Saint Petersburg


Utopian Buildings


The heyday of avant-garde architecture in the USSR was in the 1920s and 1930s. That period saw the appearance of around a hundred constructivist-style buildings, most of which are now acknowledged monuments of architecture.

Constructivism occupied a relatively short period in the history of Soviet architecture — less than ten years, but it was an extraordinarily fruitful time when architects were able to come up with very bold designs, creating a socialist utopia in reinforced concrete that was centred not on the individual but on the commune. Researchers have noted that Leningrad had its own original style of constructivism.

The Narva District House of Soviets (18 Pr. Stachek), built between 1930 and 1935, was one of the first examples of the Leningrad avant-garde. The architect of this imposing structure was Noah Trotsky, a leading figure in constructivism and later in Stalinist neoclassicism. Galleries supported by columns link the main block with three auxiliary blocks. The extensive four-storey structure is crowned by a 50-metre tower with balconies and a stained glass bas-relief featuring the sacral symbols — the hammer and sickle. The building’s foundation is formed of a monolithic reinforced concrete frame, which makes it possible to ribbon-glaze the whole facade of over a hundred metres in length. The supporting columns of the main block reflect Le Corbusier’s then popular concept of column-piles.

The same Noah Trotsky, in collaboration with Solomon Kozak and Lev Ilyin, designed another imposing monument of the time — the Kirov Palace of Culture (83 Bolshoy Pr., V.O.), which became the largest cultural-educational centre in the city: in 1933, four years before its construction was officially completed, it already housed a library, a theatre, children’s clubs and sports halls. The Palace of Culture was designed as a strictly constructivist structure with large windows in the facade. However, the end result was a symbiosis of constructivism and the neoclassicist style that was just coming into fashion.

The Power Substation of the Red Banner Factory (57 Pionerskaya Ul.) was the only constructivist building in the USSR designed by the German architect Erich Mendelsohn. The substation, built in 1926 on the corner of Pionerskaya and Korpusnaya Streets, is reminiscent of the wheelhouse of a ship sailing into the bright socialist future. It was originally planned that Mendelsohn would supervise the construction of the whole factory complex, but he and his Soviet colleagues did not see eye to eye. As a result Mendelsohn even renounced his status as the architect.

The Moskovsky District Soviet (129 Moskovsky Pr.) was built between 1931 and 1935 to a design by architects Igor Fomin, Valentin Daugul and Boris Serebrovsky. The dominant feature of the long asymmetric structure is a round five-storey block containing a spacious lobby with five-level galleries and balconies. The rooms are arranged around the outer circular perimeter. For many years the lobby-atrium enjoyed superb natural light on account of a conical glass cupola, but this was replaced by an ordinary roof in the 1970s. The overall severity of the building’s appearance is alleviated by unobtrusive elements of art deco.

The First Lensoviet Apartment Building (13 Nab. Karpovki) was also designed by Igor Fomin, this time in collaboration with Evgeny Levinson, and was built between 1931 and 1934. It was designed to accommodate the party elite from Smolny — 76 apartments of two to six rooms with no kitchens but with built-in furniture and bathrooms. The architecture and design of the outside space was carefully thought-out so as to guarantee privacy. Particular attention was paid to the decor (untypical of constructivism as a whole), even if it was understated — for example, the bas-relief of a footballer on a small annexe to the facade and the fence on the Literatorov Street side in the form of a trellis with fragmentary moulding, on the other side of which is a covered veranda.

When the world-famous architect Zaha Hadid visited St. Petersburg in 2004, the first building she asked to see was the Tower of the Red Nailer Factory (4 25th Line, V.O.). Not only Hadid but many other celebrated 20th century architects regarded its designer, the artist and architect Yakov Chernikhov whose “books of architectural fantasies” are now acknowledeged classics, as their “godfather”. The tower is a model of Soviet avant-garde architecture and an instructive example of the potential of reinforced concrete. The whole tower really does look like a nail, the factory’s raison d’être.

St. Petersburg has quite a few other surviving buildings which are unique in their own way but reflect the general rational aesthetic of constructivism. The residential buildings include the legendary “Tear of Socialism” (7 Ul. Rubinsteina), built in 1927 with a communal dining-room on the ground floor and a kitchen block, and the “Svirstroy” Specialists’ Residential Building (14-16 Ordinarnaya Ul.), outstanding for its colour that is untypical of constructivism. Another factory which is an example of avant-garde architecture is the Kushelevsky Bakery (11 Politekhnicheskaya Ul.)

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