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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.