Plans of Grandeur
The late 1920s and the 1930s were an iconic time in architectural history. It was the height of the Modernist movement with notable architects such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe of the Bauhaus, the Spanish architect Le Corbusier, and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright designing some of their most famous buildings. In the Soviet Union, architectural projects took a different stylistic route than the west. One of the major architectural and urban plans of the Soviet period was the rebuilding of Moscow. It was a massive undertaking signed in 1935—though revitalization had already begun as early as 1931—with plans to restructure the entire city in 10 years. The new city plan was based on a radial district structure that would increase Moscow to three times its size and allow for a population of 5,000,000. The designs would incorporate new highways and transportation systems, monumental government buildings, apartments, and lots of public parks. In the 1935 decree it was stated that “the construction and architectural design of the capital of the U.S.S.R. must perfectly reflect the grandeur and the beauty of the Socialist epoch.” (Denny, 17 Moments) The image created for Moscow was an idyllic vision of an urban utopia which is ironic considering the dark and bloody aspects of the 1930s under Stalin (a representation of this can be seen in the impressionist style painting New Moscow which I found amusing and made the cover image for my blog).
The World’s Best Metro
While plans for the rebuilding of Moscow were being created construction has already begin to create the “most modern conceivable system of transportation”—the Moscow Metro. Construction of the metro system began in 1932 and was backed by a massive publicity campaign by the Soviet government to ensure its success. The project was directed by Moscow Municipal Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev and Lazar Kaganovich, another leading politician who would later be purged by Khrushchev in 1957. The metro opened in 1935 and stations unexpectedly became tourist destinations. “Stations in central Moscow are like palaces, walls clad in precious stone, decorated by mosaics and grandiose sculptures.” (Moscow Metro, 17 Moments) Despite the Metro’s decorative elements that “mocked utility” it was a symbol of national pride and did much to improve the image of the party. (Freeze p.361)
A Failed Utopian Symbol
The major architectural feat attempted under the reconstruction of Moscow—and the centerpiece of the new city plan—was the Palace of the Soviets. Planning for the building began as early as 1931 with an architectural competition that received 160 entries from both Soviet and foreign architects—including leading modernist architects Gropius and Le Corbusier. The final design selected was by Boris Iofan a Soviet architect, “his terraced, colonnaded palace was to be the tallest building in the world, soaring eighty meters above the recently completed Empire State Building. It was to be crowned with a massive, 90-meter tall statue of Lenin.” (Rebuilding of Moscow, 17 Moments) Many scholars have assumed that this design shows the Soviets rejection of western modernism, however, Sona Stephan Hoisington argues that this is not necessarily the case as many modernist designers were invited by the government to participate in the competition and were some of the top awarded designs. She further states that “what started out as a practical complex . . . was rapidly transformed into a symbol of Soviet might and the determination to overtake America and into a sacred space, a temple to the revolution . . .” (Stephan Hoisington, 42) To further press the point of Soviet power, the site chosen for the Palace of the Soviets was the massive Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer which was demolished in 1931. In place of the church, the Soviets wanted to construct something visually dominating that represented the power and authority of the government. (Stephan Hoisington, 47) Construction of the building began in 1935, but despite the Soviets grand plans for an architectural symbol, the Palace of the Soviets was never completed. Construction was halted with the Nazi invasion and in 1960 the largest outdoor heated swimming pool was opened on the site. (Rebuilding Moscow, 17 Moments)
Stalinist Architectural and Shifting Cultural Sensibilities
The development of Stalinist architecture can be seen as a reflection of changing cultural sensibilities in the Soviet Union and as part of the “Great Retreat” from revolutionary values. The increased focus on the capital city as a symbol of the Soviet Union’s power, represents what Freeze calls ‘the consolidation of the center’. It “signaled a new hierarchy of values, by which society’s attention shifted from the many to the one outstanding representative.” (Freeze, p.361) This shifting focus towards achievements of the individual rather that the whole can be seen in other aspects of Soviet society in the 1930s such as Stakhanovism and Stalin’s Falcons. As part of this reconstruction, many large stadiums were built and encouraged the growing interest in competitive sports. (Physical Culture, 17 Moments) All these elements incorporated in the reconstruction of Moscow seem to contradict many revolutionary values of discipline and celebration of the many not the few. The use of monumental and more classical architecture as symbols of authority and power show the shift towards traditionalism that developed with Stalinism in the 1930s.
Denny, H. (2016, January 14). Soviet to Rebuild Moscow In 10 Years. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/rebuilding-of-moscow/soviet-to-rebuild-moscow-in-10-years/
Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history (Third). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Siegelbaum, L. (2017, June 18). Rebuilding of Moscow. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/rebuilding-of-moscow/
Stephan Hoisington, S. (2003). “Ever Higher”: The Evolution of the Project for the Palace of Soviets. Slavic Review, 62(1), 41–68.
von Geldern, J. (2015, October 13). Physical Culture. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1934-2/physical-culture/
von Geldern, J. (2015, August 27). The Moscow Metro. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1934-2/the-moscow-metro/
All images are from 17 Moments – Rebuilding of Moscow