Stalinist Architecture- Early Stalinism

24 Nov

Pre-war Stalinist architecture (1933-1941)

Early Stalinism (1933-1935)


Statue in front of Ilya Golosov’s building

The first years of Stalinist architecture are marked by stand-alone buildings, or, at most, single-block development projects. Building up vast spaces of Moscow proved far more difficult than razing historical districts. The three most important Moscow buildings of this time stand on the same square, all built between 1931 and 1935, yet each draft evolved independently, with little thought given to overall ensemble (see prewar movie stills 1936 1938 1939). Each set its own vector of development for the next two decades.

Mokhovaya Street Building, by Ivan Zholtovsky, 1931-1934

The Mokhovaya Street Building by Zholtovsky, an Italian Renaissance fantasy, is a direct precursor of post-war exterior luxury (Stalin’s “Empire” style). However, its size is in line with nearby 19th-century buildings.

Moskva Hotel, by Alexey Shchusev, 1932-1935

The Moskva Hotel by Alexey Shchusev. This line of development was uncommon in Moscow (a tower on top of Tchaikovsky Hall was never completed), but similar grand edifices appeared in Baku and Kiev. Slim Roman arches of Moskva balconies were common all over the country in 1930s. After the war they persisted in southern cities but disappeared from the Moscow scene.

STO Building, by Arkady Langman, 1932-1935

Finally, Arkady Langman’s STO Building (later Gosplan, currently State Duma): a modest but not grim structure with strong vertical detailing. This style, a clever adaptation of American Art Deco, required expensive stone and metal finishes, thus it had a limited following – the House of Soviets in Leningrad, topped out in 1941, and Tverskaya Street in Moscow.
А separate line of development, called “early Stalinism” or “Postconstructivism”,[13] evolved from 1932 to 1938. It can be traced both to simplified Art Deco (through Schuko and Iofan), and to indigenous Constructivism, slowly migrating to Neoclassicism (Ilya Golosov, Vladimir Vladimirov). These buildings retain the simple rectangular shapes and large glass surfaces of Constructivism, but with ornate balconies, porticos and columns (usually rectangular and very lightweight). By 1938, it went out of style and didn’t recover after the war.


Norhern River Terminal of Moscow Canal, by Alexey Rukhlyadev, 1937

Moscow Master Plan (1935)
Stand-alone projects threatened to become a mess of styles and sizes. In July, 1935 the State evaluated the results and finally issued a decree on the Moscow Master Plan. The Plan, among other things, projected a clear message of Stalin’s urban development ideas:

New development must proceed by whole ensembles, not by stand-alone buildings.
City block size should increase from the current 1.5-2 to 9-15 ha.
New development must be limited in density to 400 person per 1 ha.
Buildings should be at least 6 stories high; 7-10-14 story on first-rate streets.
Embankments are first-rate streets, only zoned for first-rate housing and offices[14]
These rules effectively banned low-cost mass construction in the old city and “first-rate” streets, as well as single-family homebuilding. Low-cost development proceeded in remote areas, but most funds were diverted to new, expensive “ensemble” projects which placed facades and grandeur above the real-world needs of overcrowded cities.

Moscow Avenues (1938-1941)

Rosenfeld’s twin towers in Dorogomilovo, 1946 completion of 1938-1941 development plan

In the late 1930s, the construction industry was experienced enough to build large, multi-block urban redevelopments – although all of these were in Moscow. The three most important Moscow projects were:

Gorky Street (Tverskaya), where Arkady Mordvinov tested the so-called “flow methode” of simultaneously managing building sites in different stages of completion. From 1937 to 1939, Mordvinov completed rebuilding the central stretch of Gorky Street to Boulevard Ring (with some exclusions like the Mossovet headquarters).
Dorogomilovo (including part of present-day Kutuzovsky Prospekt). Unlike the uniform, tight rows of buildings of Gorky Street, Dorogomilovo road was lined with very different buildings, with wide spaces between them. It was an experimental stretch for Burov, Rosenfeld and other rising architects. These buildings were not as thoroughly engineered as on Tverskaya and wooden ceilings and partitions and wet stucco exteriors eventually led to higher maintenance costs. Yet it is here where the “Stalin’s Empire” canon was forged, in its clearest form.
Bolshaya Kaluzhskaya (now Leninsky Prospect), a similar greenfield development of standard block-wide buildings east of Gorky Park


Kutuzovsky 26, Brezhnev’s and Suslov’s home, Moscow-City behind.


Dorogomilovo West, city “gates”


Dorogomilovo West, city “gates”. Obelisk added in 1990s.


Slim mediterranean arches, typical for 1930s


Present-day Cosmos pavillion is one of 1939 originals, remodeled in 1950s. The rocket replaced Stalin’s figure (of about the same size).
All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (1939)

In 1936, the annual Agricultural Exhibition was moved to an empty field north of Moscow. By August 1, 1939, over 250 pavilions were built on 1.36 square kilometers. A 1937 statue by Vera Mukhina, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, once a Soviet showcase at Paris Expo, was rebuilt at the entrance gates. Pavilions were created in the national styles of Soviet republics and regions; a walk through the exhibition recreated a tour of the huge country. The central pavilion by Vladimir Schuko was based slightly on the abortive 1932 Palace of Soviets draft by Zholtovsky.[16] Unlike the “national” buildings, it hasn’t survived (central gates and major pavilions were rebuilt in early 1950s).

The surviving 1939 pavilions are the last and only sign of Stalin’s monumental propaganda in their original setting. Such propaganda pieces were not built to last (like Shchusev’s War Trophy Hangar in Gorky Park), some were torn down during de-Stalinization of 1956 and others simply fell apart.

Post-War (1944-1950)
Post-war architecture, sometimes perceived as a uniform style, was fragmented into at least four vectors of development

Luxurious residential and office construction of complete regions such as the Moskovsky Prospekt in Leningrad and the Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow.
Major infrastructure projects (Metro in Leningrad and Moscow, Volga-Don Canal)
Rebuilding war damage of Minsk, Kiev, Smolensk, Stalingrad, Voronezh, and hundreds of smaller towns
And the drive for new, low-cost technologies to resolve the housing crises, evident since 1948 and the official state policy since 1951
Building of new cities, especially in Siberia: Novosibirsk, Kemerovo, Dzerzhinsk and elsewhere.


House of Lions, 1945, Patriarshy Ponds, Moscow. One-of-a-kind top level downtown residence.

Residential construction in post-war cities was clearly segregated according to the ranks of tenants. No effort was made to conceal luxuries; sometimes they were evident, sometimes deliberately exaggerated (in contrast with Iofan’s stern House on Embankment). Country residencies of Stalin’s near-royalty was on the top level; so was the 1945 House of Lions by Ivan Zholtovsky,[17] a luxurious downtown residence for Red Army Marshals. 1947 Marshals Apartments by Lev Rudnev, on the same block, is just a step down, also a top brass residence but in a less extravagant exterior package. There was a type of building for every level in Stalin’s hierarchy.[18]

High-class buildings can be easily identified by tell-tale details like spacing between windows, penthouses and bay windows. Sometimes, the relative rank and occupation of tenants is reflected in ornaments, sometimes – in memorial plaques. Note that these are all Moscow features. In smaller cities, the social elite usually fitted into just one or two classes; St. Petersburg always had a supply of pre-revolutionary luxury space.


Penthouse, pre-war postconstructivist building by Vladimir Vladimirov.


Entrance with side views for security guards. Marshals Apartments by Rudnev, 1947


Details indicate social strata – House of Actors, Gorky Street


Bay windows, another luxury sign, a late 1952 Rosenfeld block.

Moscow Metro (1938-1958)


Moscow Metro, Elektrozavodskaya station (opened 1944)

The first stage of Moscow Metro (1931–1935) emerged as just another city utility. There was a lot of propaganda about building it, but the subway itself wasn’t perceived as a piece of propaganda. “Unlike other projects, Moscow Metro was never called Stalin’s metro”.[19] Old architects[20] stayed away from Metro commissions, clearing the road for the young. Attitudes changed when the second stage work started in 1935. This time, the subway was a political statement and enjoyed far better funding.[21] Second stage produced such different examples of Stalinist style as Mayakovskaya (1938), Elektrozavodskaya and Partizanskaya (1944). The stations built in 1944 were the first permanent Patriotic War memorial.


Arbatskaya (deep alignment). Unusual parabolic vault instead of circular

After the war, architects waited in line for the Metro contests; it took 6 years to complete the first post-war line (a 6.4 stretch of the Ring Line. These stations were dedicated to Victory. No more Comintern,[22] no more World revolution, but a clear statement of victorious, nationalist Stalinism. Oktyabrskaya station by Leonid Polyakov was built like a Classicist temple, with a shiny white-blue altar behind iron gates – a complete departure from prewar atheism. To see this altar, a rider had to pass a long row of plaster banners, bronze candlesticks and assorted military imagery. Park Kultury (2) featured true Gothic chandelliers, another departure. Metrostroy operated its own marble and carpentery factories, producing 150 solid, whole block marble columns for this short stretch. The second stretch of Ring line was a tribute to Heroic Labor (with the exception of Shchusev’s Komsomolskaya, set up as a retelling of Stalin’s speech of November 7, 1941).


VDNKh, opened in 1958, stripped of excesses. Green oil paint replaced Favorsky’s mosaics.

April 4, 1953, the public learn that a 1935 stretch from Alexandrovsky Sad, then Kalininskaya, to Kievskaya is closed for good and replaced with a brand-new, deep-alignment line. No official explanation of this expensive twist exists; all speculations revolve around a bomb shelter function. One of the stations, Arbatskaya (2) by Leonid Polyakov, became the longest station in the system, 250 meters instead of standard 160, and probably the most extravagant. “To some extent, it is Moscow Petrine baroque, yet despite citations from historical legacy, this station is hyperbolic, ethereal and unreal”.[24] Actually, its vaults are parabolic.

Stalinist canon was officially condemned when two more stretches, to Luzhniki and VDNKh, were under construction. These stations, completed in 1957 and 1958 were mostly stripped of excesses, but architecturally they still belong to Stalin’s lineage. The date of May 1, 1958 when the last of these stations opened, marks the end of all late Stalinist construction.

Seven Sisters (1947-1955)


Chechulin’s draft for the never-built Zaryadye skyscraper


Echo of the Sisters: Fountain and central pavillion, All-Russian Exhibition (1954)

Stalin’s 1946 idea of dotting Moscow skyline with skyscrapers resulted in a January, 1947 decree that started a six-year-long publicity campaign. By the time of official groundbreaking, September 1947, eight construction sites where identified (one, in Zaryadye, would be cancelled). Eight design teams, lead by the new generation of chief architects (37 to 62 years old), churned out numerous drafts; there was no open contest or evaluation commission, which is an indicator of Stalin’s personal management.

All lead architects were awarded Stalin prizes in April, 1949 for preliminary drafts; corrections and amendments followed until very late completion stages. All the buildings employed overengineered steel frames with concrete ceilings and masonry infill, based on concrete slab foundations (which sometimes required ingenious water retention technology).

Skyscraper projects required a lot of new materials (especially ceramics) and technologies; solving these issues contributed to later housing and infrastructure development. However, it came at cost of slowing down regular construction, at a time when the country was lying in ruins. The toll of this project on real urban needs can be seen from these numbers:

In 1947, 1948, 1949 Moscow built a total of 100,000, 270,000, and 405,000 square meters of housing.
The skyscrapers project exceeded 500,000 square meters (at a higher cost per meter)[25]
Similar skyscrapers were built in Warsaw and Riga; the tower in Kiev was completed without crown and steeple.

The upward surge of the Sisters, publicised since 1947, was recreated in numerous smaller buildings across the country. 8 to 12 story high towers marked the 4-5 story high ensembles of post-war regional centers. The Central Pavilion of All-Russia Exhibition Centre, reopened in 1954, is 90 meters high, has a cathedral-like main hall, 35 meters high, 25 meters wide with Stalinist sculpture and murals.[26]

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