What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

logo russianconstruction.com
What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about
Tags: Photo source:

The Soviet architecture of the 1940s and 1950s, built in accordance with the classical canons, is back in fashion today. But here comes the paradox, it is popular again with an academician and architectural historian as well as with an ordinary passer-by. What is the appeal of the classics for today’s people? And why do we, after periods of the “hard” avant-garde, come back to it time and again? We have talked about all this with the architectural historian, the docent at Moscow State University of Civil Engineering (MSUCE), and the secretary-general of DOCOMOMO Russia, Nikolay Vasiliev.

The Soviet classics gave the impression of a historic city

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about— It is said that after returning to the classics, we have interrupted the natural course of our architecture’s development for many decades.

— This is a bold statement, I would not say so. You should understand that this fateful turn was not accidental. There was a social mandate. For what? For some rationality, stability, comprehensibility of the environment perception. While it was a mandate from both the Soviet elite and ordinary people, with the classics a hundred percent conforming to these principles.

You know, in the 1970s and especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, indeed, there was a feeling that all was a closed chapter. Some orotundity, “imperia complex” — it was annoying. It seemed that a line was drawn and the epoch was over, that there was no need to look back. The Soviet architecture was associated with horrors of the era, it has always been labeled as the regime!

However, the classics — and hardly anyone would argue with this — professes the proven and verified aesthetic principles. One can disagree with them. But when we have, say, two columns with a beam upon them — let it be just two logs and a load-carrying unit — nothing more perfect have been invented in the construction. It's more than logical, you cannot get away from this.

Whereas any complicated things, be it baroque or deconstructivism, are a little disturbing. I cannot go through under a big console, for the life of me. Although I know that the building was built according to all the rules of a study of materials’ strength. This is somewhere in my subconscious mind. In a word, the avant-garde somehow needs to be got used to while the classic style does not stress out. That is the first point.

Second, classical techniques are climatically conditioned in some landscapes. For example, in the country’s south, the Crimea, the Caucasus — there are all these balustrades, outdoor terraces, porches. They are meant for the shade and cross ventilation. By the way, in the 1930s, a certain shift to monumentality took place all over the world. Now we call it the Art Deco style. There was a more geometric and innovative Art Deco that was hinged on expressionism, as well as there was a more traditional one. Our Soviet domestic example is the most extreme. We were directly referring to the patterns. So, if you go to the Urals or Siberia, for example, you will find out that the only architecture there that is somehow historic is that of the classic style of the 1930s and 1940s. It is this that evokes the sensation of a historical city!

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Vladivostok. Krasny Vladivostok Hotel, 1937-1939

Architects were not forced to do it

— Many of the architects started out as constructivists. Meanwhile, in the 1940s, they managed to switch over and then they were working quite well in a classical manner. Were they forced to?

— Few of them were forced to while some just ran before the hounds, foreseeing and inventing. There is a large number of cases when a constructivist successfully worked in the classic style and vice versa. Let’s take the leader of constructivist architects, Moisei Ginzburg, or Leonid Pavlov, the top modernist of the Soviet era. He designed the Lenin Museum in Gorki, Dobryninskaya metro station, computing centers of the State Planning Committee of the USSR (Gosplan), Central Economic and Mathematical Institute and so on. He did amazing things in classics, just look at Sevastopol.

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Sevastopol. Basic sailor's club. 1939-1952

While such wonderful masters as Iofan, Shchuko, Zholtovsky, Fomin — it is only right that they showed their worth in classical patterns. Before the revolution, they all received a classical architectural education, some were trained in Italy. By the way, Boris Iofan, a mastodon of Stalinist architecture, is an example of a “reverse” shift. In the 1960s he successfully turned to modernism. Take, for instance, his complex of four high-rise buildings upon a single stylobate on Shcherbakov Street in Moscow. An entirely modern architecture. In short, it is important to be a professional in this field.

— What was special about architects of that time, which our contemporaries lack?

— The classic thinks in ensembles, quarters, dominants, spiers, on which the city streets are oriented. In the old days, there was the notion of an ensemble. Today, everyone has forgotten it while it is very important. Objects are subordinate. One can understand where the main building is and where the secondary is. Sure, one cannot grasp it immediately, whether it is a movie theater or a district committee. But it will be obvious that this is an important building, which can be judged by its location.

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Samara (Kuibyshev). Opera and Ballet Theater, the early 1930s

Complex classical ensembles

— One of the highlights of that era is Stalin’s skyscrapers. In addition to architectural advantages of high-rises, there were also design peculiarities...

— That's right. The 1940s and 1950s are the second and third waves of mass Soviet construction. At that time, crucial attempts were made to industrialize a construction site: the introduction of line production, factory production of parts, the possibility of serial decorating: for example, cartouches (a cartouche is a motif in the form of a half-unfolded scroll with a coat of arms or emblem depicted on it — editor’s note), all sorts of ornamental inserts. A classic Moscow example is the development of Peschannye streets, with everything standard there.

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Moscow. The development of the area of Peschannye streets. 1947-1958

The main material of the walls is brick. In Sevastopol, for instance, it is the local Inkerman stone. Skyscrapers are, first of all, a steel frame. All skyscrapers were constructed in such a manner, we have adopted it from the USA. Whereas the cladding was lightweight hollow ceramics. Originally, it was produced for the Palace of Soviets. Two plants were built for that purpose near the cities of Kharkov and Kiev. In the aftermath of the war, they were restored and started producing the facing in such quantities that it was sufficient for Khrushchev's era.

High-rise buildings are also an amazing engineering. Yes, it often turned out to be “reinventing the wheel.” But for us, this was a matter of principle. There was the need to invent our own cranes, high-rise elevators, high-pressure communication lines... All of this we had to go through anew. Sure, something was adopted in the USA but some things we invented were just as good.

Actually, building with the then construction technologies under conditions of Moscow hydrogeology was totally crazy. So complex issues had to be solved. The city is located on a swamp. By the way, New York is situated on the rock. Any skyscraper here has a huge box-like foundation, which “floats” in the ground. It is much wider in dimensions than the building itself — that's why all the skyscrapers are “spread out”.

There is even a story of freezing the ground, with a skyscraper on Krasnye Vorota being built with a deviation. With the frost thawed in the summer, the skyscraper “straightened up”. So, the tasks that had to be solved were super complicated.

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Moscow. Sokol metro station. 1938

— To what should high ceilings and large floor space be attributed in Stalin's skyscrapers?

— Yes, Stalin’s buildings have ceilings with the height of 3, 3.40, 3.60 and even 4 meters. Look, when there is no a full-fledged reinforced concrete floor but rather a mixed one, with longitudinal beams, there is no stiffness between the floors. Therefore, a meter-long bolt is required above the door. That is where it cannot be helped: two plus one is equal to as many as three meters, at least. The second point is that given the overpopulation problems, construction norms were introduced, including that related to air cubes since big families were living in the apartments.

Well, here are generalized figures to gain some insight. In 1925, when the mass construction started, 4.1 meters of living space accounted for each person, in 1931, when the mass construction of the constructivist wave was over, the rate amounted to 5 meters. In the pre-war days, the availability decreased and after the war, it was simply catastrophic.

Therefore, if you are not a top-quality staff member or a general, you will live in cramped conditions and you will need the cubature of air and the upper space just to be able to breathe. There was a normal insolation, cross ventilation in apartments as they overlooked both sides — the pre-war base sections were often duplexes.

— And what about these famous Stalin’s big kitchens?

— The kitchens were made spacious because they were used by several families and apartments were mostly shared. After the war, when separate apartments were being allotted, kitchens diminished in size. However, that did not apply to skyscrapers. Skyscrapers did not originally house shared apartments, rather the elite was living there.

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Moscow. The building of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. 1930-1936

Standard houses appeared long before Khrushchev

— Why are there only seven skyscrapers?

— In the first wave, when foundation stones were laid on September 7, 1947, there should have been eight of them. A skyscraper of the Ministry for State Security in Zaryadye and a prewar Palace of Soviets have not been built.

Why weren’t they build? The experience of constructing Stalin's skyscrapers showed: it is very expensive. Amid the mass construction, cheaper options had to be found — there was a post-war recovery of the country's largest cities while Moscow was relatively unaffected, unlike Leningrad, Sevastopol, Minsk, Kiev, Stalingrad and many other cities.

A solution was found. The construction was made cheaper by means of cheap labor. Prisoners of war worked as masons and excavators at many construction sites. Somewhere a method of people's construction was applied: two or three-floor houses could be built by the inhabitants themselves, under the insignificant control of professionals, who were badly needed after the war. Five-seven-floor houses for the mass construction is the maximum. Except for Moscow and Leningrad, there were no cranes anywhere simply to lift beams to a high altitude. Until the mid-1950s, beams were mixed: a longitudinal I-beam and a transverse beam. A load-carrying structure component was not completely reinforced.

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Moscow. Azhurny Dom (Lace House)

The first block prefabricated house is, of course, a famous Azhurny Dom designed by Blokhin and Burov, which is located on the corner of Begovaya Street and Leningradsky Prospekt. A half of the avenue was intended to be built up with such structures, but only one was erected — the construction was launched in the 1936th and completed in the 1940th.

There is a 4-floor house on Sokolinaya Gora, which is also an experimental block building, as well as on Polyanka and Velozavodskaya. By the time when Khrushchev changed everything and said: Basta, let's make it simpler, more technologically and without excesses — the basis for standard construction had already been prepared! By the way, Zholtovsky's last unimplemented project was the development of ten-floor panel prefabricated houses — but in the classic style. Unfortunately, that remained on paper.

Classics do not recreate the wheel

— Nikolay, we know the problem of the modernist environment being monotonous. Constructivist designs of the early 1930’s had flaws. How did classics manage to solve this problem?

— Yes, one may say that classics have always supposedly had a sample in front of them: just open Kazakov's album or that by Palladio, and redraw. But no, nothing is that simple. When you are constructing a new type of a building, a multi-floor one, other rules are applied there. And the “wheel” has to be recreated. There are no 12-floor houses in the era of antiquity in Italy! This problem had been faced by architects before the revolution.

How was the problem of classical high-rise buildings solved? A variety of methods were invented. For example, an architectural orb was applied (an architectural orb is a way of dividing the facades, usually with the help of columns advanced with respect to the wall), but it had to be invented. When constructing a building of 9 floors, the pillar turns out to be as wide as a room. It is clear that this is irrational.

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Smolensk. The Smolensk Hotel, 1936-1940

Therefore, classical buildings were constructed without an architectural orb: there were elements of an architectural orb while the facade was smooth. Or an option of semi-columns was used. All these were artistic tasks that had to be solved. What classics of Stalin's time were criticized for is an inefficient use of space. Look at the Leningradskaya Hotel, the smallest of the skyscrapers. What could be simpler? However, only 40% of the space was used there for rooms, with almost 200 out of 250 rooms having an area of 9 square meters. The main space is endless corridors and strange halls...

In addition to the complexities of construction, there were also problems with exploitation. For example, the issue of icicles in winter hanging on all “excesses”. This has always been a scourge for our climate. In general, I must say, it was a courageous decision for us to use terraces, balustrades, and other forms of Mediterranean architecture. After all, they were designed for the sunlight and small rainfall. So, the buildings that had been poorly maintained for at least 20 years, looked, frankly, bad.

What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about

Tkvarcheli, Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the late 1940s

And yet, Stalin’s houses are still in great demand in the real estate market. Sure, if this is not about an abandoned house somewhere on the factory premises, but rather part of the ensemble, with a front facade overlooking the noisy street. The secret of their attractiveness is in a distinct style and pace that they set. Personally, I live in Stalin’s building and I know what I'm talking about.

Interviewed by Elena Matseiko

PS: We are going to continue covering the topic. The next article devoted to the Soviet architecture of the 1940s-1950s will discuss the arrangement of public spaces of that time, as well as peculiarities of the decor and standard Soviet interiors.