If you discovered Part One of our Soviet Union Top Ten blog last week, you’ll know that we’re showcasing the most interesting architecture from the old USSR. Some are beautifully odd, with space-age influences and an aversion to Western design; some have fascinating stories, with architecture that reveals the politics and cultural obsessions of the time.
Part two of our look at the strange and the beautiful of Soviet Union architecture is found below.
6. DRUZHBA HOLIDAY CENTRE, YALTA
Photo courtesy of Argenberg
There’s no way round it; the Druzhba Holiday Centre is a remarkably strange building. Constructed near Yalta in 1984 and designed by Igor Vasilevsky, the iconic structure was designed for a holiday camp in the popular resort of Yalta in the Ukraine. Visitors enter the camp through the glass tube catwalk that is clearly visible on the above photo to the left of the building, and can then descend into the camp through the legs of the building, which house lift shafts and stairs. Within the main building is a cinema, dance hall, cafe and swimming pool, with the guest rooms around the outside creating the circular saw shape that adds an edgy sharpness to the futuristic style. In fact, the building’s style looks so far from its purpose that the American Department of Defence mistook it for a rocket launcher when it was originally constructed. Ironically, ‘Druzhba’ translates as ‘friendship’.
7. THE NARKOMFIN BUILDING
Left: The Narkomfin building in 2009, photo: Nikolai Vassiliev
Right: The Narkomfin building in the 1930s, photographer unknown
The Narkomfin building may not look very special from the outside, but it has been described as ‘one of Russia’s most important Constructivist buildings’ and ‘one of the most daring buildings of the 20th century’. Built in 1928, and completed in 1932, it was designed by Moisei Ginzburg to house workers for the Commissariat of Finance (nicknamed the Narkomfin). The architect wanted to build along collectivist lines, with much of the building’s facilities being communal. However, he faced the problem of housing shortages in Moscow; space was at a premium, and any housing that contained more than one room was
The Narkomfin building in the 1930s, photographer unknown often converted into a kommunalka – accommodation for multiple families. To combat this, he created ‘vertical’ apartments – apartments that were small enough avoid partitioning and had one living area downstairs that connected to an exterior corridor, with a bedroom above. Whilst this may sound unreasonably sparse, the complex’s facilities were communal, with kitchens, dining spaces, laundry, crèches, library and gymnasium provided for all residents to use. Through this, the idea was to emphasise the collectivist principles of socialism and to break down the perceived oppression of women within the family unit by allowing women to break free of their traditional roles. Unfortunately, the Soviet utopianism that drove forward the project waned almost as soon as the Narkomfin building was completed, following the beginning of the Five Year Plans and Stalin’s consolidation of power. This new era of purges and secret police didn’t fit with the romantic ideals of communal living, and the building was labelled ‘Trotskyist’ and old-fashioned. The original plans for the building included for three other blocks to be built along the same lines; these plans fell through, and an adjoining block was built in a Stalinist fashion. The roof garden overlooked the American Embassy, and as such became little-used; the communal recreational area on the roof became the penthouse of the Commissar of Finance, and the use of other communal facilities petered out following the rising paranoia and suspicion prevalent in Russian society with the introduction of the secret police and the purges. Tenants instead partitioned tiny kitchen spaces into the living area of their apartments.
The building is now in an extremely dilapidated state, despite still having residents occupying half the apartments, and has three times been on the World Monument Fund’s watch list and is at the top of UNESCO’s endangered buildings list – a sad demise for a project that inspired the likes of Le Corbusier, Moshe Sadie, Berthold Lubetkin and Denys Lasdun. The grandson of Moisei Ginzburg, Alexey Ginzburg, has proposed turning the Narkomfin building into an apartment hotel, thus revitalising and renovating such an important structure in Soviet history.
8. RUSAKOV WORKERS’ CLUB
Photo courtesy of NVO
Rusakov Workers’ Club in Moscow is an extraordinarily modern looking building considering that it was constructed in 1928. Designed by Konstantin Melnikov, who described the building’s exterior as ‘a tensed muscle’, the workers’ club was a venue commissioned by trade unions that provided education, propaganda and community centre-style functions for the communities of workers that lived nearby. Melnikov won competitions to build five clubs around the Moscow area; the Rusakov club is the most architecturally impressive. The cantilevered sections at the front each hold a seating area; the three can be used as completely independent theatre halls, or linked together to create an auditorium that can seat up to 1,000 people. Offices are located to the rear of the building.
The cantilevered sections also provide an important aesthetic function, casting the structure ‘as individualist against the general backdrop of urban buildings, and setting apart the socialist building from a Moscow that had been shaped by Tsars. Once Stalin began to establish his own architectural style in the 1930s through his state architectural department, Melnikov refused to design any further buildings, and retired from architecture in 1933. The building itself is now in poor condition, and although the roof was repaired in 2000 by the World Monuments Fund in conjunction with American Express and the Moscow Committee for Monuments Protection, it still needs much renovation to restore it to its former glory. Questions have been raised, however, over renovation for the project, with some arguing that any serious renovation to the structure would destroy the building’s authenticity as a Soviet piece.
9. WEDDING PALACE, TBILISI
Photo courtesy of Frederic Chaubin and Socialism Expo
Sometimes known as the Palace of Ceremonies, this flamboyant structure started out life as a multi-faith wedding chapel, designed by Victor Djorbanadze and completed in 1984. It was inspired by Le Corbusier’s modernist church at Ronchamp, itself a work that incorporates thick, curved walls that intimate a relationship between the structure and the surrounding landscape. This structure is, however, far more intricate, with shell-like patterns weaving around spiral columns and towers to create an organic-looking structure. Djorbanadze dedicated the left-hand spiral block as ‘male’, where the groom’s party assembles, and the right-hand spiral as ‘female’ (seen here as the foremost tower with six asymmetrical circular windows), where the bride enters. The pair would then meet in front of the altar for the ceremony, before passing past the ‘Fountain of Life’ and exiting under the central bell tower. The whole structure is said to be based upon the female reproductive system, with the new couple being ‘reborn’ together.
In 2001 the Georgian millionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili purchased the Wedding Palace and turned it into his personal residence. Sadly, Patarkatsishvili died in 2008, and it is not known what will happen to the building in his absence.
10. MOSCOW STATE UNIVERSITY MAIN BUILDING
Photo courtesy of Frederic Chaubin
We could have picked something obviously off-the-wall for our final building, but Moscow State University has a fine example of Stalinist architecture that demands a closer look. From its gloriously over-the-top baroque influences to its record-breaking reign as the tallest educational building in the world, it is an immensely impressive structure – which is precisely what it was designed to be. Stalin had his heart set on building skyscrapers in Moscow from 1941, but the Second World War meant that his plans had to be abandoned until peacetime. From 1947, Stalin set about commissioning a series of eight skyscrapers, saying: ‘We won the war … foreigners will come to Moscow, walk around, and there’s no skyscrapers. If they compare Moscow to capitalist cities, it’s a moral blow to us’. One of the projects never got beyond the design stage, but seven others, including the Moscow State University, were commissioned and built, earning the nickname Seven Sisters. Deceptively tall, the MSU contains 36 storeys and was the tallest building in Europe until 1990, housing 33km of corridor. Even the star at the very top of the complex, looking so tiny in the above photo, actually weighs 12 tons and contains a small room and viewing platform.
The construction of the Main Building took place from 1949 to 1953, involving a workforce of up to 14,290 workers working day and night, some Gulag labourers, which were overseen by Lavrenty Baria, Stalin’s right-hand man. The choice of site on the Sparrow Hills was a strange one – declared by Ivan the Terrible in the 17th century to be too windy to build on, the original architect (Boris Iofan) tried to justify placing his design right on the edge of the hill in a potential landslide area, and was promptly fired from the project. The replacement architect, Lev Rudnev, set the building back 800 metres as part of his redesign, and was awarded the Stalin’s Prize in 1949 for his work on the project. The exterior is beautifully gothic, with barometers, thermometers, Soviet crests, carved wheat sheaves, statues and clocks that are 9 metres in diameter adding to the overall sense of grandeur. The interior houses a concert hall, a theatre, a museum, various administrative services, a library, a swimming pool, a post office, a laundry, a police station, a hairdresser’s salon, several canteens, bank offices, cafeterias and even a bomb shelter – perhaps necessary in the run-up to the Cold War and Stalin’s increasing paranoia. The foyer is rumoured to be the most beautiful, but heavily guarded even today, meaning that few are able to see the green marble lobby, decorated with bronze statues of Soviet thinkers and scientists.
The London Skyline Series will be back as normal next week.