Архитектор Иван Леонидов copy

Ivan Leonidov: Artist, dreamer, poet

Andrei Gozak
Complete Works
January 1988

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.

Ivan Leonidov at the first OSA congress, 1928 Ivan Leonidov with the rest of the VKhUTEIN faculty, 1930

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.

By the end of 1930 the clouds had thickened still further over Leonidov. The Architecture and Building Institute which had been formed out of the VKhUTEIN organized a debate on Leonidovshchina, or “Leonidovism,” at which his work was subjected to abusive criticism. In the December issue of the journal Art and the Masses there appeared an article by Arkadii Mordvinov entitled “Leonidovism and its Harmfulness.” The outcome of the debate was documented on December 20th in a resolution of the IZO [Fine Art] Section of the Institute of Language and Literature based on a lecture by Mordvinov entitled “On the petit-bourgeois tendency in architecture (Leonidovism).” In this Leonidov was presented not just as a “dreamer on paper” who had lost touch with reality, but as a pedagogue without a future who was a harmful influence on the training of new architectural cadres. The end of 1930 saw not only the last issue of the constructivist architectural journal Modern Architecture (SA), where Leonidov had been on the editorial board since 1928, but the closure of the VKhUTEIN and Leonidov’s departure from architectural education. A difficult period of his life began, but the difficulties did not cool the professional enthusiasms of the young 28-year old architect, and did nothing to stifle the forward movement of his thinking and design work. He assembled a team out of his former students, and in 193 I, having got work in the state town-planning bureau GIPROGOR. they started work on a number of planning projects including designs for the town of Igarka, and competition projects tor the replanning and reconstruction of the city of Moscow, and at a more limited scale, for the redevelopment of the open spaces around its Serpukhov Gates. In 1932-3, whilst heading one of the studios in Mosproekt, Leonidov at last received a real commission. A design of his for the workers’ club for the Pravda newspaper combine was accepted an passed for construction. But the project tailed to get the further go-ahead at a later stage of its development, and Leonidov left Mosproekt.

The year 1934 was one of the high-points of Leonidov’s development. Taking part in one of the biggest and most important architectural competitions of the early Soviet era, for the Heavy Industry Commissariat, Narkomtiazhprom, on Red Square in Moscow, he created what was perhaps his most significant work. If the design for the Lenin Institute can be taken as a model for the first stage of Leonidov’s oeuvre, then the scheme for Narkomtiazhprom building was to be seminal for much of his later work. The breakthroughs in design approach that he made here, demonstrated in a series of brilliantly executed drawings and a model, constituted a reserve of vast compositional potential that he would exploit, develop, and perfect in the future.6

In the same year Leonidov moved to a job in the architectural bureau of that same Commissariat, which was headed by his senior comrade-in-arms from the journal Modern Architecture and one of the former leaders of constructivism, Moisei Ginzburg.

Leonidov’s works from this period not only display to us new aspects of his talent, through his designs for such large complexes as the Kliuchiki settlement or the Southern coastline of the Crimea and the Greater Artek region; they also show us very clearly the development of a new formal language. Leonidov’s reaction to the general refocusing upon tradition taking place in Soviet architecture then, was not to reject the achievements of his constructivist youth, but rather to develop and enrich them. It must not be forgotten that this period saw a complete change of emphasis within Soviet architecture from the world of “ideas projects” and “conceptual schemes” that inevitably pervaded the late twenties, to one of absolutely concrete building commissions in the construction boom of the second half of the thirties. As a result Leonidov’s drawings now have a more realistic content, indicating specific materials and colors, precise instructions for detailing, which are naturally expressed in a more concrete and accessible graphic language. Perhaps the most noticeable changes in the external stylistic characteristics of Leonidov’s work are to be seen in his competition project for the newspaper combine of Izvestiia, executed in 1940. Even here though, if we look carefully, there are all the devices typical of Leonidov’s earlier work, albeit veiled by the new stylistic decor.

In the framework of work at the Narkomtiazhprom office, Leonidov was at last actually able to build a small project but one of great importance to our understanding of his work. This was a series of landscaped steps in the grounds of the Commissariat’s sanatorium at Kislovodsk. Here he not only demonstrated his desire and capacity to build, but realized many of the fundamental elements of his professional vocabulary for the first time. A familiarity with this only extant example of Leonidov’s built work enables us, albeit to a limited degree, to evaluate the notions of space-time and three dimensional composition underlying his work at this period.7

As a whole the thirties were a fairly fruitful period in Leonidov’s life, despite the fact that very little of the considerable amount that he designed was ever actually realized. Nevertheless he worked assiduously, and it is quite wrong to suggest, as Aleksandrov and Khan-Magomedov have done, that he “abandoned himself,” or “lost his most valuable qualities as an architect.”8

Leonidov, Ivan I. Competition project for the House of Industry- glass-tower elevation _ Projet pour le concours de la maison de l'Industrie - élévation de la tour de verre, 1929-1930 DR1995-0002 copy

In 1940 he began to work in the Studio for Monumental Art attached to the Academy of Architecture of the USSR. In 1941, he was called up into the army and sent to the front as a sapper. He was demobilized in 1943 after being wounded. He then tried again to turn to architectural practice, and in the Academy of Architecture he did a series of studies for the eventual postwar reconstruction of Stalingrad, Kiev, and Moscow. This forward-planning was an integral part of the Academy wartime program, but Leonidov’s plans found no support and he left the Academy.

In the last years of his life Leonidov was principally occupied as a designer of exhibitions. Finding himself isolated professionally, however, he did not interrupt his own program of continued design. He responded to many important events in the architectural life of the time in the Soviet Union, doing schemes, as were many other architects, for Monuments to Victory and then to the first Sputnik, for the Palace of Soviets and for the proposed World Exhibition in Moscow. At the same time and in parallel he continued systematic work on his own private project for a “City of the Sun,” an idea that he had first formulated before the War. His dreams about this city of the future were realized in innumerable sketches, drawings and models, of which all extant examples are reproduced here. This work continued until the very last days of his life.

Ivan Leonidov died on November 6th 1959. He was buried near Moscow in a simple village cemetery. The plainest of monuments was erected on his grave: a granite cube with the inscription “Ivan Leonidov, architect.”

Like any great artist, Leonidov created his own original vocabulary of forms, and the process of developing and augmenting that vocabulary went in parallel with the process of crystalising its elements into specific architectural solutions.

Certain characteristics of Leonidov’s personal vision are already manifest in his earliest works, despite their direct link with mainstream architectural constructivism. Already in his pre-diploma project for the Izvestiia newspaper’s printing house, done under Vesnin, there is a clear stress on the separateness of the building’s functional and structural elements, as well as a sharply dynamic juxtaposition of forms in three mutually perpendicular directions. Both features are characteristic indicators of Leonidov’s hand.

The spatial interaction and intersection of simple geometrical bodies in a system of three orthogonals had been quickly mastered by Leonidov in his student days. Its ultimate expression was the famous Lenin Institute design, which became the reference point for all his constructivist work. He divided the building into separate volumes, placing them along the main coordinate axes and pinning them together with a large spherical auditorium raised above the ground that functioned as a compositional key-stone to the whole structure. The volumes and forms themselves were geometrically simple, but their complex inter-relationship of contrasts and levels produced an architectural composition of rare refinement. The plan for the Lenin Institute is a classic example of the suprematist composition based on the most precisely considered relationship of elements and of what Malevich called their “weight, speed, and direction of movement.” The centrifugal dynamic is obvious, and is underlined on the drawing by taking the main axes out to the edges of the paper. In the volumetric composition, the three-dimensional dynamic and the centrifugal movement are even stronger. Thus the model which Leonidov made can be understood as a highly original depiction of Euclidean space, where the three main axes and the lines of development are defined by the main building volumes.

Linear elements play an important part here in communicating its rhythmic, scalar and tectonic characteristics. The drawing showing the construction of the spherical auditorium, for example, consciously evokes direct associations with the ropes of a balloon, playing on our desire to master the forces of gravity and to conquer the architectural air-space. This striving towards the sky and eternity is at the root of the deep symbolic meanings of the Lenin Institute project.

All later designs in what we may call Leonidov’s suprematist series follow the compositional model of the Lenin Institute, interpreting and developing it according to the functional specifics of each site and building. His plan for the film-production center is a model of sharply contrasting and dynamic composition and rhythmically extraordinarily rich. His axonometric drawing has adopted certain very specific techniques: the sheet of paper has been arranged along the diagonal, for example, with the clear intention of heightening its dynamic effect. Among Leonidov’s simplest and purest solutions is the design for the Tsentrosoiuz building. Two rectangular forms of different heights intersect at a right angle; there is a circular vestibule on one floor of the project, and there is the slender vertical of the lift shaft. That is all.

During these years Leonidov made extensive use of circular forms, and he particularly reinforces their compositional significance in the plan solutions. The circle and the system of circles become not merely the bearers of a certain planar and volumetric geometry, but the purveyors of various meanings and ideas. The circle has moved beyond the framework of the geometrical concept and is already being treated as the sphere of life’s activity, the sphere of organization, the sphere of influence.9 Moreover the symbolic function of such geometry is obvious: the concentric circles portray and express the centrifugal character of movement. His passion for circular forms showed itself most clearly in his plans for “a club of new social type,” where a scheme for the spatial distribution of cultural organization becomes a symphony of concentric and intersecting rings and arcs.

Regardless of the size of the object concerned, all Leonidov’s designs from before 1931 develop identical principles, using a relatively limited vocabulary of simple geometrical forms — rectangular, square, and circular in plan. Linear elements play an important role everywhere: to emphasize the basic axes and to create a deliberate contrast with the architectural volumes which they connect. Leonidov’s works from this period can be regarded as some of the highest achievements of architectural suprematism and constructivism, and as virtuoso embodiments of the architectural possibilities of simple geometrical forms. He had the ability to express the characteristic aesthetic tendencies of his time in a very concentrated and complete way. Unfortunately not one of his designs was realized. It remains only to imagine them from our experience of such a master of simple form as Mies van der Rohe. The closeness of these two architects’ aesthetic concepts and their representational modes and graphic languages makes such an extrapolation legitimate, and indeed instructive.

Ivan Leonidov, Club For Workers (1000 hum.), 1926 Рабочий клуб на 500 человек, 1926

Leonidov’s very first designs do not move far beyond the standard stereotypes of constructivist graphics. But already in his competition schemes for workers’ clubs, the individuality of his representational language is beginning to reveal itself as something quite distinctive. It can be felt above all in his virtuoso mastery of lines. In his club designs the language of the drawings is highly conventionalized: a planar network of plans and facades form compositions against the background of a white sheet of paper; the character of the compositions is defined by the interaction of these graphic patches, the strength of their tone and the weight of the hatchings. Here we see an example of the skillful translation of the rules of suprematist composition into the language of graphics. In his design for the printing-house of the Izvestiia newspaper, the lines of the drawing are already saturated with a real content, emphasizing, especially in perspective, the delineation of the metal constructions against the background of the buildings’ glass surfaces, which he lightly shades with dilute Indian ink.

The same method of combining a light wash of Indian ink with linear graphics was also used in the presentation of Leonidov’s diploma project whose exposition was supplemented by a large model made with his own hands. The model which has become so famous through photographs was made of the simple materials which came to hand: wood, paper, wire and unbleached thread. An ordinary electric light bulb of a large size was used to make the glass sphere of the auditorium. Henceforth it was always Leonidov’s principle to make models for his designs that would also be a demonstration of his inventiveness in choice of materials. In his perspective drawings of this building the architect chose his view points with particular care, showing it from above or in strong foreshortenings which served to maximize the impact of this highly unusual object.

In later projects Leonidov enriched his representational techniques through the introduction of applied color, and by an extensive use of reversal: of white drawing on black background, for example. Unfortunately all the originals of Leonidov’s early works have been lost. It is therefore difficult to say exactly when the use of applied color first appeared in the presentations of his buildings. But the tone reversals, for example, resulted in a greatly increased complexity of rhythmic and plastic structure in his drawings. Their surface took on a new flavor, becoming spatially deeper and more saturated emotionally. We can follow these changes through the drawings for the Film Production Centre, the Tsentrosoiuz building, and the Club of New Social type, as for this latter we do have several pages of the original drawings.

Ivan Leonidov, design for a club of the new social type, variant A (1928)

The plan drawings for Variant B of the Club of New Social Type give us further evidence of the architect’s virtuoso mastery of line, and a comparison of them shows how the spatial and plastic structure and the character of the image change with the dramatic changes in his mode of representation. The drawing of the Club’s first-floor plan is undoubtedly one of Leonidov’s graphic masterpieces. It is in ink on white paper. Only certain lines are executed with instruments, and the majority of them are hand-drawn. Their live, natural and slightly intermittent character creates a palpitating, fine vibration on the paper surface akin to that of engraving or etching. In the sketch for the first stage of the same subject, the representational language is different Against a black background, fine white lines repeat the outline of the basic figures of the plan, and of those same elements of the architecture and the. landscape. Three small circular blobs are picked out by applied color. Despite the restraint used in the coloring of the drawing it creates a very powerful impression and evokes rich associations with the dark depth of a night sky. The black and white surface texturing of the page, embellished only by two small areas of orange, creates a flickering spatial polyphony which is much more complex than a simple relationship between black, white, and orange. Small golden circles give the back ground a bluish tinge, and the white lines a hint of silver. The space of the sheet of paper takes on a cosmic seriousness and depth.

Two of Leonidov’s details for this project — the plan for the Sports Pavilion and the “scheme for the spatial organization of culture” — demonstrate the compositional advantages of combining these techniques of line work and applied color. The spatial depth of both sheets is created by their precisely measured alignments and placing of elements. The “cosmic” spirit of the second drawing is conveyed by intersecting arcs of different radii, concentric circles, small dots, all shining on a black background to create the feeling of a distant world of stars, mists and galaxies. The luminescence created by white and cultured areas on a black background was used by Leonidov in all his subsequent works of this period: in the Columbus Monument project, in the first-round scheme for the Proletarskii district Palace of Culture, and in the plan and elevation of its Physical Culture Section. All are superb examples of his technique of luminescent” representation.

Only a small number of Leonidov’s originals from these years remain, and several of those which do are his own copies of originals, specially prepared for reproduction purpose in magazines. But there are enough of these to reinforce our understanding of the virtuosity with which he used a simple and highly conventionalized representational vocabulary to convey his ideas.

Ivan Leonidov, project for the Proletarskii district palace of culture in Moscow, 1930

The changes which occurred in Leonidov’s professional thinking at the beginning of the thirties were the result of internal as well a external factors. The transition from conceptual and schematic competition designing to concrete briefs brought the necessity for taking account of real building conditions and a need for a more detailed working out of his designs, this naturally led to a transformation of the almost hygienic simplicity which characterized his compositions of the twenties; a shift away from his abstract orthogonalism and geometricism to demonstrations of a freer, more manifestly live formal synthesis. Amongst external factors affecting him was undoubtedly the strong opposition to constructivism and other generally “leftist” currents which arose in Soviet architecture during those years. By the middle of the thirties, these broader changes in Soviet architecture forced Leonidov too to address the historical heritage of both his own country and the rest of the world. The self-restraint and purity of the twenties became replaced in his work by a style of free interpretations. The critical turning point is usually seen as the competition for the Narkomtiazhprom building in Moscow. It was this design that really marked the appearance of elements that were new in his architectural vocabulary. There were new methods and techniques of composition, and they were continually being moved forward by transformations of the devices he had already mastered and by introduction of wholly new ones.

As I have already noted, the Narkomtiazhprom design was to become the prototype for most work in the next period of Leonidov’s oeuvre. In his compositional devices and his forms here, there are glances backwards as well as forwards. He took on board a great-deal that was new, whilst at the same time paying careful attention to the things he had achieved in the preceding years, striving through amalgamation of the two for a more intense saturation and richer polyphony of architectural vocabulary. It is therefore interesting and instructive to compare the two most famous projects, the Lenin Institute and Narkomiazhprom, which are separated by a mere, seven years in Leonidov’s life and development. It is easy enough to discover what they have in common. This is because the essence of both compositions is very clearly defined, as is always the case with Leonidov, by the interaction of independent architectural elements which are precisely and clearly delineated in space and whose role in the system as a whole is precisely designated. The tectonic starting point of each of them is emphasized as much as possible. The geometry of the plan has the utmost clarity, and the direction of the main axes is traditionally orthogonal.

From this point on, however, the projects have marked differences. The composition of the Narkomtiazhprom plan has been deprived of the centripetal dynamism so characteristic of that for the Lenin Institute. It is mono-directional, along the axis of Red Square, and statically placid by comparison. The vertical axis is strengthened in space not just by one tower, but by a cluster of three. Most importantly, though, the forms themselves have taken on more complex outlines, with parabolic curves used to define the geometrical volumes of the hall and of one of the towers, the three-petaled plan form for the other tower and the arch spanning the old established Nikol’skaia Street.

The architectural forms become more complex, but in the working out of detail they have also taken on a clearly material nature as metal, glass or stone. In this design Leonidov drew certain details very attentively, as he had attached a number of important compositional functions to them. All the metal structures are drawn with a filigree delicacy, and as in all his constructivist work, they are taken to the outside as an exoskeleton. These metal structures include the open-work “crown” of the square tower, the little balcony tribunes on the parabolic tower, and the round girder which supports the main volume of the hall. The details which manifest the individual character of each of the volumes and connect them to each other also create the unity between the new building and the architecture of the Kremlin, so rich in its silhouette and plastic quality. We see why the deliberate schematicism of his previous designs suddenly flowered into this abundance of compositionally important details: the main reason lies in the architectural environment within which the building was to stand.

Ivan Leonidov, Palace of Culture of the District of Moscow, Russia, Competition ElevationIvan Leonidov, view of the Columbus monument (1928)

If we are to judge by the architectural publications of those years, Leonidov’s contemporaries failed to understand his purpose and did not at all appreciate the building’s affinity with its historic surroundings. Only El Lissitzky, analyzing the results of the competition as a whole, referred favorably to Leonidov as the only entrant “who, as is evident from his series of drawings, tried to find a unity for the new complex [created by] the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and the new building.”10

The new compositional ideas which Leonidov brought to this design and actively developed in subsequent works found their realization also in the few things he did execute. He was beginning to be attracted to more balanced, more strictly axial compositions, and was clearly exploring a number of variations on this spatial device, interpreting it according to the size of the object and the conditions of its site. Linear compositions, probably inspired by the architecture of Italian Baroque villas, first made its appearance in a design for a cottage in the Kliuchiki village development, with axial symmetry controlling the basic solution of the general plan for the area, and the plan and elevation of the cottage itself. On a larger scale he worked out many similar compositions in his designs for the South Coast of the Crimea and the Greater Artek complex, turning steep relief to advantage with terraces. And finally he realized his interpretation of this Italian” theme when he built the terraced parkland steps for the Narkomtiazhprom sanatorium.

He turned ever more frequently to symmetry, but we find no complete symmetries in his designs — except of course in individual details. Even within the absolutely symmetrical facade of the Kliuchiki cottage the mural on the first-floor balcony serves to destroy its absolute control.

The link between the composition and plans of the Narkomtiazhprom building, and those of the complex for the Izvestiio newspaper enterprise, is very easily seen. The two designs are linked by the principle of the single dominating axis, about which their volumetric and spatial structures are developed. The Izvestiio design may at first sight seem an unlikely work for Leonidov. But even the figurative sculpture decorating the facade had already been present earlier on one of the Narkomtiazhprom details. Moreover the design was a commission from the convinced classicist Ivan Zholtovskii, which fact could well have had considerable influence on the character of the external decoration.

The basic features of the composition of Narkomtiazhprom recur in the design for the Monument to the Heroes of Perekop, especially in the version with the three obelisks. Here is the same stepped composition, extended podium and three towers: the same overall idea and a similar vocabulary of elements, but each played in different variations.

The second half of the thirties made a significant contribution to Leonidov’s oeuvre. His numerous designs and his occasional built works bore witness to his unflagging skill and his capacity to find an organic synthesis of forms which would not long before have seemed aesthetically incompatible.

52310_900 Ivan Leonidov, color sketch for the city of the sun (1940s-1950s)b

The character of Leonidov’s drawings and the presentation of his buildings also changed in the thirties. His sketches and drawings were now filled with a concrete content. They became far more colorful, more realistic, altogether more alive; the subjects appear in their real environment and are drawn from more normal and natural viewpoints.

The Narkomtiazhprom competition design was itself a striking witness of the changes. As previously, line remained the fundamental element in depiction of the architecture. The line was in either pencil or ink, and reached its highest expressiveness in the first drafts and sketches for the design. The majority of the plans, elevations and perspective projections of the complex were also done in a linear technique embellished by light shadings and color. In the overall ground plan color was used for its symbolic and conventional function, as a color coding. Elsewhere, as in the mural on the parabolic volume of the hall, its purpose is naturalistically decorative. The realistic nature of his submission was evident both in the truthful presentation of the environment, particularly in his montage of how the new structure would be seen within the river frontage of the Moscow Kremlin, and in the perspective drawings of the complex and its details. These perspectives were entirely straightforward in the way they were drawn from natural eye-level, although their foreshortenings were somewhat acute.

There is much in this design which is carried on from his previous experience, but new things are also added and combined with them. The polyphony of method correlates with the polyphony of forms. The suprematist precision of the general plan, for example, coexists happily with the casual delineations of the paths and greenery. The sharp constructivist foreshortening, the perspectives of the building details, have a completely realistic tone and color environment. In all this Leonidov uses the drawings to reinforce the hand-crafted, boldly sketched and painterly foundations of his approach. His model for the Narkomtiazhprom design was also considered at the time to be the latest word in representational techniques. The basic materials used were wood and paper, buttoned and white celluloid were also, applied and details were brightly cultured.

Ivan Leonidov's Narkomtiazhprom proposal (1934)

The original drawings for the Palace of Culture of a Collective Farm and for the cottage in Kliuchiki, which were done immediately after Narkomtiazhprom, can be seen as the continuation and development of his new representational style. Here too we see the transition from a schematic representation of the subject that turns it into a piece of graphics in its own right, to one that was naturalistically cultured and concerned with volume and space. The cottage elevation is a classic model of realistic architectural graphics synthesizing line, tone and color. As a demonstration of skill in the working out of all the smallest details, this sketch makes nonsense of the view widely held in the thirties that Leonidov was an architectural fantasist with no desire to engage in real design or building.

The projects for development of the South Coast of the Crimea and the Greater Artek area were done by Leonidov during his employment in the design studios of Narkomtiazhprom itself, and are even more conspicuous for their colorful and pictorial qualities and their direct intelligibility. The most striking is without doubt the panorama of the whole Southern shore of the Crimea, which was presented as a series of spreads placed end-to-end as a view of the whole coast. Only two sections of the panorama remain, which are remarkable not only for the pictorial and colorful nature of the depiction but for their chosen technique. For the first time here Leonidov made extensive use of plywood as a base on which to put his paint. The natural texture of the wood is then transmitted to the applied materials, and gives a particularly effective unity to the long seaward elevation of the Crimean coastline. Ribbons of sea and beach, where the texture of the wood is left in its natural form, run across the whole drawing. But in those places where he adds extra layers of paint to depict mountains, greenery and architecture, the warm tones of the wood shine through them. Just as formerly on the constructivist drawings, bright cultured details create additional flickerings on the surface of this architectural landscape created in tempera.

Leonidov turned one of the fragments of the general plan of the coast-the plan for the hill of Darsan which rises above Yalta — into a pictorial composition of genuine magic. The texture of the plywood gives relief to the earth on which the main objects — the two hills with the communal buildings dispersed over them — are made to stand out with bright flashes of red and blue. Fine white lines define the contours of these buildings which seem to be drowning in the deep and mysterious space of the picture.

The design for the Greater Artek area follows this painterly tradition. The only panel which has survived is a perspective of the Pioneer Palace complex, and was executed in a technique which very closely resembles that of icon painting. The general style of drawing which Leonidov used in working out his Greater Artek project is recorded in two small remaining scraps of tracing paper carrying fragments of the overall plan.

Leonidov’s architectural palette broadened consistently with time. In the thirties for example, he began boldly to add gold and silver paint to his basic colors and to use them side by side with contrasting hues and very fine nuances of tone, or to combine smooth surfaces with ones in relief. Nevertheless in all cases the material surface on which the representation is made was used not simply as a background for his future depiction, but as a spatial environment in its own right for the existence of the subject matter.

yeah_page_2 leonidov_ivan_ville_satellite_1958

Leonidov always tried to reveal and emphasize as much as possible the texture and color features of this background surface. In this respect, it is interesting to compare two variations of the facade for the editorial and publishing block of the Izvestiia newspaper. One is done on a plywood board and the other on tracing paper. In the former the natural texture and the golden color of the wood are embellished only be fleecy light clouds scudding across the sky. This is sufficient to evoke a feeling of the space in which the building is to stand — a space which he makes both complex in its plastic quality and disturbing in its feeling. In the latter variant, the smooth grey surface of the tracing paper becomes the embodiment of the lofty empty space of the sketch. Without disruption of either of these background surfaces, he has delineated the framed structures of the elevation by fine light lines, using whitewash and silver. As is often the case with Leonidov, the cultured details burn with extraordinary force against the background of local areas within the expansive planes.

The strengthening of the painterly dimension of Leonidov’s graphics can also be explained by the direct contacts he had had with artists themselves, particularly during that period when he was working in the Studio for Monumental Painting of the Soviet Academy of Architecture. This active harnessing to architectural ends of traditional methods of monumental painting, along with their stylistic and plastic characteristics, had other direct influences on the development of his graphic vocabulary. Thus accompanying the increasingly realistic depiction, we find increasing use of chiaroscuro, of surface texture in the brushwork, and of color.

Although the post-War part of Leonidov’s oeuvre is much closer in time to us than that of the thirties, let alone the twenties, a consideration of this later work comes up against some significant difficulties. Leonidov carried out various individual commissions, and he took part in competitions, but many of these designs remained incomplete and not one of them has ever been published, until now. Moreover he gradually moved away from architectural activity and worked as an artist and designer in fields like exhibitions. Despite this, the scraps and fragments of different projects which do remain, and the numerous architectural fantasies, show a vivid picture of how his work was evolving.

Despite the external differences between Leonidov’s earlier works and those of this period, his professional thought had changed little, although sometimes it is quite difficult to identify the pure forms we identify with his name in his brightly cultured and luxuriantly decorated sketches. He continued to use much of the familiar vocabulary from the thirties and even the twenties, but his favorite techniques and forms were given new intentions and meanings.

Undoubtedly Leonidov’s work of the forties and fifties was influenced by the general stylistic direction of Soviet architecture, which was oriented towards history. But in these years, as opposed to the thirties, he himself was more interested in ancient Russian models and in the architecture of the East Having no opportunity to plan large complexes or buildings, he concentrated his main attention on working out individual architectural themes and details. In designs which were done at the Academy of Architecture, he used whimsical combinations of forms that he had already tried out elsewhere, with new ones borrowed from history. And although many of these plans remind one somewhat of “variations on a theme” rather than of independent creations, Leonidov often achieved outstandingly imaginative and bold compositions in these works.

In the designs of this period there are many strange interminglings of themes and some shifts that are not entirely comprehensible. When working on real briefs Leonidov would use what he found there to create parallel sets of sketches for the City of the Sun, putting concretely conceived buildings into the semi-fantastical landscapes of his town of the future. Often, as before, he would repeat the same themes several times, playing them in different variations. The pyramidal roof of a little village club, decorated with the bonnet-shaped gables known as kokoshniki, was unexpectedly transformed into the magnificent conical Pagoda for the City of the Sun. Framed by an arcade, a vast cupola on a circular plan — t h a t favorite plan form of the twenties — became the center of his composition for the Moscow Circus building, one of several designs which are preserved from the fifties. Still Leonidov returned frequently to his favorite simple forms, continuing to assert their autonomy and architectural significance despite the camouflaging with new details. Parabolic cones attracted him particularly, for their monumentality, for their magnificence and upward, aspirational movement. They therefore appeared very commonly in his memorial projects: for the Stalingrad embankment it seems, and certainly for the Monument to the First Sputnik. Large parabolic-conical towers occur in almost every sketch related to the City of the Sun.

Leonidov’s work of the post-War years was not distinguished by any innovations of the significance of the Lenin Institute or the Narkomtiazhprom. But amidst the drawings for these projects of the Moscow Circus, the First Sputnik memorial and the City of the Sun there are masterpieces of composition and graphics that constitute equally worthy contributions to his oeuvre. His visions of a future city were perhaps the works that brought him closest to the kind of architecture he had dreamed about in his youth.

However Utopian the pictures of the City of the Sun may appear, the buildings with which he filled it were born of the imagination of an architect who was taking the opportunity to unite in one place everything that he had created so far. His sketches not only reiterate his personal vocabulary of forms; they develop the ideas further and imbue them with new meanings and purposes. Decorated as it is with sculpture and painting, the architecture of the City reveals an unusual diversity of three-dimensional invention, and of color.

The representations of this project can hardly be called drawings. They are dream pictures, romantic and poetic depictions of the City, its various groups of buildings, its streets, its individual details. Even the form of his presentation varies greatly, ranging from pencil drawings to panels done in the manner of icons, and to cultured models. Leonidov used and freely combined a wide range of different materials and techniques in order to create his image of the City as something permeated with sunlight and air, and all the most characteristic features of his representational language are to be found here.

Leonidov’s works of the forties and fifties can justifiably be regarded as works of art in their own right, although they include a considerable number of strictly architectural projects. Though differing in their themes and techniques, they are distinguished by their heightened sense of emotion, their tension and their enhanced expressiveness. There are several factors which contribute to this development, but the strengthening of the painterly foundation of his work is certainly among the most important. In these years Leonidov turned very frequently to his icon-painting technique, fully exploiting its potential for richness of color and form, but the same qualities can be found in small sketches done on paper as in these more solid paintings on wood. Whether the subject be the semifantastical, festive and almost Christmassy landscape of the Island of Flowers for Kiev, done in the Academy after the War, or the entirely realistic facade for a standardized village club brightly decorated “in the peasant style,” the execution is typically characterized by lightness, a certain sketch-like quality, and a natural easy confidence. There is also some exhibition work from the 1950s, notably that for the Soviet pavilion at the Brussels International Exhibition of 1958.

There is one further layer of work in Leonidov’s oeuvre: the notebooks from the thirties and the fifties with their little sketches in pencil and in ink. These too are concerned with architecture. Some of the sketches are very preliminary or tentative. In others we can readily guess at the projects which would have emerged from the ideas at the next stage. In all cases their language is of the simplest and most laconic, and their mastery of line is faultless.

Leonidov’s thinking on composition is closely linked with his philosophy of life and art and with those moral and aesthetic principles which he supported. Although he left no special theoretical tracts — he did not aspire to that — his work was consistently underpinned by a firm world-view that is the basis of his remarkable continuity of direction. This line of thinking, which runs through all his works and is often manifested before the work itself acquires specific function or meaning, embraces his opinions, passions and sympathies — everything that defines the profile of a unique personality.

Leonidov’s philosophical and ethical position, and his attitude to art, were integrally related, as he considered art an inalienable and inseparable part of life. At the foundation of his life-building aspirations lay the principal of activeness, both in life itself and in creative work, a belief in the necessity to dream, a thirst to transform the world and the individual personality, a faith in the creative mission of architecture. From all this derived Leonidov’s conception of man as a free dreamer and creator.

Many people in the twenties were attracted by the notion of “the architect as the organizer of life.” It attracted Leonidov too by its purposeful concern with transformation. In such a view the architect was seen as having the power not only to organize functions or space, but to influence the formation of new social patterns of living. In the design for the Magnitogosk area, Leonidov’s whole newly organized town is presented in terms of the contrast with the old and uncontrolled; there is great stress on the precise way different functional zones are distributed: the residential, the industrial and the transportation system linking them. In designs for clubs and other social buildings he revealed the latent opportunities for achieving a rational organization of labor, leisure and feeding — in short for the whole environment whose structure can influence the creation of the kind of person he admired: one who is active, physically strong, and hardy.

Ivan Leonidov, proposal for a high-rise in the linear city of Magnitogorsk (1930) Ivan Leonidov, proposal for a residential strip in the linear city of Magnitogorsk (1930)

This conceptual starting point dominated Leonidov’s works of the late twenties and early thirties. His determination to stress this underlying idea as strongly as possible often lead to a certain schematicism and to designs which were more symbols or ideograms than functioning organisms. Many are as much models of a principle as of a concrete proposition. Even the architect himself regarded them as conceptual designs, as ideas to be corrected and given increased precision in further development. In the early work of Le Corbusier, amongst others, we find many moments of this kind: his City for Three Million or the Plan Voisin are in effect nothing but such “drawn ideas.” Similarly Leonidov’s proposals for Magnitogorsk or the Proletarskii District Palace of Culture are first and foremost models of organization — in one case for a socialist town, in the other for the system of distributing “cultural services” to the population of one city district.

When there was need for the more concrete embodiment of an idea, Leonidov would do it with all the necessary professionalism. In the design for the Kliuchiki development, we see the abstract geometrical schema for Magnitogorsk taking on life and the characteristics of a particular site and topography, and therefore abounding in details. The second-round project for the Palace of Culture was likewise highly adapted to the detailed conditions of a particular site.

Leonidov’s aspiration was not just to be an organizer of life, but to invest the architecture with a stimulating cognitive and creative function. These were the qualities he sought to bring to a whole range of social and community buildings, regardless of their specific compositional or stylistic characteristics. Thus in the design for the Palace of Culture for a Collective Farm, of 1934, his ideas about “clubs of a new social type” are given architectural form with no less skill than in the more famous, and stylistically entirely different, constructivist works on that theme. The center of the collective farm is treated as a distinctive forum of knowledge and of culture, both of them highly necessary to such villages. In the Greater Artek project he proposed creating a special map of the world which would tell schoolchildren about the planet’s flora and fauna, about such themes as the great expeditions and the historical discoveries of new lands.

Leonidov, Ivan (Russian architect, 1902-1959) Culture Russian Title Linear City Project for Magnitogorsk Work Type Urban design Date 1930magnitogorsk copyIvan Leonidov, linear city Magnitogorsk proposal (1930)

Leonidov was able to realize some of his life-building ideas in such constructions as the Houses of Pioneers in Moscow and Kalinin, where many features of the interiors, in particular the large thematic panels, actively aroused in the child not only a healthy curiosity, but a thirst for creative knowledge.

The early part of Leonidov’s professional life had proceeded under the banner of an unquestioning acceptance of technology — of an enthusiasm that amounted almost to blind faith. A cultivation of the most advanced aspects of contemporary technology was one of the central tenets of architectural constructivism, and it can be found in all Leonidov’s designs of the late twenties and the early thirties. Here structures and technological equipment of various kinds are introduced into the architecture as extensively and explicitly as possible. They are openly manifested and celebrated. They are the predeterminants of the whole composition; they are its most active elements, and are regarded as the generators of entirely new architectural principles. Indeed the architecture itself becomes a symbol for the inventiveness of technology.

The projects of this period are saturated with forms deriving from technology, engineering and industrial design, all of them given a new architectural voice. The structural forms found in bridges, hangars, cooling towers, stratospheric balloons, air-balloons, all become legitimate elements of architectural form. Depictions of dirigibles, airplanes, radio masts all appear in architectural drawings as symbols of the technological achievements of the era and as expressions of its spirit. We know that Leonidov himself collected books on aeronautics and was particularly interested in dirigibles.

In the Lenin Institute design, the ideas of a well-regulated mechanism are expressed with maximum consistency. The lightness and mobility of the structures, facilitating the dynamic flow of the space and the changeability of form, the much emphasized openness of structure, all this provides a model of the technologically perfect mechanism. In the design for the Film Production Center, the supreme flexibility of the technological schema determines the whole spatial organization and the composition of the entire complex. In the various Club designs, an expanded system of audio-visual media is proposed to fulfill the role of “a living newspaper.” Similar methods are employed in the project for the Columbus Monument and supplant traditional architectural forms, transforming at their very roots all established conceptions of what a monument might be, and anticipating ideas of what Robert Venturi would later call “an architecture of information.” Only in the late sixties and early seventies would such concepts begin to have any genuine reality, and find expression in such concepts as that of the “center of constantly active information” underlying the Pompidou Center in Paris. Both Leonidov himself, and constructivism as a whole, were often criticized for an extreme aestheticizing of technology, and such critics would point to the very limited real opportunities for its application in architecture. Constructivists were likewise accused of rejecting traditions, of forgetting that any contemporary phenomenon is to a large extent a distillation of the past, and cannot possibly be totally removed from that context. Certainly Leonidov’s designs of the late twenties and early thirties made very open use of engineering forms, whilst filling them with an architectural content. Suffice it to point to the “hovering” auditorium of the Lenin Institute or the heavily emphasized industrial connotations of the cooling-tower form used for the hall of Narkomtiazhprom. But however significant might be the role of technology in providing shapes, in the end it was the poeticization that had the upper hand for Leonidov; the artistic dimension of the design process absorbed everything.

Later, despite notable changes in the stylistics of his work, he never ceased to be fascinated by the latest building materials and the structural forms they afforded. Studying their properties, their characteristics and the opportunities they opened up, he called them to the service of architecture not only in his designs, but in one of his rare excursions into print.11

It is possible to see the whole of Leonidov’s design career as a progression from technologically generated form to a vocabulary that is more organic and natural, but such an approach oversimplifies and even distorts the real picture. When proclaiming the links between architecture and technology he was not striving to increase their external similarities. Rather, he was following one of the key slogans of architectural constructivism which declared “Architects! Do not imitate the forms of technology, but learn the method of the engineering designer.” It had been proclaimed in a typographical vignette of his own design in their journal in 1926. Leonidov asserted that this principle was equally applicable to the world of natural form, affirming the necessity for the architect to have close contact with the natural world and even to subordinate himself to it. He was far from enthusiastic about the copying of forms from this field either, though from the second half of the thirties he studied their structure assiduously. These enthusiasms left a clear legacy in several of his works, in particular perhaps the Crystal Fountain and the design for the Island of Flowers. In his mature years Leonidov not only studied the laws regulating the connections between natural structures and their external forms, but was also inspired by their unique quality of being able to adapt to change. He sought to develop this natural life-sustaining flexibility in his own architectural forms — it was precisely in order to acknowledge the possibilities for growth and development that he so often left his projects unfinished.

Ivan Leonidov, mobile commune

In the majority of his early constructivist designs, the mark of nature takes on a rather abstract form. Relief, greenery, and water are often present in the drawings, but often without concrete delineation. They make themselves felt as something global rather than specific. The architecture encroaches into this natural environment by making a contrast with the precise geometry of its shapes. Existing in a fairly autonomous way, the architecture relies on a more Euclidean geometry: the predominant form-making principle is the geometry of construction. Even when Leonidov’s work had moved away from the strictly suprematist compositions, this principle remained dominant. With him the mutual influence of artificial and natural forms was as a rule based precisely on this principle of contrast. It was a union of mutually complementary opposites.

This contrast, which can be felt most strongly in Leonidov’s constructivist designs, did not prevent him from achieving close and impressive compositional links between architecture and landscape, using in particular the relief of the site. In the Lenin Institute design, the whole complex is set out in the Lenin Hills taking precise account not only of the nature of the incline on the site, but also of the characteristics of the silhouette it would present when viewed from the center of the city, towards which it faced.

Close links with the landscape are more strongly felt in Leonidov’s later designs, which were executed for particular sites with unique natural features. The schemes for the development of the South Coast of the Crimea and Greater Artek are most significant in this respect. Stretching out and unfolding along the shore, his compositions are calculated to given an integral, panoramic perception from the sea. At the same time they are developed in depth into individual complexes of features, and into terraces running down towards the sea. In both designs, great attention is paid to working out the details of parkland which will occupy the whole shoreline. In making these parks into something active, he makes extensive use of natural materials: the soil, lawns, flowers, bushes, trees, to form a three-dimensional ornamentation to the surface of the earth itself. When planning these parks he took into account the rich recreational potential of the local flora, both as an object of admiration in its own right, and as the most benevolent of environments for learning about nature as a whole. To him it was an indispensible feature of the full education that people should have the opportunity to make contact with nature and cooperate with it in some way. The project in which he developed this idea most fully was that for the Island of Flowers to stand in the Dnepr River at Kiev.

Only once was Leonidov able to realize his principles on the inter-relationship of architecture and nature in a built project: in the landscaped flight of steps down the hillside of the Narkomtiazhprom sanatorium in Kislovodsk. It was a plan on which he worked for a long time, feeling his way towards a solution. What might have been a simple descent became a branching system of routes making their way at different paces down the slope and meeting in the open amphitheater before going off into the park. By the bottom of the cascade of steps, the monumental forms which characterize the top area have become transformed into a simple path of trodden earth. The architecture initially draws attention to itself loudly, but then dissolves imperceptibly into nature.

Illustration from Modern Architecture by Ivan Leonidov (1930)

Very conscious that the natural world was the only receptacle for human life, Leonidov looked to it as the unique source of life-giving and life-creating energy. He believed in the possibility of creating an architecture which would be filled with sunlight, fresh air and the scents of greenery and flowers. In towns therefore, such as Magnitogorsk and Igarka, he planned glass towers bathed in air and permeated with sunlight; he gave clubs and children’s institutions large green spaces with swimming pools and natural playgrounds; he replaced the usual partition walls of office buildings by screens of greenery, and created roof gardens — all this maintained the importance of man’s links with the natural world. The result was a highly individual architectural interpretation of a theme characteristic of the prevalent world-view of his time. Thus at the end of his life, when doing designs for the City of the Sun, Leonidov always included in them a hovering golden sphere to symbolize the Sun itself as source of all life and existence. In this way he maintained the significance of nature as something whose power did not diminish man, for in obeying her he was following the voice of life itself.

In Leonidov’s creative philosophy, an important place was accorded to art as the conveyor of moral, ethical and aesthetic values. To him art was not something for consumption or entertainment, but a source of educative and transforming power. What he valued in painting was therefore not its decorative potential but its creative power. This was perhaps the basis of his general lack of sympathy with the theater. His views were akin to those of the poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, who saw theater as something that destroyed contact with a work of art “like a third person at a lovers’ rendezvous.”

In life and in art Leonidov valued self control and restraint; his striving for a pure simplicity was on occasion the basis for accusations of primitivism and schematicism. His opponents either could not, or would not understand his method of designing. A sensible curtailment of the number of details in his drawings, for example, was the result on one hand of the desire to express his fundamental ideas with the greatest possible clarity, and on the other, of consideration for the limitations and constraints of the graphic image. In elevational drawings of the Tsentrosoiuz project, for example, the storey heights are indicated only by the finest of lines. Andrei Leonidov recalls his father’s explanation that “if all the window transoms had been depicted, the image would have been much too florid.” Such simplification was equally the result of his conviction that details were something to be worked out at a later, more concrete stage of the project. Familiarity with Leonidov’s later work, and knowledge of how it was executed, show that he not only had a great interest in detail, but full mastery of the professional skills required to carry them into practice if required. There is emphatic evidence of this in the interior finishings and equipment for the Moscow and Kalinin Houses of Pioneers, as well as in the detailing of the Kislovodsk steps.

To Leonidov, art was the natural accompaniment of human life. In his younger years particularly, he therefore spoke out sharply against professional art which was done to order as paid employment. Being an architect — and architecture by its very nature is dependent for its existence upon commissions — he strove to maintain the greatest possible autonomy in his views, regarding freedom and creativity as the two most important blessings of human existence. He would often change and reformulate his design briefs, proposing his own counter-projects based on a new version. He always felt innovation to be an organic feature of art, an “elemental creative necessity.” Even as a student, he tried to avoid using ready made devices and techniques. Fascinated by independence, he suggested improving the training program which did not promote the capacity for invention, and indeed threatened “to atrophy this important side of creativity.”12

Ivan Leonidov, View of the diploma project model for the Lenin Institute and Library, Moscow, U.S.S.R. (now Russia) 1927

At all stages of his life he strove for an individual renewal of the language of architecture. When creating a series of designs around a common principle, he would always complete the series with a work which brought them all together, concentrating all the thinking into one statement. The Lenin Institute was the climactic project of his first period. In the second it was the Narkomtiazhprom, and in the third the City of the Sun.

While considering innovation to be an essential element of the creative process, Leonidov strove for synthesis, never separating innovations out into conceptual, technical and formal ones, although in some works one or other category is given particular prominence. Thus in the design for the Columbus Monument, the conceptual element has greatest importance: the new notion of what a monument might be. We are no longer dealing with the traditional concept whereby visual forms document the significance of the person or the events concerned. Rather we are dealing with a source of broadcast information that will cover the whole world. The traditional, dead monument is turned, in Leonidov’s own words, into “a living organism.” At the same time, from the compositional point of view the project followed the stylistic characteristic of the period.

Leonidov felt the larger pulse of his era keenly. He was deeply concerned with questions of how architecture could master the force of gravity: the theme of the hovering sphere began with the Lenin Institute and continued to the end of his life in the City of the Sun. The notions of architectural dynamics, of the changeability of space and. form in response to changes in function, all this found an original incarnation in his designs. He was one of the most talented founders of “dynamic architecture,” many elements of which have become firmly incorporated into the mainstream architectural vocabulary of the twentieth century. But however innovatory his work may have been — and in the twenties and thirties it was particularly so — we can never speak of a break with tradition and the past in this connection. Even his most “leftist” designs manifest a historical continuity in their methods and their compositional techniques. This is true of the suprematist series, where the spatial and geometrical framework of the architecture has been maximally cleaned of the superfluous, and revealed; it is equally true of his later works, where the external attributes of historical styles can be more readily identified. In his Narkomtiazhprom design, for example, there are no direct historical references, but the link with tradition is consciously present through compositional analogies with its surroundings.

Leonidov’s art, though forward-looking, never broke its ties with the past. His sources, even at a quick glance, reveal themselves with precision despite reflection through the spirit of the times and the personal preferences of the architect himself. Some can be identified quite definitely; about others we can only make assumptions.

No artist’s work develops in isolation; it is inevitably shaped by many and various external influences. Any particular work may be the product of deep and essentially hidden links with some previous artistic phenomenon, or it may have been born of a fleeting enthusiasm. It has conceptual predeterminants as well as direct formal precedents. In Leonidov’s work we can see something of these processes, for the sources of his work include both long-term artistic and philosophical influences, and short-lived enthusiasms for particular devices or details. At the same time, there are brief impulsive contacts with a specific work or a person or a book. The influences are different at different stages of his life.

It is quite clear that the innovative artistic environment of the VKhUTEMAS-VKhUTEIN where he trained and later taught, as well as his close contacts with Aleksandr Vesnin, had a decisive influence on his first designs, in particular that for the Izvestiia printing house. The aesthetic language of those works is relatively limited, but similar self-limitations, which are characteristic of both suprematism and constructivism, did not prevent Leonidov from creating such an original work as the Lenin Institute. Indeed it was one of the greatest achievements of the young architectural school. Naturally the plan here followed the basic principles of constructivist design, but the highly individual aesthetic and formal treatment raised it above any routinized canons to a level of perfection rarely attained in such youthful work.

The suprematist and constructivist threads dominate the work of Leonidov’s early period, but the range of external influences was becoming wider all the time. He was well familiar with the ideas and aesthetic principles of such leading Western architects as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, whose designs had been published in the Soviet professional press. Indeed such journals as Building Industry [Stroitel’naio promyshlennost] and the constructivists’ own Modern Architecture, presented the achievements of Western architecture and engineering very extensively. Amongst the young leftist” avant-garde, such work enjoyed enormous popularity. It is not difficult to see stylistic echoes of Corbusier in Leonidov’s work. The competition project for the House of Government in Alma Ata is perhaps his most obviously Corbusian design. As already mentioned, Leonidov met Corbusier in Moscow several times, and indeed the family archives contain a snapshot of Corbusier which Leonidov took at the Moscow Zoo. The influence of Mies’ work perhaps extended for longer and ran deeper, through Leonidov’s whole period of simple geometrical forms and of his enthusiasm for notions of universal space.

With an artist’s keen eye, Leonidov sought out the motifs he needed in other forms of art too: from Gauguin, Malevich, and Léger, for example, in painting; or from photography, whose sharp foreshortenings he used in the drawings for his buildings. Several photographic devices from Erich Mendelsohn’s two books America, and Russia Europe and America, were used by Leonidov as compositional prototypes when drawing up the Narkomtiazhprom project and the United Nations complex, and in his exhibition design work. Both these books were extremely popular in Russia in the twenties.

The second half of the thirties was dedicated to active use of Classical, and predominantly Greco-Italian models. Leonidov’s designs for the south coast of the Crimea and the Kislovodsk steps bear very precise marks of the influence from these Classical models. At this stage, the experience of his direct predecessors and contemporaries took second place in his work to the historical experience of Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome; of the Italian Renaissance masters, and of the Baroque. From this vast baggage of world architecture Leonidov chose those themes which were closest to his predilections and interpreted them freely. Diverse variations of Greek amphitheaters, the linear-terrace compositions of Baroque parks and villas, literally fill his sheets of designs for the Crimea and Greater Artek, with individual areas evoking such famous models as the Villa d’Este at Tivoli or the Villa Farnese in Caprarola.

In his works of the forties and fifties, medieval Russian motifs often appear, and one feels his passion for the architecture of the East: of India, China and Japan. The enormous conical buildings of the City of the Sun are simultaneously reminiscent of the tall Russian tent-roofed [shatrovye] churches and of Buddhist pagodas. Leonidov’s mode of interpretation in these cases is based on profound and direct links with the past. They are more obvious in the pyramids and the amphitheaters, and less easily perceived in the rostral columns which he so much loved. The compositional structure of the circular tower in the Narkomtiazhprom complex, for example, is essentially that of a rostral column.

In Leonidov’s work of this period, however, we also meet direct quotations: there is the “Egyptian” portico of the Palace of Culture for the Collective farm — the planning of Darsan Hill in Yalta to resemble the Acropolis in Athens; the window embrasures of the Iaroslavl church of John the Golden Mouthed [Zlatoust] a very characteristic medieval Russian form which is featured in the elevational design of his building for Pushkin Street, Moscow.

As in the work of any artist, concrete events in his life, the books he reads and the people he meets, will leave traces alongside those of purely artistic phenomena The environment is after all what nurtures the individuality. In this connection Leonidov’s peasant origins and his direct contact with nature in his childhood undoubtedly influenced the formation of his world-view, just as the Vesnin influence too left its mark.

In his youth, Leonidov was particularly fascinated by books on aeronautics. In the thirties, at the period when he was working on the design for the Crimean coast eye witnesses reported that a copy of Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur, published in Leipzig in 1904, never left his drawing board. It was a book he adored, and traces of his enthusiasm can be seen in many of his sketches and drawings. He loved poetry, and was particularly fond of Mikhail Lermontov. Among his contemporaries he had a high regard for Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Maiakovskii, and for Sergei Esenin. He often used to read Maiakovskii aloud.

Leonidov Tsentrosoiuz

In the complex project for the City of the Sun, which engaged him for so many years, it is from Campanella’s book of the same name that he derived the initial impulse. He probably first became acquainted with it in the middle thirties. Certainly he would later turn to it frequently, and many of the Italian’s ideas — even some concrete descriptions of parts of the town — are interpreted in Leonidov’s general design work of the later thirties, as well as in the City of the Sun project itself.

We find direct echoes of Campanella’s ideas, and live images from his town, in the Greater Artek designs, where the retaining walls of the mountain terraces were not only decorated with bas-reliefs and paintings, but also told the story of the structure of the world, its history and geography. In Campanella there were just such walls, in seven circles that formed the town. It is possible that some of Leonidov’s ideas about education and upbringing were also borrowed from the Italian teacher, in particular those based on the importance of children having contact with nature, and on their being trained in self control and restraint. However, ideas akin to these can also be found in writings of Leo Tolstoy, whose work and thought deeply interested Leonidov.

We can also find direct formal analogies: Leonidov has a sketch of the City of the Sun shaped as a round pyramid, for example. Whilst it is true that there are more than seven steps in this pyramid — and in Campanella’s description the structure of the town was like Copernicus’ solar system with its seven circles of planetary movement — the parallels are very obvious.

Yet Leonidov paid most attention not to the descriptive parts, but to the philosophical content of Campanella’s book. In this respect his thinking is like that of Corbusier, in his Ville Radieuse, and of other ideal-city concepts which abounded in the twenties and thirties. In Campanella’s town the inhabitants honor the sun above everything else, calling it “the face and living image of God from whom light, warmth and life.”13 For Leonidov the formal and symbolic link between the town and the sun was strengthened by the representation of a golden sphere shining over everything: it was an idea that he said came to him when he was at the front, in the War, and for lack of paper was trying to fix his vision of the future city in his visual memory.

Leonidov’s life was far from straightforward. It spanned the whole gamut of experiences that can befall a creative artist: extraordinary triumph in his youth; attacks on his work and a personal struggle for vindication of his ideas and principles; a period of complete professional oblivion. Then there came a posthumous renaissance and rehabilitation, with recognition from a whole new generation.

Ivan Leonidov, plans for the Film Studio competition, Moscow, 1927 or later PH1989-0012-044 copy Ivan Leonidov, bird's-eye axonometric drawing for the Film Studio competition, Moscow 1927 or later copy

The happiest and most productive time of his life was probably his youth. A brilliant series of designs made the young architect recognized as one of the most talented designers of his generation. His works enjoyed unusually high levels of popularity both at home and abroad, where there was particular interest in that Soviet work which most clearly reflected the innovatory social and artistic ideas of those years.14

Leonidov managed to achieve a great deal. In 1934 when the competition for the Narkomtiazhprom building took place, he was only 32 years old. The level of his achievement in that project was undoubtedly the result of a most unusual talent and diligence. It owed a great deal, too, to his belief in his own creative powers and in the revolutionary, transforming spirit of the times, which led to a particularly productive period in the general condition of art and artists’ methods of work. It was in these years that many of Leonidov’s innovatory ideas were first proposed and tried out, thence to become part of the larger heritage of world architectural thought. It is not part of our brief here to evaluate Leonidov’s contribution comparatively or to attribute relative degrees of novelty to the various dimensions of it. It is apparent however that the novelty of his social thinking and his aesthetic innovations are amongst the weightiest of his contributions to the architecture of this century. It was well after the Second World War — indeed towards the later sixties — that these qualities of his work became rediscovered, and were supplemented in the public understanding by a rediscovery of their formal and graphic richness.15 In the Soviet Union and the West alike, his works then became an indispensible part of all major studies on the history of twentieth century architecture.

Leonidov dedicated his whole life to architecture — whether through his conceptual designs of the twenties, his real projects of the thirties or his Utopias of the fifties. He began from a dream and returned to it again at the end of his life. Despite the external stylistic diversity of his designs, it is possible to discern in them a clear inner line, linking his initial works with his concluding ones. At the end of his life he tried to consolidate this common idea, embracing themes from the different periods of his work into the design for the City of the Sun. Gathered together, they bear witness to his burning passion for pure geometry, to his love for Russian architecture, to his enthusiasm for the elegant graphics of the East and to his peasant’s love for bright and diverse colors. The late works remind us of an important facet of his creative urge: of the striving for what is elevated and eternal. His symbol for this became the conical form rising to the sky under a hovering solar sphere.

Leonidov’s work not only reflected the times in which he lived; it also displayed features characteristic of himself, as someone who had emerged from the ordinary people. We see his ability to dream; his openness; his thirst for the infinite. All of them were simultaneously the cause of many of his life’s tribulations, and the root of the genius in the works he created.

In Whitman’s terms Ivan Leonidov performed a great feat in life: he created a great deal as well as suggesting much to others. Few poets achieve more.


1 I. Aleksandrov & S. Khan-Magomedov, Ivan Leonidov, Moscow, 1971, p. 6.
2 The city of St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and became Leningrad in 1924.
3 Problemy istorii sovetskoi arkhitektury [Problems of the History of Soviet Architecture], Moscow, 1985, pp. 105-106.
4 OSA, the Union of Contemporary Architects [Ob’edinenie Sovremennykh Arkhitektorov] was an independent architectural group formed by architects of constructivist sympathies under Aleksandr Vesnin and Moisei Ginzburg in the very end of 1925. From 1926 to 1930 it published the only substantial and purely architectural journal of that period in the Soviet Union, called Modern Architecture [Sovremennaia Arkhitektura], commonly known as SA.
5 For a discussion of the exhibition in English, see: Irina Kokkinaki, “The First exhibition of Modern Architecture in Moscow,” Architectural Design, 1983, number 5/6, pp. 50-59.
6 For a discussion of this competition see: Catherine Cooke, “Ivan Leonidov: Vision and Historicism,” Architectural Design, 1986, number 6, pp. 12-21.
7 Several of Leonidov’s designs for interiors were realized, but they have not been preserved. These were interiors for some sanatorium accommodation in Kislovodsk: for a study in the Communist Academy in Moscow; for the Chaigruziia [Georgian Tea] sanatorium; for Houses of Pioneers in Moscow and Kalinin.
8 Aleksandrov & Khan-Magomedov, Ivan Leonidov, p. 99.
9 In Russian, the words for “sphere” and “circle” have a semantic burden of association with concepts of “community,” in the sense of “a community of like-minded people,” a “sphere of dissemination,” etc.
10 L. Lisitskii [El Lissitzky]. Forum sotsialisticheskoi Moskvy [The Forum of Socialist Moscow], Arkhitektura SSSR, 1934, number 10, p. 4.
11 See: I. Leonidov. “Palitra arkhitektora [The Palette of the Architect],” Arkhttektura SSSR, 1934, number 4, pp. 32-33.
12 TsGALI [Central State Archives of Literature & Art], fond 681, opus 2, ed. khr. 177, p. 124.
13 Kampanella [Campanella], Gorod sol’ntsa [City of the Sun], Moscow-Leningrad, 1937, p. 100.
14 For detail on this see: Irina Kokkinaki, Vliame sotsial’nykh idei sovetskoi arkhitektury na tvorchestvo zarubezhnykh arkhitektorov v mezhvoennyi period [The influence of Soviet architecture’s social ideas on the work of foreign architects in the inter-war period],” Problemy teoru i istorn arkhitektury [Problems of theory and history of Architecture], Moscow 1973, and other articles by the same author.
15 Leonidov’s work was first given renewed prominence in Western architectural literature by Anatole Kopp in 1967, who devoted a climactic chapter of his pioneering study Ville et Revolution: Architecture et Urbanisme Sovietiques des Annees Vingt, to “Une Nouvelle Etape: Ivan Leonidov.” (Pans. 1967. pp. 197-210).

6 thoughts on “Ivan Leonidov: Artist, dreamer, poet

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