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.
Despite a wave of early enthusiasm among Russian architects, the avant-garde was soon denounced by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. As stated by historian Charles Jencks, “What gave Lenin pleasure, like Marx and later the Stalinists, was the social realism of Courbet in painting, Balzac in literature and the classicism of the Greeks in architecture.” Although this opposition came early, and it may have seemed as though Constructivism would fail unilaterally, the movement’s most radical proponents decamped for the West in the early 1920s, leaving a less radical and more socially pragmatic form to flourish in the ensuing decade.
Merging the components of new culture, like graphics and advertising, with new architectural components like radio antennae, tension cables, concrete frames and steel girders, Constructivist architects pioneered new forms of building through assemblages of unrelated functions. A prime example is the highly-influential, albeit unbuilt, Palace of Labor designed by Alexander, Leonid and Victor Vesnin in 1923. It included two auditoria that together could seat 10,500 people, administration offices, a radio station, a restaurant for 6,000 people, a social science museum, a museum of labor, a library, a meteorological observatory and an astrophysical laboratory. Agglomerations such as this obviously hold influence over later megaprojects like the Rockefeller Center or Brasília, as well as the early work of Rem Koolhaas and OMA. Constructivism embraced new film and theatrical experiments, communal housing, the dis-urbanized city and the workers’ club, all to create the “multifaceted and fully developed man of Communist life,” says Charles Jencks.
Headwinds from the party government and a lack of support at the community level prevented Constructivism and its architects from achieving their ultimate goal of creating “social power plants,” like the Palace of Labour. Yekaterinburg, however, became a center of Soviet industry at the same moment that Constructivism was being championed around 1926. Until then, this city at the foot of the Ural Mountains had been a city of predominantly one-story wooden houses. Industrialization brought four and five story buildings, of clear geometries, sharp angles, numerous windows and terraces, and with minimal decoration.
Although most of the buildings remain intact, the city of Yekaterinburg has a notoriously poor record with architectural preservation, and as a boom in construction in the past decade has removed many structures that predate the Constructivist buildings, many fear that they will be the city’s next losses. In light of these changes, attempt to record and celebrate the city's Constructivist riches by photographers such as Denis Esakov could soon become more crucial than ever.
- Jencks, Charles. Modern Movements in Architecture. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1985, 82.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 84.