A Soviet Utopia: Constructivism in Yekaterinburg

Developed early on in the Soviet era, and fully subordinate to Soviet ideology, the Constructivist movement was intended to form the foundations of a brave new world. The introduction of the Five-Year Plans coincided with the time when Constructivism was adopted as the official architectural style in the USSR. These circumstances allowed many architects to implement daring projects across the entire Soviet Union, and the Urals became one of the biggest magnets.

In this article—written by Sasha Zagryazhsky, translated by Philipp Kachalin and with photographs by Fyodor Telkov—you can take a virtual tour of fourteen of Yekaterinburg's most significant Soviet Constructivist buildings.

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Interior: Uralmashzavod Palace of Culture (1929-1935). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Today Constructivism remains among one of the major historic topics discussed in Yekaterinburg. Local residents love to learn new things about their city and enjoy participating in tours through Yekaterinburg’s numerous Constructivist landmarks. Officials strive to turn the avant-garde architecture into a tourist attraction. Indeed, a Constructivist apartment museum is about to open in the city. Jewellery designers have created rings shaped like the White Tower, and necklaces resembling Iset Hotel’s famous semicircle.

Chekist Town (1929-1936). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Chekist Town (1929-1936)

Location: City block formed by Lenin St., Lunacharsky St., Pervomayskaya St. and Kuznechnaya St.

This complex in the very heart of Yekaterinburg was built to a project design by Ivan Antonov and Veniamin Sokolov. Originally called the NKVD living quarters, the complex was nicknamed Chekist Town by the common folk. The project involved the construction of an extensive network of residential and public purpose buildings, including residential housing, cultural centres and health and educational facilities.

Communal houses for workers were regarded as an important socialist achievement made through a working class initiative. The working class strove to do away with inequality in living space distribution and rejected the former household order. The collectivisation commandments urged Soviet citizens to wash at public bath houses and eat at public factory-kitchens. Therefore lack of personal kitchens and bathrooms became a distinguishing feature of these houses. Nowadays apartments at the revamped Chekist Town, of course, do have bathrooms: they usually occupy former bedrooms and have inherited their large windows.

Built in the shape of a semicircle, Iset Hotel is the Chekist Town’s central architectural landmark. A top-down view reveals that the hotel, a former hotel-type dormitory, resembles a sickle, while the adjacent Sergo Ordzhonikidze House of Culture (currently housing the Urals Local History Museum) looks like a hammer. However, this subtle tribute was never officially recognised.

Residential buildings forming the outer border of the block are aligned towards the surrounding streets by 10 degrees, imparting a certain rhythm and dynamism to the block space. Urban legend says that hidden deep in the bowels of the Chekist Town lie former torture and execution rooms. However, no firm evidence supporting this legend has been discovered. Current residents of the Chekist Town describe the block’s overall condition as ‘satisfactory’. Iset Hotel is only used part-time: for example, in September 2015 the hotel hosted the third Urals Industrial Biennale. The future of Iset remains uncertain: the hotel is currently in search of a new renter.

Urals History and Archaeological Museum (1929-1936). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Urals History and Archaeological Museum (1929-1936)

Location: 69/10 Lenin Avenue

The Urals History and Archaeology Museum is yet another part of the Chekist Town deserving special recognition. The museum building once housed the Dzerzhynsky House of Culture and a public cafeteria and was a meeting place for the Town’s residents. In an unusual fashion, the cafeteria menu used to be announced via an internal public address system. The block residents could reach the cafeteria directly from their homes via a special passageway and a spiral stairway. The club’s staircase is one of the few constructivist era interior elements, which have managed to survive to this day in their original form. The ceiling beams atop the stairs are crossed to form a five-pointed star, and the staircase itself runs counterclockwise, ignoring the unspoken architectural rule.

Local old timers say that when the Iset Hotel construction project was finished, the club became a prime dating spot for the young NKVD staff. The hotel also housed a dormitory for single NKVD officers and officers with small families. The officers travelled to the club through a passageway connecting the hotel with the club.

During the early 1990s the building was officially given to the Sverdlovsk Local History Museum (Yekaterinburg was named Sverdlovsk between 1924 and 1991 – Strelka). The museum was to move there from the Church of the Ascension, which was being returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. The original avant-garde interiors were wiped out during reconstruction, with only the stairway remaining intact. The building still accommodates the local history museum to this day. Its centrepiece is the Shigir Idol, a five meter high sculpture twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids. In 2004, the building’s basement provided the famous Urals playwright Nikolay Kolyada with his first stage. Kolyada later said that the museum basement had a 100 metre long shooting range with a sloping ceiling mere half meter high at one end. Rumour has it that the range was actually the aforementioned secret NKVD chamber where those considered enemy of the Soviet government were executed.

Sverdlovsk Film Studio (1929-1933). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Sverdlovsk Film Studio (1929-1933)

Location: 50 Lenin Avenue

Facing the Chekist Town stands another constructivism era building, formerly occupied by the Builders Club and Sverdlovsk Film Studio, which nowadays accommodates the City Centre Mall. The building was allegedly designed to resemble a tractor in shape, but this theory never received any official confirmation. The building is an outstanding example of Soviet architecture of the late 1920s, featuring open balconies, wide stairways, passageways and roomy inner space made unrecognisable by small shops located in the building today. The studio façade was luckily preserved in nearly pristine condition; however, nowadays shopkeepers use its purely geometrical forms to display their advertisements.

The building is split in two parts: a hall part protruding into the inner yard and a club part occupying two stretched sections. The club had a steam heating system, a café, a theatre, a cinema and rooms to accommodate various hobby groups. Club loggias double as observation decks. During the war, the building housed the Sverdlovsk Film Studio. As the building was not originally designed for filmmaking purposes, several adjustments were made, including redecoration of interiors, demolition of walls and bricking up the windows. In 1944, the Sverdlovsk Film Studio produced its first film Silva, a musical comedy based on an Austrian operetta. During the hard years following the war, the studio stayed largely desolated.

The Sverdlovsk Film Studio gained wide recognition during the 1950s and 1970s period thanks to its innovative approach towards documentary and popular science genres. In 2004, the studio produced First on the Moon, one of its best recognised works and the first fiction film directed by Alexey Fedorchenko. The film tells the story of the first manned flight to the moon being prepared and launched by the Soviets.

The Printing House (1929-1930). Image © Fyodor Telkov

The Printing House (1929-1930)

Location: 51 Lenin Avenue

The Urals Worker Printing House is one of the Urals’ oldest printing houses built in 1926. The building was designed by Georgy Golubev, who was later appointed Sverdlovsk’s chief city architect. The building’s distinctive elements, including continuous windows stretching along the entire perimeter, a rounded façade supported by a single column and protruding stairwells encased in semicircular glass cages, later went on to become the hallmark of constructivist architecture. However, here these features appeared out of necessity: printing workshops required to stay well-lit all day long. Printing facilities occupied three bottom floors of the building. The fourth accommodated newspaper offices and a publishing house.

In March 1934, the Printing House provided its space to a publishing house, a printing office, offices of the Uralsky Rabochii, Sverdlovsky Rabochii and Na smenu! newspapers and a local branch of the TASS photo agency. During the Great Patriotic War these offices had to be fit closer together in order to make room for the evacuated Soviet writers. Back then, following a proposition from Soviet Writers Union Chairman Alexander Fadeyev, a Writers Centre was created there. In the wartime, Agniya Barto, Lev Kassil, Alexei Novikov-Priboy, Olga Forsh, Marietta Shaginyan and a number of other prominent writers worked at the Centre. In 2010, the Printing House became a venue for the first Urals Industrial Biennale. After that, the building was almost entirely rented out. Nowadays the Printing House houses cafés, restaurants, a large bookstore and a namesake nightclub, Yekaterinburg’s largest, which occupies a former storage facility. Despite extensive gentrification, large space within the building remains unoccupied.

General Post Office (1929-1934). Image © Fyodor Telkov

General Post Office (1929-1934)

Location: 39 Lenin Avenue

The House of Communications, also known as the General Post Office, is located two blocks away from the Chekist Town. The building was designed in the shape of a tractor to glorify agricultural workers, collectivisation and kolkhozes. The project was developed by Konstantin Solomonov and Veniamin Sokolov on behalf of the People's Commissariat for Communications of the USSR. The project Solomonov and Sokolov designed in 1933 was more than merely the city’s major post office. The building also housed a kindergarten and a day care centre, an 800-seat radio theatre – a place to socialise and learn recent events – and rooms for hobby groups so that Soviet citizens could develop without leaving their workplaces.

The building also housed a post office, an intercity phone station and a telegraph. A separate building accommodated an automatic phone station serving 10,000 phone numbers spread across major city institutions and residential houses of the central district. The General Post Office still serves its main purpose today.

Dinamo Sports Center (1931-1934). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Dinamo Sports Center (1931-1934)

Location: 12 Yeryomin St.

Located upon a small peninsula in the city pond and shaped like a moving ship, the Dynamo Sports Centre was designed by Veniamin Sokolov, one of the most prominent Urals constructivists. A fully glazed rounded façade helps create resemblance to naval architecture. A V-shaped bay window looks like a bow, windowed balconies resemble lifeboats and a roof structure atop the main pavilion makes one think of a captain’s bridge. During the 1930s the rooftop was dotted with long antennae one could mistake for ship masts from afar. These antennae were later dismantled.

In 1980, the local government considered demolishing the sports centre in order to clear ground for a monument honouring the victims of the Great Patriotic War. Back then Sverdlovsk citizens managed to save one of their city’s landmarks. Nowadays the constructivism era monument, managed by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, is going through hard times: the majority of its original interiors did not survive multiple restoration and redesign projects.

House of Defence (1930-1934). Image © Fyodor Telkov

House of Defence (1930-1934)

Location: 31d Malyshev St.

The DOSAAF (Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Air Force, and Navy – Strelka) sports complex was constructed on the site of a former busy market near the Church of St Maximilianin the old city administration center. A whole block between Malyshev, Voevodin and 8 Marta streets and the Lenin Avenue was granted for construction. During this time – the early 1930s – sports construction boom took place in Yekaterinburg (for instance, Dynamo Sports Centre was built in 1934). The House of Defence was meant to become a strong symbol of sports as well as symbolise the power of the Soviet army and navy.

The original project was extremely ambitious and in addition to the club and a sports college also included a residential area, a gym and a sports arena. The city was indeed awaiting its new symbol. The sports complex was expected to fill an entire city block, with its central piece, the stadium with its giant dome rising above the neighbourhood. The project was never completed, with only a club and a college being constructed. The club building received a ship-shaped design, the constructivists’ favourite. When observed from the adjacent Malyshev street, the building does indeed resemble a ship. A U-1 training biplane was installed on the rooftop of the protruding first floor. The rooftop U-1 was later replaced with a Yak-55 aerobatic aircraft.

Today the building is squeezed between new residential houses, a business centre and a reconstructed church and looks a bit less prominent. Still, one can hardly miss the House of Defence. Anyone willing to take a closer look at this constructivist architecture monument is allowed to enter the building and even take a walk up the fully-glazed staircase, a typical element of constructivist architecture.

Soyuzkhleb (1928-1929). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Soyuzkhleb (1928-1929)

Location: 9 Bankovsky Lane

Although Soyuzkhleb is a listed building located in close proximity of the city administration, it has stayed uncared for and abandoned for 10 years. Rumour has it that the gradual decay of the building is being deliberately ignored in order to clear space for infill development in the city centre. About 10 years ago its last occupant, the Sverdlovsk Pharmaceutical Plant, ran antibiotics production here, filling the adjacent area with strong smell of penicillin. The Soyuzkhleb building remained unoccupied ever since.

Soyuzkhleb design solutions are a hallmark of constructivism of the late 1920s. The building features diagonal alignment of the entrance lobbies and the central staircase, hall-like rooms on the first floor and hallway-based design of the top floors. The building’s original resemblance of a tank or a battleship is less recognisable than it used to be, as its shape changed appearance due to a loss of several architectural elements and wall decorations. Its adjacent territory also lies decrepit.

Street artist Timofey Radya drew public attention to the building when he used it as a venue of his Eternal Fire art project. Radya used Molotov cocktails and thick cloth to create six portraits of real Great Patriotic War combatants, which he displayed in the Soyuzkhleb windows.

Uraloblsovnarkhoz Dormitory (1930-1933). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Uraloblsovnarkhoz Dormitory (1930-1933)

Location: 21/1 Malyshev St.

One who does not know the city can easily miss a multi-storey building located on one of the central Yekaterinburg streets. Many locals know this building only thanks to Volkhonka theatre occupying the lower floors. Meanwhile, this former dormitory for singles and small families is one of main constructivism monuments remaining in Yekaterinburg. The building project was designed by the legendary Soviet architect Moisei Ginzburg.

The building originally lacked a ground floor: in line with Le Corbusier’s teachings, the building was perched atop concrete columns, allowing free entrance into the yard. An open sunbathing terrace ran along the top floor. However, in 1940 the building received a ground floor with shops and a theatre, and then lost its terrace in 1970, forfeiting its innovative touch and gaining a more generic appearance.

However, unaffected by the loss of signature external features, the building interior remains quite remarkable. The former dormitory only has two hallways running through the whole building on its third and sixth floors. These two hallways provided access to every single generic two-storey F-type cell within the dorm. Motivated by creative search as much as by communal housing ideas and a striving for cost-efficiency (strangely enough, even multi-storey solutions may prove rational), constructivists also aimed to improve sanitary conditions. Despite certain drawbacks, the multi-storey design with large windows and high ceilings in living rooms and lower ceilings and smaller windows in bedrooms enabled increased floor area and more spacious cells. Today these F-cells, promptly dubbed “effas” by the common folk, accommodate offices and workshops owned by painters union members. Most of the interiors were lost, but several of the F cells remained almost untouched. Next year a constructivism museum will open in one of these cells.

Justice Town Kindergarten (1932-1934). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Justice Town Kindergarten (1932-1934)

Location: 2b Malyshev St.

The snail-shaped kindergarten of Justice Town, Yekaterinburg’s another famous city block, was raised for children of local families. The Town, built between 1932 and 1934, accommodated Yekaterinburg judges and penitentiary workers. The Town was constructed on the basis of a city jailhouse, built in the second half of the 19 th century and named Corrective Labour House following the October 1917 Revolution. The project was allegedly designed by Sergey Zakharov. The Town stands far off from traditional tourist routes, and even Yekaterinburg locals are hardly aware of the existence of the snail-shaped house.

Although today the building is far from being in its best condition, it is definitely worthy of a detour and a close look at its architecture.

Uralmash Plant Administration Building (1933-1935). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Uralmash Plant Administration Building (1933-1935)

Location: 19a Mashinostroiteley St.

The Uralmash plant administration building was constructed in 1933 – 1935 by a group of architects led by Petr Oransky, a young graduate of Leningrad Architecture University. Oransky was entrusted with any architect’s dream project: to raise a city from scratch. In 1928, he was placed in charge of a group of architects assigned the task of designing the Uralmash microdistrict. The result was a postcard town with rays of streets converging at First Five-Year Plan Square, where the Uralmash plant entrance was located.

The initial plan of the microdistrict did not include the square: three streets should have radiated directly from the entrance, with the main street, called Osevaya in the project, being a natural extension of the plant’s main hallway. In the end Oransky opted for a large square in front of the entrance, which secured better passage to and from the plant.

The five-storey building represents a complex combination of rectangle blocks forming an F-shaped composition. The main façade is asymmetric and consists of three sections. Inside, the building comprises numerous halls linked by a series of corridors. The selected materials disagree with the building’s architectural style: stepping away from constructivist tradition, the administration building is mainly brick with wooden rafters. A ten-storey tower with balconies and observation decks overlooking all the three radial streets from the original project was scrapped. Later passageways linked the plant office with Tyazhmash R&D Institute, demarking an internal yard. Besides installation of a beam structure supporting UZTM logo on the roof, the building exterior has hardly undergone any changes since its construction.

Uralmashzavod Palace of Culture (1929-1935). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Uralmashzavod Palace of Culture (1929-1935)

Location: 3 Kultury Blvd

Known today as Uralmashzavod Palace of Culture, this building was originally constructed as a worker factory-kitchen under a project co-developed by Valery Paramonov and Moisei Reisсher, together with Bela Scheffler. The original idea for the building belonged to Uralmashinstroi administrator Alexander Bannikov. Viktor Anfimov, a participant of plant and microdistrict construction project, said that Bannikov envisioned a large and highly automated factory-kitchen able to produce 100,000 servings per day. However, by the time the project was finished, the need for the factory-kitchen was gone as most plant buildings already had their own cafeterias. Also workers preferred to have their breakfasts and dinners at home, rendering Bannikov’s idea unviable.

The building was then redesigned to accommodate a club for engineering and technical personnel. Back then no plans to set a Palace of Culture here existed as the microdistrict project involved construction of its own palace of culture literally on the opposite side of the street. The redesign works were led by Petr Oransky, the chief designer of the Uralmash master plan, and in 1935 – 1936 the building received a colossal 1,000-seat hall (which required the ceiling to be raised by 1.5 metres), a dance hall, a kids club, a library and a small cinema hall. Its columns and ceilings were decorated with plaster.

It was, in fact, a typical palace of culture built exclusively for the engineering and technical staff. The club, officially named the House of Engineering and Technical Workers, was launched in February 1937. However, soon it was renamed as the Stalin Club, as the new Palace of Culture had never made it past the foundation, and the city had a need for a cultural centre. The club kept that name until the end of the cult of personality was proclaimed in 1956. The club then received its modern name, the Uralmashzavod Palace of Culture.

The building has not undergone any restoration since the construction and remained largely desolate since the early 2000s. In 2006 a section of the building was given to the Yekaterinburg Modern Arts Academy which funded the restoration of its wing. Unfortunately, the interiors were lost in the process.

In 2008, the building was greatly damaged in a fire, which spread through the whole central part, including the central hall. Somehow, back then the building was not listed – it was only added to the list of cultural heritage objects in 2014 under public pressure. Today those parts of the palace which survived the fire accommodate various clubs and hobby groups. Luckily, the interiors of the surviving parts remained mostly untouched: Socialist Realism paintings still decorate the walls, the windows are still covered with once pompous crimson velvet portieres and some of the original lead glass chandeliers still hang from the ceilings. Spared by the time, the stairway, with its banisters decorated with mosaic marble, deserves special attention.

Madrid Hotel (1928-1934). Image © Fyodor Telkov

Madrid Hotel (1928-1934)

Location: 1 Kultury Blvd.

Madrid is an unofficial nickname of this building. There are several stories of how the hotel got it, but one may be closer to the truth then the others. In 1933, while the construction was still ongoing, the finished building was meant to become a hotel. During that time the Civil War was raging in Spain, so the future hotel was labelled with a working name Madrid. However, when the construction was finished, the building instead became a women’s dormitory, and then, during the war, an evacuation hospital, before going back to being a women’s dormitory after the V-day. Madrid somehow stuck – seemingly forever.

Madrid was designed by Béla Scheffler, a German architect of Jewish origin and a graduate of the German Bauhaus Architecture Academy. He was a member of the German Communist Party and one of the several German architects who arrived to the Soviet Union during the 1920s – 1930s in order to help create worker settlements near newly constructed plants. Germany had by then accumulated significant experience in that area. It had been determined that Scheffler should take part in the development of the old Uralmash Palace of Culture and Uralmash plant administration building. Later his name was almost erased: in 1942 Scheffler was charged with spying for Nazi Germany – despite his Jewish heritage rendering this accusation false by default – and executed. He was only exonerated in 1989.

The canted corner of the Madrid Hotel main façade faces First Five-Year Plan Square. Its wings stretch along the Mashinostroitelei Street and Kultury Boulevard. The building has a distinctive redbrick colour: the special paint, developed at an Uralmash lab, proved to be extremely durable. The hotel stands out among other buildings along the square thanks to its beautiful plasterwork, a spectacular rhythm of its balconies and the unusual main entrance design. Inside, the hotel rooms are decorated with plasterwork. Spacious main lobby of the hotel contains a monumental stairway. In the second part of the 1930s the constructivist appearance of the main façade was enriched with neoclassical features, including ordered architectural elements, pilasters and decorative work. From the late 1930s the building was essentially an example of eclectic post-constructivist architecture adorned with fake exterior elements. Much alike other constructivism era monuments, Madrid Hotel is currently in poor condition, with building staying mainly unoccupied save for several company offices.

The White Tower (1929). Image © Fyodor Telkov

The White Tower (1929)

Location: intersection of Donbasskaya St. and Kultury Blvd.

The White Tower is often called the pearl of constructivist architecture. Designed by the 24-year-old Moisei Reischer, the shape of the tower is fully subservient to its function. The construction process employed the latest available technologies – the tower became the first concrete structure built in the Urals region. Also, for the first time electric welding was employed instead of riveting during the water tank production. Moreover, the tank built for the White Tower was at that time the largest water tower tank in the world. Doubting the reliability of the reinforced concrete support, Uralmashinstroi chief engineer augmented the original single-pylon design with two additional pylons. Experts who studied the story of the White Tower say that Reischer had planned for his creation to become an attraction point of the Uralmash district. The White Tower stopped serving its original purpose in the 1960s. Reischer then proposed to turn the tower into an ice cream café with an observation deck, but that proposition has never been implemented.

Today the White Tower is in a miserable condition, though local administration and architects have been making irregular attempts to revive the building. For example, in the past few years Yekaterinburg hosted the White Tower architecture festival. In 2014, a group of young architects Podelniki together with the Urals branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts and with support from the Ministry of Culture launched Cultural Labs of the White Tower project. These labs pursue the goal of finding a way for turning an architectural landmark into a functioning city project.

About this author
Cite: Strelka Magazine. "A Soviet Utopia: Constructivism in Yekaterinburg" 22 Jun 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/789537/a-soviet-utopia-constructivism-in-yekaterinburg-strelka-magazine> ISSN 0719-8884

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