Forgotten but Not Gone.

 The languishing majesty of Soviet Constructivist architecture.

04.19.2017

Melnikov, Parking Garage, 1934

Photograph by Denis Esakov.

The Bolshevik Revolution ended violently in 1918 with a communist victory, paving the way for the newly established Soviet rule of Vladimir Lenin. The new revolutionary was eager to distinguish his regime as progressive and encouraged the exploration of architecture that could serve as the face of the Union. This period of experimentation resulted in Soviet Constructivism, an architectural philosophy proposed by Vladimir Tatlin and championed by Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov.

 

Soviet Constructivism centered around the idea of “constructing” art and architecture, a theme that would return to the West in the decades to come, influencing the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements in Germany and the Netherlands. “Beauty” was defined by rationality, geometric symbolism, and an external and literal expression of function¹. Though politically and economically introverted, the Soviets welcomed modernist architectural influences, viewing them as a springboard from which to launch their new national style. Western architects including Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn rushed to leave their mark on the newly formed regime, designing government buildings and experimental projects². Despite these foreign influences, some local architects sought to establish a style that was distinctly Russian, deviating from the standard functional modernist. Konstantin Melnikov emerged as the compromise between these schools, elevating symbolism of function and rigid geometry while responding to the local context through scale. Within a couple of years, Constructivism was established as the flagship architectural style of the young Soviet Union, dotting its landscape with iconic shapes. Unfortunately for the avant-garde architects of Lenin’s Russia, this decade of inventive Russian modernism died with him. 

 

Since it only lasted from 1918-1928, Soviet Constructivism is overlooked in most discussions of historical styles due to its brief lifespan and its gradual concealment behind the descending iron curtain. Lenin was succeeded by his subordinate-turned-rival Josef Stalin, a revolutionary with a totalitarian agenda. Stalin’s vision for the Soviet Union was a dark reflection of the West, whose architecture would be populated with abstract, classical monoliths². As the Soviet regime tightened its grip on expression and personal liberty, Western architects withdrew from Russia, and Soviet architects were expected to follow strict aesthetic and programmatic guidelines. While verbally snubbing the outside world, Stalin and his successors parroted the international style of architecture. They would accept no further external meddling. This new, famously bleak interpretation of modernist architecture was largely due to the inexpensiveness and accessibility of concrete and would shape the Soviet aesthetic for half a century.

Melnikov, Parking Garage, 1934

Buzludzha Monument

In Russia, the star of the Constructivists was knocked down as quickly as it had risen. Politically disowned and publicly decried, Soviet architects stopped the production of Constructivist architecture as quickly as they had started. Scattered throughout the vast expanse of Russia and its neighbors, some buildings still stand but are in disrepair due to lack of upkeep, public disdain, and poor material choices. Breaking stylistic ground has consequences, and the harsh Soviet weather revealed that materials had not yet caught up to concepts¹. Signs of physical wear include cracked concrete, uncomfortable interiors, and collapses. Ultimately, unsavory connections with the Soviet past sealed the fate of most Constructivist architecture. Failure is primarily credited to the disconnect between civilians and a small number of architects, and the architecture’s relationship to a nationalist sentiment that had fallen out of favor. Rejected by the government which commissioned them and hated by the people for whom they designed, the Constructivists' success ended as quickly as it had begun.

However, Constructivism did not die with its architects. Though the original artists and architects who outwardly identified with the style had been forced to denounce their allegiance, the public had been successfully exposed to the style. Constructivist principles were resurrected, reassembled, and incorporated into local and civic buildings, causing ripples throughout the sea of stark monoliths and prefabricated housing. The inertia of Soviet production allowed some exceptional buildings to be built, hidden by their distance from Moscow or by the sheer volume of construction. Countries on the outskirts of the Soviet Union demonstrated the greatest variety and stylistic invention. Towards the end of the Soviet Union, from the late seventies to the nineties, there was a resurgence of Constructivist motifs of geometry and function. The otherwise ubiquitous conformity threw these exceptions into sharp contrast with their surroundings, gradually drawing the attention of the authorities, but rather than discouraging production, Soviet officials encouraged variety. After decades of stoic nationalism, the authorities had realized that their image as a progressive superpower was being undermined at home and abroad by their resistance to positive change and dependence on outdated designs and systems. Encouragement was a double-edged sword and a calculated risk. Imbuing public buildings with personality was wordless criticism of communist conformity and a celebration of individual expression. Government commissions attempting to make Russia appealing to outsiders simultaneously undermined their own internal image.

Melnikov, Parking Garage, 1934

Photograph by Denis Esakov.

Following Stalin, architectural exploration was first discouraged, later tolerated, and finally encouraged by the administration. Lacking the experience and external influences of the early Constructivism, new designs were often impractical, oversized, and dangerous. This new brand of Soviet design was and ideological rather than a literal rebirth of constructivism, less conservative in form and function. Conceived and constructed during a period of cultural quarantine, Reborn Constructivism shows minimal signs of Western influences. Development in isolation resulted in an architecture that bore only a coincidental resemblance to Western styles and was often completely unique. As a mesmerizing blend of local influences, mid-century construction, and modernist philosophy, this architecture is arguably even more culturally significant than the Constructivism of the 1920s.

Unfortunately, cultural value has not saved Reborn Constructivism from the same fate as its predecessor. With the downfall of the Soviet Union came the expulsion of any experimental architecture associated with the communist identity. Though the citizens of the former Soviet States bear little love for what to them are reminders of Soviet oppression, architectural enthusiasts are finding ways to save the legacy of these forlorn structures. With the help of photographers and historians, traveling exhibits are preserving through documentation what locals and governments will not³. Under a regime whose legacy was a caricature of despair, Constructivism and its branches were an expression of creativity, individuality, and hope.

 Sources

¹

²

³

Chaubin, Frederic. “Poetic Decay.” Architectural Review 229, no.1369 (March 2011): 76-81.

 

Stamp, Gavin. “Soviet Constructivism.” Apollo (January 2012): 76-77.
 

Jenkins, Jessica. “Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture, 1915–1935” DesignIssues 28, no. 4 (Autumn 2012): 86-92.

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