Romantic Constructivism of the 1920s in Moscow


Constructivism in Moscow architecture appeared and disappeared very briefly. Some people find it astonishing that constructivism appeared at all in Moscow, with its fantastic architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Soviet period, however, witnessed huge changes to Moscow’s architectural stock with massive residential and public buildings projects.

The main (Moscow) Soviet architectural schools were:

1918-1932 – Constructivism
1932-1953 – Stalinist architecture (Art-Deco)
1953-1987 – Post WWII Modernism (Nikita Khrushev, Leonod Brezhnev)
1980s-now-Perestroika, post-modernism (Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin)

In March 1918 the Soviet government decided to return to Moscow; back to the roots. There are many theories why this took place: one theory is that the administration in St. Petersburg was not supportive of Bolshevik power. But Moscow had not been the capital for 200 years, which meant that there were not enough public offices and living facilities for the bureaucrats, and we know that after each major change over in administrations, the number of bureaucrats grows.

The whole country was in political and economic disaster. There was nothing to eat, the winters were quite cold, the ‘bourgeois’ class was quite strong. Add to all of this, there were problems in Moscow of not having enough office space. There were great ideas of creating a new ideology and of expanding the revolution to other countries. The country suffered from a brain drain, as huge numbers of educated people left for Germany, France the United States, Latin America and China. There was also a chronic shortage of construction materials. The authorities wanted to build, but what with? A general plan was created, and to make way for new projects a lot of the old, existing residential areas and public spaces were demolished. A lot of churches were demolished, the ownership of many properties changed hands and a lot of people were relocated into private homes and apartments.
All statues to the Tsars were demolished or transferred to the Soviets. For example, the Obelisk to the Romanovs and their servants, constructed in 1914, designed by Sergei Vlasiev, was changed into the Obelisk to the Revolutionary Philosophers and Writers in 1918, and then to the ‘Obelisk to the Romanovs’ in 2013.

The idea of simplicity and practicality was attractive to the Soviets, who wanted to build a lot of social housing, but this was not absolutely new. A lot of architects in the West were thinking about the same thing; trying to use aspects of geometry to solve social problems which had existed since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.
Hannes Meyer, a member of the German Bauhaus movement which was one of the groups which preceded the constructivists and which shared the same general ideas came to Russia. There were a lot of Germans working in Moscow at that time, and some Americans. Meanwhile, the French architect Le Corbusier was creating buildings that would be imitated by Russian constructivists. In Russia, architects like Nikolai Vtorov were moving closer to simplicity, as modern materials now allowed the construction of buildings with larger windows and simpler designs.

At that time, a group of Russian artists and designers, who not only came from academia, and had to work very hard to learn a lot, also became involved in architecture. They created an avant-garde ‘constructivist’ group in Moscow. This group included Vladimir Tatlin, and Kazimir Malevich. Vladimir Tatlin, for example, visited Paris, like so many artists have done, but unlike many other talented young men, he had to save up the money for his visit to Paris by working; in his case, as a sailor. He had to work to be able to paint. Malevich firmly believed that geometrical shapes should be the basis for constructivist architecture. Tatlin’s tower was never built, it existed only on paper and as a model, because there were no construction materials at the time sufficiently strong to build it. Some major projects were built, such as Vladimir Shukov’s radio tower at Shabolovsky.

The style was used in the construction of communal apartments, such as the ‘Nacomfin’ building at Novinsky Boulevard 25, designed by Moisei Ginsburg and the ‘House on the Embankment’ designed by Boris Iofan, at Serafimovich 2. The living units were designed to be supremely practical, with communal kitchens, kindergartens, everything to maximise the amount of time citizens could spend working. University campuses were designed using this very functional style. Lenin’s tomb could be considered to be constructivist, as on the functionality level, the tomb was used to keep the idea of Lenin alive for generations.
By 1932 however, Stalin started a terror campaign to get rid of all his competitors, political, ideological and architectural! Lenin’s tomb turned out to be the coffin of constructivism, and the style which replaced it was, unsurprisingly — Stalinist. Constructivism became known as ‘formalism’ and was banned because it did not use symmetry – the architectural language of power – to sing the glories of the state.

Although short-lived, constructivism had a profound impact on architecture in the 20th and 21st centuries. Sir Norman Foster’s sketches for the famous ‘Gherkin’ Tower in London remind one of Tatlin and Shukov very much. Many of the ideas of the constructivist architects can be seen in the design of skyscrapers and modernist office buildings throughout the world. Simplicity of design, practicality and strength.

Constructivism in the Soviet Union never made a formal come back, but by 1953, although still being criticised, Khruschev and later Brezhnev approved of simple architectural designs which looked remarkably reminiscent of forms of constructivism in social housing programmes.

Constructivism provided a better understanding of forms and shapes, it promoted the aesthetics of simplicity, it worked well with social education and housing programmes. The messages that it promoted were: equality, be happy with what the state does for you, no private life, industrialisation, the state serves the people, and dream cities.