In his contribution
to a work entitled L’architecture des régimes
totalitaires face à la démocratisation, Yannis
Tsiomis has pointed out the ambiguities that are contained in
the notion of totalitarian architecture:
“What is totalitarian architecture? Is it the architecture
of a totalitarian regime? Is it a kind of architecture in which
monumentality prevails? Is it the kind that selects certain styles
at the expense of other ones? In short, is this a political question,
a spatial doxology of power or the regime, a question of size
. . . or a stylistic question?”(1)
these salutary questions allow one to set the boundaries for the
more general notion of totalitarian art,(2) there are two other
aspects of the issue that seem to me essential for an understanding
of architectural and urban production during the Stalinist period.
by looking too closely into the symbolic and ideological dimensions
of such architectural production, one ends up neglecting the economic
framework and the role that framework could play in the implementation
and definition of the form. Furthermore, reading such production
only through its most noteworthy objects, whether they remained
simply on paper or were actually expressed “in stone”
(the Palace of the Soviets, the Moscow subway system, the very
tall buildings of the postwar period), one ends up forgetting
that cities are made up not only of projects and monuments and
that they are complex objects with multiple temporalities, materials,
scales, and agents.(3)
Shifting one’s gaze from symbolic and ideological questions
toward the economic question and from the architectural object
toward the city-as-object, one is better able to investigate the
specificities not only of the form of such production but also
of its frame as well as the relation between frame and form.
If it needs to be recalled, let us repeat that the cost of creating
an architectural object is much greater than that of creating
any other kind of object in the field of art. And to transform
the city-as-object costs even more. As François Moriconi-Ebrard
“[T]he temporalities of a metropolitan area are known for
their longevity: bricks, stone, asphalt, concrete, water mains,
and rail lines are made to last. The installation of an urban
space is quite costly and, in the absence of war or of exceptional
or unforeseeable catastrophes, it can be replaced only a little
bit at a time.”(4)
What urban-planning project, except for those executed ex nihilo,
has not been confronted by such a situation and been forced to
adapt to it? Was the main urban-planning project of the Stalinist
period, the Moscow reconstruction plan of 1935, an exception to
within the context of a specific political regime wherein the
state takeover of production was, if not complete, at least quite
extensive, this project was developed inside the State’s
planning offices, a highly hierarchized structure that brought
together the main “architectural forces” of the country.
But it depended above all on some unique conditions many urban
planners and architects dream of: the absence of private ownership
of land and of real property.(5)
Did those exceptional frameworks and conditions render the fulfillment
of this urban-planning project any simpler for all that? Did they
ensure that the transition from project to finished object would
be any more faithful? Did they lead to the emergence of a specific
observing the way in which one of the essential components of
this urban-planning project--the kvartal/maguistral (city
block/main artery) pair--was set in place, one can better understand
this relationship that pertains to the many changes that take
place between project design and completed object.
Kvartal/Maguistral: A Privileged Pair for Observation
the one hand, the Moscow reconstruction plan was designed to be
implemented on a large territorial scale as it envisioned a doubling
of surface area, the creation of new systems (green zones, river
use, and transport), and a tripling of the number of the square
meters set aside for housing. On the other hand, it was based
on the idea of preserving the city’s radioconcentric structure,
whose layout was in fact to be reinforced by the cutting of new
radial and concentric arteries as well as the enlargement of existing
roads. Paralleling the large scale of the operation, the basic
unit of this development plan was defined as the kvartal (city
block), land parcels having ceased, in the absence of private
ownership of land, to fill the role of the smallest unit for urban
the average size of the historic city block in central Moscow
was up to three hectares, the plan defined a new block as 10 to
15 hectares. This surface area was directly tied to issues relating
to transportation, pedestrian movement, and the definition of
new standard sizes for roads. In fact, the outer edge of the
kvartal was to measure 500 meters, a length that, according
to the designers, would constitute the ideal distance between
two intersections. Indeed, it would allow one to maintain traffic
flow without generating the risks associated with speeding cars,
while the inhabitant of the kvartal would have to travel
only a maximum of 250 meters on foot in order to reach the corners
of the block (image 1).
buildings six or seven floors high were laid out at the perimeter
to surround a large central square. At the center of the kvartal,
buildings of a lesser height were to be included, ones intended
for such local facilities as daycare centers, schools, and playgrounds.
Shops were placed on the ground floor, facing the street. Access
to housing units was from the courtyard side, which could be reached
by going through monumental arches cut into the first two or three
floors of the residential buildings (image 2). With a planned
population density of 400 inhabitants per hectare, these large
kvartaly were to receive 4,000 to 6,000 inhabitants,
the latter figure never having been announced.
The city would therefore be divided into large urban units of
10 to 15 hectares organized around planted courtyards and separated
by radial and concentric arteries whose width would vary, as a
function of their importance, from 50 to 120 meters, the whole
layout being interrupted at regular intervals by vast squares.
When the Existing City Redesigns the Project
The pages of professional journals from this period are filled
with projects that applied these principles within the historic
city center, the priority area for reconstruction. Drawn upon
the background of the old land registry--this figurative mode
affording them a sense of technical realism--these proposed projects
led people to believe that there would be a radical destruction
of the old city fabric.
And yet a look at the fabric of Gorky (now Tverskaya) Street,
the first large construction site and the city’s main artery
since the seventeenth century, reveals that the original ambitions
had been revised downward, unless those apparently realistic projects
are to be classified as idealized representations.
street was certainly doubled in width, passing from 18 meters
to 40 meters--but not to the 60 meters initially planned (image
3). The Sovietskaya (now Tverskaya) Square was enlarged, but to
a lesser extent than what the published plans (image 4) had led
one to imagine. At the same time, those monumental arches opened
behind the new facades, not on a large planted space, but on a
dense fabric of old buildings and irregularly traced alleys. Although
the parcel or tract of land would no longer be an expression of
private property ownership, it continued to be materialized in
physical form through numerous fence enclosures and walls. As
for the old land registry, it did not serve solely as the background
for future projects, the better to illustrate the transformations
being proposed, but as a prop that allowed one to inventory existing
buildings, with registrations being made on the parcel level.
Finally, although we have at our disposal no document that would
attest to the precise number of people inhabiting those central
city neighborhoods, it is highly unlikely that the density of
the kvartal would have been able to be maintained at
400 inhabitants per hectare. The existence of the housing crisis
at the time, which peaked during the years 1934-1955 with an average
of four square meters per inhabitant, would lead one to believe,
rather, that population density was two times higher. As for the
new housing units designed for those buildings, though they were
individual units on paper, they were in large part transformed
into communal apartments. Their arrangement around a large and
broad central corridor facilitated their subdivision.
Kvartal or Maguistral?: How Economics Reveals
application of the kvartal model within the historic
city center was thus not carried out in conformity with the project
plan as it was originally conceived and designed. The gap between
the project and its application is to be explained above all in
economic terms. On the one hand, the housing crisis was such that
one could not consider demolishing existing buildings, even dilapidated
ones, that might serve as shelter. On the other hand, the expropriations
conducted as this project plan was being implemented obliged the
State to indemnify a portion of those being expropriated(6), as
contrasted with the uncompensated seizures of real estate that
followed the Revolution of 1917.
economic choice reveals the true symbolic choices involved, since
it allows one to read what was going on in the balancing of the
kvartal/maguistral pair, where the street, the facade,
and the public dimension of the project prevailed over the building
unit, the interior decoration, and the “intimate”
sphere, for lack of a “private” one.
In fact, even though demolitions of existing buildings occurred
at a less frequent rate than had been envisioned in the original
project plan, they were of high visibility. Contrary to the street
cuts made by Baron Haussmann, which involved low-value buildings
in the middle of street blocks, the 1935 Moscow plan was aimed
at enlarging existing streets and thereby led to the destruction
of what was most precious, buildings facing the street. It was
the likelihood of old buildings being able to be transformed or
moved that determined in this case whether or not they would be
preserved. Some were indeed movable, thanks to a technique developed
by Americans during the nineteenth century, and among them were
included some of the biggest buildings in the city: taken off
their foundations, secured with a metal belt, and set on a rail,
they were pushed to the back of a courtyard, on the new street
line, or else rotated 90 degrees (image 5).
even though the kvartal plan was not carried out in the
historic center of the city, the creation of a long continuous
facade of homogeneous size and architectural style nevertheless
gives the impression, from the street side, of a successfully
it was during the first years of Khrushchev’s presidency,
in the midst of a debate about the economy and the standardization
of construction materials and processes, that the kvartal
idea was to be implemented in the closest form to the one conceived
in the 1935 plan. Moscow’s southwest neighborhood, situated
around the Lomonosov University, was the illustration of this
(image 6). And it is perhaps through this example that one can
truly speak of the emergence of a new urban form, at least on
an unprecedented divisional scale.
Tsiomis, “Architecture totalitaire ou discours totalitaires
sur l’architecture?” in Ioana Iosa, ed., L’architecture
des régimes totalitaires face à la démocratisation
(Paris: Éditions de l’Harmattan, 2008), p. 32.
2. This notion received renewed interest after
the publication of Igor Golomshtok’s 1990 work Totalitarian
Art in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the
People’s Republic of China, trans. from the Russian
by Robert Chandler (New York, NY: Icon Editions, 1990) and Boris
Groys’s 1988 work The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-garde,
Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, trans. Charles Rougle
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
3. See, on this issue, the work of Massimiliano
Roncayolo, Pier Giorgio Gerosa, Bernard Lepetit, and André
Corboz, in particular Roncayolo’s Lectures de villes.
Formes et temporalités (Marseilles: Parenthèses,
2002) and Gerosa’s Eléments pour une historie
des théories sur la ville comme artefact et forme spatiale
(XVIIIe- XXe s.) (Strasbourg: Université des Sciences
4. François Moriconi-Ebrard, De Babylone
à Tokyo. Les grandes agglomérations du monde (Paris:
Éditions Ophrys, 2000), p.22.
5. Decrees of November 8 (October 26), 1917 and
August 20, 1918.
6. In reality, only inhabitants who had a propiska
(recorded document) and were part of certain categories of
the population had a right to such indemnifications, which consisted
in a payment of 2,500 rubles, or around 10 months of average wages
Iosa, Ioana. Ed. L’architecture des
régimes totalitaires face à la démocratisation.
Paris: Éditions de l’Harmattan, 2008.
Essaïan, Elisabeth. Portrait de Moscou.
Paris: Cité de l’architecture, 2009.
_____. Le plan général de reconstruction de
Moscou, La ville, l’architecte et le politique. Héritages
culturels et pragmatisme économique. Architecture
Jean-Louis Cohen, Université de Paris-VIII, 2006. Forthcoming:
Azarova, Katerina. L’appartement communautaire,
L’histoire cachée du logement soviétique.
Paris: Éditions du Sextan, 2007.
Bouvard, Josette. Le métro de Moscou,
La construction d’un mythe soviétique. Paris:
Éditions du Sextan, 2005.
Colton, Timothy. Moscow: Governing the Socialist
Metropolis. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 1995.
Cohen, Jean-Louis. “The Moscow Plan of
1935: When Stalin Meets Haussmann.” Art and Power: Europe
under the Dictators. 1930-1945. Dawn Ades, Tim Benton, et
al. Ed. Pp. 246-49.
1 Blueprint for an ideal kvartal of 15 hectares.
1. day-care center; 2. playground; 3. school; 4. parking lot;
5. parking spaces; 6. streetcar stops; 7. walkway; 8. courtyard.
2 Drawing for the widening of Gorky Street. 1938.
3 Reconstruction of Sovietskaya (Tverskaya) Square, showing
the lowered ambitions in revised plans (drawings from 1936
4 Sovietskaya (Tverskaya) Square), Mossoviet building being
moved. 1939. Shchoussev Museum).
5 Southwest neighborhood. 1953-1957. Initial drawing and current