When Lenin moved Russia’s capital back to Moscow in 1918, the city – which had played second fiddle to St Petersburg for two centuries – was badly in need of modernisation. Its housing and infrastructure more closely resembled that of a provincial town than the capital of a new communist world order. With its onion domes and Kremlin towers, Moscow still symbolised ancient, feudal Russia. Although he was no great fan of the avant-garde, Lenin realised that the city would require a completely new type of architecture to project the egalitarian ideals of the revolution and signify a total break with the past.
To this end he established a new art and technical school, VKhUTEMAS, by decree in 1920. The biggest names in Soviet modernism – El Lissitsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Mosei Ginzburg, Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich – would all be affiliated with the school over the following decade. The ateliers of this “Soviet Bauhaus” were the crucibles of three movements – constructivism, rationalism and suprematism – which would give the USSR’s early visual culture its boldly utopian character.
Constructivists, who believed art should directly reflect the modern industrial world, had the greatest influence on Moscow’s urban landscape. (Suprematism, with its geometric shapes and muted colours, was confined to art, while the rationalist architects, who were concerned with the distribution of psychic energy around a building, realised few projects.) Constructivist buildings, characterised by their advanced engineering in glass and steel and overtly communist use of space, began to spring up around the city. These futuristic vessels for the new Soviet man – such as Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers’ Club, Ginzburg’s Narkomfin housing block, the Vesnin brothers’ Mostorg department store and Shukhov’s telecommunications tower – embodied the dynamic, progressive ideals of the times. To the average Muscovite, it must have seemed like spaceships were landing.
Stalin’s rise to power at the end of the 1920s signalled another dramatic turn in Soviet architecture. The clean geometry of the constructivists was suddenly replaced with a heavy, forbidding classicism, the expression of totalitarian power in stone. Although no one dared mention it, this new monumental style drew extensively on the architectural traditions of the old world order – imperialist, capitalist and ecclesiastical – for inspiration. In this newly conservative climate, the constructivists had to adapt or perish.
“Imagine Moscow”, a new exhibition at the Design Museum in London, considers various unbuilt projects from these two markedly different periods in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a fertile subject; the Soviets’ seemingly inexhaustible appetite for architectural competitions ensured that far more buildings remained on paper than were ever realised. And in the early years following the revolution, during and just after the civil war, there was very little money for building. This meant that architects could dream big, projecting wildly fantastic designs in the knowledge that they would never come to fruition.