Soviet Utopia: Constructivist Period in Yekaterinburg (Part Two)

This article is the second part of a guide to major constructivism era landmarks of Yekaterinburg. The first part is available here.

Born early in the Soviet era and fully subordinate to Soviet ideology, the constructivism movement was meant to form the foundations of the brave new world. The introduction of the Five-Year Plans coincided with the time when constructivism was adopted as the official architectural style. These circumstances allowed many architects to implement their daring projects across the entire Soviet Union. The Urals region, especially its capital city Yekaterinburg, became one of the major attraction centres for these projects. Strelka Magazine has gathered the stories of 14 most interesting constructivist buildings in the city. The stories are arranged in a way to allow this article to be used as a guide.

Soyuzkhleb

Location: 9 Bankovsky Lane
Built: 1928 – 1929

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

Location: 21/1 Malyshev St.
Built: 1930 – 1933

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

Location: 2b Malyshev St.
Built: 1932 – 1934

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

Location: 19a Mashinostroiteley St.
Built: 1933 – 1935

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

Location: 3 Kultury Blvd
Built: 1929 – 1935

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 pompouscrimson 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

Location: 1 Kultury Blvd.
Built: 1928 – 1934

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

Location: intersection of Donbasskaya St. and Kultury Blvd.
Built: 1929

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.

The first a part of this sightseeing guide is available  here.

Author: Sasha Zagryazhsky
Translator: Philipp Kachalin
Photos by Fyodor Telkov