The Palace of Soviets

A critical mark in 20th-century architecture, the Palace of Soviets Competition in Moscow rejects designs from Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret, Walter Gropius and more.

The Schusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow has dedicated an exhibition to a grand moment in 20th-century Soviet architectural history – the Palace of Soviets competition in Moscow, 1931-4. The winning design that never materialized is a quintessential example of Stalinist monumentality, and the exhibition reveals the project’s Italian influence in its gigantism reminiscent of ancient Rome.

The winning architect, Boris Iofan, graduated in architecture from the Odessa Art School in 1911; his passion for the antique lead him to re-enter architecture school at the Fine Arts Academy in Rome. He spent much of his time sketching Renaissance architecture and Roman ruins and graduated in 1916.

His practice resulted in a great facility for Classical composition, and dozens of his projects were designed, in subject, as the new Tower of Babel. The exhibition juxtaposes Iofan’s work with that of Italian architect Armando Brazini, with whom he apprenticed for about ten years in Rome. Brazini was a neoclassicist who dreamt of an architectural renaissance in Rome; he had an affinity with the magnificence of ancient Roman architecture, which greatly differed from the tastes of fascist Italy at the time.

The International Palace of Soviets Competition

In 1931, the international competition for the Palace of the Soviets was announced. It was to be built on the site of one of Moscow’s largest cathedrals. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was razed dramatically with explosives to accommodate the new palace. The open competition received 160 submissions from which twelve were invited and 24 were from abroad. Amongst them were designs from renowned architects, such as Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret, Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn and Hans Poelzig. Equally impressive were the members of the jury, including well-known cultural figures as Konstantin Stanislavski, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Maxim Gorky, and Vsevolod Meyerhold, amongst others.

A symbolic first prize was awarded jointly to Ivan Zholtovsky’s historic design and a neoclassical one by the American Hector Hamilton on February 28, 1932. It was decided by the Palace Construction Council that none of the submitted entries were adequate as a final design. This competition was to determine the path of Soviet architecture for the next two decades, strongly rooted in the architecture of the past despite recent measures to demolish past structures.

By the next competition the requirements for the design had changed, and many of the specific prescriptions for style were abandoned. The Construction Council declared Boris Iofan’s design to form the basis of the final project on May 10, 1933. It was to be assisted by Vladimir Gelfreikh and Vladimir Shchuko with a further requirement issued by the council. The building would be topped by a 50 to 75-metre statue of Lenin, for which the building itself would serve as a pedestal.

In Architecture in the Age of Stalin, Vladimir Paperny writes that the result of the competition left the international and radical community insulted and betrayed. They even wrote a letter to Stalin lobbying to stop the construction. Viktor Vesnin, a Russian leader in constructivism, was alarmed by the winning project of the competition. Paperny cites Le Corbusier, who wrote Vesnin from abroad: “It is hard to accept the fact that they will actually erect that odd thing which recently has flooded all of the journals.” Frank Lloyd Wright is also cited in his address to the First Congress of Soviet Architects in 1937. He is blunt about the “falsity” of the project: “This structure – only proposed I hope – is good if we take it for a modern version of Saint George destroying the dragon.”

Paperny notes that many Russian architects believed Iofan was supposed to be the winner from the very beginning. The international participation and the first-round prizes were considered by many to be propaganda and a smokescreen. Iofan’s background fitted him perfectly for the aesthetic politics surrounding the Palace of Soviets Competition. He was trusted by the Soviet Party hierarchy and had already developed a vast complex of luxury apartments and facilities for senior members and government. His winning of the competition, however, elevated him to star status in the Stalinist court.

The Soviet Union’s entry into the Second World War in 1941 put a halt to the project’s development. After Stalin’s death in 1953, President Khrushchev terminated the project’s construction for good, in a period known as "de-Stalinization". The only completed part luxuriously decorated the Moscow Metro station, and was later transformed into a huge open-air public swimming pool. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a $200 million reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour began in early 1995. The restoration was consecrated on August 19, 2000.