Soviet Modernism: Moscow's Ten Beautifully Ugly Buildings

PHOTO by Sergey Bobylev / TASS
Afisha.Daily presents ten landmark buildings spanning the period from Khrushchev to Gorbachev

District Nine, Novye Cheryomushki

A Soviet dream of urban family housing come to life: small private apartments instead of cramped communal flats

This experimental building became the first Soviet community development project built around small, single-family flats. The Special Architecture and Design Bureau, or SAKB, started work on the project long before the famous decree issued by the Communist Party’s Central Committee in June 1957, which aspired to resolve the housing crisis in the next 10 to 12 years. Despite its modest size, the site in Novye Cheryomushki in southwest Moscow set new standards for residential design in the USSR, pioneering various innovations ranging from the structure of apartment buildings and landscaping to bathroom equipment and built-in cupboards.

District Nine provided housing for 3,030 residents – not many, given that later residential projects would be able to accommodate up to 80,000. It consisted of 13 four-storey apartment buildings and three eight-storey towers. The towers were designed to maintain some symmetry with the already existing eight-storey high-rises in the area. The four-storey housing structures, scattered around five interconnected yards, defined the unnamed roads they stood along, roads that later became 60-letiya Oktyabrya Avenue, Shvernik Street and Grimau Street. The residential buildings stand 12 metres away from the road, and the trees planted in front of them shielded them from the noise of traffic. The district had two supermarkets and a department store with multiple service outlets, a cafeteria with a buffet and a delicatessen, a cinema, and a kindergarten and school that took students from neighbouring areas as well.

Built from 1956–1959

Architects: N. Osterman, G. Pavlov, V. Svirskiy, S. Lyashchenko and others



Ostankino Tower

Then the world’s tallest building, Ostankino Tower came to embody the Khrushchev Thaw

The Palace of the Soviets, a Stalin-era administrative centre that was never built, was meant to mark the geometric centre of Moscow; Ostankino Tower was built on the outskirts as a tribute to the new decentralisation policy. The Palace’s design looked to the architectural achievements of the past; Ostankino Tower was uncompromisingly modern.

Both projects planned to be the world’s tallest structures by the time of their completion, with the Palace of the Soviets a proposed 420 metres in height (39 metres taller than the Empire State Building), and Ostankino Tower, at 533 metres, was the world’s tallest building for nine years until Toronto’s CN Tower surpassed it. The unprecedented Ostankino construction project, erected to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, became a source of national pride to almost the same extent as Soviet achievements in space exploration.

Built from 1959 to 1967

Architects and engineers: L. Batalov, D. Burdin, N. Nikitin, B. Zlobin, V. Travush, V. Khandzhi and others



The Pharmacy

Architecture parlante at its best: this Malevich-inspired piece of pop-art design reflects its function.

We wouldn’t call it advertising, since ads had absolutely no place in Soviet society. Moreover, the simple shape used for the building is too prominent to play such a mundane role. However, the theme of healing had powerful implications in the Soviet Union: in the absence of free religious expression, medicine was seen as the ultimate form of humanism. The cross on the pharmacy on Shipilovsky Proezd in southern Moscow has religious symbolism – the replacement of one ideal with another was quite typical for the Russian avant-garde.

The building is also a reflection of the artistic legacy of Kazimir Malevich, whose Black Cross, painted in 1915, evolved into the abstract skyscraper models created by him in the 1920s. This additional strand of meaning is seamlessly woven into the fabric of everyday communication. In the post-Soviet era, the humanist mission of the pharmacy faded like the cross itself, which is now devoid of red paint. Eventually, the pharmacy was converted into a grocery store.

Built in 1973

Architects: A. Larin, E. Asse, L. Volchek



The Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS)

The final height of the building was half that of the initial design, yet it remains one of the best examples of Soviet modernism

In an early version of the design, the upper storey of the TASS headquarters had to be constructed over the top of the adjacent Art Nouveau-style Korobkov revenue house and have similar rounded windows, both an example of sensitivity to the history of the area and a revolutionary architectural choice given the negative attitude of the Soviets to the “decadent” early 20th-century styles. Although the concept was eventually rejected, the architectural team firmly adhered to the continuity principle and they opted for windows shaped like old television sets in their next design. The image of the screen in the 1960s was still a novelty as televisions were absent from many households. The visual metaphor of presenting TV as a window on the world for the Soviet people conveyed a universal and futuristic message. It was ushering in the information age and predicted the transformation of domestic spaces. Unlike in Art Nouveau mansions, in which every gigantic window was unusual and unique, the large, rounded windows of the TASS building function as construction modules. While rejecting the idea of a prominent front façade, this modernist design recalls the familiar visual image of a common city wall.

TASS was created from the Russian Telegraph Agency, or ROSTA, and was famous in part for its propaganda posters known as “ROSTA windows.” Therefore, it is only natural that windows became the ideological centre of the TASS headquarters design, another subtle compromise between the old and the new that permeates throughout the building’s architectural design. The technological facilities, both business- and service-related, were the height of sophistication for that time: the building was the first in Moscow to be equipped with a pneumatic tube transport and a central vacuum system with outlets installed on every floor. The impressive views of Tverskoy Boulevard made up for the typical Soviet modesty of the interior, with its wooden panels, low ceilings and plywood furniture. However, the timber window frames had cracks that had to be constantly papered over to keep the wind out.

Built in 1965–1977

Architects and engineers: V. Yegerev, A. Shaikher, Z. Abramova, G. Sirota, B. Gurovish, Yu. Manevich, A. Koganov



34 Begovaya Street

This residential building combines features borrowed from Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer

Architect Andrey Meerson, wishing to stand out from his Russian colleagues, visibly gravitated towards international architectural trends and then-fashionable Brutalist aesthetics. The lifts in his residential project (unofficially known as the Centipede) on Begovaya Street are a tribute to Oscar Niemeyer’s apartment building created for the famous 1957 Interbau exhibition in West Berlin and Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London.

The Centipede’s 12-metre columns are a direct reference to Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation in Marseille. By elevating his building above the ground level in a busy, densely built-up area like Begovaya Street, Meerson managed to shield the residents of the lower floors from the noise of traffic and safeguard their privacy. Additionally, the columns enabled the traffic-polluted air to escape from the building rather than accumulate near the long façade. Another tribute to Le Corbusier’s legacy is invisible to casual passers-by: it is a car park located underground between the building and the road, exactly how the visionary French architect believed car parks should be placed. According to the initial plan, the car park would have a total of 55 spaces for 368 apartments — a generous ratio for the era that hinted at the high living standard of the potential tenants. It proved even better in reality as only 299 apartments were eventually built.

Built from 1967 to 1978

Architects and engineers: А. Meerson, E. Podolskaya, M. Mostovoy, G. Klimenko, Yu. Dykhovichnyi, D. Morozov, B. Lyakhovskiy



The Krasnaya Presnya Baths

Celebrated in Eldar Ryazanov’s immensely popular film and favoured Brezhnev, the simple pleasures of the bathhouse materialised in this building

“Go to the baths!” is a mild Russian invective equivalent to “go to hell!” However, the romantic comedy “The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath,” directed by Eldar Ryazanov and first shown on TV on Jan. 1, 1976, convinced Soviet viewers that going to the baths can be a bonding experience. The four men in the film, wrapped in white sheets instead of Roman togas while drinking and philosophising in the public baths, made the subculture suddenly visible.

The Krasnaya Presnya Baths resonate with the Ancient Roman theme perfectly, and the Baths have an element of theatricality about them. Unable to compete with the ancient Thermae of Caracalla in terms of relaxation options, the Krasnaya Presnya Baths nevertheless sought to promote the harmony of mind and body.

The Baths were built in red brick, which used to be notoriously difficult to obtain in Moscow; in fact, the only other public building constructed in the same material during that period was the Taganka Theatre. Architect Andrey Taranov obtained official permission to use red brick under the pretext that the colour red was symbolic of the glorious revolutionary past of Krasnaya Presnya. However, Taranov’s inspiration actually came from the work of Louis Khan, particularly from his Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad with its large circular windows and brick arches. The masonry of the Krasnaya Presnya Baths seems to grow right from the ground, without a plinth or apron, creating a sense of material wholeness typical of European Brutalism but with features more typical of the local style. The round window echoes the design of the ring that protects the roots of an oak tree growing in front of the building.

Built from 1972 to 1979

Architects and engineers: A. Taranov, L. Koloskova, V. Ginzburg, L. Nefedova, S. Simonova



The Taganka Theatre’s New Stage

It took so long to construct that it outlived the legendary company it was intended for

Architects who passionately admired the theatre company and its founder, the great Yuri Lyubimov, designed the New Stage for the innovative and radical Taganka Theatre. The project was shaped by the theatre’s distinct aesthetic. For example, the theatre’s performances of “Ten Days That Shook the World” started in the street outside the Old Stage, where two of the theatre’s brightest stars, Valery Zolotukhin and Vladimir Vysotsky, met the audience with revolutionary songs, while other actors, dressed up as Bolshevik soldiers, checked tickets and spiked them on bayonets. When the new building was completed, the soldiers would enter the stage right from the Garden Ring through a ten-by-four-metre window. When the window closed and the play continued, the city’s skyline was the setting. The backdrop was central to the style of the old theatre. As David Borovsky, the theatre’s former stage designer, said, the backdrop came to be associated with the Taganka in much the same way as the image of the seagull was emblematic of the Moscow Art Theatre. Compared with the theatre’s original premises, the New Stage contained numerous technological improvements. The new building was equipped with a crane that could move any set across the whole stage and auditorium. In total, the new stage offered seven transformation options: it could be lifted or lowered, in parts or as a whole; it could also be made wider or made to protrude further out. Its capabilities had to replace the simple tools the theatre had been using over the first ten years of its work.

In his struggle against censorship, Lyubimov learned to work with minimal props and equipment and made it part of his recognisable style. Yet when faced with an almost limitless technical potential, the director suddenly found himself at a loss, leading to numerous contradictory orders on his part. For example, he asked for the old auditorium to be dismantled and converted into a foyer, but soon decided against the plan, fearing this would ruin the theatre’s special atmosphere. In another case, he had the red brickwork at the back of the stage painted white, then demanded the paint washed off for his production of Boris Godunov.

The Taganka was strong enough to confront a lack of funding and constant ideological pressure from the government but, paradoxically, it proved unable to survive its new premises. Founded in December 1973, the New Stage took more than six years to construct, opening on Apr. 22, 1980. Vysotsky died four months later, without having given a single performance in the new building. Three years later, Lyubimov was stripped of Soviet citizenship and forced to emigrate. The company boycotted and reviled the new director Anatoly Efros, who was appointed to run the theatre, but neither did it accept Lyubimov after he returned from exile. In 1992, the troupe broke up. Thus, the comfortable and unconventionally beautiful New Stage became one of the most expensive tombs in the history of Russian theatre.

Built from 1972 to 1980

Architects and engineers: A. Anisimov, Yu. Gnedovskiy, B. Tarantsev, V. Beletskiy



The Thousand-Apartment Residential Building

The greatest example of Soviet Brutalist style

The exposed use of concrete, coarse seams and no-nonsense design make this project particularly dramatic. Architect Vsevolod Voskresensky filled most of the spaces between the columns with service outlets: a post office, a bank branch, a launderette, a café, a deli and an exhibition hall. There is a supermarket with a café in the annexe and a nursery school is in a stand-alone building in the central courtyard. Yet all these amenities do nothing to reduce the residential area. All the apartments have fairly spacious kitchens and bathrooms and are fitted with built-in closets. The duplex flats on the top floors of the building access 1.5 metre-wide encircling balconies, which make the building look like a ship. As the 1920s principles of communal housing were no longer considered relevant, stretches of the balcony belonging to different apartments are separated from each other with partitions.

The chief function of the halls between stairwells was to facilitate evacuation in the event of a fire or other emergency. The focus on safety was totally understandable, given that the Ministry of the Medium Machine-Building Industry, a government agency that supervised the nuclear industry and the production of nuclear warheads, commissioned the apartment block. The architect, who happened to be an ex-pilot and air force instructor during the World War II, had a lot of hands-on knowledge about the impact of explosions on structures and designed the project to be bombproof. For example, the vertical and trapezoid supports in the archways were added to prevent the house from collapsing after an air raid.

Built from 1972 to 1982

Architects: V. Voskresenskiy, V. Babad, V. Baramidze, L. Smirnova



The Palaeontological Museum

A museum disguised as a fortress

This building, which took over 20 years to complete, remains almost entirely faithful to the original design apart from the red brick facade, which was eventually preferred to the locally-mined white stone. The project, which has no obvious markers of any historical period, plays with the idea of traveling in time. The four towers at the corners break the monotony seemingly inevitable in any museum building. Initially, one of the towers was supposed to accommodate a diorama; in another, the museum visitors would watch palaeontologists at work in their laboratories through a transparent wall and see the skeletons of ancient animals being reconstructed from fossilised fragments. Yet another tower would take the guests from a dark and low-ceilinged Amber Hall into an unexpectedly dramatic 15-metre-high space with a gigantic saurolophus, a type of bipedal dinosaur, in the middle.

Although none of these plans ever materialised, the interior designs definitely merit our attention. Art is everywhere: the exquisite limestone carvings of images of prehistoric animals and birds; a panel depicting different types of molluscs, which looks almost like a Russian Orthodox icon; ceramic panels with stylised depictions of groups of animals reminiscent of Paleolithic cave paintings. This is not to mention the 17 hand-wrought copper relief portraits of illustrious scientists in the Introductory Hall and the sculptures of prehistoric animals in the central yard, including the blood-curdling image of a carnivorous tarbosaurus tormenting a young saurolophus.

Built from 1965 to 1989

Architects, designers and artists: Yu. Platonov, L. Yakovenko, V. Kogan, V. Nagikh, T. Zevina, E. Katyshev, F. Grinev, V. Nikitin, A. Belashov, V. Duvidov, M. Miturich-Khlebnikov, M. Favorskaya-Shakhovskaya



The Presidium of the Academy of Sciences

This building played host to the USSR’s most brilliant minds

Moscow’s Lenin Hills, as the Sparrow Hills were known in the Soviet era, had come to be seen as a centre of enlightenment long before the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences established its headquarters there. The Lenin Institute, designed by Ivan Leonidov, and the Communist Higher Education Institute, or KomVUZ, designed by Alexander Vlasov, could both be regarded as precursors of the Presidium’s offices. Although the Stalinist Moscow University high-rise was the first to emerge as a pinnacle of learning in 1953, the Academy received an excellent opportunity to reaffirm its presence on the Moscow skyline several years later. The project site on the steep banks of the Moscow River offered a spectacular panoramic view but presented a number of technical and functional challenges such as unstable ground, poor public transport connectivity and limited car access. However, it was within easy reach for the most celebrated academicians, who used to live in the villas hidden among the quiet gardens of the Lenin Hills. The architectural competition for the new building was held in 1967. Few participants, if any, chose high-rise architecture; the ones brave enough to challenge the treacherous soil conditions proposed designs echoing the avant-garde trends of the 1920s.

Mstislav Keldysh, the then president of the Academy, took a vivid interest in the competition. His background in space research and IT had a definitive impact on the symbolism of the new building, particularly the decorative openwork element on top of the tower that he designed personally. The openwork helped obtain the desirable slender silhouette while reducing the building’s load impact on the ground. The decoration also hid the building’s engineering systems. The golden colour was selected to evoke associations with the ancient churches and cathedrals of Moscow’s architectural past.

Built from 1967 to 1990

Architects and engineers: Yu. Platonov, А. Batyreva, S. Zakharov, A. Zvezdin, S. Kiselev, A. Levenshtein and others



Abridged from Moscow: The Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1955–1991. Encyclopaedia and Guidebook. By Anna Bronovitskaya and Nikolay Malinin; photography by Yuri Palmin. Published by the Garage Museum of Modern Art, Moscow, 2016. The book is available in the Garage Museum bookshop.