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Soviet Constructivist Architecture

Photographs by Vova Pomortzeff

Yekaterinburg was once fantastically lucky. It happened shortly after the Russian Revolution when a quiet provincial town in the Ural Mountains was renamed to Sverdlovsk and began to turn rapidly into an important centre of Soviet industry. At the same time, for a very short period constructivism became an official architectural style of the Soviet state. By coincidence there were the years when a large group of eminent constructivist architects worked here. They were allowed to realise their most ambitious architectural projects. As a result a huge number of world-class architectural monuments were built in the city in the 1930s. Today Yekaterinburg counts approximately 140 constructivist buildings. There is no other place in the world with similar concentration of Soviet constructivist architecture. However the future of this unique architectural ensemble is very uncertain. Yekaterinburg is notorious among Russian cities for the most barbaric attitude toward its architectural heritage. The building boom of the last decades has almost buried remnants of traditional Russian wooden architecture in the city. Now developers are dealing with the last preserved stone houses of the 19th century. Constructivist buildings are next in turn. Unfortunately, the one and only ensemble of Soviet constructivist architecture has already suffered its first losses.

1. View of the historic centre of Yekaterinburg from the view point of the Antei Skyscraper.

Eight monuments of Soviet constructivist architecture are seen at once in this panoramic picture. There are only two other places in the world with similar concentration of monuments of the 20th century architecture. The constructivist ensemble of Yekaterinburg can be justly compared with the city of Chandigarh in India designed by Le Corbusier or with the new Brazilian capital of Brasilia designed by Oscar Niemeyer. The following constructivist buildings are seen in the picture: the First City Soviet House, the House of Communications, now the Central Post Office, and the Uralsnabtorg Building (the Ural Supply and Trade Trust) in Lenin Avenue; the House of Physical Culture, now the Dinamo Sports Complex, and the apartment house of the Unikhim (the Ural Chemical Research Institute) at the embankment of the City Pond; the House of Old Bolsheviks and the House of the Chekist in 8th March Street; and the Uralsnabsbyt Building (the Ural Supply and Sale Trust), now the Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts, in Karl Liebknecht Street.

 

2. The former dormitory of the Quarter of the Chekists, now the Iset Hotel.

The Quarter of the Chekists, or Gorodok Chekistov, was designed by architects Ivan Antonov and others as a dwelling complex for members of the Soviet secret police, commonly known as the Chekists. The architectural ensemble of fourteen buildings covers the entire city block between Lenin Avenue and Pervomayskaya Street. It was built in 1929–1936. Local legend says that the Quarter of the Chekists looks from above like a hammer and sickle, framed by revolution banners, thus that the Iset Hotel presents a sickle, the nearby Dzerzhinsky Club presents a hammer and the apartment buildings form banners. In fact the likeness with a hammer and sickle is questionable. In spite of that, many architects from around the world arrive to Yekaterinburg to see the famous monument of Soviet constructivism with their own eyes. Unfortunately, the Quarter of the Chekists is now in a very poor condition.

 

3. The spiral staircase of the Dzerzhinsky Club in the Quarter of the Chekists, now the Sverdlovsk regional museum of local history.

The club was named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the infamous founder of the Soviet secret police. The spiral staircase is one of the few surviving interiors of Soviet constructivist architecture. Pentagram in the shape of the five-point star appears in the ceiling, and the staircase itself is twisted counter clockwise, despite unwritten architectural rules. Other interiors of the Dzerzhinsky Club were damaged seriously during the last reconstruction of the building for the museum.

 

4. The House of Communications in Lenin Avenue, now the Central Post Office.

The building was designed by architect Kasyan Solomonov in 1934. One more local legend claims that the post office was built in the shape of a tractor. Today the titular monument of Soviet constructivist architecture in Yekaterinburg is wrapped with advertisements from all sides, so it's almost impossible to recognize what it looks like.

 

5. The courtyard of the Gostyazhpromural Communal Buildings in Lenin Avenue.

The dwelling complex for the State Heavy Industry Trust, better known among the citizens as the Comb Houses, was built in 1931–38 by architects Georgy Valyonkov and others. The complex, spreading out like a huge comb on two city blocks, has eight symmetrical six-storey apartment buildings, united with public facilities in the courtyard.

 

6. The House of Physical Culture, now the Dinamo Sports Complex, at the spit of the City Pond.

The building, looking like an ocean liner with an observing tower on the roof, was built in 1931–34 by architect Veniamin Sokolov, one of the most important figures of architectural avant-garde in the Urals. In the 1980s the Soviet authorities planned to demolish the architectural monument in order to clear the space for a memorial to the victims of the Second World War. However the citizens were able to defend one of the main symbols of the city.

 

7. The large operating room with a huge constructivist window in the delivery and gynaecology department of the Medical Quarter, now the Research Institute of Maternity and Infancy Protection.

The building was designed by architect Georgy Golubev, another classic of Soviet constructivist style in the Urals. It was built in 1929–1930 together with other buildings of the Medical Quarter, which spread on several city blocks. The amazing wooden window frame of about 50 square meters has survived till our days miraculously. The institute does not have enough money to order a plastic double glazing window of this size. Previously the large operating room also had inner balconies, so the students of the nearby Medical Institute could observe operations.

 

8. The north facade of the delivery and gynaecology department of the Medical Quarter.

The project of the Medical Quarter by architect Georgy Golubev supposed to have eight separate buildings. Only six were built. The future of this outstanding example of Soviet constructivist architecture is alarming. There are plans to erect two skyscrapers, called the Guards of the Urals, for the 2018 FIFA World Cup just a couple of meters from the institute. Developers have already started saying that the building of the institute should be demolished to clear access roads to the skyscrapers as well as to the Central Stadium, where some qualifying matches of the World Cup could be played.

 

9. The morning meeting of the stuff of the Research Institute of Maternity and Infancy Protection in the Great Hall of the Academic Council of the delivery and gynaecology department of the Medical Quarter.

 

10. The typical for constructivist architecture round window in the entrance hall of the delivery and gynaecology department of the Medical Quarter, now the Research Institute of Maternity and Infancy Protection.
 

 

11. The House of Justice, now the Sverdlovsk regional court, and the dwelling house for justice stuff in the Quarter of Justice.

The Quarter of Justice designed by architect Sergey Zakharov was built in 1932 in the outskirts of the city, next to the Sverdlovsk regional jails. At the same time the Medical Quarter was bult across the street from the Quarter of Justice. The construction of such large complexes of buildings, united with a single function, was an absolutely innovative architectural idea for the 1930s. It has been fully realized by European architects in the second half of the 20th century only.

 

12. The so-called snail-house, the former kindergarten of the Quarter of Justice.

One of the most interesting and also very little known monuments of Soviet constructivist architecture is hidden in the courtyards of the Quarter of Justice, between the garages of local inhabitants and the fence of the Sverdlovsk regional jails.

 

13. Children play ice hockey in the inner courtyard of the Quarter of the Chekists, or Gorodok Chekistov.

Another local legend says that there is a secret shooting gallery under the ice hockey court, where executions of the local inhabitants took place during the Stalin's era. The theory about an unknown underground space at this place is confirmed indirectly by the fact that there are no any civil utilities under the court in any blueprint. Another fact is that Ivan Antonov, the chief architect of the Quarter of the Chekists, did not tempt fate and escaped from the Soviet Union to Finland before the complex was completed. The former dormitory for members of the Soviet secret police, now the Iset Hotel, is seen in the background. The building designed by Ivan Antonov was constructed in 1932–1934.

 

14. Olga Teterina, a widow of the Soviet secret police officer, in her apartment in the Quarter of the Chekists.

Olga Teterina is 92 years old now. She moved to this apartment in the Quarter of the Chekists with her husband before the Second World War. Typical three-room apartments for the high command of the Soviet secret police had living space of 97 square meters, an incredible living space by Soviet pre-war standards. At the same time there were no dedicated kitchens or bathrooms in the apartments. Public dining room and public bathhouse were located in the inner courtyard of the Quarter of the Chekists. According to the new conception of socialist communal life Soviet people should have shared their privacy with others. So the inhabitants of the Quarter of the Chekists were obligated to eat and wash together. The Quarter of the Chekists had also its own health centre with pharmacy, own kindergarten, own laundry and shops and even own local radio station.

 

15. Bathroom combined with kitchen in the apartment of Olga Teterina in the Quarter of the Chekists.

Private kitchens and bathrooms have appeared in the Quarter of the Chekists as a result of post-war reconstructions only, when the ideas of socialist communal life had lost their actuality. However there was no space stipulated for bathrooms and kitchens. Somewhere it was possible to combine kitchen with bathroom, in other apartments kitchen facilities were placed in the entrance hall.

 

16. The apartment building of the Quarter of the Chekists in Pervomayskaya Street.

The Quarter of the Chekists has the official status of the national architectural monument of Russia and perhaps could easy qualify for UNESCO World Heritage List. However the facades of its apartment buildings have been waiting for renovation for several decades. Owners of apartments on the upper floors are uncontrollably replacing original wooden constructivist frames with plastic double glazing windows of random configurations and colours.

 

17. Fashion designer Darya Fedotova and DJ Artyom Derbenyov, current residents of a typical two-room apartment in the Quarter of the Chekists. The old style furniture preserved in the apartment reminds of the years when only the members of the Soviet secret police could live here. Common mortals did not dare even enter the inner courtyard of the Quarter of the Chekists.

 

18. Railing of the public staircase, typical for local constructivist architecture, in the apartment building of the Quarter of the Chekists.

 

19. The apartment building of the Quarter of the Chekists in Lunacharsky Street. In recent years the apartments on the ground floors were rebuilt intensively for shops and offices with separate entrances, not very polite with constructivist architecture.

 

20. Architect Boris Demidov shows the scaled model of the Builders' Club.

The constructivist Builders' Club designed by architect Yakov Kornfeld was built in 1930 across the street from the Quarter of the Chekists. The architectural bureau of Boris Demidov provided the last reconstruction of the monument for a shopping mall. The architect was able to convince the owners to save the constructivist staircase and to install double glazing windows of dark plastic and of the shape repeating the original wooden frames. Despite all this, the architectural monument can be seen today in old photographs only. The building itself is now completely wrapped with signboards and advertising, so it's impossible to recognize even an allusion of clear geometric forms of constructivism.

 

21. The abandoned Soyuzkhleb Building in Bankovsky Lane.

The building for a state grain trading company was built in 1926–29 by architect Georgy Valyonkov. Later it housed a state insurance company and a pharmaceutical plant. The architectural monument has been abandoned the last few years and is becoming ruins rapidly. The nearby shopping centre 'Mytny Dvor' ('The House of Strangles') is seen in the background. It was constructed on the site of the original house of strangles, the architectural monument of the 19th century, demolished mysteriously in one night in the mid-1990s. This practice of illegal night demolitions of architectural monuments is still very popular among developers in Yekaterinburg. There is a high risk that the Soyuzkhleb Building will be also demolished illegally once to make space for a new shopping centre.

 

22. The House of Defence in Malyshev Street surrounded by new buildings.

The House of Defence was designed in 1934 by Georgy Valyonkov, one of the key constructivist architects in the Urals. Until recently the building dominated the middle of the square, as the architect planned it. Now one of the most important constructivist monuments of the city has almost disappeared among the new buildings. The nearby business centre was designed of the same height with the architectural monument first. However, as it often happens in Yekaterinburg, when the building was finished it was twice as high as it was planed somehow. At the same time, one of the side wings of the House of Defence was demolished allegedly 'by accident'. Meanwhile, the doubtful replica of the Great Zlatoust Church has grown on the other hand. The original church had stood approximately at this place formerly and was demolished by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s. Even though the original blueprints of the church did not survive, it's considered that the height of the bell tower was 77 meters. The modern replica has 65 metres only for unknown reason, and the proportions of the church itself are not very similar to old photographs. There are plans to erect a second business centre nearby with the demolition of another side wing of the architectural monument.

 

23. Lecturer of the Ural State University Alexander Igumnov shows the old photograph of the constructivist building of the Sverdlovsk regional committee of the Communist Party taken in the 1930s by his grandfather Alexander Igumnov.

Geologist Alexander Igumnov was one of the first students of the Ural Mining Institute and one of the best experts on Ural jaspers. The grandfather was an enthusiast amateur photographer also and left behind a remarkable collection of photographs of constructivist buildings. Constructivist monuments in the photographs of Alexander Igumnov look exactly as they were designed by architects, with ideal and clear geometric forms rising like huge white towers above one-storey houses. The building of the Sverdlovsk regional committee of the Communist Party was designed by architects Sergey Zakharov and others. First Russian president Boris Yelstin worked in this building in the 1970s as the first secretary of the Sverdlovsk regional committee of the Communist Party.

 

24. The House of Physical Culture, now the Dinamo Sports Complex, at the spit of the City Pond, surrounded by new buildings.

The architectural monument, owned by the Ministry of the Interior, is going through the hard times today. Most of the original interiors have been lost already during several renovations and reconstructions. Original window frames have been uncontrollably replaced with double glazing windows. As a result almost every window of the main building has a plastic frame of different colour and shape.

 

25. Training of sambo wrestlers in the main hall of the Dinamo Sports Complex.

 

26. The north facade of the House of Physical Culture, now the Dinamo Sports Complex.

 

27. Apartment blocks of the Uraloblsovnarkhoz Communal Buildings in Malyshev Street.

The complex was built in 1930–1933 by architect Moisei Ginzburg, one of the ideologists of Soviet constructivism. It embodied his idea of the 'communal houses of transition period', when family life was not completely destroyed yet as it was assumed in the 'ideal communal houses'. Moisei Ginzburg believed that inhabitants of the 'communal houses of transition period' would enjoy his new ideas of everyday life and gradually move into the 'ideal communal houses'. The complex of the Uraloblsovnarkhoz Communal Buildings has four five-storey apartment blocks and one eight-storey dormitory, on the top floor of which a public dining room and an outdoor terrace were located. Similar communal buildings were designed by Moisei Ginzburg for Moscow and Saratov.

 

28. The bridge connecting the public dining room and the roof-top solarium on the next building in the complex of the Uraloblsovnarkhoz Communal Buildings designed by architect Moisei Ginzburg.

 

29. The dormitory in the complex of the Uraloblsovnarkhoz Communal Buildings designed by architect Moisei Ginzburg.

Originally there were almost no walls on the ground level, so the building was hanging up on the columns, opening the way from the street into the courtyard. And the open-air terrace was along the entire top floor. Free space on the ground level and the terrace had disappeared during the post-war renovations. There were six inhabited floors in the building, but with only two corridors on second and fifth level. There were no normal apartments in the building also. Each family lived in the typical two-level living unit, the so-called 'Cell F' designed by Moisei Ginzburg. The architect planned to settle the entire country in those living cells. The cells were connected with the corridors by small inner staircases. Today the legendary living cells are used as offices. It's worth to notice that many ideas of Moisei Ginzburg realized in this and other projects in the 1930s, including roof-top solariums and living units, were used 20 years later by architect Le Corbusier in his Unité d'Habitation.

 

30. The Gostyazhpromural Communal Buildings in Lenin Avenue.

 

31. The courtyard of the Gostyazhpromural Communal Buildings in Lenin Avenue.

 

32. The factory management building of the Uralmash Factory on the Square of the First Five Year Plan.

The Uralmash Factory, the biggest machine factory in the Soviet Union, was constructed nine kilometres north of the city centre in the 1920s and 1930s. The factory management was built by architects Peter Oransky and others in 1933–1935. Peter Oransky, a young graduate of the Leningrad Institute of Architecture, also led a group of architects who designed the general plan of the workers' settlement around the Uralmash Factory. The work started in 1928. As a result there was a project of an ideal socialist town with three main streets radiating like sunbeams from the factory main entrance on the Square of the First Five Year Plan.

 

33. The Palace of Culture of the Uralmash Factory, originally the communal kitchen of the Uralmash Factory.

The building was designed by architects Moisei Reisher and Valery Paramonov with the assistance of Béla Scheffler. German architect Béla Scheffler, a graduate of the legendary Bauhaus School, had escaped from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union and joined the group of Peter Oransky in the Uralmash Factory in 1932. Ten years later he was arrested and executed as a German spy on false charges. The communal kitchen of the Uralmash Factory was built in 1929–35. It was converted into the Stalin Club of Workers shortly before the Second World War. Later the club was renamed as the Palace of Culture of the Uralmash Factory. Today one of the most impressive constructivist buildings in Yekaterinburg isn't even listed officially as an architectural monument.

 

34. Dancing master Maria Semyonova conducts classes of the Assamble Dance School in the Palace of Culture of the Uralmash Factory. One of the few survived constructivist window frames is seen in the background.

 

35. The staircase of the Palace of Culture of the Uralmash Factory decorated with minerals mined in the Urals mountains. The decoration is the result of the conversion of the communal kitchen of the Uralmash Factory into the Stalin Club of Workers.

 

36. The constructivist school in Red Partisans Street in the workers' settlement of the Uralmash Factory.

The school also wasn't proclaimed as an architectural monument in due course. As a result during the last renovation it has lost all its constructivist interiors designed by German architect Béla Scheffler. Unfortunately, only a third of constructivist buildings in Yekaterinburg are listed officially as architectural monuments.

 

37. Constructivist water tower in the workers' settlement of the Uralmash Factory, better known as the White Tower.

The competition for the best design for the water tower was won by Moisei Reisher, a 25-year-old graduate of the Siberian Institute of Technology. The White Tower became one of the symbols of the city and one of the best known examples of Soviet constructivist architecture in the world. Unfortunately the remarkable monument has been abandoned for the last decades. There are plans to place a planetarium in the tower, which are still just plans.

 

38. Roman Bayanov, a student of the Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts, works in his room in the dormitory.

The picture of the constructivist Dynamo Sports Complex decorates the wall of the room along with posters of favourite football teams. One of the paradoxes of Yekaterinburg is that one of the Russia's leading architectural schools is based in the city. Students of the Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts are trained on the best examples of Soviet constructivist architecture. Many of them continue to work in Yekaterinburg after the study. However a large number of qualified architects for some reason do not appear positively on the new buildings in the city as well as on the condition of the heritage of Soviet constructivist architecture.

 

39. Embankment of the Iset River in Yekaterinburg.

The picture shows a typical example of modern urban situation in the city, where skyscrapers are growing like huge mushrooms over the historical centre, among the miraculously survived remains of historical monuments. The chimney of the Lutch Electric Power Station, the monument of industrial architecture from the beginning of the 20th century, is used as a cellular radio tower. The Vysotsky Skyscraper, the tallest building in Russia outside Moscow, sticking out absurdly over the city skyline, was built on the site of two architectural monuments of the 19th century, demolished illegally.

 

40. Constructivist round windows in the facade of the House of Physical Culture, now the Dinamo Sports Complex.

 

The photographs of this feature were shot in winter 2011 in Yekateriburg, Russia. Special thanks for the assistance to the head of the Ural Centre of Architecture of the Modern Movement under the Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts Ludmila Tokmeninova, to docent of the Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts Larissa Shashkina, to architect Boris Demidov and to inspector of the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Monuments of History and Culture Oleg Bukin.

Copyright © 2011 Vova Pomortzeff  

 
   
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