Unbuilt Moscow: the utopias that never arrived

The unbuilt Palace of the Soviets. Image: Ilya Ilusenko/Wikimedia Commons.

Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was demolished in December 1931. In its place now stands a new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

The intermittent period saw a stupendous construction planned for the site: the Palace of the Soviets, a 400-metre futuristic clash of neoclassicism and the avant garde, topped with a 100-metre-tall statue of Vladimir Lenin was set to occupy the area. If realised, it would have been the world’s tallest building for its time, topping the Empire State Building with its base alone. Lenin’s authoritative gaze and outstretched arm would have disappeared into the clouds.

An international design competition took place to establish what the vast congressional temple, communicating communism’s triumph, might look like. It saw some 160 Soviet and foreign architects and their teams – among them Walter Gropius, Moisei Ginzburg and Le Corbusier – engage their efforts to establish an image that could conquer the spot. Jewish-Soviet architect Boris Iofan won.

The palace was part of a 1930s master plan to reconstruct Moscow. An “offensive” against the old city, it would have included new monuments, large-scale housing plans and elite residences, as well as attempts to straighten roadways and establish public parks.

The Soviets’ utopian ideals, and their commitment to the vision of socialism and its accompanying aesthetics, were a double-edged sword: Stalin’s state was viciously territorial over them, often at the expense of inhabitants, and many plans never saw fruition. Utopia often stayed mired in the realm of utopia.

And the vision of the Palace of the Soviets remained just that: a vision. Despite this, it is still one of the most notorious buildings in Moscow, and along with Tatlin’s Tower (1919), one of the nation’s most famous imagined projects.

But the city envisaged several more that could have permanently changed the face of Moscow as we know it today. An exhibit opening at the Design Museum on 15 March is set to document the architectural plans of the 1920s and ‘30s, as well as the propaganda surrounding them.

Narkomtiazhprom (NKTP) – or the Peoples’ Commissariat of Heavy Industry – was one such projected symbol for the new city. The subject of a 1934 architectural competition (Stalin seemed to enjoy these), it was set to stand on the north east edge of Red Square, and its realisation would have led to the destruction of both the Gum Shopping Centre and Moscow State Historical Museum, completely changing the geography of the landmark area.

Ivan Fomin's plan for the Narkomtiazhprom.

Some 12 designers in total competed for the project, among them, Ivan Fomin and Konstantin Melnikov. To one architect, Ivan Leonidov, this change was fundamental to the project. His design put forward three towers sharing a plinth: one rectangular, one circular, and one “simple and strong”. It was to be flanked by a staircase from which the proletariat could observe events on the square. He proclaimed that Red Square’s landmarks should be subordinate to the structure.

“The architecture of Red Square and the Kremlin is a delicate and majestic piece of music. The introduction into this symphony of an instrument so strong in its sound and so huge in scale is permissible only on condition that the new instrument will lead the orchestra,” he wrote in his explanatory notes. The project fizzled out after a third round, and Leonidov only ever managed to construct a hillside staircase as part of a sanatorium in the southern city of Kislovodsk, in the north Caucasus.

A city for the people also needed people to venerate: heroes of communism. In 1934, Soviet architect and city planner Dmitry Chechulin intended to build a symbol honouring Soviet pilots on Belorusskaya Ploshchad, where one of Moscow’s main metro stations now stands.

The unrealised “Aeroflot” building was a tribute to those who helped to rescue the crew of steam ship “Chelyuskin”. In 1933 the steamer set sail from Murmansk to traverse the Northern Sea Route with the intention of reaching the Pacific Ocean. En route, it became mired in ice fields in the Chukchi Sea and was crushed and sank the following February.

All but one crew member survived and escaped onto the ice, and a complex aerial mission was required to ensure the success of the rescue operation, given the absence of landing space. Its success led to the pilots’ glory.

The “Aeroflot” building was never constructed. However, the design in strikingly similar to that of the present-day Russian White House, for which Chechulin was also a co-architect as the project took off in the 1960s.

An “Arch of Heroes” to stand as a monument to the war dead was also put forward by Soviet starchitect Leonid Pavlov in the early 1940s. A much smaller wooden recreation of the design was displayed among other temporary arches, on one of the city’s main thoroughfares on City Day in 2015.

The Communal House of the Textile Institute in 2013. Image: Panoramio/Wikimedia Commons.

Ideas for communal housing projects were fundamental to the Soviet regime; the pinnacle of socialism saw different families sharing buildings, and facilities, having only their rooms as private space. Some key structures remain in place today in various conditions – although the Narkomfin “experiment” for workers from the People’s Commisariat of Finance and the Communal House of the Textile Institute envisaged in the late 1920s have both seen better days.

And some never made it. One of the first projected communal housing projects was put forward by Nikolai Ladovsky, who rejected a focus on sheer technicality and function for a focus on space and form – he was a rationalist rather than a constructivist. “Most important in them will be the amount of intelligence,” he reportedly said.

One such idea, conceived in 1920, was a conglomeration of residences spiralling upwards, not unlike Tatlin’s Tower. Ladovsky was drawn towards a trend in contemporary psychology called psychotechnics, creating a laboratory for students in 1926 to research visual perception and architecture and how it could contribute to organising “the psychology of the masses”. Such ideas fell out of favour in the late 1930s, but before then, he also managed to put forward a proposal for a new industrial town of 25,000 called Kostino.

The Design Museum exhibit will touch on the psychological elements of Soviet architecture too, documenting El Lissitzky’s plans for “Cloud Irons” in 1925. A contemporary of Ladovsky, he developed designs for eight such structures – horizontal skyscrapers but with vertical supports – as he deemed moving vertically unnatural for humankind.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.