The soviet church and the flying saucer — a guide to Samara modernism

Architecture critic Armen Arutyunov on ten significant modernist buildings in Kuybyshev from the 1950s to 1980s, their significance, and problems faced by preservationists.

The urban preservation movement in Samara has its own specificities. The fight for the preservation of cultural heritage is mostly focused on pre-revolutionary landmarks, the Soviet avant-garde, and neoclassicism. Only a few people are interested in exploring and protecting the heritage of the 1950s-1980s, and the incredibly limited choice of literature dedicated to the architectural history of that period only proves the point (this text provides links for almost all of the existing literary sources on the topic). 

Many of the modernist sites in Samara are already more than 40 years old, which means that they can technically be declared objects of cultural heritage. However, neither society nor state landmark preservation institutions pay attention to work from the Khrushchev Thaw and Stagnation eras That process has already begun in some other regions. For example, the Perm circus, which was based on a design from a Samara, has been listed as a landmark. 

Many young architects from other cities came to Kuybyshev in the 1950s, most of them graduates of the Moscow Architectural Institute. In the context of a shift from the classical architectural paradigm to the modernist one, these architects had to explore the international style through the few available foreign magazines. They took a risk every time they completed a design; that was the only way to implement their creative ambitions in the province. Their original designs weren’t approved unless a special coordination process was undertaken in Moscow. «There used to be a joke that you imagined a fir tree, and a stick was approved,» recalls Samara architect Vagan Karkaryan.

Even under conditions of total control, a rigid economy, and the decline of the profession, Samara architects managed to create dozens of works that hold up quite well in the context of global architecture. However, these works of Soviet modernism are now being redeveloped or demolished without proper attention and protection. The Samara Cinema on Stara Zagora street is among the local losses, and a unique grain elevator on the shore of the Samarka river is next in line. As a result of reconstruction, the Zvezda Cultural Center, the House of Actors, the Regional Library, the Regional Dispatching Office, the Gorizont Consumer Services Center, and other establishments have lost their original appearance.

THE WEDDING PALACE

Address: 238 Molodogvardeyskaya Street
Architects: Alexey Gerasimov, Vagan Karkaryan Period of construction: 1973-1983
Period of construction: 1973-1983

The idea that a Soviet wedding ritual should be developed and churches of a new type should be built was expressed by the head of the Main Department of Education Buildings of the Committee for Architecture under the Council of Ministers of the USSR Andrey Chaldymov in his letter to the government of October 1944: «A church is not a theater or a cinema; it’s not a conference hall — it’s a new type of construction of national importance: solemn and monumental architecture that involves paintings and sculpture and that depicts the people’s great traditions, and, specifically, the heroism of the Great Patriotic War. A church and its services must be qualitatively different from all other cultural events held up until now.The church must trigger a sense of grand solemnity, gravity, concentration, depth.»

The idea of creating an alternative to church with its own rites was eventually picked up by the country’s party leadership. Vagan Karkaryan was the first to attempt the construction of a wedding palace in Kuybushev. The young architect designed the building on Volzhsky Avenue between Yarmarochny descent and the Volga Hotel in 1960, but yet another of Khrushchev’s waves of struggle with excesses prevented the realization of the project.

The second attempt occurred more than ten years later. As the head architect of «Kuybyshevgorproekt,» Karkaryan announced the intra-institutional competition for the design of the ZAGS (the civil registration institution) in 1973; the order had come from the city authorities. Alexey Gerasimov’s sketch was unanimously chosen as the best — it was an unprecedentedly bold decision for Kuybyshev at the time. Karkaryan, who was the co-author of the design, had his doubts regarding his ability to explain to the party leadership what exactly the project was.

The Samarians called the building «teremok» («tower»), although it would be more appropriate to compare it to Western European modernist churches. The Samara Wedding Palace can be likened to works like the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø, Norway by the architect Jan Inge Hovig (1964-1965). In order to avoid the approval process through Gosstroy (the State Committee for Construction), the building was registered as a domestic services facility attached to two 14-storey residential buildings. «We were designing the marriage room, and we wrote ‘the fashion demonstration room’ in the drawings,» writes Vagan Karkaryan in his book «Samara — Kuybyshev — Samara or: Three Portraits of the Same City.» «The bride’s and groom’s rooms (which are needed for wedding palaces) were called ‘the dressing rooms’. .

The main space of the marriage hall was designed in the form of pylons reaching for one another. This can be interpreted as an image of two people in love rushing toward one another, or as an image of hands folded in prayer. The pylons are revetted with anodized gold-colored aluminum sheets, which is similar to Russian church architectural traditions. The cross shape that is used in the layout, and the stained glass windows that are made of Baltic colored glass and that illuminate the ceremonial hall (made by artists Vyacheslav Gerasimov and Alexander Nagnibeda), are almost identical to their church analogs — aside from the plot depicted. Overall, it was just like a real church. The construction of the wedding palace took ten years. The bold project didn’t harm its creators, but rather quite the opposite: they were given a 2nd class diploma at the Russian Architecture Competition in 1984.

THE ZONAL COMPUTING CENTER FOR THE REGIONAL DISPATCH CONTROL OF THE ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS IN THE MIDDLE VOLGA

Address: 5 Polevaya street
Architects: Alexey Gerasimov, Alexey Morgun
Period of construction: 1972-1980

Yet another award-winning building by Alexey Gerasimov — it was given a 1st class diploma at the National Competition in 1982 — is located almost directly across the street from the Wedding Palace. Gerasimov designed the building for the Regional Dispatch Control of the electrical system in the Middle Volga with Kuybyshev’s main architect, Alexey Morgun. Working with the complex terrain of the Polevoy descent, the architects constructed not just a functional building that met the Dispatch Control’s requirements, but also a dominating structure with a hint of the cosmic.

The asymmetrical volume-spatial composition consists of two parallelepipeds, perpendicular to one another, with the dispatch office’s «flying saucer», ascending above their intersection. A cylinder was used in the operational hall due to the round shape of the control board. «The building on pillars, the wrap-around glazing, the large console offsets of the volumes, and the smooth surfaces of the walls meet the main commandments of modernism and functionalism,» the authors of the book «Cosmic Kuybyshev» point out.

Indeed, some of the details of the Dispatch Control from the architect’s sketches resemble the programmatic functionalistic work by Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye. However, the composition of the facade on Polevaya street has more in common with the constructivist Zuev Workers’ Club on Lesnaya street in Moscow. Just like Ilya Golosov’s masterpiece of the 1920s, the Samara construction’s rectangular parallelepiped with a clear rhythmic pattern of windows (the wrap-around glazing wasn’t implemented) in is penetrated by the cylindrical volume at one corner. Gerasimov confesses that he was against the wrap-around glazing, and the shape and rhythm of the windows were inspired by the image of punch cards, which were still used for data storage in the 1970s.

In 1993 the architects Alexey Gerasimov and Sergey Grakhov, with Denis Gerasimov and Vyacheslav Charkov, constructed the building of a subsidiary of the federal grid company on Chkalovsky descent. The new object was conceived of as the completion of the integrated architectural complex of the Dispatch Control Center. Unfortunately, in the meantime the walls of the dispatch control had lost their original look: the matte ceramic tile was replaced with ceramic granite.

THE CIRCUS

Address: 220 Molodogvardeyskaya Street
Architects: Georgy Napreenko, Salomeya Gelfer.
Engineer: Vladimir Shemyakin Period of construction: 1967

The saddle-like shape of the Samara circus on the corner of Molodogvardeyskaya street and Mayakovsky descent looks no less cosmic. In the 1960s the «Giprotheater» architects Georgy Napreenko and Salomeya Gelfer, as well as engineer Vladimir Shemyakin, developed a design for circuses that was implemented in eleven cities: Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, Ufa, Donetsk, Krivoy Rog, Perm, Voronezh, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Bryansk, and Samara.

The construction of the saddle-like overlap is represented by a hyperbolic paraboloid. That shape was first used in the design of entertainment facilities in the 1950s. In particular, architect Maciej Nowicki and engineer Fred Severud had built an arena in Raleigh, North Carolina with two overlapping parabolic arches.

The Samara circus complex consists of two constructions. The main building — the one for the audience — has a lobby with stairs that are open to the city due to the full glazing of the facade, an audience hall with an arena, a cloakroom, and restrooms. All the staff rooms, including the dormitory for the performers and the space for circus animals, were placed in the annex of the main building of the arena. The manège’s offset towards the performers’ exit allowed for significantly increasing the number of seats with a direct view. The Samara circus seats up to 2200 people.

Due to its location on a high bluff above the Volga river, the building is not just a commanding presence at the intersection of Molodogvardeyskaya street and Mayakovsky descent — it also holds an exceptional place in the panorama of the city seen from the river. Since the Samara circus is named after Oleg Popov, the building’s rooftop was painted in black-and-white checkers, replicating the famous clown’s cap. A design for the building’s reconstruction was developed in 2016, so the modernist image of the circus may change soon.

THE HOUSE OF SOVIETS

Address: 210 Molodogvardeyskaya Street
Architects: Alexey Morgun, Vagan Karkaryan, Valentin Chernyack
Period of construction: 1960s — 1986

Glory Square is yet another modernist site on Molodogvardeyskaya street. Construction of the city’s new administrative center in this area was discussed even before the war. The building of a monumental Stalinist ensemble began at the end of the 1940s on Samara Square along Yarmarochnaya Street, but it had to stop due to Khrushchev’s decree «On the excesses in architecture.»

A competition for а monument to military glory on the flank of the Volga was announced in 1965. The first award was given to a project by a Kuybyshev group (architects Yuri Khramov, Vagan Karkaryan, Mihail Trufanov, artist Georgy Kikin), who offered to create a memorial complex on both sides of Yarmarochny Descent, linking them with a passage. But eventually the project for the memorial was charged to a Moscow group (architect Andrey Samsonov, sculptors Pavel Bondarenko and Oleg Kiryukhin) outside of the competition. The descent to the Volga river was filled in so a wide space for Glory Square was created. A 53-meter high monument made of polished titanium was erected on the edge of the square in 1971. It culminates with a figure of a worker with wings in his hands.

The architects Alexey Morgun, Vagan Karkaryan and Valentin Chernyak began designing the House of Soviets on the new square during the construction of the monument. The creators considered different solutions, including a straightforward replica of Boston City Hall. They even took the risk (fortunately without consequences) of redoing the final version of the design after it had already been approved by all the party institutions.

«In order for that large construction to not visually suppress the vertical of the Glory monument, the design’s authors intentionally limited the height of the House of Soviets and gave up the design of the planned T-shaped building with 10-11 floors and a universal conference hall situated on Molodogvardeyskaya street, even though it had already been negotiated and approved in almost all the versions,» Vagan Karkaryan recalls in his book «Samara — Kuybyshev — Samara or: Three Portraits of the Same City,» «That decision was made independently, without coordination with the Party and Soviet authorities. However, no official consequences followed.»

A rectangular six-storey (according to the plan) building stands on a red granite stylobate. The facades, revetted with white marble, are designed in an order system with a clear rhythm of pylons all over the perimeter. The central entrance is shifted towards the edge and is situated on the same axis as the Eternal Flame. A 600-seat conference hall was built in the yard. The architecture of the House of Soviets («The White House») in Samara is quite simple and even traditional, but at the same time the building is an important part of the complex on Glory Square and yet another architecturally dominant site on the Volga’s downhill.

THE HOUSE OF ACTORS

Address: 24 Vilonovskaya Street
Architects: Nikolay Krasko, Vagan Karkaryan.
Artist: Alexey Shteiman Period of construction: 1965-1973

The site on Vilonovskaya Street was chosen for the construction of the House of Actors because of its proximity to the two biggest regional theaters: the Samara Academic Opera and Ballet Theater on Kuybyshev Square, and the Samara Drama Theater on Chapaev Square. «A three-storey building is definitely small for the enormous Kuybyshev Square, but it didn’t get lost in it,» the writer Alexey Morgun wrote in his book «From Samara Fortress to Kuybyshev City.» «It has notable large-scale, concise shapes in the facade, as opposed to the fractional detailing of the neighboring buildings from the last century.»

The construction, which was, in fact, designed by Nikolay Krasko and Vagan Karkaryan, is a rare example of modernist architects’ respect for the urban fabric of the old city. The facade of the House of Actors stands in sharp contrast to the pseudo-Russian building of the Ecclesiastical Consistory and the eclectic Spiritual Board, but it still fits in.

The first two floors of the House of Actors have a view on the garden on Kuybyshev Square due to full glazing. The architects placed a vestibule and a café on the first floor. According to the original version, the café was supposed to be situated on the basement floor, but the Presidium of the Union of Theater Workers of Russia did not support that decision. There’s a foyer, an audience hall and an open terrace on the second floor. The blank wall on the third floor is designed in the form of a lifted theater curtain. An embossed sculptural composition by Moscow artist Alexey Shteiman takes its place in the right part of the wall, above the entrance.

At the beginning of the 2000s, the first floor of the House of Actors was remade into a restaurant, distorting the original appearance of the building. Meanwhile, the theatrical workers prefer the basement, specifically the iconic «Raek» («Heaven») café, which has been located there for dozens of years.

THE GRAIN ELEVATOR

Address: Pontonniy Lane
Architects: Valentin Smirnov, Nikolay Degtyarev.
Engineer: Mihail Kolchin
Period of construction: 1970s

One of the most unique grain storages in the country — the first vertical elevator in the USSR — is located next to a bridge across the Samara river. The necessity for the construction of such a large object for the milling plant on the small piece of land provided for it made the architects of the «Promzernoproekt» come up with an extraordinary solution. The architect Valentin Smirnov designed the elevator in the form of two cylindrical towers. Between them are flights of stairs and a noria — a vertical transporter. The grain arriving at the upper tier is then evenly divided for two storehouses.

Approval of the design in Moscow lasted for about three years, and the monolithic elevator was built in 30-days time with the sliding falsework method ( the first time that method was used in Kuybyshev). The original design involved a longitudinal crown, completing cylindrical volumes, its windows and the glazing of the bucket elevators — this would provide support and keep the volume of the construction directed upwards.

Valentin Smirnov left «Promzernoproekt» before the construction began. In the process of preparing the work documentation, the architect Nikolay Degtyarev altered the original appearance of the crown and the solution regarding the window framing of the bucket elevators by simplifying and visually burdening the tower, which already seemed quite brutalist. In any case, the construction workers couldn’t make the falsework perfectly round, so the cylinders of the grain storehouses looked like faceted glasses.

The elevator received the «Golden Spike» medal at the international exhibition in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Now the construction is not just a monument to industrial architecture (unofficial for now), but also an important urban-planning focus at the entrance to the city across the road bridge.

The elevator on the shore of the Samarka hasn’t been used for years now. In the last ten years, there have been a few ideas concerning its adjustment for contemporary use. For example, architect Dmitry Khramov suggested reconstructing the towers into a cinema with 10 halls. According to the approved design for the territory layout of the territory, the site will be occupied by a residential building that will replicate the grain storehouse’s silhouette.

«THE RASP»

Address: 32 Osipenko street
Architects: Alexander Belokon
Period of construction: 1987

This twelve-storey building on the corner of Lenina Avenue and Osipenko street was the first monolithic residential building in the city that was built with the sliding falsework method. The architect Alexander Belokon created three standard designs for tower-type residential buildings. Aside from Samara, these buildings can also be found in Minsk, Almaty and Ufa.

There are 152 apartments in the building: eight on each floor. The fire escapes are located at the ends. The building’s position on the site is determined by light-exposure requirements and the urban-planning context: the building fit perfectly into the Lenina avenue ensemble, but the blank side faces the river, resulting in the residents’ panoramic view of the Volga being limited.

«A wonderful example of late brutalism, worthy of being compared to the house on Begovaya by Andrey Meerson and the building of the Charles de Gaulle-1 airport,» Vitaly Stadnikov and Oleg Fedorov point out in their book, «81 Architectural Masterpieces: A guide to the contemporary architecture of Samara». The coarse structure of bare concrete and the rhythm of alternating balconies resemble the surface of a massive file, which is why the house is now commonly known as «Rashpil» («The Rasp»).

THE REGIONAL LIBRARY

Address: 14A Lenina Avenue
Architects: Andrey Gozak
Period of construction: 1967-1986

Another monument to modernism is situated opposite Belokon’s «Rasp»: the Regional Library. The main regional library has resided in the Kuybysheva cultural center since the 1930s. The necessity of acquiring a separate building occurred after the war. The project was assigned to the Mezentsev Moscow Institute. It suggested several locations. At some point, the authorities decided to begin the construction on Glory Square, but that spot was given over to the House of Soviets project some time later. As a result, the decision was made to include the library into the Lenina avenue ensemble — which was under construction at the time — with its block-long residential buildings.

«The design of the Kuybyshev city library was the most important job for me at the time,» the architect Andrey Gozak recalls. «The building was supposed to be erected on a flat square plot, constrained by standard eight-storey residential houses on two sides. Three integrated cubic volumes (there were reading rooms in two of them and a book depository in the other one) were given quite monumental and expressive shapes to make the library stand out from the surroundings and to emphasize its special role in the construction.»

Being a brilliant expert on Alvar Aarto’s work, Gozak used some of the Finnish master’s techniques in the Samara project, while avoiding a direct reference. According to the design, the dark-blue ceramic facades were supposed to be in contrast to the light interiors. Daylight was supposed to reach the halls through the stained glass walls, bay windows, and the system of pyramidal lanterns on the roof.

The library became yet another Soviet long-term construction of that period. It was finished almost twenty years later without the architect’s supervision. The design was heavily deformed. The original idea of light exposure was preserved only on the first floor. The concept of lanterns on the roof was abandoned, full glazing was implemented in the reading rooms instead of the frequent window rhythm and the facade was revetted with limestone.

In 2010 the library’s exterior was refinished by replacing the limestone with ceramic granite of a similar color. As a result, the modernist building ended up looking just like some mall on the periphery of the city.

THE «ZVEZDA» CULTURAL CENTER

Address: 106 Novo-Sadovaya Street
Architects: Yuri Khramov
Period of construction: 1968-1970

The construction of entertainment establishments based on original designs was forbidden in the 1960s, which is why the erection of the «Zvezda» («Star») was registered as a reconstruction of the old Maslennikov Cultural Center. Ten years later, the architect Yuri Khramov had to justify the construction of the Philharmonic in place of the modernist theatrical circus «Olimp» («Olympus») the same way. The new «Zvezda,» built opposite the famous «hammer and sickle» of the Factory Kitchen, is not only Khramov’s first realized work in Samara, but also one of the best works of Soviet modernism in the city. The cultural center had a 1200-seat concert hall with film equipment, a dance hall, a library and a lecture hall with 420 seats.

«This is one of the few objects from the 60s and 70s where the interior and exterior are equally detailed and thought out,» Oleg Fedorov and Vitaly Stadnikov mention in their book «81 Architectural Masterpieces: A guide to the contemporary architecture of Samara». «The whole system of flowing multileveled zones with atriums emphasizes the illusoriness of the spatial division. In order to increase the effect, the architects used only glass and sliding partitions. Visually, the staircases were also as light as can be — they had no risers and they were on the same stringer».

The building was reconstructed at the end of the 1990s. Many of the interior details were lost. The transparent glazing of the facade was replaced with tinted disproportionate glass panes that ruined the concept of the cultural center’s transparency and its openness to the city. A vertical volume with an elevator, leading to the restaurant gallery on the third floor, was attached to the facade some time later.

THE LENIN MEMORIAL

Address: 142 Leninskaya Street
Architects: Evgeny Rozanov (the head of the project), Alexey Morgun, Vsevolod Shestopalov, Evgeny Shumov, A. Panferov
Period of construction: 1970s—1980s

The Lenin Memorial is one of the last modernist buildings erected in Soviet Kuybyshev (the museum was opened in 1990). The Mezentsev Institute and a number of local specialists began designing a subsidiary of the Central Lenin Museum after the implementation of the famous building complex in Ulyanovsk. Just like in the leader’s small native land, a whole ensemble was to be built in Samara. According to the plan, it would be located next to the merchant Ryitnikov’s house (the House-Museum of Lenin), where the Ulyanov family lived for three years and which the revolutionary left to go to Saint Petersburg. A parade ground with a monument to young Ilyich was established at the central entrance to the Memorial. The House of Politprosvet was supposed to be situated on the opposite side. Moreover, the ensemble was supposed to be linked to Kuybyshev Square by a pedestrian boulevard. As a result, only one part of the project was implemented, the House of Politprosvet, and the boulevard remained on paper.

The Memorial was finished with red brick, limestone, and glass. The main volume of the building, finished with limestone, hangs above the museum’s first floor with wrap-around tinted glazing. Wave-like white walls resemble banners fluttering in the wind. Thematic bas-reliefs that show the country’s achievements and happy citizens «walking the right way» were placed under the «banners» all over the perimeter (artist Alexey Shteiman, sculptor Evgeniya Shteiman-Derevyanko). A stained glass window is set at the full height of the blank volume from the side of Leninskaya street. The visitors can see the Ulyanovs’ house and the recreated section of old Samara through it.

All the maintenance and administrative buildings were moved outside of the Memorial. They were made of red brick. The stairways and technical rooms are made of the same material — they permeate the building from the inside and end it with a massive triangular lantern that is crowning it. The Pyotr Alabin Museum of Regional History was located in the Memorial in the 1990s. The inscription, carved in limestone, wasn’t removed during the replacement of the sign. The museum’s current title hangs over the old one — either the museum workers took pity on that detail or they thought it might come in handy one day.

Text and photos: Armen Aroutyunov
Translation: Olga Baltsatu