If you ever find yourself in St Petersburg, take a taxi along the Pesochnaya embankment, far away from the polished attractions of the city centre. Sit back and watch the landscape changing on the other bank of the Malaya Nevka. Among the trees you will see the former dachas of Russian nobles, private residences of local officials and the buildings of the new elite, overlooking the river. This is the best and perhaps the only perspective from which to see the K-2 dacha.
K-2 was a governmental residence designed for the reception of high-ranking guests, mostly international political leaders. The building contained a restaurant, billiard room and ten apartments. On the ground floor there was a vast hall with seating area, a winter garden, a 300-seat conference hall and a banquet hall for 300 guests. The building was completed in 1967, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution.
Alexander Zhuk was the architect behind it. From the second generation of Leningrad modernists, Zhuk was born in 1917, and his most active period fell during the Brezhnev era – a period of relative liberalisation in architecture, and experimentation with the international language of modernism.
The urban planning tradition in Leningrad and St Petersburg was always rooted in the classical architectural style. Even in the constructivist era in the 1920s-1930s, Leningrad architects managed to continue using decorative arches on standardised houses for workers. On the other hand, an important trait of St Petersburg architecture, and one firmly defended by local architects, was the idea of the ensemble — maintaining the integrity of the urban tissue. As shown in the exhibition Leningrad modernism. A view from the 21st century, which toured St Petersburg and other nearby Baltic cities from 2005-12, Stalinist high-rises were never constructed in Leningrad like they were in other major cities of the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries such as Riga, Moscow, Warsaw, Kiev and Kharkov.
After the adoption of the famous resolution on the removal of surfeit decoration in design and construction in 1955, Leningrad architects were no longer able to use expressive means to achieve integrity with the historical buildings in the city. Decorative elements amounted to waste, and architects who used pilasters and mouldings in their work found themselves personally responsible for this “irrational” budget spending. Consequently, many Leningrad architects had to reorient themselves stylistically, turning away from historicisation and towards technology.
Following the resolution against decorations, a regional architectural revolution took place in Leningrad. In 1957, Vyborg, the border town transferred from Finland to the Soviet Union after the Second World War, was opened for access. The unique trait of this city was 1930s Finnish functionalism, including Alvar Aalto`s world-famous library (1935). Andrey Ikonnikov, one of the professors from the Leningrad Academy of Arts, organised informal tours for architecture students to explore the library and other examples of Finnish modern architecture that were novel for the residents of Leningrad.
Leningrad's connection with Finland was not only geographical. In 1957 Nikita Khrushchev made the first official visit to Suomi since the beginning of the Winter War in 1939. He visited the new Tapiola district near Helsinki, which had been built as a garden city according to Ebeneezer Howard`s organic architecture principles. These principles were subsequently introduced in the construction of several suburbs in the USSR. Now technological transfers between the USSR and Finland were politically acceptable, some significant buildings in Leningrad and other cities were constructed in co-operation with Finnish development companies.
In Vyborg, Aalto had interpreted the forms introduced by the Bauhaus school and Le Corbusier in his own way, while remaining within the modernist movement. If his modernist masters had worked in glass, steel and concrete, Aalto had the same volumes and surfaces "cast" in wood — locally available material.
The K-2 dacha also repeated the principles of 1930 Finnish modernism. The building's combination of semi-circular and rectangular volumes was typical for the constructivist direction of Leningrad architecture of the 1920s and seemed to bring the viewer back to the avant-garde movements of that era. However, the facades of the building were coated with rustication of polished travertine and artificial stone and decorated with sculptures. As Project Baltia's Vladimir Frolov has pointed out, these decorative elements, which met with Brezhnev-era approval, rooted K-2's abstract international form in a classical language, making the building more traditional and local.
K-2's interiors were carried out by Finnish experts sourced via the Lenfintorg Foreign Trade Association. Alexander Zhuk`s workshop, which had already worked on such ambitious projects as the Young Spectator`s Theater, Oktyabrsky Grand Concert Hall, Pulkovo Airport and several metro stations, made independent decisions on the building’s aesthetics and functionality. That was rare for Soviet architecture in general.
The K-2 residence, designed as a small villa within the city boundaries, is a manifestation of the Finnish dream: situated in the urban environment while at the same time very close to nature, with trees and river nearby.
K-2 fits into the landscape in such a way that its front facade, referring to Le Corbusier`s Villa Savoye, overlooks the Malaya Nevka.
In recent years the residence has been restored. In 2004 St Petersburg's municipal hotel management redeveloped it for commercial use, equipping the building with all the necessary facilities for discos and laser shows. And in 2006-2007, architect F. Romanovsky completely reconstructed the interiors. Sadly, the original design intentions were completely lost and replaced by kitsch decorations in the quasi-classical style so beloved of the Russian elite.
More from Architecture
Owen Hatherley on the world's most complete, and most surprising Soviet city
What happens when you mix politics and real estate on the Black Sea coast?
Owen Hatherley goes in search of the Soviet power structures of Belarus
The 12 most insanely great contemporary buildings of the New East