Back to a new way of life: Five main constructivist buildings in Shabolovka

Back to a new way of life: Five main constructivist buildings in Shabolovka
Alexandra Selivanova, the head of the Avant-Garde Centre in Shabolovka Street and a senior research associate of the Museum of Moscow, will deliver a lecture on key monuments of early Soviet architecture. continues its series based on the Museum of Moscow’s project “Open-Air Auditorium: Local History.” The project concluded at the end of August. All summer, Moscow buffs and architectural historians attracted audiences in the courtyards of many Moscow districts whose secrets were revealed in the lectures. “Open-Air Auditorium” will reopen next summer, and so far it is possible to read lecture notes about Khamovniki, Shabolovka, Ramenki and other districts.

Alexandra Selivanova, head of the Avant-Garde Centre in Shabolovka

Shukhov Tower

Address: 8 Shukhova Street

Years of construction: 1920-1922

 The Shukhov Radio Tower is definitely a dominant element in the district, and in the whole city before the 1950s-1960s. It was the highest structure in Moscow for a long time, even though it was built with several fewer tiers than planned – the project was curtailed in the course of work due to lack of good-quality steel. The tower was mounted using the telescopic method specially invented by engineer Vladimir Shukhov: each new section was assembled inside the previous one and lifted up by a hoist. He patented this hyperboloid-based structure in the second half of the 19th century, but originally it was used for water towers.

The Shukhov Radio Tower was the first symbolic structure built by order of the Soviet authorities: it was supposed to broadcast the ideas of the new state all over the world. The location was not picked at random. Shabolovka is the highest area in Moscow, close to the city centre and inside the Kamer Kollezhsky Val area (Kamer Collegium Rampart).  In addition, it already had radio-supply infrastructure – equipment for state radio manufacturing plants was kept nearby, in Drovyanaya Square, since 1918.  At the time the Shukhov Tower appeared,  there were three other radio aerials here (they were dismantled later) and the tower became number four.

During construction a tragedy struck that changed the architect’s life forever. The fourth and part of the third tier collapsed and killed two workers. The architect was sentenced to be shot with probation and it was an absolutely unprecedented measure at that time. The sentence was never carried out, in fact – it was suspended until the end of the construction and then forgotten. Still, Shukhov had to live under its weight all his life. 

Commune at the Workers’ Housing Construction Cooperative

Address: 19 Lesteva Street

Years of construction: 1927-1929

The idea of communes that were supposed to educate a new Soviet man in the principles of full socialisation of domestic life appeared in the first half of the 1920s. The first communes started in 1923-1924 when people moved in together in empty apartments and houses.  However, a commune is not a communal flat. In a commune people are not forced to live together, they do so out of ideological considerations. Members of a commune shared their incomes and sometimes even personal belongings, such as clothes, for example.

The first intentionally built house-commune appeared in Shabolovka Street not far from the Shukhov Tower in Lesteva Street (at that time it was Khavsky and Khavsko-Shabolovsky pereuloks) in 1929. It was called the Commune of the Workers’ Housing Construction Cooperative or the First Zamoskvoretskaya Association.

Architect Georgy Volfenzon designed this building so that it matched the tower, which seemed to grow out of it. In the first years after its construction the building was criticised by architects who criticised it for being insufficiently revolutionary and experimental because it contained not only long corridors with bedrooms for 9-12 people on both sides and common bathrooms but also individual three-room flats.

The middle of the building was the communal centre: canteen with a kitchen, entertainment centre with auditorium, rooms for activity groups, library and sports sections. The roof had a sun terrace, shower stalls and an outdoor cinema. The first residents of that building remember all this with great warmth. They always add that the local children’s favourite entertainment was to run from one wing of the building to the other without going down to the first floor but using the corridors, long strips of balconies and the communal centre.

The residents of the building became walking exhibits. As it was the first commune, various delegations of tourists often visited to see this new way of living in action. All the residents were supposed to sign an agreement containing housing regulations which included, for example, a ban on bringing in old furniture and items, such as icons, and on eating anywhere except the canteen. They also had to send their children to the nursery and kindergarten located in the same building and to end illiteracy within one year, 1930.

The building existed under those regulations for some time, then in the 1950s the dwellers were settled apart and the building was occupied by the Forestry Ministry. Currently, people still live in the part of the building containing flats and the communal centre is occupied by offices. 

Commune-dormitory of the Textile Institute

Address: 9 2nd Donskoi Proyezd

Years of construction: 1929–1930

Designed by architect Ivan Nikolayev, it was the most radical house-commune built in the Soviet Union. This unique landmark of constructivist architecture is well known to the students of architectural institutes all around the world, who can see its photographs in textbooks on 20th century architecture.

Nikolayev was instructed to design a commune for 2,000 students at a modest cost and based on new household principles. He designed a conveyer building with separate living scenarios and several architectural blocks for different household functions.

There was a dormitory block with small 6 sq m rooms for two, where students spent the night. In the morning, they were awoken by the sound of a bell and went to the locker room block, where they kept their possessions, textbooks and personal hygiene things. The students took showers, exercised on spacious balconies, got dressed and went to the day block along a wide ramp. The day block comprised a canteen, a library and a teaching area, where they studied if they did not need to go to the institute. This building also had separate cubicles for individual studies. The routine was reversed in the evening. Therefore the students first went to the locker rooms block and then onto their sleeping quarters.

This commune existed for a long time, because it was easier to fit students into a strict paramilitary routine than families with children.

Ivan Nikolayev designed several innovations for this project. One of them was the ramp, which the students used to go from the locker room block to the day block. The ramp was a novel architectural element that was widely used by Le Corbusier. The metal frame of the building accommodated long rows of windows. Nikolayev added crenelated dormer windows into the roof over the study hall; before him, such windows were only installed at plants and factories. These windows diffused light, did not cast shadows and were therefore good for drawing lessons.

The Communal House of the Textile Institute impressed everyone. It stood on an open lot surrounded by factories, and people compared it to a huge ocean liner that symbolised the new era.

The building still looks good, even though it has decayed quite a bit because it stood empty for so long. The living area was falling apart and had to be partly rebuilt during a recent renovation project.

Danilovsky department store

Address: 70 Lyusinovskaya Street

Years of construction: 1929-1934

In the 1920s nearly all the new districts on the outskirts of old Moscow, near factories and the Belt Railway Line, in addition to housing included an infrastructure, such as schools, kindergartens, entertainment centres and department stores. The Danilovsky department store was meant to be part of a project for building new Mostorg trading institutions all over Moscow, such as the one in Krasnaya Presnya, Sotyi and others.

The Danilovsky Mostorg was to be built near the Danilovsky market. The engineer who was put in charge to build it was Alexander Boldyrev. He designed the building simultaneously with working out the first designs for the Moscow metro stations. The Danilovsky department store was to be very large and to occupy the entire area between Mytnaya and Lyusinovskaya streets. However, as it often happens, the funding ran out and only half of the shop was built with one corner facing the Danilovsky market. Later the work was put on hold after subsoil waters containing chemicals were found under the foundations because for quite some time there had been a paint factory on the same spot.

The department store remained unfinished for several years, until an architect was chosen to take over. Georgy Oltarzhevsky was the younger brother of Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, the architect that was responsible for designing VDNKh, the Kievsky railway station plus several Moscow high-risers. Georgy Oltarzhevsky was well-known in pre-revolutionary Russia as a designer of tenement houses. According to his family, after the revolution he worked in Paris where, in all probability, he discovered art deco. When he returned to the Soviet Union and was put in charge of building the Danilovsky department store, he built it in that style which was fashionable in Europe at the time. This is why the originally constructivist building acquired elegant details, such as framed delicate interior elements and luxurious stone walls.

The Danilovsky department store opened in 1936. It was an absolutely new kind of shop where attention was given not only to the customers but also to the workers too. Those who worked there had an entire floor together with a café and lounges at their disposal. The department store was very popular with local residents and more than that, people came to shop there from all over Moscow.

Khavsko-Shabolovsky residential community

Addresses: 13 Lesteva Street, Block 3;  15 Lesteva Street, Block 1, 2; 19  Lesteva Street, Block 1, 2; 21 Lesteva Street, Block 2; 63 Shabolovka Street, Block 2;  65 Shabolovka Street, Block 2;  67 Shabolovka Street;  22 Serpukhovsky Val Street, Block 2, 3; 24 Serpukhovsky Val Street, Block 1, 2; 28 Serpukhovsky Val Street.

Years of construction: 1927-1930

This area between Serpukhovsky Val Street, Khavsko-Shabolovsky Pereulok (currently Lesteva Street), Khavskaya Street and Shabolovka Street was given by the Moscow City Council to the ASNOVA architectural brigade (the Association of New Architects) for the construction of a showcase residential complex. ASNOVA, led by architect Nikolai Ladovsky, held a competition inside the association. The winner was Nikolai Travin, a young graduate from the Higher Art and Technical Studios (VKhUTEMAS).  He suggested an original layout: L-shape buildings overlooking the streets at an angle of 45 degrees. This made the neighbourhood more dynamic: people walking along the streets had the impression that the angular parts of the buildings were turning. Also, the windows in the residential rooms looked out to the east as well as the south, while auxiliary rooms looked out to the north and the west.

The initial design included 24 buildings, but only 15 five-storey buildings were built with an elevated angular part with a six-storey tower. The colours were also interesting: to help residents get around, each line of buildings with triangular courtyards had its own colour with red bricks painted white and grey. Travin’s sketches had six colours, it is not yet known what was implemented, but judging by the black and white aerial photos of the late 1920s, we can see that each building was a Suprematist composition with long balconies, dark large squares on the facades with groups of windows, and vertical towers. It is all lost now, unfortunately: all the buildings are currently painted a common ochreish colour. That’s why the area resembles a labyrinth, as the locals call it. It is very easy to get lost once you go deeper into the neighbourhood.

A public building with a cafeteria, a club, libraries for children and adults, hobby groups and even a civil registry office and a sauna (as the locals recall) stood in the centre of the area. In the 1980s several storeys were added to the building and it was turned into a residential block. The only thing that was left is the library on the first floor and the Avant-Garde Centre, where I work.