Insights into St Petersburg

“Constructivism: the Revolution seen through architecture”

The Soviet building works of the 1920s was something that amazed the world: it was hard to believe that after enduring the civil war the Russians would be able to begin building a “brave, new world” using architectural forms never witnessed before in a style known as “constructivism”. The tour tells the story of the rise and fall of the most creative artistic style of the 20th century, whose philosophy anticipated almost all future architectural movements from brutalism to hi-tech. We are going to see the constructivist building, including a workers’ club, the flying-saucer-shaped “Red Nail-Maker” water tower and others.

The Island of Constructivism

What makes constructivism a visual embodiment of the revolution? Why did this particular movement in architecture flourish in the 1920s, immediately after the Bolsheviks came to power?
Dialectics of pure geometrical forms and austere monumentality of steel and concrete, as preached by constructivism, were, of course, congenial to the revolution. However, the main point of interest about the constructivists (such as Tatlin, Melnikov and El Lisitsky) was not their avant-garde aesthetics but rather the fact that they developed new architectural forms for the transfigured world, where the architecture was no longer restricted by the market or the tastes of the bourgeois circles.
Palaces for the peoples, revolutionary pantheons and catering factories – which brought together large-scale canteens and food production lines under one roof – all these new types of buildings were designed to adorn the utopian garden-city that the characters of Mayakovsky’s poem dreamt of:
The clouds go roving
                                  through the sky,
               The drizzle 
                                 grips the heart.
In cramping damp 
                  the workers lie
                                beneath the ancient cart.

Though all is soaked 
                                        both near and far
They whisper,
    “There’ll be 
                             a garden-city here 
     In just four years 
                                   from now.”
Translated by Dorian Rottenberg
In the very heart of Vasilievsky Island, the constructivists planted all sorts of exotic flowers. Taking a walk through the utopian garden, you will come across a catering factory, the flying-sauce-shaped “Red Nail-Maker” water tower and a palace-like workers’ club.

Red Nail-Maker

Architect Yakov Chernikhov
Address: 6b, 25th Line

Discernible from the Palace Bridge, the silhouette of an unusual building peeps out through the shipyard’s cranes and masts of the ocean liners moored along the shores of Vasilievsky island. As if it were a UFO, the massive concrete water tank hovers above the island. The water tower, designed by architect Yakov Chernikhov, is part of the nail and wire manufacturing plant, the “Red Nail-Maker”.
If it were not for this building, Yakov Chernikhov would have been remembered only as a visionary architect. Like the great Giovanni Piranesi, Chernikhov produced a massive collection of architectural graphics. His series included “Palaces of Communism”, “Pantheons of the War” and “The Architecture of the Future”. The “Red Nail-Maker” tower was the only building ever completed by him.
As a constructivist architect, Chernikhov sought to formalize the artistic process of creating an architectural form. Accordingly, the art of making a new building is just the process of combining various elements from the list of “basic architectural elements”, as found in a book by Chernikhov. For instance, the UFO-like water tank is nothing less than a “regular body with rectangular contours”.

«The ability to dream and to visualize the images of the dreams is the first foundation of the new architecture. Besides that, it is necessary to encourage the so-called architectural innovativeness that leads to the revelation of new types of architecture.»
Yakov Chernikhov.
“Foundations of the Contemporary Architecture”

Catering Factory

Architects: the ARU group (A. Barutchev, Ya. Rubanchik, I. Gilter, I. Meerzon, A. Dzhorogov)
Address: 68, Bolshoi Prospect VO, at the intersection of Bolshoy Prospect and Kosaya Line

Long before the smiling clown Ronald MacDonald conquered the world, the Soviet state set a goal “to liberate women from house exploitation” by providing the workers’ families with industrially prepared food. On the instructions of the party and the government, members of the ARU group (“association of architects-urbanists”) came up with the design for the chain of so-called catering factories in the industrial areas of Leningrad.
The catering factory located next to one of the country’s largest Baltic Shipyards was built in 1930-1931. The factory produced both convenience food and hot meals. As with other catering factories, the distinguishing feature of the building was that the canteen and the factory shops were under the same roof. As a result, the building combines the forms of industrial architecture with the forms of civil buildings: an elegant balcony, which juts out from the glassed-in wall, adjoins to the ribbon windows.

«...A new giant of catering, indeed.»
Leningradskaya Pravda daily


Monumental extravaganza: space buildings in St Petersburg

«We are used to thinking that post-war architecture is defined by dull apartment blocks of the Khrushchev or Brezhnev era, scattered throughout the city neighborhoods.»

Photo gallery