Avant-Garde Architecture on Display in Moscow

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The architectural story of the 1917 Revolution at the Shchusev Museum of Architecture

Drawing of a proposed residential house for Moscow, done in 1926 by M. Motylyov.

Drawing of a proposed residential house for Moscow, done in 1926 by M. Motylyov.

Courtesy of MUAR

Amid a flurry of exhibitions devoted to the
October revolution centennial, the one at the Schusev State Museum of
Architecture definitely stands out. Entitled “AvantGardeStroi: Architectural
Rhythm of the Revolution,” it tells a story of avant-garde architects of late
1920s-1930s and their projects, both realized and not.

A Revolution on the Streets

The first decade after the revolution
allowed new forms of art to develop and flourish, an unprecedented situation
for Russia. Avant-garde architecture, also known as constructivism, appeared in
Russia along with other aspects of revolutionary art: Malevich’s suprematism, the
futuristic poetry of Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, and Meyerhold’s theater. Thanks
to avant-garde, Russia moved to the forefront of the early 20th
century’s contemporary art and, in fact, began to lead the way forward.

Changes in social structure led to a
dramatic increase in construction. New educational infrastructure represented by
institutions like Vkhutemas, ASNOVA (Association of New Architects) and OSA
(Organization of Contemporary Architects) supplied the brains that contributed
to the development of avant-garde architecture.

Many of the new buildings were
purpose-built, designed to serve the needs of a socialist society. That’s how
new types of buildings emerged, such as the workers’ club, house-commune,
zhilkombinat (residential buildings that included basic services) and
factory-kitchen. The exhibition is divided into several sections, each devoted
to one of these new building types, except for the first one, which showcases
utopian works of Ivan Leonidov.

Le Corbusier called Ivan Leonidov “a poet
and the hope of Russia’s avant-garde constructivism.” Despite his obvious
genius, Leonidov’s works were not realized and he became a pioneer of what
later became known as “paper architecture,” i.e. architecture that only exists on
paper. One of his projects was called “Sun City” and consisted of beautiful but
probably impractical structures reminiscent of future cityscapes out of a
sci-fi film. Another of Leonidov’s projects was tellingly called “Monument to
the Last Soldier who Died in the Last War.”

Rodchenko's model of a Worker's Club, one of the new types of buildings avant-garde architects designed.

Rodchenko’s model of a Worker’s Club, one of the new types of buildings avant-garde architects designed.

Courtesy of MUAR

The workers’ club concept is best illustrated
by the model that Alexander Rodchenko created for the Soviet pavilion at the
1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in
Paris. With the main objective to educate the working class, the club included
the famous revolving chess table and “Lenin’s corner” devoted to the recently
deceased leader. Two more famous clubs are shown at the exhibition: Konstantin
Melnikov’s fan-shaped Rusakov Workers’ Club, with seating areas jutting out of
the main building, and the Zuyev Workers’ Club by Ilya Golosov with staircases
contained in a glass cylinder.

Much energy was spent on the development
and construction of new stadiums and centers devoted to sports and healthy
lifestyle. Here, too, avant-garde architects took part in their design. The
fruits of their work can also be seen at the exhibition.

The most famous house-commune is the
Narkomfin building designed by Moisei Ginzburg, an attempt to create a Soviet residential
building combining private rooms and communal spaces like a canteen, gym, and
club. There were also numerous projects of residential complexes –
zhilkombinats, complete with apartment buildings, clubs and so-called
factory-kitchens – cafeterias, where food was prepared on a mass scale. 

Main street in Kharbarovsk, 1937: House of Soviets by I. Golosov and B. Ulinich (foreground) and a bank by V. Vladimirov (background).

Main street in Kharbarovsk, 1937: House of Soviets by I. Golosov and B. Ulinich (foreground) and a bank by V. Vladimirov (background).

Photo by B. Fishman, courtesy of MUAR.

Utopian Dreams

Of course, the exhibition could not be
complete without the grandest Soviet construction undertaking of all – the Palace
of the Soviets. Several competing visions for this administrative center in
place of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Savior are displayed at the
exhibition, including the winning design by Boris Iofan. But construction was stalled during WWII and the Palace never saw the light of

“AvantGardeStroi” also exhibits works by
such well-known architects as the Vesnin brothers, Nikolai Ladovsky, Vladimir
Krinsky and many others. Apart from drawings and paintings by the architects
themselves, there are models, archival video records, photos, documents as well
as works of applied arts from museums of Moscow, St. Petersburg and private
collections. Many items from the Shchusev Museum collection are displayed for
the first time.

 “AvantGardeStroi” is largely an educational
exhibition, but it also has another purpose – to attract public’s attention to
the problem of the preservation of the Soviet avant-garde. Many of the
buildings shown at the exhibition, despite being masterpieces of world
architecture, are not being properly taken care of and some are actually under
the threat of demolition. A case in point is the dilapidated Narkomfin
building, which thankfully will be getting a facelift in the nearest future.

The exhibition is open till April 1,