Constructivism, a 20th-century Soviet architectural style, has recently regained the attention of Russia’s art and design community. After years of dilapidation, 20th-century Constructivist buildings like the Red Banner Textile Factory are being restored, while new developments pay homage to the old style. By examining the use of Constructivism in the early 20th and 21st centuries, I will argue that preservation of the Red Banner Textile Factory and the construction of Constructivist-style buildings reflect Russia’s effort to showcase the country’s new political and social ambitions.
Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet socialist state, used architecture as a medium to advance socialist ideology. In 1926, the Leningrad Textile Trust invited German architect Eric Mendelson to design the Red Banner Textile Factory in the Petrograd District. The Soviet Union favored Mendelson’s departure from styles predominant at the time: Classicism, Medievalism and Art Nouveau, all of which were associated with aristocratic decadence and the inherent corruption of tsarist power. Mendelson incorporated abstract forms and concrete into his designs to evoke an imposing sense of practicality and the here-and-now.1 The architect’s avant garde vision complimented Constructivism’s geometric and conservative style that emerged from the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Lenin used Constructivism as a mechanism to advance the radical growth of socialist ideology. As Constructivism did away with pomp and extravagance, those who saw these buildings – and these buildings were placed in very public settings – were supposedly inspired to reject the same bourgeois culture in their own lives in favor of collectivization.
Despite an ambitious start, Mendelson ended his contract with the Leningrad Textile Trust after only a year. The architect returned to Germany on account of constant modifications to his design by the Office for Construction of New Buildings of Leningrad Textile. In many instances, reasons for modification were attributed to the technical limitations of Soviet engineering and the union’s financial shortcomings as a backward economy. Upon returning to Germany, Mendelson wrote about his experience with the Leningrad Textile Trust, discussing the Soviet Union’s inability to meet its aspirations for a socialist future because of its short-sighted and insufficient understanding of how to run an economy and industrialize. Popular for his documentation of Soviet modernist architecture in the 20th century, English photographer Richard Pare shares Mendelson’s sentiment:
These pristine modernist surfaces were actually quite medieval in their basic arsenal of materials and techniques. They were built by peasants who had no training whatsoever. They were farmers who came into the city in the summer while their harvest was growing. Here they are trying to interpret this radically daring architectural vocabulary, and yet they’ve never held rules in their hands in their lives.2
After Mendelson left, Russian architects S.O. Ovsyannikov and I.A. Pretro supervised the remainder of the factory’s construction. Despite technical complications, the new architects maintained some of Mendelson’s structural principles through the factory’s completion. For example, Ovsyannikov and Pretro used cast-in-situ reinforced concrete structures, a popular technique in German industrial construction of the early 20th century. Ovsyannikov and Pretro also made few deviations from Mendelson’s original design for the factory’s power station. The power station is actually the complex’s boldest representation of Constructivist architecture, with its very cubist form and sparse use of exterior decoration.
Excitement over Constructivism did not last. In the following decade, Constructivism fell out of vogue in favor of Neoclassical treatments. The union also continued to struggle with the technical skills needed to maintain the Red Banner Textile Factory and buildings with similarly novel designs.3 Once prominent features in industrial and state architecture, many Constructivist buildings fell victim to neglect and disarray, especially while Joseph Stalin enforced his own building preferences. Immediately following Constructivism, the architectural landscape reverted back to trademark, arguably unimaginative, symbols of authority and order. Stalin favored elements like columns, pediments, and porticos. These all-too-familiar structures were to reflect the kind of discipline Stalin thought the ideal citizen should possess. By ushering in a new movement, variously known as Stalin’s Empire Style or Stalinist Gothic, Stalin redefined Constructivism as an aesthetic linked to outdated and ineffective statesmanship, thereby stunting the growth of a uniquely Russian art form.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Constructivism has recently earned its way back into official and public attention. In 2001, St. Petersburg officially recognized the Red Banner Textile Factory as a site of historical and cultural heritage, following a trend with other Constructivist buildings. For the first time in decades, the historical community is looking past the dilapidation of these sites and seeing the “bold forms, bright colors, and crisp, clean shapes, and the innovations that stretched existing ideas and technology.”4 In commemoration of this achievement, the factory and other Constructivist buildings in the city are being renovated, while brand new Constructivist-style buildings are claiming property developments across the city.
As St. Petersburg embraces Constructivism again, the style’s political message differs from its debut in the 1920s. By contrasting art movements and taking advantage of technological advancement, architects redefine Constructivism as a story of Russia’s new political ambitions. The style no longer encourages socialism. Rather, by actively returning to a style that was authoritatively excluded, architects use the style as rebellious, visual cue for a new political administration, particularly one that leaves dictatorship and terror in the past. Resurgence of the style’s avant garde and previously unmanageable structures also speaks to Russia’s technological progress, another mark of political and administrative reform. For most of the 20th century, Russia lacked the means and know-how to build and maintain the structural ambitions of Constructivist designs. Now, architects are not reluctant to undertake such projects. We see modern office buildings using some interpretation of the clean and abstracted design seen in the Red Banner Textile Factory. As modest classical facades begin to share the landscape with imposing steel constructions and sleek facades around the Petrograd District, residents and onlookers sense that the government is set to recognize and support modern ingenuity and growth.
Reincorporating the Constructivist style into new building sites is also evocative of new social goals. In the Petrograd District, you will find many buildings of the Soviet Classical style which became popular under Stalin. By choosing to build new offices and residencies in the Constructivist style rather than Soviet Classical style, architects are consciously deciding to make a social statement over visual cohesion. Reviving Constructivism speaks to the new state’s efforts to lend a positive side to its dark past. Present-day architects focus on the ingenuity of Constructivism to promote pride for Russian culture, rather than accept the style as a purely Soviet aesthetic that linked to socialization. As it becomes acceptable to redefine architectural meaning, it becomes okay to see the past and future differently. Perception should inspire confidence, unity, and stability among Russians. Constructivist architecture thus represents Russian resiliency and creative spirit in forming a social identity.
As I took the bus from the Primorskaya area of Vasilevskii Island to St. Petersburg State University, I also saw new buildings in the Constructivist style. In the surrounding areas of the university, most buildings have a more European taste – embedded columns, floral trimming, Classical treatments – and completely lack the modern take of Constructivism. When revival of Constructivism is understood as an effort to encourage advancement and restore Russia’s creative ambitions, this area seems like the perfect setting for Constructivist buildings. With the university and handful of museums nearby, Constructivist buildings seem to reiterate the tone of political agency and social rejuvenation in the area.
Constructivism is a strong symbol for Russia’s political and social renewal because it uses canons of earlier art movements that created political and social commentary. For example, the imposing weight, ship-like curves and simplicity of the Red Banner Textile Factory’s power station are reminiscent of a 4th century audience hall in Trier, Germany. The Roman Empire’s ruling tetrarchs built many simple, large-scale works, using architecture to intimidate and impress their subjects. Both buildings have a flat roof and a strong directional focus, creating an austerity that stimulates feelings of control and discipline. Moving around St. Petersburg, the Constructivist buildings I have seen have all been large, austere, and are clearly visible from a distance. Today, as in the past, Constructivist buildings are meant to be noticed and have their message internalized.
Constructivism also shares attributes with the work of Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. In 1913, Malevich founded Suprematism, an abstract, pictorial art movement based on geometric figures. The movement conveyed the pure sensations of creative art and rejected representing the world through literal forms. In place of chromatic harmonies and formal compositions, Suprematism turned to flat geometrical shapes and bold color combinations. A truly Suprematist piece was decongested, free of all signifying forms, and moved viewers to reflect on their own thoughts. As with Suprematism, Constructivism abstracts form to designate an enlightened sense of reality. In the early 20th century, the enlightened sense of reality was that of socialism. However, more so than Constructivism, Suprematism embraced romanticism of the early revolutionary years over functional issues.5 Today, abstract forms are used to clash against conformity and obstacles to individualism.
The roots of the Constructivist spirit are also apparent in Germany’s Dada movement which started in 1916 as a post-World War I cultural effort against the barbarism of war and society’s intellectual confinements. Dadaist pieces are well-known for their irrationality and obvious rejections of conventional art, features that forced viewers to find personal meaning and reflect on their own reality. Dada gave form to theconfusion felt by many who thought WWI destroyed all order. Constructivism trolled a similar path to becoming a highly interpretive art by fighting mainstream aesthetics to critique culture and politics. Constructivism’s meaning is still very dependent on the individual’s internalization of the style. As Constructivism is an architectural style and limited in its range of literal abstraction, the style may create disjointed conceptualizations like Dadaism by placing a building among buildings of different or opposing styles.
While Constructivism was taking shape in Russia, the Bauhaus-style was forming in Germany. Founded in 1919, this German school of architecture melded fine art and architecture, combining craft design with industrial production to speak to a higher form of art. Also referred to as the International style, Bauhaus is recognized for its glass curtain walls, cubic blocks and unsupported corners. The simplicity and truncated design of Bauhaus-style buildings is similar to Constructivism. However, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school, claimed that Bauhaus differed from Constructivism in that Bauhaus had no links to political radicalism and was entirely apolitical. The fact that you can take two very similar designs and claim they mean two very different things shows great freedom in interpreting architectural design. Thus, using Constructivism as a modern symbol is very reliant upon the history and present context of specific buildings.
Constructivism is a present-day symbol for Russia’s political and social ambitions. By reinvoking a style that was once rejected by Stalin and technically impractical, architects represent shifting politics, whereby the country has abandoned oppressive tactics and improved its technical might. Architects are also able to reinvent the Constructivist style as an emblem of Russian ingenuity and resiliency by focusing on the uniqueness and innovativeness of an old Soviet style, instead of the social homogenization that the style initially encouraged. Constructivist buildings like the Red Banner Textile Factory show how memories and old symbols can always be modified.
No memory or symbol is preserved perfectly for eternity. Two blocks away from Smolny Cathedral is a statue of the Cheka’s first leader, Feliks Dzherzhinskii. The stately figure long stood in the middle of a large square, surrounded by a great amount of urban development, and a central area of the then Leningrad government and Communist Party (the Smolny region). It would surely be only a matter of time before the old Soviet statue would be uprooted and replaced with a new apartment complex. That the statue was once highly revered is increasingly irrelevant because most Russians have been turning their backs on the Communist past, and particularly on figures like Dzerhzhinskii. Yet the statue still stands.
In Raiso, Finland, architect Artto Palo Rossi Tikka constructed a library auditorium in 1999. The building’s geometric quality and decorative modesty could easily pass as another Constructivist building akin to those in St. Petersburg. However, I would not dare to pass the same judgments I made about Russian Constructivism onto this building. While there may be many Constructivist-inspired buildings elsewhere in the world, Russia’s interpretation of the style is the country’s own. Architecture is a very versatile medium for conveying different messages, even without physically changing form. The time, place, and audience for any building are enough to wholly change its symbolism. Thus, there’s no telling the shelf-life of today’s interpretation of Constructivism. A symbol is interactive.