September 12: Stalin’s Sisters

2016/09/12 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1947 foundation stones were laid on eight different sites in part of an ambitious multi-building program in Moscow.

The date coincided with the 800th anniversary of the year that the name “Moscow” first appears in a historical document.  The aim to turn the Russian capital into a tall city that could visually compete with western cities–in particular, simulating the vertical growth that had taken Chicago and New York about seven decades to achieve–was directed by Stalin, who expected the project to be complete in ten years.  Stalin was a great patron with a keen understanding of architecture’s symbolic role; already in 1933 he supported the grandiose fantasy that was the Palace of the Soviets.  After its realization was crushed by the realities of the subsequent war, he devised a more glorious and sweeping plan for eight great skyscrapers to ring the city.  Like the Palace of the Soviets, they were intended to fuse the heft and dignity of Classicism to the soaring technical possibilities of the twentieth-century.  Like many skyscrapers in the west, they were built of steel and concrete and clad in a sleek surface finish.  Unlike those in the more practiced West, they were tremendously hefty, overbuilt, and veneered in tile.  Each comprising a central tower flanked by shorter buildings that shared a common stepped base, they drew from Art Deco’s stepped massing to emphasize their soaring height while being firmly rooted on the ground.  Their tall spires are specific to Stalin’s version of Stripped Classicism and are the one element that separates them from similar buildings (albeit of earlier decades) in western cities.

After the coordinated cornerstone ceremonies, the construction of each skyscraper was staggered.  Seven of the buildings were complete by 1957; the eighth never really got off the ground.  Known in Russia simply as “Stalin’s Skyscrapers,” the west dubbed them with a sweeter name, “the Seven Sisters.”  In order from shortest to tallest, they are:

Red Gates Administrative Building (Alexei Dushkin, 1953): 436 feet; offices, apartments, shops and retail.

Leninsgraksaya Hotel (Leonid Polyakov, 1949-52): 446 feet tall; hotel (now a Hilton) and conferencing center.

Kudrinskaya Square Building (Mikhail Posokin and Ashot Mndoyants, 1948-54): 525 feet tall; residential and commercial with the top floors dedicated to possible KGB activity to spy on American embassy below.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (V. G. Gelfreikh and M. A. Minkus, 1948-53): 564 feet tall; government offices.

Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building (Dmitri Chechvlin and Andrei Rostkovsky, 1948-50): 577 feet tall; apartments and offices.

Hotel Ukraina (Arkadi Mordvinow and Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, 1957): 676 feet tall.  Now a Radisson that, like the Leningraksaya above, will set you back about $300 per night).

Moscow State University (Lev Rudnev, 1949-53): 787 feet tall; student housing, lecture rooms and faculty offices.  Its total budget equalled that of the other six buildings combined.

What’s to be made of the Sisters’ legacy?  They might be condemned as outrageously huge burdens on the Russian economy, all for the ego trip of a lunatic.  They might also be viewed as monuments of evil, giant reminders of Stalin himself and specifically bearing witness to thousands of workers drawn from the Gulag and German prisoner of war camps who comprised some of the construction crews who toiled behind the Iron Curtain.  Yet it’s hard to ignore their achievement: value judgments aside, they are an unparalleled family of skyscrapers in any city.  Perhaps technically clunky by American standards, they were a great achievement in their own context.  The University remained the tallest building on the continent until 1990.  And, they are not bad-looking, with the air of the Tribune Tower and Woolworth Building about them.  Likewise, there’s something to be said for the way they stand alone and apart, towering over Moscow, unlike towers in New York, Chicago, London and more recently Dubai, jostle against their neighbors for attention.  Horrifying as much of the meaning and background of Stalin’s buildings might be, one must give some credit to Stalin (did we really just say that?) for his adamant belief that “the eye should delight.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to make a final call on the Seven Sisters, emblematic as they are of the messiness of history and shifting nature of architectural symbolism, and the people responsible for both.

Image: Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building (from this source)


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