Constructivist architecture was a form of modern architecture that flourished in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s. It combined advanced technology and engineering with an avowedly Communist social purpose. Although it was divided into several competing factions, the movement produced many pioneering projects and finished buildings, before falling out of favour around 1932. It has left marked effects on later developments in architecture.
Shukhov Tower, Moscow, 1922. Currently under threat of demolition, and there is an international campaign to save it.
A split occurred in 1922 when Pevsner and Gabo emigrated. The movement then developed along socially utilitarian lines. The productivist majority gained the support of the Proletkult and the magazine LEF, and later became the dominant influence of the architectural group O.S.A.
A revolution in architecture
The print shop of “Ogonyok” magazine designed by El Lissitzky
Another famous early Constructivist project was the Lenin Tribune by El Lissitzky (1920), a moving speaker’s podium. During the Russian Civil War the UNOVIS group centered on Kasimir Malevich and Lissitzky designed various projects that forced together the ‘non-objective’ abstraction of Suprematism with more utilitarian aims, creating ideal Constructivist cities— see also El Lissitzky’s Prounen-Raum, the ‘Dynamic City’ (1919) of Gustav Klutsis; Lazar Khidekel’s Workers Club (1926) and his Dubrovka Power Plant and first Sots Town (1931–33).
ASNOVA and rationalism
Immediately after the Russian Civil War, the USSR was too impoverished to commission any major new building projects. Nonetheless, the Soviet avant-garde school Vkhutemas started an architectural wing in 1921, which was led by the architect Nikolai Ladovsky, which was called ASNOVA (association of new architects). The teaching methods were both functional and fantastic, reflecting an interest in gestalt psychology, leading to daring experiments with form such as Simbirchev’s glass-clad suspended restaurant. Among the architects affiliated to the ASNOVA (Association of New Architects) were El Lissitzky, Konstantin Melnikov, Vladimir Krinsky and the young Berthold Lubetkin.
Zuev Workers’ Club, 1927
Projects from 1923 to 1935 like Lissitzky and Mart Stam’s Wolkenbügel horizontal skyscrapers and Konstantin Melnikov’s temporary pavilions showed the originality and ambition of this new group. Melnikov would design the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris Exposition of Decorative Arts of 1925, which popularised the new style, with its rooms designed by Rodchenko and its jagged, mechanical form. Another glimpse of a Constructivist lived environment is visible in the popular science fiction film Aelita, which had interiors and exteriors modelled in angular, geometric fashion by Aleksandra Ekster. The state-run Mosselprom department store of 1924 was also an early modernist building for the new consumerism of the New Economic Policy, as was the Vesnin brothers’ Mostorg store, built three years later. Modern offices for the mass press were also popular, such as the Izvestia headquarters. This was built in 1926–7 and designed by Grigori Barkhin
Barsch/Sinyavsky, Moscow Planetarium, 1929
Rusakov Workers’ Club in Moscow by Konstantin Melnikov, 1927–28
Collective housing projects that were built included Ivan Nikolaev’s Communal House of the Textile Institute (Ordzhonikidze St, Moscow, 1929–1931), and Ginzburg’s Moscow Gosstrakh flats and, most famously, his Narkomfin Building. Flats were built in a Constructivist idiom in Kharkiv, Moscow and Leningrad and in smaller towns. Ginzburg also designed a government building in Alma-Ata, while the Vesnin brothers designed a School of Film Actors in Moscow. Ginzburg critiqued the idea of building in the new society being the same as in the old: treating workers’ housing in the same way as they would bourgeois apartments…the Constructivists however approach the same problem with maximum consideration for those shifts and changes in our everyday life…our goal is the collaboration with the proletariat in creating a new way of life. OSA published a magazine, SA or Contemporary Architecture from 1926 to 1930. The leading rationalist Ladovsky designed his own, rather different kind of mass housing, completing a Moscow apartment block in 1929. A particularly extravagant example is the ‘Chekists Village’ in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) designed by Ivan Antonov, Veniamin Sokolov and Arseny Tumbasov, a hammer and sickle shaped collective housing complex for staff of the People’s Commissariat for the Internal Affairs (NKVD), which currently serves as a hotel.
The everyday and the utopian
Narkomfin Building by Moisei Ginzburg. Currently under threat of demolition, the building is at the top of UNESCO’s ‘Endangered Buildings’ list, and there is an international campaign to save it
Svoboda Factory Club by Melnikov, Moscow
The new forms of the Constructivists began to symbolise the project for a new everyday life of the Soviet Union, then in the mixed economy of the New Economic Policy. State buildings were constructed like the huge Gosprom complex in Kharkiv (designed by Serafimov, Folger and Kravets, 1926–8) which was noted by Reyner Banham in his Theory and Design in the First Machine Age as being, along with the Dessau Bauhaus, the largest scale Modernist work of the 1920s. Other notable works included the aluminum parabola and glazed staircase of Mikhail Barsch and Mikhail Sinyavsky’s 1929 Moscow Planetarium.
House of Printing (1935) in Kazan by Semen Pen
The popularity of the new aesthetic led to traditionalist architects adopting Constructivism, as in Ivan Zholtovsky’s 1926 MOGES power station or Alexey Shchusev’s Narkomzem offices, both in Moscow. Similarly, the engineer Vladimir Shukhov’s Shukhov Tower was often seen as an avant-garde work and was, according to Walter Benjamin in his Moscow Diary, ‘unlike any similar structure in the West’. Shukhov also collaborated with Melnikov on the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage and Novo-Ryazanskaya Street Garage. Many of these buildings are shown in Sergei Eisenstein’s film The General Line, which also featured a specially built mock-up Constructivist collective farm designed by Andrey Burov.
A central aim of the Constructivists was instilling the avant-garde in everyday life. From 1927 they worked on projects for Workers’ Clubs, communal leisure facilities usually built in factory districts. Among the most famous of these are the Kauchuk, Svoboda and Rusakov clubs by Konstantin Melnikov, the club of the Likachev works by the Vesnin brothers, and Ilya Golosov’s Zuev Workers’ Club.
DniproGES (1932) by Vesnin Brothers
At the same time as this foray into the everyday, outlandish projects were designed such as Ivan Leonidov’s Lenin Institute, a high tech work that bears comparison with Buckminster Fuller. This consisted of a skyscraper-sized library, a planetarium and dome, all linked together by a monorail; or Georgy Krutikov’s self-explanatory Flying City, an ASNOVA project that was intended as a serious proposal for airborne housing. Melnikov House and his Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage are fine examples of the tensions between individualism and utilitarianism in Constructivism.
There were also projects for Suprematist skyscrapers called ‘planits’ or ‘architektons’ by Kasimir Malevich, Lazar Khikeidel – Cosmic Habitats (1921–22), Architectons (1922-1927), Workers Club (1926), Communal Dwelling (Коммунальное Жилище)(1927), A. Nikolsky and L. Khidekel – Moscow Cooperative Institute (1929). The fantastical element also found expression in the work of Yakov Chernikhov, who produced several books of experimental designs—most famously Architectural Fantasies (1933)—earning him the epithet ‘the Soviet Piranesi’.
The Sotsgorod and town planning
Town Hall by Noi Trotsky, Leningrad, 1932–4
Many of the Constructivists hoped to see their ambitions realised during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ that accompanied the first five-year plan. At this point the Constructivists were divided between urbanists and disurbanists who favoured a garden city or linear city model. The Linear City was propagandised by the head of the Finance Commissariat Nikolay Milyutin in his book Sozgorod, aka Sotsgorod (1930). This was taken to a more extreme level by the OSA theorist Mikhail Okhitovich. His disurbanism proposed a system of one-person or one-family buildings connected by linear transport networks, spread over a huge area that traversed the boundaries between the urban and agricultural, in which it resembled a socialist equivalent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. The disurbanists and urbanists proposed projects for new cities such as Magnitogorsk were often rejected in favour of the more pragmatic German architects fleeing Nazism, such as ‘May Brigade’ (Ernst May, Mart Stam, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky), the ‘Bauhaus Brigade’ led by Hannes Meyer, and Bruno Taut.
The city-planning of Le Corbusier found brief favour, with the architect writing a ‘reply to Moscow’ that later became the Ville Radieuse plan, and designing the Tsentrosoyuz government building with the Constructivist Nikolai Kolli. The duplex apartments and collective facilities of the OSA group were a major influence on his later work. Another famous modernist Erich Mendelsohn designed Leningrad’s Red Banner Textile Factory, and popularised Constructivism in his book Russland, Europa, Amerika. A Five Year Plan project with major Constructivist input was DnieproGES, designed by Victor Vesnin et al. El Lissitzky also popularised the style abroad with his 1930 book The Reconstruction of Architecture in Russia.
The end of constructivism
Intourist Garage by Konstantin Melnikov, 1933
Political Convicts House in Saint Petersburg, 1933
File:VEI building 1930.ogv
After this brief synthesis, Neo-Classical reaction was totally dominant until 1955. Rationalist buildings were still common in industrial architecture, but extinct in urban projects. Last isolated constructivist buildings were launched in 1933–1935, such as Panteleimon Golosov’s Pravda building (finished 1935), the Moscow Textile Institute (finished 1938) or Ladovsky’s rationalist vestibules for the Moscow Metro. Clearly Modernist competition entries were made by the Vesnin brothers and Ivan Leonidov for the Narkomtiazhprom project in Red Square, 1934, another unbuilt Stalinist edifice. Traces of Constructivism can also be found in some Socialist Realist works, for instance in the Futurist elevations of Iofan’s ultra-Stalinist 1937 Paris Pavilion, which had Suprematist interiors by Nikolai Suetin.
Due in part to its political commitment—and its replacement by Stalinist architecture—the mechanistic, dynamic forms of Constructivism were not part of the calm Platonism of the International Style as it was defined by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Their book included only one building from the USSR, an electrical laboratory by a government team led by Nikolaev. During the 1960s Constructivism was rehabilitated to a certain extent, and both the wilder experimental buildings of the era (such as the Globus Theatre or the Tbilisi Roads Ministry Building) and the unornamented Khrushchyovka apartments are in a sense a continuation of the aborted experiment, although under very different conditions. Outside the USSR, Constructivism has often been seen as an alternative, more radical modernism, and its legacy can be seen in designers as diverse as Team 10, Archigram and Kenzo Tange, as well as in much Brutalist work. Their integration of the avant-garde and everyday life has parallels with the Situationists, particularly the New Babylon project of Guy Debord and Constant Nieuwenhuys.
High Tech architecture also owes a debt to Constructivism, most obviously in Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building. Zaha Hadid’s early projects were adaptations of Malevich’s Architektons, and the influence of Chernikhov is clear on her drawings. Deconstructivism evokes the dynamism of Constructivism, though without the social aspect, as in the work of Coop Himmelb(l)au. In the late 1970s Rem Koolhaas wrote a parable on the political trajectory of Constructivism called The Story of the Pool, in which Constructivists escape from the USSR in a self-powering Modernist swimming pool, only to die, after being criticised for much the same reasons as they were under Stalinism, soon after their arrival in the USA. Meanwhile, many of the original Constructivist buildings are poorly preserved or in danger of imminent demolition.