Imagine Moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution

15 March – 4 June 2017, the Design Museum, London

The exhibition explores six unbuilt architectural landmarks in Moscow from the 1920’s and 1930’s following the Russian Revolution.

Featured projects include the Palace of the Soviets, planned to be the world’s tallest building, and Cloud Iron, a network of horizontal skyscrapers.

Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution explores Moscow as it was envisioned by a bold generation of architects in the 1920s and early 1930s. Featuring rarely seen material, the exhibition outlines an idealistic vision of the Soviet capital that was never realised.

Focusing on six unbuilt architectural landmarks located near Moscow’s Red Square, the exhibition explores how these schemes reflected changes in everyday life and society following the October Revolution. Large-scale architectural plans, models and rarely seen drawings are placed alongside propaganda posters, textiles, porcelain and magazines of the time; contextualising the transformation of a city re-born as the new capital of the USSR, and the international centre of socialism.

In the search of a new future, architects aimed to reinterpret the old idea of the city through new symbolism, new monuments and new institutions – creating factories, theatres, communal housing and ministries. These dream-like projects suggest an alternative reality for a series of sites around the city, offering a unique insight into the culture of their time. Each project introduces a theme relevant to life and ideology in the Soviet Union: industrialisation, urban planning, aviation, communication, communal living and recreation.

Alongside the six unbuilt architectural case studies, the exhibition features a dedicated room to the geographical and ideological centre of this new Moscow, the Lenin Mausoleum. The display includes the architectural designs of Aleksey Schusev’s Mausoleum as well as the rarely seen competition entries submitted by both professional designs and the public.

Eszter Steierhoffer, curator of Imagine Moscow said:

“The October Revolution and its cultural aftermath represent a heroic moment in architectural and design history. The designs of this period still inspire the work of contemporary architects, and the radical ideas in the exhibition remain highly relevant to cities today. Imagine Moscow brings together an unexpected cast of ‘phantoms’ – architectural monuments of the vanished world of the Soviet Union that survive in spite of never being realised.”

Presented through plans, models, reproductions and projections; the six unrealised projects on display are Nikolai Ladovski’s Communal House (1920), EL Lissitzky’s Cloud Iron (1924), Ivan Leonidov’s Lenin Institute (1927), Nikolai Sokolov’s Health Factory (1928), three competition entries for the ‘Narkomtiazhprom’ building by the Vesnin brothers, Ivan Leonidov and Konstantin Melnikov (1934-1936), and Boris Iofan’s winning entry for the Palace of the Soviets (1932). The projects are placed in context with objects of art and design by Vladimir Klutsis, Alexander Rodchenko, Valentina Kuliguna, Yakov Chernikov and many others.

With its striking futuristic aesthetic, ‘Cloud Iron’ by Lissitzky set out to create a series of eight lightweight horizontal skyscrapers. Lissitzky’s plan addressed Moscow’s most pressing urban problem of overcrowding and the inadequacy of public transport. The eight buildings were to directly connect office and living space on the upper floors with new tram and metro stations on the lower floors. Inspired by Lissitzky’s artistic concept of the ‘Proun space’, ‘Cloud Iron’ represented a move from the canvas to the real world for the designer and artist.

The most well-known scheme in the exhibition is Iofan’s winning entry for the Palace of the Soviets competition. The ultimate monument of Soviet power at the time, the project was set to become the tallest building in the world, beating the Empire State Building in New York. Topped with a 100m statue of Lenin, the project was conceived to replace the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, located close to the Kremlin. Construction started in in 1937 but was soon terminated due to the German invasion in 1941. Its steel frame was repurposed for fortification and bridges, and the foundations were turned into the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool. In 1995 the Cathedral was rebuilt to the exact look and specification of the previous version as if nothing had changed on the site.

Leonidov’s Lenin Institute was a monumental library and planetarium with the aim to congregate all human knowledge and to educate the new Soviet man. The circular volume of the building was designed to enclose an auditorium, while the gravity defying tower served as motorised book storage. Utilising the most advanced engineering and technology of the time, the complex was to be linked with Moscow via an aero-tram, and connect to the rest of the world via a powerful radio station.

Similar to other constructivists, Sokolov’s work in architecture explored the theories of the ‘living cell’. His highly expressive graphic plan for the Health Factory proposed a retreat on the coast of the Black Sea. The project consisted of individual capsules for isolated rest and a communal hall for eating and other collective activities. Sokolov’s proposal promoted productive rest as a key element of the economy and the values of the new Soviet society.

Ladovski’s Communal House became one of the earliest and most iconic symbols of the Soviet idea of communal living that aimed to revolutionise traditional family structure, and to transform the role of the female in society. Utilising the shape of a spiral, Ladovski’s design merged individual living units into a united space, and alluded to the symbolism of progress.

The Narkomtiazhprom was intended to house the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry. The large-scale building would have occupied a site of just under 10 acres directly opposite the Lenin Mausoleum. The design competition received numerous entries, mainly from Soviet architects. While there was no winning design selected, the architectural proposals by the Vesnin brothers, Leonidov, and Melnikov are outstanding examples of a new typology of architecture that alludes to the new industrial landscape of the Soviet Union.

The exhibition brings together large-scale reproductions of architectural drawings from the Schusev Museum of Architecture (MUAR) with original drawings and artworks, magazines, news reels and applied art objects. Imagine Moscow features loans rarely seen in the UK from the Ne Boltai! Collection in Prague, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Alex Lachmann Gallery in Cologne, the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, the Collections of the British Library and other private collections.