Tony Fretton reflects on early Communist-era architects following his recent trip to Krasnodar and Moscow
Days in Moscow can make you enthusiastic – for Constructivist buildings that had so much influence on the later modern movement, for Le Corbusier’s Centrosoyuz, which was the definitive model for large government office buildings in the 20th century, but also for the pleasure of the classical city itself and its interplay with earlier architecture, Soviet public buildings and urban re-ordering.
Between 1918 and 1930 there was an intense search for architecture to realise the public and cultural buildings that the state required. It was a search, or perhaps battle that was not just the privilege of architects, but also of the very highest political forces and personalities. Architectural ideas were strongly contested and new architectural schools thrived. As the exhibition The Forge of Great Architecture: Soviet Competitions of the 1920s-50s at the Schusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow shows, Modernism was by no means the only possible outcome. Noi Trotsky’s submission for the Palace of Labour competition of 1922 was a strange Neo-Byzantine scheme, Andrei Belogrud’s a concatenation of the Italian vernacular, and Ilya Golosov’s a bizarre combination of mechanistic and traditional motifs. However, the two main contenders were Modernism and Neoclassicism.
Competitions for politically significant buildings, such as the Lenin Library and Mikhail Frunze Military Academy, attracted very fine Modernist work, but Neoclassical schemes were chosen. Other projects such as the Moskva Hotel began as Modernism and ended as Neoclassicism. Classicism in its full form and in Classicised domestic vernacular that can be seen in pre-modern Moscow provided a body of examples for the design of buildings, interiors and urban spaces that represented the social and ideological hierarchies of the ancien régime.
I am no apologist for the dark moments of the Soviet period
Soviet Neoclassicism purged those representations and redeployed Classical motifs and monumental scale to show the power of the Soviet state, and figurative sculpture to pictorialise the role of the proletariat within it. Modernism, in contrast, sought a new architecture from objective examination of facts, which, being abstract, was free of previous representations; an architecture that wanted to let the mass of people to feel legitimacy within a new society. Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers’ Club and Golosov’s Zuev House of Culture show this at the scale of small cultural groups; Le Corbusier’s Centrosoyuz and his unbuilt project for the Palace of Soviets at the most public; while Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfim building attempted it through a plan of minimal apartments and collective facilities.
The energy, intense enquiry and directness that was characteristic of this period of the Modern Movement is evident in the Izvestia building by Grigori Barkhin, Ginzburg’s Narkomfim housing and perhaps most brilliantly the work of the Vesin brothers. The facts of a building, its floors, walls and windows, become the architecture, brilliantly and simply composed. Melnikov, despite his Constructivist work and pavilion, which represented the Soviet Union in the 1925 Paris exhibition, occupies a less clear position. His house, with its adamant circular form, old-fashioned furnishings and single sleeping space for the whole family, shows him to be a formalist and mystic.
Diversity of approach seems to have been possible in the Soviet Union within a strong and very competent architectural and planning culture. Despite their forbidding nature, the Stalinist buildings in Moscow are surprising well composed, located and constructed. By the 1950s Modernism was the established style and architects across the Soviet bloc were producing local, often very idiosyncratic versions that owed nothing to the West. An example is the Russian Academy of Sciences building next to the Moscow river, by Yuri Platonov and others, which, along with architecture from other Soviet regions, will eventually find its place in the history of Modernism.
Moscow can also show you something else: how endemically propagandist Western governments and media are in their triumphalism of capitalism over the fall of the Soviet regime. I am no apologist for the dark moments of the Soviet period, but objectively something extraordinary happened: a workers’ state was created at massive scale and in a very short period, with all of its political and cultural institutions and the architecture and planning for their delivery.
Contrast that with the production of the recent towers – tasteless ornaments on the mantel shelf of the Moscow skyline, pure visual and financial commodities that are the product of an unholy alliance between developers and their coterie of international architectural courtesans. Global capitalism, which so airily allowed them in Russia, is also destroying the wealth and security of working people in all sectors in the West by exporting jobs, destroying employment security and minimising the social state. But perhaps not for much longer. As criticism grows, it is worth looking at the other histories of our times.