Rooted in Russia: The Wide Reach of Soviet Architecture
Image by Richard Pare

Rooted in Russia: The Wide Reach of Soviet Architecture


Inextricably bound to political doctrine and irrefutable in its global creative influence, Russia has gifted the world with cultural dignitaries from Tchaikovsky to Trotsky. As its most populous metropolitan area, Moscow is naturally an epicentre of Russia’s output of great thinkers and the city became seminal in the birth of abstract art, from constructivism to suprematism, following the October Revolution of 1917. Facilitated by artistically liberating social policy implemented by Soviet leader Lenin, the foundation of progressive art schools such as the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK) and VKhUTEMAS Higher Art & Technical Studios in 1920 laid 20th century blueprints for multiple engrossing creative factions, whose impact has diffused unequivocally throughout modern culture.

Painter, photographer and lecturer Alexander Rodchenko taught at VKhUTEMAS, and along with architect Moisei Ginzburg, was responsible for sowing many of the seeds that grew into the post-modern art movement. Initially rooted in cubist and futurist compositions, their school of thought gravitated away from traditional art of the easel towards graphic design, photomontage, and an overarching movement rooted in architecture and photography. Ginzburg is credited as one of the pioneers of constructivist architecture, most notably through his authorship of Style and Epoch (a.k.a. the “manifesto” of constructivism) in 1923. Style and Epoch is considered one of the most influential books on architecture of the past century. Dotted around Moscow are monuments attesting to the widespread influence of constructivist innovation, with structures such as Melnikov House, Shukhov Tower, the Izvestia Buildings, and Ginzburg’s own Narkomfin.

The development of a symbiosis between architecture and popular culture in 1920s Russia is notable in avant-garde cinema of the time, as its contemporaries first began to foray into film as an artistic medium. This is particularly prominent in Aelita , a 1924 science fiction movie adapted from Aleksey Tolstoy’s novel about space travel, and an exercise in flaunting constructivism to the masses. Germany’s Metropolis (1927) shares multiple cinematographic parallels with Aelita , making use of photomontage techniques inspired by Rodchenko. An expressionist cut, Metropolis preceded the Art Deco and Bauhaus movements of the Weimar Republic much like Ginzburg, et al preceded the rise of soviet brutalism. Moscow’s greater global creative influence during the 20th century’s formative decades was subsequently a direct or indirect inspiration for feature-lengths by Ridley Scott, Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock.

Image: The Red List

Stemming as a direct consequence of constructivism, it was Le Corbusier who coined the term “béton brut” for the brash, robust, and imposing structures that came into prevalence in the 1950s. Alison and Peter Smithson typified the popularisation of this architectural style in the United Kingdom, and “brut” was anglicised into brutalism. The brutalist movement itself was originally spawned as a response to WW2, in an attempt to encourage social cohesion and the expansion of the welfare state. It also acted as a critique of modernist architecture which was deemed to be overtly whimsical. There is, therefore, an undeniable irony in its modern-day association with communist dystopias, considering it perhaps best reflected the most desirable traits thrown up by socialist regimes: creative freedom and unity amongst communities.

Image: The Moscow Times

One perspective on how the view of them as totalitarian and repressive monoliths arose, can be pinned on the widespread political activism of the 70s. Commissions for brutalist buildings were going out of fashion by the late 1960s, and students organising anti-establishmentarian marches considered their overwhelming, labyrinthine layouts to be symptomatic of authorities conspiring to stifle their right to protest. Béton brut maintains a palpable presence on today’s University campuses, but isolated from the tensions of the cold war, perhaps has lost its identity, whether positive or negative.

Image: Igor Kazus

The infancy of globalisation allowed for the osmotic flow of creativity between Moscow, Berlin and London, synthesising constructivism, expressionism and brutalism. Globalisation and a politicised youth also eventually brought about its decay a generation later. Possibly reflecting the rise of global capitalism in place of past communist ideologies, brutalism is perhaps a vessel for hosting the politics of the time. Its buildings may be steadfast in their foundations, but stoicism is its best trait. It moves with the times and belongs to none.