The Soviet classics: design as education

The Soviet classics: design as education
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We continue with the topic of Soviet classics, which we started to consider in a piece titled “What the deceased empire’s architecture is singing about”. In the first part, we talked about the architecture of the 1940s-1950s, which is commonly referred to as Stalin’s architecture. Today we will try to understand what the public and private spaces of that time were like. Our interlocutor is the architectural historian, the docent at Moscow State University of Civil Engineering (MSUCE), and the secretary-general of DOCOMOMO Russia, Nikolay Vasiliev.

Time with a touch of tragedy

— Nikolay, so what surrounded a Soviet citizen at home and outdoors at that time?

— In terms of interiors of the time, this is primarily about public interiors. There were not so many public spaces at that time, so we tried to make the crowded places beautiful. These are grocery stores, hotel lobbies, waiting rooms for train stations, theatre lobbies. A magnificent grocery store in a high-rise building near Barrikadnaya metro station is an example of that. Its setting has been partially preserved until the present time. Or luxurious lobbies and apartments of Leningradskaya hotel.

Leningradskaya hotel, Moscow

A classic example of the Soviet interior is, of course, Moscow metro stations that have nothing more, nothing less than pathos of palaces. It was believed that whatever public there was, it should be beautiful.

With regard to housing, it was the halls of residential buildings that were decorated in a declamatory style. Nothing of the kind could be applied to the interior of a private residence. Simply because an ordinary Soviet citizen could not legally purchase some finishing materials and hire workers. People would have looked at him the wrong way, and that is the best case scenario.

There were interiors of a more chamber scale, designed by Ivan Zholtovsky — and yet with pretensions to luxury. It can be seen in a building with a tower on Smolensky Boulevard. In those days, the public space was often a necropolis, a memorial dedicated to the victims of the war. There was a time with a touch of tragedy. Self-sacrifice to the Motherland, feat, self-sacrificing service to the Homeland -— all these values were considered the system’s highest values.

— What design features of the Soviet era would you highlight?

— Certainly, there are peculiarities — a fairly large expressive decor, grotesque details. The monumental painting was used there very often. The most expensive design implied the use of a mosaic.

This tradition was started by the famous mosaicist Vladimir Frolov, who has been working in this genre since the beginning of the XX century. We all know the magnificent mosaics of the 1930s-50s at metro stations and in public Soviet buildings. Many of them originated in the mosaic workshop under the guidance of Frolov.

Kievskaya metro station

Komsomolskaya metro station

As far as monumental painting is concerned, we have been moving in line with global trends. After all, what are Stalin’s skyscrapers? These are skyscrapers adopted from the USA. These are buildings erected on a steel frame. Wherever they were constructed, the builders looked at the experience and examples in Chicago and New York. While in America, such consummate artists as Diego Rivera were invited to paint the halls of corporate skyscrapers.

— Is it possible to somehow define the style of that time?

— It was a full-fledged art deco but with elements of socialist realism. Tracing the outlines, as they say, to the spikelet is typical for the Soviet monumental art. Articulate realism. In a word, it's closer to Plastov than to Deyneka. Plastov has accuracy while Deyneka has an artistic gesture and generalization.

Sculpture as a comic strip

— Nikolay, after all, Stalin's buildings is a massive development. Why such an abundance of sculpture?

— This is propaganda. Therefore, such figurative elements as armature (armament, armor, helmets, military emblems) and ceremonial garlands, were being massively introduced. A kind of narrative was needed. Certainly, for the architect, a classical building is already self-sufficient and speaks for itself. While a non-architect needs not just architecture but also inscriptions, monumental propaganda. Metro builders, military pilots, polar explorers, athletes. In the post-war era, any ensemble of a large area features the winners.

In Sevastopol, these are admirals. Both the Crimean War and the Great Patriotic War are featured there. The building becomes, perhaps, not the main but a supporting part of the memorial! Like metro stations. Since we do not have only one metro station devoted to the Victory. Oktyabrskaya, Smolenskaya, Taganskaya and other metro stations are also devoted to the Victory. Showing the world the values of our Victory in plain language and some people say that the language is too plain.

— Recently, a story was featured on TV. Sculptures have been removed for restoration from the top of the famous gatehouses on the square of Gagarin. As it turned out, these houses were decorated with figures of soldiers and girls, something that could not be seen from below. Now specialists are going to bring the flaked monumental sculptures back to life...

— Well, yes, any sculpture of that time was for a good reason and was carrying a semantic message. Look at the building of Lenin’s Library, for example. From Vozdvizhenka street, there are portraits of scientists while from Mokhovaya street, there are statues symbolizing a variety of Soviet professions. This is a narrative. The same can be seen at Ploshchad Revolutsii metro station. On the one hand, there are military — partisans and soldiers, but on the other hand, it features a peaceful life — from students, engineers and farmers to parents with children ... There was a revolution, war, and then a peaceful life. It is very illustrative.

The V. I. Lenin State Library

It's like a comic strip, in the best sense of the word. Because the formation of masses was important in this way as well. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of a Soviet sculpture of the middle of the last century is less studied than the same phenomenon of the Soviet mosaics of the 1970s, which are terribly popular now in the West.

— Times change. Under Khrushchev, luxurious decoration became a sort of bogey...

— Yes, his decree on architectural excesses is well known. It also affected the interior, including the public one. Under Khrushchev, for example, a large number of sculptures were removed from the streets of Gorky, Kirov (now Sakharov Avenue).

Status without falseness

— Nikolay, an interesting exhibition “The Old Apartment” was held recently in the Museum of Moscow, which curators tried to reproduce the private interior from between the 1920s and 1970s... As for the personal space of the Soviet citizen, how was it arranged?

— In terms of the private interior, it was more reminiscent of what in Europe was called Biedermeier. What is important here is first and foremost the aspect of solidity, sham prosperity. Life was tough. After seeking an apartment for a long time, the owner would make everything look as expensive as possible — well, certainly, based on the existing perception of wealth. In the 1940's these are stucco rosettes on the ceiling, garlands on the wallpaper. Good dishware. The furniture should be solid and wooden. The first household appliances were also wood-style with bronze overlays. This was how the social status was fixed.

Things made of plastic emerged only in the late 1950's. The first radio set was made of two-colored plastic but still had some classic twirls. That was when the furniture of a new design appeared: bookcases of simple forms, furniture transformers with sliding tables and chairs. And, of course, TV sets — the famous KVN with a tiny screen made a revolution in the interior of the 1950's.

At the behest of Khrushchev, factories simplified the design of furniture. New materials were introduced into production. So, Khrushchev, in a sense, can be considered the first avant-gardist. By the way, a retro style — stylizing to resemble the 1950s and 60s — is now a very fashionable trend in design.

— Yes, a lot of architectural achievements had been made in the Soviet era. However, the matter of preserving the Soviet classics is considered to be a difficult one. First of all, this is because there are still no clear criteria on what needs to be preserved and what should be demolished...

— Currently, the most common approach is to preserve unique buildings. This is about a building, which is an undeniable masterpiece and was constructed by an outstanding architect. That is pretty clear. But recently another criterion has appeared. There is a so-called Madrid document, which most fully reflects modern approaches to the heritage. Today, it is customary to preserve the entire environment in one piece, while all the buildings inside do not have to be necessarily masterpieces. Its value is in the integrity of the section of a built-up environment, which represents the era, style, and lifestyle.

Palace of Culture n.a. M. Gorky, St. Petersburg

Elmash Palace of Culture, Yekaterinburg

Williams' Museum of Soil and Agronomy, Moscow

Pavilion No. 14 “Azerbaijan”, VDNKh (The All-Union Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy)

The material authenticity adds one more count there. No matter how bad the outdated, degraded materials are, their very substance is important, which is evidence of the then lifestyle, layers of the time. This criterion is the least understood by the general public.

Reconstruction of old houses, which is sometimes carried out today — with materials replaced and some strange development — is the most painful for heritage experts. It is due to the activities of some developers that since the Soviet era we have practically no historical urban fences, urban fountains, etc.

If we go back to the 1950th, it would be foolish to preserve Khrushchev's five-story buildings per se, but as a stage in construction... It is possible to preserve examples of other urban planning regulations. At various times, squares, streets, and parks were developed according to their own regulations, with different height of the eaves, distance between houses and so on. After all, the interiors, both public and private, can be preserved as an example of a certain lifestyle. If we set priorities the right way, our descendants will only appreciate it.

Interviewed by Elena Matseiko