Early Soviet Art and Architecture Thrived Out of the Ruins of War

In the 1920s, Soviet artists and architects were inspired by grand visions of a new society. But years of civil war tumult had left the country’s productive capacity in ruins. So they made do with little — and a new aesthetic was born.

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, which was never built, was emblematic of a broader tension in the newly formed Soviet Union. (bluebus/Flickr)

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International was supposed to be a triumph of both industrial production and machine aesthetics.

Designed in 1919 as a celebration of the Bolshevik revolution two years earlier, the building was a radical departure from Western architectural norms. Rotating the main steel structure of the tower 23.5 degrees while removing all unnecessary supports, the colossus on the banks of the Neva was conceived as both a symbolic monument and functional skyscraper for the newly formed Communist International, or Comintern.

If built, it would have been a modern marvel. But the tower was impossible to build. Not only was there a steel shortage in the Soviet Union, but in Petrograd there were scarcely enough nails to complete the timber maquette.

The context of Tatlin’s tower reveals a broader tension in the new Soviet Union. On the one hand, Russian avant-garde artists and architects of the 1920s had an ambitious new social and aesthetic vision. On the other hand, the entire nation faced concrete material limits on production, making that vision hard to achieve.

The Russian Civil War had destroyed much of the Soviet Union’s building material industries, greatly diminishing brick, glass, timber, and cement production. Factories and industrial plants were left ruined, while skilled industrial labor was scarce and dispersed. To remedy this situation, the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced by Vladimir Lenin sought a mixed socialist-capitalist economy that merged centralized planning and forms of decentralized commodity exchange.

These limitations heavily influenced the vocabulary of Russian art and architecture at the time. What we recognize today as Soviet constructivism is a unique product of both the ambitious vision of the new nation and the material constraints it faced as it struggled to be born.

New Existence

In the years to come, Tatlin would channel his energy into designing usable objects grounded in the everyday lives of workers. The story of Tatlin’s turn from speculative design to the manufacture of practical, modest objects is described in Christina Kiaer’s brilliant book Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism. Looking specifically at constructivism — the Soviet art movement in which Tatlin was a leading figure — Kiaer argues that the material constraints on production in this period radically impacted Soviet society, including inspiring the creation of “socialist objects.”

A main proponent of the production of socialist objects was movement intellectual Boris Arvatov. In Arvatov’s thinking, socialist objects would stand in stark contrast to the mystified and “dead” nature of commodities under capitalism.

Rethinking relationships with objects encountered in everyday life — their functions, materiality, how they are designed, and the social relations of their production — ultimately meant rethinking how life could be reorganized under socialism. Arvatov’s ideas intersected with the 1920s campaign to develop new daily customs, practices, and habits that would transform domestic life in the Soviet Union — a project sometimes called novyi byt, where novyi means “new” and byt roughly translates to “everyday existence.”

After failing to build his tower, Tatlin took to redesigning the traditional log stoves that were part of ordinary life in Russian villages, revamping them with “maximum heat with minimum fuel” for workers. This project was a good outlet for his energies given the constraints on production, and it also fit into a broader trend of artists experimenting with socialist object design.

Likewise, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, partnering with constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko, created politicized advertisements for chocolate, bread, and cigarettes, while the artist Liubov Popova designed highly popular mass-produced dresses made from cheap textiles at the First State Cotton-Printing Factory in Moscow.

Tatlin may have turned his attention away from buildings for the time being, but constructivist architecture was still alive and figuring out new ways to work with the material limitations that had prevented the completion of Tatlin’s tower.

As the Association of Modern Architects (OSA), the architectural branch of constructivism, set about designing the emerging spaces of socialist domestic life, architects made do with little. This was the case with Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow. An experiment in architectural design that responded to what Alexei Gan had argued was the inadequacy of capitalist spatial arrangements, Narkomfin was intended to be a prototype for housing communes that could be replicated across the Soviet Union.

Narkomfin itself would host two hundred people from various social and class backgrounds. Its design challenged the domestic division of labor, where social reproduction was traditionally foisted on women, through collectivized on-site childcare and communal housework spaces.

The workers’ club at Putilov, converted from a church. (Modern Architecture)

While Ginzburg spoke about Narkomfin in the soaring Soviet rhetoric of industrial production and machinic rationalization, the reality of the construction was far more ad hoc, reflecting material shortages in Moscow. Narkomfin was the first residential building in the Soviet Union to use a poured concrete frame. On the one hand, this was an innovation; on the other, it was born out of necessity, given the scarcity of ordinary building materials.

Narkomfin blended avant-garde theory and cutting-edge design with cheap materials and techniques adapted to the social conditions in which it was built. Blockwork infill was used for the external walls, not mass produced but cast by hand on the construction site using slag concrete and recycled scrap metal. These were influenced by modernist architectural experiments in Germany, but they also referenced traditional Russian “peasant” block-building techniques.

Insulation was made from straw, while all internal walls were made from timber, and sawdust cement was used to cover the floors. The building speaks more to proto-industrial manufacturing methods than metaphors of smooth industrialized machine production. The resulting building was distinctly constructivist, with its combination of ambition and thrift.

Clubs and Collectives

The same tension between expansive vision and limited resources came to bear on OSA town planning. In 1923, Yekaterinburg became the administrative center for the industrial Ural Mountains region. Renamed Sverdlovsk, it entered a dramatic phase of construction, with OSA greatly influencing the formal and aesthetic characteristics of the development. Experiments in communal housing, administration buildings, workers’ clubs, sports centers, and cinemas looked to replace traditional domestic life with modern and collective forms of byt.

But with the city in recession, architects had to resort to any and all available materials, often recycling and repurposing existing nineteenth-century buildings. Construction focused mainly on the center of the city and, as architectural historian Tatyana Budantseva has suggested, existing buildings were often semi-demolished, with ground floors becoming the base for new constructivist designs. Churches were dismantled, their bricks and wood recycled.

The experimental “capital of constructivism” in its initial days was not rolled out from a factory but stitched together and salvaged from the wreckage of the old. Again we see that the avant-garde aesthetic of the period was not only responsive to but inextricable from the limitations on material production.

Meanwhile, workers’ clubs dedicated to the education, recreation, and relaxation of workers were popping up across the nation.

Often run by trade unions or political groups, these clubs thrived on direct participation from members, reflecting large-scale trade union activity. The architect and historian Anatole Kopp has written on how workers clubs often spontaneously sprang up in houses, churches, and sheds, and how this situation represented a challenge for architects who were designing both new buildings and converting existing spaces.

For example, OSA architect Alexander Nikolsky was approached by workers at the Putilov Factory in what was then Leningrad to repurpose a church. The Putilov workers had agreed to hold “shop meetings everywhere,” close the church near their factory, and convert the building to a workers’ club. Removing the church’s belfry and dome and stripping the interior, Nikolsky managed to miraculously source glass to create a strange, faceted structure that was attached to the church’s front facade. The name of the new factory club, Club Red Putilovets, was painted on the front. In this process, the classical church was transformed into a bold, modernist, and collective space.

The Narkomfin building in the 1930s. (Robert Byron / Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander Rodchenko’s iconic workers’ club interior, built for and exhibited at the 1925 Paris Exposition, included a range of spaces for workers’ education and relaxation. Referencing his early Spatial Construction series, Rodchenko created a series of lightweight, transformable structures that included designs for bookcases, movable display units, projection screens for presentation, a chess table, and a reading space. The furniture was made from cheap painted timber in consideration of the exhibition’s budgetary constraints.

As Kaier writes, these were “not bona fide examples of the newest mass-produced technological inventions” as displayed in other pavilions at the exposition but “represented Constructivism’s overall commitment to coping with the material scarcity of the NEP economy by eliminating waste and excess.”

Avant-Garde Afterlife

Barring Yekaterinburg, constructivist architectural design was not mainstream in the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, most new buildings were low-rise brick apartment blocks, schools, and cafeterias built using traditional methods. Large-scale commissions were rare. By the time the full infrastructure of industrialization existed, Joseph Stalin’s sanctioned socialist realism had become the dominant Soviet aesthetic, edging out the avant-garde.

In the years since, the Russian avant-garde has proved influential to a host of neo-avant-garde groups that have often stripped the work of any radical content. A cosplay constructivism has been an enduring feature of contemporary architecture in the West. The movement’s formal design methodology has been appropriated and popularized by architects like Rem Koolhaas, and then emulated endlessly to the point where we’re surrounded by images influenced by constructivism without realizing their source.

The novelty, however, of the Russian avant-garde can’t be simplified to pure exercise in form. What lent constructivism its unique character was its proximity to the experience of revolution — the difficult and exhilarating task of building a new world out of the debris of the old.