VKhUTEMAS: The “Soviet Bauhaus”

Architectural Review

Agata Pyzik
May 8, 2015

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VKhUTEMAS was an art and technical school set up in 1920 in Moscow that saw itself as a realization of the new revolutionary government’s approach to art, and which was to become a vital part of building a new society. Often this ‘building’ was in the most literal sense: one of the chief skills taught there was architecture, next to industrial and technical design, textiles, painting and sculpture. This exhibition in Martin-Gropius-Bau focuses on the school’s architecture teaching, and on the highly interdisciplinary, experimental methods developed there by some of the greatest Russian architects of the 20th century, such as Nikolai Ladovsky, Moisei Ginsburg, and Konstantin Melnikov. They were able to produce such pioneering results by treating artistic education as part of a whole. Many of these architects were also fascinating painters. At the same time, few of VKhUTEMAS students’ boldest designs were built, and the school faced a political backlash as early as 1929.

This “Soviet Bauhaus” (as the exhibition’s subtitle has it) raises interest today not only because Constructivist luminaries such as Rodchenko, Klutsis, and Popova taught there, but also because of an emerging interest in the less explored aspects of the art of the revolutionary period. The Berlin show concentrates on the pedagogic work of teachers and usually unknown students at VKhUTEMAS, whose rarely seen work hangs next to the better-known abstract compositions of Stepanova or Rodchenko’s spatial constructions.

Given the traditionalist legacy of tsarism, these artists had first to break with the 19th century. This is visible in the early 1920s work of Nikolai Kolli, later the job architect on Corbusier’s only completed Soviet building, Tsentrosoyuz. His drawings of foliage compositions on Neoclassical architecture show how attaining Constructivist form meant learning from the past as well as its rejection. The school’s architecture faculty initially combined three threads: Neoclassicist, taught by Ivan Zholtovsky; the experimental Rationalist school, headed by Ladovsky; and a non-conformist pedagogical program led by Melnikov and Ilya Golosov, the “New Academy.” The link between classicism and Modernism is here less sharp than it’s often portrayed — there are many student drawings, which, in order to reach for new spatial forms, reach first to French visionary architects, such as Boullée and Ledoux, and develop these in an ever more stern, reduced way.

This relationship between the French Revolution and classicism is echoed in the creation of a new, atheistic, rational Soviet state and society, cherishing internationalism and heroes of modernity, in such projects as the Cathedral of International Understanding by the Rationalist and VKhUTEMAS teacher Vladimir Krinsky, or Ladovsky’s Monument to Columbus in Santo Domingo. Successive rooms show how students’ responses to extremely matter-of-fact tasks, such as “production exercise to determine and represent a form,” produced extremely varied results, bulky edifices or thin, fragile towers, coming in bright, contrasting colors, and using collage and photomontage, to establish new forms of space. Students had a lot of freedom, leading to extraordinary diploma projects such as Nikolai Sokolov’s Constructivist spa, which was envisaged to be partly under a mountain, a reminder that one of objectives of early Communism was comfort and luxury. Another final-year project is Georgi Krutikov’s Flying City, accompanied by a Surrealist photomontage predicting the space program and proving that traffic will soon become too congested and dangerous — as early as 1928!

In the end, VKhUTEMAS’ undoing was part of increasingly pragmatic late 1920s politics, which demanded its greater involvement in national industry. Although students like Ivan Leonidov attempted more utopian approaches to planning than the likes of the showcase steeltown Magnitogorsk, they were rejected. Finally, the school’s dissolution was an inevitability tied not just to the Stalinization of Soviet Russia, but to the tendency by 1930s modern architects everywhere to abandon experimentation in favor of a more bland International Style.

Student projects

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Complex frontal composition based on nuance and contrast combination of plastic and shade, using elements of rhythm

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Student exercises for the color course

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Ivan Leonidov: Artist, dreamer, poet

Andrei Gozak
Complete Works
January 1988
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The greatest poet is not the one who wrote best but the one who suggested most.

— Walt Whitman

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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 Stenberg brothers and the art of Soviet movie posters

Alma Law: Let’s begin, if you’re agreeable, simply with some biographical information.

Vladimir Stenberg: My father was born in Sweden in the town of Norrkoping and he finished the Academy in Stockholm with a gold medal. Then he was invited to come here to Moscow to do some kind of work. At that time [1896] there was an exhibition in Yuzovka — now it’s called Donetsk — so there in Yuzovka my father worked on an exhibition. Later at the Nizhninovgorod fair he did some kind of work. In Moscow he met my mother. They married and had three children.1

My father lived and worked in Moscow and I wanted to enter a technical school. I was very fond of technology, mechanics, and so forth.2 But conditions were such that I had to enter Stroganov, the art school. My father worked as a painter, and from the time I was six years of age, we had pencils, brushes, and the like in our hands. We began to draw very early. Well, like children, they see their father drawing, and so we drew too. And here’s what’s interesting about our father. When we were going to school, we would bring home our drawings at the end of the year. My brother, Georgii, and I would play a trick and switch some of the drawings. But my father always knew. We would sit together and draw figures. Everything. And it seemed to us that we had everything the same. But nevertheless our father would still distinguish the hand of one son’s work from the other’s.

When we had to do perspective, to study all that, we told the teacher that our father was an artist and he had taught us a little. The teacher gave us a test assignment and we did it. He said, “That isn’t the way it’s done. The plan should be at the bottom, and at the top, the representation of that perspective.” But our father had another method: the plan on top and underneath the representation. Because when you’re working, it’s more convenient to have at the bottom what is most important. Therefore we had it the other way around. When the teacher asked, “Why do you do it that way?” we answered, “Our father taught us that way.” “Well, of course,” he said, “with foreigners, they have things the other way around.” Continue reading

Il’ia Chashnik, revolutionary suprematist (1902-1929)

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Il’ia Grigorievich Chashnik was born to an unremarkable Jewish family in Lyucite, Latvia on June 20, 1902. He spent most of his childhood in Vitebsk, leaving school at the age of eleven to work in a small watchmaking workshop.

From 1917 to 1919, Chashnik studied art with the local artist Iurii (Yehuda) Pen before moving to Moscow in 1919 to attend the newly-opened VKhUTEMAS [Higher State Art and Technical Studios]. Just a few months later, however, he transferred to the Vitebsk Art Institute in order to study under the Russian-Jewish folk painter and avant-gardist Marc Chagall. Soon he became enamored of the work of Kazimir Malevich, the mastermind of Suprematism. Malevich also happened to teach at the Institute, before receiving a promotion and taking it over during the winter of 1919-1920. El Lissitzky also mentored Chashnik briefly before departing to Western Europe.

Once his apprenticeship under Malevich began, Chashnik’s paintings underwent a radical change. Chashnik cultivated his own distinctive style within the Suprematist idiom, developing Malevich’s ideas of abstraction and non-figuration to produce floating geometric shapes with crossing planes. While Malevich composed white-on-white paintings wrapped in fragile stillness and simplicity, Chashnik moved toward more dynamic pieces where black was the predominant element.

David Walsh of the World Socialist Website described the young painter’s unique talents with considerable eloquence in a review he wrote of The Great Utopia exhibition of 1993, which featured some of Chashnik’s work. Walsh wrote:

Chashnik’s The Seventh Dimension: Suprematist and his Color Lines in Vertical Motion demonstrate an enormous talent. His Cosmos — Red Circle on Black Surface (1925), for example, is an extraordinary work. A giant red circle (sun, planet) hovers in blackness (sky, atmosphere). Under it on the painting’s surface floats a Suprematist-like structure (space station), lines and rectangles arranged horizontally across a central bar. The Suprematist craft — delicate, outweighed, pale in color — is seemingly directed toward the gigantic, perfect red sphere. The enormity of the task, the terrifying emptiness of the universe, the flimsiness of the vessel, are clear to the viewer.

Along with some other talented students of Malevich’s class — Nikolai Suetin, Vera Ermolaeva, and Lev Iudin — Chashnik participated in the organization of the group POSNOVIS [Followers of the New Art], later renamed UNOVIS [Affirmers of the New Art], contributing to all of its exhibitions. He became particularly close with Suetin, a friendship and creative partnership that would endure until the former’s untimely passing in 1929.

Even further, while still in Vitebsk, Chashnik helped Malevich draft the syllabus for the Department of Architecture and Technology at Vitebsk in 1921. There he explained:

The constructions of Suprematism are blueprints for the building and assembling of forms of utilitarian organisms.Consequently, any Suprematist project is Suprematism extended into functionality. The Department of Architecture and Technology is the builder of new forms of utilitarian Suprematism; as it develops, it is changing into a huge workshop-laboratory, not with the pathetic little workbenches and paints in departments of painting, but with electric machines for casting, with all kinds of apparatuses, with the technological wealth of magnetic forces. [This department works] in concert with astronomers, engineers, and mechanics to attain a single Suprematism, to build organisms of Suprematism — a new form of economics in the utilitarian system of modernity.

When local authorities forced UNOVIS out of Vitebsk in 1922, Chashnik, Suetin, Ermolaeva, and Iudin followed Malevich to join the GINKhUK in Petrograd. Throughout the Petrograd/Leningrad period, Chashnik spent his days exploring possible applications of Suprematist art to everyday life.

Creative product photography, catalog and web-site photography Creative product photography, catalog and web-site photography Architektonisches Projekt, 1926-1927. Bewegung der Farbe, 1921-1922. Suprematistische Komposition, 1922-1923 Continue reading

Architecture in cultural strife: Russian and Soviet architecture in drawings, 1900-1953

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Originally published over at Metropolis magazine’s online edition. A longer, slightly more comprehensive version of the review appears below.

The exhibition “Architecture in Cultural Strife: Russian and Soviet Architecture in Drawings, 1900-1953” opened two weeks ago at the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Bringing together a total of 79 unique architectural delineations from this period, the show spans the twilight years of the Romanov dynasty up to Stalin’s death in 1953.

Pavel Siuzor, Dom Zinger (1902-1904) K.N. Rouchefort and V.A. Linskii, 1906-1907

One is immediately struck by the periodization, bookended as it is by the death of a major political figure on one side and the turn of the century on the other. In terms of historical events, the latter of these seems fairly arbitrary. Stylistically, however, the date makes a bit more sense. Around 1900, Russian architects began to emulate non-academic design movements originating abroad. What Jugendstil had been to Germany, Art Nouveau to France, Sezessionstil to Austria — so stil’ modern [стиль модерн] was to Russia. Modernist architecture (sovremennaia arkhitektura [современная архитектура], not to be confused with stil’ modern) was still a couple decades away, but Pavel Siuzor and Gavriil Baranovskii introduced the style to Petrograd with some success.

Not much happened in the fifteen years from 1905 to 1920, at least as far as architecture is concerned. Of course this was largely due to the turbulence of the time. Two wars, a string of social and military crises, and multiple political revolutions interrupted ordinary construction cycles, preventing anything like normality from taking shape. Meanwhile, the widespread destruction of the country’s built infrastructure wrought by years of bloody civil war created a demand for new projects to replace what had been lost.

Nikolai Ladovskii Communal House Experimental project for Zhivskulptarkh Moscow, USSR 1920 Pencil, colored pencil, and colored ink on tracing paper 40 x 21 cmIl'ia Golosov, Lenin House 1924

After conditions finally stabilized in 1922, an experimental phase set in. Inspired by revolutionary tendencies in the visual arts — by abstract painting and sculptural constructs — an architectural avant-garde began to take shape. Highly innovative research was conducted at schools like INKhUK and VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN in Moscow, as well as the Academy of Arts and RABFAK in Leningrad. Students of architecture were encouraged to explore the possibilities of new materials and forms. The emerging Soviet avant-garde was hardly monolithic, however, despite certain popular depictions that represent the modernists as one homogenous bloc. While such simplifications are often expedient, even necessary, some nuance is inevitably lost along the way.

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Train stations, bread factories, and the “New City”

Student projects at VKhUTEMAS
and VKhUTEIN from the studios
of Vesnin & Ladovskii, 19251929

.Train stations

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Space architecture: Training the Soviet avant-garde (1921-1930)

The “space” course for
architects at Vkhutemas

Spatial modeling
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Nikolai Ladovskii’s studio at VKhUTEMAS (1920-1930)

With an original translation
of Ladovskii’s 1921 program

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Image: Photograph of Nikolai Ladovskii
during his professorship at VKhUTEMAS

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Special thanks are due to Monoskop for pointing out to me a number of new images, as well as to TotalArch for providing Selim Khan-Magomedov’s selected Russian text online to translate for this post.

Nikolai Ladovskii and students at VKhUTEMAS, 1922

Nikolai Ladovskii and students at VKhUTEMAS, 1922

“On the program of the working group of architects” (1921)

The task of our working group is to work in the direction of elucidating a theory of architecture. Our productivity will depend on the very rapid articulation of our program, on clarifying the investigative methods to be used and identifying the materials we have at our disposal to supplement the work. The work plan can be broken down into roughly three basic points:

I) aggregation of appropriate theoretical studies and existing theories of architecture of all theoreticians,
II) excavation of relevant material from theoretical studies and investigations extracted from other branches of art, which bear on architecture, and
III) exposition of our own theoretical perspectives to architecture.

The result of these efforts must be the compilation of an illustrated dictionary that establishes precisely the terminology and definitions of architecture as an art, its individual attributes, properties etc, the interrelation of architecture with the other arts. The three elements of the work plan relate, in the case of the first, to the past, to “what has been done”; in that of the second, to the present, and “what we are doing,” and in that of the third, to “what must be done” in the future in the field of theoretical justifications of architecture. A commission, which might be necessary to set up for the program’s elaboration, must build upon the foundations we have suggested.

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Georgii Krutikov, The Flying City (VKhUTEMAS diploma project, 1928)

The conquest of gravity


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В 1928 году молодой архитектор Георгий Крутиков на защите дипломных работ во Вхутеине представил совершенно безумный по тем временам дипломный проект «Город будущего», который сразу же стал сенсацией. Концепция «летающего города» заключалась в следующем: архитектор предлагал оставить землю для труда, отдыха и туризма, а жилые помещения перенести в парящие в облаках города — коммуны.

In 1928, the young architect Georgii Krutikov, in defending his diploma work at VKhUTEIN, presented a thesis project completely insane for the time, a “City of the Future,” which immediately became a sensation. The concept of a “flying city” was as follows: the architect proposed to leave work, leisure, and tourism on the ground, while living areas would be moved to communes floating in the clouds of the city.

Translated by Natalia Melikova, with slight edits by me.

Georgii Krutikov, 1927

Julia Vaingurt

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Possibly one of the most interesting and the most telling projects of such artistic investigations of the time was the Flying City of Georgii Krutikov. A student of architecture at Vkhutemas, Krutikov presented his project “The City of the Future” as his graduation thesis in 1928. It is telling that Krutikov called his project a quest. It was a quest for mobile architecture. Krutikov’s project was as much a child of its age as Tatlin’s machines and Khlebnikov’s city-plants. Just like these artists, Krutikov was fascinated by movement and flexibility. Departing from the rigid forms dominating the architecture of the time, his city would incorporate living, plastic structures capable of changing qualitatively and quantitatively in accordance with changes in the environment itself. The goal of Krutikov’s work was to prove the theoretical possibility and preferability of mobile architecture.

In his project, industrial and commercial spaces are located on the ground, while residential quarters are suspended in the air. The architecture itself is not in motion, but it will mobilize its inhabitants, who will be able to reach their homes only via individual flying capsules. Selim Khan-Magomedov, who first brought Krutikov’s project to a wider audience in 1973, studied Krutikov’s thesis and concluded that its author “was fully aware that the project of housing structures suspended in space has significance only (at least, for the near future) as an essentially investigatory (speculative) idea.” At a time when the state was taking a pragmatic and utilitarian approach to its existence with the adoption of the First Five-Year Plan, Krutikov envisioned a project whose value to immediate tasks at hand was very ill-defined.

Despite the awareness Khan-Magomedov mentions of the complex’s utter unfeasibility, at least for the foreseeable future, Krutikov was determined to prove its physical possibility. The scale of the project humbled inept contemporaries and mocked the scarcity of the material means at their disposal while exposing the riches of the universe and its offerings to humanity. In this theoretically possible and practically impossible project, technology becomes a part of “nature” — since the potential for this undertaking is present in it — and takes on its sublime quality. Even eighty years later this project lends itself primarily to aesthetic appreciation, its sheer magnitude arousing feelings of awe and incredulity. The pleasure that Krutikov’s project offers is the pleasure in the sublime, a disinterested pleasure in perceiving something immense that transcends a moment and a place.

Krutikov’s portfolio

Georgii Krutikov, diploma portfolio for The Flying City (1928)Georgii Krutikov, diploma portfolio for The Flying City (1928)Georgii Krutikov, diploma portfolio for The Flying City (1928)

From Richard Stites’ Revolutionary Dreams (1981):

A far more popular craze of the 1920s that fed into science fiction was aviation. Russian fascination with aeronautics has been immense in our time — a kind of fear of not flying, of remaining earthbound and thus immobile. Flying — as in the archetypical dream — is a kinetic metaphor for liberation. The literary obsession with it in Europe, America, and Russia is well-known. Figures such as Tatlin and Mayakovsky are inconceivable without the airplane image. Vasily Kamensky — like d’Annunzio — was an aviator poet. Alexander Lavinsky in 1923 designed a plan for an “airborne city.” And Georgy Krutikov in 1928 envisaged a “Flying City Apartment Building” moored to dirigibles when at anchor. Taking off into a better world was semantically and psychologically linked to taking flight. The revolutionary terrorist Nikolai Kibalchich, waiting for his execution in 1881, designed a flying machine that was based on rocket principles. The father of Soviet rocket design, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, hatched most of his ideas while living in an obscure little Russian town. N. A. Rynin, professor and popularizer of space literature in the 1920s, began his work on the cosmic age during the dark years of the Civil War.  “I was hungry, ” he recalled, “I was cold, but one good thing about it — nobody came to see me .“

From Jean-Louis Cohen’s The Future of Architecture since 1889 (2012):

[C]ertain thesis projects still explored radical hypotheses for public buildings. Ivan Leonidov designed a Lenin Institute (1927) with a prophetic structure made of cables and futuristic electronic technology; Georgei Krutikov designed a Flying City (1928). After visiting the Vkhutemas in 1928, Le Corbusier described the school in his journal as an “extraordinary demonstration of the modern credo,” adding: “Here a new world is being rebuilt” out of a “mystique which gives rise to a pure technique.”

Below are some more of Krutikov’s drawings. Enjoy!

Georgii Krutikov’s Flying City