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The Moscow that never got built

Moscow on the drawing board

A new exhibition about unbuilt architectural landmarks from the 1920s and 1930s shows how modernist architects – and their Stalinist rivals – reimagined the city

A new exhibition about unbuilt architectural landmarks from the 1920s and 1930s shows how modernist architects – and their Stalinist rivals – reimagined the city

Arthur House | March 20th 2017

When Lenin moved Russia’s capital back to Moscow in 1918, the city – which had played second fiddle to St Petersburg for two centuries – was badly in need of modernisation. Its housing and infrastructure more closely resembled that of a provincial town than the capital of a new communist world order. With its onion domes and Kremlin towers, Moscow still symbolised ancient, feudal Russia. Although he was no great fan of the avant-garde, Lenin realised that the city would require a completely new type of architecture to project the egalitarian ideals of the revolution and signify a total break with the past.

Constructed constructivism Rusakov Workers’ Club (1927-8) by Melnikov

To this end he established a new art and technical school, VKhUTEMAS, by decree in 1920. The biggest names in Soviet modernism – El Lissitsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Mosei Ginzburg, Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich – would all be affiliated with the school over the following decade. The ateliers of this “Soviet Bauhaus” were the crucibles of three movements – constructivism, rationalism and suprematism – which would give the USSR’s early visual culture its boldly utopian character.

Constructivists, who believed art should directly reflect the modern industrial world, had the greatest influence on Moscow’s urban landscape. (Suprematism, with its geometric shapes and muted colours, was confined to art, while the rationalist architects, who were concerned with the distribution of psychic energy around a building, realised few projects.) Constructivist buildings, characterised by their advanced engineering in glass and steel and overtly communist use of space, began to spring up around the city. These futuristic vessels for the new Soviet man – such as Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers’ Club, Ginzburg’s Narkomfin housing block, the Vesnin brothers’ Mostorg department store and Shukhov’s telecommunications tower – embodied the dynamic, progressive ideals of the times. To the average Muscovite, it must have seemed like spaceships were landing.

Stalin’s rise to power at the end of the 1920s signalled another dramatic turn in Soviet architecture. The clean geometry of the constructivists was suddenly replaced with a heavy, forbidding classicism, the expression of totalitarian power in stone. Although no one dared mention it, this new monumental style drew extensively on the architectural traditions of the old world order – imperialist, capitalist and ecclesiastical – for inspiration. In this newly conservative climate, the constructivists had to adapt or perish.

“Imagine Moscow”, a new exhibition at the Design Museum in London, considers various unbuilt projects from these two markedly different periods in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a fertile subject; the Soviets’ seemingly inexhaustible appetite for architectural competitions ensured that far more buildings remained on paper than were ever realised. And in the early years following the revolution, during and just after the civil war, there was very little money for building. This meant that architects could dream big, projecting wildly fantastic designs in the knowledge that they would never come to fruition.


“Communal House” (1919-20) by Nikolai Ladovsky

Communal living was at the heart of the Communists’ plan to remodel society by destroying the family unit and emancipating women. “Social condensers” like this building would house hundreds of people who would share kitchens and nurseries, giving women the opportunity to learn new skills and eventually join the workforce. With its upwardly spiralling structure symbolising progress (shown here in cross-section), Ladovsky’s striking design echoes Tatlin’s famous monument to the Third International (which would also never be built). Ladovsky, who founded the rationalist architectural association, ASNOVA, in 1923, suggested topping this type of building with rockets in order to launch residents into space.


“Cloud Iron” (1923-5) by El Lissitsky

El Lissitsky proposed horizontal, T-shaped “cloud irons” or “sky hangers” as a riposte to the skyscrapers that dominated capitalist New York. Placed at intersections around the Garden Ring, the circular boulevard that encloses central Moscow, they would function as offices and accommodation, while providing street access to the new tram and metro stations below. Giving three dimensions to the abstract shapes of suprematism, these structures were intended to alter the Moscow skyline radically. They were also designed to promote the egalitarianism of Soviet ideology, in which power – like living space – was shared among workers.


“Palace of the Soviets” (1931-41) by Boris Iofan

Having dynamited the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow’s largest church, in 1931, Stalin set about replacing it with an everlasting monument to Soviet power. Standing at 416 metres, and with 6,000 rooms (including a 21,000-seater hall for party assemblies), the Palace of the Soviets was Stalinist architecture at its most despotically excessive. It would have been the world’s tallest building had it ever been completed. Heavy, ornamental and designed to project “the power vertical”, it opposed the sleek, nimble, socially “horizontal” modernism of the 1920s in every way. Construction began in 1937 but stopped during the second world war, before the project was abandoned and replaced with a swimming pool in 1958. 


“Commissariat of Heavy Industry” (1934-36) by the Vesnin brothers

This design was one of more than 100 entries in a notorious competition to design Stalin’s Narkomtiazhprom, or Commissariat of Heavy Industry. The building was intended to occupy a huge site directly opposite the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square, symbolising the centrality of industry to Stalinism and requiring the razing of the entire historic district of Kitay-Gorod. The Commissariat was never built, leading some to speculate that the competition was merely a way of distinguishing persistent modernists such as the Vesnin brothers – note the prevalence of glass and the futuristic skywalks in this plan – from loyal adherents to the new classicism.


“United Nations Building” (1947-8) by Ivan Leonidov

This starkly geometric design for the seat of the United Nations drew heavily on Leonidov’s unrealised diploma project for the Lenin Institute, a vast “knowledge centre” for the USSR, which made his name in 1927. Leonidov received an impeccable constructivist training, having studied under Alexander Vesnin and Mosei Ginzburg, but the rise of Stalin spelled disaster for his career: the only design of his ever to materialise would be a staircase for a sanatorium in the town of Kislovodsk.

Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution Design Museum, London, until June 4th