Paul Nelson, Robert Pontabry et Anatole Kopp à l'inauguration de l'exposition des techniques américaines, Grand Palais, 14 juin 1946a

Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans

by Anatole Kopp

Image: Paul Nelson, Robert Pontabry et Anatole Kopp
à l’inauguration de l’exposition des techniques
américaines, Grand Palais, 14 juin 1946

Reproduced below, sans footnotes, is the French-Russian architectural historian Anatole Kopp’s late article on “Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans,” from 1988. As things stand, it’s probably the most thorough account of international specialists’ activities in the USSR. In a post that’ll soon follow, I’ll go over Kopp’s career and outlook, his strengths and shortcomings, his collaborations and disagreements with peers such as Henri Lefebvre. His earlier work was stronger, and more influential, but this article is valuable if for no other reason than its comprehensiveness. That said, it does leave out mention of a few noteworthy figures, such as Hinnerk Scheper and Johan Niegeman. I’ve included some images of them, even though he neglects to mention them.

Soviet architecture of the 1920s — avant-garde architecture — was largely unresearched in the West until the mid-1960s. Since then, in Europe, in the United States, and also progressively in the Soviet Union, various studies have been devoted to this subject. What has remained largely unexamined, however, is the activity of a large number of foreign technicians who went to work in the USSR beginning in 1928. Their participation in various construction projects and in the development of Soviet architecture is the subject of this essay.

The importance of the presence of foreign — particularly German — architects in the Soviet Union is stressed in a study by Kurt Junghanns. According to Junghanns, “the Section of Foreign Architects within the Union of Soviet Architects [Obshchestvo sovetskikh arkhitektorov] between 1933 and 1936 comprised between, 800 and 1,000 members despite the fact that not every foreign architect was a member [of the Union]. It is characteristic that about half of them were Germans.”

Bauhaus student Hinnerk Scheper, Moscow 1930

Bauhaus student Hinnerk Scheper, Moscow 1930

Although the mass emigration of architects remained a purely German phenomenon, other European architects emigrated during the 1930s for generally the same reasons as their German colleagues. The first reason that comes to mind for this emigration is the economic depression that began in the United States in 1929 and reached Germany in the 1930s. By 1932, 45 percent of the active population in Germany was out of work, and the creation of social housing projects — one of the most successful achievements of the Weimar Republic — had practically come to a standstill. But the economic depression alone does not explain why the mass emigration was confined to German architects. After all, the economic crisis in Great Britain was almost as bad as that in Germany, yet British architects did not emigrate en masse. Moreover, economic conditions do not explain why such a great number of German architects went to the Soviet Union.

Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 may have been another reason for this emigration. But, although the exact dates on which each individual architect — or groups of architects — emigrated are not known, the “great names” in German architecture left Germany at the beginning of the 1930s. Ernst May and Hannes Meyer left in 1930 — that is, before Hitler came to power. Jewish heritage could have been a decisive reason to emigrate, yet few of the architects who actually emigrated to the USSR were Jews. Sources that discuss the emigration of young Jewish architects suggest that most chose to go to Palestine after 1933.

Thus, although economic depression and the rise of Hitler clearly played a role in the emigration of architects to the Soviet Union, these events were not the decisive factors behind this emigration. One such decisive factor concerns the way the USSR was perceived by an important segment of the Western European population, by part of the working class and also by a sizable number of intellectuals, including architects. In addition, German architects were motivated by their belief in the principles of the modern movement — or neues Bauen, as it was called in Germany — as well as by the nature and social structure of their clientele.

Cover to Das Neue Russland, 1928

Cover to Das Neue Russland, 1928

Perceptions of the USSR during the 1920s

Much of what is known today about the first decade in the history of the Soviet Union was then unknown outside the USSR. Moreover, the Western democracies were viewed by many in light of the First World War and its consequences, the perceived social injustice in these countries, and the inability of the Western democracies to offer their citizens a worthwhile goal in life. An abundant literature on the subject in Western Europe as well as in America testifies to this sentiment. Soviet Russia seemed to be the country where the ideas of modern architecture were becoming the guiding principles of architecture and town planning. This was reflected not only in professional articles and on drafting boards, but in the architectural landscape as well.

The First International Congress of Modern Architecture (CLAM) took place in 1928 in La Sarraz, Switzerland. The most prestigious avant-garde architects participated in the event, and they adopted a manifesto clearly showing that social, economic, and political considerations were essential components of modern architectural theory — a theory that shared many common principles with those followed by Soviet architects of that period.

The undersigned architects proclaim that their production must express the spirit of our time. Conscious of the profound transformation brought to the social structure by mechanization, they acknowledge that the transformation of the social order and of the social life lead to a corresponding transformation of architectural phenomena. The precise goal of their encounter is to return architecture to its real basis, which is economic and sociological.

Modern architects in Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia had begun to work for a new client: the people. A small group of French avant-garde architects, including Le Corbusier, hoped that the same phenomenon would occur in France. According to the German architect Walter Gropius, “It is not more private villas that must be built, but hundreds of apartments. Not houses for those who are rich in capital, but good houses that can be used by the workers, houses that are not an answer to an aesthetic commission but to objective facts.”

The ideas expressed at La Sarraz in 1928 were very close to those expressed by specialists at the time in the Soviet Union. Many architects of the modern movement publicly expressed enthusiasm about what was being done — or what they thought was being done — in the field of Soviet architecture and town planning, and also in the social and political life of the Soviet Union. After his first visit to Moscow in 1928 Le Corbusier wrote: “I found in Moscow people working tirelessly at the invention of a new architecture…searching for the most characteristic, the most pure solutions…One feels in Moscow, be this artificial or deeply motivated, the forthcoming signs of a new world.”

Cover to the French journal URSS en Construction, designed by Aleksandr Rodchenko (1962)

Cover to the French journal URSS en Construction, designed by Aleksandr Rodchenko (1962)

Furthermore, Le Corbusier compared work opportunities for Soviet architects to work opportunities for architects in the West:

I have lately been observing in Russia the birth of modem architecture. While we have, for the past thirty years, worked endlessly at narrow and humiliating tasks, this country [the Soviet Union] exhorts its architects. It calls on them to achieve [architectural] types, pure organisms…new regulations have been adopted…The formless building lots of the West have forced us to practice an orthopedic architecture; the free land of the USSR brings us the free plan. US: crippled combinations exhausting a professional knowledge that once upon a time made for the glory of this country; THEY: [Architectural] organisms of the period of the reconstruction.

In 1930, Ernst May, chief architect of the city of Frankfurt — a “bourgeois” architect by Soviet standards — went to work in the Soviet Union with a team of architects and technicians. Before his departure he said, “Politics is none of my business. I am a German architect, and I work for the Soviet Government in the hope of being at the same time useful to the German economy.” But he also said, “Nobody can predict whether the greatest national experiment of all times is going to succeed. But it is infinitely more important for me to take part in this immense task than to worry about the security of my private existence.”

Russie Neuve, from April 1933

Russie Neuve, from April 1933

Friendship society publications, such as Soviet Russia Today, Neues Russland, Russie neuve, and L’URSS en construction, presented a positive and enthusiastic picture of the USSR, especially when compared with the grim picture of the West during the Depression. Both May, who was generally apolitical, and Walter Gropius spoke positively of the USSR in Neues Russland.11 Bruno Taut, who designed many of the social hotaing complexes in the Berlin region, abo viewed the USSR in a positive light. After visiting Taut’s housing complexes, Anatolii Lunacharskii, the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, said: “That is built socialism.’” Taut traveled extensively in the Soviet Union and found support among Soviet planners for his ideas of urban decentralization, which were very similar to those defended by a number of Russian specialists.

For many architects, the West offered only limited projects and the possibility of unemployment. Russia, on the contrary, was seen as the “birthplace” of modern architecture — a country where scientific planning governed land development, as opposed to the apparent anarchy that existed among planners in the West. The innovative approaches to architecture practiced in the USSR contrasted with the sterile Western approaches that made use of bygone styles and worn-out techniques. And above all, in the USSR changes were taking place at an unprecedented speed. To many architects, the Soviet Union seemed to be the land described by Vladimir Maiakovskii in The Building Sites and the Men of Kuznetsk. In this land, in four years — the four years of the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) — a place of wilderness was to become a garden-town. Comparisons with the West during the Depression of the 1930s enhanced this image of the USSR, where, after the launching of the first Five-Year Plan, unemployment had given way to a shortage of manpower.

Poster for an exhibition of the work of the Bauhaus Dessau in Moscow (1931)

Poster for an exhibition of the work of the Bauhaus Dessau premiering in Moscow (1931)

German architects of the Neues Bauen

In Germany, by the end of the 1920s, modern architecture was no longer considered an experimental activity or artistic fantasy, as it was in most parts of Europe; it had become a mass phenomenon. The distinguishing features of modern architecture were its use of both simplified architectural forms and techniques that had been adapted to new building materials and its particular clientele. Whereas modern architects in other European nations during that time were receiving their commissions from wealthy intellectuals and artists, German architects of the neues Bauen worked for municipal authorities, who were usually elected on social democratic platforms, and with labor unions to construct housing projects — an activity that had been actively pursued by the German Social Democratic Party since the middle of the nineteenth century.13 By the end of the 1920s, countless Siedlungen (housing complexes) had been designed by preeminent architects of the modern movement, such as May, Taut, and Gropius, and built throughout Germany by housing cooperatives. In Frankfurt, May designed approximately eight thousand apartments in four years — as well as schools, kindergartens, and commercial facilities — making use of the most advanced building techniques and modern, though moderate, architectural forms.

Another aim of the modern movement was to define “minimum lodging,” or minimum Wohnungen, for a working-class family. The concept of minimum lodging was not thought of in purely economic terms. According to May, “We, the architects of neues Bauen, are fighting without mercy against such economies…We declare war against the partisans of such an uneconomical economy. We calculate otherwise by putting the well-being of men above all mathematical figures.” These architects considered the humanitarian and social aspects of architecture essential to their professional practice:

The architects of the new architecture are united, without distinction of nationality, by their compassion toward men in need; one cannot imagine them without a social consciousness; one can even say that they have firmly decided to make social considerations the first priority of modern architecture…They deny the legitimacy of any housing group that provides satisfying living conditions only to the fortunate elite. They fight for the amelioration of the fate of the poorest of the poor.

Willi Baumeister, poster for the Wohnung settlement at Weissenhof near Stuttgart, 1927

Willi Baumeister, poster for the Wohnung settlement at Weissenhof near Stuttgart, 1927

Modern German architects’ concern for the “poorest of the poor” and their ideas regarding the function of architecture in some ways paralleled similar developments in architectural thought in the USSR. “Function,” it was believed, had a broader meaning than was implicit in the term functionalism. The main function of architecture was to contribute to social change, to serve as one of the “tools” of the transformation of society.16 Many German architects believed in Soviet ideology regarding the development of culture, in particular regarding the development of architecture, which was considered to be dependent on the working class:

Today we have neither a church nor autocracy nor feudalism as creators of style. It is neither the cathedral nor the castle that orient construction. The direction [of construction] is now in other hands, in the hands of those who construct the buildings, who produce the building materials, who extract them from the quarries and from the mines…It is the mass of the workers…that can today provide the basis for good architecture and no longer divine revelation or the blessings of God.

Similar ideas regarding the role of architecture in society were shared by many modern architects outside the Soviet Union, but, except in Germany, these concepts remained confined to theory. At a preparatory meeting of the Fourth CIAM, the Polish delegation commented:

Architects must consider political and economic problems to be consequences of their activity. Obviously the social revolution up until now has never been the result of the work of architects; however, architecture is perfectly capable of expressing and personifying radical ideas through construction. The revolutionary principles of the CIAM in the fields of construction, technique, housing, and town planning can therefore exert a direct effect on future forms of life, an effect whose capacity for coercion shall be as powerful as the firing of a gun but much more fruitful.

A shared belief regarding the function of architecture was one of the reasons for the mass migration of architects to the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

El Lissitzky, catalogue for the landmark Soviet exposition in Berlin in 1926.

El Lissitzky, catalogue for the landmark Soviet exposition in Berlin (1926)

Soviet architecture during the 1920s

For Soviet architects in the 1920s, in particular Soviet constructivist architects, the function of architecture had little to do with its function before the Bolshevik Revolution. The main characteristic of Soviet avant-garde architecture of the 1920s was its proclaimed objective of creating an architectural landscape that would reflect the ideals of the revolution. This correlation between Soviet architecture and social concerns is the main source of interest in the theories, projects, and unique constructions generated by Soviet architecture during the 1920s. This correlation suggests that the architecture of the 1920s was not only an artistic avant-garde movement but also a social and political movement. This thought was expressed by the theoretical spokesman of the constructivists, Moisei Ginzburg, in the constructivists’ publication Sovremennaia arkhitektura (contemporary [modern] architecture):

One will say that every architect…has a goal…But the constructivists give the notion of a goal a precise meaning. The constructivists consider the problem of the goal in relation to all the changes occurring in our way of life that provide the basis for an entirely new conception of housing. The goal for us is not to execute a commission as such, but to work in conjunction with the proletariat, to participate in the construction of a new life, of a new way of life.

For constructivist architects — and for party and government leaders — architecture became one of the tools of what at the time was called perestroika byta, or reconstruction of the way of life. This idea was expressed by M. Okhitovitch, a theoretician of Soviet town and regional planning during the 1920s: “The goal of architecture of our period is not the construction of a given building but the ‘Construction,’ the shaping of new social relations resulting from new production conditions, under the form of buildings whose common character will be the expression of their social and productive contents.” Soviet avant-garde architects began to consider buildings and even entire towns “tools of social changes,” or sotsialnye kondensatory (social condensers).

During this time, the urbanists and deurbanists were debating the role of the city in the development of Soviet society. The industrialization of the USSR was pursued according to a decentralized rather than a centralized scheme. This meant that most of the great industrial projects of the first Five-Year Plan were located in unpopulated or scarcely populated areas far from towns. Therefore, these projects could not benefit from existing infrastructures, and the surrounding environment had to be built simultaneously with particular industrial projects. Moreover, not all of these sites were originally intended to be towns. In order to design and supervise the building of these towns, technicians, architects, and town planners were needed. But these specialists were scarce in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. In addition, the discussions among Soviet specialists in 1928-29 were extremely theoretical and abstract, focusing on questions such as the nature of the sotsgorod (socialist town) and whether or not towns built under capitalism and designed to serve its purposes could be transformed and adapted to the new way of life resulting from perestroika byta.

Kitchen factory, 1928

Kitchen factory, 1928

The urbanists favored a decentralized system of human establishments, each not exceeding forty thousand inhabitants; everyday life was to be almost totally collectivized through the construction of commune houses (doma kommuny), factory-kitchens (fabriki-kukhni), accommodations for children, and other communal arrangements. The deurbanists stood for the elimination of anything resembling a town, large or small. Individual “living cells” were to be erected along main highways; factories were to be placed next to sources of raw materials; territories were to be made equivalent to each other through the even distribution of electric power throughout the entire country; and transportation from residences to production areas was to be provided by automobiles and buses, “as in America.” Despite its abstract and often utopian character, this discussion helped establish certain planning principles, although final decisions were postponed until theoretical principles had been clarified. But the Five-Year Plan demanded immediate decisions and could not wait for the end of prolonged deliberations. By inviting foreign specialists — who had not been involved in the 1928-1929 discussions — to work in the USSR, Soviet authorities were forced to curtail the debate and to begin applying new principles in town planning.

Thus it was decided to “import” architects into the Soviet Union. In considering which architects to invite, Soviet authorities ruled out architects who were continuing to work in the classical tradition, designing “unique” buildings for prestigious programs, even though these architects represented the majority of the profession at that time. Instead, they sought architects whose projects were suited for mass production and mass housing, who seemed to understand the needs and objectives of the Five-Year Plan, and who advocated designing architecture not for the “happy few,” but instead for the masses. In short, they sought architects of the modern movement, and the personal histories of the invited architects and descriptions of their work confirm that the Soviet authorities fulfilled their intent. These architects were looking for work, but in addition they went to the USSR because they thought that their style of architecture met a need; many felt that they were pursuing a mission, that they were contributing to the success of what Ernst May had called “the greatest national experiment of all times.”

Of the one thousand architects who, according to Junghanns, worked in the Soviet Union during the early 1930s, not more than fifty names are known; most are names of architects who were well-known before they went to the USSR or architects who, after their return, spoke or wrote about their experiences. Although the majority of these architects — approximately five hundred — were from Germany, others came originally from the Netherlands, Hungary, and Switzerland but worked for a time in Germany before leaving for the USSR. Only two French architects worked in the USSR. The American architects who worked in the Soviet Union were generally specialists in the field of industrial architecture.

Cover to Das Neue Frankfurt, 1930: Deutsche bauen in der UdSSR

Cover to Das Neue Frankfurt, 1930: “Deutsche bauen in der UdSSR”

German architects in the Soviet Union

The first German architect known to have worked in the Soviet Union was Oswald Schneideratus, who emigrated in 1924. His reasons seem to have been purely political; he was a militant Communist in Berlin, and in 1921 he was in charge of a party military organization. His departure to the Soviet Union was a party decision, taken in order to avoid his arrest, although he was also a qualified architect. In the USSR, he became an active professional known for various important projects, including some in the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of the Volga Germans, and he is the only foreign architect mentioned in the 1962 edition of the History of Soviet Architecture. Schneideratus died in Moscow in 1937. Werner Schneideratus, Oswald’s son, shared his father’s opinions. Werner was arrested by the Nazis, but he managed to escape to the Soviet Union, where he found work in the office of the American architect Albert Kahn in Moscow.

Bruno Taut was the chief architect of the two most well-known Siedlungen, Berlin-Britz and Onkel Toms Hütte, and he was formerly a member, as was Walter Gropius, of the postwar artistic-revolutionary organization Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Council of the Workers of the Arts). Interested in the Soviet Union, Taut wrote articles for Neues Russland, and he traveled to the USSR in 1926. In 1932, he closed his Berlin office and moved to Moscow. Taut lectured about the German building industry, but he obtained few commissions from the Soviets, and none of them was ever built.

Ernst May organized a model municipal planning and building organization in Germany that performed all architectural, planning, and building tasks — from preliminary sketches to the control and direction of construction, from choice of building sites to development plans. Many large building elements were factory produced, and building sites were organized using assembly lines. In the field of town planning, May was one of the promoters of the idea of the Trabantenstadt — that is, independent satellite communities designed to limit the growth of towns. This idea, practiced in Frankfurt, pleased Russian planners, who saw the uncontrolled growth of urban centers as one of the evils of capitalism and who advocated decentralization in the discussion between the urbanists and deurbanists. After preliminary trips to the Soviet Union, May moved to Moscow on May 8, 1930, with a team of architects and building technicians composed essentially of his Frankfurt crew. Soviet authorities negotiated an unusual contract with May through the Tsekombank (Central Communal Bank); contracts with foreign technicians were usually negotiated on an individual basis. Soviet authorities intended to use May’s Brigade, or Brigada Maia, not only as an architectural and town-planning team, but also as a model organization for Soviet planners and builders.

Anton Bayer and the May brigade in the USSR, 1932

Anton Bayer and the May brigade in the USSR, 1932

May’s Brigade was put in charge of important housing developments for Kuznetsk, Prokopievsk, Nizhnii Tagil, Orsk, Leninakan, Makaevka, Shcheglovsk, Chibinogorsk, and Magnitogorsk — the last being the most important of May’s commissions. May and his team were also invited to take part in the competition for the reconstruction of Moscow that was to transform Moscow into an “exemplary socialist city” (obraztsovyi sotsialisticheskii gorod). They were also put in charge of a great many housing, school, and clinic projects in various parts of the Soviet Union.

After 1930, many German and German-speaking architects traveled to Moscow in order to join May’s Brigade. Among the additions were Fred Forbat, J.W. Lehr, Eugen Kaufmann, and Kurt Liebknecht. May — who described himself as apolitical, despite his general interest in the Soviet Union — lived, as did members of his team, in conditions that bore no comparison with those of his Soviet colleagues. May’s team was paid in foreign currency and had access to the special shops reserved for foreigners.

Political cartoon depicting Hannes Meyer (1930)

Political cartoon depicting Hannes Meyer (1930)

Hannes Meyer, another of the “great” modern architects, appeared to be more overtly political than May. In 1928, Meyer succeeded Gropius as head of the Dessau Bauhaus, where he introduced architecture and planning into the curriculum and opened the Bauhaus to industry and labor organizations. He also incorporated the social sciences into the teaching of architecture; in those days this was not common practice among architectural schools. The “leftist” orientation of the Bauhaus under Meyer undoubtedly led to his dismissal in August 1930, despite the fact that Meyer’s Bauhaus had acquired a more contemporary image than the one it displayed during the period following its founding in 1920. The Bauhaus maintained relations with its Russian equivalent, the Moscow Vkhutemas (State Higher Art and Technical Studios), created in 1921. Teaching methods at the Vkhutemas were somewhat similar to the methods of the Bauhaus. And there were exchanges between the two institutions; for example, El Lissitzky (L.M. Lissitskii), a Soviet architect and designer at Vkhutemas, often visited the Dessau institution, and in 1928, a Bauhaus delegation visited the Moscow Vkhutemas.

Members of Hannes Meyer's "Red Bauhausbrigade," left-leaning students from Dessau (1930)

Members of Hannes Meyer’s “Red Bauhausbrigade,” left-leaning students from Dessau (1930)

After his dismissal from the Bauhaus, Meyer traveled to the Soviet Union, where he organized the Rotfront Brigade. The seven Bauhaus architecture students who belonged to the Rotfront Brigade were also members of the Bauhaus communist cell: Philipp Tolziner, Konrad Püschel, Tibor Weiner, René Mensch, Bela Scheffler, Klaus Meumann, and Anton Urban. Unlike May, Meyer voiced his political positions. When leaving for Moscow he declared:

After many years of working within the capitalist system, I am convinced that working under such conditions is quite senseless. In view of our Marxist and revolutionary conception of the world, we, the revolutionary architects, are at the mercy of the insoluble contradictions of a world built on animal individualism and the exploitation of man by man.

I am leaving for the USSR to work among people who are forging a true revolutionary culture, who are achieving socialism, and who are living in that form of society for which we have been fighting here under the conditions of capitalism.

I beg our Russian comrades to regard us, my group and myself, not as heartless specialists, claiming all kinds of special privileges, but as fellow workers with comradely views ready to make a gift to socialism and the revolution of all our knowledge, all our strength, and all the experience that we have acquired in the art of building.

In accordance with these principles, the Rotfront Brigade lived and worked in conditions quite different from those of May’s Brigade. Although May employed a relatively large number of Soviet workers in his brigade, it was essentially a “foreign” unit; his German workers generally remained isolated from Soviet workers; and his commissions were limited to those passed on by Soviet authorities. By contrast, Meyer’s group was much more integrated into Soviet society. For example, Meyer worked for Giprogor (State Institute of Town Building) and was in charge of development plans for various localities. He was also a member of the commission that developed the design competition for the Palace of Soviets — a politically important institution. He also served on the editorial boards of Sovetskaia arkhitektura (Soviet architecture) and Arkhitektura za rubezhom (Architecture abroad), both of which — particularly the first — approached architecture from a political point of view.

Natja Catalan, Tibor Weiner, Philipp Tolziner, Konrad Püschel, Margarete Mengel, Lilya Polgar, Anton Urban – members of the “Hannes Meyer architectural group” in Moscow, mid-1930s

Natja Catalan, Tibor Weiner, Philipp Tolziner, Konrad Püschel, Margarete Mengel, Lilya Polgar, Anton Urban — members of the “Hannes Meyer architectural group” in Moscow, mid-1930s

Hannes Meyer was a devoted propagandist for Soviet architecture and society. He traveled extensively throughout Western Europe, lecturing and writing laudatory articles about the USSR for the international architectural press. As a town planner in the USSR, Meyer designed several important new settlements, such as the one for 240,000 inhabitants in Nizhnii Kurilsk and the one for the Jewish autonomous region, Birobidzhan, for which he is best known. Along with May, Kurt Meyer, and Le Corbusier, he entered the competition for the reconstruction of Moscow in 1932. In addition, Hannes Meyer worked on various other projects, such as a school in Gorkii designed for 16,000 students. Nevertheless, soon after its formation, Meyer’s Rotfront Brigade was disbanded, and its members were assigned to different Soviet design organizations; some remained in the Soviet Union until the end of the Second World War.

May and Meyer illustrate the political spectrum along which almost all German architects could be positioned. Special mention, however, must be made of Margarete (Grete) Schütte-Lihotzky, who is possibly the only foreign female architect ever to have worked in the Soviet Union. Austrian by birth, Schütte-Lihotzky joined May’s team in Frankfurt in 1926. There she designed what became known as Die Frankfurter Küche (The Frankfurt kitchen), which was intended to exemplify the concept of minimum lodging and to ease women’s domestic work through a rational arrangement of component elements. In the Soviet Union, Schütte-Lihotzky was in charge of all architectural planning concerning children — including the design of furniture as well as of buildings and facilities for schools and day-care centers.

It is more difficult to say precisely what work other German architects did in the Soviet Union because most of them worked with Soviet architects in Soviet teams and as members of the large artels created at the beginning of the 1950s. From Junghanns’s study, it is known that Hans Schmidt, a German-Swiss architect, who was close to Meyer in his architectural and political views, designed many housing schemes for the industrial towns of the first and second Five-Year Plans; after the Second World War, he worked in East Germany. Kurt Meyer, the chief architect of Cologne, participated in the competition for the reconstruction of Moscow, but little is known of his other activities. Fred Forbat, a Hungarian architect who worked in Germany in the field of housing, joined May’s team in the USSR. Gustav Hassenpflug worked with Moisei Ginzburg on several projects, including an entry in the Palace of Soviets competition. Members of Taut’s group included Neumann, H. Zucker, Joseph Neufeld, and W. Neuziel. Hans Blumenfeld was employed by various large Soviet architectural firms. Other German architects who worked in the USSR included Heintz Abraham, Marinus Gewin, W. Hämer, W. Hedebrand, Gerhardt Kosel, W. Kratz, Wilhelm Kreis, F. Schumacher, K. Volker, and M. Wagner. The activities of many other German architects in the USSR remain to be discovered.

Corbu in the USSR

The French architects Le Corbusier and Lurçat

Le Corbusier was probably the most spectacular figure in the modern movement during the 1920s and 1930s. Lurçat was also a well-known figure in contemporary architecture, although his ideas and projects lacked the universal appeal of many of Le Corbusier’s productions.

Unlike other foreign architects who lived and worked in the Soviet Union, Le Corbusier never settled in the USSR; his contact with the Soviet Union was limited to a few short stays in Moscow. Nevertheless, the Tsentrosoiuz (the Central Consumers’ Union Building), which was Le Corbusier’s major Soviet commission, is one of the best-known examples of modern architecture in the Soviet Union, and Le Corbusier was the only foreign architect who could claim that at least one example of his work in the USSR remained relatively unaltered. The Radiant City, Le Corbusier’s major book on town planning, grew out of a questionnaire sent to foreign architects by the municipal authorities of Moscow, asking, in precise questions, for advice on housing and town planning. Le Corbusier responded to this questionnaire on June of 1930, with a detailed answer of sixty-six typewritten pages entitled “Résponse à Moscou.” Le Corbusier’s final attempt to contribute his own ideas to the development of Soviet architecture was his entry in the competition for the Palace of Soviets — the competition that marked the breaking point in the evolution of Soviet architecture within the international modern movement.

Andre Lurcat seated next to Aleksandr Vesnin, with Moisei Ginzburg on the far right (USSR, 1934)

Andre Lurcat seated next to Aleksandr Vesnin, with Moisei Ginzburg on the far right (USSR, 1934)

Unlike Le Corbusier, Andre Lurçat moved to the Soviet Union after his first visit, which lasted six weeks. He was invited to visit the country as a member of the French-Soviet friendship organization in order to assist with the organization’s propaganda work. Lurçat’s reputation in the Soviet Union was undoubtedly due to the quality of his architecture, particularly his last project, a school in the suburban Parisian town of Villejuif. This project gained attention in the Soviet Union partly because Villejuif was a communist municipality whose mayor was Paul Vaillant-Courturier, a leading figure in the French communist movement. Another factor was the school’s name: the Groupe scolaire Karl Marx. Lurçat worked in the USSR for three years as an architect and as a professor at the VKhUTEMAS. His work in the Soviet Union, which was confined mainly to isolated buildings, shows a constant effort to produce structures in conformity with the evolution of Soviet architectural theories.

The growth of socialist realism during the 1930s

The period from the end of the 1920s to the mid-1930s when most foreign architects voluntarily or involuntarily left the USSR was characterized by change in Soviet architectural theory and practice. Prior to 1928-29, constructivism had been the major current of Soviet architecture, but during the 1930s socialist realism gradually became the dominant, and then the only accepted, theory in architecture, as in all areas of culture.

Outside the Soviet Union, few knew about these changes. In May 1930, May’s Brigade left Berlin in a “joyous” mood, believing its move to the USSR was made in order to work in the “birthplace” of modern architecture. Coverage of foreign architects in the Soviet architectural press was ideologically oriented, and there was practically no coverage of May’s arrival. Even earlier, in an article on Taut’s lecture in Moscow on May 25, 1926 — when Soviet construction was practically at a standstill — the editorial committee of Stroitelnaia promyshlennost (Construction industry) emphasized Taut’s support of the Soviet Union rather than the architectural and technical aspects of his lecture. Regarding the lecture the journal wrote: “As a conclusion to this review [on Taut’s lecture], one can state with certitude that not a single remark made by our Berlin comrade has concerned anything that has not already been said…by our builders and architects.”

Minimizing the contribution of foreign architects was characteristic of the Soviet press. Moreover, as a rule, at the end of foreigners’ stays in the USSR or after their departure, their work would be sternly criticized. When foreign architects arrived in the USSR, the Soviet architectural press would publish articles about the tragic state of architecture in Western Europe and the United States, which it claimed was due to capitalism and the Depression. The Soviet press also published articles by foreign architects; these articles usually either discussed the “objective superiority” of the Soviet approach toward architecture or provided a narrow technical analysis of architecture, town planning, and other subjects. Practically no articles were ever published on the international work of these foreign architects, as if to diminish their stature.

The only exception to this unwritten rule concerned Le Corbusier, who was constantly praised for his artistic qualities and attacked for his alleged political positions. Le Corbusier was the first foreign architect to have obtained an important commission in the USSR — with the exception of Poelzig, who designed a textile plant in Leningrad in 1927. The evolution of Le Corbusier’s Tsentrosoiuz commission was characteristic of foreign architectural activity in the USSR.

Corbusier's Tsentrosoiuz building in Moscow, 1934

Corbusier’s Tsentrosoiuz building in Moscow, 1934

Le Corbusier and the Tsentrosoiuz project

In 1928, Soviet authorities decided to hold a competition to select the architect for the projected headquarters of the Tsentrosoiuz; among the architects invited to take part in the competition was Le Corbusier. On October 30, 1928, Soviet architects who had been invited to enter the competition wrote the Tsentrosoiuz administration suggesting that the construction of the largest Soviet building ever built should be entrusted to “one of the guiding lights of Western European architecture because we think that the building to be designed will represent, in the clearest possible way, the newest architectural ideas.” Thus Le Corbusier was put in charge of this important commission.

However, the story of the Tsentrosoiuz is also one of how Le Corbusier gradually became dispossessed of this commission. Hailed in the Soviet Union during the 1920s as the leading figure of modern architecture, Le Corbusier progressively became a living symbol of “capitalist” design. When commissioned by Soviet authorities, the Tsentrosoiuz was seen as the expression of the “new communist culture,” but while it was under construction, a Soviet planner, S. M. Gornyi, presented it as proof of Le Corbusier’s refusal to see Soviet reality. The “proof ” of Le Corbusier’s “ivory-tower” and “away-from-the-people” attitude was that — as in all air-conditioned buildings — the windows were designed not to be opened!

Le Corbusier’s Tsentrosoiuz (1928-1936)

According to another Soviet critic, Le Corbusier did worse than design windows that could not be opened; in his article “Vers une architecture” Le Corbusier wrote the unacceptable phrase “Architecture ou révolution.” In 1936, David Arkin, a well-known Soviet architectural critic and formerly a firm supporter of Le Corbusier, wrote about the town-planning ideas of the man he once admired:

[Le Corbusier’s] whole proposal concerns not only the rationalization of the city’s center. According [to him] this proposal is expected to solve the deepest social contradictions of the contemporary city and to solve them through architecture. This is one of the most cherished, the most often repeated ideas of Le Corbusier. [According to him] the main reason for the dissatisfaction of the masses [living in the towns] is the result of bad housing conditions. This can be solved by peaceful means, by means of architecture. In Le Corbusier’s theory, urbanism is not only the adaptation of all aspects of city life to the needs of the Stock Exchange, it is also the way to eradicate all the contradictions of the city that so [worry] the City Bosses. [This is why] he constantly warns the shortsighted and the conservatives: “Architecture or revolution!” The architectural transformation of life can make the social revolution unnecessary. This is how he concludes his book, On peut éviter la Révolution [p. 230]…A double task was assigned Le Corbusier by the culture of imperialism: the ultimate liquidation of the preimperialist past and the stabilization [of society] at no matter what cost. This is the social meaning of Le Corbusier’s urban theories. Urbanism, which he at first painted in revolutionary colors,…has revealed itself to be a set of conservative and defensive ideas.

Le Corbusier never saw the Tsentrosoiuz project completed, other than in photographs supplied by the French embassy in Moscow. In 1929, the All-Union Association of Proletarian Architects (Vsesoiuznoe Obedinenie Proletarskikh Arkhitektorov, or VOPRA), which was the equivalent of the unions that already existed for writers, poets, and painters, issued its first manifesto denouncing the constructivists for their “mechanical approach”—precisely the functionalist approach of European modern architects. Thus when VOPRA criticized unnamed constructivists for their disregard of the artistic and ideological aspects of architecture, it was criticizing Western European modern architects, such as May, Le Corbusier, and even Meyer, a communist sympathizer.

Hannes Meyer and the rise of VOPRA

Hannes Meyer’s writings reveal a discrepancy between the architectural concepts he developed at the Bauhaus and then tried to promote in the Soviet Union and the prevailing Soviet architectural thought based on socialist realism. Meyer tried to establish rules outlining a materialist and Marxist theory of architecture, which he believed was necessary and possible in a socialist society. In 1928 he wrote:

Building is a biological process. Building is not an aesthetic process…To think of architecture in functional and biological terms…leads logically to pure construction: These built-forms have no homeland; they are the expression of an international current of building ideas. One of the qualities of our time is its internationalism.

In a document dated June 13, 1931, that was unpublished at the time, Meyer went farther in denying that any artistic meaning could be derived from the architecture of socialism: “The socialist building is neither beautiful nor ugly; it is either complete or incomplete, worthy or unworthy. The result of an organizational process does not depend on an aesthetic judgment.” In defending his opinion that an “artless” nature characterizes socialist architecture, Meyer refuted the dominant Soviet architectural thought at the beginning of the 1930s.

Nikolai Miliutin

In 1930, the constructivist journal Sovremennaia arkhitektura was replaced by Sovetskaia arkhitektura. In this journal, Nikolai A. Miliutin attacked the constructivists whom he had earlier supported in his book, Sotsgorod. None of this was understood by the newly arrived architects from Western Europe; they thought that, as in the 1920s, the USSR was still the country where modern architecture was the official architecture. A manifesto was published by VOPRA in August 1929 in the politico-literary journal Pechat i revoliutsiia (Writing and revolution):

We stand for a proletarian art that…expresses the ideas and profound aspirations of the working class…We stand for a proletarian architecture, for an art that unifies form and content…We are for the appropriation of the culture of the past, for the study of its methods through a Marxist analysis…for a critical utilization of historical experience.

Soon the former leaders of VOPRA assumed ruling positions in the Union of Soviet Architects, which was created in 1932. This development followed the dissolution of all tvorcheskie organizatsii (creative organizations), including architectural associations, such as constructivist groups, as well as other literary and artistic groups. The new Soviet position rejected constructivism in particular and modern architecture in general. Instead, it embraced what had been considered a backward position among progressive architects: architecture was an art and a way to transmit ideas.

Ernst May’s snapshots of the USSR

Ernst May and Soviet public housing

A Central Committee resolution published in Pravda on May 29, 1930 — just after May and his team arrived in Moscow — signified the end of the debate between the urbanists and deurbanists and condemned most of the researchers who had been linked to the idea of perestroika byta during the 1920s:

The Central Committee notes that together with the movement toward a socialist way of life, highly unsound, semifantastical, and hence extremely harmful attempts are being made by certain comrades (Sabsovich, Larin, and others) to surmount “in one leap” the obstacles that lie along the path to a socialist transformation of the way of life; obstacles rooted, on the one hand, in the economic and cultural backwardness of the country and, on the other, in the need, at our present stage of development, to concentrate most of our resources on the rapid industrialization that alone will create the necessary material basis for a radical transformation of the way of life. These attempts on the part of certain militants, who conceal their opportunism behind the “left-wing phrase,” are linked with recently published projects for the reorganization of existing cities and the construction of new ones. The implementation of these harmful and Utopian proposals, which disregard both the actual resources of the country and the degree of preparation of the population, would lead to vast expenditures of money and would seriously discredit the very idea of a socialist transformation of the way of life.

May probably did not realize the significance of this resolution.

Ernst May’s snapshots of the USSR (continued)

Unlike Le Corbusier, May and his brigade worked on housing projects and the public buildings directly related to such projects — the type of projects that had made May famous in Frankfurt. May did not try to introduce “revolutionary” architectural forms; he understood that he had to adapt himself to the low level of the Soviet Union’s building technology and labor force. This was easy for him because his style of architecture was extremely simple in terms of form. On the other hand, May relied on rather advanced technology, which he thought he could adapt to Soviet conditions in order to speed up housing construction in the USSR. The need for housing construction was tremendous all over the Soviet Union, particularly in new industrial settlements, such as Magnitogorsk. In this “new town,” one hundred thousand inhabitants, most of whom lived in temporary shelters, were already at work in 1930 when May was put in charge of town planning. In the planning of Magnitogorsk, May applied the principles that he had used in Frankfurt and that architects of the modern movement had used throughout Western Europe: parallel rows of identical buildings were built at equal distances, thus giving each inhabitant optimal conditions for sunshine and light.

For May, as for Gropius and other modern architects, uniformity was the symbolic — as well as the material — sign of the egalitarian living conditions that were to exist in housing, particularly socialist housing. In the Soviet Union, this form of planning had other advantages: it simplified the work of topographical crews; it made the use of mechanical equipment — particularly cranes — easier; and, like a factory assembly line, it made the most efficient use of untrained Soviet manpower. The result was a rather monotonous form of architecture and town planning. This was less apparent in Germany, where the development of surrounding areas compensated for uniform architecture and town planning; in the Soviet Union, a general shortage of materials and manpower and a rapid pace of construction precluded the development of such compensating areas.

Dutch architects in the USSR

Thus the quality of housing, as well as the quality of roads, sewers, and other constructions designed by foreign architectural teams in the USSR, could not be compared with the results obtained by the same team in Germany. Junghanns cites a striking example of this situation: “The masonry of the kindergartens in Magnitogorsk was executed by Kirghiz girls who had arrived directly from the tents of the nomads. The brigadier spoke only Kirghiz and could not read the blueprints…Mart Stam [a Dutch architect belonging to May’s team], who was accustomed to the very precise work of Dutch bricklayers and who had accepted being sent to Magnitogorsk to supervise the execution of the project, gave up after a short time.” May’s job was made more difficult because Soviet authorities were constantly changing their plans. For example, in the case of Magnitogorsk, S. Ordzhonikidze decided on which bank of the Ural River to build the city long after May’s team had begun working on the town plan.

André Lurçat and Hannes Meyer: Politics and architecture

Among foreign architects working in the USSR, Lurçat represents a unique case because his first contacts with the USSR were political rather than architectural in nature. In addition, Lurçat settled in the USSR in 1934, long after most of the prominent German architects had left the Soviet Union and after Le Corbusier’s de facto break in relations with Soviet specialists. In 1934, there could have been no illusions about the fact that the orientation of Soviet architecture differed radically from the expectations of the modernists. The Union of Soviet Architects, which had proclaimed socialist realism as the theory for all Soviet architects, was firmly installed. Heading it were former VOPRA leaders, including A. Mordvinov and K. Alabian.

When Lurçat left for the USSR — a country he had already visited as a “friend of the Soviet Union” — he knew that his style of architecture, exemplified by the school in Villejuif, had been criticized and presented as the architectural expression of “capitalist decay.” In fact, Lurçat’s work in the USSR reveals a steady evolution toward an acceptance of the new trend in Soviet architecture and a rejection of the principles he had defended before going to the USSR. The explanation of this architectural reversal may be related to his political convictions, because as a Communist he was compelled to support the Soviet regime in his writings and his work.

Hannes Meyer in the USSR (1930-1936)

Hannes Meyer, on the other hand, continued to support the USSR in his writings after leaving the Soviet Union in I936, but not the slightest trace of the architectural principles he had defended during his last years in the USSR can be found in his later work. In 1933, in Arkhitektura SSSR (Architecture of the USSR), he expressed an apparent acceptance of the new order: “Recently I have again been interested in classical and, more generally, ancient architecture while exploring for myself the problem of ‘national expression’ in socialist architecture.” Although Meyer initially tried to demonstrate that architecture was not an art, his views evolved toward the new Soviet position on architecture. In 1934, he was interviewed by Sovetskaia arkhitektura:

Sovetskaia arkhitektura: How do you feel about the rejection of art in housing and town planning by those architects who call themselves progressive thinkers?

Meyer: I consider the rejection of art in the field of construction by some contemporary capitalist architects as one of the signs of the crumbling of “bourgeois” culture.

In the same interview, Meyer counterposed the “progressive” period of “bourgeois” society with its present period of decay. Commenting on his previous opinions, he added:

We, the architects, did then consider the social aspect as the main aspect of architecture, and we called this architecture “functional.” It is therefore not surprising that these efforts to reform “bourgeois” architecture ended up with, at best, purely mechanical results.

To defend a progressive point of view in architecture means to share a political program that is developed on the barricades and not on the drawing board.

But Meyer’s return to the architectural principles he established during his time at the Bauhaus can be seen in his later projects in Mexico, where he worked as an architect, town planner, and professor at the newly created Town Planning Institute.

Lurçat, however, applied aspects of socialist realism in his work in France following the Second World War. Apparently, he sincerely believed in the theory of socialist realism, and he believed that it represented progress over the radical modernist positions he had supported during the 1920s. In his great housing projects for Saint-Denis and other communist municipalities of the Paris region, as well as for the town of Maubeuge where he was in charge of the postwar reconstruction, Lurçat introduced la grande composition — a concept adapted from the Ecole des beaux arts and later discussed by specialists in Moscow. This was in total contradiction to his early I930s work on the Groupe scolaire Karl Marx in Villejuif.

The discrepancy between the theory or socialist realism and the personal architectural beliefs of the majority of foreign architects in the Soviet Union is apparent in the attitude the foreign community displayed toward the “new trend” in Soviet architecture, which became dominant after 1930. This discrepancy became evident to most of the modern architectural community during the 1932 competition for the Palace of Soviets in Moscow, and the break between foreign and Soviet architects occurred at that time and lasted until 1956.

Le Corbusier’s Palais des Soviets proposal (1931)

The Palace of the Soviets competition and its aftermath

The international competition for the Palace of Soviets building was launched in 1931, and all the major modern architects were invited to participate. Before the results were announced, the majority of architects believed Le Corbusier’s entry would be the winning project. But to everyone’s amazement, the proclaimed winner was Boris Iofan, a relatively unknown Soviet architect. From his studies in Italy, Iofan had retained some knowledge of the architectural principles of the Renaissance, and his project contradicted the fundamental principles of modern architecture.

Coincidentally, at precisely the time the announcement was made, a CIAM commission was meeting in Barcelona to prepare for its fourth congress, which was to be held in Moscow on the theme of the functional city. One member of this preparatory commission was V. M. Molotov. Astonished by the result of the competition, the CIAM commission believed — or pretended to believe — that it was a mistake, an error of judgment by some irresponsible minor commission. In a letter addressed to Stalin, the CIAM commission asked the Soviet authorities to rectify the error:

The verdict of the committee for the construction of the Soviet Palace is a direct insult to the spirit of the Russian Revolution and to the Five-Year Plan. Turning its back on the ideas of modern society, which has found its first inspiration in Soviet Russia, this verdict offers support to the pretentious architecture of the former monarchist regime. The Soviet Palace, proposed to the modern world as the spiritual crowning of the immense and rational achievements of the Five-Year Plan, will demonstrate the enslavement of modern techniques for the greatest benefit of spiritual reaction. The Soviet Palace…will appear to totally disregard the gigantic efforts of modern times. A dramatic betrayal! The world that is watching the Soviet experiment will be astounded…The CIRPAC [the preparatory commission] asks the supreme Soviet authority to intervene, for, if the decision of the committee were to be followed, it would become doubtful that the CIRPAC, engaged to advance public opinion by its previous positions and its objectives, could continue to consider that the USSR was the country most fit to shelter a fruitful congress on a subject that can bear no compromise: “The Functional City.”

But the Soviet “supreme” authority did not intervene, for it was precisely this supreme authority that had decided to make the Palace of Soviets competition a manifesto for the new direction Soviet architecture was to take. Nor did Stalin answer this letter. The fourth CIAM finally took place, not in Moscow, but on a cruise ship in Athens in the summer of 1934. The Athens Charter, which resulted from the congress, remains a controversial theoretical document on modern town planning.

German architects’ Palast der Sowjets (1931)

The CIAM’s direct intervention into what some considered an internal Soviet affair met with the disapproval of a group of German architects still at work in the USSR. Many of them believed that the Soviet reversal (povorot) was only a temporary concession to the poor tastes of uncultured masses. Nevertheless, in increasing numbers, these specialists decided that the time had come to leave the USSR. The incompatibility between even their simplest plans and prevailing Soviet conditions was too great. Moreover, beginning with the second Five-Year Plan in 1933, the Soviet authorities apparently decided that the foreigners’ experience in the USSR must come to an end and that foreign architecture was neither desirable nor possible under existing Soviet conditions. Suspicion of foreign architects grew during the second half of the 1930s, and by 1937, the overwhelming majority of foreign architects had left the Soviet Union.

As if to put an end to the period when foreign architects were considered useful to the industrialization of the Soviet Union, A. Mostakov, a former Soviet member of May’s team, wrote an article entitled, “The Ugly Heritage of the Architect E. May”:

When receiving delegates to the First Congress of Soviet Architects [1937]. V. Molotov is reported to have said that architects do not often criticize the defects in their colleagues’ projects, as in the case of “the ugly heritage of the architect E. May”…One hardly can congratulate the directors of the Tsekombank who invited the architect E. May for this responsible task [housing the masses]. They neither studied nor critically appraised [his work in Frankfort]. None of them considered that, contrary to the capitalist city, the conception of a housing ensemble in our country cannot be separated from the conception of the city as a whole. Soviet architects made an unforgivable mistake by giving Ernst May the opportunity to design and to build on a vast scale without critically observing his work. May was commissioned to design not only housing but also whole sectors, towns, and even regions, although he knew perfectly well that the totality of his creative “baggage” [bagazh] was nothing but a few blocks in Frankfurt. As one knows, May has designed all his projects by applying the method of “linear composition.” What is this method “patented” by the German functionalists: Hesler, Gropius, Taut and May himself?

Furthermore, Mostakov explains the drawbacks of linear composition, or strochnaia zastroika:

The result of this method is the equality of living conditions [which one would think should please a socialist architect]. This is real “housing socialism” [Mostakov says ironically]. One must say that many architects were satisfied with this vulgar and purely mechanical approach!…But what is the most vulgar mistake made by May and his followers? What is the organic evil of his conception? It lies, above all, in the fact that May excludes man [chelovek] from his architectural conception. He replaces the human personality with some sort of a sum of biological and technological requirements…and responds to these requirements with purely mechanical solutions that reduce the complex notion of housing [zhilishche] to the primitive concept of “function.” There lies the reason for his “boxlike” primitivism that May passes off as “contemporary housing.” May is pursuing one goal: to present the human creature as a soulless and abstract “number” by ignoring the cultural development of Soviet citizens and by imposing upon them a “petit bourgeois” [melkoburzkuaznuiu] psychology. May was hiding his creative incapacity and the narrow limits of his thoughts behind demagogical sentences about standardized projects, economy, and hygiene. Does not his [Moscow reconstruction] proposal involving satellite communities connected by a linear system of transportation and isolated from the town center pursue the objective of dispersing the workers of the capital?”

May did not have experience in town planning, but few in those days did. And May provided the workers who were to inhabit the new Soviet industrial settlements with the only living conditions possible given the Soviet economy at that time. Mostakov accused him of not creating an ideal city, even though the achievement of that ideal was totally beyond the scope of Soviet capabilities during the 1930s. Moreover, Mostakov condemned May for having done this on purpose, for political reasons. But while Mostakov was writing the above article, May left the Soviet Union.

The extent to which the projects of foreign architects in the USSR have been built in conformity with their original designs is unknown; evidently no study exists on this subject, and the rare available photographs and plans of the new industrial cities of the first two Five-Year Plans bear little resemblance to the finished projects. Reproductions of these projects are also scarce. For this reason, it is difficult to reach conclusions regarding the quality and usefulness of work done by foreign architects in the USSR and the practical effects of their work on the development of Soviet architecture. Of the projects designed by May, Meyer, and other German and German-speaking architects, few were actually constructed. A few buildings designed by Lurçat are scattered throughout the Moscow area. Regardless of how important the Tsentrosoiuz commission might have been in its time, it represents an isolated case of visible foreign involvement in Soviet architecture.

Eliazar Gurevich, part of the Soviet project bureau in Detroit, 1930

Eliazar Gurevich, part of the Soviet project bureau in Detroit, 1930

Albert Kahn: One American’s fruitful cooperation with the Soviet Union

Considering the political climate existing between the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1930s — a period marked by the absence of diplomatic relations, the growth of “left-wing” movements in the United States because of the Depression, and the “red scare” hysteria remaining from the end of the First World War — it is surprising that architectural cooperation between the United States and the USSR achieved the most spectacular results.

The main actor was Albert Kahn. Kahn’s firm designed most of the automobile plants in Michigan, particularly those of Henry Ford, to whom Kahn was personally connected. From the time he signed a contract with the Soviets in April 1929 until he ended his cooperation with Soviet authorities in March 1932, Kahn’s firm designed about 520 industrial plants in the Soviet Union. Many of these were built in almost inaccessible and uninhabited areas—an environment that contrasted sharply with conditions under which American architectural technicians were accustomed to working. Kahn was among the few foreign architects in the Soviet Union to become widely known by the Soviet population. During the Second World War, Philip A. Adler of the Detroit News wrote from Stalingrad: “The names of Henry Ford and Albert Kahn are known to every child in Stalingrad. John K. Calder who supervised the reconversion of the city, at one time was the hero of Soviet stage and screen.”

There was no trace of a common ideological or political belief between Kahn and the Communist Party or Soviet government. In this respect, Kahn differed from the German architects of the times Bauen, Lurçat, and even Le Corbusier. Kahn displayed no curiosity concerning “the greatest national experiment” or interest in the “birthplace” of modern architecture. Kahn’s architectural writings show that he had a great dislike for modern architecture, which he called “ultra modern,” and especially for Soviet modern architecture. This dislike is surprising because Kahn, the greatest industrial architect of his day, designed factories on a rigorous assembly-line system — very close to what Gropius had imagined for the Fagus Factory in Germany and in line with the principles advocated by the functionalists and Russian constructivists. Nevertheless, Kahn was a strong supporter of traditional architecture; he did not believe that “our times” called for new forms of architectural expression. According to Kahn, “the styles” were only a vast catalogue from which architects arid clients could choose at random. In 1931, he said:

I have little patience with those who claim [Charles F. McKim’s] work [is] archeology and not architecture. Indeed he found his inspiration in the past, but he knew how to employ the best of the old to do service to the new…I insist that the reuse of well tried forms when invigorated by a strong personality is not unobjectionable but desirable, the opinion of many of our modernists to the contrary notwithstanding.

According to Kahn, modern architecture would have remained unknown and unnoticed if not for the media:

Probably no one has done more injury than Le Corbusier and his followers. Only those who have actually seen the finished results can appreciate the difference between their theories and their accomplishments. But for the writers who too often laud their abortive attempts to the skies, form wrong public opinion and cause an era of misunderstanding, their sad creations would probably receive but little notice…There seems little reason for acclaiming the “Dessau Bauhaus,” for instance, as outstanding. Is it architecture at all? We may find in this country hundreds of factory buildings, particularly the court or alley elevations where often there has been no attempt whatever at design, just as uninteresting, just as devoid of architectural feeling. Though credited with assisting m some measure the new vogue in the treatment of the modern factory building by clearly expressing what it is and capitalizing on its purely inherent possibilities, I would be the last man to claim the results as anything more than sound engineering unless the problem and the appropriation afforded a more architectural character.

Ironically, this was written just as an exhibition of modern architecture, which was to have a decisive influence on the evolution of American architecture, opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

American specialists in the USSR

Thus for purely technical reasons — and not because of his architectural theories or political opinions — Kahn became the most influential and productive foreign architect in the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1929, a top-level Soviet economic and technical commission traveled to Detroit to study the American automobile industry and discovered that most of the plants had been designed by Louis Kahn, Albert Kahn’s brother. This visit led to the signing of a $40 million contract for the construction of a tractor plant in Stalingrad with the Amtorg Trading Corporation — a Russian commercial trading organization. The importance accorded to the tractor and automobile industry in the USSR was clearly linked to the political importance attached to agriculture and town planning at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. In 1929, collectivization, which was predicated on the mechanization of agriculture, was in full swing, and this required the large-scale production of tractors. In the field of urban planning, the discussions between the urbanists and deurbanists seemed to have turned in favor of the deurbanists, whose schemes leaned heavily on automobile transportation.

The Stalingrad tractor commission was soon followed by many others, and an American technical team from the Detroit office was soon installed in Moscow and headed by Kahn’s brother, Moritz. This team of about thirty American technicians was to be in charge of designing new projects, while at the same time acting as a sort of professional school for Soviet technicians. The team instructed about fifteen hundred Soviets, only some of whom had professional qualifications.

Stalingrad tractor factory, designed by Albert Kahn of Detroit, 1932

Stalingrad tractor factory, designed by Albert Kahn of Detroit, 1932

Although he lacked political affinity for the Soviet Union, Kahn felt sympathy for the country and its people: “Everywhere throughout Russia I found the people, particularly the young, not only satisfied with the Soviet form of government, but firmly convinced the officials at its head are sincere and honest.” “In my trip through Russia…I was struck by the tremendous enthusiasm and energy of the people, especially the young, everywhere in this nationwide development.” Recalling a meeting with Kahn after Kahn’s return from Russia in 1932, Malcom W. Bingay wrote in the Detroit Free Press in 1942:

This quiet modest gentleman had been commissioned by the Soviet government in 1929 to plan their great factories the products of which — behind the Ural Mountains — are now holding the Nazis at bay I remember what he said when he came back from Moscow in 1932 just ten years ago. He said then: “There is little communism in Russia today and no one can tell what Sovietism will stand for ten years from now.”

In the same article, Bingay talks about Kahn’s relations with Henry Ford and Ford’s attitude in the 1930s toward the Soviet Union:

Now, it was a daring thing for Albert Kahn to accept that commission to Russia in the face of American public opinion, for very few Americans wanted their names associated with those “awful people.” But he immediately got moral support from a wholly unexpected source.

The day it was announced that he had signed his contract his largest customer in the designing of factories, Henry Ford, called him on the phone and asked him to see him before he sailed.

“Mr. Ford,” said Mr. Kahn, “was just leaving with his wife for a trip to the Virginia colonial settlement at Williamsburg. ‘1 hear,’ he said, ‘that you have agreed to build factories for the Russian Government. I am very glad of it. I have been thinking that these people should be helped.’

“I could hardly believe my ears, but Mr. Ford continued: ‘I think the stabilization of Russia through industry is the hope of the world. The more industry we can create, the more men and women, the world over, can be made self sufficient — the more everybody will benefit. The Russian people have a right to their destiny and they can only find it through work. We are willing out here to help them all we can.

“‘So you tell them for me that anything we have is theirs for the asking — free. They can have our designs, our work methods, our steel specifications — anything. We will send them our engineers to teach them and they can send their men into our plants to learn.'”

Kahn recalled that he had hesitated before accepting the commission in Russia:

I was somewhat hesitant about accepting such a task. First, I knew little or nothing about the Russian government and the people behind it. Second, the United States had refused to recognize that government. Third, there was a feeling against Communists among the people with whom I had to do business. Fourth, the enemies of my people echoed what the Nazis were saying and accused the Jews of fostering Communism. I wondered what would be said if I took the job. And yet the challenge fascinated me…I believed that the Russian people — regardless of their form of government — were entitled to help after all their generations of suffering under the tsars. The more I thought about it the more I became convinced it was the right thing to do.”

In January 1944, Louis Kahn, who had become president of the firm after his brother’s death in 1942, reflected on how he and his brother had regarded the possibility of working with the Russians in 1929:

Representatives of the Soviet government approached us early in 1929 with a proposal that we help them industrialize the vast potential manufacturing resources. We felt at that time as we feel today, that the industrialization of other countries would help the world generally, just as it has raised the living standard in America. In this attitude we were encouraged by many enlightened business leaders whose cooperation in training Russians in the techniques of mass production was essential to the success of the overall enterprise…

[The Russians] exhibited a faith in the honesty and ability of Americans which should put us on guard to make sure, in all our dealing with them, that our own skirts are completely clean. Seldom has the Albert Kahn organization had a more pleasant or finer contractual relationship than with the Soviet government. If any question of business dealings with Russia arises, and if any doubter comes to us, he will be told, out of our personal experience, that “We have done business with Russia, and we can do business with Russia.”56

The Kahns had a financial interest in working in the Soviet Union because at that time commissions in the United States had become scarce. In America during the Depression, factory construction practically came to a standstill. This led thousands of Americans to think about going to work in the USSR, where technicians and qualified workers were being recruited, despite the fact that there were no diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. Thousands of letters — today stored in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. — poured into the Department of State. Some were naive. One pleaded, “I would be very grateful if you could direct me to someone who could get me in touch with some firm that is hiring young college graduates for work in Russia on this new Five-Year Plan that the country is fostering at present.” Another said:

I would appreciate it very much if you would let me know what the living conditions are in that country and whether or not a young man of nineteen years of age, an American, could be happy there. I also understand that our country does not recognize the Soviet Government and that we have no representation there. If you will let me have the real facts as to conditions in Russia, I would appreciate it very much, as I do not want my son, who is making application, to leave the United States.

Some, like the following telegram, were matter-of-fact; “I am an experienced Railroad man and I am interested in Railroad work in Russia.” Some were tragic, reflecting the situation of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression (original spelling has been maintained):

I have read in the Cincinati Post that Amerika is sending men with treades over in Russia for a term of 3 Jeahrs with a pay of 3500 8 per Jeahr and, as business is Poor I would like to find out where I would have to apply for a Position as construction foremann or Carpenter for a term as mentioned before. I hope to hear from you soon as I am idle and dont like to be so. I speak English and German.

In the following letter addressed to the Department of State, reason can be found for Kahn’s hesitation in accepting the Soviet commission:

In the Saturday Evening Post, March 7th, page 24., appears an editorial headed “The American Five-Year Plan.” May I ask the State Department if it has a list of these Americans who are giving aid, comfort, credit & etc. to the Soviet Government, and if so may I ask that a copy be sent me? Is there no law, or rule that could be invoked to deny reentry to the United States to these men, their agents, et al?

In 1932, Soviet-American architectural cooperation ended. Because of a shortage of foreign currency in the USSR, a new policy was implemented that governed commercial relations with foreign firms. Beginning in 1932, payments were to be made partly in rubles; prior to 1932 payments had been made entirely in foreign currency. According to the Detroit Free Press:

Recent cables from Russia report a veritable exodus of American specialists as a result of a new policy under which many individual technical aid contracts, specifying large payments in dollars, are being terminated on one ground or another. Some contracts are not being renewed. In other cases, the Soviet is trying to get some specialists to agree to remain for normal payments in dollars or large payments in rubles, which are not usable outside the Soviet Union.

“It is only natural that they should try to drive sharp bargains,” said Mr. Kahn. “They, like us, are upset by the Depression. My firm, of course, would prefer to be paid in dollars…Besides, the Soviet has met with a great many trade obstacles in the United States, and I believe that today Germany is a preferred nation. We do not anticipate, however, any alteration in our pleasant business relations.”

On March 25, 1932, the New York Times reported on Kahn s departure from the USSR:

Albert Kahn left Moscow tonight, unable to renew his contract to teach the Russians technical and architectural designing, which legally terminated March 1 but had been held open in the hope that a renewal might be effected upon mutually satisfactory terms 24 Americans employed in the Kahn office here will follow their chief within the next fortnight. Mr. Kahn told the writer he deeply regretted his failure to reach an agreement.

“They want us to stay and feel we have done valuable work,” he said. “They proposed to employ 40 of our people here instead of 24 and to open branch offices at Kharkov and Leningrad, but we simply couldn’t meet them on terms.

“We part company in the friendliest spirit, however, and I hope and believe the connection will be resumed when the circumstances permit.”

This marked the end of what had been by far the most fruitful cooperation between Soviet authorities and foreign architects and technicians. Kahn’s success — in contrast to the general inability of other foreign architects to exert influence on the course of Soviet architecture — can be explained in part by the fact that Kahn’s organization was able to work on its Soviet projects on both sides of the Atlantic. If something was missing in Russia, Kahn had it sent from America, whereas May, for example, was relatively cut off from his home country in terms of receiving both technical information and material supplies. In addition, Kahn’s factory assignments were simpler than May’s town-planning projects. Moreover, a housing development or town might be inhabited before May had finished his work, thereby obstructing construction; but a factory — especially one built using the assembly-line system—had to be completed according to strict schedules imposed by the Five-Year Plan. Finally, Kahn’s work was not hampered by ideological discussions, probably because of the great need for building factories during the late 1920s and early 1930s. During this period, there was an abundance of literature on workers’ clubs, housing projects, town and regional planning, and architectural theories and history, but the literature concerning industrial plants remained purely technical in nature. Although almost all areas of Soviet culture became ideological battlefields during the 1930s and the analytical methods used in politics were directly applied to the arts, architecture, human sciences, and even to some scientific fields, industrial architecture remained undiscussed and unattacked from an ideological point of view.

Neither during Kahn’s period of activity in the Soviet Union nor since his departure — when Western art, ideology, and lifestyles came under fire — has his work been the object of any sort of criticism. Moreover, of all the foreign architects who worked in the Soviet Union, Albert Kahn was apparently the only one to whom homage was rendered after his death. The following telegram from the Soviet embassy in Washington was sent to Albert Kahn’s widow when he died on December 8, 1942:

Soviet engineers, builders, and architects send you their sincere sympathy in connection with the death of your husband, Mr. Albert Kahn, who rendered us great service in designing a number of large plants and helped us to assimilate the American experience in the sphere of building industry. Soviet engineers and architects will always warmly remember the name of the talented American engineer and architect, Albert Kahn.

The telegram was signed by V. A. Vesnin, architect, academician. Victor Vesnin was one of the three Vesnin brothers, a well-known family team of modern, constructivist architects.


Isadore Rosenfield, a well-known American architect specializing in hospital construction, worked in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, although little is known regarding his activity there. He wrote an article for Soviet Russia Today on his impressions of Soviet architecture in 1935:

In 1932 I traveled exclusively in the Soviet Union studying housing and socialist city planning. Speaking Russian and traveling third category, often unaccompanied, there was little that escaped my attention. (No one tried to keep anything from me.) During the winter of 1933-34 I collaborated in the planning of the Ail-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine. In May 1934, I returned to Moscow to assist with the survey preliminary to construction of the U. S. Embassy there. For the past several months I have been representing in this country the architectural-technical commission for the Palace of the Soviets.

According to Rosenfield, the purpose of architecture in capitalist countries was “to glorify the rich or advertise their wares,” whereas

in the Soviet Union the purpose of architecture is altogether different. There its purpose is to provide shelter for living, production and cultural activity for and by the broad masses of the workers. Instead of advertising individual greed, it proclaims the glory of its great leaders and symbolizes the solidarity of united labor. The architects and builders there are not exploiters, but participants in the united program of socialist construction.

This was a transitional period in Soviet architecture, and Rosenfield defended the new trend. He criticized modernist architecture, which he claimed “in a sense represents an ‘intellectual revolt’ against dogmatism,” but “the ideologies which were wound around this architecture [are] mere flowers around a corpse.” According to Rosenfield, modernism was acceptable during the first years of industrialization:

The people in the Soviet Union during the first Five-Year Plan also faced the problem of building quickly with limited materials, limited skill and limited experience. The boxy style of modernism was the logical answer to these conditions. [This] boxy style…was further induced by the influence of many pseudo-radical architects who flocked to Russia in order to escape the Depression. “Pseudo-radicals” because most of them believed they could usher in the millennium by introducing modernism in all phases of technology…Cheap and nasty architecture…did not suit the workers of the Soviets. Nor did it suit them in art, literature, sculpture, etc. Accordingly, the communist party and the government of the Soviet Union passed a resolution on the eve of the Second Five-Year Plan in which they called [for] an end to boxes and the inauguration of more culture in all forms of art as well as in architecture.

Rosenfield believes that the new trend in Soviet architecture — the rejection of modern architecture in favor of a renewed interest in classical architecture — was justified. Finally, he concludes the article in a “populist” manner:

In a recent number of Arkhitectura, the official organ of the Union of Soviet architects, dozens of letters from workers are printed. They made marvelous reading for they tell the architects in a simple, direct manner what they like and what they don’t like, and why.

They do not even care if they hurt some architect’s feelings. Why should they? It is their country.

A few other American architects were employed by Soviet organizations. In 1935, Abraham Luline of New York City was employed by the Steelbridge Construction Trust of Sverdlovsk; Louis Harry Friedheim of Brooklyn, New York, was employed by the Sverdlovsk city soviet; and Abraham Schwartz also of Brooklyn, was employed by the Moscow Industrial Construction Desofu Bureau. In 1936, William U. Rixford of Wellsville, New York, was employed by the Moscow Industrial Constmction Trust, and in 1937, Joseph Winston of New York City worked in the Soviet Union, although his employer remains unknown. In addition, a number of construction workers, carpenters, and bricklayers appear on the lists of American citizens residing in the USSR that were compiled by the American embassy in Moscow from 1935-39, but there is nothing in these lists regarding the activity of architects.

What is to be done?

Today the belief that architecture could be a tool of social transformation might seem naïve. But this belief, widely shared by architectural avant-gardists during the interwar period, provides a major clue to understanding the “progressive” architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the Utopian experiments that gave rise to this belief took place in the United States during the nineteenth century, and were inspired by Utopian thinkers such as Fourier, Owen, Cabet, and Bellamy.

But during the first decades of the twentieth century, many thought that the country where these experiments would reach a definitive and positive conclusion was the Soviet Union. To the foreign architects working in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, Utopia seemed a necessary part of architecture. As early as 1862-63, Nikolai Chernyshevskii described the city of the future in What Is to Be Done?. Responding to the question, “And will all people live that way?” he answered:

Yes…for all an everlasting spring and summer, an everlasting joy! You know the future. It is bright, it is beautiful. Tell everybody. Here is what is to be! The future is bright and beautiful. Love it! Seek to reach it! Work for it! Bring it nearer to men! …Your life will be bright, beautiful, rich with happiness and enjoyment…Strive to reach it! Work for it! Bring it nearer to men. Transfer from it into the present all that you are able to transfer!

In December 1954 First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev criticized the “new trend” in Soviet architecture, and in the summer of 1956 relations between the Soviet and foreign architectural communities were reestablished, after having been interrupted as a consequence of the Palace of Soviets verdict. The resumption of relations was a result of a visit to the USSR by a delegation of French architects. Since the 1960s, the brilliant and inventive architecture of the 1920s has been progressively “rehabilitated” by Soviet and foreign architectural historians.