When Bauhaus architects moved to work in the early Soviet Union, they left a fascinating legacy — and paid a steep price
April 25 marked the centennial of the Bauhaus. The design school Walter Gropius founded in Weimar in 1919 went on to change how we think about what a modern building should look like inside and out and, more importantly, what principles should guide its construction. We asked Dmitry Khmelnitsky, an architect and historian of architecture, to explain how not only Bauhaus but Western architecture as a whole became Soviet Russia’s signature style in the 1920s. He also wrote about how designers from abroad helped modern architecture blossom under the early Bloshevik regime before those same designers faced political ruin in the Stalinist 1930s.
The age of modern architecture in the Soviet Union was ultimately very short — six or seven years long at most. It began in the early 1920s, and by 1932, it had already been destroyed on the government’s orders only to be replaced by the imperial structures of Stalinism.
Constructivism, as modern architecture of that era was known in the USSR and is still known in Russia to this day, had disappeared from social consciousness as early as the 1930s, and the monuments to it that remained standing were received by the next generation of city dwellers as the strange spawn of a lost civilization, something like the statues on Easter Island.
When, after two decades of Stalinist architecture, Nikita Khrushchev took his turn at the helm and liquidated that style as well, he enabled a more open collective memory of the 1920s that created a new myth about the Soviet architectural avant-garde. That myth soon entered Soviet textbooks and the professional consciousness of Soviet architects. It held that, in the 1920s, the USSR had seen an incredible burst of new architecture, and an original style well ahead of its Western counterparts and conditioned by the Bolshevik Revolution itself appeared within Soviet borders.
That explosion really happened, and it was indeed incredible. Russia had never before seen such a large number of brilliantly talented architects and such a mass of magnificent projects emerge all together in such a short period of time, and it is unlikely that we will be so lucky again in the future.
Early Soviet architecture could be mythologized as the most progressive in the world despite, not because of, the Soviet government.
The fact that Soviet architecture was not at the leading edge of its field in the 1920s is inarguable. Chronologically, the Soviet constructivists followed their Western counterparts. For example, April 25, 2019, marked the centennial of the Bauhaus: that school, which was founded in the German city of Weimar, changed the face of contemporary European art and architecture, and it set an example for the USSR.
Walter Gropius, the founding director of the Bauhaus, was already a mature architect by 1919 who had several well-known projects to his name, and he wasn’t the only one. Meanwhile, the USSR still had a few years left to wait before the first signs of its own modern architecture would appear. Technically, one could consider the Vesnin brothers’ 1923 plan for the Palace of Labor, which was never built, to be the first modern Soviet architectural project. The first such project to come to fruition was Konstantin Melnikov’s Makhorka Pavilion, which was built in the same year, 1923, for a nationwide agricultural exhibition in Moscow. Another Melnikov project, the Soviet pavilion at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, soon followed. Both were temporary installations, and they were not preserved.
As for the Bolshevik Revolution, it simply happened to coincide with a revolution in professional architectural thought that was already stirring both in Russia and in the West. The Revolution itself cannot be said to have benefited architecture. An economic catastrophe, the Bolsheviks’ antisocial policies, and a state monopoly on orders for new projects all sharply narrowed the creative opportunities that were available in the country.
The fact that the top names in Russia’s architectural hierarchy under the Bolsheviks later became leading constructivists is another matter, especially where innovators like the Vasnin brothers and Alexey Shchusev were concerned. That confluence of circumstances enabled the Soviet modern architecture movement of the mid-1920s to become something of an official state style, much to the shock and admiration of its architects’ Western colleagues. For many, that admiration of the Soviet government ultimately proved fatal.
Western architects wanted to build the cities of the future, but the Soviet government asked them to build barracks.
The first Western architect to receive an order from the Soviet government was Erich Mendelsohn in 1925. Unlike many of the architects who later moved from Germany to the USSR, he did not sympathize with the Soviet government at all.
At the time, Mendelsohn was known for producing the Luckenwalde hat factory. The Soviet government offered him the chance to design an entirely modern textile factory called Krasnoye Znamya, or Red Banner, in Leningrad. Two trips to the USSR in 1925 and 1926 only strengthened Mendelsohn’s distaste for the Soviet authorities. Unfounded quibbles about the project and personal attacks in the press, including accusations of unprofessionalism, led Mendelsohn to leave the project in 1927.
Nonetheless, Mendelsohn’s work had a notable influence on Soviet architects. For example, Alexey Shchusev’s building for the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture, which was completed in 1933, looks suspiciously similar to a department store Mendelsohn built in Stuttgart in 1928.
In 1928, Le Corbusier won a competition to design a building for the Tsentrosoyuz, or Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives, in Moscow. The fact that the Swiss-French architect had received such a major order further convinced Western architects that the future of modern architecture lay in the USSR. Nonetheless, the Tsentrosoyuz Building project was not as simple as it appeared from the outside. The structure was completed, but beginning in 1930, Le Corbusier himself stayed out of the Soviet Union, and after the spring of 1932, his relationship with his Soviet clients soured for good. The split stemmed from a difference in opinion on what form modern architecture should take. Ultimately, the building was finished after Stalin introduced “neoclassicism” as the new state-approved style, and Le Corbusier’s building became an object of criticism in Soviet architectural journals for many years to come.
Mendelsohn’s and Le Corbusier’s projects were the only ones completed by Western architects on Soviet soil that possessed truly extraordinary artistic value. The only other possible example is Alvar Aalto’s library in Vyborg, which was seized along with the city itself during the Soviet-Finnish Winter War.
In 1927, Joseph Stalin took power in the Politburo, issued the New Economic Policy (NEP), and began actively building up the USSR’s military industry at the expense of all other economic spheres, causing a catastrophic downturn in ordinary people’s quality of life. At the same time, a new architectural style formed, though it was barely noticeable at first — especially from abroad, where the Soviet Union still appeared to be the world’s most contemporary construction site.
The Stalinist industrialization efforts that began in 1928 included massive state purchases of Western industrial technology and corresponding hiring efforts to attract foreign specialists who could install and service that equipment while teaching their Soviet counterparts to do the same. Engineers and technicians were the project’s primary target, but it also included a number of architects. The influence of their work was ultimately very insignificant, especially in the realm of housing design. The first five-year plans completely destroyed the possibility of funding comfortable apartment-style housing construction for laborers. What workers did receive was communal housing more akin to army barracks. For many Western architects who agreed to work in the USSR in hopes of designing contemporary cities for the working class, that turn of events came as a total surprise.
European architects designed socialist cities all over the USSR but quickly came into conflict with the Soviet government.
In October of 1930, Ernst May, Frankfurt’s former city councilor for construction, arrived in the USSR to find work. He did not come alone; instead, he brought along a hand-picked group of architects and engineers with various fields of expertise. May himself specialized in housing development, and he was responsible for a number of newly built German villages. Unlike Le Corbusier and Mendelsohn, May and his group did not maintain professional independence once in the Soviet Union, and they did not push back against their government clients. They became Soviet servicemembers who were obligated to obey the country’s leadership.
May was not a communist, and he emphasized his identity as a politically neutral specialist, but sympathy toward the communist regime was prevalent among his coworkers. In a very short time, May’s group finished development projects in Magnitogorsk, Nizhny Tagil, Shcheglovsk, Novokuznetsk (then Stalinsk), Leninsk-Kuznetsky, and other Soviet cities. Each of those developments was a sea of identical brick buildings placed in neat rows. A full block of these relatively primitive structures was built in Magnitogorsk; several others were constructed elsewhere.
All in all, the results May and his group produced were a professional catastrophe. Harsh economic decisions made comfortable workers’ housing a distant dream in the Soviet Union, and government-allocated funds for new housing projects in industrial cities constituted a small fraction of what would have been necessary to build homes whose construction quality was even decently passable. Ultimately, the USSR got slummy clusters of barracks where its industrial towns should have been, and neither Western nor Soviet architects could change that fact.
The USSR’s shift in 1932 toward a new state architectural style also spelled the end of modern urban development in the country, at least in the form architects like Ernst May envisioned it. Their idea of essential contemporary issues in urban development did not intersect at all with the monumentally decorated, classically ornamented housing or the palatial building ensembles that the Soviet government now prescribed for city centers.
Architectural disagreements were not the only ones rapidly heating up at the time: any favor the Soviet government had accorded to foreigners was also rapidly declining. Their apartments were searched while they were away from home, and one architect from May’s group, Werner Hebebrand, had military documents planted underneath a pile of his blueprints. He was taken to the Lubyanka Building, where he spent a year and was only freed after strenuous efforts on the part of his supporters.
May left the USSR for Africa in 1934. Some of his coworkers had already left Russia, and others kept working in other organizations. The group’s last remaining members fled the USSR in 1936 and 1937, and after 1936, foreigners were not permitted to work on urban planning projects due to state secrecy considerations.
Foreign architects who stayed in the USSR were often sent to gulags, where many of them died.
In late 1930, the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, who had recently been displaced from his post as the director of the Bauhaus in Dessau (where the school moved in the mid-1920s) due to his far-left political views, arrived in Moscow. Unlike the politically neutral May, Hannes Meyer was a fanatical communist. In February of 1931, a group of fellow communists who had also been his students at the Bauhaus joined Meyer in the Soviet capital.
Almost immediately after his arrival, Meyer joined the All-Union Organization of Proletarian Architects (VOPRA), whose mission was strictly political, not artistic. Meyer’s brigade worked in entirely different conditions from the ones that applied to other foreign specialists. They rejected the privileges that were made available to skilled workers from abroad and lived much like their Soviet colleagues did. The group even received its salaries in rubles, and its members were paid the same amount as their local counterparts. Meyer led his own brigade for a year and spent that time designing the School for the Education of Foreign Political Workers, a project that ultimately remained in the planning stages.
When the Communist Party changed its architectural course, Meyer, as a disciplined communist, announced his loyalty to its new ideals. In 1933, he wrote about his change of heart and his commitment to classical architecture for the journal Arkhitektura SSSR (Architecture USSR). The following year, Meyer wrote in the same journal in response to questions published by the Czech newspaper Levy Front (Leftist Front) that he was disgusted by modern Western architecture. Nonetheless, Meyer prudently quit the Soviet Union for Switzerland in 1936.
A quarter of his team also left the USSR between 1933 and 1937. Three made the incautious decision to become Soviet citizens, and they fell victim to the Stalinist repressions. Bauhaus graduate Béla Sheffler, who had been on the design team for the Uralmashzavod worker’s city in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), was shot in 1942. Antonin Urban was arrested in 1938 and shot as an alleged German spy. His indictment claimed that he had passed secret materials on urban planning in Moscow to German intelligence agents through a German resident named Hannes Meyer.
Philip Toltsiner, another Bauhaus graduate who moved to the USSR along with Meyer, was arrested in 1937 and spent ten years in a gulag. He was sent to the northern edge of what is now Perm Krai to work as a logger, but his camp’s leadership quickly realized that the architect could be useful for more technical labor. He was soon forced to build homes for the camp’s guards and to make furniture, including specialized pieces like a dentist’s chair whose blueprint has survived to this day. Toltsiner spent most of his prison term in a workshop in Solikamsk. After he was freed in 1947, the architect went on to work in the same city in what was then called Molotov Oblast, where he became the town’s lead architect and restored ancient Russian churches. In 1961, he moved to Moscow. In the end, Tolstiner was the only Bauhaus associate who remained in the USSR and survived long enough to be rehabilitated.
As communist architects were caught up in the Stalinist repressions, so was Margarete Mengel, Hannes Meyer’s secretary. In the summer of 1938, she was shot as a suspected German spy and buried in the Butovo Firing Range. She and Meyer had a son who was sent to an orphanage and later worked as a miner in Chelyabinsk Oblast, became a construction engineer, and moved to Germany in the 1990s, where he died at the beginning of the new millennium.
The Swiss architect Hans Schmidt had better luck. He arrived in Moscow as part of Ernst May’s brigade but left the group soon afterward. In 1933, he was assigned the leading role at the State Construction Project’s Workshop Number 3, where he worked primarily on development projects in the steppe city of Orsk. Other former members of the May and Meyer brigades worked alongside him in the workshop. In 1936, when all foreign architects were removed from urban planning projects to keep state secrets in Soviet hands, Schmidt began developing standard equipment for shops and kitchens. He was asked to present a paper at the first Soviet architects’ convention, but in May of 1937, a month before the convention was set to begin, Schmidt left the Soviet Union. It is likely that the entire group was warned of the dangers that faced them in advance: it was precisely in July of 1937 that the NKVD embarked on its so-called German operation, which targeted German citizens before expanding to include Soviet Germans.
Schmidt’s love affair with communism did not end there. Twenty years later, in 1956, he accepted an invitation to move to East Germany and became the lead architect for the Institute of Type Design in East Berlin. He is remembered as a founding father of German panel housing construction.
One architect who went on to work for the Nazi regime wrote a detailed book that openly criticized the early Stalinist USSR.
All in all, a few dozen foreign architects worked in the Soviet Union during the era of the first five-year plans. Some of them, like Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier, were well known and received personal invitations. Other, lesser-known architects were often motivated by curiosity and a simple need for work. Rudolf Wolters was among the latter. He would later help develop the Nazi regime’s plan for rebuilding Berlin under the leadership of Hitler’s lead architect, Albert Speer, who met Wolters when they were both Munich Technical School students in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, though, finding work in Soviet Russia was easier than doing the same in Germany, and in 1932, the young Wolters moved to Novosibirsk.
Wolters watched modern architecture yield to its Stalinist successor. He noted that the Soviet government justified the need to build luxurious palaces by arguing that the cultural demands of the masses had expanded while stopping work on public housing for laborers. Wolters himself received a room in a building that was constructed according to the new design norms: he claimed that it measured three by five meters (about 10 by 16.5 feet) but that the ceilings were 4.5 meters (about 15 feet) high. A separate room was considered a luxurious alternative to the much tighter living conditions Wolters’s Soviet counterparts experienced.
In the early 1930s, Wolters asserted, quality housing was scarce and made available only to the highly ranked. For many years, other Soviet citizens had to make do with barracks and dugouts. At the same time, Wolters described the construction of an enormous new theater in Novosibirsk (it was completed at the end of World War II). He wrote, “The [old] theater building was small, ugly, and rarely full. That didn’t stop the government from starting construction on a gigantic theater for 4,000 people. This incredible insanity will bitterly avenge itself.”
The author of A Specialist in Siberia would soon go on to support a genocidal regime whose military killed millions of Soviet citizens. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of his year there, the architect wrote that he managed to befriend a number of his Soviet neighbors. Wolters described a contrast between his new acquaintances’ hospitality and the poverty in which they lived. Even the simplest objects from Wolters’s homeland surprised the friends he invited to his temporary home, he claimed, writing that many of them asked to keep his empty foil-lined cigarette boxes. Wolters asked relatives in Germany to send him more of the empty boxes; these reportedly came in handy in the spring of 1933, when the architect gave them away liberally to get his projects approved shortly before his departure from the USSR.
The Kahn firm’s automobile, tank, and airplane factories left one of the most impactful legacies in Soviet architecture.
Erich Mendelsohn, Le Corbusier, Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, and other Western architects who left a significant legacy in Soviet urban planning were publicly visible people. They published articles in the Soviet and Western press and gave lectures on Soviet architecture when they traveled in Europe. Their Soviet projects received publicity both in the USSR and in the West. That said, the practical results of their work in the USSR were close to nil. Few of their designs were brought to life, and whatever was actually built has attracted more historical interest than artistic or architectural attention.
However, there was one more brigade of foreign architects and engineers whose short-lived (1929-1932) career in the USSR was rarely discussed in the West and went almost entirely unpublicized in the Soviet Union itself. The results of that collective’s work were nonetheless remarkable.
That group was part of the well-known firm owned by the American industrial architect Albert Kahn, who was one of the foundational figures of his field. Kahn gained fame as “Ford’s architect” and completed numerous projects for the automobile magnate. In April of 1929, the Detroit-based Albert Kahn, Inc., received an order from the Soviet government to design the Stalingrad Tractor Factory (which was, in reality, intended to produce tanks). The Amtorg firm, which served as a mediating structure and (covert) intelligence-gathering mechanism for the USSR, led negotiations between the two parties. The factory was produced in the United States, transported to Stalingrad, and remounted on site. After the project’s completion, Kahn’s firm opened its own branch in Moscow, which employed 25 American engineers and thousands of Soviet employees. Kahn’s brother Moritz directed the company’s Soviet arm.
Kahn’s firm designed more than 500 industrial projects between 1929 and 1932. Most of them were tractor (i.e., tank) factories in Stalingrad, Chelyabinsk, Kharkov, and Tomsk. The firm also designed airplane factories in Kramatorsk and Tomsk and automobile factories in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod. Its workers also designed a mass of non-transport-related industrial buildings, including a thermal power plant in Yakutsk.
Especially given the fact that there was practically no domestic automobile or airplane manufacturing industry in the USSR in 1929, it is clear that Kahn and his coworkers produced a lion’s share of the country’s industrial infrastructure.
Until 1932, Kahn was listed as an advisor to the Soviet government for industrial construction. In 1931 and 1932, he was in negotiations with Moscow to receive a contract for the technical design of the most infamous unrealized project in Soviet history — the Palace of Soviets, which was planned as a center of power for the entire country. The architectural competition to build the massive complex was ongoing at the time, and one of the top three prizes went to a previously (and subsequently) unknown American architect named Hector Hamilton. It was Albert Kahn who recommended him for the competition. It seems that Kahn had hoped to work on Hamilton’s design specifically, and the Soviet government had an incentive to support that illusion for Kahn up to a point.
However, in the spring of 1932, the government cut off its relationship with Kahn’s firm entirely. At the same time, Hamilton was excluded from participating in any further work on the Palace of Soviets. By then, the industrial infrastructure Kahn’s firm had designed had just begun to function at full steam, and the Soviet industrial construction system that had developed on his watch was able to continue its work independently.
And that, in the end, was all Stalin needed from Western architects and Western architecture.
English version by Hilah Kohen