CONSTRUCTIVISM

For the 15 or so years of its existence, from the first years of Soviet power to the early
1930s, Constructivism endeavored to alter conceptions of architectural space, to create an
environment that would inculcate new social values, and at the same time to use
advanced structural and technological principles. Paradoxically, the poverty and social
chaos of the early revolutionary years propelled architects toward radical ideas of design,
many of which were related to an already thriving modernist movement in the visual arts.
For example, El Lissitzky’s concepts of space and form, along with those of Kazimir
Malevich (1878–1935) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953), played a major part in the
development of an architecture expressed in “stereometric forms,” purified of the
decorative elements of the eclectic past. The experiments of Lissitzky, Vasily Kandinsky,
and Malevich in painting and of Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) in
sculpture had created the possibility of a new architectural movement, defined by
Lissitzky as a synthesis with painting and sculpture.
In its initial phase, Constructivism was closely associated with radical design studios.
The preeminent institution was named VKhUTEMAS (the Russian acronym for “Higher
Artistic and Technical Workshops”), following a reorganization of the Free Workshops in
1920. In 1925 it was reorganized yet again, subse quently to be called the Higher Artistic
and Technical Institute (VKhUTEIN). VKhUTEMAS-VKhUTEIN was by no means the
only Moscow institution concerned with the teaching and practice of architecture in the
1920s, but it was unique in the scope of its concerns (which included the visual and the
applied arts) as well as in the variety of programs and viewpoints that existed there before
its closing in 1930.
Theoretical direction for VKhUTEMAS was provided by the Institute of Artistic
Culture (INKhUK, also founded in 1920), which attempted to establish a science
“examining analytically and synthetically the basic elements both for the separate arts
and for art as a whole.” Its first program curriculum, developed by Kandinsky, was found
too abstract by many at INKhUK, and Kandinsky soon left for Germany and the
Bauhaus. However, the concern with abstract, theoretical principles did not abate with
Kandinsky’s departure.
Indeed, the issue of theory versus construction became a major source of factional
dispute in Russian modernism. The crux of the debate between the rationalists, or
formalists, and the Constructivists lay in the relative importance assigned to aesthetic
theory as opposed to a functionalism derived from technology and materials.
Constructivist ideologues maintained that the work of the architect must not be separated
from the utilitarian demands of technology. The Constructivist theoretician Moisei
Ginzburg (1892–1946) accused the rationalists of ignoring this principle.
ASNOVA, the main rationalist group that included Nikolai Ladovsky (1881–1941),
Vladimir Krinsky (1890–1971), Nikolai Dokuchaev (1899–1941), and for a time
Lissitzky, countered by accusing the Constructivists of “technological fetishism.” Yet
both groups shared a concern for the relation between architecture and social planning,
and both insisted on a clearly defined structural mass based on uncluttered geometric
forms and drew inspiration from modernism in painting and sculpture.
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The importance of “pure” artistic experiments in spatial constructions to the evolution
of the principles of Constructivism is demonstrated in the work of Alexander Rodchenko,
who in 1921 defined construction as the contemporary demand for organization and the
utilitarian application of materials. Equally influential was the work of Lissitzky and
Malevich, whose abstract architectonic models (Lissitzky’s “Prouns,” and Malevich’s planity or
arkhitektony) represented the ultimate refinement in “pure” spatial forms. For Malevich,
architectonic forms were a logical extension of his “Suprematism.” Even as art (and
sculpture) continued to exert a profound influence on the development of modern
architectural design, so architecture came to be seen as the dominant, unifying element in
a synthesis of art forms.
The most dramatic expression of artistic form as a function of material
revealed in space was Tatlin’s Utopian project for a monument to the
Third International (1919–20), intended to be 400 meters in height, with a
spiral steel frame containing a rotating series of geometric forms. The
monument was dismissed as technologically infeasible when the large
model constructed by Tatlin was brought to Moscow for exhibition and
discussion. Yet the designs of Tatlin, Lissitzky, and other architects and
students at the VKhUTEIN workshops gave notice of a new movement
that glorified the rigorous logic of undecorated form as an extension of
material and that intended to participate fully in the shaping of Soviet
society.

Commissariat of Agriculture (1929–
33) by Aleksei Shchusev, MOSCOW

In the early 1920s, the evolution of Constructivist ideas at INKhUK passed through a
number of polemical phases (the term konstruktivizm was still broadly interpreted and had not yet
acquired the “functionalist” architectural emphasis of the mid-1920s). The pure-art
faction, influenced by Kandinsky, was opposed by the “productionists” (associated with
the Left Front of the Arts), who anticipated an age of engineers supervising the mass
production of useful, nonartistic objects. A reaction to both sides, particularly the former,
led in 1921 to the formation of a group of artists-constructivists: Alexander Vesnin,
architect; Aleksei Gan, art critic and propagandist; Rodchenko, sculptor and
photographer; Vladimir and Georgii Sternberg, poster designers; and Varvara Stepanova
(1894–1958), artist and set designer.
Until 1925 the Constructivists had little more to show in actual construction than their
more theoretically minded colleagues, the rationalists. The exigencies of social and
economic reconstruction drastically limited the resources available, particularly for
structures requiring a relatively intensive use of modern technology. In fact, the most
advanced of Constructivist works in the early 1920s were wooden set designs by
Alexander Vesnin, Varvara Stepanova, and Liubov Popova.
By 1924 Constructivist architects, whatever their tangible achievements, had acquired
vigorous leadership in the persons of Alexander Vesnin and Moisei Ginzburg. In 1924
Ginzburg’s book Style and Epoch appeared in print and established the theoretical and historical base
for a new architecture in a new age, devoid above all of the eclecticism and aestheticism
of capitalist architecture at the turn of the century. The following year the Constructivists
founded the Union of Contemporary Architects (OSA), and in 1926 the Union began
publishing the journal Contemporary Architecture, edited by Ginzburg and Vesnin.
Perhaps the most accomplished example of the functional aesthetic is Ginzburg’s own
creation, the apartment house for the People’s Commissariat of Finance (1928–30) at
Narkomfin, designed in collaboration with Ivan Milinis. The smaller scale of the
Narkomfin building (intended for 200 residents) contributed only marginally to a solution
for resolving the urban housing crisis, but it illustrates Ginzburg’s statements on the
necessary interdependence of aesthetics and functional design, from the interior to the
exterior. Built to contain apartments, as well as dormitory rooms arranged in a communal
living system, the interior was meticulously designed, like that of many Constructivist
buildings. The main structure, adjoined at one end by a large block for communal
services, rested on pilotis (now enclosed), and the structure culminated in an open-frame
solarium. The front, or east, facade of the building is defined by the sweep-ing horizontal
lines of window strips and, on the lower floors, of connecting balconies.
Ginzburg’s concept of functionalism for the Narkomfin project shows similarities to
the work of Gropius and De Stijl. The closest affinity, however, is with Le Corbusier’s
notion of the Unite d’Habitation. (Le Corbusier and Ginzburg were personally
acquainted, and in 1927 the French architect was included on the board of Contemp orary Architecture.) Larger
communal apartment buildings of the period were necessarily less refined in detail, yet a
few examples, such as Ivan Nikolaev’s massive eight-story dormitory (1000 rooms, each
six square meters, for 2000 students) built in 1929–30 on Donskoi Lane in south
Moscow, were strikingly futuristic in the streamlined contours of their machine-age
design.
Other notable examples of Constructivist architecture in Moscow include the Izvestiia
Building (1927) by Grigory Barkhin (1880–1969), the Zuev Workers’ Club (1927–29) by
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Ilya Golosov (1883–1945), the State Trade Agency (1925–27) in Gostorg by Boris
Velikovsky (1878–1937), and the Commissariat of Agriculture (1929–33) by Aleksei
Shchusev (1873–1949).
The most productive proponents of Constructivism were the Vesnin brothers: Leonid,
Viktor, and Alexander. Among their most significant works are the Mostorg Department
Store (1927–29), the club for the Society of Tsarist Political Prisoners (1931–34), and a
large complex of three buildings (1932–37) to serve as a workers’ club and House of
Culture for the Proletarian District, a factory and district in southeast Moscow.
Constructivism was by no means confined to Moscow. Many other Soviet cities, such
as Leningrad, Nizhnii Novgorod (or Gorky), Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Kazan, and
Kharkov, saw the implementation of major projects that illustrated the extent to which
ideas developed by the Constructivists had been assimilated into architectural practice. In
Kharkov a massive complex of several buildings known as the State Industry Building
(Gosprom, 1926–28) was designed by an architectural team headed by Sergei Serafimov
(1878–39). In Sverdlovsk, whose entire city center was redesigned with the participation
of architects such as Moisei Ginzburg, a large housing and office development known as
Chekists’ Village (1929–38) was designed by I.Antonov, V.Sokolov, and A.Tumbasov.
In Leningrad, which under the direction of Sergei Kirov had begun to recover from its
precipitous economic and political decline following the revolution, Constructivist
architecture was particularly noticeable in the design of administrative and cultural
centers for the city’s largest outer districts, where workers’ housing was under
construction. (The historic central districts of the city remained largely intact by virtue of
a comprehensive preservation policy and the limited resources of an abandoned capital.)
One of the earliest examples of Constructivism in Leningrad was the Moscow-Narva
District House of Culture (1925–27; later renamed the Gorky Palace of Culture) by
Alexander Gegello (1891–1965) and David Krichevsky. Essentially a symmetrical
structure designed around a wedge-shaped amphitheater of 1900 seats, the compact
building demonstrated the beginnings of a functional monumentality dictated by actual
circumstances—ignored in the earlier Workers’ Palace and Palace of Labor competitions.
The construction of a number of model projects occurred in the same district,
including workers’ housing (1925–27) by Gegello and others on Tractor Street, and a
department store and “factory-kitchen” (1920–30; to eliminate the need for cooking at
home) in a streamlined early Bauhaus style by Armen Barutchev (1904–76) and others,
and the Tenth Anniversary of October School (1925–27) designed by Alexander
Nikolsky on Strike Prospekt. The centerpiece of the district (subsequently renamed
Kirov) was the House of Soviets (1930–34) designed by Noi Trotsky (1895–1940). Its
long, four-story office block, defined by horizontal window strips, ends on one side in a
perpendicular wing with a rounded facade and on the other in a severely angular ten-story
tower with corner balconies.
A similarly austere, unadorned style emphasizing the basic geometry of forms was
adopted by Igor Ivanovich Fomin (1903–) and A.Daugul (1900–41) for the Moscow
District House of Soviets (1931–35) on Moscow Prospekt. Yet the facade, composed of
segmented windows of identical size, signifies the repetition of an incipient bureaucratic
style rather than the streamlined dynamic of earlier Constructivist work.
Despite the appearance of late examples of Constructivist architecture, such as the
Pravda Building (1931–35) by Panteleimon Golosov (1882–1945), Soviet architectural
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 576
design during the 1930s increasingly adopted historicist approaches to the articulation of
structure, whether derived from variants of neoclassicism or skyscraper Gothic. Only in
the 1960s did critical interest in Constructivist concepts and innovations begin to revive.
Although the Constructivist legacy was long ignored in the Soviet Union, it must be
emphasized that Constructivism and the related art of the avant-garde experienced
considerable success in Europe. Lissitzky, who spent 1922–25 in Germany, served
admirably as a propagandist for the movement, and ties between INKhUK and the
Bauhaus were close. During the 1920s many Russian artists active at VKhUTEMAS and
INKhUK visited the West (Kandinsky, Malevich, Gabo, and Pevsner), while Western
architects visited, and in many cases worked in, the Soviet Union (Bruno Taut, Ernst
May, Erich Mendelsohn, and Le Corbusier). Exhibitions of modernist Soviet art were
held in various European cities as well as in New York, and Western journals, such as L’Es prit Nouveau
and De Stijl, wrote of Constructivism and of the latest developments in Russian architecture.
Western interest in the legacy of Constructivism continues to this day in the form of
numerous publications and major museum exhibitions devoted to the work of the
Constructivists.
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