When I began work on The Constructivist Project in 2010, I was a photography student at the Academy of Art University graduate school in San Francisco, and it was the dynamic, photogenic forms of Moscow’s avant-garde architecture that first drew my eye. Later, after researching the Soviet Union’s tumultuous post-revolutionary times — which produced the need for new typologies of architecture and the complete rejection of historicism in favor of aesthetics that were ultra-modern, geometric, and functional — I became interested in the buildings themselves. Today, these Soviet relics are underappreciated and in danger of disrepair or worse, as new forces dare to yet again erase history for an evolving (in this case neoliberal) modernity. Upon seeing the monuments in person and more often than not in a ruinous state, I began a campaign to shed light on the history and present day fate of avant-garde monuments in the former Soviet Union. This campaign includes writing on the topic for architectural news websites and the continued documentation of these buildings in photos, some of which are featured here.
Recently the LA Review of Books ran a review of Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley, which discusses the origins of some of these buildings.
For additional information about Natalia Melikova’s The Constructivist Project, visit www.theconstructivistproject.com.
Dinamo Stadium, 1927-1928, 1933-1934 [pictured above]
A. Langman, L. Cherikover
Dinamo Stadium was built for the first Spartakiad of the peoples of the Soviet Union. Initially constructed in the form of a horseshoe with the open end facing Petrovsky park, later it was remodelled according to the designs of Cherikover (1933-1934), in which the existing horseshoe was closed off and took the shape of an oval, increasing the capacity to over 53 thousand seats. In 1977-1979 the stadium underwent major reconstruction works to prepare it for the 1980 Olympics. The stadium celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2008, and on November 22 of that year saw its last match. As a possible host site for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, major reconstruction work began in 2012 in which 75% of the stadium was demolished, sparking an outcry from preservationists. When the stadium was excluded as a venue for the World Cup, the design was downsized. After several modifications to the project, including the redevelopment of the surrounding territory, work is now actively underway, and the new stadium is scheduled to be opened on October 22, 2017 — the birthday of one of the best goalkeepers in the history of soccer, Lev Yashin.
Shukhov Tower, 1919-1922
For many Moscow residents, the elegant form of the Shukhov Tower is an important feature of the capital’s cityscape. Located in the southern district of Shabolovka, the 160-meter hyperbolic lattice radio and later television tower has for years been neglected, causing the tower’s owners last year to announce plans to dismantle the tower for restoration — as well as relocate it. After a massive campaign for the tower’s preservation, which included both domestic and international forces, it was decided that this “Eiffel Tower of the East” should remain in its historical setting and be restored without being dismantled. A proposal has been announced for first steps to be taken this year with the construction of a temporary free standing support tower inside the radio tower.
Melnikov House, 1927-1929
This family house and studio, built by the renowned avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov in 1927-1929 in the shape of two intersecting cylinders, remained a private home throughout the Soviet years and up until 2014 was inhabited by the architect’s descendants. Then the process of museumification was suddenly implemented and the house was opened to the public, not without scandal. Tucked away on a quiet lane in central Moscow, in the present day the Melnikov House is surrounded by new developments which in recent years have been shaking up the ground — to the detriment of the structure of the house. Ever since its construction, the intrigue of the round house pierced with hexagon windows has drawn an endless flow of visitors to the Melnikov’s family home. Now it awaits necessary restoration.
Narkomfin Complex, 1928-1932
Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis
Internationally recognized as a masterpiece of constructivist architecture, the design included social and architectural experimentation: individual space was minimized and communal space was maximized. In addition to the type of materials and the fact that Narkomfin did not undergo major repairs in its lifetime, the building’s poor condition requires an extensive restoration. Possessing ownership of the majority of the building, the developer began performing extensive renovation works last year. This has caused alarm among preservationists, since the works being conducted are seen as destructive and are endangering the authenticity of the monument, a site that has been listed three times in the World Monuments Fund Watch List, and again nominated for 2016 listing in light of recent controversial developments. In addition to several apartments rented out to those who can afford the increasingly high rent, the building also currently hosts a hookah cafe in the penthouse, a rooftop cafe and yoga center, and numerous other businesses in renovated apartments.
Automated Bread Factory No.5, 1931
G. Marsakov (engineer)
Metro: Ulitsa 1905 Goda
For over 70 years this factory produced pastries and bread on a daily basis. The circular, automated conveyor system designed by Marsakov — the first of its kind — had a capacity of 240 tons of bread per day. The factory was acquired by Coalco in 2006 and production was relocated to the outskirts of Moscow. Plans were drafted to restore the regional monument of industrial and constructivist architecture: keeping only the protected facades intact, the space was to be converted into an office center, with additional construction of two residential skyscrapers on the factory’s territory. In 2013 a lawsuit was filed by the Moscow Department of Cultural Heritage against the owner for “failure to comply with the requirements for the conservation of cultural heritage,” in effort to return the monument and surrounding territory to the city’s ownership. In 2014, the parties signed a settlement agreement in which the restoration project was scheduled to finish in 2016. Currently there are no visible restoration or construction works on the territory.
VEI Building (Electrical Engineering Institute of Russia), 1929-1930
L. Meylman, V. Movchan, G. Movchan, and others
The Electrical Engineering Insitute of Russia was built at the same time as Corbusier’s famous Tsentrosoyuz, whose influence can be seen in this building’s exterior forms and interior designs. The building consists of two wings with a tower containing a spiral ramp (pictured), which winds up all eight stories. The original paternoster elevator has been preserved but has not been in use since the 1980s. Today this constructivist monument is the laboratory and educational building of the Moscow Power Engineering Institute.
Proletarsky District / ZIL Palace of Culture, 1931-1937
A., V., and L. Vesnin
Unlike the smaller clubs built in Moscow, the Palace of Culture in the Proletarsky District was meant for the entire neighborhood, and this is reflected in the size and complexity of the building. Nearly all of Simonov Monastery was demolished to make way for the construction of the Palace of Culture, which from above has a silhouette of an airplane. The building accommodates a library, a large theater, a cafe, a conference hall, a winter garden, numerous rooms for workshops, and an observatory on the roof. In the present day the building continues its initial function of a neighborhood club as the recently reinvigorated and rebranded ZIL Culture Centre.
Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, 1926-1927
Konstantin Melnikov (architect), Vladimir Shukhov (engineer)
The bus garage was the first of two projects where the architect K. Melnikov and engineer V. Shukhov teamed up. The parallelogram-shaped floorplan of the garage was dictated by the fleet of imported British Leyland buses that the structure was to house: the buses had a wide turning radius so Melnikov came up with a unidirectional design where the need to reverse was eliminated. In all, the 8500-square-meter space housed 104 buses, and the facade facing Bakhmetevsky Street was decorated with a bold design of bas-reliefs enumerating the entrances, along with the name of the garage. Like many other vacated buildings, it suffered neglect with the fall of the Soviet Union, and in the early 2000s work began to take the garage apart — only to be stopped by public intervention. Unlike many other avant-garde monuments, however, it received a swift reconstruction thanks to the involvement of Daria Zhukova, girlfriend of the Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich. Nine months after Zhukova first encountered what was left of the structure, the grand opening of the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture was celebrated in September 2008. That modern art gallery later relocated to Gorky Park and in November 2012, the world’s largest Jewish museum opened in the restored garage, again thanks to generous funding.
Textile Institute Dormitory, 1929-1931
Metro: Leninsky Prospekt
The Soviet Union’s most radical approach to commune-houses was a student complex built for 2,000 people and comprising of dormitory, sanitary, and communal blocks. The two-person “sleeping cabins” in the narrow 200-meter-long dormitory section had an area of only six meters and a height of 2.62 meters; personal space was at an absolute minimum. The sanitary block was located between the dormitory block and communal block (study hall, recreation room, cafeteria), which meant students had to pass through it in their daily migrations from sleeping quarters to the space where they spent their days. The building was in a thoroughly dilapidated state when work on the “reconstruction for the purpose of regeneration with restoration and adaptation of the National University of Science and Technology MISiS student dorms” began in 2008. Since then the ”sleeping block” has reopened and is again fulfilling the function of a dormitory, though with significant adaptations to modern standards and requirements. Work on the sanitary and communal block are still underway.
Rusakov Workers Club, 1927-1929
The first of five clubs built by Melnikov, it is easily one of the most recognizable monuments from the avant-garde period. Like in many other Melnikov works, the club features transformable elements: the three cantilevered sections house seating, which can either work separately or together to accommodate a total of nearly 1,300 audience members. Its poor condition caused it to be twice listed in the World Monuments Fund Watch List in 1998 and 2000. A grant from American Express in 1999 financed a much needed roof replacement. In 2012, a comprehensive restoration began to return the site to its historical appearance and to adapt the building to modern needs, namely to function as the Roman Viktyuk Theater, which received ownership of the Rusakov Club in 1996 but had not put on a single performance there due to the critical condition of the building. In the spring of 2015 restoration works wrapped up and the restored monument was visited by the head of the Moscow Department of Culture Alexander Kibovsky and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who boasted, “This is a unique site that has been not only restored, but has also been adapted to the needs of a theater and equipped with the most modern equipment.”
Mosselprom Building, 1913, 1925
Engineers N. Strukov, V. Tsvetaev, A. Loleyt
A pre-Revolutionary tenement house from 1913 collapsed shortly after construction in the center of the Arbat District and became the foundation for the Mosselprom (Moscow Agricultural Industries) administration and warehouse building. Reconstruction began a decade later in 1923 and was completed in 1925, during which the building took on constructivist characteristics. The facade’s features were notably highlighted in bright colors, and the back side of the building featured the work of Alexander Rodchenko, showcasing Mosselprom’s goods, and the poet Mayakovsky’s words, “Нигде, кроме как в Моссельпроме” (“Nowhere else but at Mosselprom” — a rhyme in Russian). Recently the building’s paint job was freshened up and the building’s advertisements again look bold and crisp, beckoning passersby to admire the eye-catching work of the great avant-garde duo of Rodchenko and Mayakovsky.
Krasnye Vorota Metro Station Ground Pavilion, 1934-1935
Metro: Krasnye Vorota
Krasnye Vorota metro station gets its name from the famous Red Gate, a monumental, baroque, triumphal arc, demolished in 1927 to make way for the metro’s Garden Ring expansion. In the 1920s Ladovsky was the leader of the ASNOVA (Association of New Architects) group, who called themselves rationalists and creative opponents of the constructivists. Out of all the pavilions constructed for the Moscow metro, the Krasnye Vorota is the only one that looks modern and devoid of associations with historical architecture. It’s concentric shape is reminiscent of a shell, a portal into the depths of the underground. Hidden from behind this portal is a glazed parallelepiped volume which from the side enhances the portal’s resemblance to a giant megaphone.
Taganskaya Telephone Station, 1929
Engineer V. Martinovich
Metro: Chistye Prudy
This is one of the first automatic telephone stations in Moscow. Though most were built according to standard designs, this one had its own unique look. Currently it is in good condition and fits well into the historic environs. However, in the summer of 2014, plans were announced to demolish the station and build in its place an apartment complex. Unsurprisingly the public was against the demolition, not only because it would mean the loss of the constructivist edifice, but also because building a residential complex in that area would ruin the view and put additional strain on the neighborhood’s infrastructure. The demolition has since been delayed.
Krasnaya Presnya Heat and Power Plant, 1926-1928
M. Babitskiy, engineers A. Sorokin, N. Lavrov
Located on the Moscow River’s edge and fittingly resembling a ship, the plant was one of the first facilities built in Moscow under the State Commission for the Electrification of Russia, which was initiated and supervised by Vladimir Lenin. For Lenin, electrification was central to the achievement of communism, which he famously expressed in the statement, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” Lenin’s words were realized with the construction of this plant. Outdated and no longer in use, like many other industrial sites located along the river’s embankments, there was a proposal to convert the former power plant into a Russian Avant-Garde Center. However, this was of no interest to city authorities who preferred to have a high-rise apartment block built, requiring the demolition of later-built buildings. The 1928 section of the plant, however, is protected by cultural heritage status and is being carefully transformed into offices, lofts, galleries, and cafes by the Rozhdestvenka architectural bureau.
Leather Industry Polytechnic Institute, 1932
In connection with industrialization, an urgent need for skilled workers in the field of light industry appeared in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. Specialized institutions of higher education were created to solve this problem, one of which was the Leather Industry Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1930. The institute’s impressive educational building — constructed in the early 1930s during a transition in architectural styles — reflects a compromise between avant-garde and Art Deco features. Today the building is occupied by the Moscow State University of Design and Technology.
Text and photographs © Natalia Melikova and may not be copied/reposted without permission. Contact: [email protected] for info. The Constructivist Project also includes several social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.