Constructivist architecture was a form of modern architecture that flourished in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s. It combined advanced technology and engineering with an avowedly Communist social purpose. Although it was divided into several competing factions, the movement produced many pioneering projects and finished buildings, before falling out of favour around 1932. It has left marked effects on later developments in architecture.
The first and most famous Constructivist architectural project was the 1919 proposal for the headquarters of the Comintern in St Petersburg by the Futurist Vladimir Tatlin, often called Tatlin’s Tower. Though it remained unbuilt, the materials—glass and steel—and its futuristic ethos and political slant (the movements of its internal volumes were meant to symbolise revolution and the dialectic) set the tone for the projects of the 1920s.
Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, the USSR became economically insecure and unable to embark on major construction projects. Nevertheless, avant-garde design schools began to encourage and inspire ambitious architects and urban planners, in particular the Association of New Architects (ASNOVA) which was established in 1921.
Constructivist architecture was used to build utilitarian projects for the workers, as well as more creative projects such as Flying City, that was intended as a prototype for airborne housing.
The main characteristic of constructivism was the application of 3D cubism to abstract and non-objective elements. The style incorporated straight lines, cylinders, cubes and rectangles; and merged elements of the modern age such as radio antennae, tension cables, concrete frames and steel girders. The possibilities of modern materials were also explored, such as steel frames that supported large areas of glazing, exposed rather than concealed building joints, balconies and sun decks.
The style aimed to explore the opposition between different forms as well as the contrast between different surfaces, predominately between solid walls and windows, which often gave the structures their characteristic sense of scale and presence.
The first and perhaps most famous project was one an unrealised proposal for Tatlin’s Tower, the headquarters of the Comintern in St. Petersburg. Many subsequent, ambitious projects were not actually built, but Russia’s fourth-largest city Yekaterinburg is regarded as a ‘Constructivist museum’ including 140 built examples of the form. Another famous surviving example is the social housing project Dom Narkomfin in Moscow.
Tatlin’s Tower, or the project for the Monument to the Third International (1919–20), was a design for a grand monumental building by the Russian artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin, that was never built. It was planned to be erected in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, as the headquarters and monument of the Comintern (the third international).
Tatlin’s Constructivist tower was to be built from industrial materials: iron, glass and steel. In materials, shape and function, it was envisaged as a towering symbol of modernity. The tower’s main form was a twin helix which spiraled up to 400 m in height, around which visitors would be transported with the aid of various mechanical devices. The main framework would contain four large suspended geometric structures. These structures would rotate at different rates. At the base of the structure was a cube which was designed as a venue for lectures, conferences and legislative meetings, and this would complete a rotation in the span of one year. Above the cube would be a smaller pyramid housing executive activities and completing a rotation once a month. Further up would be a cylinder, which was to house an information center, issuing news bulletins and manifestos via telegraph, radio and loudspeaker, and would complete a rotation once a day.
At the top, there would be a hemisphere for radio equipment. There were also plans to install a gigantic open-air screen on the cylinder, and a further projector which would be able to cast messages across the clouds on any overcast day.