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The Empire’s Last Style

A view from the XXI century



“The Empire’s Last Style” was published in English and Russian in Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985: An Anthology in October 2010 by TATLIN Publishers. The book features original black and white photographs of one hundred Soviet modernist buildings selected by architect Felix Novikov and Vladimir Belogolovsky.



A clean break with history is the main feature of modernism. But nowhere in the world was such a break with tradition and a transition to modernism as abrupt and broad-based as in the Soviet Union. The speech of Nikita Khrushchev at the closing of the All-Union Builders’ Conference in the Kremlin on December 7, 1954, halted the fully developed architecture of the Stalin period and redefined the essence of the Soviet architects’ creative focus for three decades to come. Despite the fact that the period from 1955 through 1985 did not yield new Corbusiers or Melnikovs to the world, a distinctive architecture known as Soviet modernism emerged nonetheless. This is how it was defined by Felix Novikov, at whose initiative the exhibition Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 was mounted at the Schusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow. In this anthology, he shared the story of how Stalinist architecture was overtaken by modernism, the goals set before the Soviet architects, the conditions of their practice, and presented an album of one hundred built works embodying this creative transformation.  


In the twentieth century, contemporary architecture developed largely uninterrupted with sparks of great imagination in various parts of the world, including Western Europe, North America, Brazil, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Russia can also be counted among these, but only until 1932, when its architectural profession was reorganized by Stalin. The core of modernism in the pre-World War II years was defined by the characteristic principles of the International Style of the ’20s and ’30s—radical simplification of form, expression of volume rather than mass, accent on the dynamism of asymmetry, exclusion of applied ornament, the use of contemporary materials (glass, steel, and concrete), and machine aesthetics.


During this same time, the practice of architecture in the Soviet Union went through an absurd cycle of emotionally and politically charged u-turns, from constructivism (1919-32), to Stalin’s socialist realism (1932-54), then back to modernism (1955-85). The task of developing contemporary architecture was handed to architects who had been trained in classical traditions (there were simply no other practitioners at the time) and who had comfortably and successfully been building in the neoclassical style. By following the classical examples mandated by Stalin, they openly rejected the constructivist architecture developed by their countrymen one generation earlier. But Khrushchev’s unexpected opening of Russia’s borders proffered an opportunity for these architects to explore the best Western examples of contemporary architecture firsthand, which they welcomed with great enthusiasm. Modernism was the gestalt of the time, and it would succeed in connecting the utopian Soviet state with the reality of the free world, even if only in terms of aesthetics. After an interval of more than twenty years, the country again became frequented by foreign architects. In fact, Moscow hosted the Fifth Congress of the International Union of Architects in 1958.


The replacement of socialist realism with modernism was implemented through the political will of Khrushchev. He believed that a new time required new social politics and new architecture. First, he denounced Stalinist architecture. Then, only fifteen months later, at the February 25, 1956, closed meeting of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, he delivered a speech—“On Personality Cult and Its Circumstances”—that denounced Stalin himself. That’s why the blame for all architectural “sins” was put on the architects.

Let’s recall what was being built in the first half of the 1950s in the USSR. In 1953, the pompous complex of Moscow State University overlooking Lenin Hills was finished, featuring an endless repertoire of classical details, an abundance of ornaments and symbols of socialist realism, figurative sculptural compositions, wall friezes, and splendid exterior and interior decorations of pure marble and rare species of wood, many plated in bronze, brass, and gold.


On  August 1, 1954, four months prior to Khrushchev’s initial speech regarding a mandated shift in architecture, the VDNKh [“VDN-hah”], or All-Union Exhibition of People’s Economic Achievements (illustration II, page 7), which included elaborate agricultural, industrial, social, and scientific expositions, reopened for the first time since the end of World War II. For this occasion, many existing pavilions were rebuilt, and new ones were created in an even more pretentious style than the old ones. The main attraction of the unique palatial complex was the Peoples’ Friendship fountain, encircled by a ring of gold-plated, sister-friend statues symbolizing the union of all republics of the USSR.


Finally, in 1955, the Moscow Hippodrome, designed by leading neoclassical architect Ivan Zholtovsky, commenced construction. 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 in niches surrounded by symbols of five-pointed stars and horns of abundance. It is hard to envision what fantasy-like and fairytale apotheosis Stalinist architecture might have reached by the end of the decade if Khrushchev had not interrupted its development.


While Stalin’s socialist imaginings were flourishing in the Soviet Union, radically innovative architecture was being developed in the West. Pier Luidgi Nervi had built a number of elegant, airy, reinforced concrete structures in Italy. Two rigorous and iconic towers were built by Mies van der Rohe on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. An international group of architects produced the United Nations Headquarters complex in New York. And Le Corbusier realized a number of masterworks including the 1955 Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. The contrast between what was being constructed in the USSR and the West was vast. The contemporary architecture of the West projected a sense of democracy, manifested in the openness, transparency, and lightness of its new structures.


By the mid-1950s, the brutalist trend of modern architecture began to emerge on the international scene. However, these heavy, hard-looking structures with raw concrete textures were still on the drawing boards when Soviet architects began to visit Western Europe and America to explore newly built works. Because it takes a minimum of three to five years for architectural projects to be completed, the Soviet architects couldn’t possibly become fully engaged in the design of the day merely by seeing what had already been realized. Additionally, the trips of these architects were neither regular nor long-term, and the few books and publications available in the professional press of the country kept them only superficially informed of the real state of their craft worldwide. Many years would pass before brutalist forms would appear in the USSR.


In addition to stylistic matters, a plethora of global building types was completely missing in the Soviet Union, so there was no practice to be had in designing them. They included super-tall skyscrapers, corporate headquarters, temples, automobile garages, private universities, science laboratories, museums, banks, condominiums, restaurants, and fashion boutiques. And a vitally important experimental type in architecture, the single-family home, did not exist. Often, it is an architect’s own house that serves as a real experiment and expression of creative signature, as he or she plays the roles of both client and creator. Masterwork private houses were created by nearly all of the great architects. European villas designed by Corbusier and Mies, for example, became their early manifestos. However, in the Soviet Union, there was no personalized housing after 1929, when renowned architect Konstantin Melnikov built his own house-studio in Moscow.


Architecture is a slow art. It takes years to create the masterworks that develop in the atmosphere of lively discussions among colleagues and clients and the endless experiments that occur during design and construction, not to mention the crucial roles of an advanced building industry and a high level of craftsmanship. The mid-century Soviet architects had no real opportunities or a competitive environment to trigger the development of world-class projects. No one really set such goals before them, either. There were two main objectives at the time: solve the housing shortage by providing millions of Soviet families with individual apartments—not the communal ones that were the norm—and to achieve this goal economically.


One noteworthy aspect of the newly-mandated projects was that their aesthetic qualities remained unspecified. These choices were entrusted to the architects themselves, who were expected to learn the means and methods for generating contemporary architecture in the West. Learning from foreign examples was the logical—and the only possible—solution. Because Russia’s own avant-garde architecture was nearly thirty years old by this time, it was necessary to explore new technologies and materials, as well as to have an ability to “touch” and understand how and by what means contemporary architecture was being produced. Yet, the actual control over the construction process was passed to the hands of the contractors, who could blame the architects for being excessive regarding any deviation from mandated standards. The potential of the Soviet architects was limited on all accounts: ideologically, creatively, economically, and technically. Even before a project’s initial presentation to architectural commissions or government officials (who were basically the clients), any design solution required multitudes of contractors’ approvals.


It may seem that, under the conditions of total government administrative control, there would be no space for creativity whatsoever. The reality is that a true artist can remain free under any dictatorship, as much as one might be constrained in any democracy. And what else, if not to obtain personal freedom, were the architects striving for by trying to express their original visions? The choice is always made by the artists themselves, and the proof of such is clearly visible in the innovative, if rare, examples of the architecture of Soviet modernism.


It is very hard to evaluate architecture of this period without fully understanding the circumstances of the time. Soviet modernism cannot be judged just by its results, ignoring the struggle of the architects regarding stereotypes, standards, and the inertia of playing it safe by architectural bureaucrats. The practitioners of the day had to argue with the authorities for unfamiliar solutions, and the outcome was often based on the willingness of the architects to openly defend their positions. Architecture does not begin with a form, but with a social position; and with form, architecture ends.


Today, Soviet modernist architecture is criticized without factoring in the constraints of the time. It is often derided as derivative, unexpressive, and inhumane. Yet, this album showcases the standout works of the period. The evaluation of any style on a mass scale is meaningless. Classical architecture is defined by the Parthenon; Gothic, by the Chartres Cathedral; but in our own time, architecture is often judged by the mediocre building next door. Such a practice is not objective and is unjust. Modernism should be judged by the best creations of masters such as Corbusier, Mies, Alvar Aalto, and Eero Saarinen, and not by the banal and featureless residential and corporate buildings that similarly depress people in cities and suburbs worldwide. Soviet modernism, therefore, should also be judged by its best achievements: Moscow’s Palace of Pioneers, the Council of Economic Cooperation (SEV) Building, the Ministry of Highways, Krylatsky Cycle Track, and the Zvartnotz International Airport renovation (illustrations, pages 36-45, 85-87, 140-141, 162-163, and 168-169)—not by Cheremushki, the microraions (microdistricts), or residential neighborhoods, built in virtually every Soviet city.


While the works of the master Soviet architects and others like them were influenced by the West, that influence was not literally translated, as the examples I have mentioned demonstrate. It was not an easy task to accomplish. The question of self-identity remains central to our own time. It seems that we can build virtually anything. We know so much about what is going on professionally around the world, as well as the architectural precedents of the entire twentieth century, but, even today, the appearance of a strong, expressive work is a rare occurrence. Buildings that are now being built on different continents by different architects could, in reality, be shuffled around with hardly any difference noticed.   


During a 2007 conference on preserving Soviet avant-garde architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an audience member unexpectedly accused the Soviet architects of Khrushchev’s time of copying everything from the West. Jean-Louis Cohen, history of architecture professor at New York University, a leading expert on Soviet architecture, and organizer and moderator of the event, was quick to retort, noting several impressive structures built in the 1960s. Beginning with Moscow’s Palace of Pioneers, Cohen effectively drew the audience’s attention to the independent character of this work.


Western architecture attracted the Soviet modernists through its plasticity, transparency, airiness, spatial complexity, innovative methods of using contemporary materials, refinement of details, novelty and abstract imagery, and beauty of contrasting forms. Still, even compared with the best examples of modernist projects around the world, the Soviet architects succeeded in creating their own distinctive works. There are very few of them, but they cannot be ignored. They are rendered with a sense of dignity, and they are expressive in their own way. Among them, there are some real gems. These buildings and complexes need to be publicized much more, as some of them, due to their lack of landmark designation, have already fallen victim to shortsighted contemporary development.


The Palace of Pioneers in Moscow’s Lenin Hills became one of the first true experiments and the most exemplary complex of structures of the renewal process of architecture in its period. Interestingly, the particular architectural solutions of its young authors were often made on the construction site and were spontaneous and emotional in character. I asked Novikov, one of the palace’s architects, why this project’s participants attempted such new architecture. “There was a reason why that time was called ‘thaw,’” he said. “There was something in the air that required innovation. Then, all spheres of culture had their leaders, named shestidesyatniki [of the 1960s], in theater, cinema, literature, music, art. We wanted to become shestidesyatniki in architecture. This had a certain feeling of idealism, a naive belief in a possibility of transforming the Soviet regime into something that later became known as ‘socialism with a human face.’ Our hopes didn’t materialize. Nonetheless, we succeeded in defining Soviet modernism for many years to come.”


This free, democratic design turned over a new leaf in the USSR. It introduced many innovations, and, most importantly, its architecture was treated informally, without any decorative curtseys to the past. The architects offered impressive, solid compositions with features including harmonious proportions; the efficient performance of flexible free forms; canopies thrusting far forward; extended glazing that effectively blurred the boundary between interior and landscape; diagonals of sculptural flights of stairs; and unconventional brickwork with bright inlays depicting images of a great future.


Planned over a vast site, the Palace of Pioneers became a new experimental city in miniature, a true dream of idealists. Its inventive architecture influenced the best works of Soviet modernism in the 1960s and ’70s. Many shestidesyatniki were united by a feeling of freedom, a foretaste of change, and an optimistic longing for something new. Even today, we can still see that cheerful outlook on the future in the best architectural designs of those decades. How could it be otherwise? Isn’t it known that architecture embodies the destiny of the optimists? But in those days, it seemed that there were more optimists than usual. New, freshly built buildings were just appearing. Their contrast to the Soviet architecture of the early 1950s, which was richly decorated with classical details, was overwhelming. Everyone naïvely hoped that the whole world would become freer, and life in general would be much better.


This was not meant to be. Soon, a wave of dull panel construction, indifferent to humanity and environment, washed over the whole country. In the West, all styles of architecture peacefully coexisted with modernism, but, in the Soviet Union, architecture of the period was exclusively modernist and almost entirely standardized. Customized works were a rarity. Many cities had no masterworks at all. Seemingly endless, look-alike, five-story houses, popularly called khruschoba—a play on Khrushchev’s name and the word for slum, trushchoba—dominated the everyday lives of millions of people. Alexander Ryabushin wrote about this trend in his book Landmarks of Soviet Architecture 1917-1991, published in New York in 1992 by Rizzoli: “In the sixties, it seemed that all multiplicity of form—regional, national, and local—had disappeared from architecture forever. Mass production in the mode of the industrial conveyor belt had flattened the city. The amount of residential space increased, but blandness was implacable. This didn’t happen just to individual cities—the architectural character of the whole country was lost.” Considering such conditions, the creative efforts of those few architects who tried to create personal and rigorous architecture can be described without exaggeration as a professional feat. It is not surprising that, in the public conscience, Soviet modernism is not viewed as an artistic movement. Nevertheless, in its best iterations, it is possible to trace an emotional connection to both world contemporary architecture and to 1920s constructivism.


In such a standardized world, only functionally unique projects had a chance to incorporate architectural breakthroughs. One such an example is the Ostankino TV Tower (illustrations, pages: 60, 61), the tallest building in the world at the time. The metaphor for this project became an upside-down lily with ten strong petal supports and a thick, reinforced concrete stem holding “pucks” that provided various technical and public functions. Popularly, the tower is associated with a rocket blasting off into space. In my opinion, one of the most successful projects is the Council of Economic Cooperation (SEV) Building, which has a two-winged main facade. Its open, free profile is somewhat reminiscent of Lake Point Tower, built one year earlier in Chicago, which also sits over a base structure. Yet, the Chicago project can be more closely associated with one of the three towers of the competition complex of Narkomtyazhprom on Red Square by Ivan Leonidov. Conceptually, all of these projects owe much to Mies’s glass Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper project for Berlin. So, in a way, the SEV Building, by incorporating various codes into its canonic form, is linked to earlier projects but also contributed to the development of the glass tower in its own right.


Creative response to unusual site conditions is another characteristic of some of Soviet modernism’s most original buildings. The solution of the Lego-like structure of the Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, Georgia, very appropriately reminds one of a multi-level highway flyover. George Chakhava, the project architect and deputy minister of Georgia’s Ministry of Highways, who was simultaneously the project’s author and client, explained the presence of the building’s deep overhangs as a result of the tightness of the site. To fit all the necessary functions in a typical building would have required an expensive thirty-five-story tower. In reality, the project is a pure and original artistic composition, the thoughts about which surely preceded any rational explanation by the architect. Chakhava’s project is clearly inspired by the ideas of El Lissitzky’s horizontal skyscrapers, often referenced in contemporary architecture and particularly evident today in projects by Steven Holl and Rem Koolhaas.


An even more intriguing building is the “Druzhba” Sanatorium in Yalta (illustrations, pages 203-205). Gear wheel forms, both complete and fragmented, were used by Melnikov as industrial symbols in some of his works. But, for this project, the expressive gear wheels are locked into what appears to be a giant working mechanism, quite literally incorporating the various programs of the complex. The design is a provocative metaphor for a recreation facility for the masses. Yet, the complex presents a very effective, memorable, and unprecedented image.


One of the most expressive and effective examples of Soviet modernism is Krylatsky Cycle Track, in the form of a hovering butterfly. This beautiful complex, built for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, has clear precedent in earlier projects such as the hockey rink at Yale University (known as the “Yale Whale”) and the Tokyo Olympic Stadium. Nevertheless, the Moscow cycle track is an independent and noble artistic work, perhaps the most uninhibited and expressive of all Soviet buildings.


While, for the most part, architecture in Moscow and other western cities of the Soviet Union was confined to the strict limits of modernist ideology, architects in the eastern part of the country were more successful in escaping predictability and monotony by referencing climactic, cultural, seismic, and other local features. Ryabushin alludes to this in his aforementioned book: “Multinationalism is the primordial ingredient of the culture of the Soviet society and of Soviet architecture. Even though declarations concerned with tradition and the establishment of modernism seemed to turn away from the past, in fact, a nationally influenced architecture was created—something that was new and unprecedented in form but nevertheless distinctly national and local.”


The Soviet Central Asian Republics became the true laboratory of local form development in the nation. Many public buildings including museums, libraries, cinemas, hotels, railroad stations, and markets were built with facade sunscreens featuring traditional Eastern ornaments. The best include the Museum of Lenin and the Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent, and the State library in Ashgabat (illustrations, pages 94-95, 123, 136-138).


Of course, even in the use of national ornaments, the Soviet architects were not the first, as the buildings in Tashkent and Ashgabat evoke previous projects by American modernist Edward Durell Stone, who was often criticized for his refusal to stick to the strict modernist language of his early career. The design for his 1959 American Embassy in New Delhi, India, recalls on the one hand the finest edifices in Indian architecture with its use of concrete sunscreens, but on the other hand, 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 established a fresh view and discovered new design directions.


All of the aforementioned projects prove the distinct vision, unpretentious enthusiasm, and innovative spirit of the Soviet architects. The uniqueness of their work is now being confirmed by burgeoning public interest in the heritage of Soviet modernism. Recent exhibitions in Belgium, Germany, Japan, Spain, Portugal, and the United States presented examples of Soviet architecture of the 1970s and ‘80s captured by the French photojournalist Frèdèric Chaubin. The buildings are studied by aspirants of Yale University and other elite institutions. And students of other notable American universities are exploring the planning strategies of the microraion residential developments. This interest is fueled by the fact that Soviet architecture is not well known—it was, in many ways, quite isolated, developed in circumstances very different from those in the West.


Architecture has many angles and layers, conveying not only visual, but initially, emotional dimension. The Soviet architects succeeded in adopting the experience of such outstanding modern architects as those I have mentioned in addition to others, including Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Louis Kahn, and Paul Rudolph, and also succeeded in expressing their own contemporary visions.


Would it be worthwhile to cross the border of a specific context—Soviet reality—and compare the virtues of Soviet architecture of the 1960s and ’70s with international architecture? Likely not. One might compare the degree of talent displayed if the creative circumstances had been similar, but they were not. The Soviet construction industry fell behind that of the West, and whatever critics may say today, the main goals of the Soviet architects were social, not aesthetic. And they were addressed with the means available. Haute architecture was a rarity. The central achievement of the architects of the period is the fact that some original architecture was realized at all. And its best examples hold their own when compared to structures built in our time.


There is no doubt that modernism of the Soviet period presents a link in the chain of the development of world architecture. It firmly connects today’s neo-modernism with the ideas of the constructivists of the 1920s, who even today inspire architects around the globe. This anthology, featuring preeminent examples of the time, confirms the independent and original merits of the last style of the Soviet Empire. This subject has been waiting for serious explorers, as it hides many fascinating discoveries, which are now only beginning to be revealed.