Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985, An Anthology
Felix Novikov and Vladimir Belogolovsky
Being at the crossroads or as Russians would say, “na rasputie,” is what seems to be the recurrent symptom of Russian architecture. The constant search for identity often takes a larger cultural meaning when the entire nation finds itself lost in an ambiguity of what Russian style is, and in the end always turning West in the search for answers. The cultural period described in Soviet Modernism: 1955–1985 by Felix Novikov and Vladimir Belogolovsky, represents what seems to be one of such turning points in the history of Russian architecture, a period often described as belated modernism, a mere copy of the Western modernist movement. However, both authors quickly prove that it was also a time for great ingenuity and independence of ideas.
The publication, structured as a catalog or “album” in Novikov’s words, presents a wide-ranging view into an area of Soviet architecture largely unknown and underrepresented, a hand-selected collection of one hundred projects framed by two essays (with English translations). One is an introduction, a personal account by Novikov, a direct eye-witness to the changing architectural scene of the 1960s. He shares his experiences working as an architect during the Soviet Union’s transition from Stalin’s reign to Khrushchev’s “thaw,” and ultimately to the collapse of the system. The concluding essay by Belogolovsky, an architect and critic of the younger generation, summarizes the reader’s experience of the well-annotated catalog of images, suggesting the vast undiscovered potential of this architectural period “now only beginning to be revealed” as he writes.
Spanning the 1950’s to the 1980’s (with a few examples of architecture from the 1990s), the catalog includes a broad range of modernist projects. Although many of them have never been published in the West, their architectural expression comes as no surprise to those familiar with the aesthetic of modernism. Large scale urban, institutional, residential, or public buildings, in their monumental abstraction are related to their western counterparts at first sight. What makes them remarkable however, is their inevitable role as signifiers of a radical political and cultural shift within the Soviet Union when Khrushchev had denounced Stalin’s Socialist realism as wasteful, expensive, and overindulgent, abandoning it in favor of a rational, economic, and broad-based industrialization of design and construction. According to Novikov, “Even the great Corbusier himself would sign such a directive in principle.”
Overnight, the new leader set the stage for the Soviets’ own take on modernism, even though it was not entirely independent of the West. Soviet architects went to the United States and Europe to study architectural, material, and technological developments that took place outside the Iron Curtain. But then, those same architects continually strived to develop an individual style of their own. Soon after, driven by a severe housing shortage, the newly adopted Soviet modernist movement was forced to produce entire new cities, changing the socialist urban landscape forever. What is of interest here, as Belogolovsky points out, is that many programmatic types, such as private houses, corporate headquarters, and banks, to name just a few, did not exist in the Soviet Union, so the Soviet architects were deprived of what was a rich field of experimentation for their western counterparts. Novikov argues that instead of employing the non-existent potential of programmatic variety, many Soviet modernist projects derived their unique and radical expressiveness from the vast country’s multi-national culture and the large diversity of climates and landscapes. This helped shape some of the stylistic differences, together with the inevitable return to constructivism that remains an undeniable root at least for some of the projects presented in the catalog.
Such historical framing makes the publication especially worthwhile as a visual collection of truly outstanding and radical architecture. Two such examples are the Ministry of Highways building in Tbilisi, Georgia of 1977 and the Sanatorium Druzhba in Yalta, Ukraine of 1985. Both could easily qualify as iconic buildings even today and may have served as inspiration for many projects designed in the West. Soviet Modernism, although occasionally making inevitable comparisons to the West, demonstrates the independence and strength of Soviet architecture developed under enormous constraints, but in debt to great political ambitions. One can only hope that in the future, Soviet modernism can be given its own place, and perhaps, even name in history, entirely independent of the West.