Overshadowed by palaces: A guide to Leningrad Constructivism

Researchers talk about Saint-Petersburg’s signature avant-garde buildings and what to look out for to grasp the particular meaning of the Leningrad style.

While Yekaterinburg’s avant-garde architecture is the  city’s hallmark, and Moscow’s avant-garde is a subject of arguments, in Saint-Petersburg the style’s prominence and influence are harder to identify. Some researchers even say that avant-garde is an “outcast” or a “non-existent style” here – its presence in Saint-Petersburg has remained largely unrecognized. Sovarkh project creator Alexander Strugach explains this phenomenon with reference to a “highly competitive environment”: “In Saint-Petersburg, the avant-garde style is simply overshadowed by an abundance of baroque, modernist and classic architecture and is not yet considered an accomplished cultural heritage category. Meanwhile, gradual deterioration makes proving the cultural value of avant-garde buildings even more difficult.”

In the 1920s – 1930s Leningrad architects designed unique buildings and complexes and developed the city’s own avant-garde schools and techniques. According to Margarita Shtiglits, one of the authors of Leningrad Avant-Garde Architecture, the Leningrad avant-garde was influenced by modernism and neoclassicism, and many buildings feature references to these styles. Close attention to the expressiveness of the selected form is another important detail. Strugach says that the formation of the Leningrad avant-garde had two major influences: the ideas of Suprematism developed by Kazemir Malevich and his disciples; and European architectural elements ushered in by Erich Mendelsohn. Nearly 80 buildings of that period have already been listed, but many more still require protection.

Strelka Magazine asked avant-garde experts to name the 10 most important Saint-Petersburg monuments and to share their thoughts on their value and the uniqueness of the Leningrad style.

TRAKTORNAYA STREET AND NARVSKAYA HOUSING ESTATE

Location: Narvskaya metro station district
Years built: 1925 – 1935

The Narvskaya metro station district is an avant-garde haven and a place where architectural experiments once took place. The first school in Soviet Leningrad was built here, as well as the first district council building, first housing estate and first large palace of culture. Architect Alexander Strugach points out that unlike many other locations, the Narvskaya metro district preserved its unique layout. “Lev Ilyin, a talented urban planner, proposed using a two-center system. The district is centered around two squares: a historic square near Narva Triumphal Arch and a new square near the Kirovsky district council. Later Ilyin developed his idea of a polycentric approach even further. He would go on to embed it into the Leningrad master plan, proposing the creation of a new city center around Moskovsky Avenue in addition to the existing historic center around Nevsky Avenue.”

According to Strugach, a housing estate on Traktornaya Street (1925 – 1927, designed by Alexander Gegello, Alexander Nikolsky and Grigory Simonov) is the most valuable object within the entire district. In order to design the estate, Grigory Simonov travelled to Germany and Sweden to collect foreign experience. The resulting development ended up being quite European. Sixteen three to four-store houses facing each other across the street simply reject Saint-Petersburg’s traditional side-by-side development style. The buildings on the opposite sides of the road are not even identical: layouts of balconies, staircases and cornices on the paired buildings vary. Expressive semi-arches, Traktornaya street’s hallmark, adorn the corner houses.

“The Narvsky Estate was built from any available materials: in some of the buildings old bricks were reused. The houses on Traktornaya have tramway rails for ceiling beams,” says Alexander. “The houses also lacked bathrooms, although the builders insisted on adding them. The USSR had not yet been producing any baths at that time.”

Margarita Shtiglits names several other important buildings within the district. The Maxim Gorky Palace of Culture (built in 1925-1927) and the factory kitchen / general store (built in 1929-1931) are located on Stachek Square. Another two buildings, the 10th Anniversary of the October Revolution School (built in 1930-1935) and the Kirovsky District Council (built in 1930-1935) are located on Stachek Avenue. According to Shtiglits, the latter is the single most important city-forming building among the entirety of constructivist buildings. “The District Council catches the eye with its emphasized outline, an intense confrontation of its horizontal and vertical lines, clashes of its rigid and soft round spaces. Its exaggerated ‘endless’ glass panels are an anthem for continuous windows.” The length of the continuous glass line is nearly 120 meters, which is a rare find in Leningrad. The Council building is accentuated by a 50 meter high tower etched with a comb-like pattern of balconies.

LENINGRAD CITY COUNCIL FIRST RESIDENTIAL HOUSE

Location: 13 Karpovka River Embankment
Years built: 1931 – 1935

The Leningrad City Council First Residential House is an avant-garde era elite development. A relatively large building, it contains only 76 three-to-six room apartments, some of them two-story. Party officials living here enjoyed premium living conditions: the improvements ranged from internal stairs made of oak and built-in furniture to a rooftop solarium and a gazebo in the yard. Some design proposals even included plans for the construction of a footbridge over the Karpovka River in front of the building.

“The city used to suffer from frequent flooding, and embankment houses were usually built on a raised foundation. The house had a kindergarten on the second floor and external stairs were added to the layout to provide evacuation routes,” says Alexander Strugach. Evgeny Levinson, who designed the building together with Igor Fomin, called these stairs a “graphic example” of the plastic capabilities of reinforced concrete. Although the stairs were not the most convenient solution because of the Leningrad climate, nowadays they remain one of the building’s signature features.

“The Leningrad Council First Residential House features the latter stages of avant-garde style, influenced by both expressionism and Art Deco,” say Shtiglits and Kirikov. “A dynamic play of spaces, contrasts between straight and curved lines, a confrontation of a light gallery downstairs and a heavy-set upper body, an alternating pattern of smooth surfaces and deep cavities, spikes of unsupported corners and ‘levitating’ external stairs mold an image of deliberate sharpness. The intricate layout of every side of the building, including the side facing the backyard, emphasizes the elite status of the house.”

LENINGRAD CITY COUNCIL PALACE OF CULTURE (FORMERLY KNOWN AS INDUSTRIAL COOPERATION PALACE OF CULTURE)

Location: 42 Kamennoostrovsky Avenue
Years built: 1931 – 1938

In the vicinity of the First Residential House stands the Leningrad City Council Palace of Culture, formerly known as Industrial Cooperation Palace of Culture, another building designed by Eugene Levinson. The building is designed akin to a construction set: the Palace was built upon a pre-revolution Sporting Palace. The previous neoclassical style building accommodated a restaurant, a mixed-purpose cinema and concert hall, and a roller skating rink. Its entertainment functions were preserved during a reconstruction in 1930s.

The new house of culture contained two halls: a theatre hall with a speaker-shaped acoustic ceiling, and a small cinema hall protruding from the side of the building. Plans to construct a sport section with a swimming pool were scrapped. Despite Levinson’s personal insistence, only a 30 meter tower was built instead of a 46 meter one. That decision stripped the building of its potential height accentuation and gave it a stretched appearance.

The authors of Leningrad Avant-garde Architecture point out similarities between the floor-to-ceiling glass panels of the Palace’s library section, located in the corner of the building, and Bauhaus. “The suspended glass surfaces and glass structures concealed within them dominate the corner and form a single large body. The spatial glass design – a radical functionalist technique – was inspired by Gropius’s Bauhaus. However, in the final design the transparent surfaces are instead decorated with an intricate geometric pattern. A lonely balcony piercing the smooth glass screen is a single high-pitch tone within this melody.”

COMMUNAL HOUSE OF FORMER POLITICAL PRISONERS SOCIETY

Location: 1 Troitsky Square
Years built: 1929 – 1933

Avant-garde architecture was mainly developing in the Leningrad outskirts, but sometimes projects of high importance were admitted to the historic center. The Former Political Prisoners Society Communal House, built across from the Peter and Paul Fortress, is one such example.

The Former Political Prisoners Society was established in 1921 by former political prisoners of the tsarist government. In late 1920s the society had 2,759 members and more than 50 branches across the country. However, when the construction of the communal house began, the lifespan of the Society was already approaching its end – the Society was officially closed in 1935. Many of the house residents fell under a new wave of Soviet repressions; their names have since been commemorated on a memorial stone near the house. But back when the house was still in construction, hardly anyone could expect such a dark turn. The house was built with the idea of the bright future of a new communal lifestyle and cultural life.

The communal complex was divided into three buildings with 200 two and three-room apartments each, meant to accommodate one person per room. The communal apartments lacked kitchens and were fitted only with electric ovens for heating up the food. The house had a developed infrastructure, including a 500-seat hall, a cafeteria, a kindergarten, a solarium, a laundry and a library. The building also accommodated a Labor Camp and Exile Museum. Most of the infrastructure was located downstairs. Continuous glass panels on the first floor created an impression of the building floating above ground.

Just a minute’s walk from the house takes you to the Stalin Rail Transport Academy, another remarkable avant-garde building created by the same architects (Grigory Simonov, Pavel Abrosimov, Alexander Khryakov). The house, allegedly built in the shape of hammer and sickle, features an expressive curved façade with embedded vertical staircases. A protruding wedge-shaped corner of the building pierces the air.

ILYICH HOUSE OF CULTURE

Location: 152 Moskovsky Avenue
Years built: 1929 – 1931

Two remarkable avant-garde era buildings are located on Moskovsky Avenue. The Ilyich Palace of Culture, one of them, was designed by Nikolay Demkov for the employees of the Electrosila plant. Demkov is known for designing numerous bland public buildings; however, the Ilyich Palace of Culture, a unique project, is considered to be Demkov’s magnum opus.

A bird's-eye view reveals that the palace is built in a zigzag shape. The theatre section of the building facing the Moskovsky Avenue contains a main hall, a lobby and a foyer. The club section,with rooms for hobby classes, sports classes and a cafeteria, is located further inside. The architect uses both glass and windowless elements to create a certain dialogue between these two parts of the building. “On the southern side of the building trapezoid bay windows absorb light with their wrinkled glass panels, creating a pulsating light effect inside,” says Margarita Shtiglits. “The second floor foyer faces the Moskovsky Avenue with large, almost ceiling-high windows, giving it an appearance of a glass terrace. A large stairway in the club section is illuminated by two vertical floor-to-ceiling panels. The entrance to the club part pierces a huge white square of a windowless wall. The pattern is repeated in a gym room where a black circle is formed by a singular window.”

MOSCOW DISTRICT COUNCIL

Location: 129 Moskovsky Avenue
Years built: 1931 – 1935

Across from the House of Culture stands a more monumental building. The Moscow District Council building is the first large project developed by Igor Fomin, son of the renowned architect Ivan Fomin. A five-store giant cylinder is the centerpiece and the most prominent part of the building. Inside, the most popular departments of the city council were arranged in a circular pattern. Instead of corridors, the departments were interconnected by a series of galleries. The central part of the cylinder contains a domed hall. Interestingly enough, windows are not used to create either vertical or horizontal accents; instead, glass elements are dispersed evenly just like the other external elements. The rest of the building largely copies the layout of other district councils. The linear part of the building accommodated administrative departments, while the round part contained an audience hall.

Even a rough visual comparison of the two buildings located on the Moskovsky Avenue demonstrates that the construction of the second building took place in a later time period and was influenced by other styles. According to Shtiglits, this “adulterated constructivist vocabulary” could be considered one of the hallmarks of the Leningrad avant-garde.

RED BANNER FACTORY SUBSTATION

Location: 53 Pionerskaya Street
Years built: 1926 – 1928

The Red Banner factory used to be one of the largest textile facilities in the country. In the early 20th century the factory manufactured nearly 40% of all textile products made in Russia. In 1920s a decision was made to renovate the entire factory complex. The renovation project was offered to invited German architect and industrial construction expert Erich Mendelsohn. Unfortunately, the unique daring project proposed by Mendelsohn was not implemented. The omission of the official contest procedure in favour of a foreign architect caused an uproar among Leningrad’s own architects. Additionally, the project proposed by Mendelsohn could not be implemented at the chosen location. As a result, the German architect renounced his authorship and abandoned the project. Nowadays experts agree that the factory substation, despite being the only implemented element of Mendelsohn’s original design, still made a significant impact on the Leningrad avant-garde style.

The substation is divided into several distinctive blocks. A rectangular block, distinguished by a horizontal rhythm of glass panels and reinforced concrete frames, stretches along Pionerskaya Street before ending with a pronounced rounding. The lower rounded brick section contained filters, while the upper part held water reservoirs. The upper part, almost windowless and bounded by metal hoops, creates an image of a ship towing the rest of the factory.

According to Kirikov and Shtiglits, the substation can be considered to be Mendelsohn’s own manifesto. “Mendelsohn’s ‘function plus dynamic’ concept was successfully implemented in the architectural appearance of the substation, which combines the elements of both functionalism and expressionism. The building, despite the lack of public recognition, was one of the most important pages in the development of the Leningrad avant-garde.”

WATER TOWER AND ROPE PRODUCTION FACILITY AT KRASNY GVOZDILSHCHIK FACTORY

Location: 6 25th Liniya Street
Years built: 1929 – 1931

Another Leningrad avant-garde masterpiece is located at 25 Liniya Street on Vasilyevsky Island. The local factory was established in the 19th century; later, in the 1920s, it underwent modernization and was renamed. The project was joined by the “Soviet Piranesi,” Yakov Chernikhov. At Krasny Gvozdilshchik, Chernikhov designed an expressive water tower and a rope production facility (the latter has since been stripped of Chernikhov’s original design).

The shape of the water tower, as simple as it is, is a perfect showcase of the advantages of reinforced concrete. A thin and high rectangular structure supporting the water reservoir hides a staircase inside. Two additional columns provide extra support for the reservoir. The water tower resembles a nail, adding symbolic value to an object located at a nail-production facility. “The Tower at Krasny Gvozdilshchik is a unique example of a successful project designed by Chernikhov,” says Alexander Strugach. “Only a handful of Chernikhov’s projects were actually implemented; this architect is largely known thanks to his sketches and ideas. I personally recommend his books Architectural Fantasies: 101 Compositions and Constructing Architectural and Mechanical Forms. In these books, even his choice of wording is unusual. The tower represents the scale of Chernikhov’sarchitectural calibre. No wonder that Zaha Hadid spent time to personally study the tower during her stay in Saint-Petersburg.”

VYBORGSKY DISTRICT FACTORY KITCHEN

Location: 45 Bolshoy Sampsonievsky Avenue
Years built: 1929 – 1930

In a way, avant-garde architecture can be regarded as a reflection of Leningrad’s overall development during the 1920s and 1930s. Avant-garde buildings and blocks were meant to bring change into people’s lifestyles, especially on the outskirts of the city. “Workers who used to live in old, shabby houses or even at the factories where they worked before the revolution were granted new places to live, complemented with necessary infrastructure. I doubt that they found their new homes beautiful. But the quality of their lives still improved,” comments Strugach.

In order to provide proper infrastructure, new types of buildings, such as factory kitchens, were designed. In Leningrad, factory kitchens were developed by the ARU group (ARchitecture Urbanists) consisting of Armen Barutchev, Isidor Gilter, Joseph Meerzon and Yakov Rubanchik. In total, four factory kitchens were built in the city, each under a unique project. One of these kitchens was built in Vyborgsky District. According to a 1933 city guide, this factory kitchen served 22 enterprises employing over 40,000 workers and produced 22,000 to 33,000 meals every day. The facility also included a cafeteria and a shop.

Inside, differently-shaped rooms are arranged in a circle pattern, fitting the process of preparing food and getting it delivered to the cafeteria. The building was originally surrounded by a garden and cafeteria patrons could sit outside on the open terraces. Nowadays, that concept can barely be recognized. However, a large canopy, a glass panel decorating the main staircase, continuous windows and a play of spaces are still present. The latter marks the building’s resemblance to the Moscow constructivism school, says Strugach. Also, the cafeteria’s windows appear to have been designed to face the nearby Saint Sampson's Cathedral built in the 18th century.

ROUND BATHHOUSE ON MUZHESTVA SQUARE

Location: 3 Muzhestva Square
Years built: 1927 – 1930

A round bathhouse designed by Alexander Nikolsky has two reasons to be considered remarkable. First, the bathhouse is a daring example of a modern multifunctional building. The original plan involved placing baths inside a round cylinder structure running around a glass-domed internal yard with a swimming pool. The rooftop, accessed via several ramps, would be used as a solarium, while the cylinder building itself could be accessed through an adjacent rectangular lobby. In order to preserve heat the bathhouse would be partly buried into the ground. Unfortunately, this idea, as well as the glass dome concept, was scrapped due to technical issues. However, the bathhouse, which continued to function even through the Siege of Leningrad, still serves its purpose today. The second important feature of the building lies within the minimalistic appeal of its forms, which reflect one of the unique attributes of the Leningrad avant-garde school. According to Strugach, the bathhouse should be regarded as a Suprematism style composition.

“Alexander Nikolsky and a circle of his architect friends shaped the essence of the Leningrad avant-garde style. They focused their efforts on promoting the Suprematism movement and working with pure large forms, unlike the Constructivists, who preferred to augment the buildings with various protruding elements. The round bathhouse designed by Nikolsky features brutal European forms. It is an uncut piece of material placed on the ground. People used to plasticity may find it hard to discover the true value and appeal of that building, but that does not diminish its significance. You could compare it to the recently opened Museum of Russian Impressionism, where the very same concepts found further development.”

Author: Svetlana Kondratyeva
Photos by Leonid Balanev