I’ve posted about Hannes Meyer several times already. For those who don’t know, Meyer was the second Bauhaus director. He stepped in after Walter Gropius returned to his own private practice in 1928, and presided over the art and architecture school until he was forced out due to his Marxist convictions in 1930. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe replaced him. After his tenure came to an abrupt end, Meyer and a number of his students traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government. Despite his enthusiastic support for the five-year plans then underway, and his unwavering loyalty throughout, Meyer eventually wore out his welcome in the USSR. Several of his colleagues were rounded up and arrested before he finally decided to return to Switzerland. Meyer didn’t stay long there, however, moving permanently to Mexico in 1938.
Today he is largely forgotten, though some have expressed interest in his legacy of late. Claude Schnaidt has provided probably the best comprehensive account of his work. It is not surprising that Meyer would be overshadowed by his predecessor Gropius on the one hand, and his successor Mies on the other. Both were more significant in the history of modern architecture, more groundbreaking or talented. Nevertheless, Meyer was quite innovative himself, as can be seen from his designs for co-ops and proposal for the League of Nations building in Geneva (1926). His skill in other media, such as photography and city planning, was also considerable.
Yesterday I discovered a rare article Meyer wrote in 1942, originally in Spanish, on the architectural profession in the Soviet Union. It was translated into English and published by Harvard’s student design magazine TASK in 1943. The article is interesting in several respects. First, because it displays no bitterness whatsoever at the Stalinist regime that forced Meyer into exile and many of his friends. Second, because the pioneering modernist implicitly repudiates many of his earlier positions on the role of architecture in modern society, criticizing the avant-garde architects at VKhUTEMAS and providing a “dialectical” justification for protopostmodernist eclecticism. Third, because it includes a number of facts and figures, which are interesting even though they are without a doubt inaccurate or misleading.
Alongside the article, which appears below, I’ve included a bunch of photos Meyer took documenting his journeys across the USSR. Enjoy.
The Soviet architect
I dedicate this unpretentious work to the composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, who, in the trenches of Leningrad, December 1941, put the final notes on his Seventh Symphony, rising in this classic form — score and weapon forged in hand — to the present duty of all democratic intellectuals in the entire world: the defense of our culture and of humanity.
The architect has always been intimately linked with his social environment. He is one of the human tools that serve the ruling power to fortify its position. Architecture besides its direct utility, has always served to maintain power. We find an architect serving the Pope, in Bramante, or the King, in Le Nôtre, or as a colonial functionary, in Tolsa, or as a privileged member of the bourgeoisie, in Tony Garnier. To this we must add that building’ is an activity profoundly connected with social-economic needs and the superimposed spiritual structure. And the architect is always of necessity a collaborator. He does his work together with economists and industrialists, with workers, artisans, and housewives. In Hindu tradition the future architect must first perfect himself as a carpenter, a mason, a painter, a sculptor, and an iron worker. Mature men of forty years are then known as “masters of architecture.”
In capitalist society architecture is numbered among the “liberal professions,” and this is why bankers, speculators, and other knights of the stock market can use the decorative cloak of architecture to cover the sores of the social body. — Architecture is not an autonomous art, as certain prima donnas of the drawing board would like to have us believe. The architect is born and finds his form in the womb of his society and is brought forth by a specific age and by a definite epoch. Hence we find the most capable and creative architects in the heart of the classical forms of society.
The socialist society in the USSR, created by the October Revolution of 1917, is an experiment without precedent. For the first time in human history the people themselves own the factories and all the means of production. The land also has been nationalized. Private economy, until then in a state of anarchy, has been transformed into a planned and directed economy. Together with the great change in the position of intellectuals in the USSR, the position and the role of the architect has been completely altered. The architectural structure of the new state has itself been transformed.
Outside of the USSR it is very hard to form any clear idea of the present conception of architecture in that country. It is confusing to find in its publications buildings of the most diverse character, examples of classicism, and of conflicting trends. These efforts in search of a national ideal are described as backward by American architects, who are justly proud of their highly industrialized achievements. They describe the Soviet attempt to connect by way of dialectics the magnificent past of Russian architecture with the dynamic present as a new academicism. Because of their ignorance of social and economical matters, they can employ no other pattern than those found in their everyday surroundings. For this reason “glass construction,” which is the last word on this continent, over there, in a different environment appears completely out of place. Chippendale furniture, here an expression of conservatism, is there a step forward in the development of the highest quality in cabinet work.
Let us, therefore, turn the spotlight on the battlefield of Soviet architecture, in the hope that we may emphasize certain features which characterize it as a whole. The struggle that is being carried on in favor of modern architecture in the USSR can only be compared to a strategic campaign. A beehive of thousands of builders, engineers, and architects, whose ideas at times are not realized for lack of an indispensable element, the building materials; a struggle where, on certain battle fields, the combatants are still in the rear guard, while some national groups have already penetrated deeply behind the barricades: among them the Ukrainians, the Armenians, and the Uzbeks; a campaign whose decisive clashes are called the “Moscow Subway” or the “Volga-Moskva Canal,” and whose results indicate the future direction of all Soviet architecture. It is a truly new architectural form that reflects the corresponding stages of socialist building in the USSR, and the dynamic will towards a better life for the 193 million people of that country.
A glance at a few pages of the economic plan of the USSR helps us to grasp the magnitude and the volume of the work of building, accomplished in the course of the first three five year plans:
Investments of Capital of the Soviet State
|First five-year period||1928-1932||51,000,000,000 rubles|
|Second five-year period||1933-1937||115,000,000,000 rubles|
|Third five-year period||1938-1942||181,000,000,000 rubles|
Increase In National Income
|First five-year period||1928-1932||20,500,000,000 rubles|
|Second five-year period||1933-1937||50,500,000,000 rubles|
Increase of Expenditure for Cultural Building
|First five-year period||1928-1932||24,000,000 rubles|
|Second five-year period||1933-1937||110,000,000 rubles|
Value of All Building and Reconstructed Building
|First five-year period||..1928-1932||39,000,000,000 rubles|
|Second five-year period||..1933-1937||109,000,000,000 rubles|
During the second Five-Year Period (1933-1937) and later, industrial production was increased at an ever quickening tempo: Taking the year 1929 as a base, it reached 283.3% in 1934, 293% in 1935, 424% in 1937, and 477% in 1938.
The jump in urbanization is illustrated by the growth of the major cities between 1927 and 1939 when the population grew an average of 260%, with one instance of 518%.
During the third Five-Year Plan (1938-1942) there was a tremendous boom in building dwelling houses. All kinds of urban dwelling houses were to be built, with a total living area of 35,000,000 square meters and besides this more than 10,000,000 square meters of single family houses, mostly of a semi-rural type. A significant aspect of this third Five-Year Plan was the continued increase in the production of building materials — cement, rough lumber and finished lumber, pig-iron, steel — an increase of about 165%. To help us to understand more completely the building problems of the USSR we must take into account the fundamental changes in the social structure of the Soviet people that took place during the First and Second Five Year Plans:
|Social Composition of the USSR||..1928||1937|
|Workers and employees||..17%||35%|
|Collective farmers, including artisans associated in the cooperatives||..3%||55%|
|Independent farmers and unorganized artisans||..73%||6%|
|Small capitalists (nepmen and kulaks)||..5%||0%|
|The balance of the people, students, soldiers, rentiers, etc.||..2%||4%|
This new social structure of the people in the USSR is the natural result of the collectivization of agriculture on the one hand, with 243,000 newly organized collective farms (up to 1939), and of the regrouping of great numbers of workers in the new industrial centers on the other. Gradually the cultural differences between country and city have disappeared, the kolkhozhnik (collective farmer) with his completely mechanized agriculture aspires to the same cultural level as the urban worker. The farmer’s average income has increased from 2132 rubles to 5843 rubles between 1932 and 1937. Illiteracy has been stamped out. The exact methods of Marxist doctrine have penetrated his thinking, and orthodox mysticism has disappeared from popular consciousness. Now he is trying for a decent way of life, with safe drinking water and hygienic separation of living quarters for men and cattle. Now he wants upholstered furniture, a bath tub, a shortwave radio, and a selected library containing the works of the great agronomist I.V. Michurin. The realization of all these elements in rural life is one of the first tasks of the Soviet architect.
Equally vast as the scale of the building-up of the country is the multitude of professionals, created by the Soviet state: In 1937, at the end of the Second Five Year Plan, there were 9,591,000 persons forming the body of Soviet intellectuals or approximately 13 or 14 percent of the whole population, and of these, 250,000 were engineers and architects. In the course of ten years, (1928-1937) there were graduated from the higher schools, universities and polytechnics 568,000 scientific specialists, and from the technical schools 943,000 technicians. The former include 211,000 industrial and construction engineers and graduates for the year 1938 number 25,200. In comparison, between 1926 and 1929, the number of engineers and architects and builders rose from 32,000 to 305,000. The recognized equality that obtains between men and women goes far to explain the proportion of the sexes among the 600,000 students who in 1938-1939 attended the 708 higher institutions of science and technology. Forty-five percent were women. In the workshops for planning of the People’s Commissariat for Heavy Industry,” in 1940, 13,000 women took part, i.e. 19.1% of the higher technical personnel of this administration. Of these women, 2,500 were architects, 2,700 geologists, 8,600 engineers. In the third Five-Year Plan (1938-1942) the educational task of the scientific-technical sector was defined as follows: “Training of 1,400,000 technicians of various branches and of 600,000 specialists with higher education, i.e. architects, engineers, etc.”
The architectural course requires six years and is the same in any one of the higher schools of architecture in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, etc. These studies are regarded as the equal of any other productive work, and a generous allowance is made by the syndicates and by the State. 90% of the graduates in architecture are either workers or farmers, which means that only 10% are children of intellectuals. The course of study for architects, laid out in 1940 by the Higher Institute of Architecture of Moscow, provided a total of 5700 hours during the six years, divided as follows:
- Dialectical materialism, political economy, and Marxism-Leninism = 376 hrs.
- Foreign languages = 280 hrs.
- Military sport training = 284 hrs.
- Projects, construction, city planning, history of architecture, watercolor rendering, etc. = 4760 hrs.
Total = 5700 hrs.
In the course of these six years of study, the student has to complete twenty projects, present forty-three papers criticizing his own progress in his studies, and take forty-three examinations. In the course of study as carried out during the first Five-Year Plan, the students choose their specialty from four divisions: industrial architecture, city planning, rural building, dwelling houses and social buildings. At present, on the contrary, the schools turn out a single type of architect, who will be able to develop one or the other of these specialties in his future practice.
The workshops of architecture and construction vary very much in their type of organization. There are offices of architecture and planning in the People’s Commissariat for Municipal Economy in the various republics. There are Architectural Departments connected with the municipal and regional soviets. There are mamuts of technical planning, made up of thousands of collaborators. Besides there are regional types of planning trusts. Lastly we must mention the Guilds of Architecture and Rural Planning, which are included in the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture, and which are designed to promote the collective farms and state farms. Among the organizations the most outstanding for the high quality of their architectural work are the ten very comfortable and rather elegant work shops for architecture of the MOSSOVET of Moscow, whose architects, planners and engineers have been entrusted with the rebuilding of the capital.
The legal status of the Soviet architect is that of a state employee. He is never a private architect. He serves the administrative and technical organization of his trust by carrying out the projects which they entrust to him, and he enjoys great liberty and autonomy in the practice of his profession. He is the responsible head of the professional work of his brigade or of his sector (Guild). He is responsible for the high quality of the work and for its completion within a definite time limit. In carrying it out he has the right to select his helpers, with the approval of the directors of the trust, the “triangle.”
The social cell of professional work is the “brigade.” Adapted to its task, the brigade is composed of draftsmen, technicians, engineers, economists, etc. The union of different brigades makes up a sector, headed by a master architect or by a chief engineer. All the brigades and guilds compete among themselves in the fulfillment of the “plan.” This stimulus in work is called “socialist competition.” From the Institute of National Economic Planning, GOSPLAN, each trust receives year after year its respective “plan of production,” acting as a unit in an over-all plan. The trust divides the jobs of its “plan” among brigades and guilds, and according to the final result of “socialist competition” a brigade may be known as “The Turtle” or “The Airplane.”*
Since the beginning of the Stahkanovist movement in 1935, the pay for architectural work varies greatly and depends on the efficiency of the individual and the length of time required for the job.
The general business of the trust, especially everything concerning criticism of professional work and the collective job, is brought before the “factory assembly” of each trust, where the “triangle” hears suggestions and complaints. The finished projects are approved by the TECHSOVET (technical council) of the trust, made up of outstanding consultant-specialists. Finally, the projects are reviewed by the local authorities, either of the region or the republic.
The standardizations adopted by the higher authorities are obligatory all over the USSR. But there is no special architectural or building legislation and there are no bureaus of a police-like function for the inspection and control of the projects.
Now let us turn to the Soviet architect himself in order to try to understand how he goes about his job. His professional activity is not subject to the control of ground rent, nor is it fettered by the private ownership of land. In his projects the architect uses the land with complete liberty, even modifying its boundaries if necessary. The density of people in a block of houses or the number of floors in an apartment house is based only on social, biological, and aesthetic needs, and economic considerations. He must be on his guard against the danger of imitating classical building instead of interpreting it, and must avoid following directions mechanically, without studying the dialectics of the problem.
The rent of a Soviet housing project is not a decisive factor in his problem, because this is fixed by law, on the basis of the salary of the tenant and area of the apartment, without taking into account the actual value of the housing project.
(The outlay for rent is 3%-6% of the personal income of the tenant.)
Basing himself on the established standard for a housing project, the Soviet architect must create a living space for a socialist family whose members all have equal rights. Both husband and wife work, and both study. The children are considered young citizens and expect their “red corner,” and the domestic worker is a comrade with her own desk, who attends night school. All these people want a distinguished home, with plumbing and with heat by the TEZ, or turbo-hydraulic electric plant of the city.
In industrial architecture the planner must solve the problem of combining machinery and flowers, because the workers, who own the workshops, expect to have living plants under the ultramodern sheds of their factories and in the surroundings of their everyday work. Proud and lighthearted, these comrades in socialist industry show us the nursery in their factory, their common dining room, their auditorium, their library and the bright flower beds in their park of rest.
The Soviet architect must not shrink from professional tasks of extraordinary scope, such as the 380 architectural jobs of the Volga-Moscow Canal, nor from the great height (415 meters) of the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow. Neither must he be dismayed by the tremendous flood of building: in Moscow in the years 1935, 1936, and 1937, the architects had to build, within a time limit of 150-200 days for each building, 72 normal schools in the first year, 150 in the second, 71 in the third, each with a capacity of 840 desks. The special exigencies of reconstruction forced him to remove entire buildings from the old street line back to the new one.* In Tajikistan, in 1939, thousands of peasants built the Ferghana Canal, 270 kilometers long, with all its bridges, locks and so forth, in only 66 days. And under the pressure of mass enthusiasm, the engineers and architects had to adjust themselves to this extraordinary rhythm of work.
The masses figure in a very real way in the construction of their buildings. The workers brought offerings of the most precious stones from the distant mines of the Urals, Karelia, and the Crimea for the new subway stations in Moscow, insisting that the architecture of the Metro display all the geological riches of the country. For the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow the professionals made some 400 studies, while the people demanded and continued to demand thousands of schemes: folding seats and seats which disappear under the floor for the main hall, which has a capacity of some 20,000 spectators; suggestions for supplying refreshments to some 30,000 visitors to the building, developed by a brigade of workers specialized in restaurant service, etc.
The Soviet architect is not confined by the usual modern assumption that architecture is merely a technical problem. This conception has been cancelled by the client-masses. In building their cities, they want to be surrounded by artistic works that commemorate the heroes of collective labor, the “Stakhanovists” and the pioneers of science in their country. They want to honor, by means of sculpture and mural painting, the great builders of Socialism: Krivonos, who perfected the efficiency of locomotives; Vonogradova, the great textile worker; the woman farmer Demchenko, famous for the cultivation of sugar beets; and the miner Stakhanov, inventor of new methods for increased production. These same masses, who inhabit a sixth part of the world, demand the representation of their revolutionary history and of their collective life.
The masses expect their architect comrades to be the interpreters of their national cultures, of their regional folklores and of their local building forms, developing them without imitation. Here it should be repeated that there are sixteen republics with more than eighty languages and national cultures, making up the USSR, and that each of these is developing, within the socialist framework, its own culture in complete freedom. Soviet culture is a kaleidoscope of national cultures, with all their many forms, based on the one principle of socialism.
Finally, these masses demand from their architects a profound respect for their historical heritage. The Russian proletariat did not conquer the feudal palaces and churches in order to destroy them, but to incorporate them in a new world where they would be at the service of everyone. Today those marvelous works of the Russian classical architects have been made over into sanatoria, rest houses, museums, and libraries.
Soviet culture cannot flourish on a heap of rubble. Every new culture must select the best of what has gone before, for its own continuing evolution. In the USSR the immortal works of Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov were never burned. Those noble progressives of the days of the feudal tsarism are the predecessors of the revolutionary writers of today: Aleksandr Tolstoy, Sholochov, Pagodin. Thus there has come into existence a Soviet literature of worldwide fame. Why then should the Soviet architect not follow the same road?
Those who carry out with the greatest integrity all these principals are looked upon as “masters of socialist realism” in architecture.
On April 2, 1932, an official decree was published, inviting all artists, actors, musicians, architects, writers, and filmmakers to dissolve their “sectarian” cells and to organize each profession into a centralized federation, where they would continue their fraternal efforts for Soviet culture. Some months afterwards the SSA or Federation of Soviet Architects, was founded.
After his family and his guild, the SSA is the third center of gravity for the Soviet architect. The SSA is the social and professional organ, through which the spiritual tendencies of the new Architecture, and its professional maturing, develop — socially integrated with the activity of all the experts working in the building field. The local sector of the SSA places at the disposal of its members and of their families a club, a library, a restaurant, and a recreation field, and; provides without charge opportunities for swimming, military drill, aviation, parachuting, target practice, horseback-riding, and driving, as well as courses in painting, dancing, music and the languages. Without consulting the SSA, no official decision on architectural points can be made, no competitions can be organized nor important nominations made.*
According to the Soviet principles of collective work, each architect member of the SSA must submit all his professional output to collective criticism. He must be willing as well to help other members in working out their projects with fraternal and objective advice. (The corresponding western principle is “professional secrecy,” inspired by a fear of competition that prevails in private workshops. If the Soviet architect required such “secrecy” he would automatically eliminate himself from his profession!) This “collective criticism” on the part of colleagues and laymen, workers, future tenants, etc. is an indispensable and efficient instrument for carrying on the creative work of the Soviet architect. There is no approval of a project by the authorities until the designer has presented evidences of this public criticism.
From time to time, architects of one region visit those of another. “Creative get-togethers” is what one might call these “forums” devoted to the swapping of experiences and talking over the architectural situation in different localities. The House of the Architect is bubbling over with the life of more than a thousand members and about 500 young candidates. Shows, lectures, courses of study, meetings, follow one another. Here also, inter-professional groups meet with the federation of actors or of painters to talk over the common problems of Soviet culture. And here are held receptions in honor of the best masons from the Metro (the Moscow subway), or of North Pole explorers, or of the world-famous Soviet women parachute aces.
The professional board of directors of Soviet Architecture is centered in the Soviet Academy of Architecture (BAA), in Moscow, which was founded in 1934. The BAA grew rapidly and today is a highly diverse organization, made up of these sectors:
- Institute of Candidates
- Institute of Housing
- Institute of City-Planning
- Institute of Social and Industrial Building
- Faculty for the Technique of Construction
- Faculty for the History and Theory of Architecture
- Laboratories for Ceramics, for Furnishing, and Applied Painting
- Museum for Architecture) Editorial Office
On August 31, 1939, the first architectural fellows were named. Today there are already thirty-two, and among them are architects of international fame — such as the two brothers, Aleksandr Vesnin and Viktor Vesnin, the classicist Ivan Zholtovsky, Boris Iofan, co-designer of the Palace of the Soviets, and among the youngsters, Karo Alabian, architect of the Theater of the Red Army in Moscow, and Arkady Mordvinov, inventor of new high-speed methods of building.
The educational activity of the BAA is carried on in the “Institute of Candidates.” There were sixty-nine architects in 1940-1941 taking the three-year course leading to the degree of “Master-Professor in Architecture.” Only architects selected from all over the country for their outstanding achievements are called to this Institute. During the three years of training in the BAA they receive the usual architect’s salary, and they devote themselves, under architectural fellows and other professors, to a serious study of scientific architecture.
This three-year plan of study, totaling 3,756 hours, is divided as follows:
- 79.2% to projects, theory and history of architecture
- 6.2% to art courses
- 8.4% to foreign languages
- 6.2% to dialectics and historical materialism
The press of the BAA has disseminated the classical works on architecture, some of them translated for the first time into Russian: Vitruvius, Vignola, Palladio, Letaroully, Viollet-le-Duc, Burckhardt, Geymueller, Brinckman. It has published monographs on Soviet buildings, in popular editions of from 20,000 to 200,000 copies. It publishes scientific works carefully chosen by architects and specialists of the BAA, made possible by these new forms of collective work.
Among these last we call attention to three of international significance:
A.B. Bunin & M.G. Kruglova, Architectural Layout of Cities (1940)
C.A. Kuznetsov, Architectural Constructions (1940)
V.A. Shkvarikov, City Planning in Russia in the 18th and 19th Centuries (1939)
In what other country has it been possible within the last decade to publish the whole scientific architectural literature independent of advertising and without commercial side issues?
The historical development of Soviet architecture runs parallel to the four economic stages of the USSR: first, the period of reconstruction and of the NEP (New Economic Policy) from 1923 to 1927, and then the three Five-Year Plans from 1928 to 1932, from 1933 to 1937 and from 1938 to 1942. By way of illustration let us make a rough draft of the architectural square of these four periods.
The period of reconstruction and the NEP (1923-1927)
After the bloody years of the First World War, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Civil War in Russia, and the struggle against the Foreign Intervention (1918-1922), all the progressive intellectuals of Europe and America expected a cultural eruption of the Bolshevik volcano. They ignored the fact that the creation of a truly new culture can only be carried out in harmony with all the acts of this new society. In the field of architecture the innovators were not architects but painters, sculptors, and artists in the cinema and theatre. Individualistic and anarchistic, each of them struggled to put forward his own particular “ism.” There was [Kazimir] Malevich, the father of “suprematism,” [El] Lissitzky, inventor of the PROUN; [Vladimir] Tatlin, the narcissus of “Tatlinism”; and [Aleksandr] Rodchenko, [Natan] Altman, and [Naum] Gabo, representatives of “constructivism,” pure, purest, or purified. The mass of the people stood outside, listening — enthusiastic and open-mouthed — to the poems of the great Vladimir Mayakovsky and eagerly received his satirical “Square Windows.”
The famous corkscrew of the Tower of the Third International, that Soviet castle in the air, was built by Tatlin. The dreamer-artist Gabo designed his “crystal construction” with the last pennies of an impoverished Russia. Ladovsky had a vision of a Lenin Library to be cylindrical in shape and Leonidov invented new forms for worker’s clubs, practically gasometers. Finally in Paris, at the Exposition of Decorative Arts, Konstantin Melnikov presented as his calling card the fantastic Soviet pavilion. This happened in 1925.
In the VKhUTEMAS of Moscow, a sort of anti-academic academy, some of the most sectarian took haven. There, members belabored all kinds of experts or carried on hot discussions with longing glances at the great symphonic orchestra that played Mussorgsky without baton or conductor. Meanwhile the place was crowded with student workers, who at great sacrifices were devoting themselves to study, and who were all eager to build collective houses, factory-kitchens, and socialist cities. Through the windows could be seen crowds of workers rebuilding a destroyed world and looking forward to evolving a new architecture out of their own resources.
The period of the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932)
This is the period of the building-up of heavy industry and the regrouping of millions of workers around the new factories. It is the period of the collectivization of agriculture. It is the period of the dynamic slogan “overtake and surpass” the capitalist countries.
The equipment needed to carry through the mechanization and industrialization of building was still almost entirely lacking. The scant supply of building materials was mainly reserved for industrial construction. There was a tragic lack of experts in all branches of the building industry, particularly among the architects and technicians. This shortage of houses, of schools, of clothing, was described as “growing pains.” Parts of the old Russian intelligentsia remained indifferent or hostile. The few scientific and technical professionals were concentrated for the most part in the big urban centers of the republics. The vast Soviet hinterland lacked architects, engineers, technicians. Every effort was directed towards building the 500 main industrial centers: Magnitogorsk, Cheliabinsk, Molotov, Kuznetzk, the Dnieproges, the canal from the Baltic to the White Sea, the industrial, chemical and electric plants, the paper mills, the factories for production machinery. The state farm “Sovkhoz Gigant” beat all records for the rural centers. Its electrical incubator, for instance, had a capacity of 500,000 eggs. Among the architects and planners the same megalomania prevailed: they produced combines of dwellings, containing between 1,000 and 3,000 tenants in a single block, and factory-kitchens providing from 10,000 to 25,000 meals a day. (At this time I worked on a project for a technical school combine for 12,000 students in the city of Gorki.)
Along with some 12,000 to 14,000 foreign specialists hundreds of architects and technicians were brought in. On a single day in October 1930, two coach-loads of city-planners were shipped from Berlin to Moscow. The Soviets treated these foreigners as precious precision instruments, wrapping them up in cotton, lodging them in the few modern houses, giving them the privilege of almost luxurious food, and paying them very high salaries. These foreign experts brought with them from Europe and the United States the last word in super-mechanized and standardized building, and the collision between their ideas and the actual situation of the Soviet building industry at that time, was often cataclysmic. Many essentials were lacking: steel for concrete reinforcements, plywood, cement, glass, hardware; nails and screws seemed worth their weight in gold.
The most customary mode of construction was of wood. The few “occidental” projects that were carried out proved to be poorly adapted to the climate. In the sub-tropical zones, Russian insects tended to infiltrate very quickly through the great quantity of joints in even such excellently constructed wood buildings as those of the American Jewish IGOR-group (which I saw in Birobidzhan in 1933). Sometimes the impression was that industrialized execution produced far more lasting work than the traditional output of the old-fashioned local craftsman.
Finally, after having overcome the unavoidable initial difficulties, the first great buildings ascended under the rosy clouds of mass enthusiasm, ready and functioning — the slaughter house or meat combine of Leningrad; the DOM ZIK, apartment combines in Moscow; the Palace of Industry at Kharkov, office combines; the DNIEPROGES, central hydro-electric plant in the Ukraine; the paper combine at Balachna, etc. etc. The first architectural jewel of the country was created, the Tomb of Lenin in the Red Square at Moscow. Finally we should add that in this period industrial building took the lead. In other branches of architecture, experiments were worked out in new types of social building, clubs, schools, sanatoria, and so forth. In the meantime, the very pressing problem of housing had to await its turn.
The period of the second Five-Year Plan (1933-1937)
This is the epoch of growing prosperity and the beginning of well-being in a collective life. Incomes rose from 34,935,000 rubles in 1933 to 96,425,000 in 1938. In the country practically all the collective farms were mechanized. Industrial production was quickened under the stimulus of the Stakhanovite movement. The manufacture of shoes, textiles and canned goods increased by leaps and bounds. Life for the great mass of people, formerly so harsh, was filled with gaiety. In the cooperative shops appeared the first models of Soviet fashion. In the clubs and restaurants “jazz” was played and dancing was revived: one saw the Tango, the Boston, the Charleston, and the Slow Fox. In the bakeries twelve kinds of bread were sold without restriction. The best Stakhanovites were rewarded with Leicas and Fords turned out by Soviet production. The first USSR-made electric lamps appeared, the first stainless tableware, the first upholstered furniture. The new marriage laws, prohibiting unlimited abortion and restricting divorce, stimulated discussion of the living problems of the Soviet family. Thousands of newly formed technical cadres allowed a wide decentralization of the planning units, and facilitated the carrying out of jobs and the opening up of the hinterland.
In the realm of pure architecture the first storms broke over the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, the buildings along the Volga-Moskva canal, and the stations of the Metro. In remote regions new cities were born: Komsomolsk, on the banks of the Amur river in the far East; Igarka, on the river Yenissei on the Arctic coast; Karaganda, in the desert of Kazakhstan in Central Asia. In the new schemes of block planning, the principle of a mixed combine of living quarters with communal rooms, was abandoned. The new housing system is composed of living units for 2,000 to 4,000 tenants. The private and communal aspects of life are carefully separated. On the one hand are family and one room apartments, on the other, clubs, nurseries, schools and collective shops, etc. The number of foreign professionals decreased inversely with the rise of the new technical generation. On this shifting scene the academic architects of the prewar period reappeared and together with their young colleagues, they reinvestigated the archeological and classical heritage, so that gradually there came into being a new synthesis between the traditional and the modern, between the national heritage and international imports — which flowered in the Soviet pavilion in Paris 1937 (Boris Iofan, architect) and in the Sanatorium NKTP in Kislovodsk (Moisei Ginzburg). The new architects sought eagerly for new ways of collaborating with sculptors, painters, and specialists in “green architecture.” But it was a woman, Vera Mukhina, who achieved a sculptural interpretation of this new dynamic lyricism of the Soviet citizen, in the monument to the Worker and Kolkhoznitza (collective woman-farmer), built in 1937 of stainless steel and 24 meters high.
The reconstruction of Moscow (1935-1944)
Before speaking of the Third Five Year Plan the chronicler of Soviet architecture must tell the story of the rebuilding of greater Moscow, and its transformation, in ten years, into a capital of 5,000,000 people. It is the model for much of the city building in the USSR. It began in 1932 with the working out of eight preliminary studies, made by eight brigades of city planners. This transformation was sped up by the three stages of the building of the METRO, the subway.
The final decision was taken at a historic meeting of the Sovnarkom (Council of the People’s Commissars) on the tenth of July 1935. The starting point of this gigantic work was the Stalin Plan, the result of the collective work of hundreds of specialists over a three year period. In July of 1940, figures were published showing some of the results already reached in the execution of the “Stalin Plan” for the first five years of its progress:
|Increase of population (in thousands)||.1,724.8||.3,659.8||.4,342|
|Area of the city (in hectares)||.—||.17,700||.32,500|
|Distribution of electricity (in kilowatt per inhabitant)||.87||.505||.715|
|Daily consumption of drinking water (in liters per inhabitant)||.61.5||.153||.241|
|Public urban transportation (in millions of passengers)||.259.6||.2,037.7||.2,731.4|
|Number of gas consumers (in thousands)||.7.8||.37.1||.62.7|
|Annual consumption of gas (in cubic meters per inhabitant)||.3.5||.15||.21.3|
|Children in secondary schools (in thousands)||.67||.123||.144|
|Hospital beds (in thousands)||.0.1||.13.9||.45.4|
|Volumes in public libraries (per 100 inhabitants)||.5.4||.200||.260|
|City budget (in millions of rubles)||.—||.763.7||.2,270.2|
|City expenses (per inhabitant)||.—||.207.51||.390.07|
|Expenditures for education (in rubles per inhabitant)||.—||.63.71||.100.34|
|Expenditures for health (in rubles per inhabitant)||.—||.62.54||.116.34|
In this first period of the reconstruction of Moscow, from 1935 to 1940, five hundred blocks of apartments, between seven and nine stories high, were built with a total of 1,800,000 meters of dwelling area, and 379 secondary schools accommodating 880 each. In 1939, of all the apartment buildings under construction, 52% lay on the thirteen principal thoroughfares and on the three concentric boulevards. Each one of these thoroughfares is under the direction of one master architect, responsible for all the rebuilding of a section from 0.8 to 2.0 kilometers long. Most of these new housing zones are situated in the south-west part of the city, in wooded country, with rolling hills and valleys, crisscrossed by the silvery threads of tranquil brooks. It is a typical Russian landscape, where the great poet Maxim Gorki spent his last years surrounded by birches and by the affection of his people.
The period of the third Five-Year Plan (1938-1942)
In the jobs of the third Five-Year Plan, three principal tendencies emerge and naturally influence the architecture of that period: first to overtake and to surpass the economy of the United States and the most advanced capitalistic countries of Europe; second to increase consumer goods from 50% to 100% ; third to raise the cultural and technical level of the workers to that of engineers and technicians.
At the beginning of 1939 the People’s Commissariat of Building Materials was organized, probably the only ministry of this sort in the world. It was a clear indication of the interest of the people and of the Soviet government in the needs of the building industry. This implied the greatness of the need at that time. It is certain that the last census of the 20th of January, 1939, showed for the first time the new lines of the industrialization of building: 15,000 workers, specialists in building forms for reinforced concrete, and 8,800 operators of steam shovels. In an official statement of March 20 1939, the government expressly recognized the serious backwardness of the building industry. The megalomania of the projects was attacked and the organization of many smaller centers instead of one huge one recommended. A determined effort was made to develop rapid methods of building and the goal set for the third Five Year Plan was a 75% increase in the productivity of labor on construction projects, and a 12% decrease in the cost of labor in building, as compared with the level of the last years of the second Five-Year Plan.
On the architectural front of the third Five-Year Plan, before that ominous 22nd of June 1941, two events of outstanding significance were taking place: the National Exposition of Agriculture of the USSR 1939-1941, and the distribution of the Stalin Prizes for architectural achievements on March 20, 1941. The Agricultural exposition gave a general picture of the actual standard of rural existence in the USSR, and provided at the same time valuable ideas about rural architecture. The latest developments were exhibited, new types worked out in the field: winter housing for cattle, silos, electrified farm equipment. In some twenty national and regional pavilions, twenty different experiments for the creation of national architectural forms, were shown. The pearl of them all was — in my opinion — the Uzbek Pavilion.
On March 15, 1941, the Government, with the aid of the Art Committee, distributed for the first time the Stalin prizes to pioneers in all the branches of Soviet culture: music, painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre arts, opera, ballet, movies, prose and poetry, drama and literary criticism. For architecture the prizes were awarded to the Building of the Soviets in Kiev (architect V. Sabolotny), the two subway stations in Moscow, Kievskaya, and Komsomolskaya Ploshad, (architect D. Tsheshulin), and the new Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Tiflis (architect A. Shchusev). These four subjects, so very different in style, reflected two common tendencies: they are rich and pleasing in their architectural harmony, in their details and in their material, and they show painstaking execution.
Since June 22, 1941, all these men and buildings have passed through a baptism of fire. The Soviet architect laid down his pencil for a machine gun. Together with all his people he is defending his homeland and his family, his socialist culture and the free development of his architecture. Already, several of the buildings that illustrate this article, have been destroyed. The echoes of the explosion that in a single day in October destroyed the famous hydroelectric plant of DNIEPROGES in the Ukraine sounded across the whole civilized world. The New York Times of November 8, 1941, published a radiograph of the Palace of Industry in Kharkov, blown up from the inside. The New Theater at Rostov-on-Don, a marvel of Soviet architecture, was also destroyed. Today it is a heap of rubbish, fragments, slabs of concrete and twisted steel, where once it raised, with its rhythms of horizontals and verticals, a grand new song of technics.
Soviet planning during these months of war has undergone the trial of fire. Totalitarian war is a war of strategy, but also a war of production. In addition to the heroic Red Army, with its first class military equipment and fighting morale, and the stubborn guerrillas, the industrial and rural centers with the network of transportation throughout the entire country, are also of vital importance in this titanic struggle. These units of regional planning have been technically and economically prepared by hundreds of thousands of specialists: economists, scholars, engineers, agronomists, city planners and architects. Built up in echelons, like a medieval army, these centers of planned industrial and agricultural production, extend to the east of the front: the regional units of Gorki, Kazan, Utmurtia, Ufa, the Basin of Perm, the Second Baku, — and behind the Ural Mountains, immense regions such as Kusbass or the Hydroelectric Power Combine Angara-Yenissei.
Returning to the starting point of this article: 150 years ago, with the French Revolution, a new ruling class emerged in western Europe from the collapsing feudal society, the free bourgeoisie. The result of this historic crisis, as it affected architecture was a new concept of classicism. (This was the product of a union of Jacobins, encyclopedism, and horse sense.) Down with the baroque and the rococo of the feudal lords! Liberty, fraternity and equality for all citizens and ho! For a new architecture.
It was in this period of transition that the French architect Claude-Nicole Ledoux, who had been employed by the worn-out nobles to build palaces of languid baroque, decided to throw away his aristocratic notions and to take an active part in the bourgeois revolutionary movement. Through his architectural studies he began to interpret freely the ideals of the liberated bourgeoisie. He designed a Temple of Youth, which was to be coeducational, where young people of both sexes lived together in a new Arcadia. He designed a City of Salinas, in whose center, instead of the usual castle and cathedral, he placed the two buildings that represented the new civil and economic power of the bourgeoisie, the Prefecture and the Salt Works Administration, which they had taken over. Among his plans for private houses some are remarkable for their pyramidal form; these he called “houses for foresters.” On the square base of these modest houses he placed a pyramidal stone roof. In all architectural periods the pyramid had symbolized the dominant power of king or priest (e.g. the pyramids of Giza, of Cestus-Rome, of Teotihuacan-Mexico, etc.). This architect deliberately handed over the pyramid to the new dominant class and placed it at the service of the liberated and revolutionary bourgeoisie. Daring deed!
We all know this: that today we are involved in the collapse of an old world and the emergence of a new. More than a struggle for a new division of the earth, this Second World War is the decisive phase of the transfer of power from an old and dying society to the new community that is arising. Shall we, the architects of the democratic countries, be found ready to hand over the pyramids to the society of the future?