As a country, Russia is best known for its golden domes, baroque influences and highly colourful, complex decorations. Beneath this, however, hides an interesting period of architecture that is perhaps not so studied – the legacy of the Soviet Union.
Mentioning the Soviet Union usually evokes images of grey concrete boxes and inner-city squalor in most Western minds, but Russia has more to offer than its Krushchyovka prefabricated structures lurking in downtown Moscow. The Soviet Union produced some striking – and sometimes bizarre – structures, ranging from stark student accommodation to futuristic office space to opulent skyscrapers. We run through our ten most interesting examples in two parts – Part One takes us through the first five, from Space Cities to communal sparseness.
1. TBILISI ROADS MINISTRY BUILDING
Photo courtesy of Donovan Driver
If you want to start with a bang, this building is definitely the way to go. Designed in the 1970s by George Chakhava, who was both the lead architect and the client for the project, the building pioneered the ‘Space City’ method, whereby the building uses as little ground as possible, instead extending up into the air and allowing the landscape to flourish around the building. The concept was conceived from forest structures, where the trunks of trees have a relatively small footprint, but a large crown. As can clearly be seen in the above photo, nature has been encouraged to exist harmoniously alongside the building, showing an element of eco-awareness rare for the time it was built.
Amidst all the greenery, however, the architecture itself relies on fairfaced concrete and sharp geometrics – a space age look that combines aspect of Brutalism and Structuralism. Resembling a game of Jenga, the Tbilisi Roads Ministry Building has five horizontal parts, each with two storeys, resting on three cores, and resides on a steep hill next to the Kura River. As a result, the highest core is 18 storeys tall and the building can be accessed from either end. The building is considered an antithesis of American skyscrapers with its division of horizontal work spaces and vertical cores that contain the building’s stairs and lifts, effectively reinforcing the divide between East and West in a simple act of architecture. Now the property of the Bank of Georgia and currently subject to renovation, the structure was made into a National Monument in 2007.
2. COMMUNAL HOUSE OF THE TEXTILE INSTITUTE
Photos courtesy of NVO
Also known as Nikolaev’s House, after the architect that designed it, the Communal House of the Textile Industry is a remarkable example of collectivism and design. Completed in 1931, it is both a work of architecture and politics, and has a truly remarkable history.
The brainchild of Ivan Nikolaev, a young architect given the task of designing student accommodation for three campuses, the concept for Nikolaev’s House was born out of limitation. Imposed on the build was a maximum cost and volume of the project, with each student entitled to 50m³ of living space. Should the architect choose to incorporate any communal space into the design, such as study areas or common rooms, the space had to be taken out of each student’s quota. As a result, Nikolaev divided the building strictly into communal areas and living space, creating an H-shaped structure that featured a public services block (with a cafe, storage areas and showers) as the connection between an eight storey dormitory and a three storey study block. Each dormitory room was for sleeping space only, with student possessions – including textbooks and clothes – stored in lockers within the public services block. Nikolaev’s original design had dorm rooms of only two metres square and 3.2 metres tall, with no windows but connected onto corridors with exterior walls, and an elaborate ventilation system installed to provide fresh air. This proved a little too radical for the university, and the rooms were expanded to 2.7m by 2.3 metres, with each having a window of its own. Still, the windows were very narrow – only 90cm high – and ran the full length of the building. Within the public services block, as the photo above shows, there was also a series of ramps forming a triangular walkway leading upstairs, much like the famous Guggenheim Museum’s spiral ramp.
The real functionality of Nikolaev’s project comes into its own when it is paired with the architect’s recommendations for the typical student day. Each student was to rise at the wake-up call and proceed to the exercise areas (either to communal gym or the exercise yard) to perform the morning’s exercises. At this point, all sleeping quarters would be locked until evening time. After exercise, students would shower and get dressed in the public services block and eat breakfast. Following this, they would follow their scheduled university day, either at lectures or studying in the common areas provided. Nikolaev even suggested using the ventilation system to sedate students at night so that they uniformly fell asleep, declaring ‘do not rule out the feasibility of sleepening additives’. Fortunately for the students, this last measure was never implemented, although in the initial years of opening the vigorously structured routine was maintained. Unfortunately, the Communal House at present is fairly dilapidated, with parts being used for office space and the accommodation block itself gutted and abandoned. Work to restore the building is underway, with plans to renovated it into modern campus accommodation.
3. THE DERZHPROM
Photo courtesy of Shmuliko
Situated in Kharkiv, in the Ukraine, the Derzhprom (translated as ‘State Industry Building’ or ‘Palace of Industry’) was constructed in the 1920s, but has been hailed as one of the major architectural achievements of the 1920s and was the tallest structure in Europe for a brief time. Designed by architects S. Serafimov, S. Kravets and M. Felger, its use of individual concrete interlocking towers and suspended overhead walkways has produced an impressive yet imposing piece of Constructivist architecture that looks far more modern than its 80-something years.
The construction of the Derzhprom was remarkable, with the 5,000 workers involved on the project working in three shifts. Services and offices for the site were located in a purpose-built wooden one-storey office nearby to ensure efficient management of the build. As a result, the Derzhprom took only three years to complete – quite a feat considering that when the build began, the construction work was done by hand using shovels, wheelbarrows, picks and sledgehammers. By completion in 1929, 80% of the work had been mechanised. Impressively, seven of the twelve original lifts installed in 1928 still work today.
Currently, the building has been split for several uses, and one of the towers is occupied by a Ukrainian television centre. A TV relay tower has been installed on the roof.
4. POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE OF MINSK
Photo courtesy of Wizardist
Somewhat resembling a giant ski slope or an ocean liner, this impressive University building is located in Minsk in Belarus. Designed by I. Yesman and V. Anakin in 1983, its novel design certainly earns it a place on this top ten, with commenters describing it as resembling ‘some mighty passenger ferry breaking through a frozen Belarussian river’. The overhanging right hand end of the structure may appear to be purely decorative but in fact contains a series of lecture halls. Now the architectural building for the Belarus National Technical University, the building seems perfectly suited for inspiring students to push their designs beyond the norm.
5. HOUSE OF SOVIETS, KALININGRAD
Photos courtesy of Vladimir Sedach and Maarten Dirkse
Sometimes the most interesting buildings are not necessarily the most beautiful. The history of Kaliningrad’s House of Soviets is a fascinating look at Soviet politics and propaganda – and the pitfalls of terrible architecture. A. A. Gill, the famous columnist, once termed it ‘the most stratospherically ghastly building ever conceived’, and it has previously been described as ‘the ugliest building on Russian soil’.
Kaliningrad was originally a German (Prussian) city prior to World War II. Following heavy fighting, the city was taken by Russian forces in 1945, and has remained Russian ever since, although it stands isolated from the Russian mainland between Poland and Lithuania. The site that the House of Soviets stands on originally played host to part of the Königsberg Castle, a beautiful 13th century Gothic Castle that was damaged by bombing in the Second World War. The Soviet authorities decided not to restore the Castle, deeming it to be a symbol of fascism, and instead tore it down in 1960s, building the House of Soviets on top of the filled-in moat.
It was intended to be the central administration building for the new, revitalised Kaliningrad, but unfortunately funding was cut to the redevelopment of Kaliningrad and the House of Soviets was never finished, earning it the nickname ‘Dug-in Robot’ amongst locals. During 2005, a visit from the then-President Vladimir Putin prompted a revamp of the exterior, with a light blue makeover and the installation of windows. However, the interior is still unfinished and is unusable, and there are plans to demolish the structure to make way for a reproduction of the original Castle.
Join us next week for the remaining five wonders of Soviet Union architecture – from the beautiful to the bizarre.