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Constructivist architecture was a form of modern architecture that flourished in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s. It combined advanced technology and engineering with an avowedly Communist social purpose. Although it was divided into several competing factions, the movement produced many pioneering projects and finished buildings, before falling out of favour around 1932. Its effects have been marked on later developments in architecture.
Constructivist architecture emerged from the wider constructivist art movement, which grew out of Russian Futurism. Constructivist art had attempted to apply a three-dimensional cubist vision to wholly abstract non-objective 'constructions' with a kinetic element. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 it turned its attentions to the new social demands and industrial tasks required of the new regime. Two distinct threads emerged, the first was encapsulated in Antoine Pevsner's and Naum Gabo's Realist manifesto which was concerned with space and rhythm, the second represented a struggle within the Commissariat for Enlightenment between those who argued for pure art and the Productivists such as Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and Vladimir Tatlin, a more socially-oriented group who wanted this art to be absorbed in industrial production.
A split occurred in 1922 when Pevsner and Gabo emigrated. The movement then developed along socially utilitarian lines. The productivist majority gained the support of the Proletkult and the magazine LEF, and later became the dominant influence of the architectural group O.S.A.
The first and most famous Constructivist architectural project was the 1919 proposal for the headquarters of the Comintern in St Petersburg by the Futurist Vladimir Tatlin, often called Tatlin's Tower. Though it remained unbuilt, the materials—glass and steel—and its futuristic ethos and political slant (the movements of its internal volumes were meant to symbolise revolution and the dialectic) set the tone for the projects of the 1920s.
Another famous early Constructivist project was the Lenin Tribune by El Lissitzky (1920), a moving speaker's podium. During the Russian Civil War the UNOVIS group centred around Kasimir Malevich and Lissitzky designed various projects that forced together the 'non-objective' abstraction of Suprematism with more utilitarian aims, creating ideal Constructivist cities— see also El Lissitzky's Prounen-Raum or the 'Dynamic City' (1919) of Gustav Klutsis. In this and Tatlin's work the components of Constructivism could be seen to be an adaptation of various high-tech Western forms, such as the engineering feats of Gustave Eiffel and New York or Chicago's skyscrapers, for a new collective society.
Immediately after the Russian Civil War, the USSR was too impoverished to commission any major new building projects. Nonetheless, the Soviet avant-garde school Vkhutemas started an architectural wing in 1921, which was led by the architect Nikolai Ladovsky, which was called ASNOVA (association of new architects). The teaching methods were both functional and fantastic, reflecting an interest in gestalt psychology, leading to daring experiments with form such as Simbirchev's glass-clad suspended restaurant. Among the architects affiliated to the ASNOVA (Association of New Architects) were El Lissitzky, Konstantin Melnikov, Vladimir Krinsky and the young Berthold Lubetkin.
Projects from 1923 to 1935 like Lissitzky and Mart Stam’s Wolkenbügel horizontal skyscrapers and Konstantin Melnikov’s temporary pavilions showed the originality and ambition of this new group. Melnikov would design the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris Exposition of Decorative Arts of 1925, which popularised the new style, with its rooms designed by Rodchenko and its jagged, mechanical form. Another glimpse of a Constructivist lived environment is visible in the popular science fiction film Aelita, which had interiors and exteriors modelled in angular, geometric fashion by Aleksandra Ekster. The state-run Mosselprom department store of 1924 was also an early modernist building for the new consumerism of the New Economic Policy, as was the Vesnin brothers' Mostorg store, built three years later. Modern offices for the mass press were also popular, such as the Izvestia headquarters. This was built in 1926–7 and designed by Grigori Barkhin
A colder and more technological Constructivist style was introduced by the 1923/4 glass office project by the Vesnin brothers for Leningradskaya Pravda. In 1925 the OSA Group, also with ties to Vkhutemas, was founded by Alexander Vesnin and Moisei Ginzburg — the Organisation of Contemporary Architects. This group had much in common with Weimar Germany’s Functionalism, such as the housing projects of Ernst May. Housing, especially collective housing in specially designed dom kommuny to replace the collectivised 19th century housing that was the norm, was the main priority of this group. The term social condenser was coined to describe their aims, which followed from the ideas of V.I Lenin, who wrote in 1919 that the real emancipation of women and real communism begins with the mass struggle against these petty household chores and the true reforming of the mass into a vast socialist household.
Collective housing projects that were built included Ivan Nikolaev’s Communal House of the Textile Institute (Ordzhonikidze St, Moscow, 1929–1931), and Ginzburg’s Moscow Gosstrakh flats and, most famously, his Narkomfin Building. Flats were built in a Constructivist idiom in Kharkiv, Moscow and Leningrad and in smaller towns. Ginzburg also designed a government building in Alma-Ata, while the Vesnin brothers designed a School of Film Actors in Moscow. Ginzburg critiqued the idea of building in the new society being the same as in the old: treating workers' housing in the same way as they would bourgeois apartments...the Constructivists however approach the same problem with maximum consideration for those shifts and changes in our everyday life...our goal is the collaboration with the proletariat in creating a new way of life. OSA published a magazine, SA or Contemporary Architecture from 1926 to 1930. The leading rationalist Ladovsky designed his own, rather different kind of mass housing, completing a Moscow apartment block in 1929. A particularly extravagant example is the 'Chekists Village' in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) designed by I. Antonov, V. Sokolov and A. Tumbasov, a hammer and sickle shaped collective housing complex for members of the secret police, which currently serves as a hotel.
The new forms of the Constructivists began to symbolise the project for a new everyday life of the Soviet Union, then in the mixed economy of the New Economic Policy. State buildings were constructed like the huge Gosprom complex in Kharkiv (designed by Serafimov, Folger and Kravets, 1926–8) which was noted by Reyner Banham in his Theory and Design in the First Machine Age as being, along with the Dessau Bauhaus, the largest scale Modernist work of the 1920s. Other notable works included the aluminum parabola and glazed staircase of Mikhail Barsch and Mikhail Sinyavsky’s 1929 Moscow Planetarium.
The popularity of the new aesthetic led to traditionalist architects adopting Constructivism, as in Ivan Zholtovsky’s 1926 MOGES power station or Alexey Shchusev’s Narkomzem offices, both in Moscow. Similarly, the engineer Vladimir Shukhov’s Shukhov Tower was often seen as an avant-garde work and was, according to Walter Benjamin in his Moscow Diary, 'unlike any similar structure in the West'. Shukhov also collaborated with Melnikov on the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage and Novo-Ryazanskaya Street Garage. Many of these buildings are shown in Sergei Eisenstein’s film The General Line, which also featured a specially built mock-up Constructivist collective farm designed by Andrey Burov.
A central aim of the Constructivists was instilling the avant-garde in everyday life. From 1927 they worked on projects for Workers’ Clubs, communal leisure facilities usually built in factory districts. Among the most famous of these are the Kauchuk, Svoboda and Rusakov clubs by Konstantin Melnikov, the club of the Likachev works by the Vesnin brothers, and Ilya Golosov’s Zuev Workers' Club.
At the same time as this foray into the everyday, outlandish projects were designed such as Ivan Leonidov’s Lenin Institute, a high tech work that bears comparison with Buckminster Fuller. This consisted of a skyscraper-sized library, a planetarium and dome, all linked together by a monorail; or Georgy Krutikov’s self-explanatory Flying City, an ASNOVA project that was intended as a serious proposal for airborne housing. Melnikov House and his Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage are fine examples of the tensions between individualism and utilitarianism in Constructivism. There were also projects for Suprematist skyscrapers called ‘planits’ or ‘architektons’ by Kasimir Malevich, Lazar Khikeidel and Nikolai Suetin. The fantastical element also found expression in the work of Yakov Chernikhov, who produced several books of experimental designs — most famously Architectural Fantasies (1933) — earning him the epithet ‘the Soviet Piranesi’.
El Lissitzky's contacts in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, as well as the impact of Melnikov's Paris Pavilion, led to many architects outside the USSR considering their work as Constructivist by the late 1920s. Architects of the New Objectivity like Lissitzky's collaborators Mart Stam and the ABC Group led by Hannes Meyer embraced Constructivism's severe geometry and technologically advanced aesthetic, despite their remoteness from their original context. The shift of the Bauhaus in 1922 towards 'art and technology — a new unity' was often considered to be a Constructivist one, while the Czech critic and designer Karel Teige's 1932 book The Minimum Dwelling uses Functionalism and Constructivism as interchangeable terms. Constructivism also had a noticeable impact on Streamline Moderne.
Perhaps the best known examples of Western Constructivism of the 1920s are some buildings in the Netherlands:
The Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam and the Zonnestraal Sanatorium in Hilversum are nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage.. For the Dutch structuralists Aldo van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger the constructivist Lovell Beach House in Newport Beach by Rudolph Schindler was an inspiring model for their own architecture.
Another Western country in which constructivism had a strong influence was former Czechoslovakia when it was the main source for a development of a specific Czech and Slovak form of functionalism. The most known constructivist building in former Czechoslovakia is probably the Commercial and Residential Centre Manderla in Bratislava. The first propagators of constructivism and later functionalism in Czechoslovakia were Jiří Grossmann and Alois Balán. They were activ above all in Bratislava which in 1920s - 1930s became a new dynamic capital.
Despite the ambitiousness of many Constructivist proposals for reconstructed cities, there were fairly few examples of coherent Constructivist town planning. However the Narvskaya Zastava district of Leningrad became a focus for Constructivism. Beginning in 1925 communal housing was designed for the area by architects like A. Gegello and OSA's Alexander Nikolsky, as well as public buildings like the Kirov Town Hall by Noi Trotsky (1932–4), an experimental school by G.A Simonov and a series of Communal laundries and kitchens, designed for the area by local ASNOVA members. Many of the Constructivists hoped to see their ambitions realised during the 'Cultural Revolution' that accompanied the first Five Year Plan. At this point the Constructivists were divided between urbanists and disurbanists who favoured a garden city or linear city model. The Linear City was propagandised by the head of the Finance Commissariat Nikolay Milyutin in his book Sozgorod, aka Sotsgorod (1930). This was taken to a more extreme level by the OSA theorist Mikhail Okhitovich. His disurbanism proposed a system of one-person or one-family buildings connected by linear transport networks, spread over a huge area that traversed the boundaries between the urban and agricultural, in which it resembled a socialist equivalent of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City. The disurbanists and urbanists proposed projects for new cities such as Magnitogorsk were often rejected in favour of the more pragmatic German architects fleeing Nazism, such as 'May Brigade' (Ernst May, Mart Stam, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky), the 'Bauhaus Brigade' led by Hannes Meyer, and Bruno Taut.
The city-planning of Le Corbusier found brief favour, with the architect writing a ‘reply to Moscow’ that later became the Ville Radieuse plan, and designing the Tsentrosoyuz government building with the Constructivist Nikolai Kolli. The duplex apartments and collective facilities of the OSA group were a major influence on his later work. Another famous modernist Erich Mendelsohn designed Leningrad's Red Banner Textile Factory, and popularised Constructivism in his book Russland, Europa, Amerika. A Five Year Plan project with major Constructivist input was DnieproGES, designed by Victor Vesnin et al. El Lissitzky also popularised the style abroad with his 1930 book The Reconstruction of Architecture in Russia.
The 1932 competition for the Palace of the Soviets, a grandiose project to rival the Empire State Building, featured entries from all the major Constructivists as well as Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier. However, this coincided with widespread criticism of Modernism, which was always difficult to sustain in a still mostly agrarian country. There was also the critique that the style merely copied the forms of technology while using fairly routine construction methods. The winning entry by Boris Iofan marked the start of eclectic historicism of Stalinist Architecture, a style which bears similarities to Post-Modernism in that it reacted against modernist architecture's cosmopolitanism, alleged ugliness and inhumanity with a pick and mix of historical styles, sometimes achieved with new technology. Housing projects like the Narkomfin were designed for the attempts to reform everyday life in the 1920s, such as collectivisation of facilities, equality of the sexes and collective raising of children, all of which fell out of favour as Stalinism revived family values. The styles of the old world were also revived, with the Moscow Metro in particular popularising the idea of 'workers' palaces'.
By the end of the 1920s Constructivism was the country's dominant architecture, and surprisingly many buildings of this period survive. Initially the reaction was towards an art decoesque Classicism that was initially inflected with Constructivist devices, such as in Iofan's House on Embankment of 1929–32. For a few years some structures were designed in a composite style sometimes called Postconstructivism.
After this brief synthesis, Neo-Classical reaction was totally dominant until 1955. Rationalist buildings were still common in industrial architecture, but extinct in urban projects. Last isolated constructivist buildings were launched in 1933–1935, such as Panteleimon Golosov’s Pravda building (finished 1935), the Moscow Textile Institute (finished 1938) or Ladovsky’s rationalist vestibules for the Moscow Metro. Clearly Modernist competition entries were made by the Vesnin brothers and Ivan Leonidov for the Narkomtiazhprom project in Red Square, 1934, another unbuilt Stalinist edifice. Traces of Constructivism can also be found in some Socialist Realist works, for instance in the Futurist elevations of Iofan’s ultra-Stalinist 1937 Paris Pavilion, which had Suprematist interiors by Nikolai Suetin.
Due in part to its political commitment — and its replacement by Stalinist architecture — the mechanistic, dynamic forms of Constructivism were not part of the calm Platonism of the International Style as it was defined by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Their book included only one building from the USSR, an electrical laboratory by government team led by Nikolaev. During the 1960s Constructivism was rehabilitated to a certain extent, and both the wilder experimental buildings of the era (such as the Globus Theatre or the Tbilisi Roads Ministry Building) and the unornamented Khrushchyovka apartments are in a sense a continuation of the aborted experiment, although under very different conditions. Outside the USSR, Constructivism has often been seen as an alternative, more radical modernism, and its legacy can be seen in designers as diverse as Team 10, Archigram and Kenzo Tange, as well as in much Brutalist work. Their integration of the avant-garde and everyday life has parallels with the Situationists, particularly the New Babylon project of Guy Debord and Constant Nieuwenhuys.
High Tech architecture also owes a debt to Constructivism, most obviously in Richard Rogers’ Lloyd's building. Zaha Hadid's early projects were adaptations of Malevich's Architektons, and the influence of Chernikhov is clear on her drawings. Deconstructivism evokes the dynamism of Constructivism, though without the social aspect, as in the work of Coop Himmelb(l)au. In the late 1970s Rem Koolhaas wrote a parable on the political trajectory of Constructivism called The Story of the Pool, in which Constructivists escape from the USSR in a self-powering Modernist swimming pool, only to die, after being criticised for much the same reasons as they were under Stalinism, soon after their arrival in the USA. Meanwhile, many of the original Constructivist buildings are poorly preserved or in danger of imminent demolition.
Collective Housing design (Nikolai Ladovsky, 1920)
Mosselprom building (David Kogan, 1923–4)
Lenin Institute (Ivan Leonidov, 1927)
Hotel Iset (Yekaterinburg, Chekists Village)
The Peoples Commissariat For Communication Lines (Ivan Fomin, 1929)
MPS Building, Moscow (Ivan Fomin, 1930s)
Red Carnation Factory, St Petersburg (Yakov Chernikhov)
Likachev Palace of Culture, Moscow (Vesnin brothers, 1930–8)
Intourist Garage (Melnikov, 1934)
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