At the beginning of the 20th century, St. Petersburg was in the midst of a transformation of commercial and living space that had begun in the 1860s and would continue until World War I. Although the great imperial monuments remained standing, practically everything around them was rebuilt during this period in an eclectic array of architectural styles, including the style moderne. The densely constructed St. Petersburg environment consisted of buildings within a city plan that followed the straightedge wherever its deltaic terrain permitted. The city’s height restrictions, which limited most construction at five or six stories, also encouraged perspectival uniformity.
In this setting, the plasticity of structure and material that characterized the style moderne in Moscow frequently assumed a two-dimensional form that depended on the texture and shaping of the facade of contiguous apartment buildings. Of the several hundred building projects undertaken in the city between 1898 and 1915, only a small fraction applied the new style in anything other than a fragmentary, decorative manner. There were, nonetheless, architects whose work defined a distinctive variant of the new style known as the “Northern moderne.” Fedor Lidval (1870–1945) was the most productive among them, and his career ranged from the early moderne to the more austere neoclassical revival. Lidval’s buildings—primarily large apartment houses and banks—also illustrate the developing links between large construction projects and private capital resources in St. Petersburg.
Among other architects active in the apartment construction boom, the work of Aleksei Bubyr is notable for its original approach to structure as a sculpted, textured block. A 1902 graduate of the Institute of Civil Engineering, Bubyr often collaborated with the architect Nikolai Vasilev, who also designed a number of large housing projects in St. Petersburg. Yet Bubyr himself developed a distinctive interpretation of the rationalist side of the style moderne, with equal attention to aesthetics and engineering. In the latter area, he was a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete for the walls as well as the floor construction of apartment buildings, and this familiarity with new construction methods is reflected in the free style of even his largest structures.
The apartment house that Bubyr built in 1910–12 on the Fontanka Quay (no. 159) is striking not only for its lack of ornamentation but also for its massive outline, looming above the largest of St. Petersburg’s canals. In constructing the facade, Bubyr resorted to the familiar device of unfinished granite on the lower surface, but only to the level of the first-floor window ledge. For the most part, the walls are covered with gray roughcast, yet the facade is framed by a top floor and corner bays of smooth, light stucco that produce a clarity of line and a bright exterior. Bubyr emphasized the tectonic character of the building with multistoried window bays that define the vertical lines of the facade and at the same time provide more light for the main rooms of each apartment. The upper stories culminate in a complex line, beginning as a mansard roof with low, narrow dormers (in effect, a seventh story) and rising at the corners to high gables and a series of pyramidal forms covered by ceramic roofing tiles.
The style moderne also appeared in the design of public buildings for banking and commerce. The most notable landmark of early 20th-century commercial architecture is the headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company (1902–04), at the corner of Nevskii Prospekt and the Catherine Canal. Its architect, Pavel Siuzor (1844–c.1919), had established a career remarkable not only for prodigious output (some 100 original projects and reconstructions, of which more than 60 are extant) but also for its success in adapting to stylistic and technical innovations. Among the technical advances in the Singer Building is the use of something approaching a skeletal structural system, although not the steel frame of the type widely used in the United States. The exterior facades are supported with a ferroconcrete and brick frame, and the interior floors (also reinforced concrete) rest on iron columns. By surfacing the arcade of the first two floors with rusticated blocks of polished red granite and using a lighter, gray granite for the upper stories, Siuzor created a visual base for the structure, which rises in granite- surfaced piers and glass window shafts that extend from the third to the sixth floor in a secondary arcade pattern. The culminating element of the building is the elongated metal- ribbed and glass cupola, which could be illuminated to advertise the Singer logo.
By 1910 the style moderne had yielded to various modernized forms inspired by classical and Renaissance motifs, such as the Azov-Don Bank (1908–09) and the Hotel Astoria (1911–12), both by Fedor Lidval; the Mertens Building (1922–12) by Marian Lialevich (1876–1944); the Guards’ Economic Society department store (1908–09) by Ernest Virrikh (1860–after 1921), Stepan Krichinskii (1874–1923), and Nikolai Vasilev; the Vavelberg banking building (1910–12) by Marian Peretiatkovich (1872–1916); and various apartment buildings by Vladimir Shchuko (1878–1938) and Andrei Belogrud (1875–1933). Perhaps the most accomplished architect of the neoclassical revival was Ivan Fomin (1872–1936), who specialized in the design of private houses but also conceived of an enormous apartment development known as New Petersburg (1911–12), only a few buildings of which were completed before World War I.
After the outbreak of World War I, the overheated Russian economy led to a collapse of the construction industry. The monumental buildings that had been erected by the hundreds in the preceding decades could no longer be maintained. In addition, the terror of the 1918–21 civil war led to the almost total collapse of services and infrastructure in Petrograd, as the city was called after 1914. After the death of Lenin, the name was changed again, to Leningrad, in 1924.
Under the direction of Sergei Kirov, the city began to recover from its precipitous economic and political decline after the revolution. Although the historic central districts of the city remained largely intact by virtue of a comprehensive preservation policy and the limited resources of an abandoned capital, Constructivist architecture began to appear in the late 1920s in the design of administrative and cultural centers for the city’s largest outer districts, where workers’ housing was under construction. One of the earliest examples was Moscow-Narva District House of Culture (1925–27; later renamed the Gorkii Palace of Culture) by Alexander Gegello and David Krichevskii. Essentially a symmetrical structure designed around a wedge- shaped amphitheater of 1,900 seats, the compact building demonstrated the beginnings of a functional monumentality dictated by actual circumstances—circumstances that had been ignored in the earlier Workers’ Palace and Palace of Labor competitions.
The construction of a number of model projects occurred in the same district, including workers’ housing (1925–27), by Gegello and others, on Tractor Street; a department store and “factory-kitchen” (1929–30; to eliminate the need for cooking at home), built in a streamlined early Bauhaus style by Armen Barutchev and others; and the Tenth Anniversary of October School (1925–27), designed by Aleksandr Nikolskii, on Strike Prospekt. The centerpiece of the district (subsequently renamed Kirov) was the House of Soviets (1930–34), designed by Noi Trotskii. Its long four-story office block, defined by horizontal window strips, ends on one side in a perpendicular wing with a rounded facade and on the other in a severely angular ten-story tower with corner balconies.
A similarly austere, unadorned style emphasizing the basic geometry of forms was adopted by Igor Ivanovich Fomin and A. Daugul for the Moscow District House of Soviets (1931–35) on Moscow Prospekt. Yet the facade, composed of segmented windows of identical size, signifies the repetition of an incipient bureaucratic style rather than the streamlined dynamic of earlier Constructivist work. During the same period (1931–35), Igor Fomin and Evgenii Levinson designed an apartment complex for use by the Leningrad Soviet in the fashionable prerevolutionary Petrograd district, on the bank of the Karpovka River near Kamennoostrovskii Prospekt (subsequently renamed after Kirov). With an open passageway supported by granite columns in the center of the curved facade, the design echoes the work of Moisei Ginzburg and, especially, of Le Corbusier. A stylobate of gray granite provides a base for the rest of the structure, whose facade is coated in artistic concrete with a scored surface. The careful attention to such details of architectural and decorative design is unusual for this period and indicates the privileged status of the city bureaucrats for whom the structure was built.
The 1935 Leningrad city plan, devised by Lev Ilin and modified in the late 1930s by Nikolai Baranov, involved a shift from the historical central districts to a new grand avenue—Moscow Prospekt—leading to the south and to a proposed administrative complex centered on the House of Soviets. This building, and the plaza surrounding it, formed the most grandiose project of the 1930s (if one considers the Moscow Palace of Soviets to have been, in effect, utopian). Ultimately, the project was reduced in scale, and the outbreak of war curtailed construction still further, but the House of Soviets (1936–41), designed by an architectural collective headed by Noi Trotskii, was completed in the purest form of totalitarian monumentality: 220 meters long and 150 meters deep. The central facade is marked by 20 attached columns, above which is a massive frieze depicting scenes from the construction and defense of the socialist homeland. The design attempted to draw on the legacy of classical architecture and city planning in St. Petersburg with its open squares and monumental facades and at the same time to supersede that legacy by sheer exaggeration of scale.
The outbreak of World War II found Leningrad catastrophically unprepared. Surrounded by German and Finnish forces during the 900-day siege, the city was subjected to almost constant artillery bombardment. With the breaking of the siege in early 1944, architects and construction teams immediately began the process of restoring not only the great monuments but also the city’s apartment buildings.
In the post-Stalinist period, most of the city’s growth occurred in large housing projects of standardized design on the outskirts of the historic center, which itself remained relatively well preserved. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the decline in funding for city services led to a crisis in maintaining the many prerevolutionary apartment buildings that provide the city with its urban texture. In addition, economic stagnation and lack of investment have hampered the development of innovative architectural concepts. Under these circumstances, the primary goal is to preserve and renovate the architectural legacy of a time when St. Petersburg was one of
Europe’s great capitals.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.