Architecture on steroids

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Words:
Pamela Buxton

The Design Museum is marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution by showing heroic but mostly unbuilt Soviet architecture of the 1920s and 30s

Cloud Iron horizontal skyscraper by El Lissitzky. Photo by El Lissitzky of ‘Cloud Iron. Ground Plan. View from Strastnoy Boulevard’, 1925, black and white photography with annotations by the artist.
Cloud Iron horizontal skyscraper by El Lissitzky. Photo by El Lissitzky of ‘Cloud Iron. Ground Plan. View from Strastnoy Boulevard’, 1925, black and white photography with annotations by the artist. Credit: Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven

Lenin’s finger is at the Design Museum. Measuring some 4m high, this 1:1 scale model creates a mere fragment of a proposed 100m statue that was to top the monumental Palace of the Soviets, planned as the tallest building in the world but never built.

The sheer scale of the finger eloquently expresses the grandiose yet unfulfilled architectural visions explored in the museum’s enlightening new exhibition Imagine Moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution.

Timed to coincide with the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the exhibition centres on six unrealised architectural landmarks of the 1920s and 1930s, put in rich context by an array of engaging exhibits ranging from propaganda posters and slogans to films chronicling the lives of citizens in the new Soviet era. Curator Eszter Steierhoffer uses these architectural projects to explore key themes of the progressive republic – industrialisation, urban planning, communal living, recreation, aviation and communication. The revolution and its cultural aftermath were, she says, a ‘heroic moment in architectural and design history’ which still inspires the work of architects today.

We learn how Lenin and Stalin ‘turned architecture and design into politics’ as a new generation of architects was given the chance to conceive a built environment to match the ambitious plans to transform all aspects of society. As the newly established capital of the Soviet Union, Moscow, and its cityscape, was at the centre of this vision.

  • Palace of the Soviets by Boris Iofan.
    Palace of the Soviets by Boris Iofan. Credit: Shchusev State Museum of Architecture
  • Nikolay Ladovsky’s Communal House (cropped), 1920.
    Nikolay Ladovsky’s Communal House (cropped), 1920. Credit: Shchusev State Museum of Architecture
  • Narkomtiazhprom (Commissariat for Construction and Heavy Industry) competition entry by Vesnin Brothers, 1934.
    Narkomtiazhprom (Commissariat for Construction and Heavy Industry) competition entry by Vesnin Brothers, 1934. Credit: Shchusev State Museum of Architecture
  • Valentina Kulagina, We Build, 1930s.
    Valentina Kulagina, We Build, 1930s. Credit: Ne boltai! Collection
  • Valentina Kulagina, front cover design entitled 1st of May in ‘Krasnaya niva’ magazine, 1930.
    Valentina Kulagina, front cover design entitled 1st of May in ‘Krasnaya niva’ magazine, 1930. Credit: Ne boltai! Collection
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The story of the Stalin-instigated Palace of the Soviets (1931-41) is one of the exhibition highlights. Architect Boris Iofan won a competition for the vast administrative centre and congress hall, beating Le Corbusier and Gropius among many others with a design for a building rising 416m. Its 6.5 million m2 interior was to contain 6000 rooms including a great hall with a capacity of 21,000. To make way for this ‘propaganda in built form’, the domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – at the time the largest Orthodox Christian church in the world – was demolished as the Soviets sought to replace traditional allegiances to religion and family with loyalty to the totalitarian state. Work started on the palace in 1937 but only the foundations had been built by the time construction was halted by the German invasion of 1941.

Yet the palace didn’t even need to be built to gain iconic status. We are told it became one of the best known buildings of its time, reproduced in architectural magazines, books, even tourist brochures presented as built reality. Later under Khrushchev the foundations were adapted into a swimming pool and in 2000 a replica of the original cathedral was consecrated on the site – almost as if the whole mad Palace of the Soviets endeavour had never happened.

Another project that would have had a major impact on the Moscow skyline was Cloud Iron (1923-25), a network of clustered ‘T’ form tower and slab skycrapers for office and residential use. The concept was proposed to address the housing shortage of the time by architect El Lissitzky, who described them as Wolkenbügel or ‘hangers for clouds’. With each of the eight clusters located at major intersections above tram and metro stops, they were a form of TODs (transit oriented developments) ahead of their time.

A significant proportion of Moscow’s old town would have had to be demolished to make way for the proposed Commissariat of Heavy Industry (1934-36), a key building given the importance of industrialisation to the Soviet regime. An architectural competition was held but no winner was chosen. Several of the entries are shown, including a four-tower proposal by the Vesnin brothers and Konstantin Melnikov’s design for twin 40-storey buildings connected by an external escalator.

  • United Nations Building, 1947-48 by Ivan Leonidov.  Gouache, watercolour, pencil, tracing paper, white highlightings.
    United Nations Building, 1947-48 by Ivan Leonidov. Gouache, watercolour, pencil, tracing paper, white highlightings. Credit: Tchoban Foundation
  • Gustav Klutsis, Architectural Study, 1920-1921.
    Gustav Klutsis, Architectural Study, 1920-1921. Credit: Courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art, London
  • Imagine Moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution exhibition installation, with model of Lenin’s finger shown to the left.
    Imagine Moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution exhibition installation, with model of Lenin’s finger shown to the left. Credit: Luke Hayes
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The exhibition also explores the impact of the Soviet way of life on society. The spiralling Communal House (1919-20) was designed by Nikolay Ladovsky to incorporate housing with communal kitchens and nurseries that freed women to take their place alongside men in the new industrialised workforce. Recreation as well as work was the concern of the state, with projects including a Health Factory (1928-29) designed by Nikolay Sokolov on the Black Sea coast, where workers could recharge themselves before returning to their labours.

Education was a priority for the new republic – at the time of the revolution most of the population was illiterate. One of the more ambitious projects was the Lenin Institute (1927), conceived by Ivan Leonidov as a monumental library and planetarium that brought together all human knowledge to educate Soviet citizens. Linked to Moscow by an aero-tram, this utilised the very latest technology including a motorised book stack for some 15 million books. Again unbuilt, this visionary scheme only survives in the pages of an architectural magazine of the time.

The exhibition includes one built project: Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square. Alexey Shchusev’s relatively modest winning design is displayed along with many of the unsuccessful entries from the popular architectural competition, which attracted entries not just from architects but from members of the public such as soldiers and carpenters. If the Palace of the Soviets and its Lenin colossus had ever been realised, one of his fingers would apparently have pointed to this final resting place.

I’d thoroughly recommend this exhibition for the creative way it explores the context of these fascinating architectural visions. For anyone who, like me, is a bit hazy on that period of history, this is a great way to learn.

Imagine Moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution, until June 4, 2017, Design Museum, London