Architecture in cultural strife: Russian and Soviet architecture in drawings, 1900-1953

Originally published over at Metropolis magazine’s online edition. A longer, slightly more comprehensive version of the review appears below.

The exhibition “Architecture in Cultural Strife: Russian and Soviet Architecture in Drawings, 1900-1953” opened two weeks ago at the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Bringing together a total of 79 unique architectural delineations from this period, the show spans the twilight years of the Romanov dynasty up to Stalin’s death in 1953.

Pavel Siuzor, Dom Zinger (1902-1904) K.N. Rouchefort and V.A. Linskii, 1906-1907

One is immediately struck by the periodization, bookended as it is by the death of a major political figure on one side and the turn of the century on the other. In terms of historical events, the latter of these seems fairly arbitrary. Stylistically, however, the date makes a bit more sense. Around 1900, Russian architects began to emulate non-academic design movements originating abroad. What Jugendstil had been to Germany, Art Nouveau to France, Sezessionstil to Austria — so stil’ modern [стиль модерн] was to Russia. Modernist architecture (sovremennaia arkhitektura [современная архитектура], not to be confused with stil’ modern) was still a couple decades away, but Pavel Siuzor and Gavriil Baranovskii introduced the style to Petrograd with some success.

Not much happened in the fifteen years from 1905 to 1920, at least as far as architecture is concerned. Of course this was largely due to the turbulence of the time. Two wars, a string of social and military crises, and multiple political revolutions interrupted ordinary construction cycles, preventing anything like normality from taking shape. Meanwhile, the widespread destruction of the country’s built infrastructure wrought by years of bloody civil war created a demand for new projects to replace what had been lost.

Nikolai Ladovskii Communal House Experimental project for Zhivskulptarkh Moscow, USSR 1920 Pencil, colored pencil, and colored ink on tracing paper 40 x 21 cmIl'ia Golosov, Lenin House 1924

After conditions finally stabilized in 1922, an experimental phase set in. Inspired by revolutionary tendencies in the visual arts — by abstract painting and sculptural constructs — an architectural avant-garde began to take shape. Highly innovative research was conducted at schools like INKhUK and VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN in Moscow, as well as the Academy of Arts and RABFAK in Leningrad. Students of architecture were encouraged to explore the possibilities of new materials and forms. The emerging Soviet avant-garde was hardly monolithic, however, despite certain popular depictions that represent the modernists as one homogenous bloc. While such simplifications are often expedient, even necessary, some nuance is inevitably lost along the way.

Numerous tensions existed between different tendencies within the modern movement, in the USSR as elsewhere. Some emphasized a “functional method” of construction; others stressed a more formal, speculative approach to design. On one side stood architects like the Vesnin brothers, Moisei Ginzburg, and Mikhail Barshch, while on the other stood Nikolai Ladovskii, El Lissitzky, and Nikolai Dokuchaev. A few prominent modernists belonged to neither of these camps, falling somewhere in between: Konstantin Mel’nikov, Il’ia Golosov, Iakov Chernikhov, and Ivan Leonidov. Later in the decade, and into the early 1930s, a group of the new generation trained by the modernists formed VOPRA, combining their masters’ emphasis on modern materials with the monumentalism promoted by conservative strains of Proletkul’t. VOPRA would play a crucial role in the post-modernist transition.

Aleksei Shchusev, Narkomzem 1928c Shchusev

If one thing united these rival modernist currents, it was their common opposition to the prerevolutionary academic style. During the 1920s, the old dogmas of historicism were never entirely eradicated. They persisted, indeed flourished, throughout the first part of the decade. But the Soviet avant-garde’s relentless propaganda against atavistic tendencies in architecture took its toll, and by the tenth anniversary of the revolution, modernism seemed to have prevailed. Quite a few academicians made the switch to more avant-garde forms, dabbling here and there with new materials like sheet glass or ferroconcrete, arranged into asymmetric and orthogonal forms. Aleksei Shchusev, already a renowned architect before October 1917, led the way in this respect, designing structures every bit as unprecedented as the constructivists or formalists. (Shchusev’s third and final version of the Lenin Mausoleum, rendered in granite, is featured at the Tchoban gallery). Neoclassicist masters like Ivan Zholtovskii and Ivan Fomin also flirted with modern building and designs.

The various autonomous architectural associations lost their independence in April 1932, when they were forcibly consolidated under the umbrella of the Soviet Architects’ Union (or ССА). While avant-garde tendencies remained strong within the newly-formed Union, there were already some signs that would not bode well for the future of modernism in the USSR. Results had just come in from the recent, high-profile Palace of the Soviets competition, and seemed to indicate that the regime’s aesthetic tastes were drifting toward a kind of oversized neoclassicism. Vladimir Shchuko, Boris Iofan, and Vladimir Gelfreikh submitted the winning entry: a peculiar blend of columns, arches, and statuary on an enormous scale.

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Just as it would be somewhat misleading to regard Soviet avant-garde architecture as uniformly “constructivist,” so it would also be misleading to portray Stalinist architecture as uniformly “neoclassicist.” Stalinism in architecture drew from a number of historical styles, but did so using modern materials. Gothic, baroque, and neoclassical elements appear in almost equal measure. These showed up not only in built work, but in unbuilt delineations as well. Iakov Chernikhov’s Architectural Fantasy: View of the enormous portal cranes with semi-circular corbels (1932-1936), exhibited at the Berlin show, seemingly evokes the flying buttresses and pointed arches of Gothic cathedrals. Here they appear amidst iron trusses and heavy industrial scenery, however, set against the backdrop of a burning sky. Chernikhov, as with Leonidov and Mel’nikov, would retreat more and more into fantastic sketches as time went on — not as a blueprint for future building, but as an escape from the grim reality of Stalinist reaction.

Other avant-gardists struggled to adjust to the aesthetic and cultural norms instituted by Stalin and his functionaries. Selim Khan-Magomedov, a noted Soviet architectural historian, postulated an intermediate phase in between the lingering modernism of the early 1930s and Stalinism proper toward the end of the decade. Khan-Magomedov dubbed this phase “postconstructivism,” which he felt lasted from 1932 to 1936. Many have noted the resemblance between postconstructivism and Art Deco in architecture around the same time. Even as the architectural forms depicted changed, however, some constants remained: the floating dirigibles that soared high above Ivan Leonidov’s mute geometric abstractions, white ink on black paper, are shown docked next to the towering statue of Lenin atop the Palace of the Soviets. Utopianism was not wholly absent in Stalinist architecture; it was just displaced.


The Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War (as it was remembered in the USSR), once again disrupted normal building operations. Construction of the Palace of the Soviets, underway since 1937, was put on indefinite hold after the Nazis invaded in 1941, never to be resumed. After the German surrender in 1945, rebuilding commenced in cities like Moscow, long-besieged Leningrad, virtually flattened Stalingrad, and elsewhere throughout the country. Probably the most notable postwar architectural achievements were the so-called “Seven Sisters” of Moscow, high-rises [высотки] built in a stepped wedding-cake style. In this respect they were not too far off from Chicago Deco, which for reasons of zoning possessed similar parameters. Boris Iofan’s 1947 Design for Moscow State University on Leninskie Gory, currently on display at the Tchoban, is exemplary of these skyscrapers. Stalin’s death in early 1953 marked an end to this epoch, as the last giants of the “Stalinist Gothic” style were erected.

“Paper architecture” — drawn but unbuilt — exercises a strange grip on the imagination. As the critic Gennadii Revzin wrote in 1990, just a year before the Soviet Union’s collapse, “paper architecture fatally turns into a cryptogram of a rather morbid character.” Its appearance is mysterious, even mystical, revealing what is dead as well as what might still be living, lurking in it. “The significance of ‘paper architecture’ is that it serves as lab material for the creation of new or ‘old new’ forms,” explains the show’s curator, Irina Sedova. By highlighting conflictual tendencies in Russian and Soviet architecture during the first half of the twentieth century, Sedova hopes to illustrate the entire range of possibilities (and impossibilities) that seemed to open up in this moment. Sergei Tchoban’s collection therefore affords a brief glimpse into lost worlds: not only the real or historical world in which these architects lived, but the worlds they imagined themselves to be building.


It runs through March 21, 2014.