Soviet workers’ clubs in the 1920s

View of the principal façade of the Zuev Club, Moscow 1927 or laterPartial view of the lateral façade of the Rusakov Club, Moscow, 1929 or later

The workers’ club

Anatole Kopp
Town and Revolution,
1917-1932
 (1966)

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First, we must establish just what was meant by a “club” in the USSR of the twenties, a country in which the word had previously been applied only to private rooms reserved for the use of a group of nobles or wealthy bourgeois. A club was exactly the opposite of what is sometimes implied by a “club” today.

The important thing about a club is that the mass of the members must be directly involved. They must not approach it or be channeled into it from the outside as mere entertainment. They themselves must find in it the maximum of self-expression.

The role of the club is to serve as a sort of school of culture…Within its walls workers of every age should be able to find rest, relaxation, and a renewal of energy at the end of the working day. There, outside the family, children, adolescents, adults, and the old should be made to feel members of a collectivity. Their interests should be expanded. The role of the club is to liberate men from the old oppression of church and state.

Originally, this new building, the expression of a new social function, was the response to a spontaneous demand, proof that it met a genuine need. Within a few months of the installation of the Soviet regime numerous clubs had been established. They were run by trade-union or political organizations, often by local groups, and set up in former private houses, in converted churches, in sheds, almost anywhere. In fact, the adaptation of these unlikely premises was one of the first tasks to confront the Soviet architects immediately following the revolution.

Zuev_Workers_Club_drawingsalfbronovitskaya

A center for creative activity and the diffusion of culture, the club was also some compensation for the discomfort and overcrowding that the workers suffered at home. Unable to provide apartments for all, the state tried to make up at the collective level for its deficiencies on the individual plane. But this was not all. Essentially, the club embodied a conception of culture that was no longer that of an elite but of the mass, no longer acquired in the silence of the study or in halls of learning, but in a group bound by common interests and an awareness of their need. It corresponded to a conception in which the home tended to become merely a place for the individual to rest, while life in all its social and cultural aspects developed in collective centers and collective forms, at a time when a craving for culture was beginning to seize the broad masses of the population:

We are living at a time when an immense cultural movement is developing among the working masses, the idea…of a new social and collective way of life is advancing with giant strides…

Every worker [in our new industrial centers] is anxious to take an active part in both public and cultural life. The thirst for knowledge is enormous. The time has come for us to give the workers not only homes but buildings with facilities for meetings, study, recreation, reading, and the activities of various special groups [kruzhok]…

…The idea of building palaces of labor or clubs is in the air…

Both in its architecture and in the facilities that it offered, the club, which El Lissitzky was to call a “social power plant” [soziales Kraftwerkand “a workshop for the transformation of man,” evolved between the early years of the Soviet regime and the beginning of the thirties.

From 1917 to 1925 improvisation was the rule, not only because little was being built but also because the idea of a club was still fluid. The first projects were on a giant scale, among them, in 1923, the Vesnin brothers’ planned Palace of Labor, which was to be not only the meeting place of the General Assembly of the Soviets but also an enormous palace of culture where “the workers and peasants will find everything they need to broaden their horizon.” Intended, like all the unrealized projects of the early years, to serve the entire city of Moscow, it sought to achieve a propaganda effect by its very size.

However, it must be admitted that apart from the Palace of Labor (one of the important landmarks of the years of architectural renewal between 1920 and 1925 ), the other projects of the same period are peculiarly distressing. There is nothing in their outward appearance, nothing in their plan, to indicate the existence of a cultural life different from that supported by the old aristocratic circles or the provincial opera. The projects for workers’ palaces in Petrograd by I.A. Fomin and Beloborodov (1919) are no more than clumsy borrowings from the worst architecture of the past.

It was not until 1925 that the club first found both its true function and a style stripped of outmoded conventions. In accordance with the principle of decentralization and the accessibility of cultural facilities, it was to be designed either for a neighborhood or for factory workers at their place of work.

It was not until 1925 that the [workers’ club] first found both its true function and a style stripped of outmoded conventions. In accordance with the principle of decentralization and the accessibility of cultural facilities, it was to be designed either for a neighborhood or for factory workers at their place of work.

The true function of the workers’ club, forerunner of the maisons de la culture of which there is so much talk in France today, first found expression in the early work of Konstantin Mel’nikov. If previous projects had borrowed heavily from aristocratic models or the opera, it was largely because neither a program nor the new forms yet existed, although the need was already there. But it was also because the mass of the people could not conceive that leisure, recreation, and intellectual development might be possible in surroundings that did not recall those of the privileged circles of the past; thus the first architects to design clubs had to fight against bad taste and the identification of new content with outdated forms.

The original clubs were to have rococo stages, boxes, orchestras, dress circles, and superfluous lobbies. They were visualized essentially as theaters where touring companies would go through their repertory before a passive audience. Later, more diversified functions began to appear and were progressively integrated into the plan, thus modifying the classical rules of composition and opening the way for new possibilities. At first, it was merely a matter of setting aside so many rooms for various activities as they developed, but the central element of the composition remained the theater whose archaic design became harder and harder to reconcile with its new functions. In fact, from being a simple place of assembly for the dispensation of culture the club grew into a complex whose members were themselves the creators, instructors, and moving spirits. The club became increasingly centered upon the idea of member participation. The stage was placed at the disposal of a variety of amateur groups rather than touring companies. This meant providing rehearsal rooms, modifying the capacity of the hall according to the size of the audience and the nature of the production, and (as in the avant-garde professional theater) tearing down the barrier between audience and actor by applying principles of theater design that owed nothing to the Italian models nor to the naturalist theater of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus the architect, faced with the problem of flexibility and adaptability, not only in relation to the theater itself but also in relation to the other rooms that together composed the club, was led to design spaces that could be isolated or combined in various ways depending on the schedule of activities.

The Zuev club, built on Lesnaia Street, Moscow, in 1928 by the architect Il’ia Golosov, is still in existence. Its theater, which was treated as a separate element and completely refurbished in 1966, is of little interest. The rest of the club, on the other hand, as I saw it bustling with activity one Sunday, remains a building of astonishing flexibility that users of different categories and ages can share without getting in one another’s way. Conceived as a series of intercommunicating spaces, overhanging galleries, and staircases whose landings offer choice observation points, it can still, without resorting to mechanical devices of any kind, be adapted to form a series of auditoriums of different sizes suitable for a variety of occasions.

Mel’nikov’s clubs are even more interesting. Originally, the club for the Kauchuk factory, like that for the communal workers, was equipped with highly ingenious moving partitions that could be used to enclose smaller or larger spaces as the situation required.

However, the cost of these buildings showed that this approach could only be an exceptional and experimental, never a general, solution. The OSA posed the real problem, namely, the standardization and industrialization of cultural facilities, particularly the clubs.

The year 1928 witnessed a mutation in cub architecture. In spite of all their innovations, the existing clubs, even the most modem such as those designed by Mel’nikov and Golosov, were sharply criticized for being centered on the stage and tied to the professional theater. A new series of projects, none of which was to be realized, was then worked out by teams of young architects fresh from school, among them Ivan Leonidov, who was responsible for, a revolution in the very nature of the club. This was partly attributable to the fact that 1928 was the first year of the five-year plan, which envisaged the construction of numerous industrial centers to be built from scratch on virgin land according to entirely new city-planning concepts. Many architects held the view that some of the cultural facilities should be accommodated inside the housing complexes themselves (“communal houses”). Thus the club or palace of culture again became a somewhat exceptional element, to the extent that it provided a set of unique facilities that could not readily be mass-produced and that it tended to be located in a new city of limited size where the transportation problem had been solved and where the inhabitants could already be regarded as prototypes of the new man of the future.

Melnikov Rusakov workers club 1929ac2ea6b564b70f0226e21f9488108e6c Zuev club Golosov

The club as a social force

El Lissitzky
Russia: An architecture for
world revolution
 (1929)

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Buildings designed to serve all of society have always acted as a repository of the sum total of all creative energies. Depending on the prevalent social order, these have usually been of either a religious or a governmental character: the Church and the Palace. These were the power sources of the old order. Their power can only be transcended by establishing new power sources belonging to our new order. Some years ago it was thought that palaces would serve this purpose, except that now they were to be called “Palaces of Labor.” This created the danger of introducing a foreign and superficial pathos into our lives. If the term “palace” is to be applied to our situation at all, and in order for it to have any validity in our situation, it is the factories that should be transformed into “Palaces of Labor” first. The competition of 1923 for the “Palace of Labor” in Moscow represented a new departure in this direction and marks the beginning of a great number of competitions for similar palaces, later called “Palaces of Culture,” which in turn eventually came to be known quite simply as “Clubs.”

In the course of this work three phases of development can be traced:

  1. The remodeling of existing buildings that had previously served different functions, and their subsequent transformation into clubs.
  2. The building of new complexes. However, it was soon discovered that the conglomeration of diverse and unrelated individual elements, consisting of the theater hall (old baroque system) and the motion-picture hall, both surrounded by corridors and individual rooms, did not offer a good solution for the new cultural task.
  3. Only gradually were attempts made to resolve this task by a complete restructuring of the problem.

The growing needs in this area helped to bring about a clearer understanding of the whole problem. To achieve a solution, new spatial volumes and construction methods had to be created capable of providing all the age groups of the working masses with facilities for recreation and relaxation after a day’s work, i.e., a place to store up new sources of energy. Here each child, each adolescent, each adult, as well as all the older people, could be educated into becoming collective human beings outside the circle of their families, while their individual interests could be enlarged and broadened at the same time. The aim of the club is to liberate man and not to oppress him as was formerly done by the Church and the State.

It would be shortsighted to think that such a building [a club] could be invented in one try by a so-called architectural “genius.” What we demand from the Soviet architect is that, as an artist and because of his perceptive intellect, he will fully comprehend and amplify the faintest ripple of developing energies much sooner than the masses — who tend to be shortsighted as far as their own growth is concerned — and that he will transform this energy into tangible architectural form.

We present in the design for a club, planned as the center of a settlement. The club rooms and the service rooms are located along two perpendicular axes. The large theater hall and the smaller auditorium are situated radially. Each successive floor recedes toward the top in a step-like manner, and the whole is grouped around a vertical axis.

A conceptual expansion of the problem yields the following propositions:

The large park grounds are to be organized in such a way that a number of open, half-open, and closed rooms will form a unified whole, responding to the functions of club life. The club ought to become a gathering place where the individual becomes one with the collective and where he stores up new reserves of energy, while he should at the same time be given the opportunity to split off and join smaller groups for the pursuit of special activities. Thus, both small and large rooms must be conceived in an organic manner, while the whole should form a new unified spatial relationship. In this context, the Roman bath, old monastery layouts, or theater plans, can no longer serve as models. It is evident that flexible rooms will have to be created to allow for different uses and variable circulation patterns. The most important thing to remember is that in the club the masses should provide for themselves, that they should not throng there from the outside merely to seek amusement, but that they should instead arrive at a realization of their potentialities by their own efforts. The club’s role is to become a University of Culture. If one accepts the premise that private dwellings should strive to operate on the basis of the greatest possible austerity, then by contrast, public dwellings should provide the maximum of available luxury accessible to all. The term “reconstruction” is therefore not applicable to this case, since there is no building precedent in the past that by virtue of its social significance would provide us with a prototype solution. Here, both internal and external form must become the concrete expression of our concept of the spiritual condition and the aesthetic life of social man.

7 thoughts on “Soviet workers’ clubs in the 1920s

  1. Pingback: Russia Clamps Down on Contemporary Art (and History) | Balkanist

  2. Pingback: Revolution and Modernisation in Moscow | transformingcitiesblog

  3. Do you know that Lazar Khidekel’s Worker Club (1926) became the first real project of Suprematist architecture – Kazimir Malevich
    Suprematistische Architektur
    “Wasmuths Monatshefte fur Baukunst”
    Berlin, 1927, №10 p. 413
    “Wasmuths Monatshefte fur Baukunst”
    Berlin, 1927, №12 p. 484
    “L’Architecture Vivant”
    Paris, 1928, v.II, p.46
    “Современная Архитектура” “Sovremennaya Architectura” (Contemporary Architecture)
    Moscow, 1927, No 6
    Каталог Первой выставки Современной Архитектуры, M., 1927
    Catalog Pervoy vistavki sovremennoy arhitectury, M., 1927
    (Catalog of “The First Exhibition of Contemporary Architecture”
    Moscow, 1927
    “Sovremennaya Architectura”
    Moscow, 1930, No 4

  4. Hi Ross!

    I don’t know if you will answer, but do you know any source where I can find some technical designs or at least sketches of Kauchuk factory or similar Mel’nikov’s works? I’m an engineer but I’m quite intrigued about how the problem of modular design was resolved there.

    By the way, thanks for your blog, it’s a great source for us who can’t usually access to the academic work (Marxist or not) in the USSR and for giving some light in some “intellectual debates” which were hard for me to understand in the first place.

    Greetings!

  5. Pingback: Clubes Obreros de Melnikov en Moscú: ideales políticos soviéticos trasladados a la arquitectura | Propiedades R.M.

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