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This lecture is based on Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 book, which I co-authored with Soviet architect Felix Novikov. The book is intended to destroy the myth of architecture of the Soviet modernism as being exclusively cheaply built mass-produced panel housing. It presents an anthology of 100 built works - very expressive and elegant exceptions. As any style, Soviet modernism should be judged by its best creative achievements. This lecture explores 25 projects.
Currently Soviet modernism is enjoying good momentum. Two new titles - by French photographer Frederic Chaubin. His images became the subject of traveling exhibitions around the world. The second book - Unsung Icons of Soviet Design by Michael Idov. It is a nostalgic view that presents the history of industrial/product design and is a great source for understanding the context and the aesthetics of the Soviet Modernism period.

Soviet architecture has produced three major periods: constructivist architecture (1920-32) with many great buildings by such architects as V. Shukhov, A. Dushkin, S. Serafimov, N. Ladovsky, I. Golosov, and K. Melnikov. The second period is known for architecture in the Social Realism style (1932-55). The third period Soviet modernism lasted for 30 years (1955-85).

The story of Soviet Modernism cannot be told without recalling the architectural context in the mid-1950s. These are Moscow high rises, known internationally as Moscow Sisters or wedding cake buildings. They went into construction in 1947, the year of 800-year Anniversary of Moscow. They constitute the most vivid examples of Stalin’s Empire Style and were meant to be the hymn to the victory of the Soviet Union in World War Two. From early 1930s when Stalin reorganized the profession by pushing avant-garde into Socialist Realism or Stalin’s Empire Style, Soviet architecture followed classical model and by mid 1950s it reached its climax. Architecture within the USSR followed its own rules and everything that was going on outside its borders was either ignored or ridiculed. The exploration of Roman and Greek prototypes was natural as the country was in the process of erecting a new powerful empire and in search for its own architectural symbols.
Moscow University

The Seven Sisters were conceived as Soviet respond to the American skyscrapers. Famous American skyscrapers adorned by classical and gothic details became the obvious prototypes for these trophy buildings in Moscow: Woolworth Building, The Municipal Building, Wrigley Building in Chicago, and the Terminal Building in Cleveland. By 1940s and 1950s America was already building very different high-rises of modern materials such as concrete and glass.

Other most expressive examples of Soviet architecture of the mid 1950s: Government building in Baku, Azerbaijan; Central Pavilion of the All-Union Exhibition of People’s Economic Achievements; the main symbol of the Exhibition, the People’s Friendship Fountain, encircled by a ring of gold-plated, sister-friend statues symbolizing the union of all republics of the USSR. And finally, Moscow Hippodrome, built in 1955 was designed by the leading neoclassical architect Ivan Zholtovsky. Its monumental pediment holds an exuberant, theatrical display of Roman architecture with an imposing central quadriga, prancing stallions, and muscular figures of workers and farmers.
Another example is a metro station in Moscow Krasnopresnenskaya. It was designed by Felix Novikov, the co-author of the Soviet Modernism book. Novikov graduated from Moscow School of Architecture in 1950 and for 5 years practiced architecture in neoclassical style. Just like all of his colleagues at the time he would not dare to question the validity of their architecture since there was simply no other kind of architecture.

The following 4 key events in mid-1950s defined the direction for Soviet architecture for the next 30 years:

March 5, 1953 Josef Stalin, the ideological leader of the Empire dies.

December 7, 1954 Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet Leader delivered his speech at the All-Union Builders Conference in the Kremlin. This speech denounced social realism favored by Stalin. Architects were blamed for designing expensive/antisocial buildings. A war on superfluities in architecture has begun. The most talented architects as was the case with the constructivists 20 years earlier were stripped of their honors and banned from practice and teaching.

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 any not standard design. Special committees were formed to evaluate the use of expensive materials and finishes. Indirectly this document opened the national borders; all architects were trained according to classical traditions and therefore modern architecture could only be learned abroad. One supreme goal was set – to provide every Soviet family with an individual apartment.

February 25, 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev denounced personality cult of Stalin. The entire Stalin epoch was condemned. Interestingly, the blame for architectural “sins” was put on the architects personally as they were accused before the personality cult speech.

In mid 1950s western architects were preoccupied with very different kind of architecture. Examples: Exhibition Pavilion, Turin by Pier Louigi Nervi; United Nations Headquarters, NY; 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago by Mies and Ronchamp Chapel by Le Corbusier. New architecture attracted Soviet architects with its plasticity, transparency, airiness, spatial complexity, innovative use of materials, refined details, abstract imagery, and beauty of contrast forms. There was some resistance  at first towards new architecture, but as they traveled abroad the will to embrace Modernism prevailed.

There was a sense of optimism everywhere. On the right slide a couple with their dormitory friends, not noticing any dirt, walks right through construction site, dreaming of one day living in their own individual apartment.
To better understand that time and what new residential buildings meant to the population in mid-1950s it is necessary to imagine the context of the time when millions of people lived in communal apartments, sometimes shared by dozens of families in buildings on the verge of collapse. This slide shows decrepit, barely standing houses of “Cheremushki” village, now in Moscow. In their place a new complex of residential towers also called “Cheremushki” was built. To get an apartment in such a new building was the ultimate Soviet dream. These buildings without top and bottom were built all over the Soviet Union despite the distinct cultural, climactic, and geographic differences.
Look-alike, five-story houses dominated the everyday lives of millions of people. Still these buildings provided millions of ordinary citizens with individual apartments. Construction time of a typical building took just 12-15 days with 30 days on interior fit out. On average, a building could be built in just 1-1/2 months. In just 9 years 54 million people or a quarter of the Soviet population moved into their dream apartments.
One of the earliest experimental examples of new style - Cinema Rossiya in the heart of Moscow on Pushkin Square. It houses Moscow International Film Festival. The main hall originally had a capacity for 2,500 seats and two smaller halls for 200 seats each, now transformed into a restaurant and a night club. The expansive glass façade was no less impressive at that time than today, for example, the form and materials of the Central Seattle Library by Rem Koolhaas - it did not look like other buildings. The building is now the subject of a conceptual competition to redesign its façade as a landmark for the future.
Palace of Pioneers in Moscow also became one of the first true experiments of Soviet modernism. To this day it makes a clean and effective impression. On the upper left photo the young architects discuss details of their composition. Note their faces full of enthusiasm. How often do you see so much life on a face of an architect today? There were many innovations here – open composition with blurred boundaries between interiors and landscape, pure geometric forms, light structures, deep cantilevers, new materials and finishes. Many particular solutions of these young architects were made during construction and were spontaneous and emotional in character. The palace became testing ground of a very young group of architects.

Khrushchev who was critical of local architecture up to this point was very fond of the project. He personally opened the palace and offered his positive review. He said at the opening: "Some like it, others may not like it... But I like it." The project became a showcase of Soviet architecture and renewal process. It was often visited by dignitaries and such famous architects as Alvaro Aalto and Lucio Costa.

A tiny dynamic Customs House at the Finnish border is a very expressive structure. It can be imagined as having top and bottom:
The bottom sends us back in time to Crown Hall by Mies while the top is much more modern and can be related to a folded concrete ceiling by Foreign Office in Yokohama built more than 30 years later.   

Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics in Kaluga, Russia shows a very unusual dynamic composition with locked in place soft form of the off-centered parabolic dome of the planetarium which appropriately recalls a spaceship.

Here is another building that looks like a blasting off space rocket. TV Tower Ostankino is a vivid example of unique architecture. Only structures with unique programs could have hoped for unique architecture. This beautiful profile can be associated with a number of very different images such as syringe, rocket, and an upside down lily. Engineer N. Nikitin came up with his image in just one night. And really – that’s all you need! With its impressive height of over half a kilometer it was the world’s tallest structure when completed and still is the tallest in Europe. It is built of monolith concrete. Embraced by church spires, nearby, the tower looks like a modern-day cathedral of technology. At the height of 350 meters there is an observation tower and rotating restaurant surely called the Seventh Heaven.

TV studios, an observatory, and rotating restaurant Seventh Heaven;

the base in a form of an upside down lily.

Most of the featured projects were typically designed by groups of architects rather than a single visionary. One of the key architects of that period was Mikhail Posokhin . He was the chief architect of Moscow for 22 years. On the left photo he is walking along his Kremlin Palace of Congresses, controversially placed within historical Kremlin surrounded by palaces and cathedrals from 14th to 19th centuries. The right image shows his major project – a residential, office, and commercial complex on Kalinin Prospekt with Hotel Ukraine, one of Seven Sisters’ buildings in the background.
Kalinin Prospekt is a major thoroughfare with four office buildings on one side and five residential towers on the other. The office buildings are shaped as open books. These buildings are united by a common commercial base. The office buildings house eight ministries with two mid-height floors for ministers.
Five residential buildings were built on the other side of the street. Everything from overall composition to street furniture and window displays was done according to a single integrated project. The complex was criticized for destroying historical fabric at the very heart of the city. Nevertheless, this urban complex is distinguished for its strong contemporary and unified character.
The same architect was responsible for another impressive structure, SEV Building (Counsel of Economic Development) which culminates the Kalinin Prospekt Complex. It opens to the Moscow-River and is oriented with its main façade on Kutuzovsky Prospect over the bridge, on the other side of the river.
This building’s unusually dynamic form is made up of two softly bent wings connected by elevators’ hallways. This simple solution presents a very effective and convincing form – one of the most expressive buildings in Moscow which is perceived very differently from all sides and changes its appearance from every point.
This form can compete with the most original contemporary towers and in its own way it continues the theme of glass skyscraper in architecture. The Lake Point Tower in Chicago was built just one year earlier. Similarly it is coming out of a common base and features a shamrock floor plan. On the other hand, SEV Building also recalls one of the towers by Ivan Leonidov – his competition project for Ministry of Heavy Industry on Red Square in 1934. And even before that the theme of the glass skyscraper was explored by Mies van der Rohe in his project for Berlin in 1921.
This is the current view of one of the Seven Sisters – a residential building on Kudrinskaya Square by Mikhail Posokhin. The building on the left side, a commercial center was built in 2002 by another Mikhail Posokhin, the son of the famous architect. It is built in still popular in Russia postmodernist style. Architects in Moscow call this building couple – big Posokhin and small Posokhin. 
Hotel “Inturist” was built in the heart of Moscow and became Soviet version of the Seagram Building. Of course, the construction of such tall modern building in the midst of neoclassical buildings right next to the Kremlin was not a wise decision. Still the decision to demolish this building in early 2000s was also a mistake. It is wrong to erase important occurrences in history so much more so because the building which was built in its place has a suspicious credibility.

Hotel Ritz-Carlton designed by Andrey Meerson was built in place of Hotel “Inturist” in 2006. It reflects the tastes of wealthy Muscovites of the first decade of the 21st century.

Residential Building on Begovaya Street was built in 1975. The building has a very distinct powerful appearance with both vertical and horizontal rhythms of concrete elements many of which are mass produced and put together into a very expressive composition. The monolith supports here recall piloties of Marseille Block by Le Corbusier. What does this building have in common with the one shown on the previous slide? They were designed by the same architect. One of the key figures of experimental Soviet modernism in the ‘60s and ‘70s at the end of his career could not resist the pressure from clients capitalizing on popular tastes.
Another residential building on stilts, also by Novikov. The building is called Flute because of its very narrow proportions and the distinct rhythm of stair towers which recall flute keys. The building was built in 1969 in Zelenograd near Moscow. It is over half a kilometer long. We can talk about the merits of this design, but what is more curious is that it became the first building in the entire city built to a custom design. All other residential buildings at the time were built according to one typical design. The reason for this project to be different was the shortage of one bedroom apartments for young scientists. The architects used this as an excuse for their unique design which apart from typical small apartments features eight duplex apartments for families with many children. In the early years residential buildings were all five stories.
A stadium in Krasnoyarsk, Russia built in 1968. Sports facilities often were built to one of a kind custom designs and this is one of such examples. This expressive design along Enisey River recalls one of supermatist compositions of pure forms by Malevich.

Another original stadium “Razdan” built in 1973 in Yerevan, Armenia. This arena is beautifully placed into a slope of mountain range near Razdan River. Powerful reinforced concrete stands make the structure look monumental and expressive.

Soviet Empire was one of the most multicultural countries in history. The next project is in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In 1966 it suffered from a powerful earthquake. Very few people died then, but most of the old city was destroyed, leaving about 300 thousand residents or a third of the population homeless. The entire country mobilized its resources and in just three years the city was rebuilt. The government decided to build modern buildings instead of restoring the old ones. It was a big chance for architects. Lenin Museum in Tashkent, built in 1970 is a good example of how multiculturalism affected Soviet architecture. The Soviet Central Asian Republics became the true laboratory of local form, materials, and ornaments.
Concrete decorative grilles used here are based on traditional Uzbek sunscreen called Panzhara. It is a rare example in Soviet architecture influenced by local culture.

On the other hand, such architecture was not new outside of the Soviet Union. Buildings in Tashkent and other Central Asian republics evoke much earlier projects by American modernist Edward Durell Stone. The design for his 1959 American Embassy in New Delhi, India recalls at once the finest edifices in Indian architecture with its use of concrete sunscreens and symbolizes the might and power of the United States. Nonetheless, in their search for ways of uniting contemporary architecture with local culture the Soviet architects expressed their own fresh view.

Administrative Building in Rapla, Estonia built in 1971. Multifunctional interior reflects in its form the octagon on the exterior. Despite modest scale the building conveys monumentality of structures of pre Columbian civilization. It also recalls a launching pad and other almost fictional fantastic structures.
Moscow Institute of Electronics (MIET) built in Zelenograd in 1971. Again Novikov is one of the architects here. This architecture has some parallels in character with architecture of Louis Kahn. Unusually complex spatial organization can be better seen in the building’s section through a series of open multistory spaces and skylights.
A few more images depicting library and lecture hall interiors flooded with natural light as well as their organic relation to well-balanced exterior forms.
Residential District Ladzinai in Vilnus, Lithuania built in 1972 was considered to be the best in the country. Even by today’s standards it is a well-balanced composition both formally and from the point of view of public services. The architects used well the typography overlooking a nearby river. The buildings used for this composition are grouped by various heights and lengths. The central pedestrian boulevard with public and commercial buildings acts as the compositional armature.
Youth Palace in Yerevan, Armenia was a circular in plan hotel building. Nicknamed “corncob” because of its form and loggia profiles it was once the tallest building in the city. It recalls two Marina-City towers in Chicago by Bertrand Goldberg built in 1964. Nevertheless, the building presents its own image and strong presence. On the right photo it is shown against a picturesque view over Ararat Mountain in neighboring Turkey. In early 2000s the building was demolished. A new tower designed by a young Japanese architect will be built in its place.
Cinema “Rossiya” also in Yerevan. The two main movie theaters are articulated by gradually curving bottoms and are suspended over the common foyer, forming deep canopies over public plaza. The building’s design is based on mountain Ararat shown on the previous slide.
Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, Georgia by architect George Chakhava is one of the most well-known and original buildings ever built in the USSR. It is appropriately associated with a multilevel highway intersection. The unique situation here is that this building’s architect was at once the client and the designer. At the time the architect headed the Ministry of Highways. The building is located on a very steep slope right next to the river.
The use of very deep cantilevers minimized the ground area occupied by the building which not only allowed to retain most of the site untouched, but also allowed to build the necessary number of offices in a smaller number of floors. There are five double height bars – two along the river and three – perpendicular. The building is 18-stories tall.

The Ministry of Highways building continues the theme of horizontal skyscrapers, a popular direction in architecture. Horizontal skyscrapers project was first proposed by El Lissitsky for Moscow in 1925.

Similar project was conceived by Steven Holl in 2006.

Similar projects: office building in Madrid (1981); World Trade center competition project by Steven Holl, Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, and Charles Guathmey (2002); Rem Koolhaas’ skyscraper proposal for St. Petersburg in a form of architectons by Malevich (2006); the Museum Plaza in Louisville, Kentucky by Joshua Prince Ramus (2009); and by another disciple of Rem Koolhaas Ole Scheeren in Kuala Lumpur (2010).
Automotive Service Center in Moscow was designed by one of the key architects of the Soviet period, Leonid Pavlov whose architecture featured grand urban scale in the spirit of Le Corbusier. The building features a very contemporary form and looks somewhat like striving forward aircraft. The building is triangular in plan and is distinguished by flat skirt-like features pointing down.
The building’s triangular form and the way it is floating over the ground recall a recent building by Herzog & de Meuron in Barcelona. Today the building in Moscow is covered by advertising beyond recognition and its future fate remains in question.
Olympic Cycle Track was built in Moscow for 1980 Olympics. Despite some awkward moments in its segmented outline the overall form is very graceful. The steel-clad roof evokes a hovering giant butterfly. This is one of the most plastic and expressive structures in post-war Soviet architecture. The Olympics took place one year after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and 50 countries boycotted this event. This action was mirrored at the next Olympics in Los Angeles when Soviet-bloc countries did not compete there.
Obviously the Olympic Cycle Track was not without prototypes. Sports arenas in Japan and the USA without a doubt influenced Soviet architects. Yet, the building in Moscow succeeded in having its own distinct image and character.
Sports and Concerts Complex in Yerevan, Armenia reminds aliens landing from another planet.
But surely, this building could never be imagined without TWA Terminal at JFK Airport by Eero Saarinen in New York built more than 20 years earlier. Nevertheless, the building in Yerevan has its own originality and expressiveness.
Finally, a few original circular buildings. This is Durov Animal Theater in Moscow built for children’s circus, run by the same family for generations since 1912. The building is a play of round volumes adorned by animals’ sculptures. The building in the background is the Red Army Theater, built in 1940 in a shape of a five-pointed star in plan. It is one of the most vivid examples of Stalin’s formalist architecture.
Zvarnotz International Airport in Yerevan. The round central building, its inner yard, and the round restaurant with control tower hovering over it – all are accentuated by a rhythm of the leaning concrete pylons and glazing.
Expansion was conceived in a form of a twin terminal.

One of the obvious inspirations for this building is another airport – Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris designed by Paul Andreu.  Yet, this project was also based on the image of an ancient temple Zvarnotz, ruins of which remain nearby. Ironically, a world renowned Saint Chappelle built in the 13th century in Paris features a stone tablet with Noah’s Ark in front of Zvarnotz Temple. According to the bible it was mountain Ararat where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the World’s flood. Therefore architectural imagery bounces back and forth from Yerevan to Paris and back to Yerevan.

Sanatorium “Druzhba” (Friendship) was built in Yalta, Ukraine in 1985 by Igor Vasilevsky, the son of marshal Vasilevsky, one of the key generals under Stalin. This unusual structure is more associated with a giant mechanism than a building.

Another dramatic view of a dramatic building. On the right there is an interior swimming pool. If Le Corbusier called his residential buildings machines for living, this building can be called a machine for resting.

A section through the building, which looks much softer and humanistic than the actual building and is somewhat reminiscent of wonderful drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sanatorium in Yalta takes us back to the experimental times of projects by Konstantin Melnikov in which he often explored a theme of circles and gear wheels. Here are three well-known projects by Melnikov – 1934 competition project for Ministry of Heavy Industry on Red Square, House of the architect built in 1929 out of two interlocking cylinders, and famous Rusakov Club that looks like a giant fragment of a gear wheel.


Several circular buildings I shoed last as a symbol that explorations of architectural forms are unlimited and will progress endlessly despite the political circumstances in which architects work.


The buildings by Soviet architects have concrete emotional connection with both contemporary world architecture and Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s. They deserve not only the attention and respect from the profession but also the protection as important world heritage from the Russian government and international community.