The following is taken from the international art journal Docomomo. It is a serviceable enough text, if somewhat awkwardly translated from French. One gets a good sense of the project’s evolution from the remarks Forte makes, even if the context he provides is a bit superficial. Plus, he highlights a central point toward the end of this excerpt: cultural regression following upon political regression.
Docomomo № 37
The “heroic” building of the Pravda’s printing complex, sancta sanctorum of the communist doctrinal orthodoxy and ideological manifesto of Soviet power, was erected between 1930 and 1935 in the Muscovite district of Yamskoye Pole. Thanks to its symbolic content and programmatic commitment, it undeniably embodies an unrivaled episode in the history of modern architecture in Russia.
This prodigious building of colossal dimension, eulogistic icon of a new model of society which, forged upon the ideals of the Revolution, advancing towards the “glorious edification” of socialism and containing in its poetics of bold lines inspired by the vision of a civilisation machiniste, provided a most profound sense of that ideology of progress and aesthetics — a secular “religion of Utopia” — upon which the expectations of the modern movement were founded.
A manifesto of Utopia: The aesthetic search for the “supreme building”
In 1929 the Central Committee of the PCUS (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), in order to find a suitable solution for the growing production needs of the Pravda, the Bolshevik Party’s newspaper founded by V.I. Lenin in 1912, announced a national competition for a large-scale publishing house to serve as new headquarters for the newspaper, the regime’s official press organ. The plan for the editorial complex of the principal Soviet newspaper belonged in every respect to the vast modernization program which the Russian government embarked on in the mid-1920s. The period’s extraordinary intellectual effervescence and unprecedented creative fervor were such that the NEP (New Economic Policy) contributed in a decisive measure to the feverish construction activity in the public sector. Such activity was embodied by the realization of great infrastructures, services and industries, as well as in the creation of new organizational typologies, such as the “social condensers” (public housing, industrial establishments, workers’ clubs), catalyzing centers of the new socialist culture, that are constitute the regime’s most significant experimental results.
The ambitious project launched by the Soviet leadership, whose intention was to emphasize symbolically their own hegemonic control of Russian society, simultaneously developing the device propaganda for the official party line from one boundary of the Union to the other, constituted for the avant-garde architects a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a formidable experimentation field for the new doctrinal directions and composition models that were formulated in those years. The competition’s prescriptions laid down that the functional units of administrative offices, newspaper offices and typographic works were to be integrated in a single large complex. The chosen site — today the area comprised between the Belorussky and Savyolovsky subway stations — was located in the Yamskoye Pole district, a strategic localization right in the city center, which at the time was still barely constructed.
The competition’s winner, contending with figures such as El Lissitzky and Alexey Shchusev, was the architect Pantelejmon Golosov, a leading representative of the constructivist movement, coordinator of a team of architects comprising V. Kurovsky, N. Borov, G. Zamsky, I. Jang and A. Damsky. The team developed a futuristic architectural conception, in which the cold geometry of the volumes assumed almost cubist symbolic connotations. The printing complex consists of the juxtaposition of two separate edifices; the main multistory building, destined to host the publishing house with the administration and newspaper offices, is composed of three large superimposed parallelepiped blocks, spaced out lengthwise by large strip windows; laterally, placed in the rear position, a low building annex contains typographic works.
In the months following its inception Golosov made substantial changes to the plan which, though essentially maintaining the original plan and interior lay out, completely redesigned the architectonic and formal solution. In the last variation, the main building’s futuristic lines were eliminated to the benefit of a more balanced composition proportion-wise, where the avant-garde’s radical purism was filtered by a “classical” version of modernism, a combination of symmetry and asymmetry of volumes and surfaces which unequivocally converge towards the canons of Corbusean language. The editorial building, consisting of an eight-story block to which, on the rear façade, three perpendicular structures were connected, had horizontal strips of windows running along the entire façade interrupted only by a large central full length stained glass window. The rhythmic succession of “solid” and “empty” (the elliptical outline of the entrance avant-corps, the concrete projections of balcony railings, the glass walls at the corner stop ends and the top floor’s recesses) impressed a dynamism of composition and an extraordinary plastic tension upon this colossal edifice, which inspired the unconditional admiration of the same Le Corbusier — a real urban landmark conceived to be seen from a great distance in its totality in a single perspective view.
The furniture and lighting fixtures, among the most modern at the time architecturally (fig. 6), were specially laid out according to the principles of integrated design drawing upon the Bauhaus doctrine. In line with the most advanced organizational and functional criteria concerning the separation of flows, inside facilities and dimensional and technical standards, the Pravda complex (Sytin Dom) — at the time of its construction Europe’s largest printing establishment — bears witness, with its suggestive and cyclopean dimensions, to the epic sense of a project which, concerning constructive ambition and logistical organization, does not find its equal in any contemporary construction.
Despite initial expectations, the building site’s management was a long and difficult process. The work began in the final months of 1930, was protracted to 1935, while the finishing jobs were completed only two years later. Among the factors explaining this delay, the altered political climate of those years was no doubt a crucial factor: in April 1932, following the dissolution of all of the avant-garde associations and, as a direct consequence of the ukase issued by Stalin, as expressed in a nutshell by Anatolii Lunacharskii (the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment) with the populist slogan “columns to the people!,” the Soviet government enforced a “call to order” reverting to a classical Empire style which inaugurated the historical phase of socialist realism. It is the tangible expression of the cultural regression process which, under the grip of the repressive Stalinist system, officially pronounced the end of constructivism and of the modern movement’s “glorious decade” in Russia.