Mikhail Karasik. The Architectural
Constructivism of Leningrad: Palaces
of Culture, Mechanized Canteens, Bathhouses & more
St Petersburg: M.K. Publishers in collaboration with the ‘Ruchnaya pechat’ [Manual print] creative workshop, 2012. Publisher – Timofei Markov.
54 × 46 cm. Edition: 17 copies. 15 leaves in a cover and slip case. Screw post bound. 13 compositions – colour lithograph printed by the artist on BFK Rives Cream paper + 13 images printed on tracing-paper. In a cover – aluminium, laser cutting; cardboard slip case covered with book cloth, silkscreen printed. In Russian and in English; translated by Paul Williams.
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(1) Palace of Culture of Industrial Co-operatives Architects: Yevgeny Levinson, Vladimir Munz Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(2) The Maxim Gorky Palace of Culture Architects: Alexander Gegello, David Krichevsky Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(3) The Sergei Kirov Palace of Culture Architects: Noi Trotsky, Solomon Kozak Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(4) The Ilyich House of Culture Architect: Nikolai Demkov Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(5) Communications Workers’ Palace of Culture Architects: Pavel Grinberg, Grigory Raits Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(6) The Moscow-Narva District Mechanized Canteen Architects: Armen Barutchev, Isidor Gilter, Iosif Meyerzon, Yakov Rubanchik Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(7) The Vyborg District Mechanized Canteen Architects: Armen Barutchev, Isidor Gilter, Iosif Meyerzon, Yakov Rubanchik Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(8) Mechanized Canteen on Vasilyevsky Island Architects: Armen Barutchev, Isidor Gilter, Iosif Meyerzon, Yakov Rubanchik Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(9) The Volodarsk District Mechanized Canteen Architects: Armen Barutchev, Isidor Gilter, Iosif Meyerzon, Yakov Rubanchik Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(10) The Round Bathhouse on Square of Courage Architect: Alexander Nikolsky Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(11) The Ligovskiye Baths Architect: Nikolai Demkov Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(12) The Red Banner knitted goods factory Architect: Erich Mendelsohn Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
(13) The water tower of the Red Nail-Maker works Architect: Yakov Chernikhov Paper, lithograph on stone and aluminium
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No other art form penetrates our consciousness so strongly and persistently, whether we like it or not, as architecture does. We have only to leave home and immediately it begins to make its presence felt. In Leningrad, and in today’s St Petersburg, there are more than enough grounds for architectural reflections. Our inability to recognize the former streets and ensembles, yet another remodelling of the city is evidence of global internal and external metamorphoses. They are like the marks on the dial of a chronometer, counting the passing stages of life.
Architecture is one of the indicators of our identity with a time and place. With the passing years you notice that even buildings constructed from concrete and steel lose their accustomed features, become dilapidated, are extended or given new décor. Every new building that exceeds the established height levels and the traditional pattern for a classical city becomes an emotional disturbance. This applies all the more to a whole architectural tendency, such as Constructivism, which would seem never to have really established itself in our city. Buildings with administrative and other public functions are scattered across the whole city, on the periphery and in the industrial areas. They form small Constructivist zones. The situation of residential buildings in the very centre is unenviable. Having forced their way in among the old buildings with an incredible effort, they remain overshadowed, humbled by the grandeur of their neighbours’ classic styles, which eschew as something alien the rational beauty of geometric forms hacked, as it were, in the space of the old city.
From childhood Constructivist architecture disturbed me. On the streets such buildings stood out, not only for their unusual contours, but also because of their purpose — a house of culture, a polyclinic, a school. My interactions with these institutions — at first glance similar with their broad staircases, long straight corridors like city avenues and standard rooms with horizontally stretched oblong windows — were of a very painful personal nature. I did not like any of it — going to school or to hobby groups at the local house of culture, not to mention the polyclinic! In time I grew used to things, just as the buildings themselves were, it seems, accepted, or rather absorbed, into the alien architectural environment. My adaptation to Constructivism was greatly assisted by a move from the Ligovsky Prospekt area to the Moscow district when I was ten years old. Moscow Prospekt from the Triumphal Arch to Moscow Square, where the House of Soviets sprang up before the war, was the most ‘un-Leningrad-like’ district of the city: it resembles parts of the capital — Moscow whose name it bears. The buildings there were put up in the 1930s—50s and today they are upmarket Stalin-era real estate. The clarity of Constructivism gave way to a façade, stage-set kind of architecture — Stalin’s Neo-Classicism. In my final years I changed school once again. To reach the new one (or perhaps I should say old one, since it had been built at the end of the ’40s), I had to travel across almost the whole of the Moscow district. That is how I came to know the Ilyich House of Culture (architect: Nikolai Demkov) and the Kapranov House of Culture (Mikhail Reizman) and between them the building of the Moscow district soviet constructed in the shape of a key (Igor Fomin, Valerian Daugul, Boris Serebrovsky), where I often visited the cinema after lessons. With other boys I would make long-distance tram journeys to the very ‘end of the world’ — there, near the road junction known as Srednyaya Rogatka, the Middle Fork, stood the Leningrad Meat Plant (Noi Trotsky), one of the masterpieces of industrial architecture. Like many other important institutions and industrial enterprises in Leningrad it bore the name of Kirov; after perestroika, and right up to the time when it closed down, it went by the heroic and timeless name of Samson.
Gradually improving our living conditions, my family moved from one building to another: from the windowless room where I was born, to a ‘broom-cupboard’ in a communal apartment, the temporary housing stock, then a cramped, but separate apartment. I had a short intensive practical course in the history of architecture from the time of capitalist urban development in the late nineteenth century to Khrushchev’s little boxes. While the significance of pre-revolutionary buildings had long-since become firmly established and historical, Constructivist and Stalinist architecture, replete with political connotations, was still awaiting calmer and unprejudiced assessment. Constructivism, as a manifestation of the avant-garde ideas of the twentieth century, became the converse of the Neo-Classicism that was the result of Stalin’s Thermidor in the plastic arts. In the socio-cultural model proposed by the architectural historian Vladimir Paperny, the 1920s belong to ‘Culture One’. In the later era of ‘Socialism with a human face’ Constructivist architecture was in a certain sense perceived as a manifestation of that project, and then for the generation of the 1960s—80s it became a sort of justification of the global social experiment seasoned with the romance of the early post-revolutionary years. ‘Culture Two’, Stalin’s culture, made short shrift of both the romantics and the intelligentsia, forcing the latter to accept, or rather reconcile themselves to, the onward march of history.
My book is devoted to Leningrad houses and palaces of culture (both terms are abbreviated in Russian to DK), mechanized canteens, public baths and other buildings. They are all for the time being still in their places. Some have, with certain qualifications, retained their original function, but their role in the architectural cityscape is not as prominent as before. The present-day designation of the DKs — ‘culture and leisure centres’ — no longer conveys the ardour and enthusiasm of decades gone by.
The first clubs, forerunners of the DKs, began to appear in the early 1920s. They were located in old buildings or converted churches and were officially attached to the trade unions. The unions became a stronghold of amateur and mass art and by the middle of the decade their considerable economic independence made it possible to start construction of DKs for various sectors of industry to original or ready-made designs. The Marxist-Leninist religion for factory and office workers required a new ritual. The ideological and educational significance of DKs in that period was comparable with that of the foremost state museums, theatres and concert halls. In the contemporary architecture these factories producing culture found embodiment in the image of a lighthouse or a ship. According to the original concept of the architects, Yevgeny Levinson and Vladimir Munz, the Leningrad ‘Promka’ (Palace of Culture of Industrial Co-operatives, as the Lensoviet DK on Kirov Prospekt was known until 1960) was to have a
50-metretower. It was built to only half the height. The elongated shape of the Kirov DK on Vasilyevsky Island made it resemble the hull of some huge liner with a towering deckhouse (architects: Noi Trotsky and Solomon Kozak). Sadly, today our high-rise buildings have sprung up in front of the Kirov DK and cut it off from the main road, Bolshoi Prospekt. The ship symbolism is present in the round porthole-like windows found on the new buildings: DKs, mechanized canteens, sports complexes, schools and others. During the voyage the ship of Socialism was blown off course — this accounts for the decoration of the Communications DK on Herzen (Bolshaya Morskaya) Street. In 1929 the building of the German Reformed Church was reconstructed to plans by Pavel Grinberg and Grigory Raits to become the House of Culture and Technology for Communications Workers, later promoted to palace status. The church spire was replaced by a tower; balconies and sculpture appeared on the façade. Mouldings on top of pure geometric shapes was the contribution of Stalinist aesthetics to Constructivist architecture.
By the late 1920s the standard structure of a DK had become established: an auditorium (cinema, theatre or both), rooms for classes and hobby groups, a sports hall and a library. In the early 1930s, when professionals in the arts had regained their former status, amateur ventures such as art groups, drama circles and choirs seemed a remote echo of the ‘proletarian culture’ movement of the early revolutionary years. In the 1950s and ’60s hermit artists and members of the Union of Artists who had fallen from grace entrenched themselves in Leningrad’s DKs, combining teaching activities with creative work. In the daytime the classrooms served as artists’ studios; then in the evening they filled up with students. The art classes in DKs grew to be breeding-grounds of heresy. Many pupils went on to become professional artists and made a name for themselves. Their amateur status meant that the question of creative compromise did not arise for them, and if there was a dichotomy in their souls, the cause of it was simply time, the need to spend the bright daylight hours at their job. The reward, though, was the evenings, illuminated by the light of creativity. Life did not present them with conflicts along the lines of ‘that to keep the pot boiling, this for myself’. Gaining strength by the mid-1970s, the art groups, refuges of Leningrad’s non-conformist movement, organized exhibitions that became historic events (at the Gaza and Nevsky DKs). A ‘Gaza-Nevsky culture’ emerged. At the end of the 1980s the Sverdlov DK became a meeting place for professionals — art critics, museum workers and artists. Their evening gatherings and short-lived exhibitions were a sort of entrée into contemporary art. The Krupskaya DK evolved from a black market for books at the start of perestroika into a wholesale book warehouse. The temples of proletarian culture became filled, as is only right and proper, with traders and Pharisees.
Today it is hard to imagine a mechanized canteen (fabrika-kukhnia). It was not a dining-hall or ‘meals on wheels’ driven around to workplaces and schools. At the turn of the 1930s feature articles about the new collective experience of feeding thousands of people with modern catering technology, leisure rooms, nurseries and libraries were printed in the most popular magazines. Such authors as Samuil Marshak, Lev Kassil and Tamara Gabbe wrote about the mechanized canteens as well as the political essayist and journalist Tatiana Tess. A book devoted to them came out in 1931 — For Exemplary Public Catering. The Canteens of Moscow designed and with photographs by Alexander Rodchenko. The mechanized canteens were drawn for youngsters by Alisa Poret, Tatiana Safonova, Grigory Sheviakov and others. Four were created in Leningrad to individual projects drawn up by architects of the ARU (Architect-Urbanists) group (Armen Barutchev, Isidor Gilter, Iosif Meyerzon, Yakov Rubanchik) and the one on Vasilyevsky Island alone served 35,000 meals a day. Three have survived to the present, albeit much reconstructed and with different functions: the Vyborg Mechanized Canteen № 1 in the Vyborg Side district (now shops and offices); the Moscow-Narva (later Kirov) District Mechanized Canteen and Co-operative House (now the Narvsky Department Store); and the mechanized canteen on Bolshoi Prospekt of Vasilyevsky Island (the Baltiysky shopping centre). Such modern gigantic eateries were supposed to extricate the housewife from the hell of the communal kitchen, to give her free time for self-education, relaxation and work, as well as — most importantly — instilling Soviet culture. To round off their set-menu meals, factory and office workers were served with a ‘cultural dessert’. In Fridrikh Ermler’s 1929 film Fragment of an Empire there is a scene of a collective lunch: a lecturer looms above the rows of workers bent over their plates enlightening them about the new way of life. The mechanized canteens really were industrial enterprises: a huge brightly-lit work area with rows of tables like assembly lines at which one shift of diners followed another. By the end of the 1930s when Socialism had ‘in the main’ been constructed, the female worker was returned to the domestic kitchen — as a rule that same shared communal one. On the other hand, some housewives in the major urban centres, those married to party leaders, heads of enterprises and senior military men, now had housemaids. Books about fantastic mechanized canteens were succeeded by The Book of Tasty Healthy Food, the first edition of which was printed in 1939. Home cooking triumphed over the collective alternative. From the latter our memories retain the awful taste of canteen food and the stifling smell of the backrooms and dishwashing areas.
Leningrad public bathhouses provided an extensive field of work for Constructivist architects. That field (if we take the word literally as well as figuratively) was not necessarily regular and rectangular. Bathhouse geometry could also be circular. The analogy is simple: the Roman amphitheatre surrounding a man-made pool of water in which gladiators fought savage mock sea-battles. The heart of an experimental project incorporating steam baths, a swimming pool and solarium devised by the architect Alexander Nikolsky in 1927 was a cylinder sunk into the ground: an indoor swimming-pool roofed with a glass dome — a clear hemisphere reminiscent of a soap bubble. Nikolsky managed to implement his imaginative scheme only partially in the construction of the bathhouses on Ushakov (now Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya) Street in the Moscow-Narva (Kirov) District and the Round Bathhouse in the Lesnoy area (on today’s Square of Courage). A rectangular shape — the entrance from the recreation room — cuts into the bath premises that are arranged in a ring, while the inner circle, including the swimming-pool turned into an enclosed courtyard. The cylinder also features in the Ushakov Baths that were given the official name Giant due to the large number of customers they could handle: two cylinders — a large one in which the main facilities were located and a small one above it form only part of a complex spatial construction. In the Station Baths on Shelgunov Street (Station Street until 1962) and the Ligovskiye Baths on Ligovsky Prospekt there are half-cylinders flanking the entrance. Both were constructed in 1934 following a standard design by Nikolai Demkov, who was a member of Nikolsky’s team.
And more... A considerable portion of the Constructivist buildings were put up on the industrial outskirts of the city. But that distinction is very relative. The Red Banner knitted goods factory located on Red Military Cadet Street on the Petrograd Side is now quite central. Of the large complex of buildings, the most popular is the Power Station that has recently been taken over by the Red Banner Cultural Centre with its exhibition halls, clubs and other functions. In 1925 the eminent German architect Erich Mendelsohn, a specialist in industrial construction, was commissioned to design a large complex for the textile factory. By the end of the decade, due to the active resistance of local specialists, he had managed to realize only part of his plans. The power station, though, does accord precisely with his intentions and is indisputably a fine piece of Constructivist architecture.
In the area around the junction of Lieutenant Shmidt Embankment and the 23rd Line of Vasilyevsky Island there are two historical monuments — the main building of the Mining Institute and, moored across from it, the ice-breaker Krasin. While the fairly small funnel of the legendary ship that in 1928 saved the crew of the airship Italia in the icy wastes of the Arctic can be seen from different places, another ‘funnel’, taller, but not unlike a ship’s, can only be seen from the 24th Line. The water tower of the cable-making plant of the Red Nail-Maker works with a huge cement barrel at the top (reminiscent of those you see on the roofs of buildings in New York) is the only implemented project by Yakov Chernikhov, an architect, artist, theorist and one of the leaders of the avant-garde. His designs, recorded in architectural drawings, were ahead of their time and seem not to have been made for any practical purpose. A master of architecture on paper, Chernikhov is known for his books of drawings of machines, modern industrial plants and cities of the future.
My book on Constructivist architecture makes a sort of backward journey — from the buildings to the drawings. The compositions created on the basis of old material give the buildings back their former lines and convey the atmosphere of the mid-1920s to the turn of the 1930s. Time has given its own judgement. Examples of construction to a standard plan, prototypes of the future, they became vivid illustrations of the age of great social utopias, unique monuments of Constructivist architecture.