Soviet architecture: a revolution within the Revolution

As part of The Independent series commemorating the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Oliver Bennett looks at the radical architecture that emerged at the time

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Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik, 1920
Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev, Bolshevik, 1920

To be a tourist in Russia is to wallow in the glorious imperial past: the stupendously-sized Hermitage in St Petersburg, the onion domes of St Basil’s in Red Square, Moscow.

To even think this could be the case in the 21st century would have been anathema to Russia’s revolutionary artists and architects. One hundred years on, the Revolution of 1917 – and the birth of the Soviet Union – is bringing forth a slew of exhibitions and activities that seek to understand and interpret the Revolution and its aftermath through its art and architecture, and there’s an elegiac quality to them.

About to open in the new and improved Design Museum in London is Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution – looking back at all the unrealised post-revolutionary plans to recreate Moscow in the 1920s and 30s. The Royal Academy is currently showing Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 while in November, Tate Modern’s Red Star over Russia looms over Bankside – a collection of “early experiments and diverse practices that formed a new visual culture for a nation that covered one sixth of the Earth”.

A serious interest in revolutionary architecture has come out of the shadows. “The period has been recognised in art but not so much in design and architecture,” says curator Eszter Steierhoffer of the Design Museum. “That’s changing as people see that there were new ways of living that are radical and relevant today.” As the revolution developed, the old dachas, palaces and domes were supplanted as a generation state set about the transformation of the cities, enabled by a series of motivating “isms”: Suprematism, Futurism, Productivism and, most importantly, Constructivism.

Some you can’t see – the Lenin Tribune by El Lissitzky and Tatliflan’s Monument to the Third International, which would have been particularly stupendous – a proposed 400m tower to rotate on four planes: a cube once a year, a pyramid once a month, a cylinder daily, plus a hemisphere for radio equipment (if you went to the Royal Academy’s Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture … in 2011 you’ll have seen a model). […]