Space Age Modernism

Space Age Modernism

An new photo exhibition looks to outer space to find the inspiration for Russia’s most unusual buildings.

Published: April 17, 2013 (Issue # 1755)

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The Novgorod Drama Theater brings to mind imagery more associated with intergalactic travel than with Chekhov.

A new exhibition at the Peter and Paul Fortress in honor of Cosmonaut Day, which is celebrated annually on April 12 and marks the anniversary of the country’s first manned space flight, allows visitors to step into the past and look at the Soviet vision of the future through the prism of some of the most ambitious and dynamic architecture of the communist era.

The exhibition consists of a collection of nearly 100 photographs of space-age buildings across Russia, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad. The buildings have one characteristic in common: Each is a representative of the “cosmic architecture” that emerged in Russia after WWII and which coincided with the “golden age” of Russian space exploration, which began in the late 1950s.

The buildings of the post-war period in Russia, when the primary aim was to construct inexpensive residential buildings for the Soviet people rather than aesthetic marvels, are generally believed to be of little architectural interest, being associated with unimaginative housing projects and soulless development.

“Yet these are stereotypes that leave in the shadows a whole stratum of Soviet architecture which enjoyed creative freedom and expressed ideas of experiment and innovation,” said Vladimir Ivanov, the exhibition’s curator. “It was the architecture of the so-called ‘cosmic communist’ style.”

The subject of outer space was one of the main cultural references throughout late Soviet culture, with ideas about the universal power of the Soviet Union reflected in literature, movies, music and architecture. It was architecture, however, more than any other discipline, which brought together art, engineering and science, and where society’s most forward-looking impulses found their fullest expression.

To find a way to express the idea of new frontiers, Soviet architects looked to the achievements of modern Western architecture, to the traditional architectural art of the multi-national Soviet Union and to the experience of the artists from the 1920s and 1930s.

“These buildings still make a great impression and provide a powerful emotional experience,” said Ivanov. “There are even some constructions made in the form of rockets, for instance, and a pioneer camp built according to plans developed for a projected moon base.”

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St. Petersburg’s Red Dawn labs.

The exhibition is divided into several parts, each of which has its own topic. The most interesting, according to the organizers, is that which examines “environments for the new man.”

“We investigated the Soviet inclination to create ideal conditions for the development of creativity among the youngest members of society — from kindergartens in the shape of flying saucers and “lunar” pioneer camps to the unusual project of building wedding registry offices in this style so as to lure people away from getting married in churches,” said Ivanov. “It turns out that every important moment in a person’s life had to be closely connected to space travel, so as to make this image of the future a reality.”

Cosmic architecture attracts not only Russian fans but also those from abroad. The French photographer Frederic Chaubin published a book of photos of 90 buildings, sited in 14 former Soviet republics, that he felt articulate what he considers to be the fourth age of Soviet architecture.

Like the organizers of the current exhibition, Chaubin saw the influence of satellites, rockets and flying saucers on Soviet architecture. There are, however, very few researchers that investigate cosmic themes in Soviet architecture. Even Chaubin, for his part, admits that he is just a keen-eyed amateur rather than an expert in architecture. The present exhibition attempts to rectify this state of affairs by raising awareness of the many buildings in decline that are facing oblivion.

Most St. Petersburg residents do not pay any attention to the building on the corner of Tikhoretsky Prospekt and Svetlanovsky Prospekt, though fans of the cosmic communist architecture delight in the reference to rockets and space travel that they see in its construction.

“And it really is the Russian State Scientific Center for Robotics and Technical Cybernetics, where interstellar equipment was tested,” said Ivanov.

The same is true of the Druzhba Sanatorium in Yalta. According to Chaubin, quoted in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, it was mistaken for a missile base by Turkish intelligence and the Pentagon. Located on the seaside, the fantastic construction consists of cog-like living spaces stacked one over the other, rising out of the trees.

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The Sports and Music Complex in Yerevan, Armenia, looks more likely to contain alien lifeforms than violinists.

Another unusual example is the Novgorod Drama Theater, whose magnificent structure brings to mind an abandoned spaceship. According to local legend, it was Russian rock-musician Andrei Makarevich who designed it. However, in reality the musician didn’t have anything to do with the project. He simply worked in the same institute that constructed the building.

“The architect of the theater building [Vladimir Somov] wanted to fulfill the ideas of Leonardo da Vinci on the banks of the Volkhov River,” said Ivanov.

“The drama starts not on the stage, but with the architecture itself. Even today the construction looks like an alien spaceship that has landed in an ancient town. And this is just one such intersection of tradition and dreams of the future,” he said.

It is interesting to note that the whole exterior design of the Novgorod Theater was dictated by its function. Somov designed the building to serve primarily as a space for theatrical performances and so built his design for it from the stage out. At the same time the architect wanted to create a form that would astound audiences even before they entered the theater.

Although Chaubin was fascinated by these buildings and their architecture, he saw in them the seeds of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The organizers of the current exhibition, however, are more optimistic.

“This is experimental architecture. And the main aim of the exhibition is to show that these buildings are the embodiment of the dreams and creative potential of communism. This is the architecture of the way things could have been if the promise of communistic ideals had been realized,” said Ivanov.

“The City of the Sun: The Architecture of Communism” runs through May 12 in the Poterna and Kazemat galleries of the Tsar Bastion at the Peter and Paul Fortress. The exhibition is open every day, except Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission is free of charge.

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