Postconstructivism

24 Nov
Lenin’s Mausoleum remains the best example of post revolution architecture in Russia Moscow, Park Kultury, Entrance pavilion, by G.T.Krutikov, V.S.Popov, 1935, demolished 1949. Note the slim, square columns without capitals. Ivan Fomin. Kursky Rail Terminal, 1933
Ilya Golosov. Ogiz Building, 1934 Ilya Golosov. Trade Union College, 1938 Ilya Golosov. Yauzsky, 2, 1936-1941
Ilya Golosov. Yauzsky, 2, fragment Vladimirov. Aviazhilstroy, Patriarshy Ponds, Penthouse with octagonal columns Vladimirov. Aviazhilstroy, Patriarshy Ponds, Balcony
School 518 by Ivan Zvezdin, 1933-1935 Schosse Entuziastov housing by Guryev-Gurevich and Zaltsmann, 1935-36 Schosse Entuziastov housing by Guryev-Gurevich and Zaltsmann, 1935-36
Karpovka housing, by Igor Fomin, 1934 Sverdlovsk, 1932 tower Preobrazhenskaya Zastava, 2002-2005, Moscow
Kirovsky prospect housing by Simonov, Abrosimov, Khryakov, 1934 District Soviet, by Igor Fomin, 1930-1935 Sverdlovsk, housing by Oransky, 1936
The Elektrozavodskaya Metro Station, Moscow, 1944 The Mayakovskaya Metro Station, Moscow, 1938: Maslennikov
The Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, 1945    
 
Postconstructivism

Postconstructivism was a transitional architectural style that existed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, typical of early Stalinist architecture before World War II. The term postconstructivism was coined by Selim Khan-Magomedov, a historian of architecture, to describe the product of avant-garde artists’ migration to Stalinist neoclassicism. Khan-Magomedov identified postconstructivism with 1932-1936, but the long construction time and vast size of the country extended the period to 1941.


Ivan Fomin. Kursky Rail Terminal, 1933

Existence of this style is evident, but Khan-Magomedov’s explanation of its evolution as a natural process inside the architectural community, rather than a by-product of plain State intervention, is disputed.

Khan-Magomedov’s viewpoint

This section is based on Khan-Magomedov’s “Soviet avant-garde architecture”, vol.1, “Avant-garde to postconstructivism and beyond”

Background

In 1932-1933, during the Palace of Soviets contest, the State sent a clear message to architects that the age of experiment was over and the new buildings must follow the classical canon. At this time, architectural profession was divided into three generations:
Mature Neoclassical architects (most of them in their fifties and sixties), like Ivan Fomin, Alexey Shchusev and Ivan Zholtovsky. Excellent education [3] and experience led them to success in any style – Art Nouveau, Neoclassicism and Constructivism.
A younger, diverse avantgarde movement (itself divided into rationalists and constructivists). With the exception of the Vesnin brothers, few constructivists had acquired professional experience before World War I; the war, Revolution of 1917 and Civil war halted any new construction for a decade (1914-1926). In 1927-1929, former theorists Nikolai Ladovsky, Moisei Ginzburg, Ilya Golosov stepped aside from public discussions and switched to practical building and urban planning. By 1933, they had not more than seven years of practice, and were just entering their own age of maturity.
Finally, the vocal students of the ‘Proletarian School’, members of VOPRA: the “class of 1929” (Arkady Mordvinov, Karo Alabyan). Trained by Constructivist leaders in a style they dubbed “sterile avant-garde”, they were completely unaware of the classical legacy and had no practical experience. They compensated for this with left-wing political assaults and accusations, in particular a campaign against Ivan Leonidov.


Pravda Club, by Molokov and Chekmotayev, 1935-1937

Birth of a style

According to Khan-Magomedov, two forerunners of the style were Ivan Fomin and Ilya Golosov. They converged on the same style from opposite directions – neoclassicism[4] and constructivism. Fomin’s concept, easily formulated, erected in steel and granite in Moscow (Dynamo Building), was well understood even by the inexperienced youth. “The youth instinctively followed those who managed to declare their stance clearly. The youth believed that this period is a self-sufficient cultural stage, not a transition to something else”.[1] In 1933-1934, Golosov publicly disposed with the avantgarde. He returned to Neoclassicism, trying to avoid direct citations from the past. For example, he used square columns instead of traditional, round ones. Square, lean columns without capitals became a trademark feature of the emerging style. Golosov’s entries in public design contests exposed his style to numerous followers.

Style defined

Khan-Magomedov defined postconstructivism as neoclassical shapes without neoclassical detailing. Golosov and his followers deliberately replaced the proven historical details (columns, capitals, friezes and cornices) with their own inventions – to differentiate themselves from pure Revivalists. The main volumes follow the classical rules, and usually are perfectly symmetrical.

Recognition

Postconstructivism benefited from a natural reaction against both the avantgarde and the eclectics of the past. It was perceived as new, and at the same time allowed grand buildings that were to the taste of provincial elite. Another benefit in a time of total rationing was that, unlike Constructivism, the new style minimized use of steel and cement, turning back to primitive masonry with wooden floors and partitions. This helps explain the spread of Postconstructivism in 1930s.

Evolution – Constructivism to Postconstructivism to Stalinism (Moscow)

Demise

By 1936, the left-wing “class of 1929” and younger (Mordvinov, Alabyan) had gained some practical experience. These architects completely lacked the classical training of older Constructivists; lack of skill prevented them from inventing their own incarnation of classical legacy; all they could do was copying. As a result, they buried their avantgarde teachers and proceeded straight to pure neoclassicism. They could not stop at postconstructivism because they – unlike Golosov or Fomin – could not innovate. Meanwhile, Fomin died in 1936, and Golosov was ageing physically, clearing the road for the young.

Another group of young architects, seeking academic training, joined the workshops of Zholtovsky and other old neoclassicists. They, too, skipped over postconstructivism – straight to the Stalinist canon. Their old mentors were still active and enjoyed the support of the State. There was no need for inventing new shapes or styling anymore. Postconstructivist projects draggedon for a few more years; World War II finally sealed the fate of this style.

Criticism of Khan-Magomedov’s viewpoint

Role of State

Authors like Dmitry Khmelnizky appreciate Khan-Magomedov’s studies of 1920s and 1930s, but completely disagree with him on the origins and evolution of early Stalinist architecture  and the demise of Constructivism.

Khan-Magomedov barely mentions the role of State (or Stalin personally) in those events, presenting the demise of avant-garde as a natural evolution within the professional community. He admits that the profession was manipulated by the “class of 1929” youth, but does not study the forces that shaped and directed their assaults. Not a word on Stalin’s personal influence, not a word on rising terror. Khan-Magovedov discusses the 1929-1931 political assaults by VOPRA at length, but fails to mention that they were part of an all-out national campaign. As Khmelnitsky summarized it, “Postconstructivism was born by terror. The very term is misleading. Traces of the Constructivist style in the Postconstructivism of 1930s are a sign of indecision, not tradition. They banned constructivism, but didn’t explain what to do… the result is an architectural pathology. Comparison with European parallels is useless. There were no European parallels, even Nazi architecture does not come close”.

Art Deco factor

Postconstructivism merged closely with Soviet adaptations of Art Deco. Some examples of this style, like the 1934 Lenin Library by Vladimir Schuko, may be mistaken for Postconstructivism. In fact, Schuko was a seasoned Neoclassicist and the Library was his attempt to differentiate into proletarian classic with Art Deco tools. The situation inside professional community was even more diverse than Khan-Magomedov’s picture. Vladimirov’s apartment block featured above is usually classified as an Art Deco adaptation, too.

Present day

Public awareness and preservation

The general public is seldom aware of the concept of postconstructivism. Real estate agents classify these buildings as early stalinka, and that’s how they are perceived by the public. In Moscow, such buildings are gradually torn down or completely rebuilt (see facadism); demolition of postconstructivist buildings, with few exceptions, goes unnoticed even within preservationist community. One recently lost example was A.A. Samoilov’s building on Novy Arbat in Moscow, torn down in 2006.

Safety hazards

The buildings of the 1920s-1930s were built using primitive technologies (masonry, wet stucco, wooden ceilings and partitions), low-grade materials and a low-grade workforce. Poor initial quality and inadequate maintenance led to rapid decay. Excluding a few well-maintained, high-class apartment buildings, early stalinka are unsafe. February 10, 1999, a fire in Samara police department, built 1936, killed 57 men and women. On February 13, 2006, Panteleimon Golosov’s Constructivist Pravda Building burnt down, killing one person and injuring four.

Reconstruction

Proper reconstruction of Constructivist or early stalinka buildings is challenging. The structures are weak, and often require complete demolition. A notable example is School 518 (Balchug, Moscow), designed in 1933 by Ivan Zvezdin (1899-1979) and completed in 1935. Praised by Khan-Magomedov, the only Postconstructivist building entered on the national monument register, the school was reconstructed in 2001 to modern safety standards. Most of load-bearing walls and all 1935 interiors were completely rebuilt from scratch.

Revival

New postconstuctivist or early stalinka buildings are rare. Preobrazhenskaya Zastava (Преображенская Застава) mixed-use project (two blocks, 308 apartments and retail stores) was completed in 2002-2005. Unusually for present-day Moscow, it actually looks like a period piece, not a cheap modern replica. There are no trademark square columns or slim porticos, yet it is the best attempt to recreate a style of 1930s. On a smaller scale, Russian architectural firms design country houses in true postconstructivist shape [14].

Footnotes
^ a b c Russian: С.О.Хан-Магометов. «Архитектура Советского авангарда».Т1. Москва. Стройиздат. 1996 (S.O. Khan-Magomedov, “Soviet avantgarde architecture”, 1996)
^ English 1987 version: Khan-Magomedov, “Pioneers of Soviet Architecture: The Search for New Solutions in the 1920s and 1930s”, Thames and Hudson Ltd, ISBN 978-0500341025
^ Academic training in Tsarist Russia was long. Zholtovsky trained for his diploma for 11 years, Fomin – 17 years.
^ Note that Ivan Fomin (like Alexey Shchusev) was successful in any style, including Constructivism – he practiced whatever was in demand.
^ Black and white photography: “XXX years of Russian Federation (1917-1947)” by Academy of Architecture (Moscow), 1950 edition. Most of these photographs were actually taken before 1941
^ Russian: Dmitry Khmelnitsky, “Stalin and Architecture”, 2004, http://www.archi.ru
^ Russian: Dmitry Khmelnitsky, “New versiond of History”, 2000, http://www.archi.ru
^ Russian: photo gallery, http://www.wbb.ru
^ Russian: Radio interview with federal fire marshal of Russia, 10/02/2000 echo.msk.ru
^ Russian: Aнна Куприна. “Виновники в пожаре ‘Правды’ не найдены”. 12.07.2007, http://www.smi.ru
^ English: “Fire on Ulitsa Pravda Comparable To Manezh Fire for the Russian Avant-Garde’, Izvestia, 20.02.2006, Moscow Architecture Preservation Society
^ Russian: Zvezdin bio at School 518 site
^ Photo gallery, interiors before and after reconstruction School 518 site
^ Russian: photo gallery www.wbb.ru

 
Post-war Soviet Union Postconstructivism

The main building Moscow State University was once the tallest in Europe.

Stalinist architecture put a premium on conservative monumentalism. In the 1930’s, there was rapid urbanisation as a result of Stalin’s policies. There was an international competition to build the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow in that decade.

After 1945, the focus was on rebuilding the buildings destroyed in World War II but also erecting new ones: seven high-rise buildings were built at symbolic points in Moscow’s space. The building of Moscow University (1948-1953) by Lev Rudnev and associates is particularly notable for its use of space. Another notable example is the Exhibition Centre in Moscow which was built for the second All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (VSKhV) in 1954, that featured a series of pavilions each decorated in the style of the feature that they represent. The other famous examples are the stations of the Moscow Metro and Saint Petersburg Metro’s that were built during the 1940s and 1950s are world famous for their extravagant designs and vivid decorations. In general the Stalinist architecture completely changed the way many post-war cities look, and mostly survive to this day in central avenues and public buildings.

However after the death of Stalin in 1953, the social and political changes literally turned the country over. The construction priorities were too affected and as were the architecture. In 1955, Nikita Khrushchev faced with the problem of the slow paced construction of housing, called for drastic measures to accelerate the process, and this involved developing new more mass-productive technologies and removing “decorative extras” from the buildings.

Compare the two towers of the Gagarin Square intersection, the original project was to have them be identical, but note how the “struggle with decorative extras” affected the one on the right

Effectively this put an end to the Stalinist Architecture, however as the transition was slow, most of the existing projects, that were in plan or even started to be built by 1955 were directly affected, the result was at times complete squares becoming unsymmetric.

The most famous of which took place in the post-war reconstruction of the Ukrainian capital Kiev where the planned Kreschatik avenue along with its central square Ploschad Kalinina were to form a single rich space enclosed by Stalinist constructions. However, as the buildings enclosing the latter were in process of completion, under direct orders, the architects were forced to alter them, and as a result the whole ensemble was left unfinished until only the early 1980s. In particular was Hotel Ukrayina, that was to crown the square which was originally to look similar to one of Moscow’s “Seven sisters”, was left as a solid shape without the top spire or any of the rich external decoration.

Nevertheless, as the buildings became more square and simple, they brought with them a new style fueled by the Space Age- functionality. The State Kremlin Palace is a merit to an earlier attempt to make a bridge between the rapidly changing styles as dictated by the state. The Ostankino Tower by Nikolai Nikitin is more of symbolism of technological advances and future.

White House in Moscow

In terms of simpler buildings, then 1960s are mostly remembered for their massive housing plans. A new typical project was developed using nothing but concrete panels to make a simple 5-story house. These Pyatietazhki became the most dominant housing constructions. Although rapidly built, the quality was in nothing compared to earlier housing and their almost identical look contributed to the grey and dull stereotype of socialist cities.

As the 1970s opened, Leonid Brezhnev allowed more choice to the architects, soon housing of varying calibers were opened. Slowly the flat blocks gained height in floors and in external decoration, large mosaics on their side became a feature. In almost all cases these were built not as standalone constructions, but part of a large estate (housing massif) that soon became a central feature of Socialist cities. Public buildings were built with varying themes. Some, like the White House of Russia made direct connections with earlier 1950s architecture, with white marble faced exterior and large bas-reliefs on the wings.

The rising skyscrapers of Moscow-City framed against the Stalinist Seven Sisters form today’s skyline of the capital

Modern Russia

As the Soviet Union fell apart many of its projects were put on hold, and some cancelled altogether. However for the first time, there was no longer any control over what theme or how high a building should be. As a result, and with generally improving financial conditions, architecture blossomed in unbelievable rates. For the first time modern methods of skyscraper buildings were implemented and resulted in an ambitious business centre being built in Moscow. In other cases architects returned to the most successful designs, particularly Stalinist architecture which resulted in buildings like Triumph Palace in Moscow.

References
“Architecture: Kievan Rus and Russia” in Encyclopædia Britannica (Macropedia) vol. 13, 15th ed., 2003, p. 921.
William Craft Brumfield, Landmarks of Russian Architecture: A Photographic Survey. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1997
John Fleming, Hugh Honour, Nikolaus Pevsner. “Russian Architecture” in The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, 5th ed., [1966] 1998, pp. 493–498, London: Penguin. ISBN 0-670-88017-5.
Russian art and architecture, in The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001–05.
Encyclopædia BritannicaWestern architecture retrieved 12 August 2005
About.com feature on Russian architecture retrieved 12 August 2005
Grove Art Online articles on Russian architecture Oxford University Press 2005 retrieved 12 August
Russian Life July/August 2000 Volume 43 Issue 4 “Faithful Reproduction” an interview with Russian architecture expert William Brumfield on the rebuilding of Christ the Saviour Cathedral

Further reading
William Craft Brumfield, A History of Russian Architecture. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, [1993] 2004. ISBN 0-295-98393-0

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