In the fall of 2015 the City of Moscow unveiled a monument to the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, in front of the only building that the architect designed in Russia’s capital. Located on the historical Myasnitskaya street, this is one of the favorite spots for architectural walking tours, along with the famous Stalin skyscrapers, but for anyone who’s not an architecture expert, I think it is worth investing a minute or two to read about the importance of this building.
First of all, to the “untrained eye” (and to me, I freely admit), at first sight the building looks like one of those completely anonymous, borderline ugly, office building from the 1960s or 1970s. The first aspect of the building significance is that it actually predates that style by more than three decades, as it was designed in 1928 and built in 1933 by Le Corbusier and Russian Modernist — Constructivist architect Nikolai Kolli.
There were three architectural competitions for the project beginning in 1928. Le Corbusier won all three. Upon his victory in the third competition in 1928 he wrote: “I shall bring to this task all that I have learned in architecture. It is with great joy that I shall contribute what knowledge I possess to a nation that is being organized in accordance with its new spirit”.
The project applied on larger scale Le Corbusier’s architectural principles: pilotis (reinforced concrete columns instead of supporting walls), curtain-wall façade, free floor plan, ribbon windows (a series of windows set side by side to form a continuous band horizontally across a facade) and flat roof. It was to accommodate 3500 people and Le Corbusier considered the question of circulation as of main importance. The system of pilotis for the accommodation of people and cars was proposed and proved to be very effective by allowing multiple access points to the building. The ramps were proposed by the architect for the interior circulation between the floors, detail that links back to his Villa Savoye. Le Corbusier said: “We have approached the problem as urban planners, that is, we have considered that corridors and stairs are, so to speak, enclosed streets. In consequence, these streets are 3.25 meters wide, and are always well lit. Moreover, we have replaced tiring flights of stairs with gently sloping (14%) ramps that allow for free and easy circulation”.
In 1929, the complete set of construction plans for the Tsentrosoyuz building was sent to Moscow and work was started. However, delays were encountered due to the materials shortages caused by Joseph Stalin‘s first five-year plan. The building is made of reinforced concrete, with sixteen-inch-thick blocks of red tuff stone from the Caucasus serving as insulation. The glass façade was intended to include an innovative heating and ventilation system. The respiration exacte (mechanical ventilation system) and the murs neutralisants (neutral walls, heating/cooling pipes between the layers of glass), both Le Corbusier’s latest inventions, as well as Gustav Lyon’s aeration ponctuelle method were considered for heating and refrigeration of the glass prisms and the interior. These innovations were rejected, in part due to the materials shortage, and in part due to the experimental character of the proposed technologies (including a critique of the systems by the experts from the American Blower Corporation as unpractical and expensive). Instead, a system of radiators was introduced for heating, and roller blinds and translucent glass meant to protect the building from heat (which proved ineffective in the hot summer months).
The building was criticized by fellow Swiss architect Hannes Meyer as being “an orgy of glass and concrete”. Russian constructivist Alexander Vesnin however called it “the best building to arise in Moscow for over a century“.
Le Corbusier left Moscow in 1928 with a positive view of the Soviet Union. Indeed, his time there would prove influential in the development of his own theories on architecture and urban planning. In 1930, in his Precisions on the Present: State of Architecture and City Planning, Le Corbusier included a report on his observations of Moscow, written en route back to Paris from Moscow. In this report, Le Corbusier reflects on the Five Year Plan and the “green city” plan that the Constructivist architects had developed.
The Five Year Plan required the development of many industrializing projects. Reflecting on the five-year plan, Le Corbusier stated that it presented a battery firing modern technology. Moscow, as he saw it, was a factor for making plans. In his eyes, the development of plans for new buildings in the Soviet Union were being done through whatever means that brought progress. Reflecting on the difference between the profession of architecture in Paris and Moscow, Le Corbusier highlights the superfluous involvement of the youth in the Soviet Union, while in France and other parts of Europe, omnipotent academicism prohibited the youthful from the competitiveness of invention.
With such youthful, inventive spirit, as Le Corbusier analyzes, the constructivist developed innovative planning schemes. The “green town,” as he analyzes in “Atmosphere of Moscow,” was born out of the necessity of a rest period, introduced by the USSR as a response to the constant labor. The rest period would come on the fifth day of the week, in this way suppressing Sunday’s traditional role. The green town was then created to provide the space in which such rest would be carried out. Capable of housing 100,000 people at once, the green town would in 15 days provide rest for the entire population of Moscow, (1.5 million), in accordance with the rotation of the rest period every 5 days. Additionally, the town would also house for periods of two weeks to a month city officials or workers taking their annual vacation. The city would also be a space for the ill “from work” to find sanatoria. Beyond this, Le Corbusier also elaborates on the collaborative living that such a city requires: a collective farm would provide food for the entire city; people would live in hostel-type program with common rooms; people would be separated by age, providing different recreational programs for each group. These observations would later serve as the basis for his “Response to Moscow,” as well as his elaboration of the Radiant City.
Just three short years later, though, Le Corbusier submitted designs for the competition for the Palace of the Soviets in 1931, which he lost and in effect would end his relationship with the Soviet Union. On February 28, 1932, when Boris Iofan’s neo-classical entry was announced as the winner of the second public competition by the Soviet judges, Le Corbusier was outraged by the decision, and wrote letters illustrating such feelings, in effect only showing to the Soviet judges his great egotism. But, with the winner announced, it was evident that Le Corbusier’s modernist style was losing ground in the Soviet Union. Even national newspaper, which only a few years earlier heralded his first visit to the city of Moscow, now mocked his design entry as a “congress hangar”. The high modernism that young Soviet architects aspired to only a few years earlier was being replaced by a socialist realism best illustrated by neo-classical architecture. Le Corbusier’s failure in this project, which in the eyes of the world marked a spectacular reversal in soviet architectural style, would prove to be his final dream and ultimate humiliation in his Moscow adventure. In the end, Le Corbusier’s relationship with Russia would end in disappointment.
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