The end of the First World War brought the world a new way of thinking with regards to how we live our lives. To understand the architectural endeavours that were endorsed by the Soviet revolution, it is imperative to comprehend the framework under which the developments and changes occurred. The World was moving towards the modernist era with the idea of bringing about a new approach to design principles and philosophy . There were movements that arose from the works of William Morris and John Ruskin, which looked at nature as inspiration, while other movements, such as, the machine age meant industrialization of design and a more abstract representation of it. Along with these developments were the inevitability of rivalling political ideologies, which also had a profound effect on the approach to design, art and its relevant aesthetic.
Outside of the political playground of the Soviet Union was a bigger more engaging and visible field where the ideas were inherit with the Revolution. Architecture and the fine arts were a way of presenting to the rest of the world, what it was to be a communist nation and the Soviets deemed it fit to expound that very clearly.
It can therefore be said that Soviet architecture developed with an immense influence from the political climate of the time and location. Further influence came from the governing ideologies within the Fine arts. Before Stalinist architecture was the constructivist architecture, which was defined by its governing ideals around the truth of materials, their capacity and restraints. In painting and sculpture the manipulation of materials to expressed an ideal inspired by the material’s own malleability and restraint.
Borrowing ideas from cubism, suprematism and futurism, the constructivists sought to move away from the traditional artistic composition and concerns, replacing it with the ‘make up’, or the construction of materials. The insinuated technical analysis of materials was seen for the benefit of possible mass production that ultimately led to the advancement of the modern communist society. The movement, in its infancy was towards the end of 1917 and was in decline by the 1920s. The insistence of materials capabilities with little reference to the aesthetic led architects and designers alike on a search for a new plausible means to expressing workable ideas. In architecture it was bringing together space, place and its construction under constructivism. It was clear that this was a move into a new way of design; away from ‘decadence’ into ‘Freshness, simplicity’ ‘a complete rejection of old forms together with a striving to change the basic principles of the former style’. (Brumfield, 1999)
Bureaucracy played a very distinct role in the procurement, design and utilisation of architecture within the Soviet Union. It was evident that architectural language had to conform with the political direction. Nothing was to be constructed or even designed without the involvement of the government. Everything was designed was under complete scrutiny from conception to completion. Friction between architects and the government was present through the built projects. The mass interference within the field of architecture led to numerous architects moving towards theoretical architecture where great ideas were explored, but never constructed. Numerous examples remain showing the impact this had on projects both built and un-built. ‘In Moscow I limit myself to teaching and criticism, regarding this city as a dead zone, where it is not possible to do anything real’. (Leach, 2004)
Unlike their European and American counterparts, the Soviets lacked some of the technological knowhow, as well as the finances to achieve the thoughtful level of construction demanded by the designs. This meant that corners were often cut .
“In 1922, bureaucrats failed to consider the ideas generated by an all union competition of architects’. Here they also “declared that decisions reached by a ‘bureaucratic jury’ would kill the achievements of architects” (Hudson Jr, 1994)and architecture. Experimentation within the general form of architecture was evident within the Soviet Union, however, the physical representation of architecture and its evolution was deterred by the bureaucratic misgivings. On the other hand, ”planning and building in the former Soviet Union was neither centralised nor uniform, but a very diverse, complex and regionally specific phenomenon’. (Marboe, 2012)
After the constructivist movements was Stalinism. This movement is best describe as “the replacement of liberal constructivism – all glass walls and transparency, broken down barriers and open spaces – with Stalinism wasn’t pure ideology; frankly many of the constructivist buildings weren’t very well designed for what they were, but it did herald a turn in the direction of Russia”. (Goodwin, 2015)
Russia after the Soviet Union redirected its attempts to establish itself as part of the western world. Russia has sought to design and build architecture to entice the rest of the world by investing in its own future.
Recent developments such as the economic crash and a somewhat undesirable political stands have deterred the claim of Russian rise. Again we can establish some similarities between the architecture of Soviet and Modern day Russia. In the language of Architecture, there are signs of the political. The constructivist ideals looked to the horizontal, moving away from the idea of the individual supreme power towards the collective. The social dynamic meant that the collective became the reason to design.
In contrast, President Putin’s reign has resorted back to past political identities. Similar to Stalinist ideas in Architecture, Putin has sought the reestablishment of the vertical in its architectural forms in order to draw the eye to the height of the buildings, thus illustrating political strength similar to Stalin. In the showcase of power, or the rise of it, Russia’s political identity is rooted in the form of its architecture. Constructivist ideas are modernized and flipped on their side in order to be reused in the conception of the design for these contemporary buildings. Like pervious forms of government, projects that showed promise on paper have often fallen short in its physical representations. An example is the business district which has declined in occupancy as well as a change in the demographic of its occupants. Russia’s cities in ‘”the last twenty years of architecture has added little but bog-standard steel – and – glass office blocks to the limited palate of the Russian cityscape”. (Zinatulin, 2015) The look of the buildings that occupy the city of Moscow and its neighbouring districts may show a contemporary language, however the ideas and problems that plagued past architectural development within Russia still rail its head in the contemporary. The causes although dissimilar have a similar outcome.
In the Image above, the form is indicative of the constructivist era. Seen in constructivist paintings as well as making appearances in the writings of the Soviet era, the building is almost typical of its style. It makes an emphasis on the horizontal along with the use of common geometric shapes represents within it the ideologies of its philosophy. The facade makes use of repetition and precise placement of the ribbon widows in both the vertical and horizontal plane, while emphasising the forms within the whole with a clear differentiation between solid and void. This is the general aesthetic of its facade is void of other interruptions. This idea is repeated in the form of the skyscrapers that litter the financial district of Russia’s capital. The emphasis however changes to the vertical, similar to Stalinist architecture in its implication. Coincidentally, the involvement from the government still remains with emphasis on a different socioeconomic issue.
In the more private arenas, Russian architecture has seen some rebellious evolution. In 2010 David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates designed a building for the Moscow School of Management. He drew his inspiration from the work of the Russian Avant-garde artist Kazimir Malewich. Adjaye’s design looks back to the ideologies of the painter’s work and rebellious nature of Russian architecture. The facade, as well as the form makes use of horizontality and other ideas inspired by Malewich in order to create a uniquely persuasive piece.
It is clear that Russia architecture has had a multitude of influences throughout its history. Whether under the strong hand of the governments or by the philosophical and other design movements. Although unique architecture has risen throughout the different eras, architecture remains a language that reminisces on past ideas.
Written by Kingsley Kerson