It was alongside the rise of the Soviet era when the Russian avant-garde movement started one of the most influential creative revolutions in the 20th century. The Constructivists, forming part of this wave, rewrote the history of art, design and architecture, and their legacy still remains contemporary.
North Korea is one of the few countries still under communist rule, and probably the most isolated and unknown worldwide. This is a result of the philosophy of Juche – a political system based on national self-reliance which was partly influenced by principles of Marxism and Leninism.
In recent years though, the country has loosened its restrictions on tourism, allowing access to a limited number of visitors. With his personal photo series “North Korea – Vintage Socialist Architecture,” French photographer Raphael Olivier reports on Pyongyang’s largely unseen architectural heritage. ArchDaily interviewed Olivier about the project, the architecture he captured, and what he understood of North Korea’s architecture and way of life.
The end of the First World War did not mark the end of struggle in Europe. France, as the primary location of the conflict’s Western Front, suffered heavy losses in both manpower and industrial productivity; the resulting economic instability would plague the country well into the 1920s. It was in the midst of these uncertain times that the French would signal their intention to look not to their recent troubled past, but to a brighter and more optimistic future. This signal came in the form of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries) of 1925 – a landmark exhibition which both gave rise to a new international style and, ultimately, provided its name: Art Deco.
Yuri Grigoryan founded Project Meganom in 1999 in Moscow with his partners Alexandra Pavlova, Iliya Kuleshov, and Pavel Ivanchikov. Together, the group all graduated from Moscow’s Architectural Institute, MArchI in 1991, the year of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and then practiced at the studio of Moscow architect Alexander Larin. Today Project Meganom is headed by Grigoryan, Iliya Kuleshov, Artem Staborovsky, and Elena Uglovskaya, and keeps in close contact with the theoretical side of architecture: Grigoryan teaches at his alma mater and until recently he was the Director of Education at Strelka Institute, founded in 2009 under the creative leadership of Rem Koolhaas, while in 2008 the practice was involved in the Venice Architecture Biennale with their San Stae project for curator Yuri Avvakumov's “BornHouse” exhibition. All of this gives Grigoryan an interesting overview of Russia's unique architectural context. In this interview from his “City of Ideas” column, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Grigoryan about the issues facing Russian architecture and how Project Meganom has responded to those challenges.
Vladimir Belogolovsky:You travel often and participate in student critiques in the West and in Russia. Do you notice any particular difference in approaches?
Yuri Grigoryan: First, the West is not homogeneous. For example, in the late 1980s, during what was then a very rare trip to the USA I had a chance to visit some of the leading studios and schools. I remember how during our visit to the IIT in Chicago the students would sit and methodically place four pieces of paper, forming laconic spaces precisely following Mies van der Rohe’s principles. That was very strange and I did not see any influences coming from outside of that particular school of thought. I could say the same about Russia. At the height of the Constructivist movement, the teachings of our great educators Nikolai Ladovsky and his students Ivan Lamtsov and Mikhail Turkus at Vkhutemas lead to the situation where the figure of a teacher lost its meaning; it was replaced with methodology that was to be obeyed as if it were a sort of religion.
Best known for the Rusakov Workers’ Club and his own house, Russian architect and painter Konstantin Melnikov (August 3rd, 1890 – November 28th, 1974) has only recently received his due, now more than forty years after his death. He spent much of the twentieth century shunned by the Soviet architectural establishment, having refused to capitulate to the increasingly conformist (and classicist) prescriptions of Stalinism. As a result, he was forced to end his career only a decade after it started, returning to his other avocation as a painter and leaving in his wake only a precious few completed works.
Concealed behind an 18th century Baroque façade in Strasbourg’s Place Kléber, the Café L’Aubette is a dazzlingly incongruous expression of the 1920s De Stijl movement. Designed by Theo van Doesburg, one of the movement’s founders and leading lights, the Aubette’s minimalist, geometric aesthetic was heavily influenced by the work of contemporary artists such as Piet Mondrian. In designing the café’s interiors, Van Doesburg sought to do more than simply place viewers before a painting; he wanted to envelop them in it.
Though the ahistorical dogma of modernism would seem a perfect fit for the Soviet Union’s mandated break with traditions, the architectural history of the USSR was somewhat more complex. Stalin’s neoclassically-inflected socialist realism superseded the constructivist heyday of the early Soviet Union, only to be replaced by a return to modernism under Khrushchev, facilitated by an opening to the West. Architectural photographers Denis Esakov and Dmitry Vasilenko recently used a drone to capture photographs of several landmark structures of the Khrushchev-era return to modernism, focusing on how these aerial views reinforce their rational geometries and regimented forms. Until the recent advent of satellite imagery and commercially available drones, these were views that were only ever seen by the architects, and the officials who reviewed the plans. Even so, the photographer notes that these methodical forms must have been very attractive to the state officers tasked with implementing Khrushchev’s mandated aesthetic.
The photographs, taken in and around Moscow, include works by several prominent Soviet architects. Leonid Pavlov’s long career spanned the full spectrum of state-sponsored architectural styles, starting as a constructivist, and moving into more historicist designs under Stalin, before emerging as one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent post-war modernists. Similarly, Yuri Platonov’s work received extensive state recognition, earning him the title of “People’s architect of the USSR,” as well as awards such the Silver Medal of the Arts Academy of the USSR, the USSR State Prize, and the State Prize of Russia.
After the Bolsheviks secured power in Russia in the late 1910s and eventually created the Soviet Union in 1922, one of the first orders of business was a new campaign, Novyi bit (new everyday life), which sought to advance many of the most hallowed causes of their newly minted socialism. The initiative’s great success came from the bold designs of Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Lyubov Popova. Using a high-contrast visual language and a combination of words and symbols, the graphics were arresting and comprehensible in a post-tsarist country that was largely illiterate, and became some of the most recognizable examples of twentieth century graphics and political propaganda.
It's hard not to see the connection between the styles of the Constructivists and the unusual graphics created by NL Architects in association with BeL (Bernhardt und Leeser) Sozietät für Architektur BDA for their competition-winning proposal for Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood, consisting of an urban plan of housing and other amenities at the former site of Esso Häuser on the Spielbudenplatz. And, while this stylistic connection may not have been intentionally drawn by the architects - the inspiration for the graphics is not mentioned in the four-page project description - it is oddly appropriate for this particular development.
Constructivist architecture is most often remembered in writing and on paper. The movement’s two most radical and recognized structures, Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” and El Lissitzky’s “Lenin Tribune,” were never built at scales larger than models. Taking hold in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Constructivism was the result of Cubo-Futurist artists marrying their kineticism and abstraction to the social concerns of the Bolsheviks, in the hopes of using art as a platform to motivate changes in society. Viewing the museum establishment as a “mauseoleum of art,” in 1918 the new broadsheet Art of the Commune affirmed: “The proletariat will create new houses, new streets, new objects of everyday life...Art of the proletariat is not a holy shrine where things are lazily regarded, but work, a factory which produces new artistic things.”
In spite of the predominance of "paper architecture" in the history of Constructivism, there is one city that experienced the fruit of this movement to an unrivaled degree. Yekaterinburg is Russia’s fourth-largest city, home to nearly 1.5 million people. It is also the largest concentration of Constructivist architecture anywhere in the world, with approximately 140 structures. To celebrate the importance of Yekaterinburg in the history of architecture, photographer Denis Esakov has shared his images of the city's architecture with ArchDaily.
In August 1932, Stalin, holidaying in Sochi, sent a memo containing his thoughts on the entries for the competition to design the Palace of the Soviets, the never-to-be-built monument to Lenin and center of government. In this memo he selected his preferred design, the colossal wedding cake of a tower topped with a 260-foot (79-meter) high statue of Lenin, designed by Boris Iofan. Just over 80 years later, Sochi again hosted the architectural whims of a powerful Russian leader for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. An oversimplification? Probably. But it’s got nice symmetry to it.
Few Constructivist projects made it through the World Wars, but if you're looking for those that did, you'd be wise to travel to Yekaterinburg, Russia. With over a dozen complexes, the city probably has the world's biggest collection of Constructivist buildings—and it's definitely the only place with a hotel in the shape of a hammer and sickle.
The fascinating video above by Ural Life and Culture tours the city and surveys the elements common to Constructivist buildings. Yekaterinburg was a laboratory for Constructivist architects who started building there soon after the movement was founded in Moscow in 1921. Architects from all over the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany designed 4-5 story apartment blocks and office towers to replace single story wooden houses. The Soviets also introduced new typologies like public baths, kindergartens, and a 14-building secret police complex called the "Little Town of Cheka Officers," with covered passages so residents could walk between buildings indoors.