It’s rare enough for a family to produce one genius. Two is even more rare. One thinks of the romantic literary critics Karl and August Schlegel, the brothers William and Henry James, and maybe the basketball siblings Reggie and Cheryl Miller. A family with three geniuses is almost unheard of. Sure, there were the Brontë sisters. But only Charlotte lived long enough to really make a name for herself. For the first few decades of the twentieth century, however, there was one family that dominated Russian and Soviet architectural production: the Vesnins.
Leonid, Viktor, and Aleksandr Vesnin — brothers born in 1880, 1882, and 1883, respectively — were each trained in the traditional Beaux-Arts style that was standard within the academy at the time, yet would come to embrace the emerging avant-garde movement in building. More than that, though. They played a pivotal part in defining the movement, as well.
Particularly Aleksandr, whose abilities outshone those of his older brothers, made a name for himself early on as a painter of some talent. Vesnin came under the influence of Kazimir Malevich’s suprematist school of abstract, mystical geometry. Eventually he went on to design a number of monumental street displays for festivals and street parades during the revolution, between 1919 and 1923. Here he collaborated with the great artist Liubov Popova, who along with Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, and Varvara Stepanova were beginning to form the constructivist current in modern art.
At this point, he began to work on stage design in conjunction with Popova. They worked together on a project for Vsevolod Meirkhol’d’s play The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) and a production of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Both sets were groundbreaking in terms of their mobility, scale, and artistic composition, fully functional for the proscenium or surrounded by an audience on all sides. Some of the futurists and constructivists of the early 1920s advocated bringing art and live theater into factories themselves, as part of their general program of collapsing art into life.
Beginning in 1924, Aleksandr rejoined his brothers Viktor and Leonid for a competition entry for a proposed Palace of Labor in Moscow. El Lissitzky reflected in 1929 on the context and content of their submission, having had time to assess its significance:
In 1923, Soviet architecture was presented with its first new task. A plan was advanced to build a massive complex in the center of Moscow, a so-called “Palace of Labor,” for the new collective ruler, the worker. It was to serve for large congresses, mass rallies, meetings, theatrical productions, and so on. The task was as colossal as were the times. However, time had yet to produce a crystallization of definite architectural concepts. Thus, most of the proposed designs were amorphous and fragmented conglomerations, drawing their inspiration both from the past and from the mechanistic present, and based to a large degree on literary rather than architectural ideas. The design of the three brothers Vesnin marks the first step away from destruction toward new construction. By elevating a closed plan by means of an exposed reinforced concrete frame, a clear stereometric volume is produced. The whole is still conceived as an isolated, single object, independent of urban design considerations. The compulsion to rely on columnar organization remains pervasive. The complex is crowned by a romantic allusion to radio-tower technology, and the large space designed to accommodate 8,000 persons is still completely conventional. Nevertheless, this design represents the first attempt to create a new form for a social task that in itself was still ill-defined at the time. The ensuing period offered an increasing number of more concrete tasks, their purpose and aim becoming gradually more defined, and what was accomplished improved accordingly.
In 1924, the brothers A.A. and V.A. Vesnin worked out a design for the office building of the newspaper Leningradskaia Pravda. The building lot measured a mere 6 × 6 meters. The design of this building represents a characteristic solution in a period yearning for glass, steel, and concrete. All accessories — which on a typical street are usually tacked onto the building — such as signs, advertising, clocks, loudspeakers, and even the elevators inside, have been incorporated as integral elements of the design and combined into a unified whole. This is the aesthetic of constructivism.
Moving on from this competition, the Vesnins continued to work with one another on further plans. From the Arkos building to the Likachev Palace of Culture, the Palace of Soviets, and People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry [Narkomtiazhprom], the Vesnins blazed a trail across all the major concourses over the next decade.