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. Continue reading

The skyscraper in the Old World

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the


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Perhaps no better way exists of grasping what the American skyscraper is not than by studying how European culture has attempted to assimilate and translate into its own terms, especially in the years immediately following the First World War, that paradox of the Metropolitan Age. The skyscraper as a “typology of the exception”: the first elevator buildings in Manhattan — from the Equitable Life Insurance Building of Gilman & Kendall and George B. Post (1868-70) to Post’s mature works [1] — are real live “bombs” with chain effects, destined to explode the entire real estate market. The systematic introduction of the mechanical elevator, equalizing the price of rents at various floors of commercial buildings, levels in a single blow the existing economic values and creates new and exceptional forms of revenue. Immediately, the “control” of such an explosive object presents itself as an urgent problem — even if there ensues, just as immediately, a clear renunciation of any regulation of the economic effects. The entire typological elaboration that, first in New York and then in Chicago, lies at the heart of the structural inventions of architects like Post, Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Holabird & Roche explicitly tends toward a visual control of all that which now appears as “anarchic individuality,” a mirror of the “heroic” phase of the entrepreneurship of the Age of Laissez-Faire.[2]

81 calandra 02

Winston Weisman has quite correctly emphasized the central role played by Post in the formation of the typology of the nineteenth-century skyscraper.[3] In many ways the work of Post takes an opposite path from that of Sullivan; nevertheless, Sullivan owes a great deal to the until now undervalued New York architect. In Post’s U-, “tree-,” and tower-shaped structures, there already emerges quite clearly that aspect of the skyscraper phenomenon that the European interpretations tend to overlook: namely, that it is exactly by embodying the laws of the concurrent economy and, afterwards, of the corporate system, that the skyscraper becomes an instrument — and no longer an “expression” — of economic policy, finding in this identity with economic policy its own true “value.” Only after the typological and technological experiments of the last decades of the nineteenth century have exhausted their provisional tasks, setting into position repeatable structures, will the attribution of the “surplus value” of language to these structures manifest itself — correctly — as pure ornament. But it will do so with a precise function: to emit well-known or immediately assimilable messages, to soothe the “distracted perception” of the metropolitan public subjected to the bombardment of multiple shocks, both visual and economic, provoked by the new giganti della montagna [mountain giants] in the downtowns.

It is just this phenomenon that European culture could not or would not grasp. What in the United States was produced by a complex but straightforward process was experienced in Europe as a trauma. The skyscraper, which Henry Huxley could call in 1875 the “center of intelligence,”[4] was seen, especially by German culture after 1910, as a symbol and threat of total reification, as a painful nightmare produced by the drowsiness of a metropolis on the verge of losing itself as a subject. In such a frame, optimism and pessimism wind up coinciding. In 1913 Karl Schaffler points out the possibility of a new “Spirit of Synthesis” in American territorial organization: the metropolis will be recuperated here as a conscious subject dominating the complementariness of City and Suburb — and here he reproposes a municipal administration retaining ownership of the terrain — but also reestablishing the equilibrium between the individual and the totality.[5] Reification can be overcome only by considering it a “bridge” that permits the crossing of the Grand Canyon of the anguish of the masses. A “bridge”: but precisely by going beyond the experience of the Brücke, Kandinsky, in presenting his own theatrical piece Der Gelbe Klang [The Yellow Tone] in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912) , puts forward in metaphoric form a completely opposite interpretation of the same phenomenon. In Kandinsky’s unique text, as is well known, five yellow giants undulate, grow disproportionately or shrink, contort their bodies, emit guttural sounds, under a flickering light that accentuates their oneiric aspects.

File-Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, published by R. Piper & Co. - Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) kandinsky.comp-4

The previous allusion to Pirandello’s giganti della montagna was not accidental. For both Kandinsky and Pirandello, the theme is that of individuals who are “all too human,” and therefore on the verge of becoming pure signs, dumbfounded testimonies of an existence whose faculties of communication have been blocked. The whispering of the yellow giants and their “difficult” movements are the last, clumsy attempts at expression by beings who, having seen the truth, feel condemned to drown in it:

at the very instant in which the con fusion in the orchestra, in the movements, and in the lighting reaches the high point, all at once, darkness and silence fall on the scene. Alone at the back of the stage, the yellow giants remain visible and are then slowly swallowed up by the darkness. It appears as if the giants are extinguished like lamps; or rather, before complete darkness sets in, one perceives some flash of light.

The finale of Der Gelbe Klang represents, in tragic form, the annihilation of value in the flux of monetary currents — which the people of Manhattan could register, non dramatically, using such real giants as the Woolworth or the Equitable Life Insurance buildings. Moreover, such giants, in reality, despite their linguistic clothing that is just as paradoxical as the yellow color with which Kandinsky clothes his “new angels,” also give off a flash of light. Continue reading

Nikolai Suetin's crypto-Suprematist model for the 1937 Soviet Pavilion, featuring Iofan's Palace of the Soviets

Nikolai Suetin’s crypto-Suprematist model for the Paris 1937 Soviet Pavilion, featuring Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets

IMAGE: Suetin’s model

From the first chapter of Douglas Murphy‘s Architecture of Failure (if you haven’t checked this book out by now, you really should):

Industrial exhibitions of one kind or another had been held for at least half a century before 1851.  However, as the Great Exhibition would be the first that was international in any sense, and as it would also be an event on a scale that dwarfed any previous exhibition, then it is not unreasonable to think of it in terms of a ‘first of its kind.’  Moreover, it set in motion a massive cultural movement; the Great Exhibition is often said to be the birth of modern capitalist culture, both in terms of the promotion of ideologies of free trade and competitive display but also in the new ways in which objects were consumed, and how they were seen. Benjamin refers to how the exhibitions were ‘training schools in which the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value,’ while more recently Peter Sloterdijk would write that with the Great Exhibition, ‘a new aesthetic of immersion began its triumphal procession through modernity.’  The financial success of the Great Exhibition was swiftly emulated: both New York and Paris would hold their own exhibitions within the next five years, and there would be a great many others held throughout the century all over the world.  As time went on, the event would slowly metamorphose into what is now known as the ‘Expo’, a strange shadow counterpart to the events of so long ago, but one that still occurs, albeit fitfully, and with a strange, undead quality to it.  By the time the first half-century of exhibitions was over the crystalline behemoths of the early exhibitions had been replaced by the ‘pavilion’ format, whereby countries, firms and even movements would construct miniature ideological edifices to their own projected self-identities. The 1900 Paris exhibition was the first to truly embrace this format, and in future years one could encounter such seminal works of architecture such as Melnikov’s Soviet Pavilion and Le Corbusier’s Pavilion Esprit Nouveau (Paris 1925), Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (Barcelona 1929), Le Corbusier & Iannis Xenakis’ Phillips Pavilion (Brussels 1958), or witness the desperately tragic face-off between Albert Speer and Boris Iofan (Paris 1937). Continue reading

Il'ia Golosov's Zuev House of Culture — Workers' Club (1928)

The sociohistoric mission of modernist architecture

The housing shortage, the urban proletariat,
and the liberation of woman


Housing in the Industrial Revolution

Workers’ Housing in the 19th Century

Modernist architecture — Positive Bases


Read the full-text PDF version of
Ross Wolfe’s “The Graveyard of Utopia:
Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of
the International Avant-Garde”

By industrializing the process of building houses and other structures, the avant-garde believed that it could help to solve many of the profound problems that had emerged out of industrial society. The housing question, about which Engels and many others wrote, as well as the divide between town and country, along with the intense overcrowding of the cities and the alienation that came with it — all these confronted the modernists as problems in need of solutions.  For Engels, the problem of housing shortages was more or less perennial.  The peculiarity of the modern crisis consisted mostly in the spectacular rate of its urbanization, the magnitude of the population it affected, and by the fact that it was felt not only by the lower classes but by members of the petit-bourgeoisie as well.[1]  While he correctly rejected the base analogy of the tenant-landlord relationship with the worker-capitalist relationship as Proudhonism,[2] Engels was emphatic that the housing question posed by industrial society could only be overcome by overthrowing capitalism as a whole.  Drawing upon an early theme he had developed in collaboration with Marx, this also meant resolving the “antithesis between town and country.”[3]  Although Engels insisted upon the dissolution of capitalist society, he wisely refrained from offering too much in the way of specifics as to what a postcapitalist solution would entail: “To speculate on how a future society might organize the distribution of food and dwellings leads directly to utopia.  The utmost we can do is to state…that with the downfall of the capitalist mode of production certain forms of appropriation which existed in society hitherto will become impossible.”[4]

The Working Poor in Substandard Housing, 19th Century

Workers’ Housing near Ebbw Vale steelworks in Wales, 19th Century

Engels was not the only one to notice the acute urban housing shortage as well as the widening divide between town and country that was taking place under heavy industrial production.  He himself was reacting polemically to treatments of the problem offered by “Proudhonist” Arthur Mülberger and “bourgeois” Emil Sax.  The problem was recognized by more moderate writers like Alfred Smith, who in his own work on The Housing Question in 1900 wrote that “the grim irony of the situation could not go further — the laboring population, who daily contribute to the wealth and comfort of the city, are for the most part driven on to congested areas and into overcrowded rooms.”[5]  A Christian socialist by the unlikely name of Moritz Kaufmann, who accused Marx of utopianism[6] and later briefly corresponded with him,[7] authored a text in 1907 on The Housing of the Working Classes and of the Poor.  In this work, Kaufmann wrote of the evils of “slumlords,” of rural depopulation, and of the different manifestations of the housing crisis in Germany, France, and Belgium.[8]  Ultimately, Kaufmann’s prescriptions for action in dealing with these matters were not far from what Social-Democratic architects like Ernst May would later put forth.  This mostly amounted to more government oversight in the provision of public programs and the bureaucratic deployment of specialists.[9]  The housing question was exacerbated by the Great War, at least in the estimation of Edgar Lauer and Victor House, members of the New York judicial system, who wrote a treatise on The Tenant and His Landlord in 1921.  “Recent housing difficulties are not a local phenomenon,” they wrote.  “Insufficiency and inadequacy of living accommodation appear to be part of the worldwide aftermaths of the Great War.”[10] Continue reading

Moisei Ginzburg’s “The international front of modern architecture”

Translated from the Russian 

Image: Photograph of Moisei Ginzburg,
editor of Modern Architecture (1927)


[From Modern Architecture (1926) № 2]

[Pg. 41]

If one takes a cursory glance at everything that is now taking place in the architectural life of all countries, the first impression will be this: the world is split into two halves. In one of them, eclecticism still reigns — having lost any point of departure, having exhausted itself through and through — perfectly symbolizing the deteriorating culture of old Europe. In the other [half] young, healthy shoots push themselves through — landmarks, the beginnings of a new life start to emerge, from which it is not difficult to extend the single, unified thread of an international front of modern architecture. Despite all the differences and peculiarities of different countries and peoples, this front really exists. The results of the revolutionary pursuits of the modern architectural avant-gardes of all nations intersect with one another closely in their main lines of development. They are forging a new international language of architecture, intelligible and familiar, despite the boundary posts and barriers.

But it is worth examining this picture a little closer, as it now becomes evident that within the overall stream [of modern architecture] merge various currents.  The path of the creative pursuit in different countries and among different peoples is not quite the same. For along with the general similarity there also exist differences — differences not only in the formal expression of this language, but also in the basic principles that inform it. Continue reading

Adolf Behne’s The Modern Functional Building (1926)



The Original Cover to Behne’s Book, Featuring El Lissitzky’s “Cloudprop”



Man’s primordial reason for building is to protect himself against the cold, against animals, against enemies.  He is driven by necessity: he would not build were it not for definite, compelling, urgent purposes.  His early buildings are purely functional in character; they are in their nature essentially tools.

But when we study the earliest stages of human culture, we find that the instinctive joys of play cannot be separated from practical matters.  Primitive man is not strictly utilitarian.  He demonstrates his instinct for play even in his tools, which he makes smooth and beautiful beyond the demands of strict necessity, painting them or decorating them with ornaments.

The tool called “house” is no exception to this.

From the very beginning the house has been as much a toy as a tool.  It is difficult to say how long a balance was maintained between the two poles.

In the course of history we only rarely find such a balance.

The play instinct led to interest in form.  Without that instinct it would be impossible to understand why the tool called “house” must look good and be a certain shape.  Thus our play instinct established certain laws of form, although they are subject to change from time to time.

The laws of form did change periodically.  But if laws of form were unquestionably the secondary element in the origin of all building, they became the stronger, stricter, more rigid principle in the history of human building — stronger, stricter, and more rigid than mere fulfillment of utilitarian function.  Formal considerations outweighed considerations of purpose.

Thus a return to purpose is always revolutionary in its effect.  Forms that have become tyrannical are discarded in order to create — from the recollection of the original function, from as neutral a condition as possible — a rejuvenated, living, breathing form.

Continue reading