The hammer-and-sickle kitchen-factory in Samara (1931)

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Ekaterina Maximova’s 1931 fabrika-kukhnia [factory kitchen or canteen] on Maslennikov in Samara is a constructivist wonder in the shape of a hammer and sickle. Soviet “factory kitchens” were intended to provide proper nutrition to workers and liberate women from domestic slavery (i.e. the anonymous toil and drudgery of child-rearing and housework). Many such public kitchens were built and opened in the 1920s, but the one designed by Maximova is without a doubt the most spectacular.  As with most constructivist buildings in Russia, however, especially in the hinterlands, strategies to preserve this avant-garde monument have been less than adequate. Or more frequently, entirely absent.

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Archnadzor noted in an article from March 2008 that “if this building had appeared in a capital, it would have been esteemed and entered the textbooks of architectural history long ago.” (Though the sad state of similar constructivist buildings in other parts of the former USSR should call this assumption int0 question, with the exception of Melnikov’s oligarch-sponsored pieces and Kharkov’s polished Gosprom façade). Most of Maximova’s original design — both the interior and exterior — has unfortunately been destroyed in the course of the extensive reconstructions and modifications it underwent over the 20th century.

In an effort comparable to many countries’ pre- and post-WWII preservation measures, the factory had already been extensively refurbished by 1944. The entire front façade was remade, and covered the face of the building like a sarcophagus built in the classical style. Some internal changes and coverings were also made. In 1998-99 the building was once again transformed, this time into a shopping center. Threatened by demolition several times since, the building now houses stray dogs and the homeless.

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Its function and purpose highlight several aspects of the era’s industrial art. These architectural concepts were ideally employed for factories, workers’ clubs, canteens, garages and modern working-class housing projects, airy and sunlit, and even in Moscow a quarter built purposely to maximize sunlight exposure in all the flats; art became a practicality, industrialized, and intended to serve or otherwise stimulate the masses. Housing projects were designed as a vessel to attune Soviet citizens to the perks of communal living.

The hammer and sickle layout must seem an ideological extravagance, a symbolic excess, but similar projects were realized in Moscow and Leningrad: a school in a vaguely similar hammer and sickle shape, or a Red Army theater in the shape of a star. Maximova’s building thus “demonstrated the progressive aesthetic, engineering, and ethical ideas of the Soviet avant-garde.” It was also one of the first buildings in the Volga area with concrete lift slabs/floor structure, a showcase of modern, creative technology.

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The factory kitchen itself was located in the hammer, from which three conveyor belts brought the food to the canteen in the sickle. There were two floors, with airy mezzanines and staircases, and the building also housed a sports facility, reading room as well as the kitchen’s administration. The interior and plan design formed an integral, dynamic part of the building’s aesthetic impact; however, these aspects are rarely considered by the city council when it comes time for renovations, considering their lack of expertise.

In the TV-program Dostoianie respublika, it is mentioned that neither federal nor local government is willing to lend aid to these decaying structures. Another tragic example of this is Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building in Moscow, which appears on the UNESCO list of endangered buildings, while it is literally falling apart (often with people inside, as Owen Hatherley observed during a recent Moscow excursion). Back in 2008 there were again plans of transforming the Samara kitchen-factory, this time into an office center, but by February 2010 the restoration plans stagnated. Today the building faces destruction once more.

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