​A clash of bricks, blocks & panels: The timeline of Soviet mass housing construction

The experiments in mass housing construction that preceded the iconic ‘Khrushchevka’ panel apartment blocks.

7 Marshala Biryuzova St. Main entrance rests on a granite plinth.

Sixty years ago Soviet advocates of panel construction came out victorious in an undeclared competition. In July 1957 the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of Ministers of the USSR issued a decree on housing development in the country, putting an end to an era of experiments with frame-based and large-block construction designs. The decision was preceded by a decade of active search for a solution, but the earliest experiments can be traced much further back.

The construction of worker settlements in 1920s Moscow marked the first attempts to standardize housing development. Nonetheless, during the next decade an expansive industrialization made barely any impact on the construction industry. Meanwhile the urban population increased from 1.5 million in 1913 to 4 million in 1939. Light and heavy industry workers arriving in Moscow lived in barracks, basements, and overcrowded communal apartments. Following World War II the need for revising construction standards in the USSR became apparent.

7 Kuusinen St
7 Kuusinen St
7 Kuusinen St
7 Kuusinen St
7 Kuusinen St
7 Kuusinen St

Today, realtors call the buildings we will be discussing ‘Stalinkas’ – meaning they were built during Stalin’s rule in the 1930-50s – and advertise them as unique, despite a majority of these houses having been constructed to standard designs. One of their distinctive characteristics is their 3-meter-tall ceilings (2.80-2.90-meters in post-war buildings), which was a design necessity at that time. Horizontal beams were installed in such a way as to leave enough room for a 220-cm-tall door frame. The introduction of six-meter hollow-core slabs in the second half of the 1950s made the beams redundant and allowed for decreasing the standard ceiling height.

FIRST EXPERIMENTS

Soviet city planners realized that relying on brick was slowing construction down and that larger basic blocks were required. Construction of the first cinder block house in Moscow started in 1932 to a design developed by architects Porfiryev and Kucherov. The building, located at 52 Mytnaya Street, was completed in 1936. The architects later shared their vision in the Moscow Construction magazine:

“Our primary goal during planning was to make on-site assembly as easy as possible. Early construction projects usually only had a limited number of pre-made elements delivered to the site: mainly walls, and sometimes dividers and ceiling slabs. We decided that all ferro-concrete elements had to be assembly-ready on delivery, including purlins, balconies, stairwells, flights and landings, ceiling slabs, dividers, and even rafters with laths.

In 1939 the construction of 11 multi-story buildings designed by Arkady Mordvinov’s workshop began on Bolshaya Kaluzhskaya Street (later renamed Leninsky Avenue). Although there were still miles to go until full standardization of construction elements, all the buildings shared the same layout: a single residential section divided between two communal apartments. Each of several construction crews working on site had their own specialization. After completing their tasks at one site, the crew moved to the next one. This conveyor-inspired system utilized continuous flow process and followed a single schedule.

An architectural breakthrough took place just before the war broke out when Andrey Burov and Boris Blokhin developed several projects for houses built from mass-produced, factory-made cinder blocks. This design was implemented in several buildings across the city, the most famous of them being the Openwork House at 27 Leningradsky Ave, also known as the Accordion House. Instead of hiding the blocks under a layer of coating, a special dye was added during the filling. The glaucous blotches left by the dye marbleized the façade. Fancy, ferroconcrete ornamental grates, designed using sketches by Vladimir Favorskiy, disguised kitchen pantries.

Burov’s charming but repetitive ornaments did not get enough exposure to become a boring city sight: World War II and its aftermath postponed further experiments in standardized development until the late 1940s.

7 Marshala Biryuzova St. An elegant railing running along the stairs.

The government understood the urgency of the housing problem in the city: this issue was among the topics of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

During the 1950s a number of specialized and scientific organizations were established, including the Central Research Institute for Standard and Experimental Residential Development and the Special Architecture and Construction Office, later renamed the Moscow Research and Design Institute for Typology and Experimental Design. In 1953 a ferroconcrete production facility launched operations in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy. Soon another facility opened in the Shelepikha District in Moscow.

The north-western part of the city became the main site for urban planning experiments. Khodynskoye Field, renamed Oktyabrskoye Field in 1922, was selected for this purpose due to its proximity to the city center combined with its great transport accessibility. The Frunze Central Aerodrome was the only obstacle; however, plans were made to turn the facility into a giant park with ponds.

SOUTH OF PESCHANYE STREETS

Peschanye Streets residential blocks were built during 1940s along a new road connecting Leningradsky Prospect and Khoroshevskoye Highway. This road, known today as Novopeschanaya Street, transitions into Kuusinen Street at Peschanaya Square. The district was the first major experience of experimental multi-story construction in the USSR. The district served as a test ground for new construction solutions and materials that would later be used across the country. Development remained under the personal control of Nikita Khrushchev, who in 1949 was appointed the First Secretary for the Moscow District Committee of the Communist Party. Special tours were held for both foreign guests and the general population. The model construction site was dubbed “the school of residential development”.

1 Kuusinen St and 88 Khoroshovskoye Highway. Adjacent houses have different ledges.
1 Kuusinen St
1 Kuusinen St and 88 Khoroshovskoye Highway. Adjacent houses have different ledges.

Pyotr Pomazanov drafted the general plan for the district, while Zinovy Rosenfeld led the design team. The architect made his name before the war as the designer of several houses on Kutuzov Avenue and Krasnoprudnaya and Sadovo-Triumphalnaya Streets.

The introduction of standard planning solutions allowed for the production of up to 60 percent of the total construction elements at the factories, including floors, stairwells, and decorations. Construction workers had only to put these elements together on site, which allowed building a 1,400 m2 four-story building from the ground up in three months. The façade coating cost for standardized projects was below 10% of the total construction budget, compared to 30% for unique buildings.

Mansard roofs make up for the rather modest concrete ornamentations of the first completed buildings near Leningradsky Avenue. After an official order came in demanding an increase in the number of floors, seven-to-nine story projects gained prominence. Zinovy Rosenfeld did not hold back while designing ornamentations: building façades were clad with tiles imitating diamond rustication, and the use of concrete ornamentations was extensive. Some ornamentations, including the balustrades running alongside the rooftops, had to be removed later due to the danger of collapse. Buildings of the same design can be found on Bolshaya Filyevskaya Street, Novozavodskaya Street, and Starokashirskoye Highway.

Sixteen buildings forming a block between the 1st and 2nd Khoroshevskaya Streets were the final addition to the district made by Rosenfeld and his team. Buildings number 15, 17, and 19 on Kuusinen Street, and 14, 16, and 18 on Zorge Street feature projecting bay windows and large arched shop windows. Another block of the same design was planned for construction closer to Peschanaya Square, but only a couple of buildings were ever completed. Right under the roof corbels of the non-existent fifth floor, there are still balconies remaining – the construction stopped at four stories. Nina Pankratova, a construction engineer, lives in one of these ‘cropped’ buildings at 20 Zorge Street.

16 Zorge St. The façade is clad with red tiles, making the building stand out among its neighbours.
14, 3 build Zorge St.
16 Zorge St.
18, build 2 Zorge St.
16 Zorge St. The façade is clad with red tiles, making the building stand out among its neighbours.

“Our house was put under Glavmosstroy’s [construction holding] management right away,” says Nina. “After they laid the foundation, they realized that planes were taking off and landing right over the building site. Over the past few years, several organization have taken interest in completing the construction, but each of them lost interest after noticing a sizable crack in the wall. In the 90s plans for building a business airport on Khodynka Field were going around. Back then the residents of the district stood together and defended the field. But developers got their hands on it later, anyway.”

To see how the Glavmosstroy house would have looked if it had been completed, take a 150-meter walk south to an eight-story building at 16 Zorge Street. Both buildings are clad with unusual russet ceramic tiles – a detail they share with an even more famous building nearby.

The Peschanye Streets designs were later used for the Special Architecture and Construction Office catalogue (I-410 series). Eight standardized sections formed the basis for 17 building configurations, with U- and L-shaped designs being the most popular. Nearly 180 such uncoated silicate brick buildings, mostly five-story, were built across Moscow. They can be distinguished by a line of red brick girdling the building just above the third floor and the arch-like pattern around windows on the fourth floor. Two L-shaped buildings of this series are located on Khoroshovskoye Highway near Polezhaevskaya Station (buildings 35/1 and 35/2). The third one collapsed during the construction of the station in the early 1970s. In the blocks near the next station, Oktryabrskoye Field, many of the Special Architecture and Construction Office buildings are decorated with large five-pointed stars. These buildings once accommodated numerous employees of the Soviet Military and Diplomatic Academy and the KGB Institute (known today as the Foreign Intelligence Academy).

A PILOT HOUSE

The Red House, aka the General's’ House, at 6 Kuusinen Street is probably the most remarkable building on the entire street. It was once unofficially known as the House of AKDON – a special Red Army division whose members were the first residents of these two-room communal apartments.

The building, a model of the mass II-02 series, has several twins across the city. The Roman numerals in the name of the series serve to identify the construction specifics of the building. The Roman numeral I meant that load-bearing walls were aligned along the building, while II indicated transverse alignment (the staircase walls, for instance). In the II series, the ceiling slabs usually had two support points.

The first block consisting of 14 II-02 buildings was constructed in 1952 on the Lenin Hills near Moscow State University (4 and 6 Stroitelei Street). Several II-02s form a courtyard at 17 Boris Galushkin Street; two more unconnected wings are located at 4 Pyryeva Street. Architects Dmitry Burdin, Migran Lisitsian, and Mariya Rusanova definitely found some inspiration in the 17th-century Russian Naryshkin Baroque style, with its typical combination of red walls and limestone decorations. Just like in the Peschanye Streets, the painted concrete here was used to imitate limestone.

16 Zorge St. The façade is clad with red tiles, making the building stand out among its neighbours.
15/3 Kuusinen St. Large ceramic tiles of the original design have been painted over.
17/2 Kuusinen St. A superstructure with large arched windows was designed to accommodate a painter’s workshop. A similar structure was also added to 23/4 Novopeschanaya St.
2/17 Kuusinen St. Both decorations and tiling were cut on the inner side of the building to decrease costs.
16 Zorge St. The façade is clad with red tiles, making the building stand out among its neighbours.

Here, a load-bearing ferroconcrete frame is hidden behind a layer of factory-produced red brick. The brickwork can be seen on the inner side of the AKDON House. The façade has remained clad with brick-coloured tiles for over 60 years. Similar sand-coloured or pinkish ceramic was used to tile hundreds of buildings across Moscow, including the landmark Seven Sisters highrises.

The spread of tiling was an achievement of the Soviet engineer Aleksander Meliya, who designed a dry press for fabricating ceramics in 1935, and was granted a First Degree Stalin Prize in 1949 for improving his invention. An automated facility for the production of ceramic blocks began operation in 1950 in the suburb of Kuchino near the Pekhorka River (a white clay quarry there has since been abandoned and turned into a giant landfill). In addition to their aesthetic qualities, the tiles produced under the new technology provided great heat insulation. Construction of the left wing was only completed in 1957, two years afterthe Central Committee and the Council of Ministers issued the famous decree on Reduction of Excesses in Planning and Construction. The building managed to avoid the fate of later projects which were stripped of most ornamentations and coating.

20 Zorge St. Meliya tiles of an uncommon russet sort.

Poet Ivan Zelentsov spent his childhood in the Red House:

“It’s easy to reminisce about my childhood after having lived in residential micro-districts in cramped 40-meter flats. When I lived on Kuusinen Street, 100 meters of living space didn’t strike me as something out of ordinary, and neither did giant windows, high ceilings, small internal windows between the kitchen, toilet, and bathroom which served no apparent purpose, or a garbage chute in the kitchen. Just above us, on the sixth floor was a communal apartment with the exact same layout. Sometimes I was left under our neighbor’s supervision and had to spend time in that apartment. The shared hallway remained pitch black at every moment of day and night, as if it was vampires who lived there. The residents prodded their way along the hallway, stepping through jungles of clothes hanging from the walls and jumping over random boxes. Also, all the neighbours knew each other. Making small talk during an elevator ride was a thing of common courtesy. In front of the entrance stood a classic bench packed with gossiping old ladies, no less than seven at any time of the day. By the end of the 90s the grannies disappeared, a shady security agency took their place, and a 600-series Mercedes stole the bench spot.

POSOKHIN’S FRAME

Instead of laying bricks around the frame, architects Mikhail Posokhin and Ashot Mndoyants – famous for the highrise building on Vosstaniya Square – proposed attaching panels. The construction design was co-developed by engineer Vitaly Lagutenko. The design was implemented in a building on 1st Khoroshovsky Road in 1948.

The first frame-based panel building in Moscow had been built a year previous in the Sokolinaya Gora District (43 Budenny Street). The building used a full-metal frame, just like skyscrapers in the US – an incredible expense for the post-war period.

In eight buildings along the Khoroshovskoye Highway panels were attached to a ferroconcrete frame. Back then Posokhin and Mndoyants were somewhat embarrassed of using panels and tried to cover them with a disguise of ridiculous concrete decorations. The frame was produced directly at the construction site: the ferroconcrete facility was yet to launch operations.

Victor, an economist, has been living in one of these buildings on 1st Khoroshevsky Road for the past five years: “I had been on an apartment hunt for nine months by then, but when I saw this one, it instantly clicked. Here I can enjoy a great green courtyard, the proximity to a metro station, and 2.92 m ceilings at the cost of rather thin walls. Although this year an unpleasant smell appeared in the stairwell: it’s rising up from the basement, I think.”

At the end of the decade, the frame-based panel technology looked the most promising. In 1952 a contest for a panel house design pit Posokhin and Mndoyants against Ivan Zholtovsky’s workshop team, who entered with six different options. Zholtovsky himself later commented in his article for the magazine Architecture and Construction:

“We envision smooth panels, free of oppressive architectural forms, a limited number of various decorative elements able to produce unique combinations, modules easily assembled into unusual spaces. We see spaces for shops and public organizations helping to create expressive compositions. These are, in our opinion, the prerequisites allowing the development of an infinite number of interesting, inspiring, and colourful compositions.

Wide streets filled with enough space between buildings, looking friendly and bright, ensembles of unique buildings, an abundance of greenery, sculptures, fountains, and monumental fences – this is the image of the future I hope we will achieve with the new panel development districts.”

11 Kuusinen St. Instead of concrete decorations, Posokhin’s buildings are adorned with glazed yellow tiles laid out in intricate patterns.
11/1 Kuusinen St.
7 Marshala Biryuzova St. The central and side buildings are connected via balconies.
7 Marshala Biryuzova St.
7 Marshala Biryuzova St.
11 Kuusinen St. Instead of concrete decorations, Posokhin’s buildings are adorned with glazed yellow tiles laid out in intricate patterns.

The improved design developed by Posokhin and Mndoyants was used in the construction of a residential block between the Khoroshovskye Streets, running south to Rozenfeld’s buildings (7, 9, and 11 Kuusinen Street, and 6 and 10 Zorge Street). Each of the buildings was split into three sections: a central, 10-story building and two six-story wings. Two-story-tall panels were used in the construction. An extract from the New Districts of Moscow, a collection published in 1960, says: “The spacious composition of multi-story development reflects widespread adherence to the excessive complexity and axis-based alignments of this architectural period (1952-1955). At the same time, it demonstrates a sound approach towards block arrangement.”

Later Posokhin and Mndoyants would repeatedly join forces for various projects, including Kalinin Avenue (New Arbat Avenue). Project engineer Lagutenko would go on to develop the K-7 five-story series, which would embody both the advantages and drawbacks of Khrushchev's architectural policy.

PANELS INSTEAD OF BLOCKS

While various types of frame-based constructions were being tried out in the new developments near the Peschanye Streets and Khoroshevskoe Highway, a silent construction revolution unfolded just a few hundred meters to the west on 6th Oktyabrskoe Pole Street, later renamed Marshala Biryuzova Street. Building number 7, designed by a Special Architecture and Construction Office team consisting of Zoya Nesterova and Lybov Vrangel and led by Andrey Burov’s disciple Natan Osterman, had no need for a frame: its large panels were self-supported. The same method was later employed for large-scale development of five-story residential buildings across the entire country.

7 Marshala Biryuzova St. One of the kitchens inside still has an original pre-installed drying rack.
7 Marshala Biryuzova St. One floor below, the original kitchen furniture and sink have stood the test of time.
7 Marshala Biryuzova St.
7 Marshala Biryuzova St.
19/2 Kuusinen St.
7 Marshala Biryuzova St. One of the kitchens inside still has an original pre-installed drying rack.

The design for a U-shaped building utilized transversely aligned load-bearing walls providing three points of horizontal support. The central building had seven floors, while its two wings were five-stories high. Local residents have a legend that the building was originally meant to be inhabited by the subordinates of notorious secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, but they refused to live there. Instead, architects and engineers were happy to move into the new apartments, which were pre-equipped with kitchen furniture. Andrey Bunin, editor of General Architecture History, was the most famous person to live in the building.

Architect Elena Pozharskaya, who has lived in the building since 1970, shares her thoughts:

“The building was constructed in two phases. First, the central, seven-story section was assembled, and then two five-story buildings were added, one on each side. The panels were cast right here in the courtyard. Recently, when they were replacing radiators, they accidentally tore off a chunk of the wall and discovered cigarette butts, a cufflink, and other junk inside. We’ve had large-scale renovation going on for three years now. All the pipes are sealed within the walls with a single access window.”

The building was the first one in the SM-01 series (SM stands for Moscow Project Series). All completed model SM-01s were constructed in the Oktyabrskoe Pole District. Besides the first building, the SM-01 series include 17 and 19 Raspletin Street and a six-entrance house at 41 Marshala Biryuzova Street. Round ventilation openings at the attic level and unusual, pilaster-masking panel seams are among the distinctive features of this series.

POST-STALINKA OR PROTO-KHRUSHCHEVKA?

Natan Osterman focused on other things besides panels. Using his teacher Andrey Burov’s pre-war experiments, Osterman, together with Yakov Dichter, Vladimir Kalafatov and Sergey Lyaschenko, designed a series of eight-story buildings with external walls made of large cinder blocks nearly half a meter wide. The series was called the II-04. II-05, a shorter, five-story version of the II-04 without elevators and garbage chutes, occasionally used brick. II-08, another brick series, featured three-meter-high ceilings.

A block of five cinder block II-04 buildings (88, 90, and 92 Koroshovskoe Highway, 2 Zorge Street and 1 Kuusinena Street) was built next to the Kuusinen-Khoroshovskoye intersection.

4/1 and 4/3 Kuusinen St. The building facing Very Voloshinoi Street has six stories due to the uneven terrain.
4/1 Kuusinen St.
4/1 Kuusinen St.
4/1 and 4/3 Kuusinen St.
4/1 Kuusinen St.
4a/1 and 4a/2 Kuusinen St. II-08 was the last series featuring Stalinka apartment standards.
4a/1 and 4a/2 Kuusinen St. Initial plans called for expanding the road to build a large boulevard similar to the one at 2nd Peschanaya Street here.
4/1 and 4/3 Kuusinen St. The building facing Very Voloshinoi Street has six stories due to the uneven terrain.

A closer look reveals that the beige eight-story buildings on Khoroshevskoye Highway have different ledges. On one building they are rounded and decorated with sunflower art, while the adjacent building features a simpler design with a rectangular pattern. Architect Aleksandr Svirsky helped Natan Osterman design a collection of blocks with relief patterns. These blocks, however, were mostly used for decorating building entrances. In the middle of a large courtyard, a generic Soviet girl-with-a-pitcher statue still stands among apple trees.

The even side of Kuusinen Street starts with brick buildings from the II-05 (2 and 4 Kuusinen Street) and II-08 series (4a Kuusinen Street). Olga Mayer lives in one of Osterman’s brick five-stories built near Polezhaevskaya Station:

“These buildings did not initially have elevators; they were installed later on. When they were installing plastic window frames during the 2000s, they pulled out old newspapers and a jacket from inside the wall. Things which I once saw as a benefit have been turning into disadvantages. The planning is weird, any attempt to fix anything causes a number of issues, the walls and the ceiling are tilted, the wiring is funky. The building is popular among immigrants due to its proximity to the city center and the neighbourhood status. This is also a drawback, I would say.”

Besides at Polezhaevskaya, II-04 cinder block models can be found near the Sportivnaya and VDNKh metro stations and near the middle section of Varshavskoye Highway. II-05 was the series of choice for developments near the Universitet metro station, the 11th block of Novye Cheremushki District, and the Maryina Roshcha District. In the 1950s Novye Cheremushki became the new playground for mass development experiments. The 9th block, designed by Natan Osterman’s team, became the prototype for the micro-districts built in the next few decades.

Text: Dmitriy Goncharuk
Photos by Gleb Leonov
Translation: Philipp Kachalin