A guide to the Soviet modernist legacy of Chisinau

The majority of the Soviet architectural legacy in Moldova has not made it onto the list of heritage sites. Some structures are now in a dilapidated state, and hardly anyone cares about preserving them. The disbandment of design institutes after the fall of the Soviet Union only worsened the situation – most archival documents were transferred to private ownership. Only the architects who developed the designs can tell us more about Chisinau Soviet modernism. Strelka Magazine met some of them, their children, and their students to collect information about the most interesting Soviet buildings in Chisinau. 

Seventy percent of Chisinau was destroyed during World War II.  One of the top Soviet architects, Alexey Shchusev, developed the master plan for the restoration and reconstruction of the city. Specialists from all over the USSR were invited to the capital of the Moldavian SSR in the 1960s to create a local architectural school. New design solutions and building technologies had an enormous influence on the way the city looks today. However, there are no movements for the preservation of architectural heritage in contemporary Chisinau. The master plan is currently not adhered to – historical sites get demolished and renovated, and new construction is chaotic. Only the BACU Association’s Socialist Modernism project and architecture enthusiasts  devote their attention to the current state of Chisinau’s Soviet architecture.

CITY GATE

Address: 50 and 51/1 Dacia Boulevard

Architects: Yuri Tumanyan, Yulia Skvortsova, Anatoly Spasov, A. Markovich

Period of construction: 1977-1980

The idea of erecting two multilevel residential buildings and the symbolic concept of the “City Gate” on the road from the airport belong to Yuri Tumanyan, who was appointed head architect of the Kishinevgorproekt design institute in 1975. But his wife and colleague Yulia Skvortsova and the institute’s team were the ones who designed the buildings. It was quite an innovative project for those times: the multilevel, completely symmetrical 24-storey buildings (70 meters in height) resembled opened gates. The complex provided high-speed elevators and apartments with unusual layouts and two balconies. New building technologies, such as monolithic climbing formwork, allowed for creating new levels in the construction every two storeys. There was also a master plan for two blocks on both sides of the boulevard. However, the architect’s vision was never fully realized: Perestroika prevented the creation of the planned infrastructure.

People still live in the City Gate. If you search the web for Chisinau, images of these buildings are the first thing to come up. They are considered the most recognizable architectural symbol of the city.

ROMANITA TOWER

Address: 29/1 Ion Casian Street

Architect: Oleg Vronsky, engineer A. Marian with O. Blogu, S. Krani, N. Rebenko, P. Feldman

Period of construction: 1978-1986

The building popularly known as 'Romanita' – which means "daisy" – is located on the outskirts of the Rose Valley park, next to the Republican Clinical Hospital. According to the project’s head architect Oleg Vronsky, the construction of this architectural masterpiece was inspired by the famous housing complex Marina City, built in Chicago in 1964.

There are plenty of myths about the building’s purpose. One version states that it was intended to be a health resort for the staff of the Ministry of Construction. According to another one, Romanita was conceived as a hotel. Some also say that a restaurant, spinning on its axis, was supposed to be set in the architectural structure on top of the tower. However, architect Oleg Vronsky clarified in one of his interviews that there were no such technologies in Chisinau at the time. 

The 73-meter-high building is the highest residential building in Chisinau. The composition is formed by a round volume incorporating 16 residential storeys and 4 storeys of technical facilities (as was stated in the design: laundry rooms, spaces for drying, cleaning, and ironing clothes, and storerooms). The tower had been considered a dormitory until 1997 – later its legal status was changed to “residential building.” 

In early 2017, Romanita was included in a project by a Polish design studio, Zupagrafika – the designers released a series of paper models called Brutal East. The illustrated cardboard pieces can be assembled into seven models of buildings that represent the modernist architecture of Eastern and Central Europe in the second half of the 20th century. 

THE NATIONAL OPERA AND BALLET THEATRE OF MOLDOVA

Address: 152 Stefan cel Mare Boulevard

Architects: N. Kurennoy, A. Gorshkov; sculptors V. Novikov, N. Sazhina, B. Dubrovin, G. Dubrovina

Year of construction: 1980

Moscow architects were in charge of the construction of the The National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Moldova. According to Chisinau former head architect Anatoly Gordeyev, it was supposed to be a standard design, but the volume had to be increased because of the wide terraces surrounding the building. Otherwise, it would seem lost in the territory of a large block. 

The simple spaces of the opera house are connected in the central section of the audience hall and the lobby. The theatre was installed on a high stylobate; it is surrounded by rectangular pillars, which form open summer terraces. The columns support a massive copper frieze, decorated with an engraving by sculptor V. Novikov. The main entrance from Stefan cel Mare boulevard is highlighted by a wide grand staircase. Bas-reliefs of muses by sculptors B. Dubrovin and G. Dubrovina are placed on marble walls on both sides of the entrance.

Two decorative fountains located symmetrically by the entrance were placed on the square in front of the theatre. Marble, granite, metal, and Cosauti stone (the best decorative and building stone in the country is extracted in Cosauti village, northern Moldova) were used for the facade. The building is windowed along the perimeter. The theatre can accommodate 1200 visitors. The group sculpture “Muses”, created by the artist Nelly Sazhina, was placed in the lobby on the first floor. Light plaster ornamentation, marble and granite facing, murals, tapestries, and ceramics are widely distributed throughout the interior. The walls of the audience hall are finished with wood. Concerts and festivals, including the famous “Maria Biesu Invites” festival, are still held in the theatre.

THE PRESIDENTIAL PALACE

Address: 154 Stefan cel Mare Boulevard

Architects: Yuri Tumanyan, Arkady Zaltsman, Viktor Yavorsky

Year of construction: 1987

The Presidential Palace is located two blocks away from the central square of the city. The building was constructed on the site of an 1833 German Lutheran Church. The palace is one of the last government constructions of the Soviet period. It was originally intended to accommodate the Supreme Soviet of the MSSR. Due to the importance of the palace’s purpose, the architects of the Presidential Palace took into account the natural seismic factors – it can withstand earthquakes with a magnitude of up to 9.0 (Chisinau’s frequent earthquakes reach 8.0 at most). 

According to Alexander Boyarchuk – the architect who began working on the palace’s design with Yuri Tumanyan – the design was inspired by a church in Latin America. Tumanyan enlarged it so that it turned into a tall tower made of glass and concrete. The facades are covered with plates made of white stone. Three staircases leading to the front entrance are faced with red and black marble. A wide stair landing – the basis of the architectural ensemble – serves as a pedestal. 

The palace was heavily damaged during the riots of 2009. It is still under repair. The building is closed; no events are held there today.  

THE PALACE OF THE REPUBLIC (FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE FRIENDSHIP HALL)

Address: 16 Maria Cebotar Street

Architects: Ivan Zagoretsky, Alexander Shevtsov, Mikhail Orlov, Stanislav Makarchuk

Year of construction: 1984

Chisinau’s Reception Hall nearly collapsed after the severe earthquake of 1977. The anniversary of the Moldavian SSR was approaching (it turned 60 in 1984). Thus, it was decided to construct a new building in its place. The goal was to develop a design of the complex that would incorporate several halls (with 550, 80, 40, and 30 seats), an inn, a dining unit, and a few service rooms.

It was expected that not only republican, but also Soviet and international  events would be held here. As this was slated to become a landmark of Chisinau, the architects were challenged to bring the flavor of Moldovan culture into the design. Ivan Zagoretsky said that the team was given grand opportunities: marble and granite were brought from deposits in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine; art glass – from Riga; glass units – from the GDR; and crystal chandeliers – from Czechoslovakia.

Today the Palace of the Republic hosts conferences, meetings, and workshops. The management actively rents out its halls. Also, when the building of the Moldovan Parliament was under renovation (from 2009 to 2014), lawmakers gathered in the Palace.

THE CIRCUS

Address: 33 Renasterii Boulevard

Architects: Albina Kirichenko, Semyon Shoykhet

Period of construction: 1978-1982

There were no circuses in Chisinau until 1982: all the performances used to take place in mobile tents. It wasn't until the second half of the 1960s that the Soviet Union allocated funds for the construction of the circus to mark Chisinau’s 530th anniversary. It took the architects three years to create the design (from 1965 to 1968), but the construction only began in 1978. Originally, the building was designed as a monolith, but when it became clear that the allocated funds were insufficient, the group decided to use prefabricated structures.

The team that worked on the design wanted the circus to differ from the standard designs suggested by the Moscow Institute for the Design of Entertainment and Sports Facilities. The architects of the “Moldgiprostroy” design institute managed to convince the Minister of Culture of the USSR, Yekaterina Furtseva, to let them develop their own design for the Chisinau circus. They decided to construct it in the shape of a basket that would gather the guests. Sturdy inclined pylons were placed along the perimeter – their rhythm and scope bring expressiveness and monumentality to the whole composition. There are also mosaic images of animals and bright murals on the walls and on the floor. 

The structure of the building allowed for a special arena for rehearsals that would give the artists an opportunity to work on their new program or warm up during someone else’s performance. It is quite rare for circuses to have a second arena. Troupes from all over the USSR  came to the circus to develop their new programs.

A large group sculpture made by Matvey Levinson was installed above the main entrance in 1988. The sculptor depicted two acrobat clowns greeting the visitors. The sculpture was included in the List of Protected Landmarks of the Republic of Moldova on June 22, 1999. The Chisinau circus was recognized as the most beautiful and comfortable circus in the USSR; it was also awarded the fourth place in that category worldwide. “Soyuzgostsirk” considered the construction the best one of all the stationary circuses in the world, based on its grand building technologies and organization. 

After the fall of the USSR, the number of performances in the circus decreased. In 2004 it was closed for renovations for an indefinite period, the windows were broken and boarded up with cardboard, and the mirrors were shattered – only devastation and desolation are now left of this incredible architectural masterpiece. In 2008 the government signed a 29-year contract with a Cypriot company, Pesnex Developments Limited. The company was supposed to finance the renovation and technical maintenance of the circus, but the obligations were not fulfilled. In 2011 the Court of Appeal found the contract invalid and the circus became the property of the State once again. And yet, the renovation is still incomplete. 

This material was prepared with support from Center for Urbanism.

By Margarita Morar
Translated by Olga Baltsatu
Photos by Anton Polyakov