The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

Ivan Kudriashev’s “Luminescence” (1926)

Table of Contents

I. Introduction: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

II. A Structural Overview of the Proceeding Work: The Sociohistoric Phenomenon of the International Avant-Garde and Soviet Urbanism as Its Decisive Moment

III. The Dialectic of Modernism and Traditionalism: The Development of the International Avant-Garde in Architecture

A. The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Capitalism

B. Traditionalist Architecture

C. Modernist Architecture — Negative Bases

1. Traditionalist Architecture: “Style,” Ornamentation, and Eclecticism

2. The Academic Establishment

3. The “Anarchy of Production” under Capitalism

D. Modernist Architecture — Positive Bases

1. The Spatiotemporal Dimensions of Abstract Art (or, the Volumetrics of Modern Architecture) 

2. Industrialism (or, the Ergonomics of Modern Architecture) 

3. The Housing Shortage, the Urban Proletariat, and the Liberation of Woman (or, the Sociohistoric Mission of Modern Architecture)

IV. The Soviet Moment: The Turn toward Urbanism, the Crisis in the West, and the Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

A. The Artistic and Intellectual Origins of the Soviet Architectural Avant-Garde

B. The Further Development of the Soviet Architectural Avant-Garde into the 1930s

C. Totality, Total Architecture, and the Turn toward Urbanism

1. Totality

2. Total Architecture

3. The Turn toward Urbanism

D. The Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

V. Conclusion: The Sepulchral Cities of Modernity

VI. Notes

Ivan Leonidov, proposal for a section of Magnitogorsk (1930)



The twin fires of war and revolution have devastated both our souls and our cities. The palaces of yesterday’s grandeur stand as burnt-out skeletons. The ruined cities await new builders[…]

To you who accept the legacy of Russia, to you who will (I believe!) tomorrow become masters of the whole world, I address the question: with what fantastic structures will you cover the fires of yesterday?

— Vladimir Maiakovskii, “An Open Letter to the Workers”[1]

Utopia transforms itself into actuality. The fairy tale becomes a reality. The contours of socialism will become overgrown with iron flesh, filled with electric blood, and begin to dwell full of life. The speed of socialist building outstrips the most audacious daring. In this lies the distinctive character and essence of the epoch.

— I. Chernia, “The Cities of Socialism”[2]

Between 1928 and 1937, the world witnessed the convergence of some of the premier representatives of European architectural modernism in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities throughout the Soviet Union. Never before had there been such a concentration of visionary architectural talent in one place, devoting its energy to a single cause. Both at home and abroad, the most brilliant avant-garde minds of a generation gathered in Russia to put forth their proposals for the construction of a radically new society. Never before had the stakes seemed so high. For it was out of the blueprints for this new society that a potentially international architecture and urbanism could finally be born, the likes of which might then alter the face of the entire globe. And from this new built environment, it was believed, would emerge the outlines of the New Man, as both the outcome of the new social order and the archetype of an emancipated humanity. With such apparently broad and sweeping implications, it is therefore little wonder that its prospective realization might have then attracted the leading lights of modernist architecture, both within the Soviet Union and without. By that same account, it is hardly surprising that the architectural aspect of engineering a postcapitalist society would prove such a captivating subject of discussion to such extra-architectural discourses as politics, sociology, and economics.

Le Corbusier in Paris unveiling his model for his Palais des Soviets (1931)

Le Corbusier sitting in front of the construction site for the Tsentrosoiuz Building in Moscow (March 1931)

The bulk of the major individual foreign architects and urbanists who contributed to the Soviet cause came from Germany. Such luminaries as Walter Gropius,[3] Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Peter Behrens each contributed to Soviet design competitions. Former Expressionists — now turned modernists — like Bruno Taut, his brother Max, Arthur Korn, Hans Poelzig, and Erich Mendelsohn all joined the greater project of socialist construction in the USSR.[4] Major architects also arrived from other parts throughout Western Europe, eager to participate in the Soviet experiment. Foremost among them, hailing from Switzerland, was the French-Swiss archmodernist Le Corbusier, whose writings on architecture and urbanism had already become influential in Russia since at least the mid-1920s. From France additionally appeared figures like André Lurçat and Auguste Perret,[5] lending their talents to the Soviet cause. The preeminent Belgian modernist Victor Bourgeois actively supported its architectural enterprise as well.

Foreign architects at work on Magnitogorsk, including Mart Stam and Johan Niegeman (circa 1931-1932)

Ernst May’s “May Brigade” (1930)

Ernst May lecturing in the Soviet Union on his proposal for Magnitogorsk (1930)

Ernst May dressed in heavy winter gear in the Soviet Union, late 1930

Besides the major individual figures attached to this effort, there existed several noteworthy aggregations of international architects and urbanists, under the heading of “brigades.” The German socialist Ernst May, mastermind of the highly-successful Neue Frankfurt settlement, traveled to Russia along with a number of his lesser-known countrymen, including Eugen Kaufmann, Wilhelm Derlam, Ferdinand Kramer,[6] Walter Kratz, and Walter Schwagenscheidt. The Austrians Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (designer of the famous “Frankfurt Kitchen”), her husband Wilhelm Schütte, and Anton Brenner also accompanied May in his journeys.[7] Together with the Hungarian Bauhaus student Alfréd Forbát,[8] the German-Swiss builder Hans Schmidt, and theBauhaus and De Stijl veteran Mart Stam, originally from Holland, these architects comprised the famous “May’s Brigade” of city planning. Many other German architects and city-planners, still less well-known, belonged to May’s group as well: Hans Burkart, Max Frühauf, Wilhelm Hauss, Werner Hebebrand, Karl Lehmann, Hans Leistikow, Albert Löcher, Ulrich Wolf, Erich Mauthner, Hans Schmidt, and Walter Schulz, to list a few.[9]

André Lurçat in Moscow, 1934

Members of Hannes Meyer’s “Red Brigade” in the Soviet Union (1931)

Hannes Meyer, another Swiss German, also departed for Moscow, after being suddenly dismissed from his position as director of the Bauhaus on grounds of his leftist political sympathies.[10] He took with him seven of his best students from Dessau, who were themselves of quite varied backgrounds: Tibor Weiner and Béla Scheffler, both Hungarian nationals; Arieh Sharon, of Polish-Jewish extraction; Antonín Urban, a Czech architect; and finally Konrad Püschel, Philip Tolziner, René Mensch, and Klaus Meumann, all German citizens.[11] These members together comprised the so-called “Red Brigade.” A number of other German architects associated with Kurt Meyer’s (unrelated to Hannes) urban and suburban group were also shown in attendance at the international building conference in Moscow in 1932: Magnus Egerstedt, Josef Neufeld, Walter Vermeulen, E. Kletschoff, Julius Neumann, Johan Niegemann, Hans-Georg Grasshoff, Peer Bücking, and Steffen Ahrends.[12]

Albert Kahn’s Cheliabinsk tractor factory (1934)

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. and Mrs. Iofan at a banquet, Moscow (1937)

Czech modernists Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige in Moscow (1926)

The newly formed constellation of Eastern Europe that emerged out of the postwar dissolution of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires was also represented in force by some of its leading modernists. From Czechoslovakia, the great Constructivist poet and architectural critic Karel Teige[13] lent his incisive observations to the Soviet Union’s various attempts at regional and municipal planning. Two of Teige’s close compatriots in the Czech avant-garde, the functionalist architects Jiří Kroha[14] and Jaromír Krejcar,[15] were already active in the Soviet Union at that time. Besides Wiener, Scheffler, and Forbát, who were associated with May’s and Meyer’s groups in Moscow, the Hungarian modernists Laszlo Péri, Imre Perényi,[16] and Stefan Sebök[17] each worked independently for the Soviet state. Finally, the Polish avant-gardists Edgar Norwerth[18] and Leonard Tomaszewski[19] also collaborated with various organs of the government of the USSR during the execution of its second five-year plan.

The radical architect and Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer (1930)

Bruno Taut, Grete Schutte-Lihotsky, and others in the Soviet Union (1933)

A number of American architects contributed to the Soviet effort as well.  Albert Kahn, the celebrated builder of Detroit — along with his brother, Moritz Kahn — helped design over five hundred factories in the Soviet Union as part of its push toward industrialization.[20]  Thomas Lamb, the well-established constructor of many of America’s first cinemas, and Percival Goodman, an urban theorist who would later build many famous American synagogues, also offered their abilities to the Soviet state.[21] The pioneering American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, though he would not officially visit Russia until 1937, nevertheless spoke openly about the greatness of the Soviet project during the early 1930s. By the early 1930s, Wright was disillusioned with the capitalist socioeconomic system: “The capitalistic system is a gambling game. It is hard to cure gamblers of gambling and everybody high and low in this country prefers the gambler’s chance at a great fortune to the slower growth of a more personal fortune.” By contrast, he exclaimed the virtues of the Soviet project: “I view the USSR as a heroic endeavor to establish more genuine human values in a social state than any existing before. Its heroism and devotion move me deeply and with great hope.”[22]

VKhUTEMAS students, 1927

First OSA Conference, 1928

Despite the great influx of foreign modernists seen during this period, however, the influence of the new architectural avant-garde was hardly alien to the Soviet Union. On the contrary, it had begun to establish itself there as early as 1921 — if one discounts the renowned monument proposed by Tatlin for the Third International in 1918.[23] That year witnessed the appointment of the architects Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, and the sculptor Boris Efimov to the faculty of VKhUTEMAS, the well-known Moscow technical school often compared to the Bauhaus in Germany.[24] Along with Vladimir Krinskii, Konstantin Mel’nikov, and the international modernist El Lissitzky, Ladovskii and Dokuchaev went on to constitute the avant-garde group ASNOVA (the Association of New Architects) in 1923, though it would only publish the declaration of its existence in 1926. Ladovskii’s brightest pupil and laboratory assistant Georgii Krutikov would join the group upon graduating the academy in 1928. Opposed to ASNOVA, the equally-stalwart modernist OSA (Society of Modern Architects) formed the Constructivist school of architectural thought in 1925, led by such outstanding designers as Leonid, Aleksandr, and Viktor Vesnin and their chief theorist Moisei Ginzburg. Il’ia Golosov officially became a member in 1926, followed by two of their exemplary students, Ivan Leonidov and Nikolai Krasil’nikov, in 1927 and 1928 respectively. Though divergent in terms of their fundamental principles, both OSA and ASNOVA were united in their opposition to atavistic architecture and their mutual commitment to modernity.

Wall Street crash, 1929

Schmitt’s “Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy” incarnate: Burning of the German parliament, the Reichstag (1933)

The overwhelming gravity that the debates over Soviet urbanism held for the avant-garde, their seemingly high stakes, is difficult to emphasize enough. Just as the USSR was first embarking upon its five-year plans, the nations of the West were facing the threefold crisis of global capitalism, of parliamentary democracy,[25] and of the European sciences[26] in general. At no prior point had the future of the worldwide socioeconomic system of capital seemed so uncertain — never had its basis been so shaken. On nearly every front — economic, political, and epistemological — it faced defeat. Italy, Germany, and finally Spain fell beneath the rising tide of Fascism. Everywhere it seemed that Europe was entering into the darkness of Spenglerian decline.

Comrade Lenin clearing the Earth of the rabble (1920)

Workers of the World, Unite!

But by that same score, in a positive sense there had never been a planning project as ambitious as the Soviet centralized economy. It represented a moment of unprecedented opportunity for international modernists to build on the highest possible scale, the chance to realize their visions at the level of totality.[27] For with the huge projected budgets set aside for new construction toward the end of the 1920s, the modernists saw an opening to implement their theories not just locally, but on a regional, national, and — should the flames of revolution fan to Europe — a potentially international scale. This mere fact alone should hint at the reason so many members of the architectural avant-garde, who so long dreamed of achieving an “international style”[28] without boundaries, would be attracted to the Soviet cause. That the number of international representatives of the avant-garde swelled to such an unparalleled degree should come as no surprise, either, given the prospect of imminently realizing their most utopian dreams. In the midst of the collapse of the old order, as heralded by world war, pestilence (Spanish influenza), revolution, and a nearly universal depression, it appeared as if the modernists were being granted their deepest wish — of erecting a new society upon the ashes of that which had preceded it. “Our world, like a charnel-house, lays strewn with the detritus of dead epochs,” Le Corbusier had thundered in 1925.[29] In the wake of global instability, crash, and catastrophe, the Soviet five-year plan seemed to offer to him and his fellow avant-gardists the chance to wipe the slate clean.

VKhUTEMAS poster celebrating the Five-Year Plan

Poster for the First Five-Year Plan (1928), with vaguely antisemitic overtones

It is therefore little wonder that the tenor of the debates over Soviet urbanism should have been cast in such stark terms. The fate of the entire avant-garde, if not society itself, hung in the balance. Whichever principles won out might ultimately determine the entire course of future building for the USSR, and perhaps the world (pending the outcome of the seemingly terminal crisis in the West). Modernist architects, who had up to that point been mainly concerned with the design of individual structures, and only here and there touched on the greater problem of urbanism, now scrambled to articulate their theoretical stances on the issue of “socialist settlement.” As a number of rival positions emerged, they came into heated conflict with one another. Whole books were written and articles published in popular Soviet journals defending one theory and attacking all that opposed it. And so the disputes did not merely take on the character of modernism combating its old traditionalist rival, but that of a radically fractured unity of the modernist movement itself. The fresh lines of division being carved within the architectural avant-garde did not owe so much to national peculiarities as it did to the radicality of the question now being posed before it: that of the fundamental restructuring of human habitation. For the issues at hand were not simply the reorganization of already-existing cities, but also the construction of entirely new settlements from the ground up. The intransigent tone that the debates subsequently assumed is thus more a testament to the urgency and sincerity of the modernist theories of the city being put forth than it is to some sort of arbitrary disagreement over matters of trivial importance.

Le Corbusier, Sergei Eisenstein, and Andrei Burov (1928)

Members of the forcibly unionized Union of Soviet Architects (1932)

This point is especially important to stress, moreover, in light of some interpretations that have recently dismissed these crucial differences in the avant-garde’s architectural visions of utopia as a quantité négligible. Not long ago, the argument was advanced that these theoretical disputes amounted to little more than quibbling pettiness on the part of the members of the avant-garde. According to this version of events, the modernists merely dressed up their personal animosities, jealousies, and professional rivalries in high-sounding rhetoric and thereby ruined any chance for productive collaboration with one another. Moreover, it asserts that it was this very disunity that led to the modernists’ eventual defeat at the hands of the Stalinists. Weakened by the years of petty bickering, this argument maintains, the two main groups representing the architectural avant-garde (OSA and ASNOVA) were easily undercut by the fledgling, proto-Stalinist organization VOPRA, working in cahoots with the party leadership. Had the members of the avant-garde been willing to set aside their differences, this outlook would have it, they might have prevailed against the combined strength of their opponents.[30]

Plan for the Functional City (1932), for a conference that was to have been held in Moscow

Of course, this account almost completely overlooks the international dimension of the debates, choosing instead to narrowly focus on the faculty politics taking place within the walls of the VKhUTEMAS school of design. While this was doubtless an important stage of the debate, it can scarcely be considered the decisive grounds on which the war over Soviet architecture was waged. It is symptomatic that such an interpretation would leap suddenly from the middle part of the 1920s to the final defeat of the architectural avant-garde in the 1937, ignoring practically everything that transpired in between. As a result, it is able to treat the problem as a merely internal affair, concerning only Soviet architects. This then allows the importance of the tensions within the VKhUTEMAS leadership throughout the early- to mid-1920s to be grossly overstated.[31] Even if the field of inquiry is thus limited, however, the polemics can by no means be reduced to mere cynicism. Such bitterness and resentment could just as easily be an outcome of (rather than a ground for) heated argumentation.

Zinoviev in a motorcade (1929)

Lunacharskii at a congress of Working Artists (1923)

But this notion — that the real differences within the modernists’ debates over Soviet architecture and urbanism were largely exaggerated — is swiftly dispelled once one takes note of the extra-architectural interest surrounding their potential results. For architects were hardly the only ones worried about the form that new Soviet settlements would take. The ideological influence of architecture on society was not lost on non-architects within the Soviet hierarchy. Many thinkers, scattered across a wide range of vocations, were therefore drawn into the discourse on socialist city planning. Quite a few economists participated in the discussion. Besides Leonid Sabsovich, a writer for the state journal Planned Economy and a major figure in the debates, economists like Stanislav Strumilin (one of Planned Economy’s editors) and Leonid Puzis weighed in on the material aspects of the various schemas of town planning. Professional sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich joined OSA in 1928, and went on to become one of its major spokesmen. The celebrated journalist and author Vladimir Giliarovskii reported on some considerations of nervo-psychological health in the socialist city.[32] Even more telling of the perceived centrality of the problem of Soviet urbanism to the five-year plan is the number of high-ranking party members and government officials who wrote on the matter. The Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii, Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaia, the old guard Bolshevik Grigorii Zinov’ev, and the doctor and Commissar of Health Nikolai Semashko all devoted lengthy articles to the consideration of different proposed solutions to the issue of urban planning. So clearly, the detailed differences between the various Soviet urban projects concerned more than solely the architects.

Painting of Stalin atop the Kremlin in Moscow (1935)

Lazar’ Kaganovich, far right, Stalin’s Commissar of Railways and overseer of the rebuilding project for Moscow, including the Moscow metro system (1932)

Another historiographical point that must be made is that what appears to have been “Stalinist” from the outset could not have been recognized as such at the time. The emergent features of what came to be known as Stalinism — its bureaucratic deformities, thuggery, and cultural philistinism — had not yet fully crystallized by the early 1930s. While it is true that these qualities may have been prefigured to some extent by the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions after the war, the USSR’s consequent isolation, and the cascading effects of the political involutions that followed — none of this could be seen as yet. The betrayed commitment to international revolution, the disastrous (if inevitable) program of “Socialism in One Country,” did not bear their fruits until much later. The residual hope remaining from the original promise of the revolution echoed into the next two decades, before the brutal realities of Stalin’s regime eventually set in. In 1930, there was no “Stalinist” architecture to speak of. Even the eclectic designs of the academicians did not fully anticipate what was to come. The contours of what would later be called “Stalinist” architecture — that grotesque hybrid-creation of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical arches, façades, and colonnades — only became clear after a long and painful process of struggle and disillusionment. Toward the beginning of the decade, a number of possibilities seemed yet to be decided upon, and so the utopian dream of revolution continued to live on.[33]

Viktor Kalmykov, project “Saturn,” proposal for a levitating city (1930), studio of Nikolai Ladovskii

Soviet utopia: Proposal for Krasnoiarsk, the “red city” (1931)

Whatever latent realm of possibility may have still seemed to exist at the moment the Soviet Union initiated its planning program, however, its actual results admit of no such uncertainties. The defeat of modernist architecture was resounding and unambiguous. And while it would survive and even flourish in the West following the Second World War, the avant-garde left something of its substance behind in Russia. Its external form remained — with its revolutionary use of concrete, glass, and other materials, its austere lines and structural severity — but it had been deprived of its inner core, and now stood devoid of content. For architectural modernism had hitherto expressed an inseparable duality, and deduced its role as both a reflection of contemporary society and an effort to transform it. These two aspects, its attempt to create a universal formal language that corresponded to modern realities and its sociohistorical mission to fundamentally reshape those very realities, were inextricably bound up with one another. When the architectural avant-garde ultimately failed to realize itself by achieving this mission, it became cynical; its moment of opportunity missed, it chose instead to abandon the task of helping remake society. Cast out of the Soviet Union, the modernists let go of their visions of utopia and made their peace with the prevailing order in the West. They pursued traditional avenues like public contracts and individual commissions to accomplish each of their proposals. No longer did they dream of building a new society, but focused on limited projects of reform rather than calling for an all-out revolution. Emptied of its foundational content, however, modernism gradually gave way to post-modernism as architecture became even further untethered from its basis. Reduced to a set of organizational forms, modernist design grew increasingly susceptible to criticisms of its apparently “dull” and “lifeless” qualities. Modernism’s capitulation to the realities of bourgeois society doomed it to obsolescence. The modern itself had become passé.

Georgii Krutikov’s “flying city” (1929)

Georgii Krutikov's proposal for a "city of the future" (1929)

Georgii Krutikov’s proposed “city of the future” (1929)

Shuttlepod for Georgii Krutikov's "flying city" (1929)

Shuttlepod for the “flying city”

Framed in this way, this paper will assert that the outcome of the debates over Soviet urbanism in the 1930s sealed the fate of the international avant-garde. All of its prior commitments to general social change were reneged. Modernism’s longstanding duty to solve the problem of “the minimum dwelling,”[34] which for Marxists was closely tied into Engels’ work on The Housing Question,[35] was relinquished after only the first few CIAM conventions (1929-1931). Its resolution to put an end to wasteful (even criminal[36]) ornamentation and make all building more functional was scaled back to a mere stylistic choice, rather than a general social practice. Likewise, modernism’s call for a uniform, standardized, and industrialized architecture of the home was replaced by a tendency to custom-design each individual dwelling — usually the wealthier ones — as its spare, geometric style became chic among the upper classes. The mass-production of housing, serialized with interchangeable parts, was instead taken up by companies building in a more traditional style, hoping to turn a cheap profit housing students or the poor. Those bleak modernist housing complexes that were created all too often became places to merely stuff away the impoverished classes, cramped and out of sight. (That such places would become areas of high concentration for drug use and petty crime is only fitting). Finally, the quest for a universal architectural language was abandoned. This language was adopted exclusively by those particular architects who identified themselves with the modernist movement, and even then it was pursued on only a piecemeal basis.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s monument to Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg (1926)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1958)

The Soviet Union alone had presented the modernists with the conditions necessary to realize their original vision. Only it possessed the centralized state-planning organs that could implement building on such a vast scale.[37] Only it promised to overcome the clash of personal interests entailed by the “sacred cow” of private property.[38] And only it had the sheer expanse of land necessary to approximate the spatial infinity required by the modernists’ international imagination.[39] The defeat of architectural modernism in Russia left the country a virtual graveyard of the utopian visions of unbuilt worlds that had once been built upon it. It is only after one grasps the magnitude of the avant-garde’s sense of loss in this theater of world history that all the subsequent developments of modernist architecture in the twentieth century become intelligible. For here it becomes clear how an architect like Mies van der Rohe, who early in his career designed the Monument to the communist heroes Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg in 1926, would curry favor with the Nazis in the 1930s,[40] and then later become the man responsible for one of the swankiest monuments to high-Fordist capitalism, the Seagram’s Building of 1958. And here one can see how Le Corbusier, embittered by the Soviet experience, would briefly flirt with Vichy fascism during the war before going on to co-design the United Nations Building in New York. Continue reading