May 10: when trad goes bad

2012/05/10 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1933 the two-year competition for the Palace of the Soviets was concluded.

The Palace (interesting choice of terminology, nyet?) was intended to be a new administrative center for the Soviets following the Revolution.  In addition to constructing a new symbol of the new order, it required a symbolic demolition.  Before construction could commence, its chosen site needed to be cleared of a useless reminder of an older time: a cathedral.  Christ the Saviour was built in 1812 as a votive offering after the defeat of Napoleon by Emperor Alexander I.  Architect Konstantin Thon’s Byzantio-Russian design was built beginning in the 1840s; it was consecrated a bit over four decades later, and then blown into oblivion under Stalin in 1931.

Its demolition was vandalism against Christianity as well as traditional Russian culture, wiping the slate clean for the imposing monument of Bolshevik dominance.  If the name “Palace of the Soviets” does not strike fear and dread in your heart, the shock and awe factor of the winning design ought to.  After a convoluted competition process that attracted the talents of many traditional architects and also such Modernists as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Eric Mendehlsohn (each of whom tried their hand at that curious approach to memorialization by removing all triggers of memory from their architecture), the design of Boris Iofan (later revised by Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh) was named the winner.  Their goal was to create the world’s tallest wedding cake, a Neo-Classical monster 1,362 feet tall that could stare down the contemporaneous Empire State Building (a mere 1,250 to the rooftop.  Its daunting scale (here is another good graphic comparison) was emphasized in the 525′-diameter main hall, designed to hold 21,000 people, and of course the ginormous statue of Lenin on the top (328′ on his own–40′ higher than the dome of the Capitol in Washington).

A lot of ink has been spilled on 1930s Classicism, calling it Fascist or whatever.  Indeed, a number of baddies did enjoy this variety of architecture for its obviously persuasive, awe-inspiring connotations to the power of Imperial Rome.  But guilt by association doesn’t work in architecture; for every Communist or Nazi monument in the Classical style, you can easily find another (or a half-dozen) British banks and war memorials, not to mention American Deco-light skyscrapers and WPA-era projects in the same artistic vein.  The style is not the problem; it’s what happens inside that can be.  Putting that aside, we can ignore the ideology of the Palace of the Soviets and agree it would have been an aesthetic a nightmare.  Iofan could have learned a lot from the Beaux-Arts-trained New York architects who struggled (and sometimes failed) to make sense of Classical precedents–usually horizontal–in the face of the new form of the skyscraper.  Iofan doesn’t do this very well.  One building, please, not five!

So, do we give props to the Nazis for getting in the way of this grandiose gesture of horribleness?  Its construction, begun in 1937, was halted with the German invasion of 1941.  In the following year, the steel framework was disassembled and put to use in the war effort.  Later, the big pit was turned into a remarkable swimming pool.  In the 1990s the cathedral was rebuilt.  The huge Lenin was never carved–but there seems to be plenty of him to go around anyway.

image: the Palace that never was; to understand how it actually worked as a building, and not just as a pompous base for an over-large sculpture, check out the plan and section


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