The greatest poet is not the one who wrote best but the one who suggested most.
— Walt Whitman
Since he first emerged on the architectural scene in the twenties, the name of Ivan Leonidov has acquired legendary status. The reason for this is simply the uniqueness of his work. Its power and originality have been attested by the deep and fruitful influence which it exerted, and continues to exert, on worldwide architectural thinking — despite the fact that the vast majority of his projects remained on paper and unbuilt.
For all the complexities of his life, Leonidov produced a great deal of work. Till the very end of his life he preserved his sharpness of eye and steadiness of hand. But more important he also preserved a total faithfulness to the central ideas of his architecture and to his own aesthetic principles. Thus those commentators are profoundly mistaken, and indeed inaccurate, who say that he was only fully able to display his talent in those brief avant-garde years of the late twenties and early thirties during which he first became known. Notable here has been the writing of P. Aleksandrov and S.O. Khan-Magomedov.1 The triumphant success of Leonidov’s projects in those years is obvious, but what he did later is neither architecturally nor artistically inferior to it. His capabilities in no way diminished with time, but only now, when we can see the fullest possible range of his sketches and designs, such as is assembled here, can we really appreciate the inexhaustible quality of his talent. Naturally his work underwent a process of evolution, as on one hand it reflected the beating of his own internal artistic pulse, and on the other it reacted to external influences and circumstances. But through all the modifications it was characterized by an enviable stability, both in aesthetic and ethical dimensions of his worldview, and in its style of graphic representation.
Ivan Il’ich Leonidov was born into a peasant family on the 9th of February 1902 in the village of Vlasikh, in what was then the Stantskii district of the Tverskoi gubemia, or province. His childhood was spent in the village of Babino, and when he had completed four years at the local parish school he went at the age of twelve to earn his living in Petrograd.2 It is known that Leonidov first received training in painting and drawing in Tver, at the Free Art Studios which were organized in 1920.3 In 1921 he was sent to continue his study in Moscow at the Painting Faculty of the VKhUTEMAS, from which he later transferred to the architecture faculty and the studio of Aleksandr Vesnin.
The atmosphere of the VKhUTEMAS and his personal contacts with Aleksandr Vesnin played an important role in the shaping of Leonidov’s creative personality. Aleksandr Vesnin contributed a great deal to drawing out every side of his gifted pupil’s talents. While still a student, Leonidov took part in numerous open architectural competitions, and often achieved success. There were for example third prizes for an improved peasant hut and for a housing development in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, as well as a “recommendation for acquisition and adoption” for his Byelorussian State University project for Minsk. None of the original drawings done during his training have survived, but several publications from those years give a relatively full idea of his highly individual manner of composition and his graphic skills, as a young architect who had already mastered the language of early constructivism. There are manifestly close links between these Leonidov works and the projects of the Vesnin brothers and other founders of the constructivist architectural association, OSA.4
Leonidov’s final diploma project, for the Lenin Institute of Librarianship, must be regarded not only as his first truly independent work, but also as the distinctive credo of an architect setting out on his professional life. Displayed publicly at the First Exhibition of Modern Architecture in Moscow in 1927, it was received as the opening up of a whole new architectural direction.5 Alongside Tatlin’s tower of 1919 and Melnikov’s Paris Pavilion of 1925, the Lenin Institute has remained to this day one of the great symbols of the revolutionary, innovative spirit of the first decade of Soviet architecture.
The beginning of Leonidov’s professional activity is marked by his active participation in competitions. From 1927 to 1930 he was himself teaching at the somewhat reorganized version of VKhUTEMAS known as VKhUTEIN. Competitions were very numerous in Soviet architecture in those years, and they gave the young architect an opportunity to express himself in the various typological genres of current practice. Leonidov’s works of those years are universally characterized by the coherence of the synthesis he achieved between the constructivist functional method and his own compositional approach, but they are equally characterized by the consistency of his representational technique in exploiting the restrained language of black-and-white graphics.
In 1928 Leonidov took part for the first time in international architectural competitions, for the headquarters of the Tsentrosoiuz in Moscow, and for the monument to Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo. Many well-known Soviet architects participated in both competitions, as well as Westerners. Corbusier of course was eventually to build the Tsentrosoiuz, which was completed in 1935; it is well known that he met Leonidov on related visits to Moscow during 1929-1930, as he did other leading constructivists, and that he had a very high opinion of Leonidov’s scheme for that building.
The finale to this series of competition designs was the project for the new socialist town around the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine in the Urals executed at the end of 1929. Leonidov headed an OSA design team composed of students from his own class in the VKhUTEIN.
The next year, 1930, was to be a fateful one in Leonidov’s biography. He took part in a competition for the design of a Palace of Culture in the Proletarskii district of southern Moscow, around the old Simonov Monastery. The plan which he submitted for the first round diverged significantly from the brief, and proposed not a building, but a model for the “cultural organization” of a whole area of the city. Even in the first round of the competition Leonidov’s project therefore provoked sharp criticism. Discussion of the results of the second round took place in even more complex circumstances, revealing acute disagreements between the various groupings and philosophies now becoming consolidated in and around Soviet architecture. Although this time his proposal was in complete accordance with the terms of the brief, Leonidov’s scheme once again became the focal point of heated debate and discussions of larger architectural issues. Continue reading