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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.