anxiety over the steady growth of urbanization.  Since the Bolshevik Revolution was suffused by an urban mystique — unmistakable in the force of its rhetoric and its poetics — conflict was inevitable.  Indeed the birth of Utopian town planning in the 1920s grew directly and self-consciously out of a strong distaste for the current city, a distaste with a long tradition and deep roots in Russian society.

Marx’s comment about “the idiocy of rural life” was not sufficiently potent to resolve such an issue as the future of cities.  Against it, town planners of the 1920s often cited Engels’ equally suggestive remark on “the disappearance of the big cities” and Lenin’s comment to H.G. Wells that “the towns will get very much smaller” and that “they will be different.” These feelings resembled the recurrent malaise among Western intellectuals and statesmen of the nineteenth century — Jefferson, Schiller, Carlyle, the French romantics among them — who saw the city as the home base of industry, crime, capitalism, and glut.  The city became a metaphor of the discomfort with noise, “the fever of the world,” ugliness, machine-like rhythms of life, clocks, railroads, hustle and bustle, mobility, and restless change — in short, a naked menace to a real or fanciful pastoral world.  In the nineteenth century, the big city no longer remained a spatial concept, but an emblem for immense transformational, subversive, and destructive power.

Like some early American urbophobes, Russian public figures were pulled into antiurbanism not by hatred of towns or industry as such — but by repugnance for such foreign cities as Lyons and Manchester, perceived as festering centers of vice and crime, populous headquarters of dangerous ideas, and flashpoints of social disorder.  The attitude of Nicholas I to industrial growth was ambivalent.  Russian officials who pondered the agglomeration of the proletariat in the West worried about its appearance in Russia.  Because of this, the tsar sought to “halt the further aggregation of factory people in Moscow.”

Nicholas’ finance minister, E.F. Kankrin, on the other hand, believed that even with urban and industrial growth (which he by no means pushed) the Russian worker would not become a proletarian of the European type because of his strong and permanent roots in the village and his habit of returning there periodically.  This keen comment by Kankrin is highly suggestive of things to come: it was a vision of the city as a shell, not a living organism.  He wished not to destroy Russian cities but rather to retain them as static places that workers visited seasonally in order to work and to keep them from becoming those dreadful sewers of anarchy that festered in the West and bred a “spirit of coalition.” The odd-sounding concept of a “part-time” city was central to many science fiction Utopias and — in variant form — to the Disurbanist school of Soviet city planning.

[192]

Conservative anti-urbanism acquired another dimension in the years of industrialization (c.  1890-1914): rightwing anti-modernism.  Economic motivations certainly drove the mechanism of the Russian Right, and its main social focus was the Jews.  But its geographical target was the city.  As in many societies of that time — Germany in particular — industry, city, and Jew were blended into a dreamy and myopic vision contrasted to a pure pastorale of Russia-of-the-Russians, a fairyland disrupted by the energies and schemes of urban interlopers.  This was a kind of perverted Slavophilism and “Muscovite nostalgia.”

In the radical response to the city, we detect another kind of repugnance.  The “first Russian radical,” Alexander Radishchev, in the Journey from St.  Petersburg to Moscow (1790) displayed frank hostility to urban life as unhealthy and immoral.  Mid-century Russian Populism, as we have seen, emerged with a strong anti-urban sensibility.  To extremists like Bakunin, modern cities deserved nothing less than violent destruction in an act of sweeping vandalism.  More moderate Populists were ambivalent about cities in their futuristic programs and Utopias.  Most of them believed that the new society would grow out of village communes.  The theorist of Populism, Nikolai Mikhailovsky, taught that only rural life allowed for full and free development of human faculties since capitalist cities required the dehumanizing division of labor.  Sofia Perovskaya, a major terrorist figure in the People’s Will, complained that the premature sexuality of the young (before the age of thirty) was attributable “to the artificial stimuli of urban life,” and a later Populist writer, N.N. Zlatovratsky, called the city “the incarnation of sinister forces.” A curious anticipation of things to come was the little known Utopian tract, Communist States of the Future (1879) by the leftist but non-revolutionary lawyer, V.I. Taneev (1840-1921), brother of the composer Sergei.  In his sketch of a future Europe, Taneev depicts self-governing agrarian communes organized into states and federations, each commune composed of 2,000 adults and covering one square mile.  In this semi-socialist and semi-technocratic world, cities — capitals, administrative centers, and ports — contained no permanent residents, the population continuously rotating in and out.  As in many Soviet science fiction works of the 1920s, children were kept out of the cities altogether.

In the generation before the collapse of the monarchy, a whole chorus of liberal, socialist, neo-populist, and Tolstoyan publicists joined the Right in a moral assault on cities as bastions of decadence, prostitution, faceless anomie, and raging vice.  The Russian flood of “sin city” literature was of course a local version of the antiurban moral crusading that appeared in many places at the turn of the century, but its edge was very sharp.  The outcry over “decadence” (anything from free love to sex clubs and perversion through violence and child seduction) was a major thread in the intelligentsia’s discourse in the years after the 1905 Revolution.  Its connection with general culture and political climate has never been fully explored.  Elements of city hatred sometimes combined with a latent and tortured sexual envy as in the anguished book by P. Dneprov, The Cruel City (1907), portraying Petersburg as a mass of icy stone and at the same time in inferno of lust.  A revealing piece of evidence from the world of popular culture is the fact that urban song as a genre was widely known as zhestokii romans (cruel song).  A wide variety of opinions, divergent and even mutually contradictory, seemed to reflect a readiness to change drastically, at the very least, the character of Russian cities.

The wars and revolutions of 1914-21 uncovered new levels of antiurbanism: peasant hostility to towns and urban flight from the cities in search of security and survival. [193] Odious depictions of the city as such found expression in two literary schools that arose early in the Revolution: the muzhik socialists and the Scythian poets.  The former were a half-dozen or so peasant-born poets who spoke with an urbanized voice in the Proletcult movement and other forums, decried (and confounded) the city, the West, and government and reached out for a romanticized idyll of the countryside.  Among them, though not quite of them, Sergei Esenin called the city “a labyrinth where men lose their souls,” a familiar graphic demonology of city space itself.  The Scythians and others (Blok, Bely, Pilnyak, and Ivanov-Razumnik) projected a negative image of the city — a chillingly rational world of atomization, lack of community, and isolation (all in spite of the supposed density of population).

Literary currents and the peasant Utopias provided a vivid link between the deep layers of city fear and the architects’ practical concerns about what to do with existing cities.  In literary works, towns were destroyed, abandoned, emptied, gutted, or transformed in various ways into administrative centers or temporary camps or visiting sites.  In the urbanist science fiction of the twenties, where big cities did exist independent of a single world-city complex or a megacity, the old ones had been torn down, allowed to rot, blown up in the wars, or — in part — preserved as picturesque ruins and archeological sites.  Rare was the literary visionary who remained content to reform Moscow or Leningrad, or simply let them grow organically.  The revolutionary city planners, educated, well-trained, and socially alert people, were alive to the Utopian traditions of Europe and Russia, to the deep anti-urban currents of its past, to the German Marxist urban schemes of the turn-of-the-century, and to Russia’s own pre-revolutionary garden city movement.  The question was: what would they do with these legacies?

The Greening of Russia: The Disurbanists

The major schools of Utopian city planning came to be known as the Urbanists and the Disurbanists, yet both grew out of anti-urban sentiments and traditions.  Both the European socialist movement and the international garden city movement — with occasional but not extensive overlap — fed revolutionary Russian town planning.  Socialists glorified the city and its productive capacities but lamented its capitalist social evils; they scorned the countryside, but envisioned a world without the contradiction between town and country — a vague formula.  In Spain where the linear city was conceived (in the 1880s) and in England where a spate of novels and Utopias preceded the garden city movement of 1900-14, social reformers and architects sought to create new communities to illustrate the possibility of planned living in defiance of the historical growth of medieval towns, fortuitous anarchic industrial patterns, and the resultant nexus with the surrounding hinterland.  E.P. Howard’s Tomorrow (1898) — a scheme for an anti-city town in the midst of natural greenery (variously called “green city” and “garden city”) dominated this tradition for about twenty years.  Russian “gardenists” were discussing these town plans in the years before the Revolution, and their ideas attracted socialists, Tolstoyans, religious groups, and even vegetarians who linked healthy diet with healthy environment, open space, and modified residence patterns.

The Soviet Disurbanists and Urbanists of the 1920s took Marxist writings as their avowed texts but were clearly touched by deeper currents.  Some had direct links with the garden city movement of the pre-revolutionary period.  But their models were also shaped by social concerns, plans for “organizing the psyche of the masses,” technical [194] limitations, esthetic impulses, the need for personal expression, professionalism, and ideological considerations.  Since “ideology” — though Marxist in name — was in a state of flux and still uncodified, this allowed considerable latitude in urban planning for the future.  The Disurbanists in particular disdained modern cities as museums of eclectic styles, haphazard reminders of uneven growth, “irrational” accretions created by ignorant power, and clusters of concretized social evil.  Their anti-urbanism went beyond Marxism.  They believed that Moscow was a dying city and they wanted to hasten the process; they believed in their “utopian” schemes for creating a new spatial world of work and residence.  And in the brief era of their prominence (c.  1928-32), they believed in and worked for the immediate and complete realization of their designs.  In this they were for a time supported by the authorities.

Who were the Disurbanists? Not all were architects; their ranks included sociologists, social theorists, journalists, political figures, economists, and professional planners from the Soviet central planning organ (Gosplan).  The “ideologist” of the group, Mikhail Okhitovich (1896-1937; died of natural causes), a sociologist, wrote regularly for the main Disurbanist organ, Contemporary Architecture, the journal of the Society of Contemporary Architects to which most Disurbanist architects belonged.  His associate Mikhail Barshch was a practicing architect and a member of that organization.  Moisei Ginzburg, (1892-1946), one of the most influential builders and theorists of the late 1920s, joined them in 1928.  Leonid Puzis of Gosplan added his own designs to the main Disurbanist schemes, and the independent and fertile Nikolai Milyutin (1889- 1942), though not properly speaking a Disurbanist, provided a “linear” variant to their visions.  According to Puzis, they enjoyed wide support in Soviet official circles, including the Commissar of Health Semashko, the housing specialist N.L. Meshcheryakov, and the influential party figure, Yury Larin.

In its most irreducible form, Disurbanism meant the nonurban redistribution of the population.  Okhitovich conjured up “a destationed world” meaning a land not only without cities but also without capitals, without a “center,” that magic word which then and now in Russian denoted not only geographical situation but also concentration of power, communication, and culture.  To Okhitovich, the converse was openness, motion, freedom.  In arguing against the Urbanist notion of big cities and buildings as the pathway to communal life, he asserted the then not-so-obvious fact that form did not guarantee content; that a dormitory remained a dormitory whether in a barracks, in a sector of an apartment building, or in a separate communal dwelling; and that a patriarchal izba (peasant family home), with all its sociological overtones, could be found in a skyscraper as well as in a village — an acute observation whose truth would become apparent in the communal apartments of the Stalin era.

Okhitovich opposed oppressive and unnatural “collectivism” as much as he did excessive individualism.  “Personal property, personal needs, personal initiative, personal development, personal hands, feet, head, and brain not only do not disappear [under socialism] but will be for the first time accessible.” Economy of scale, he argued, becomes dysfunctional in life as well as in production when taken to extremes.  In a graphic refutation of some classical Utopian formulations, he made it quite clear that twenty-five laundries serving about a thousand people apiece were superior to a single laundry for 25,000 people.  Collective services, therefore, had to be reasonable and manageable in scale — and not the product of a mathematical mentality.  By engaging in oblique debate with Urbanists and science fiction writers, Okhitovich was exhibiting [195] the utility of Utopian discourse once again.  Unnatural or “social” division of labor — between capital and labor, between men and women, between town and country, between mental and physical labor, between nation and nation (or metropolis and colony) must be abolished — but not the natural and functional division of labor essential to all human life.

Under the slogan “down with the city,” Okhitovich called for the depopulation of Moscow and other cities and their regreening as parks.  The new locus of population was to be linear — an endless road of habitation flanked by individual dwelling places.  His own preference was for prefabricated, portable or mobile, collapsible homes that could be set up anywhere along the “magistral,” or line of communication and service points.  Some of his colleagues preferred homes on stilts, or adjoining rows of what we would now call “town homes,” consisting of one spacious room per person.  The service points, easily accessible to residents, were the key element of communalism: shopping, culture centers, and communal gathering points.  Their mechanism and administration did not come under Okhitovich’s scrutiny, a curious lapse for a professional sociologist interested in human dynamics and not just employment of space.  There are diagrams (see Fig. 33) suggesting what the Disurbanists had in mind.  But they are aerial views — often misleading to the layman attempting “real” visualization.

If we wish to transport ourselves to the Disurbanists’ world, we must look in our minds down a broad and straight paved road heading into spatial infinity (the Russian milieu certainly allowing for such a perspective).  Instead of towns or super-cities every 40-50 miles, we see an endless and uninterrupted stretch of dwellings on either side of the road — rows of individual apartment cells, mobile homes on wheels, or boxes on sturdy columns stuck in the ground.  Beyond the roads are fields and forests, perhaps farms, industrial sites hidden away along the route.  We stop and plant our house; in time we acquire a spouse and plant another box beside our own and attach it; with the coming of children comes the attachment of more boxes.  Work and goods are within easy distance (public transport, personal auto, or foot, depending on the scheme).  The world beyond the roadside boxes is organized (in a vaguely specified way) along socialist economic lines.  At the service points and the workplace occur the moments of communal interaction or spiritual community so important to other prophets of Utopian experiment in these years.  But it is never described, much less analyzed: space and structure alone seem to possess the power to “communalize” people, an implication quite at odds with Okhitovich’s original point.

Other scenarios simply altered the details of the major vision.  The “Green City” of Barshch and Ginzburg, for example, stressed row houses as the ideal (not the separate boxes or little houses).  They are flanked front and rear by a green world but on the sides by neighbors — endlessly in both directions.  Only in the collective of space, argue the architects, can the individual come into full play.  The nearby “bases” enrich this semi-private, semi-communal life: bus stops that are also reading stations, autoparks, cafeterias serving 250 citizens, and nearby centers of sport, culture, education, and communal utilities (kindergarten, laundries, etc.).  The world is brought in via nearby production centers, radio, T.V., and telephone.  As with Okhitovich, marriage, divorce, and family growth are made possible by the constant switching of adjoining rooms with lockable doors.  All the planners were extraordinarily sensitive to personal quarters for women and the possibility of divorce, a sensible notion at a moment in Soviet history when divorce was reaching mammoth proportions after the 1926-27 family reforms.  [196] Barshch and Ginzburg put more emphasis on air, light, drenching sunshine, and greenery than did Okhitovich, but no more on the actual problems and dynamics of residential interaction or communal living.

In later years, Barshch called Disurbanism “our futurological fantasy,” based on a perception of the decay and self-destruction of the then existing cities and a vision of the reign of the automobile.  In retrospect the Disurbanist planners occupied a peculiar place in Utopian thinking.  They did not share the basically “rural” sensibilities of the Russian anti-urbanists in poetry or science fiction or of the peasants themselves.  But they are akin to those Utopian writers such as Shelonsky (see Chapter 1) before the Revolution and Belyaev at the end of the 1920s who saw privacy as the only means to true community.  The characters in Belyaev’s Struggle in the Atmosphere are constantly on the move, almost permanently separated from each other.  Parents, relatives, friends, and loved ones never actually visit each other, yet they converse constantly by means of what we might someday call “conference video” (or satellite interview) — a device that apparently provided the same kind of satisfaction for Belyaev’s people as does ordinary close-up “company” for present-day mortals in Russia and elsewhere on the globe.  The proximity of housing and “service points” are pathetic attempts to compensate for the missing “street life” of the old city.  Today’s dwellers in and visitors to suburban “communities,” forest condominiums, town home developments, and the gallerias and malls that “service” them might offer a different testimony about the communal utility of such visions.

Apparently no one noticed at the time that Disurbanism seemed to herald the end of architecture as a profession — or at least a major branch of it: residential design.  The portable boxes or adjoining cells were standardized, leaving the ensembles of service center or communal points as the only foci of constructive genius.  Some of the existing designs remind us of present day American shopping centers along the major strips, or “modern” universities built on podiums and pods.  In some sense Disurbanism resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s scheme for a Broad Acres — a dispersionist design for America that would individualize living by blending the structures into the contours of nature.  What we have gotten instead in Russia is the continuation of the cubic block of apartments marching outward from the city lines.

Disurbanism highlighted in a very dramatic way the eternal conflict in modern, urban society between the yearning for community, sociability, conviviality, the animation of crowds, and neighborliness on the one hand and the need for privacy, family life, individual space on the other.  The Disurbanists, for all their claims about synthesizing and reconciling these needs, clearly leaned in the direction of individualism.  The extreme dispersionism, the yearning to cover all the Russian land with criss-crossing magistrals of residence, the insistence on separate living units, and the hollowness and blandness of their visions of communitarian interaction at loosely conceived bus stops and cultural-shopping points all point to this and underline their highly developed aversion to the city life they knew as well as to the massive and grandiose schemes of their rivals, the Urbanists and Superurbanists, whose dream would cluster millions of people together in unheard of communal density.

[197]

Supercity: The Urbanists

Although both Urbanists and Disurbanists were inspired by the antiurban impulse in Russian history and fueled by hostility to the “rotting” cities they saw around them, they divided on whether cities as such would replace the current ones or be wholly eliminated from the socialist landscape.  Lenin in 1913 had written that “cities are the centers of economic, political, and intellectual or spiritual life of a people and constitute the chief promoters of progress.” The notion of the city remained very strong in the Bolshevik vision of the future.  Trotsky in the 1920s was quite emphatic: “The city lives and leads.  If you give up the city, that is if you let it be torn to pieces economically by the kulak and artistically by Pilnyak, there will remain no Revolution, but a violent and bloody process of retrogression.  Peasant Russia, deprived of the leadership of the city, not only will never get to Socialism, but will not be able to maintain itself for two months, and will become the manure and peat of world imperialism.” A Bolshevik economist, arguing with leftover “Populists” of the 1920s, wrote in 1927 of “the leading role of the city in modern history” as “the bearer of the most advanced economic forms.” Men and women of power, culture, and economic weight — however much they allowed for “reshaping” the city — seemed unable to dispense with it altogether.  It was their base, their camp, their headquarters — as well as the locus of putative progress.

This explains why there was so much furor in the discussion of the city, so much fear and hostility to an antiurbanism that threatened to become a reality and make Chayanov’s dream of detonation come true.  It also explains the eventual decisiveness of the Stalinists in reaffirming the city — even in its present form.  For ruling circles and responsible administrators, the city was a practical necessity — without it they might float through the void of a vast countryside without power and influence, their voices echoless.

For some intellectuals, however, the attraction of the city was positive — like that of the machine.  A humble rank-and-file communist, Lev Kopelev, used to dream that Moscow, Kharkov, and Kiev would be as big and as well built as Berlin, Hamburg, and New York, with giant skyscrapers, autos, bikes, fine clothes, and lots of watches, planes and dirigibles.  Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, the Futurists, and the factory poets made a regular fetish out of the shape and dynamic quality of the big city.  One ought not to see this as a Marxist-urban vs.  Russian-rural dichotomy.  Superurban fantasy was just as “Russian” in its appeal as was antiurbanism.  Architects, science fiction writers, poets, and artists of every sort dreamed up numerous visions of futuristic cities before and after the Revolution.  The Anarchists, who were viscerally opposed to most Bolshevik programs and style, projected more than their share of “Free Cities” and “Giant Urban Communes” filled with millions of workers.  “We shall build,” wrote the Anarcho-Syndicalist Grachev, “as yet unheard of giants from concrete, glass, and steel.”

The earliest years of the Revolution evoked a strange mix of architectural fantasy and social vision.  The school sketches and projects of the period — especially in the famous avant-garde academy V.Kh.U.T.E.M.A.S — show a variety of abstract, Constructivist projections of hanging, floating, flying, and jutting structures, fantastic temples, mausoleums, crematoria, and monuments.  Out of it emerged the victorious principle of “rationalism” in architecture whose main spokesman, Ginzburg, drew on the ideas of the father of modern psychology, Wilhelm Wundt, to prove that the correct appearance of buildings had a healthy civic-minded effect upon the viewer and that simple geometric forms required less physical energy to perceive.  Apparently influenced [198] by Ford, Taylor, and Gastev, he stressed symmetry and geometric precision, and the honesty of showing the function of the structure openly.  A major Constructivist architect, Alexei Gan, designed a kiosk that would speak to the peasants and help mold in them an urban mentality.  A still minor current was early monumentalism.  The competition for a Palace of Labor (unrealized) in 1922 brought forth an oft-quoted reverie of Sergei Kirov:

On this new, magnificent, splendid and revolutionary earth, we the workers born in miserable hovels, will leave those hovels in comradely ranks to enter our enchanted palaces to the strain of the great ‘Internationale’…[We] are capable of embellishing this wretched earth with monuments such as our enemies could never imagine, even in their dreams.

This was another rhetorical link between fantasy, architectural discourse, and prominent policymakers.  The various “Red City” projects of the early 1920s encased both these tendencies, but were almost never built.

Like the Disurbanists, the Urbanist school of town planning was a child of the Society of Contemporary Architects — O.S.A.  It adhered to the view, voiced by R. Khiger in 1928, that the city was a “social condenser,” and that the architect’s mission was to “alter radically the structure of human life — productive, social, and personal.” By merging Western technology with Russian revolutionary notions of cooperation and communalism, O.S.A. designers hoped to change the texture of life in the U.S.S.R.  and create the New Soviet Person.  Furthermore, O.S.A. believed — and said so openly — that this was the responsibility of professional planners and designers, not party officials, and that it should be done not by dogmatic fiat or administrative order, but by a process of experience and experiment — building, inhabiting, testing, and revising.  It was the perfect example of the fusion of Utopia and experiment directly inspired by the October Revolution.

The O.S.A. planners’ decision that big new urban formations would replace the towns of the present produced two ironies: they were widely imitated by other schools, of town planning — including some of their enemies — and, after several years of Urbanist speculation, some of them shifted suddenly to Disurbanism.  As early as 1926, B. Korsunov printed in O.S.A.’s journal a project for a city of skyscrapers surrounded by open space and green parks (in the manner of Le Corbusier) and ringed by seven-story workers’ dwellings in the form of House Communes.  Grounding their argument on cost as well as sociability, O.S.A. writers promoted concentration, density, planning, and mammoth city-forms.  In 1928, N.  Krasilnikov’s city plan required a population density of three quarters of a million persons per square mile — more than double that of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1890s! Cities would contain clusters of half-million people housed vertically in tall buildings with helicopters serving as elevators.  Varentsov’s “City of the Future” was a dream of immense Y-shaped communal buildings linked to a circular community service center — all surrounded by greenery.  N. Ladovsky’s 1929 “Dynamic City” plan placed a giant arrow-shaped residence building (with administrative offices at one wing) inside a horseshoe of industrial establishments — for density and ease of access to workplace.  The group of proletarian architects who came out to assault O.S.A. in the late twenties hardly differed from its opponents in proposing huge house commune cities — with enormous residential structures resembling airplanes and ocean liners.

The ultimate Urbanist scheme was launched dramatically by L.M. Sabsovich, a [199] high official of Soviet Russia’s central state planning organ (Gosplan), in the very heat of the first five-year plan.  In a burst of arrogant optimism, he called his prospectus The U.S.S.R.  in Ten Years.  In comprehensiveness, detail, and ambitiousness it outstripped all previous urban plans and openly invoked “the great projects” of Bogdanov’s Red Star.  It was widely circulated and discussed in the Soviet Union and translated into foreign languages.  Though written by an economist, it was the most extravagant of all city planning exercises produced in the Revolution and a codification of major themes from the whole realm of utopianism and experimental life.

The Soviet Union in 1939 — and one must recall the actual condition of the country in that fateful year in order to appreciate the irony — will be a land where the “material and social base of socialism” is already laid down by the complete abolition of private property in the means of production, the disappearance of classes, and the industrial and agricultural transformation of the economy.  There will be no great cities, unnatural and inhuman hazards to physical and mental health.  Industries and citizens will have been dispersed across the length and breadth of the nation into “agglomerations” of 50,000-75,000 people, the optimum for sane and comfortable living.  Creation of new enterprises in the old cities will have ceased, small operations will have been combined into complexes, and both will have been transplanted.  The village world will have been eliminated, together with the muzhik mentality (in 5-8 years!); collective and state farms will have been unified around agro-towns on geographically and demographically equal territorial units.  Eventually the new industrial cities and the agro-towns would combine into Industrial-Agrarian Cities serving a given geographical unit.  This would “drastically change the face” of Russia, destroy “rural barbarism and isolation,” and end abnormal urban concentration.

In Sabsovich’s vision, communal life replaces the wasteful and deadening private household, a “scourge that deforms the lives of adults and children alike” (p.  123).  The aims of communalism? To free all workers (especially women) from responsibility for the provision of daily needs and from the private obligation of childrearing and education, to make woman equal to man by opening the doors of her domestic jail, to release energies for the fulfillment of individual needs and collective life, to enhance the health of children, to raise the cultural level of all people, and to end the distinction between hand and brain labor.  The means? The “industrialization” of all tasks previously performed, separately and wastefully, inside the “petty bourgeois” home.

Building on the whole tradition of socialist dreams of household collect!visim, Sabsovich imagined the coordination of all food producing operations in order to transform raw food products into complete meals, deliverable to the population in urban cafeterias, communal dining rooms, and the workplace in ready-to-eat form by means of thermos containers.  No food shopping, no cooking, no home meals, no kitchens.  Similar industrialization of laundering, tailoring, repair, and even house cleaning (with electrical appliances) would allow each person a sleeping-living room, free of all maintenance cares.  Russia would in fact become a vast free-of-charge hotel chain.  In his cities of 50,000-70,000, Sabsovich suggested that 25-50 large residence buildings would accommodate the entire population — meaning 1,400-2,000 persons per building (children being housed nearby) — or about the size of Fourier’s phalanstery (1,700).

Sabsovich’s New City would service its inhabitants culturally at three levels: reading rooms, halls, and galleries within each building; larger and more elaborate culture centers in the city; and higher courses, studios, and laboratories in every workplace and factory.  The work week would fall to three days (two of work, one of rest) and then to [200] five days (three of work, two of rest) — and all workers would retire at age forty-nine.  The nation’s health would be protected by athletic and medical facilities, the short work regime, and acres of greenery surrounding the cities.  Sabsovich’s mammoth “social condenser” would serve as the physical shell of social being which in turn would shape consciousness.  Thus the cultural and spiritual level of all would actually be transformed in a few years.

One is left breathless by the scope and grandeur of Sabsovich’s predictions.  So outlandish did they seem that he revised his schedule a bit later to project fifteen instead of ten years into the future and reduced some of his exorbitant figures.  But if one stands back from any version of the scheme and adds other technological details contained in it (transport, efficiency, sheer output levels), one gazes upon a land utterly refashioned, enveloped in Utopian themes — a land of ultramodern medium-sized cities whose population is bursting with productivity and at the same time speeding across the land in large passenger planes or personal aviettes and living happy communal lives in the midst of utmost comfort and convenience.  One could cut away the statistical tables and economic prognostications, add some laughter, a few characters, and any feeble plot to build from it a typical science fiction novel of the 1920s.  Larri’s Land of the Happy, written at about the same time, though projecting several decades further, hardly differs from it in the majestic scope of its fantasy.

Socialism in One Building: The House Commune

The word “commune” (kommuna) became a regular part of the Soviet lexicon right after the October Revolution.  “House Commune” or Communal Dwelling (dom-kommuna) designated a structure or cluster of them designed for collective and communal life.  Radical architects freely and often uncritically plundered the works of the nineteenth century Utopian socialists, especially Fourier, though often without discussion of social meaning.  The earliest on record, called “Phalanstery” and designed by the architect Venderov in 1918, was exactly that: a Fourierist project for thirty-eight families — never built.  Indeed very few were ever built; most remained on paper, and the bulk of communal experimentation was done in already existing houses, apartments, or dormitories.  Yet the communal house was one of the most crucial elements in architectural experimentation for a new life: the concretized rendering of a hundred Utopian dreams.

In the relatively serene years after the Civil War, designers began to combine their colorful fantasies with practical considerations about buildings and their future occupants.  The first examples were extremely eclectic and much too lavish to be the models for a general pattern of construction.  The 1921 Phalanstery of Tverskoi and Buryshkin, for example, looked like a classical palace from one angle — although its modern outward curving wings place it in the tradition of the American motel also (see Fig. 34).  It was a prize-winning entry for a project to be built in the suburbs of Petrograd for thirty proletarian families with common dining room, kitchen, reading room, and daycare center built around a courtyard, and with residence rooms above and in the wings.  Leonid Vesnin’s Moscow housing ensemble of 1922 was more ambitious: a dozen buildings, including club, bath-house, technical shack, daycare and kindergartens, and residential buildings, with a large play area between them.  It was in fact what we call a “garden court apartment complex,” spacious and self-sufficient, with common services including a place for socializing.  Other projects from this period display the same [201] attractiveness and common sense — but without elaboration on how the inhabitants would achieve communal sensibilities.  Though strikingly modern in form, the projects had little ideological content.  They seemed to reflect the comfort level of professionals rather than factory workers.

With the formation of O.S.A. and its doctrine of “social condenser,” the House Commune came into its own as the central ingredient in town planning of the future among the Urbanists.  Recognizing the indisputable fact of overcrowding in Moscow, invoking the wastefulness of repetitive individual living units (homes or separate, fully equipped apartments), O.S.A. leaders saw the House Commune as the only solution: it would cut costs by communalizing services, release women (and men) from repetitive domestic housework and thereby raise national labor productivity, promote a spirit of communism through collective living, and allow some privacy as well.  The ideological portion of the campaign announced a “collectivist-social” psychology and the elimination of the “petty bourgeois” and “individualistic” habits of the past — meaning the excessive privatization, hoarding, inwardness, egoism, and coziness that some foes of the family accused it of.  The first big O.S.A. scheme for a house commune within the supercity was that of Barshch and V.M. Vladimirov in 1929: two intersecting buildings with 1,000 adults in one, 360 preschoolers in the left intersector, and 320 schoolchildren in the right (see Fig. 35).  The adult wing had four communal and six sleeping floors and a communal dining room equipped with a conveyor-belt table.  Adults dined with the older children and paid regular visits via a corridor to the little ones.  Similar schemes sprouted in 1928 — 29, with a crossed nest of boxes, a tooth-roofed H-shaped house for students, and an eight-spoked wheel of buildings — the essential combination of communal buildings easily accessible to sleeping space, the separation of adults and children, and available privacy of single rooms for all.  The most interesting social issue to emerge out of these plans was that of the kitchen and the family.  It is a singular fact that to this day the individual kitchen is the strongest symbol of a nuclear family (as it once was its main meeting place).  Classical House Commune theory had always made the collectivized kitchen its central tenet: to save costs, promote eating together, and rescue housewives from the slavery of kitchen life.

The “women question” and the family, hotly debated in the first decade of the Revolution, had informed home planning discourse from the beginning.  All Bolsheviks were verbally committed to ending the drudgery of housework for wives, though the question of separation of children from parents — even in a nearby building — evoked considerable division.  The most extreme advocate of “de-familization” within the House Commune by means of mandatory communal dining and separation of children from parents, V. Kuzmin, codified his appeals in 1930 in a famous piece entitled “Problems of the Scientific Organization of Everyday Life.” To his rigid arguments on the abolition of the known family within the precincts of the commune, he added more than a touch of Gastevism: organized and scheduled efficiency for every moment of the day.  Kuzmin’s system of “supercollectivism” (his own term) deserves comment precisely because it has sometimes been seen to epitomize the architectural utopianism of the 1920s, even though in fact the opposite is true.

Kuzmin believed that the architect’s mission was to frame the expressive side of people’s life, how they “suffer, enjoy, rejoice, and lament” as well as work and eat.  This could not be done, he argued, by the “hammer and sickle” — in other words by symbol and ritual.  Here Kuzmin seems to be filling the void left in science fiction Utopias about the nature and quality of communal life, recognizing that symbolic and [202] ritual assemblies of masses did not provide this.  It must arise where men and women live, through the “scientific organization of material life” — living space, light, color, ventilation, and the total environment in inner space.  The main realms of life — rest, eating, sex, parenting, sanitation, decent medical and cultural levels — were too rich to be satisfied within the realm of the sleeping space alone.  Kuzmin offered a “graph of life” — not as an enforceable regulation (“man is not an automaton”) but as a guide for joining architectural design with the daily life in a communal situation.

  1. Lights out.  10:00 P.M.
  2. Eight hours of sleep.  Reveille.  6:00 A.M.
  3. Calisthenics — 5 min.  6:05 A.M.
  4. Toilet — 10 min.  6:15 A.M.
  5. Shower (optional — 5 min.) 6:20 A.M.
  6. Dress — 5 min.  6:25 A.M.
  7. To the dining room — 3 min.  6:28 A.M.
  8. Breakfast — 15 min.  6:43 A.M.
  9. To the cloakrooms — 2 min.  6:45 A.M.
  10. Put on outdoor clothing — 5 min.  6:50 A.M.
  11. To the mine — 10 min.  7:00 A.M.
  12. Work in the mine — 8 hours.  3:00 P.M.
  13. To the commune — 10 min.  3:10 P.M.
  14. Take off outdoor clothing — 7 min.  3:17 P.M.
  15. Wash — 8 min.  3:25 P.M.
  16. Dinner — 30 min.  3:55 P.M.
  17. To the rest room for free hour — 3 min.  3:58 P.M.
  18. Free time.  Those who wish may nap.  In this case they retire to 4:58 P.M.
  19. the bedrooms.
  20. Toilet and change — 10 min.  5:08 P.M.
  21. To the dining room — 2 min.  5:10 P.M.
  22. Tea — 15 min.  5:25 P.M.
  23. To the club.  Recreation.  Cultural development.  Gymnastics.  9:25 P.M.
  24. Perhaps a bath or swim.  Here it is life itself that will determine how time is spent, that will draw up the plan.  Alloted time: four hours.
  25. To dining room, supper, eat, and to bedrooms — 25 min.  9:50 P.M.
  26. Prepare to retire (a shower may be taken) — 10 min.  10:00 P.M.

Kuzmin — in a way that reminds us of Gastev and the Table of Hours in We — is meticulous in timing and arranging the “normal,” repetitive and noncontroversial side of the daily round right down to electrified cloakrooms for outer garments (a very crucial aspect of Russian life — thus the many minutes allowed for it).  Radio is enlisted to assist the communards in keeping to this suggested rhythm.  But sex and leisure remain in a mist.  Kuzmin hopes to sleep the unmarried, by gender, in rooms of six (without describing how their sex lives will operate) and “couples” in adjoining rooms whose connecting door is locked when divorce occurs.  The family as such evaporates, since the children are housed apart, though, as always, parents have access to them.  Everything else in life is assumed to be communal — work, motion, dining, leisure.  But the big block of playtime at night is left vacant so that “life itself” will decide what kind of things will be done, and at what level of participation.  As in many such projects, a familiar aspect [203] of life is taken away — sitting around the kitchen table, talking, eating with one’s own family, lounging with them or tinkering in the evening.  Yet the new conviviality is not plotted.  The big leisure room of public space remains an empty church.

Most of the O.S.A. architects winced at the prospect of designing away the family at once and forever.  They reached compromise instead.  Although opposing the oppression of women and the old family that enslaved her, O.S.A. leaders designed a so-called F-Unit of one-room efficiency apartments for couples, complete with kitchens that could be removed in the future when occupants advanced to the level of full communal life and began to cook and eat in common rooms.  Children would, however, be segregated.  Thus, from the old family hearth was preserved at least a companionate couple with ample arrangement for dining together in privacy.  It was far more than many real couples could ever enjoy in the crowded buildings of Moscow and other big cities.  It was, in a way, a prelude to the system of small “separate” apartments (otdelnye kvartiry) that have replaced the “communal” flats of Stalin’s time in the last thirty years [Stites was writing in the early 1980s].  The reasonableness of the O.S.A. architects was apparently conditioned by the response they received to a 1926 questionnaire sent out to workers about their preferences in matters of communal life.  Important independent architects such as Milyutin and Leonidov also opted for transitional stages from family unit to family-less communes.

But, aside from the organization of space, time, and daily life, how was one to achieve “socialism in one building” or communalism in the social and spiritual sense that everyone spoke of so glibly and sincerely? The most common answers were through the mechanism of common space and passageways to encourage interaction, communal dining — a mode of enlarging a family custom — and variants of the workers’ club.  A typical example was Leonidov’s 1929 project for a club that contained labs, lecture halls, sports facilities, game rooms, space for military drill, a museum, gardens, playgrounds, libraries, parks, a gymnasium, rooms for radio, T.V. and film, and a planetarium — in order words, a city within a city.  Obviously not all communal dwellings could afford such facilities.  And where they would exist, their very vastness and variety would hardly make for community — but rather for much specialization and pluralism.  Indeed the more one examines architectural notions of community, the more one sees a replication of already existing urban life, but on a smaller scale in a place called communal.  Judging from the kinds of rituals and ceremonies conducted in workers’ clubs in the 1920s, not much in the way of developing an emotional sense of community could be accomplished by such activity.

The most outlandish communitarian project to come out of the architectural experimentalism of this era was Konstantin Melnikov’s 1929 entry in a competition for a Green City (the winner was Ladovsky, but the city was never built).  Although meant as a rest town or resort for workers, Melnikov’s Green City vividly illustrates how much a practical and talented architect was drawn into the Utopian atmosphere that dominated town planning and community design in those years.  The main buildings were commodious transient hotels with private rooms.  And what did Melnikov offer by way of communal intercourse? A mammoth railroad station to welcome the travelers and surround them by spacious arenas for interaction, galleries and pathways and recreational opportunity — mostly nature trails.  Crowning the establishment was the famous Laboratory of Sleep — a double winged structure with sloping floors, multiple sleep chambers, and an elaborate set of controls by which the sleep-inducers could bathe the restin workers in delicious aromas, sweet fresh air, soothing sounds of nature and music, and [204] gently rocking beds (see Fig. 36).  Inspired by discussions of sleep therapy that were in the air at the time, Melnikov was also indirectly indebted to science fiction: not, ironically, Soviet works but a 1911 story by the father of American science fiction, Hugo Gernsback, called Ralph-124-C41 +.

Architectural Utopia, like science fiction Utopia, was clearly a product of the intelligentsia — that element in Russian history which had always displayed the greatest extravagance, variety, and richness of fantasy.  In the case of science fiction, the state had played a negligible role, the peasants were oblivious to it, and its urban readership consumed it.  Town planning and architecture possessed an altogether different political dimension.  Its impact was immediate, it made claims on labor resources, it pointed to radical changes in the social landscape, it demanded power and freedom to destroy and rebuild — on the ground and in the present or near future.  The state could not be indifferent to such pretensions.  But the state, embodied in the party, was ambivalent.  Prior to 1928, it paid little attention to the emerging schemes.  During the five-year plan, especially 1928-30, the Utopian town visions seemed to mesh with the economic designs of the plan.  Frederick Starr has shown in meticulous detail how the combination of haste, euphoria, partial delusion, and lack of clarity led both sides to see convergence and compatibility between visionary dispersion and the new projected industrial complexes already underway, between visionary house communes and barracks-like collectives already sprouting up all over the industrial sites, between Okhitovich’s Disurbanism and the extreme mobility of the population in these years, and between the social-familial dimensions of house commune schemes and the realities of an immense upsurge in female labor.

The fragile symbiosis of visions collapsed in 1931 in the face of economic realities, revival plans for the older cities, competing transportation networks, the sudden deluge of peasants into already established towns, and the painful realization of Russia’s backwardness in the midst of transformation.  Reinforcing this collapse were the attitudes and behavior patterns of the rural population who flooded the towns, of workers who were expected to occupy the planned towns and ideal buildings, a people thoroughly unprepared psychologically and culturally for the kind of communal living — Urbanist or Disurbanist — that the Utopian blueprints had conjured up as an imminent possibility.  Science fiction and visionary town planning both offered visions of a new world.  Ironically their convergence came in the year 1931, when both were repudiated.

Soviet Constructivist Architecture – Blueprints and Realizations

The following pictures are examples of architecture built in the Soviet Constructivist style, a style founded by the Vesnin brothers (Aleksandr, Leonid, and Viktor) along with Moisei Ginzburg between 1923-1925.  Officially, the Society of Modern Architects (OSA) was the main organ for all Constructivist architecture.  However, I have also included pieces which clearly exemplify the Constructivist style, even if the architects involved were not technically members of OSA.  Both blueprints and photographs of the eventual realizations of their plans are shown here:

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Izvestiia ASNOVA/Известия АСНОВА (1926)

The first and only issue of ASNOVA’s journal, with its layout designed by El Lissitzky and Nikolai Ladovskii

Izvestiia ASNOVA [Известия АСНОВА] PDF Download

Today I made my way from the NYPL Schwarzman building over to Columbia University’s Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library.  I half wondered if I’d bump into Louis Proyect along the way.  After some sifting through the WorldCAT I discovered that some of the original source documents I’d been looking for were in Columbia’s collection.

Most astoundingly, I happened across a copy of the architectural avant-garde group ASNOVA’s sole publication, Izvestiia ASNOVA (Известия АСНОВА), from 1926.  Unlike their rivals, the architectural Constructivists in OSA, the Rationalists of ASNOVA were never able to maintain a steady periodical of their own.  Still, it’s a beautifully designed text; none other than El Lissitzky worked on its layout.  It has some interesting theoretical pieces by Nikolai Ladovskii on architectural pedagogy and the insights of Münsterburgian psychotechnics into the effects of various formal combinations on the mind.  Also, it includes the article in which El Lissitzky unveils his famous Wolkenbügel proposal, describing some of the specifics of the project.

Though it’s only eight pages long, this piece is incredibly rare to find in its full-text form.  A few quotes and passages from the journal are often cited in passing, but no one to date seems to have taken the time to digitize it.  So anyway, I copied some images of it and ran it through some text-recognition software and then uploaded it for everyone.  Just click on the above link to download it.