Russia's modern architecture reflects Soviet lifestyle; Buildings were used to shape the people


MOSCOW -- Maria Kiernan was just trying to take a picture of a building that seemed to her to be an interesting example of Russia's 20th-century architectural style, when a whole lot of guys in leather trench coats poured out of doorways all around.

They weren't too happy, and they almost took her camera. She only saved it by whipping out diplomas and letters of introduction and an official, stamped accreditation from Russia's Society of Architects.

The building, it turned out, belongs to the Federal Security Service, which doesn't look kindly on foreigners who come by wielding cameras.

Kiernan, an Irish architect, was in Moscow putting together a guide to the city's Soviet and post-Soviet building styles. And suddenly, here was an object lesson in the modernists' credo that form follows function: The communists embraced modernism because they saw it as a way to use the physical environment to mold a new Soviet man. She had come to document the triumphs of that style, and the legacy of the Soviet system, the secret police, was tumbling out of one of those modernist buildings and threatening to make things more than a little unpleasant for her.

Or was function following form? Does modernist architecture, taken to its extreme, lead to a police state or did the police simply find modernism amenable to its needs?

It's a type of architecture, after all, that has a way of making the individual feel insignificant.

By reputation, Moscow is a forbiddingly unappealing city, though even casual visitors will acknowledge that the capital is home to an unheralded and unexpectedly wide range of delicately appealing houses and churches from the 19th century and earlier.

But Kiernan wants to focus on the Soviet heritage. And she argues that amid the wastelands of prefabricated concrete-panel high-rises can be found some true gems of the 20th century.

Andrei Meerson, one of the architects she admires, agrees, up to a point. The point, though, is a sticky one: The way he sees it, some Soviet architecture is noteworthy, but all of it, including his own, was completely wrong-headed.

It was trying to reshape the human character, an attempt that he sees as emblematic of one of the worst aspects of the 20th century. "An architect," he says, "doesn't have the right to think he's God."

Today Meerson, 65, builds softly curvilinear apartment houses that are a kind of Art Nouveau-meets-Post Modernism. He says he tries to meet residents' aesthetic and emotional needs, which were ignored or even scorned by Soviet modernism. But what of this Soviet style, born out of a belief in a shining future?

'Quite idealistic'

It started in the 1920s. A new society called for new kinds of buildings.

Between 1928 and 1930, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignat Milinis built the first apartment house that was designed for communal living. Common dining and living areas would free people from domestic concerns and foster a collectivist spirit. It was built of brick, because that's all that could be afforded, but the brick was covered with stucco to give the appearance of a more forward-looking concrete. The great French architect Le Corbusier came to Moscow and asked to see the plans. (The KGB was suspicious of his interest and kept a file on him.)

Today the insides of the house, which stands near the U.S. Embassy, have been reconfigured into traditional apartments, and half of it is closed because of water damage and neglect. Nobody chooses to live in a communal apartment anymore.

"It was quite idealistic," Kiernan says. "And it didn't really work."

The Rusakov Club, with sections of an auditorium jutting from the first floor in a way that suggests the facets of some giant crystal, went up between 1925 and 1927. It is the most memorable work of an architect named Konstantin Melnikov, whom Kiernan believes was the finest architect of the century. The club was a place for utility workers to gather for lectures and musical performances, to read the newspapers or to play chess.

The Rusakov Club today is badly deteriorated. In the new Russia, utility workers don't gather for moral uplift; they hold second jobs to try to make ends meet.

It was only in the 1920s that everything seemed possible. Melnikov built a great green swooping garage in Moscow--still standing and still green. He drew up a plan for a huge garage to be built over the Seine in Paris.He showed the plan in France and won a prize, but the French proved to be better at honoring genius than at realizing it.

He designed a Palace of Labor that was to have stood off Red Square and would have looked like a cross between a theater and an airplane hangar. Another of his projects was a five-story club that would have resembled a camshaft standing on end.

Joseph Stalin liked Melnikov so much at first that he allowed the architect to build a private house for himself in the heart of Moscow. It's still there, two intersecting upright cylinders with magnificent studio space upstairs, and musty, decidedly pre-modern furniture downstairs. Viktor Melnikov, the architect's son, lives there at age 86, worrying about the rising water table and the cracked plaster and the long dispute he is having with his sister over the house.

At the height of his prowess, Konstantin Melnikov was lionized at an Italian architectural exhibition in Mussolini's Milan in 1933. He returned to Moscow a hero but never won another commission. Stalin had decided he didn't want an architecture of the future; he wanted convention. Melnikov turned to oil painting, working alone in his studio the rest of his life.

"Imagine if that man had been allowed to create for all those years, the stuff he could have done," Kiernan says.

Stalin wanted towers and classical ornament. Kiernan points out that there's much to admire about some of the buildings from his time, particularly from the years right after World War II.

Near Gagarin Square, there's the apartment house where Alexander Solzhenitsyn laid floors as a convict-laborer. Towering over Ginzburg and Milinis' communal apartment house is an imposing tower, designed by Mikhail Posokhin, that now houses an expensive Western-style restaurant on the ground floor; the bodies of the convicts who died during its construction are said to be buried in the foundation.

After Stalin died, Posokhin tried his hand at what was known elsewhere as the international style. He designed a great boulevard, now known as the Novy Arbat, which ran through the center of Moscow. Flat skyscrapers, known as "The Books" because of the way they look like open volumes standing on edge, stand back from the south side.

Posokhin had been to Stockholm and had seen a huge concrete development around the train station that had been ripped into that otherwise lovely city, and he set out to copy it.

Could anyone love the boulevard? "I don't," says Kiernan. "But it wasn't a Soviet mistake. It was a mistake we all made throughout the world."

Son adds to square

Today Posokhin's son, also named Mikhail, is a prominent Moscow architect. He has designed a low-level office building on the same square as his father's tower, and he is working on a plan to try to humanize his father's boulevard.

He refuses to characterize the new building next to his father's tower as a challenge or an improvement. The chance to do the project, he says, "was the providence of God."

The main thing, he decided, was to leave the tower as the main focus of the square, "to make my building support it."

The tower may have a grim history; it may be something no one would build today. But the fact is, it's there. It fits into Moscow. "People," says Posokhin, "don't want to be jarred."

That's not what the communists thought when they set about rebuilding their capital in the first flush of optimism. Or, rather, it didn't matter whether people wanted to be jarred -- it was going to happen.

But when the enthusiasm flagged, the communists could keep their utopian vision alive through repression and a formidable secret police. People were supposed to be made new, but they were simply made miserable.

Meerson saw a huge housing development he designed in the 1970s turn into a neglected dump. He likes what he did there, from a technical point of view.

But the big idea behind it, he began to realize, was all wrong. People want comfort, choice, convenience, beauty. They want space to store their things. Being heaped together didn't make them comrades; it made them hostile competitors.

"This was my disenchantment," he says. "These buildings created hooliganism, drug addiction and drunkenness."

"Moscow: A Guide to Soviet and post-Soviet Architecture" by Maria Kiernan is published by Ellipsis in London.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad