The brothers Vesnin

Vesnin brothersss vesnininVesnins' childhood home

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.

Unknown Portrait of Leonid Vesnin, Soviet Union ca. 1928Unknown Portrait of Victor Vesnin, Soviet Union after 1925Aleksandr Vesnin, 1934 Continue reading

The Vesnin brothers’ Likachev Palace of Culture (ZIL) in Moscow, 1930-1936

The Vesnin brothers' ZIL Palace of Culture in Moscow, 1931

The Vesnin brothers’ ZIL Palace of Culture in Moscow, 1931

Conference room inside the Vesnin brothers' ZIL Palace of Culture in Moscow, 1931.

Conference room inside the Vesnin brothers’ ZIL Palace of Culture in Moscow, 1931.

Edward Clark, photo for LIFE magazine with the Vesnins' Palace of Culture in the background, 1955 Edward Clark, photo for LIFE magazine with the Vesnins' Palace of Culture in the background, 1955a The Vesnins' ZIL Palace interior with Lenin statue, 1937 The Vesnins' ZIL Palace interior with stairs and Lenin, 1937 The Vesnins' ZIL Palace theater interior, 1934 The Vesnins' ZIL Palace, 1938 The Vesnins' ZIL Palace, 1949 The Vesnins' ZIL Palace, 1963 ZIL palace of culture photo 1930 ZIL palace of culture photo 1931 ZIL palace of culture photo 1935 ZIL palace of culture photo 1935a ZIL palace of culture photo 1937 ZIL palace of culture photo 1938 ZIL palace of culture photo 1953 ZIL palace of culture photo 1955 ZIL palace of culture ZIL palace of culture1 ZIL palace of culture2 ZIL palace of culture3 ZIL palace of culture4 ZIL palace of culture5 ZIL palace of culture6 ZIL palace of culture7 ZIL palace of culture8 ZIL palace of culture9 ZIL palace of culture10 ZIL palace of culture11 ZIL palace of culture12 ZIL palace of culture14 ZIL palace of culture16 ZIL palace of culture19 ZIL theater ZIL theater1 ZIL banner ZIL leaving Vesnins ZIL ZIL palace of culture61

Soviet avant-garde architectural negatives (mid-1920s to early-1930s)

Blueprint abstractions (all blueprints, really, are anticipatory abstractions) of modernist building projects by Soviet architects Ivan Leonidov, Leonid Vesnin, Aleksandr Vesnin, and Nikolai Krasil’nikov.

From Sovremennaia arkhitektura [Modern Architecture], 1930 (no. 5, pgs. 2-3):

In publishing projects for the Palace of Culture to be built on the Simonov Monastery site as discussion material, the editors of SA observe that not one of them provided a generally and entirely satisfactory solution to the problem. The arguments which have developed around these projects in the press, higher education establishments, and in public debates have mainly emphasized the design submitted by I. Leonidov, and as a result have come to assume the character of an undisguised persecution and baiting of the latter.

The editors of SA are perfectly well aware of the shortcomings of certain of I. Leonidov’s projects: ignoring the economic situation today at the same time as indulging in certain elements of aestheticism. All these features are undoubtedly a minus in Leonidov’s work.

Architectural blackprints.


But the critics of Leonidov’s work totally fail to see what from our standpoint is a great plus in it, which for all these shortcomings makes it in certain respects better and more valuable than the work of his competitors.

…The editors of SA, whilst recognizing that some of the accusations made against him are correct (abstractness, schematicism, etc.) consider that despite this the works of Leonidov are highly valuable as material of an investigative and experimental character, and they most forcefully protest against the groundless persecution of him.

The editors of Modern Architecture.

Soviet Constructivist Architecture – Blueprints and Realizations

The following pictures are examples of architecture built in the Soviet Constructivist style, a style founded by the Vesnin brothers (Aleksandr, Leonid, and Viktor) along with Moisei Ginzburg between 1923-1925.  Officially, the Society of Modern Architects (OSA) was the main organ for all Constructivist architecture.  However, I have also included pieces which clearly exemplify the Constructivist style, even if the architects involved were not technically members of OSA.  Both blueprints and photographs of the eventual realizations of their plans are shown here:

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Leonid Sabsovich, Urbanism, and the Socialist City [Соцгород] (1929-1931)

Sabsovich’s “The USSR in (literally ‘after’) 15 Years”

In July 1929, the economist Leonid Sabsovich sparked a debate regarding the future of Soviet urbanism with an article he wrote for Плановое Хозяйство (Planned Economy), entitled «Проблема города» (“The Problem of the City”).  Sabsovich was convinced that the major urban centers of the USSR were overcrowded and overpopulated; they needed to be reduced to a more manageable size, while preserving the industrial base they provided.  At the same time, he considered the countryside to be far too provincial and culturally isolated to remain in the state it was in at that point.  So Sabsovich proposed instead a uniform distribution of the population at regular intervals, of interconnected “socialist cities” — both industrial cities and “agro-cities.”  These would be evenly populated, with between thirty and fifty thousand inhabitants each.

Sabsovich’s position came to be called the “urbanist” vision of Soviet municipal reformation.  The widely-respected group of modernist architects — the brothers Leonid, Aleksandr, and Viktor Vesnin — endorsed his proposal.  They all saw Sabsovich’s proposal as a way to overcome what Marx, Engels, and Lenin had termed “the antithesis between town and country.”  Reduce the size of the filthy, noisy, and overcrowded mega-cities, Sabsovich argued, and disperse the population into new municipal units that could still maintain their industrial productivity.  Conversely, these measures would reorganize the largely peasant population of the various Soviet Republics and grant them access to the culture, education, and opportunity that larger towns would make available.  Quite ambitiously, Sabsovich thought that the entire population of the USSR could be redistributed accordingly within a period of ten years — or two five-year plans.  He thus wrote a wildly utopian book under the title of СССР через 10 лет (The USSR in 10 Years), elaborating his vision and stressing the practical feasibility of the plan.  Later, he would revise this figure to a more modest (but still outlandish) fifteen years, and stressed the central importance of this goal to the greater project of social transformation under communism.

Against Sabsovich’s notion of the middle-path between town and country, the sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich and the renowned Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg would oppose their idea of “disurbanism,” abandoning the notion of centralized resettlement altogether, advancing instead their notion of a “linear city.”  This would lead to the first major split in the editorship of the journal Современная архитектура (Modern Architecture), as Ginzburg and the Vesnins for the first time found themselves at odds with one another.  Luckily, by then, the position of main editor of the magazine had passed on to Roman Khiger, so the one side did not totally drown out the other.  Khiger clearly sided with Ginzburg and Okhitovich, however, and so Sabsovich was forced to promote his viewpoint from the pages of Плановое Хозяйство and the various books he managed to publish through Генплан (Genplan, the central planning agency of the Soviet Union at the time).  The Urbanist-Disurbanist dispute would continue through until 1931, when both sides were reigned in for utopian speculation.  At that point, a number of foreign architects — Le Corbusier and André Lurçat from France, and Bruno Taut, Hannes Meyer, and Ernst May from Germany — were called in to assist in the process of planning Soviet urbanism.  Their presence would in turn become unwelcome by 1937, at the height of the Stalinist terror, when the state would hand down the order that all foreign experts exit the country, under suspicion of “sabotaging” Soviet progress.

The following is the original journal article that sparked the whole controversy, reproduced in its entirety:

Леонид Сабсович – «Проблема города» – Плановое Хозяйство – (1929) – № 7

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism


An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.