Russian avant-garde architecture: five masterpieces and a ghost

Moscow abounds with outstanding examples of avant-garde architecture. Witnesses of the transition period in the history of Russia, they allow you to grasp the spirit of the era when building a just society did not seem like a utopia. Artel Troika Magazine invites you to visit them.

The Russian revolution of 1917 was accompanied by an esthetic revolution: artists no longer wanted to portray the world that surrounded them. They were trying to change the world and reinvent it. Their goal was to henceforth make art and life comprise an integrated whole. Many artists cherished this dream in all corners of the world, but it was in Russia, although only for a few years, where they finally received the opportunity to carry it out. The first sketch of the new future was drafted in 1923. The Vesnin brothers, three talented artists, entered an architectural competition with their Palace of Labor project, which was later recognized as the first example of a new style: constructivism.
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There were no more suites of rooms, secret bedrooms, mazes of corridors, and inner courtyards. This new palace did not attempt to confuse its visitors. It’s impossible to get lost in its huge, bright rooms. The palace had a simple architectural plan. It had an understandable layout: an ellipse and a square tower connected by a hanging bridge. The new architecture had nothing to hide: it was easy to read and easy to understand. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Vesnin brothers compared their creation with the alphabet: the palace’s glass elements became consonants, and the iron elements became vowels. All this was because the traditional language of architecture had depleted itself. It was necessary to invent a different language that was capable of describing the new world, which was being created here and now.
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In 1923, the dream about world communism was still alive. Moscow was perceived as the world capital of the proletariat. Artists allowed themselves to carry out their boldest dreams. The Palace of Labor must be able to receive workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies from around the world, hence the need for a hall in which 10,500 people would not feel crowded. The architectural plan also included a museum of social history, a radio station, and, of course, an observatory for watching the stars and dreaming about interplanetary flights. The palace was never built, but this project became a decisive turning point in the development of architecture. The world that surrounds us would never be the same again.

Melnikov House: icon of the Russian avant-garde

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Photo: Denis Esakov

In 1923, the dream about world communism was still alive. Moscow was perceived as the world capital of the proletariat. Artists allowed themselves to carry out their boldest dreams. The Palace of Labor must be able to receive workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies from around the world, hence the need for a hall in which 10,500 people would not feel crowded. The architectural plan also included a museum of social history, a radio station, and, of course, an observatory for watching the stars and dreaming about interplanetary flights. The palace was never built, but this project became a decisive turning point in the development of architecture. The world that surrounds us would never be the same again.
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Photo: Denis Esakov

Beginning in the 1930s, the Communist Party no longer had the goal of changing the world. The world had already changed enough for its leaders. It was no longer necessary to continue the revolution. The time had come to praise those who gave birth to the revolution. And this had to be done by using every manner of expression possible, including architectural expression. Melnikov was not at all suitable for this role. His cylindrical house with its diamond-shaped windows became his fortress, his enchanted island in an ocean of mediocrity, where he went on to live as a recluse for 45 years. Experts have just started studying the house’s original layout, its ingenious heating and ventilation systems, and its unusual structure.

Bread Factory: 100% autonomous

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The same could be said of the entire constructivist legacy: it is just emerging from the shadows where it was built almost a century ago. The ideas of avant-garde architects, who were well ahead of their time, are of great interest today. Their breakthroughs, which occurred in the 1920s, continue to impress with their beauty and originality. This applies to bread factories—true wonders of technology and masterpieces of constructivist architecture. There are five of them in Moscow and two of them in Saint Petersburg. Built between 1931 and 1937, they made it possible to feed the growing population of the two capitals. They produced 300 tons of bread per day, greatly surpassing the output of German bread factories, which produced 12 tons per day.
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In order to facilitate such large volumes, the Russian engineer Georgy Marsakov invented an ingenious system: he turned the traditional conveyor upside down, put it on rollers and looped it. All in one, a completely autonomous machine that worked without any human intervention was created. All the workers had to do was carry bags of flour to the factory’s top floor and from there it would descend on its own, turning into dough, and, after a short time in the oven, into golden, crusty bread.
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The Moscow authorities praised Marsakov’s invention so much that they entrusted him with a new project: to develop a city that would operate on an endless conveyor. According to the engineer’s idea, at exactly 9 a.m., the inhabitants of the new city should find on their doorsteps fresh milk, which itself would come to them from the neighboring farms by conveyor. Need we say that this bold project was never implemented? Marsakov’s system for bread factories also did not last very long. After the engineer’s death in 1963, it underwent a series of malfunctions and was dismantled. It was easier for the factory administration to do this than to search for engineers of Marsakov’s caliber who were capable of maintaining the original equipment in good condition. But even if nothing remains of the ‘insides’ of the factories today, their walls are still standing as a reminder of the history of their ingenious architect.

The workers’ clubs: leisure for the proletariat

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Photo: Andrey Kryuchenko

New workplaces must be accompanied by new places for leisure. When they left the factory at the end of the working day, the Soviet worker should not go to the pub, but rather to the workers’ club in order to become familiar with the treasures of world culture. According to Marxist ideas, in a socialist state, the proletarian ceased to be a simple cog in the system: he gained human dignity and discovered himself in creativity. As a hero of the Renaissance, he must be able to sing, dance, draw, and play musical instruments, and the workers’ club should allow him to practice these activities.

The existing architectural forms were not able to reproduce these new institutions. The architects who were entrusted with their construction developed projects that were unprecedented at that time. This was exactly what Ilya Golosov did in 1930 when he built the Zuyev Workers’ Club for tram drivers in northern Moscow. The architect wanted to get rid of classical forms, saying «we thought they were eternal, but they are a part of history,» suggesting an original combination of geometric shapes, in the center of which is a transparent cylinder.
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Photo: Andrey Kryuchenko

It produces an unusual effect: the building resembles a small detail in a complex mechanism. But didn’t Le Corbusier say «a house is a machine for living in?» And the workers’ club became a machine for entertainment and education. «You can decorate the walls as you wish,» said Ilya Golosov to his students, «but one day, your plasterwork will fall or they will want to remove it and hang something else in its place. But volumes will live forever.» The architect turned out to be right: his club continued to impress passersby with its bold forms and giant cylinder.

Melnikov’s garage: a new arrangement of movement

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There are few people who can walk past the imposing Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage and remain indifferent. Built by Konstantin Melnikov in 1927, it continues to impress with its neat and expressive forms. Today, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center are located there. But 90 years ago, its walls buzzed non-stop with the honking of British Leyland buses. In 1926, the Moscow authorities purchased 125 buses to facilitate the movement of the city’s steadily growing population. In just a few years, the capital’s population grew from 1 million in 1920 to 2 million in 1926. At first, the British buses were located in a garage on Ordynka Street in the old city center. But the size of this garage was insufficient to accommodate such a large number of buses. Melnikov states this himself: «I saw drivers who pulled the foreign dandies forwards and backwards. They put them away for the night with lots of cursing,» he wrote in his memoirs.
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He decided to create a new type of garage: a large space with no partitions to allow for non-stop movement (free flow). Melnikov carried out this project with his friend, ingenious engineer Vladimir Shukhov, in a working suburb in northern Moscow, which has now become a fashionable neighborhood near the city center. In Melnikov’s garage, there was no need to drive buses in reverse in order to park them. In the evening, they drove into the garage through one of its six wide doors, crossed an area of 8500 m2, took a place in a row next to their mates, and drove out the next morning on the other side. This arrangement of movement seems obvious today, but it had to be invented sometime. Melnikov was one of the first in the world to do this. And his garage, resembling a magnificent cathedral, stands to remind us of this.
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Photo: Andrey Kryuchenko

The free movement of objects and people is one of the main principles of avant-garde architecture, both in Russia and around the world, and Le Corbusier brilliantly embodies this principle in his only project that was carried out in Moscow: the headquarters of the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives of the USSR. The building, located in the very center of Moscow, is currently home to the Federal Statistics Service, and its employees can enjoy the spacious, bright environment created by the Swiss architect every day. In order to move between floors, instead of using stairs, they often choose an elegant ramp, which was especially practical for transporting carts of documents before the digital era.
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Photo: Andrey Kryuchenko

Built in 1936, the building experienced several unfortunate losses: you can no longer ride on the paternoster, these non-stop elevators that set the rhythm for the entire building. Its interior space, the first in the history of the open space concept, was converted into small individual offices. But the building still seems as if it hangs in the air, resting on its ‘legs’, which is such a characteristic detail of avant-garde architecture. And today, just like yesterday, you can admire its glass facades with band windows and imagine how it would have been nice to take a sunbath with a cup of coffee on its flat roof.

Inna Dulkina

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