The evolutions of revolutionary architecture

A 1934 competition project, Narkomtiazhprom – from Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism,1920-1980

Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930

Park Books, 2021, 624pp, illus., $65

Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital

Princeton University, 2021, 274pp + xii, illus., £34

Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980

Scheidegger & Spiess, 2020, 448pp, illus., £65

ALEXANDER ADAMS traces the neglected history of Soviet building design

The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus.  

The new school combined eight departments (fakul’tey): painting, sculpture, architecture, woodworking, metalworking, ceramics, graphics (poligrafiya), and textiles1

There was a core curriculum which covered the basics of design and art, with additional topics: “Mathematics, Chemistry, Descriptive Geometry, Political Economy, History of Art, and Military Arts.”2. The school offered free education and encouraged applications from poor students, many of whom had part-time jobs to support themselves.

While similar to the Staatliche Bauhaus in its “communistic” spirit, Vkhutemas was over ten times larger than its German counterpart in terms of the student body. With an enrolment of more than 2,000 students, it was an unprecedented modern undertaking, rivalled only by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which counted well over 1,000 students in the 1920s3

VKhuTEMAS students with models

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a record of the school through its teaching material, archival sources and explanatory essays. It provides us with a fascinating insight into the thinking of the Soviet avant-garde in the brief window before Modernism was occluded by Socialist Realism. VKhUTEMAS was a cockpit of Constructivism and Functionalism. Constructivism was a Modernist movement which divided into two strands: a) a Cubist-inspired abstract school of art that deployed geometric forms and b) a utilitarian form of architecture favouring Euclidean forms and eschewing decoration. Functionalism is a principle that design must be ergonomic and pragmatic, subordinating aesthetics to function. There was a stress on modern materials, geometric forms and human psychology would aid design of structures, making them fully rational and determined by science. Architecture, unlike painting and sculpture, was not imitative and could thus be liberated from convention. Constructivism is avowedly Modernist in form; Functionalism is Modernist in form only by default. VKhUTEMAS taught both – inasmuch as they were distinguishable.

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space records school publications and course materials. These consist of montages, collages, photographs, diagrams and texts. These are reproduced photographically. The Russian text is partially translated into English for the first time. This large book reproduces pages from the archives at large size, most with translation facing. The syllabi are transcribed and translated. Some commentaries provide other information. Models in cardboard, wire, glass, plaster and string were made by students and were photographed as examples. The curriculum gives us information about the teaching methods, the ideas that were to be imparted and what students were expected to demonstrate. Examples are given of documents, fabric samples, clothing, furniture designs, posters, architectural plans and art work.

Although the foundations of the school’s teaching were doctrinal, the actual practice did allow for experimentation and personal expression. All tutors and students had to be members of the Party but it does not seem that the teachers were anything other than thoughtful, patient and responsive to their students. Teachers included serious artists already known in the West: Alexandra Ekster, Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko. 

Konstantin Melnikov Kurochkin, Gosplan Garage, 1930s

VKhUTEMAS was closed in 1930, victim of the political struggles and the Party’s declining approval for Modernism, which would soon be denounced as ‘bourgeois formalism’. The solution to the unsatisfactory performance was to split up the school into different, specialised institutions. The fates of the tutors mirror the fate of the avant-garde under the Stalinist regime. Rodchenko moved from avant-garde design to documentary photography. Ladovsky was purged under Stalin, a fate that also befell Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky and other Modernist artists. Aleksandr Drevin and Gustav Klutsis were executed in 1938 as part of a purge of Latvians (partly overseen by Lavrentii Beria).  Vladimir Baranov-Rossine (a Jew) died in a Nazi death camp.  

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a fascinating insight into Soviet Modernism and design pedagogy. It is a somewhat specialised volume but a valuable addition to any extensive library on art education, design history and Soviet fine and applied arts.

The rivalry between the USSR and the USA dated back to the inception of the USSR. From the earliest days, ambitious Soviet officials and architects eyed the skyscrapers of New York with envy. For them, the logical development of the USSR would be to harness the capabilities of Soviet New Man, unleashed through the liberation of labour and freed from the shackles of bourgeois tradition, in order to build a new society that would surpass the USA’s lead. Socialism was a development of – and ultimately, replacement for – capitalism and this would be demonstrated through the creation of buildings grander than those of capitalism.

One of the great projects was Palace of the Soviets (designed 1931-3, head architect Boris Iofan). It would be a vast auditorium for conferences, with a giant library, served by 148 elevators, topped by the tallest building in the world, at 415 m (1,362 ft), with a 100 m tall statue of Lenin on the top of the tower. This would use techniques and materials innovated by the British, Germans and Americans to construct a palace dedicated to the people rather than to commerce. (Iofan led a delegation of engineers to New York to gain technical information.) It was seen as a direct riposte to the West, refuting the idea that Russia was technologically undeveloped and that Socialism could not match capitalist democracies. It had been barely started by the time the Great Patriotic War diverted the labour and materials into the war effort.

As Katherine Zubovich explains in Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital, in the immediate aftermath of the victory over Germany, Stalin planned a group of eight tower blocks and completion of the Palace to show that the USSR was ready to enter the modern age and rival the world capitals. These would accompany completion of the Palace of the Soviets. Although the ill-starred Palace would never progress – the alarming amount of ground water flooding the foundations indicated the unsuitability of the location for the world’s tallest building – the tower blocks would be constructed. It turned out there would only be seven, built over the period 1947-53.

In the late 1930s, Stalin had effectively halted Soviet Modernism in all areas. The social, educational and – in some respects – the economic sovietisation of the USSR proved highly disruptive, slow and counterproductive. The Revolution would have to be stopped and (purely in an unannounced manner) reversed in select areas. A good example is the rise of Socialist Realism, which replaced the experimental Modernism of Suprematism and Constructivism with academic painting and sculpture depicting workers and party officials. In architecture, Stalinism entailed curtailing the excesses of Modernism and Rationalism, in favour of Historicism made at inhumanly large size. As always in totalitarian states (past and present) words were redefined. “небоскреб/neboskreby” (“skyscrapers”) was redefined to mean Western capitalist tall buildings; “Высокое здание/vysotnye zdaniia” (“tall buildings”) was the preferred term for tower blocks in the USSR.

The heroic experimentalism of the early revolutionary period of the Modernist period had never materialised. Construction on the Palace of the Soviets had stalled. Although the city had suffered aerial bombardment, it had not suffered as much as Leningrad, not to mention Stalingrad. The project of boulevardisation and the new metro system from the inter-war period was intact. In January 1947, with the USSR still gradually recovering from the ravages of war, the decree was issued to construct eight new skyscrapers. The plans were initially fluid.

In the early months of 1947, Soviet officials, construction managers, and architects themselves had little notion of the shape the project would take over the following months and years. The skyscraper decree of January 13, 1947 was impressionistic at best. The document gave little indication of the outsized role the buildings would come to play in Soviet life4

The buildings were Hotel Ukrainia (the tallest building in the USSR), Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, Kudrinskaya Square Building, Hotel Leningradskaya, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow State University headquarters and the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry. Construction was staggered due to the potential strain on labour, logistic and management. Zubovich outlines the internal politics of the bureaucracy and the shifting responsibility for the project as it came to life. The internal manoeuvring was not just a question of personal advancement but of survival by denouncing rivals as insufficiently Communist, as officials lived under the shadow of the KGB removing individuals due to counter-revolutionary subversion.

The ‘Seven Sisters’ displaced tens of thousands of Muscovites, who were evicted without compensation, although the Moscow government was obliged to find or build accommodation. The author tells the stories of some of the residents who were resettled to the outskirts of Moscow. The process was administered by Lavrentii Beria, former head of the NKVD. Rehousing the displaced population became a project in itself. The influx of construction workers required temporary housing, which would expand the city boundaries of Moscow.  

Construction became an opportunity for propaganda. The presence of women doing some of the lighter labour was heralded by the press as a triumph of communal co-operation in the world no longer encumbered by custom. Press coverage concealed problems:

Postwar shortages resulted in intense competition over materials, equipment, and labor between managers working across Moscow’s different construction sites. Building materials often arrived late or not at all, and construction equipment and gear were in short supply. Managers at all skyscrapers sites complained about a shortage of skilled workers5

Limitations in the conditions were obvious. Overcrowding in dormitories was commonplace. Internal Party reports noted

…workers’ housing was not only lacking mass-political activities and red [political] corners; living conditions in the material sense were abysmal6

Completion of the Seven Sisters coincided with the death of Stalin, soon followed by the era of the Great Thaw and de-Stalinisation of the USSR and Eastern Bloc. The untrammelled power and stylistic appropriation of the past were deemed indicative of the flaws of Stalin’s reign.

When Khrushchev spoke on the final day of the Builders’ Conference [in 1954], he called for greater efficiency in construction, increased use of industrialized and prefabricated materials, and an end to unnecessary decorations and embellishments in design that, as he stated, caused “unnecessary expenditures7

According to the new guard, Stalinism’s stylistic anachronism betokened a system-wide culture of deception. In terms of financial and human costs, monumentalism was indicative of inhumane excess that could no longer be supported.

Administrators and architects fell from favour but the undeniably impressive aspects of the project appealed to Communist regimes elsewhere. Soon structures typical of Stalinist Historicist architecture would spring up in the form of the buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, the Presidential Palace in Bucharest and buildings across the Eastern Bloc. 

A third book joins the space between the VKhUTEMAS and the Stalinist years, then brings the story up the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 seeks to place Soviet furniture, clothing, interior design and architecture in a continuum that integrates them within the ideals and reality of the USSR over almost its entire existence. Soviet design is relatively little known compared to other Modernist movements such as Secession, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Minimalism and Italian and Scandinavian Modernism. The reasons are that the USSR exported relatively little and (aside from political sympathetic states) it had little cultural and technological exchange with other states.

Due to its relative isolation, the USSR had to produce everything. This was a precursor to the creation of a new rational world suitable for Soviet Man, then, later, independence demonstrated the viability of self-sufficiency of the Communism-in-one-country doctrine. Soviet Design includes everything from teacups to underground stations. As with all areas of life in the USSR, the 1920s were full of bold experimentation and radical ideas.

Space was at a premium, so efficiency was prioritised. The drive to make furniture compact and multifunctional chimed with reappraisals of ways of living. Leading designer and theorist El Lissitzky declared,

Salons, halls, boudoirs, living-rooms […] everything has been swept away – only the bare living space is left8

New Soviet furniture could be folded away, rotated or reversed for different functions. Telyakovsky’s combination unit had a bookcase, desk and bed. Built-in storage was designed for new-build apartments. Soviet engineer-designers made a virtue of the limitations imposed by circumstances and, in doing so, their labours turned New Soviet Man’s domestic environment into something between factory cell, submarine berth and space-flight module.  

Soviet designs could be painfully uncompromising, with straight lines and flat planes more suited to showroom than living room – certainly not suited to human anatomy. Due to the severe restrictions (technical, material, financial, bureaucratic and political) many designs never went beyond drawing or prototype stage. Mismanagement, delays and lack of competition led to chronic shortages and compromises in all areas of Soviet life. Production targets were arbitrary and goods were often defective. Designers rarely saw their designs reach production in the quality they stipulated.

The earliest phase produced some attractive designs. A teacup and saucer from 1923 have spare geometric Suprematist forms on a white ceramic ground, crisp, dainty and assertively ant-traditional. The designer was Nikolai Suetin (1897-1954), a student of Malevich and one of the outstanding figures in Soviet ceramics. (Suetin designed Malevich’s coffin.) Some outstanding examples of suites or interiors were produced for public expositions.

The design of furniture models (in many cases never realized) taking their inspiration from Constructivist forms effectively ceased after 19349

By 1932, Stalinist policies decreed a return to order and convention – to a degree. Expressions of physical culture would become heavier, grander, more voluminous; traditional materials and forms would be adopted, although decoration would never become too elaborate. To give an impression of stability and continuity, the fine and applied arts would turn their backs upon “bourgeois formalism” of Modernism that distanced the proletariat from the products of their society.

This Historicism is evident in the submitted designs – reproduced in the book – of the Palace of the Soviets. Cinemas, theatres, department stores, hotels and other important spaces evoked the grandeur of the Romanov Empire period, complete with chandeliers, marble facing and dark lacquered-wood panelling. Rather than being challenged by Functionalist surroundings that asserted the dawn of a new age, Soviet citizens in the 1940s would be embraced by the stifling pomp of the belle époque, made available to all, not just the (now liquidated) capitalist class.    

Reverse engineering and copying formed part of Soviet design. The most notable example was the adoption of Art Deco for architecture, furniture and Metro stations. The use of crisp lines, simple forms, tubular metal supports and absence of ornamentation provided a counterpoint to the rival Stalinist Historicism. This Art Deco can be found in a showpiece ship that was used to ferry passengers to holiday resorts on the Black Sea.

All Union Competition entries, 1972 – from Soviet Design

Post-war reconstruction, advances in technology and the death of Stalin allowed moderate Modernist designs to reach production stage and dominate interiors from the late 1950s onwards. There was popular demand for domestic furniture that was informal and comfortable. We see curvilinear metal tubing, foam padding, slimline design and lightweight construction become commonplace – many of the products copied from Western examples. Electrical appliances became affordable. The communal canteens demanded by the communitarian ideals of the Revolutionary era – which had never been popular in domestic habitations – were abandoned in favour of fitted kitchens.

Significantly, the advent of the Eastern Bloc brought international trade on a large scale for the first time in Soviet history. Apparently, the USSR imported many interior fittings from Czechoslovakia. Despite advances, however, Soviet manufacturers were unresponsive to public demand, often unwilling to modify inferior designs. Lacking competition and the profit motive, manufacturing was deeply inefficient.

Soviet Design does much to familiarise readers with the origins, principles, limitations and unique circumstances that led to the designs produced in the USSR. The many large illustrations, explanatory narrative and concise biographies of major figures will make this book a primary introduction to one of the most neglected fields of design.

  1. Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930, p40 []
  2. Bokov, ibid, p132 []
  3. Bokov, ibid., p40 []
  4. Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital , p81 []
  5. Zubovich, ibid. , p150 []
  6. Zubovich, ibid., p154)

    Unrealistically high targets (motivated by arbitrary statistical ambition) pushed workers to breaking point. As with the pre-war metro construction, accidents were frequent. Pay was so low that there was even labour unrest. What was not made clear in the press was the amount of forced labour used. By 1950, 8,000 prisoners (including foreign nationals) were working on the Seven Sisters in zones segregated from the population and the (nominally) free workers.

    The buildings were well-appointed and the décor restrained. The public spaces at the lower levels were Historicist, pastiching Romanov-era state buildings, replete with marble cladding and columns. The Party elite scrambled to petition high officials to secure apartments. As it was, the number of apartments did not materially affect the housing crisis in the city. Although more generous than average Moscow apartments, the tower-block apartments were not large, especially when occupied by multi-person households.

    At the very moment Moscow’s skyscrapers were completed in the mid-1950s, they became symbols of Stalinist “excess” ((Zubovich, ibid., p5 []

  7. Zubovich, ibid., p201 []
  8. 1926. Quoted, p74, Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 []
  9. Krasnyanskaya, Semenov, ibid., p174 []