While recently published book, Moscow: A Guide to Soviet Modernist Architecture 1955-1991, authored by three Moscovites—architectural historian Anna Bronovitskaya, critic Nikolay Malinin, and photographer Yuri Palmin—is hardly the first excurse into this fascinating period of Soviet architecture, it is surely by far the most comprehensive and complete in its singular focus on the city where it all began and accumulated into the biggest depository of the most distinctive postwar modernist structures in the USSR. The 350-page volume comprises 83 entries, while some of them, such as on Metro or Zelenograd, a modernist satellite science town outside of the Russian capital, encompass multiple projects and urban ensembles, bringing the total number of buildings to well over 100. The book is handsomely published by Artguide Editions for Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, which is housed in one of the reviewed buildings in the guide—once popular 1,200-seat “Seasons of the Year” restaurant (Igor Vinogradsky, Igor Piatnik, 1968) in Gorky Park. Abandoned with the country’s collapse, the building, a crude version of an austere Miesian concrete and glass box, was famously transformed into a new home of the Museum by Rem Koolhaas in 2015. By restoring original interior brickwork, mosaics, floor tiles, and coloured ceramic mural in the double-height central lobby and wrapping what is essentially a well-preserved modernist ruin in its poetic state of decay in double-layered translucent polycarbonate panels, the architect demonstrated how fresh, even extraordinary architecture can happen through the inventive act of preservation. Documenting this and other examples, the authors gathered many hundreds of valuable illustrations—original drawings, renderings, maps, architectural models, colour toned historical photos, relevant references to international precedents, and what makes the guide particularly cohesive—predominantly black and white, present-day photography by Yuri Palmin who kindly agreed to share some of his photos to accompany this review.
What needs to be stated right away is that this book is a part of a much bigger ambition by Garage to produce a series of guides to Soviet modernist architecture focused on cities where this architecture left most extensive and meaningful traces. Since the Moscow guide, the trio of authors already finished similar books on Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan from 1929 to 1997, and Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). Future books are planned on Leningrad region, Yerevan, and eventually other capitals of former Soviet republics and major urban centres will be covered. So far, only the Moscow guide was translated into English and is available for purchase on Amazon worldwide. As the reader already may have guessed, these books are intended to be so much more than what may be expected from a typical guide. For example, the entries are presented chronologically, not geographically, and their descriptions are more scholarly than a casual compilation of anecdotes for tourists. What is also uncommon is that here we encounter projects that are not merely celebrated; they are rather critiqued as “complex, ambiguous, and problematic” case studies and are collectively presented as signs of their time, an important historical layer, without which Moscow would be unimaginable.
To understand these buildings better and to go beyond their purely visual aspects, we need to familiarise the reader with some of the basics of Soviet architectural history. There were three major periods, which are well explained in Alexander Ryabushin’s book Landmarks of Soviet Architecture: 1917-1991. Constructivist architecture, which is most celebrated in the West, was the shortest but most effective; in less than a decade—from mid-1920s to 1932—with many great buildings by architects such as Alexey Dushkin, Moisei Ginzburg, Ilya Golosov, Nikolay Ladovsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Sergei Serafimov, Alexey Shchusev, and Vladimir Shukhov. From early 1930s, Stalin reorganised the profession by pushing avant-garde into Socialist Realism, also known as Stalin's Empire Style that followed Roman and Greek prototypes. Everything that was going on outside the country’s borders or in its own past, was either ignored or ridiculed. This second period lasted to 1955 and produced such buildings as Moscow high rises, known internationally as Moscow Sisters or wedding cake buildings. They were conceived as Soviet response to the early 20th century American skyscrapers. These buildings went into construction in 1947, the year of 800-year anniversary of Moscow, and were meant to be the hymn to the victory of the Soviet Union in World War Two. The third and final period, which Soviet architect Felix Novikov (b. 1927) dubbed Soviet Modernism, commenced in 1955 and ended with the country’s demise in 1991.
Why did this watershed moment occur in 1955? Let us recall four key events then, which defined the direction of Soviet architecture for the next three-and-a-half decades. First, on March 5, 1953, Josef Stalin, the ideological leader of the Soviet Empire died. On December 7, 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet Leader delivered his speech at the opening of the All-Union Builders Conference in the Kremlin. This speech unexpectedly denounced Social Realism, as we already know personally favoured by Stalin. Architects were blamed for designing expensive antisocial buildings retroactively. A war on superfluities in architecture has begun. These were very serious accusations and the most talented architects, as was the case with the constructivists 20 years earlier, were stripped of their honours and banned from practice and teaching.
Then on November 4, 1955, Khrushchev signed the party-government resolution “About eliminating superfluities in design and construction,” which prescribed the architects with specific measures on economics. Builders and contractors were given more power than architects and could accuse the architects of being wasteful for designs that deviated from standards. Special committees were formed to evaluate the use of expensive materials and finishes. Curiously, indirectly, this document opened the national borders because all architects were trained according to classical traditions and, therefore, modern architecture could only be learned abroad. Leading and young practitioners were sent to Italy, France, and even America for first-hand experience. The supreme goal was set—to provide each Soviet family with an individual apartment. Finally, on February 25, 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, Khrushchev denounced personality cult of Stalin. The entire Stalin epoch was condemned.
Of course, when we flip through the book, we will not see those look-alike, five-story, cheaply built mass-produced panel housing blocks, which by far constituted the majority of what was then built all across the USSR, often to the same exact design, despite vast climatic, topographic, and cultural differences. Here we are presented with custom-designed airports, train stations, sports arenas and centres, party headquarters, theatres, hotels, hospitals, cinemas, museums, schools, universities, department stores, research institutes, ministries, office buildings, monuments, a circus, and, of course, unusual apartment buildings. Some of these striking structures the reader will recognise from a popular TASCHEN-published 2011 book Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed by French photographer Frederic Chaubin. But here the intention is to explain these buildings, not merely expose their quirkiness.
One of the most memorable and striking of these examples is a 533-metre (1,750-foot) tall Ostankino Television Tower (Leonid Batalov, Dmitry Burdin, Nikolay Nikitin, 1967) that brings to mind such images as a syringe, an upside-down lily, or a rocket blasting off into space. Novy Arbat (Kalinin Prospekt, 1968) by Mikhail Posokhin, the chief architect of Moscow for 22 years, was designed together with Ashot Mndoyants and Boris Tkhor as a mixed-use urban renewal complex on both sides of a major thoroughfare with four open-book shaped office buildings coming out of a common commercial podium along one side and five residential towers on the other. The “books” house eight ministries with two floors at mid-height with higher ceilings reserved for ministers and their administration offices.
Olympic Cycling Track (Nina Voronina, Alexander Ospennikov, 1979) was built in Moscow for the 1980 Olympics. Despite some awkward moments in its segmented outline, the overall form is among the most graceful and expressive structures in postwar Soviet architecture. The steel-clad roof evokes a hovering giant butterfly and is influenced by some progressive sports arenas built by Kenzo Tange in Japan and Eero Saarinen in America. Another distinctive Olympic structure is Druzhba Universal Sports Hall (Yury Bolshakov, Dmitry Solopov, Igor Rozhin, 1979). Built next to Luzhniki Stadium, this unusual shell-like structure, commonly known as “the turtle,” is assembled out of concrete petals that effectively erase all distinctions between the building’s roof and its walls. The Olympics took place one year after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, after which 50 countries boycotted the event. The Apartment Building on Begovaya Street (Andrei Meerson, Elena Podolskaya, M. Mostovoi, 1978), a 17-story structure on masculine monolith pilotis, is the Moscow version of Le Corbusier’s Marseille Block. It conveys a powerful appearance with both vertical and horizontal rhythms of concrete elements, despite the fact that many of them are mass-produced. By focusing on a particular stratum of architectural history of Moscow’s 36-year period, the authors succeed in making us see more clearly not only the significance of Soviet Modernist buildings individually, but more importantly, to appreciate them collectively as an essential layer of urban history.
(Moscow: A Guide to Soviet Modernist Architecture 1955-1991 by Anna Bronovitskaya, Nikolay Malinin, and Yuri Palmin is published by Artguide for Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Paperback, 350 pages.)