Architect Sergei Tchoban finds beauty at the junction of the old and the new
by Vladimir BelogolovskyDec 18, 2021
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by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Sep 02, 2022
A prominent Soviet architect and publicist Felix Novikov, the creator of numerous influential buildings, books, and exhibitions died on August 18 in Rochester, New York where he lived since 1992. He celebrated his 95th birthday 15 days earlier. Novikov remained busy to the end. Last year he finished two books – Images of Soviet Architecture, a comprehensive view of masterpieces built in the Soviet Union over its 70-year history, and Soviet Diplomacy, an anthology of Soviet embassies, including his own, built in Nouakchott, Mauritania in 1977. In 1984, a popular Soviet publisher "Children Literature" published 100,000 copies of his book Formula of Architecture. It intrigued and inspired generations of young people to go into the profession. Novikov authored more architectural criticism than any other practicing Soviet/ Russian architect. He was the voice of a generation of Soviet modernists. Despite being trained in Classical traditions, modern architecture was his true passion and he will be remembered for christening the period of Soviet architecture from 1955 to 1985 as "Soviet modernism". His numerous publications contributed greatly to making Soviet modernism an integral part of the 20th century history of world architecture.
The architect belonged to the generation of so-called shestidesyatniki – those young people who were politically and culturally active and who first came into prominence in the 1960s, the time referred to as the Khrushchev’s Thaw that followed Stalin’s death, when the course of life changed drastically in the Soviet Union. Novikov was in his late 20s when he started winning important national architectural competitions and realising his projects that are now among the most celebrated buildings of the post-war period. Four of them – “Krasnopresnenskaya” Metro station, “Leningrad” Cinema Theater, Palace of Pioneers, all in Moscow, and the Main Scientific Center for Microelectronics in Zelenograd, near Moscow – earned national monument status and are protected by the state.
Felix Novikov was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, where his family lived until moving to Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi, Georgia) in 1933. From 1935, the family lived in Moscow where his father, a builder, was appointed the first deputy of the chief of the Construction Department at the Moscow Council, becoming the second person in the construction complex in the capital. Novikov studied architecture at the Moscow Architectural Institute (MArchI). After his graduation in 1950, he worked on projects in “Social Realism,” the mainstream style during Stalin’s times. Following Khrushchev’s speech at the All-Union Builders convention in the Kremlin on December 7, 1954, the profession was challenged to find new forms of expression – more economical and progressive. Novikov’s Palace of Pioneers, which he co-authored with Igor Pokrovsky, a classmate from MArchI and later the chief architect of Zelenograd for 38 years, and others, was one of the earliest seminal examples of modernist architecture for the new times. It was personally inaugurated and endorsed by Khrushchev in 1962.
The architect immigrated to the US with his wife, Galya Zhirmunskaya, also a distinguished architect, in 1992. They settled in Rochester, New York where their daughter with her family relocated earlier. Since then Novikov authored a dozen more books, initiated a major annual national architectural festival “Zodchestvo” in Moscow, participated in international conferences, delivered numerous lectures, and curated compelling exhibitions. What follows is a portion of my extensive interview with Felix Novikov that became his last. We spoke about his student years, the transition from Classical to modern principles in architecture, the atmosphere of working on his Palace of Pioneers, his favourite building, and what makes Soviet architecture different from any other.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): You studied architecture at the Moscow Architectural Institute during Stalin’s time when Classicism was the prevailing mode in architecture. Could you talk about the kind of projects you did then and immediately after graduation?
Felix Novikov (FN): Yes, that was the time when Classicism reigned supreme. Then Ivan Zholtovsky, the devoted follower of Andrea Palladio’s heritage and the art director of the institute, was the driver of this professional culture and its prophet. We were absolutely sure that we were going to continue designing such architecture for the rest of our lives. This architecture seemed to have been embedded in our flesh and bone. I have to say that the exploration of Classicism, historical orders, and so on, was quite fascinating. My thesis project was a covered stadium ringed with columns. My thesis professor was architect and academician Ivan Sobolev who invited me to join his workshop upon my graduation. With skill, a sure hand, and a fine line, from memory, he drew profiles of cornices, which we were supposed to take as an example. Soon he asked me to head a design of a 10-story residential building in Moscow. A couple of other similar projects followed. And then I participated in a competition for a metro station. All these projects were designed in Classical style – with richly decorated colonnades and all other expected details.
VB: I assume you enjoyed that, didn’t you?
FN: Of course. For example, when in 1954, we were designing “Krasnopresnenskaya” metro station we communicated with architect Leonid Polyakov. To me, he was the most original master of the after-war decade. He designed some of the best metro stations in Moscow and Leningrad. Polyakov invited me and my young colleagues to visit his workshop. At the time he was working on the design of the “Leningradskaya” hotel, one of Moscow’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers. He showed us details of an absolutely wonderful baroque Church of the Sign of Our Lady in Dubrovitsy near Podolsk where we went on a trip for a detailed examination. It was exciting.
VB: That fascination with Classism was going on until December 7, 1954, when Khrushchev delivered his fateful speech at the All-Union Builders convention in the Kremlin. From that moment on, a change of course begins, a fight against superfluities is announced, and Soviet architecture starts its transition from Stalinist to modernist. Could you talk about that?
FN: It was entirely out of the blue and no one in the profession expected any of this. His speech was prejudiced and sardonic. He blamed architects for creating “monuments to themselves” to flatter their own vanity, for being too involved with “theatrical, superficial aspects,” for “holding back progress in construction and failing to solve the housing problem,” and on and on. He addressed the leading architects as “dear” while referring to the cost of their buildings. It was a public beating. Architects became a standing joke for comedians. It was then that he said that buildings must have an “attractive appearance". But he did not specify what he meant. [Laughs.] The following year a resolution from the Party and the government, “On Eliminating Superfluities in Design and Construction,” was published. Many leading architects were stripped of their titles and prizes, and some were suspended from the head positions of their workshops, as happened to Polyakov. It was evident that the Party would no longer tolerate such architecture. Right after that architectural competitions were held for designing all building types. And there were significant monetary prizes to stimulate very broad participation.
VB: One of the most important requirements of the new resolution was that the architects were urged to use modern foreign experience. That’s what you told me before: “Soon, top architects went around the world in search of role models.”
FN: That’s right. Pavel Abrosimov, the head of the Union of Architects of the USSR, went to Italy; Alexander Vlasov, the chief architect of Moscow, went to the US; and Joseph Loveyko, who was Vlasov’s deputy while he was away, replaced him and went to France. Then each of them reported back their impressions to their colleagues at the hall of the Central House of Architects, which was full to capacity each time. I attended all three lectures. That’s how the first information about contemporary practice in the West was disseminated to us.
VB: And then there was your own trip to Italy. How did that opportunity come about?
FN: It was 1957, and that trip was organised by academician Zholtovsky for his “students". I was among those who were invited. With equal interest, we explored the masterpieces of both Classical and modern architecture. We went to Venice, Florence, and Rome. Among many great buildings, we explored the “Square Colosseum” in the EUR district and Palazzetto dello Sport by Pier Luigi Nervi, both in Rome.
VB: And I have very fond memories from our trip together to Rome about 10 years ago when you showed me these buildings and I took you to see some of the 21st century masterpieces there. But let me get back to your first trip to Italy. Soon after your return there came your finest hour. I am talking about your winning project in the competition for the construction of the Palace of Pioneers in Moscow in the company of several of your young colleagues, including your classmate from MArchI, Igor Pokrovsky.
FN: The competition was initiated by Loveyko in 1958 and it was organised among several workshops within our design institute, “Mospoject". The competition's expert was Nikolai Kolli, the co-author with Le Corbusier of Tsentrosoyuz Building in Moscow. He definitively supported our scheme. Then came the project’s review by the executive committee of Moscow’s leadership. Our scheme was presented by Loveyko himself. Suddenly, one of the members of the committee exclaimed, “Is this a palace?! Don’t we know what palaces look like?” Loveyko responded quite firmly, “It is with this example that we are going to teach everyone how to understand the new architecture!” No one argued with that last statement and we won!
Then the team was formed, and construction soon followed. The spirit of renewal, which dominated creative circles then, gave us incentives to employ all kinds of innovations and experiments. With each decision, we felt being true pioneers, and we were! And although everyone had a particular field to deal with, we exchanged ideas constantly and referred to this process as “cross-fertilisation". Sometimes it is said that Pokrovsky was the head of the project. That’s not true. He was our organiser, a leader.
VB: What kind of atmosphere was there, both during the design stage and at the construction site? Once you told me quite proudly, “We were all allowed!”
FN: Our commissioner was the Central Committee of Komsomol. They were all very young people and they trusted us completely. All our decisions were accepted as trustworthy and authoritative. They did not refuse us anything, they provided assistance in everything. This time, which is called the Thaw for a reason, had something in the atmosphere, something that required fresh ideas. In every sphere of culture, leaders appeared who were later called shestidesyatniki – of the 1960s – in theatre, cinema, literature, music, and fine arts. So, we felt to be shestidesyatniki of architecture. There was a certain element of idealism: the naïve belief that the Soviet regime could be transformed into what would later be referred to as Socialism “with a human face.” However, things fell short of expectations. Nevertheless, Soviet modernism was established for many years to come.
And what we did at the construction site, yes, we got away with quite a few things then. [Laughs.] Our site was set back from any frontage lines. So, whatever we did there could not be seen easily, and no one interfered with the process. Sometimes we dismantled parts that did not work the first time, we built mock-ups, tried different finishes, continued designing even during the construction phase, and many questions were resolved right on the spot without any technical drawings. In short, we experimented with great and genuine pleasure. I wish all buildings could be built this way.
VB: Let me read a quote from critic Alexander Ryabushin’s book New Horizons of Architectural Creativity in the 1970s-1980s about the meaning of the Palace: “It was here that the foundations of an entirely new architectural language were laid, the expedient and technically modern was rethought into what became significant aesthetically. The traditional monumentality and compactness were fundamentally opposed by the dissection of volumes, open plan, and free deployment of contour lines – internal and external. Here applications for radical innovations were established.”
FN: That’s right. Then the opening day took place on June 1, 1962. Khrushchev himself came to open it! He toured the whole complex and after cutting the ribbon said the following words in front of all the gathered people there: “What you have done here is good, very good. I like the inventions of architects and artists… I consider this building to be a good example of skill and architectural and artistic taste… I believe that it is difficult to arrive at a unanimous opinion when judging such buildings. Some like it, others do not. But I like your Palace, and I am offering my opinion.” This recognition was hugely important. Then there were acclamatory reviews in the press. It was a success.
VB: I think it will be correct to say that architecture that was being developed in the 1960s focused primarily on such projects as the Palace.
FN: Absolutely. Buildings designed in such spirit started getting built all over the country in huge quantities. Of course, Khrushchev’s main objective was social. This architecture was meant to solve the most acute housing shortage. So, the main benefit of his resolution was in creating industrial construction of housing and millions of Soviet people soon started moving into their individual apartments. And from the point of view of specific architecture, Khrushchev endorsed the Palace’s aesthetics and, therefore, modernist architecture. Most likely without realising it, he returned Soviet architecture to the mainstream of world development. And for the next 30 years, Soviet architecture continued its movement in this direction.
During the last year of the Palace’s construction phase, I remained the only one out of seven original authors still actively working on the project. The others were transferred to new assignments. So, I was lucky to show it to many dignitaries who started coming for tours from all over the world. Among those who came were a famous duo of Czech explorers Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund, architects Lucio Costa and Alvar Aalto, artists Nadia and Fernand Leger, and writer Jean-Paul Sartre. There were many other creatives.
VB: You once noted, “The main quality of a true artist is the ability to break stereotypes. More so, it brings a great deal of pleasure.”
FN: My primary objection was always to avoid resemblance to other works and to achieve a certain harmony with the land and particularities of place. I think the highest accomplishment of any architectural work is being cinematic. It translates to the ability to demonstrate itself as a continuous series of vantage points, both outside and inside.
VB: Based on this characteristic, in your opinion, which building built in the Soviet times can be identified as the most cinematic?
FN: Interestingly, I could name just one building. It is the House of Industry in Kharkiv, Ukraine built in 1928 to the design of Sergei Serafimov. At that moment, nothing of the kind was built either by Le Corbusier or Mies. It was an absolute sensation – the scale and breadth of space, building wings of different heights, and pedestrian bridges between them. You must see it in person. It makes a huge impression. In my opinion, it is the most valuable work in all Soviet architectural heritage – a huge urban complex that so organically encircles the space of a semicircular public square. It is like a whole city of powerful plasticity and energetic rhythms, and it is interesting to look at from all angles. Like no other, this building reflects the pathos of that time. It's stronger, it's more emotional, and it was built before anything else on this scale. Yet, I would not compare this building, for example, with what was built at the end of the 20th century and even more so at the beginning of the 21st. Because I judge everything based on my own experience and concepts, which were formed back in the sixties. So, I don't think I can impartially assess the architecture of recent years. Now there are other technologies and other forms. Let it be judged by the new generation of architects. Serafimov’s building represents Soviet Constructivism, the work I did can be summarised as Soviet modernism, Charles Jencks defined the architecture of his time as Post-Modernist. And the name of today's architecture will be given by someone else.
VB: What would you say distinguishes Soviet modernism from modernist architecture in the West?
FN: First, no other country had such a variety. Just think of it, architecture in every Soviet republic had its own face – Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, and so on. This multinational diversity was not expressed in the architecture of the Avant-garde but was clearly manifested both in Stalinist architecture and in the architecture of Soviet modernism. And I doubt that this will ever happen again in the future.
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