The architecture of the early Soviet avant-garde is one of the greatest achievements of Russian culture. In the 1920s and early 1930s the Constructivists designed buildings revolutionary in form and content. Neglect has left many of them in a perilous condition, and new threats are emerging daily. The Calvert Journal celebrates the fight to keep a remarkable legacy alive
Despite growing international acknowledgement of Constructivism’s importance, many Constructivist buildings are in more danger than ever. In February plans were announced to dismantle Vladimir Shukhov’s groundbreaking hyperboloid radio tower in Moscow. Just days ago, one of the owners of legendary former communal housing block Narkomfin began a series of unlicensed renovations that could destroy this fragile building. There are pressure groups and concerned citizens campaigning to save these architectural landmarks, but they do not have the financing or the energy to take on intransigent bureaucrats and rapacious developers and protect the scores of buildings all over Russia facing a precarious future.
The struggle to preserve these buildings — which range from private homes, like the innovative double-cylinder domicile built by Konstantin Melnikov in Moscow, to monumental factories like Noi Trotsky’s Kirov Meat-Packing Plant — is important not only because they are architectural icons, but because they represent a time when Russian culture led the world in technical innovation and theoretical daring.
Constructivism was a broad and ambitious movement — in art, architecture, literature and life — that blossomed in Russia in the years immediately after the 1917, bringing together the imaginative freedom of the pre-war avant-garde and the emancipatory socialist energy of the Revolution. The varied figures that comprised the movement shared the belief not only that creativity could radically alter the way people lived, but also that this transformative power was a universal possession: the worker in the collective was just, if not more, creative than the solitary genius with a paintbrush.
Brutally curtailed by the rise of Stalinist Socialist Realism in the early 1930s — its reputation besmirched, its practitioners persecuted — Constructivism’s legacy has survived not only in buildings, but in ideas: the spirit and look of Constructivism was adopted and adapted by Bauhaus and other wellsprings of European Modernism and became part of the global grammar of the built environment. It is a terrible irony that, while this intellectual heritage becomes ever more established and acknowledged, what should be Constructivism’s most durable manifestation — the factories, workers clubs and apartment blocks made by Constructivist architects — is looking increasingly evanescent. For now, many of the buildings still stand and with them the evidence of a towering artistic achievement.
Modern matter: Owen Hatherley asks, what does Constructivism mean today?
Around a decade ago, the Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat was commissioned to design a cluster of luxury apartment blocks in the centre of Moscow, facing the New Tretyakov Gallery, with its large collection of avant-garde artworks. His response was five high-rises each based on a specific Futurist or Constructivist painting... → Read the full article
High risk: Moscow's iconic Shukhov Tower is under threat
In February this year, the Russian Ministry of Communications announced a two-stage restoration and reconstruction plan for a very special property: the Shukhov radio tower, the avant-garde lattice-work construction which stands tall over southern Moscow... → Read the full article
Narkomfin: can a utopian housing project survive in modern Moscow?
Moscow is a hard city. It is energetic and impressive, yet on an architectural level, it offers little that feels human, eccentric or warm. These qualities do thrive, but, as a rule, only in little havens carved out by specific communities, by people coming together in spite of the city... → Read the full article
Shipshape: Noi Trotsky's nautical masterpieces
Constructivist buildings have often been compared to ships — ocean liners, dreadnoughts, even spaceships — in terms of their external appearance. This is perhaps not surprising, of course... → Read the full article
As Munich-based filmmaker Isa Willinger wandered around Moscow on her first visit in 2010, she kept coming across decaying buildings that seemed to her to be “from a time more modern than my own”. Over the next two years Willinger returned to the city to follow the personal stories of those either living in these Constructivist marvels or battling to save these futuristic relics. The result of her work, Away from All Suns, went on to win first prize at last year’s Istanbul Architecture Film Festival.