Stalinist Architecture- Socialist Classicism- Background

24 Nov
See also
Beijing Military Museum   Apartments, Moscow
The Moscow State University (1953) by Lev Rudnev and Nikolai Nikitin    
Party Building, Sofia, Bulgaria    

Main building of the Moscow State UniversityStalinist architecture (also referred to as Stalin’s Empire style or Socialist Classicism) is a term given to architecture of the Soviet Union between 1933, when Boris Iofan’s draft for Palace of Soviets was officially approved, and 1955, when Nikita Khruschev condemned “excesses” of the past decades and disbanded the Soviet Academy of Architecture.
It is interestingly similar formally to mediaeval and later Russian Orthodox church architecture, and it must ultimately have Byzantine roots. It is an eastern take on a mix between Beaux-Artes, Skyscraper Gothic and Constructivism.


Typical Stalinist: Peking Hotel in Moscow, 1946-1955

One of the 22 rejected projects for Kiev’s reconstruction

Stalinist architecture is not, per se, an architectural style characterized by its distinct appearance. Instead it describes an architecture that resulted from the way the state communicated with the masses through its constructions, using them as an expression of state power. The combination of striking parade monumentalism, patriotic art decoration and traditional motifs has become one of the most vivid examples of the Soviet contribution to architecture.

The Motherland Calls, 85m, Stalingrad-Volgograd, 1967, Yevgeny Vuchetich and Nikolai Nikitin.

The ensemble that a Stalinist building will contain can be very broad, not only in the overall motif, but also in the technology that lies underneath the rich decorations.

In the Soviet policy of rationalisation of the country, all cities were built to a general development plan. Each was split into districts, with allotments drawn based on the city’s geography. Projects would be drawn up for whole districts, visibly transforming a city’s architectural image.

Every point in a design had to gain the approval of the state. Criticism of a project could vary from minor recommendations to total disapproval. As a result many had to be modeled and remodeled many times. This also had a direct effect on the architects themselves, many of whom would later describe this period not by what was actually built, but on what they were not allowed to include. For example, the floral motifs of Art Nouveau were never allowed.

The interaction of the state with the architects would prove to be one of the focal points of this time. The same building could be declared a formalist blasphemy and then receive the highest praise the next year,[1] Authentic styles like Zholtovsky’s Renaissance Revival, Ivan Fomin’s St. Petersburg Neoclassical Revival and Art Deco adaptation by Alexey Dushkin and Vladimir Schuko coexisted with pale imitations and eclectics that became a symbol of that era.


Wet stucco over masonry. Early elite block, Patriarshy Ponds, Moscow. Art deco adaptation by Vladimir Vladimirov

A sanatorium in Saratov, very common provincial application of Stalinist style

In terms of construction methods, most of the structures, underneath the rich wet stucco walls, are simple brick masonry. Exceptions were Andery Burov’s medium-sized concrete block panel houses (such as the Lace building, 1939-41) and large buildings like the Seven Sisters which necessitated the use of concrete. The masonry naturally dictated narrow windows, thus leaving a large wall area to be decorated. Fireproof terra cotta finishes were introduced in the early 1950s.[2] though this was rarely used outside of Moscow.[3] Most of the roofing was comprised of traditional wooden trusses covered with metallic sheets.

Around 1948, construction technology improved – at least in Moscow – as faster and cheaper processes become available. Houses also became safer by eliminating wooden ceilings and partitions. The standardized buildings of 1948-1955 offered the same level of housing quality as the Stalinist classics and are classified as such by real estate agents, but are excluded from the scope of Stalinist architecture. Ideologically they belong to mass housing, an intermediate step before Khrushchyovka.

Stalinist architecture does not equate to everything built in Stalin’s era. It relied on labor-intensive and time-consuming masonry, and could not be scaled up to the needs of mass construction. When the time finally came to tackle the housing crisis, this inefficiency spelled the end of Stalinist architecture and a turn to mass construction while Stalin was still alive and active.

Although Stalin rejected Constructivism, completion of constructivist buildings extended through the 1930s. Industrial construction, boosted by Albert Kahn and later supervised by Victor Vesnin,[4] was heavily influenced by modernist ideas. It was not as important to Stalin’s urban plans, so most industrial buildings (excluding megaprojects like the Moscow Canal) do not fall into the Stalinist category. Even the first stage of the Moscow Metro, completed in 1935, was not on Stalin’s watch list, and so included substantial constructivist input.[5]

Thus, the scope of Stalinist architecture is generally limited to urban public and residential buildings of high and middle quality, excluding mass housing, and selected infrastructure projects like the Moscow Canal, the Volga-Don Canal, and the latter stages of the Moscow Metro.

1931 House on Embankment by Boris Iofan. A home for Stalin’s elite, but not Stalinist architecture yet.

Background (1900-1931)
Before 1917, the Russian architectural scene was divided between Russky Modern (a local interpretation of Art Nouveau, stronger in Moscow), and Neoclassical Revival (stronger in Saint Petersburg).[6] The Neoclassical school produced mature architects like Alexey Shchusev, Ivan Zholtovsky, Ivan Fomin, Vladimir Schuko and Alexander Tamanian;[7] by the time of the Revolution they were established professionals in their forties, with their own firms, schools and followers. These people would eventually become Stalinism’s architectural elders and produce the best examples of the period.

Another school that emerged after the Revolution is now known as Constructivism. Some of the Constructivists (like the Vesnin brothers) were young professionals who had established themselves before 1917, while others had just completed their professional education (like Konstantin Melnikov) or didn’t have any. They associated themselves with vocal groups of modern artists, compensating for lack of experience with public exposure. When the New Economic Policy turned the nation to post-war reconstruction, their publicity paid off in the form of real architectural commissions. Experience did not come overnight, and many constructivist buildings were fairly criticized for irrational floorplans, cost overruns and low build quality.

For a short period of time in the mid-1920s, the architectural profession operated the old-fashioned way, with private firms, international contests, competitive bidding and paper wars in professional magazines. Foreign architects were welcomed, especially towards the end of this period, when the Great Depression cut down their jobs at home. Among theses were Ernst May, Albert Kahn, Le Corbusier, Bruno Taut and Mart Stam.[10] The line between traditionalists and constructivists was not clearly defined. Zholtovsky and Shchusev hired modernists as junior partners in their projects, and at the same time incorporated constructivist novelties in their own designs.

Urban planning developed separately. Housing crises in big cities and the industrialization of remote areas called for mass housing construction, development of new territories and reconstruction of old cities. Theorists devised a variety of strategies that created heated politicized discussions without much practical output; State intervention was imminent.

The beginning (1931-1933)

Textile Institute (Moscow), constructivist building completed 1938

Stalinism by a Constructivist, Ilya Golosov: Moscow, completed 1941

Theatre of the Russian Army

Stalin’s personal taste in architecture and the extent of his own input remains, for the most part, a matter of deduction, conjecture and anecdotal evidence. The facts, or their reflection in public Soviet documents, revolve around the Palace of Soviets contest of 1931-1933:

February 1931: Leading Soviet architects receive invitations to bid for the Palace of Soviets concept.
June 1931: The Party Plenum authorize three megaprojects: the reconstruction of Moscow, the Moscow Canal and the Moscow Metro.
July 1931: Architects present 15 concepts for the first contest and a second, open, international contest is announced.
February 1932: The prize for the second contest is awarded to 3 drafts (Iofan, Zholtovsky, Hector Hamilton). All modernist designs are rejected.
March 1932: 12 architects receive an invitation to a third contest.
April 1932: The Party outlaws all independent artistic associations. Victor Vesnin is assigned to lead the official Union of Soviet Architects.
July 1932: 5 architects receive an invitation to a fourth contest.
August 1932: Stalin (then in Sochi) writes a memo to Voroshilov, Molotov and Kaganovich. He explained his vision of contest entries, picked Iofan’s draft and proposed specific changes to it. This memo, first published in 2001, is the basis for all conjectures on Stalin’s personal input.
February 1933: The fourth contest is closed with no winner announced.
May 1933: Public approval of Iofan’s draft.
September 1933: All Moscow architects are assigned to 20 Mossovet workshops, most of them headed by traditionalist architects (Shchusev, Zholtovsky etc.).
The architects invited to lead these workshops included traditionalists – Ivan Zholtovsky, Alexey Shchusev, Ivan Fomin, Boris Iofan, Vladimir Schuko – but also practicing constructivists: Ilya Golosov, Panteleimon Golosov, Nikolai Kolli, Konstantin Melnikov, Victor Vesnin, Moisei Ginzburg and Nikolai Ladovsky. This set an important trend that lasted until 1955. Stalin chose Iofan for one project, but retained all competing architects in his employ. As Dmitry Khmelnitsky put it, “Comparison with Nazi architecture works to some degree, yet there is a major difference. Stalin never picked a single architect, or a single style, as Hitler picked Speer. No elite group could claim victory … neither constructivists, nor traditionalists… Stalin forged his “Speer” from whatever he could find.”

Another important point is that before cracking down on independent groups, Stalin’s megaprojects created thousands of professional jobs. As a result, the once-vocal youth were absorbed into real-world practice, and abstained from discussions, just like their elders. They had jobs to do.


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