Unapologetic in their colossal scale and glorification of the state's regime, gigantic buildings of Soviet architecture dominated panoramas and urban landscapes of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. With many of these buildings still standing today, surviving examples of Soviet architecture are a great reminder of just how dominant pieces of architecture can be, as well as how buildings can be reminiscent of prominent political ideas. Drawing inspiration from revolutionary ideas and concepts popular with avant-garde painting and sculpture, architects like Konstantin Melnikov, Ivan Leonidov and the Vesnin brothers worked with their state in order to achieve the social concept of changing the man by reordering his environment.
Nowadays, Soviet architecture tends to have a bad reputation. Once meant to extol the grandeur of the workers’ social realm, these buildings are today usually used to describe the most austere buildings in the history of architecture. The biggest flaw many see within the principles of Soviet architecture is that their way of combining monolithic with modern is just unappealing to the eye. Despite such claims, Soviet architecture is a fascinating delight to behold and study, it presents a unique combination of styles that is simultaneously futuristic and weirdly old-fashioned. It is unmatched in vitality and creativity as well. These latter statements are what we will be aiming to prove via this article as we investigate the history and characteristics of Soviet architecture, as well as reveal the most remarkable buildings of the era.
The bloody events of the Russian Revolution of 1917 echoed throughout the nation, ending the tsarist empire and giving rise to the communist regime of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Covering nearly one-sixth of the Earth’s surface, the new state stretched from the Balkans to the Bering Strait. With over one-hundred different nationalities living within the new Soviet borders, the centralized government sought a visual vocabulary that could unite its diverse people under one collective social banner. Believing that buildings were a perfect means of both displaying power and reflecting the ideas of communism, the leaders of USSR decided that the best course of action would be investing in building.
Starting shortly after the revolution, and particularly after Joseph Stalin came to power in the 1920s, architecture was increasingly called upon to reinforce Soviet rhetoric and collective identity throughout the realm. Fearing that the Western nations would look down on Russia for its lack of modern European amenities, the region’s top architects were called upon to erect numerous buildings and no expense was spared. These pieces of Soviet architecture had features that did not change dramatically over the course of the USSR's existence, among which the most important were monumentality, industrial motifs and a strained mix of classicism and modernism. All the decorative and anti-social traits of the imperialistic architecture were denounced. One of the more influential pieces during the early time was Vladimir Tatlin's 1919 Tower of the Third Internationale - а 400-meter spiral, wound around a tilted central axis with rotating glass chambers. This piece was a massive inspiration to constructivist Russian architects and one of the first buildings to be made in its honor was The Shukhov Tower, completed in 1922 in Moscow by Vladimir Shukhov.
From the moment Josef Stalin gained control over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, architecture immediately became a priority. Although monumental works were the highlight of the era, one of the most intriguing changes were applied to domestic buildings . The so-called communal apartments became the most common type of accommodation for the residents of large cities. People in Moscow were the first to see most of these buildings built as their city was always the priority in the USSR. The first apartment building of this period was completed in 1923, followed by a surge of public-housing constructions between 1925 and 1929. Each family would be assigned one room, while the bathroom, toilet and kitchen were shared by the same floor neighbors. This uncomfortable characteristic was, however, changed in the early 1930s when the principle of having private bathrooms and kitchens was accepted. The House on the Embankment in Moscow, built in the period of 1927-1931, is a good example of such a structure.
The most representative and famous construction of this time was Lenin's Mausoleum designed by Alexey Shchusev. Originally made as a wooden structure with two separate wings, the Mausoleum was reconstructed and made in stone during the year of 1930. The mixture of dark red and black labradorite enhanced its slender, precise construction and Shchusev's structure served as undeniable proof of the state's power and the validity of communism.
As the USSR went through a rapid series of technological advancements in the early 1930s, many new architectural processes and materials were suddenly available. Such a situation resulted in many new structural features, like the traditional outline of the window arches and the curved rhythmic pattern of foundations. Still relying on the visual expression of large elements combined with industrial motifs, architects introduced a new type of public building: the Workers' Club and the Palace of Culture. The most famous example of these was the Zuev Club in Moscow designed by Ilya Golosov, a monumental structure that relied on the dynamic contrast of simple shapes, planes, complete walls and glazed surfaces. The Rusakov Workers' Club in Moscow is also an often mentioned building of this sort as its architect, Konstantin Melnikov, highlighted the sharpness of the composition and the transition of internal spaces. Melnikov became a pioneer of the Russian building practice, designing dynamic, modular works that captured the spirit of the emerging Soviet state. The house he built for himself in 1929 is a prime indicator of why this is so.
The mid-1930s were marked by a rapid urbanization as a result of Stalin's governmental policies. Many communal apartments were built during this stage of Soviet architecture, but these years were also the time when the international competition to build the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow took place. This was a project to construct an administrative center and a congress hall near Kremlin. Boris Iofan's draft was declared the winner and the foundations were laid in 1939. Unfortunately, this project was over before it started as WW II erupted and placed Russia in a central role of it. After the horrors of the conflict ended, the focus was mostly placed on rebuilding destroyed buildings. However, the victor of WWII could not possibly be expected to merely lick his own wounds and recover from the war. Seven high-rise buildings known as the Seven Sisters were built at symbolic locations in the Moscow area. These skyscrapers still loom over the Moscow skyline today. Another priority to erect, the construction of the Moscow University was started in 1948. This project was spearheaded by Lev Rudnev and is particularly notable for its use of space. Numerous stations of the Moscow and Saint Petersburg Metros were as well built during the 1940s and early 1950s, renowned for their lavish design and rich decoration.
Ultimately, Stalinist architecture changed the appearances of most metropolises within the USSR - many of these constructions survive to this day. However, after the iron rule of Stalin came to an end following the leader's death in 1953, both the social and political transformations shook the country to its core. Constructing monumental buildings that were celebrating the communist ideal was suddenly a much smaller priority than it was during Joseph's reign. In 1955, Nikita Khrushchev was troubled by the slow pace of housing construction and sought a way to accelerate this process. He devised an idea that called for mass-producing all the repetitive segments of buildings and removing all decorative extras from buildings. Suddenly, elements like the openings for doors and windows were produced in an assembly line and later installed on the actual residences. Apartments built in such a fashion were appropriately called block houses. Standardized and dull, these houses had only two goals - being practical and cheap. The concept of mass-producing also put an end to the Stalinist era of Soviet architecture.
As the buildings became repetitive, square and mild, they brought with them a new style fueled by the one and only goal: functionality. However, this was primarily aimed to be the sole purpose of apartment buildings intended for regular folk. The state still wanted to produce monumental edifices that were intended to show just how mighty the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was, but the new-founded idea of functionality had a massive impact even on the most representative examples of Soviet architecture. The State Kremlin Palace, for instance, is a great indicator of how architects attempted to bridge rapidly changing styles dictated by the top of the state. The Ostankino Tower, a project designed by Nikolai Nikitin, is also an interesting topic of the effect functionality had on the buildings of the state. All in all, this period of Soviet architecture is remembered for its monotonous appearance and stereotypical copying of buildings.
When Leonid Brezhnev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1964, it seemed as if nothing will change on the architectural front. However, as the mid-1970s were passing by, the General Secretary opted to allow more leeway and creative freedom to architects. From that point on, housing projects of varied design were built around the state. Apartment buildings were taller and enhanced with details, with often decorative touches like the addition of large mosaics on the exterior. In nearly all cases, such buildings were not constructed as standalone projects but were a part of large estates which became the new core feature of social architecture. Each complex contained an area with a yard for walks, a playground for children and vast sites for parking. This is a way of organizing residential space that is still in use today. The Central Research Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics is a good contrast to this time as it represents a sharp contradiction to the bleak brutalism often associated with Soviet architecture.
Unfortunately, Soviet architecture in its final stages did not offer many monumental constructions, as the state preferred to concentrate on producing building blocks. This does not mean that no projects were planned, however, but most of these ideas never went far from the initial planning part. Such projects were accepted and then delayed for decades with most of them never being put into motion. This was the condition in which Soviet architecture met its end when the USSR fell apart in the year of 1991. Since then, the Russian state had no direct say or ultimate control over what theme a building should have as the people running the country decided that the eighty-year long tradition of dictating what can and can't be built is counter-productive. However, the results of Soviet architecture were not treated as a remainder of the times the USSR was doing something wrong with its architecture - in fact, its remaining buildings serve as delightful remnants of a long period that defined Russia as a nation. Different and strange, monumental and brave, secular and governmental, futuristic and traditional - all of these traits are present in Soviet architecture and are the what make it such a true gem of the 20th-century.
Editors’ Tip: Pioneers of Soviet Architecture
The years between 1917 and 1932 marked a fertile period in Soviet architecture. Drawing from revolutionary ideas and from painting and sculpture, architects like Melnikov, Leonidov, and the Vesnins worked with their new state to change man by reordering the environment. The architecture is unmatched in vitality and creativity. The study of Pioneers of Soviet Architecture is the most comprehensive to date. Although the text is leaden stylistically, with over 1500 illustrations, including rare plans and photographs, Pioneers of Soviet Architecture will be an invaluable sourcebook for students of history, politics and architecture. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in discovering the initial and genuine nature of the 20th-century Soviet architecture.
Featured Images: Alexey Shchusev - Lenin's Mausoleum - Image via about-eastern-europe.com ; Vladimir Shukhov - The Shukhov Tower, 1922 - Image via architecturaldigest.com ; Ilya Golosov - The Zuev Workers' Club - Image via unofficialculture.com