From Empire style to Art Nouveau: The five main buildings worth taking a peep at in the Gagarinsky District

From Empire style to Art Nouveau: The five main buildings worth taking a peep at in the Gagarinsky District
Expert on the city of Moscow and its architecture, Denis Romodin, speaks about the district in the southwest of Moscow where members of the intelligentsia have been living since the 1950s and about Nataliya Sats dreaming about a Gothic-style building for her theatre. He also explains why the circus on Prospekt Vernadskogo has remained one of the country’s two most remarkable circuses.

Mos.ru continues its series of stories based on the Museum of Moscow’s Outdoor Lecture Hall. Local History project, came to a close at the end of August. Throughout the summer months, experts on Moscow and architectural historians gathered people together in courtyards across the city, letting them in on the mysteries and secrets of their neighbourhoods. The project is expected to resume next summer. Meanwhile lectures on Khamovniki, Shabolovka plus Ramenki are available in printed form.   

On 27 October, at 7 pm all lecturers will gather at the Museum of Moscow for their end-of-season meeting. Anyone is welcome to join them. For more details please click here

Denis Romodin (centre) leading a tour

MGU Teachers’ House

14 Lomonosovsky Prospekt

Built 1952–1955

This is one of the district’s most outstanding unofficial landmarks and is only second to the main Moscow State University building in size. As is gathered from its name, it was intended to provide staff accommodation for those working on the university campus that was being built at Leninskiye Gory at the time. In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the architects were set a dual task: on the one hand, they had to create Stalin-style expressive and magnificent buildings reflecting the postwar triumph and, on the other hand, to gradually switch to the industrial methods of standard construction. Architects planned this building to be the first in a series of similar buildings that they wanted to be seen all across Moscow as local dominating structures punctuating the long lines of similar facades – one such line can be seen, for example, on Leningradsky Prospekt.  

However, only two similar buildings were built in the city. One of them is famous No. 50 at Frunzenskaya Embankment, which is referred to as a house of retired leaders. The other one, a mirror-like reflection of the original building, was also built in the Gagarinsky District, on neighbouring Universitetsky Prospekt, to provide the Ministry of State Security staff with homes. It was built later at a time when Nikita Khrushchev launched a fight against architectural extravagance, so it has no ornate artwork plus is faced with bricks instead of ceramics.

The MGU Teachers’ House looks quite different, as it offers a fanciful mixture of Stalin-style architecture and certain characteristics from the Russian architectural styles of the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries as well as Naryshkin Baroque. The latter manifests itself in the decoration of the towers that resemble those of the Novodevichy Convent. Some parts of the artwork, for example, the seashells were borrowed from the decoration of the Cathedral of the Archangel and the Cathedral of the Annunciation at the Moscow Kremlin.

In the 1990s, the MGU Teachers’ House acquired the status as one of the districts’ elitist residential buildings and has retained it ever since along with the red-coloured buildings: flats there are not cheap.

Red-coloured buildings

4 and 6 Stroitelei Street

Built  1952–1954

Red buildings were supposed to be constructed across the entire Gagarinsky District and become its hallmark. However, these plans were disrupted when the fight against architectural extravagance began and no more red buildings were created in the city – the only replicas of them are a side wing of a building in Zorge Street as well as the entire building in Borisa Galushkina Street.

The buildings are called red because they are lined with bright red ceramic tiles punctuated by white concrete grouting. The architects were asked to design standard sectional buildings which could fit into different neighbourhoods without any basic changes, except the colour of the facing that had to vary, as each neighbourhood was to have a colour of its own. The colour red was chosen for the pilot project. Architects already started to introduce industrial methods at the time, which they expected to help facilitate fast-track construction in the future, and ventured to design decorations that was not typical of Soviet architecture. If you take a closer look at the white concrete blocks you will see cones, pine needles, oak twigs and acorns – a Scandinavian-themed design indicative of Art Nouveau of the North.  

The project was developed taking into account the needs of motorists: the government came up with the idea to develop a car that people could afford. This unfortunately was never realised. The buildings have an underground garage, which is another interesting architectural element: part of the garage that looks out on Stroitelei Street resembles an old aqueduct. Another of the street’s distinctive features was a summerhouse located on the roof of the garage that was the centre of attraction for residents from both red buildings.

The red buildings were intended for the members of creative and academic circles, who lived in Soviet times. Some still live there. People from the neighbourhood made of the two red buildings have formed a pro-active community: they run pages on Facebook and Instagram, have launched their own website and hold various events. The courtyards there are a special space – a garden city with alleys and fountains, which shut out the noise of the big city.

Progress Cinema (now the Theatre Led by Armen Dzhigarkhanyan)

17 Lomonosovsky Prospekt

Built 1958

This building owes its design to another interesting architectural experiment. At a time when architects were not supposed to be extravagant they were asked to design a modern cinema that would be unlike the bulky Stalin-era houses of culture with columns. The pilot project was carried out in the ninth neighbourhood in the Noviye Cheryomushki District close to what is now the Akademicheskaya metro station. The cinema building was not much to write home about. It was just a plain brick glazed structure, which by no means could claim the role as the district’s cultural centre.

At the same time an experiment in the southeast of the city proved a success: young architects who had been commissioned to design a cinema undertook to create a minimalist but spectacular building. Felix Novikov, Igor Pokrovsky together with Viktor Yegerev presented their project for a plain building made out of the two types of bricks that were available at the time, yellow ones and red ones with impressive ornate artwork on its façade that imitated the famous pattern on the façade of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Just to add to the fun, they created the upper windows of the building in the shape of concrete man holes, thereby creating bright contrasting decorative elements, which could not be described as extravagant and therefore received all the required rubber stamps of approval. A screen space to accommodate bills on the façade was also a decorative element, as each new bill changed the image of the cinema. 

For a long time, an orchestra welcomed the public at the cinema. People could dance and have a snack at the cafeteria before the screening of a film. By the late 1980s, this type of cinema had lost its popularity with the public and some cinema buildings were transferred into theatres. In the early 1990s, it was decided to authorise a company of actors led by Armen Dzhigarkhanyan to move into the Progress Cinema. The event opened a new chapter in the history of the building and the cultural life of the Gagarinsky District.  

Moscow Bolshoi State Circus

7 Prospekt Vernadskogo

Built 1964–1971

First, there were plans to build a cinema or a cultural centre at this site but after the construction of the Progress Cinema on Lomonosovsky Prospekt it became clear that it had to be something else. There were two circuses in Moscow at the time – one on Tsvetnoi Boulevard and the other on Triumfalnaya Square (previously, Mayakovskogo Square). The building of the latter was to be renovated and transferred to the Teatr Satiry Theatre. It was decided to build new premises for the circus in the southwest of the city, so it could move there from Triumfalnaya Square.

Architects Yakov Belopolsky, who was engaged in construction projects in the Belyayevo and Cheryomushki districts, and Yefim Vulykh, who was overseeing the construction in the southwest of the city at the time, embarked on the new project. They designed a building that was quite unusual for Moscow and did not look like a standard Soviet circus: it has extended long windows and a roof with a folding design that evokes memories of the traditional chapiteau circus. The building is a graphic illustration of modernist architecture and is one of the country’s most interesting as well as easily recognisable circuses along with, admittedly, the one in Yekaterinburg.

The advanced interior appeared to be a novelty in Moscow and the country as a whole: a system of changeable arenas allowed the circus to avoid long intervals between acts.

Natalya Sats Theatre

5 Prospekt Vernadskogo

Built 1975–1979

It took Natalya Sats a long time to find a suitable construction site for her theatre. It was only in the 1960s that she obtained a permit to build the premises for the children’s theatre she had already created in the southwest of the city. She commissioned young architect Vladilen Krasilnikov to design a Gothic-style building. It was not easy in Soviet times to push through a project with a Gothic-style design, nonetheless Krasilnikov partnered with Alexander Velikanov to design a most unusual extended building in a Brutalist style, which was the latest trend in Soviet architecture at the time. The building contrasted well with the neighbouring circus building, however, but didn’t stick out to much thanks to its light decorative sculptures depicting fairy-tale characters.

It was quite a task to secure a supply of sandstone from Kazakhstan, which was used to line the building of the theatre. Natalya Sats used her contacts with high-ranking officials in Kazakhstan and writing one letter was enough for her to solve the problem. To encourage the workers to finish the project as soon as possible, the company performed directly on the building site.

Another smart idea was to have an open space around the theatre, which could be used as a stage during the in summer months. Regretfully, after the demise of Natalya Sats this area was not used anymore. As for the building of the theatre, it is one of Moscow’s most unconventional buildings and a graphic example of Soviet architectural modernism.