Type: The sources used for this research are lacunary and sometimes contradict each other. In the course of the radical political changes of the 1930’s, they were often destroyed or dispersed, which makes them rare and difficult to access. This essay is an attempt at a reconstruction of facts using inter alia the unpublished bibliography of Philip Tolziner.
November 2008 The sky is low above Motovilikha. Making our way along a muddy street, in the timid light of this part of the Urals we see emerging before us a silhouette of carbonated concrete, an iron structure rusting in the cold, whose plaster panels between pilasters suggest a construction site of dubious standards. It is difficult to believe that eighty years before this old workers’ club designed by constructivist architect P. Golosov (Gladyshev, 2008) provided the early Soviet society with up to three hundred thousand meals a day (Semyannikov, 2002). An emblem of the new socialist urbanisation, not only was the workers’ canteen meant to rescue the woman from her kitchen slavery, it was also supposed to a place capable of generating the new social structure by becoming a venue for festivals and shows in the evenings (fig. 1). Several meters away we find a curvy-shaped building with sharply defined edges. Its faded crimson colour and white horizontal bands prompt its status of a public building. This is an infirmary at 11 Lebedev street, built at the end of the 1920s (fig. 2). Then, with our feet still in the mud, we pass in front of a white house with purple lines of 15 Ziolkovsky street (fig. 3), or the agricultural college at 11 Zemlyachka street (fig. 4), the House of the Teachers (fig. 5) and the technical college in Ural street (fig. 6) till we arrive at Lebedev street where blocks of flats welt in the mud like bars of concrete (fig. 7). Some of them are embellished by friezes and acanthus leaves (fig. 8 & 9). We were not aware yet that we were in the heart of Molotov, a new revolutionary town whose construction started in the mid-1920’s. What seemed to us on that November day like a ruined part of a forgotten city, was actually a manifest of the socialist urbanism, built in order to bring people out of the mud. In his book Sotsgorod1, Nikolai Milyutin writes that Motovilikha is the most thriving town of Russia, an ideal place where the Soviet society could germinate. In 1938, Hannes Meyer also called Perm an ideal region, as « it has, as is seldom the case, all elements for the development of planned economy of socialist type, due to the availability of natural resources, both heavy and light industry complexes, energy resources, an excellent river transportation network, a good railway network, an old cultural centre and well-cultivated countryside" (Maglio, 2002). However, it is not only their common interest for Perm and its region that unites Meyer with Milyutin, it is the concept of a socialist town : the Sotsgorod. Sotsgorod It is believed that the author of the Sotsgorod concept is the sociologist Leonid M. Sabsovich. In the late 1920s, Sabsovich wrote about complete collectivisation of all forms of social life in a compact town comprised of standardized residential combinats (Kruft, 1985). The principles of Sotsgorod had been germinating since the first years after the October Revolution. Between 1922 and 1923, simultaneously with the competition for the Palace of Labor, the first competition for socialist housing was launched in Moscow. According to the brief, the contestants had to plan flats for families with children and for single people. The blocks flats were supposed to incorporate a workers’ club, a kindergarten, a domestic services centre, a bathhouse and a laundry room. The volumetric relations between the public functions and the housing lay the basis for the development of communal life, which at that period still took place amid the existing merchant town. This question is fundamental for the concept of the collective city. The contest brief required that the principles of a socialist town be put into practice in two blocks in Moscow: one along Serpukhovskaya street, and the other in Simonov district. Among the submitted projects it is interesting to mention those by Andrei Belogrud (fig. 10) and Konstantin Melnikov (fig. 11), who were awarded with the second prize for the Serpukhovskaya street block. Both projects suggest a hybrid topology of town houses arranged transversely in lines, with flats for single people on the ground floor and larger flats on higher floors and in the loft. Housing units can be accessed through individual entrances separated from the street by a private garden. Both projects propose arranging the communal services in a single building. Melnikov also suggests connecting the individual town houses with the public services by roofed passageways and porticos in order to create spaces for people to meet in the course of their daily routines engendered by the rhythms of the life of the emerging socialist society and its new architecture2. Melnikov’s project, just like that of Belogrud, proposes simple architectural forms and is devoid of ornaments. The spaces created by volumes are tense and form a hierarchy, thus giving the first answer to the question about the role of the individual in the communist society. These ideas are manifested notably in the standardised design of the lodgings and the relations between the residential part and the communal services. The winners of the competition were the projects of Leonid Vesnin (fig. 12) and Sergei Chernyshev. The typologies they proposed do not differ fundamentally from the ones used before the Revolution, the only difference being the inclusion of the pre-requisite communal services (Brumfield & Blair, 1993). The project by L. Vesnin has residential buildings arranged around the main regular-shaped semi-public space, with the public building inside it. The facade of the blocks of flats is serial, but this design does not propose any standardization. The layout of the blocks of flats offers a remarkable level of comfort but does not suggest any communal usage of the residential block. The density in this project is higher than in the two previously mentioned ones.
Eventually, none of these projects were realized in Moscow, but in 1928 Chernyshev’s design was implemented in the construction of the new centre of Motovilikha3. On that November day we were still unaware of it, yet we found ourselves in the place where the first Sotsgorod has been built. Motovilikha, a workers’ community next to Perm, was more suitable for the new Soviet society than the old merchant town of Perm. Its geographic situation was ideal. Between it and the Kama River, a tributary of the Volga, stretched the Motovilikha mechanical plant. The town and the plant were cut through by railway and by a strip of greenery. Molotov Beginning with the 1930’s, Motovilikha becomes more important than Perm. In 1931 Motovilikha will be renamed Molotov, and from the 1940-s, the town Perm-Molotov is officially called only Molotov. So, were in the centre of Molotov, whose inhabitants eighty years before had been listening to jazz and European music (Semyannikov, 2002). Molotov consists of twenty blocks of flats, having the same footprint: fifty meters long and eleven meters wide. Thirteen of those are made of brick and have three floors, another seven are made of carbonated concrete and have four floors. The buildings are arranged in a sort of order around semi-public open courtyards. The seven buildings of carbonated concrete are remarkable for their construction and layout. The flats are spacious, each of them is equipped with a water heater, has running water and sanitary system. The builders attached special attention to the reduction of the cost and to the "social adaptation" by constructing functional buildings without decorative elements (Techeun, 1980). However, two houses have neo-classical decorative elements and modification of the distribution system justifying volumetric alterations of their facades. Those latter remind of the architectural language of the project by L. Vesnin submitted for the 1922-1923 contest. So it is possible that the first version by Chernyshev included neo-classical decorative elements, which were later removed for the sake of economy. Complete lack of ornaments is also characteristic of diploma projects executed by VHUTEMAS students after 1926. Projects created by professor Landovsky’s students represent the architectural and urban design research of the Sotsgorod combinat. For example, the project by M. Turkus proposes residential blocks consisting of just two types of elements (fig. 13). The different possibilities of arrangement permitted variety in composition, layout, height and volumes (Chan-Magovedow, 1983). Standardization was a major characteristic of the Sotsgorod. Later N. Milyutin will criticize this 'unreasonable and useless monumentality’ for ‘barbarism’ and ‘squandering of materials’ (Milyutin, 1930). Therefore, the presence of ornaments on just two standardized housing blocks in Molotov represented this stage of transition and the search for an architectural language to suit the Soviet society. Combinat The incorporation of communal programs into housing typologies that followed lead to the development of a housing combinat, the primary cell of the Sotsgorod. One of the first prototypes of the combinat was developed in 1927 by I. Golosov (fig. 14). The project includes ten lines of housing slabs arranged around communal services and connected by passageways.
Each combinat included a variety of communal services, like a canteen, a club, a library or a daynursery, while the services of a greater scale, like a stadium or sports facilities, were shared by several combinats. The origin of the public buildings in Molotov cannot be attributed to Chernyshev. Besides the participation of Russian architects, we must mention Hannes Meyer’s brigade4. During the period of industrialization of the Soviet Union special importance was attached to the education of highly-qualified staff from workers to engineers. In order to set up the schools necessary for this purpose, a special institution was founded: the Giprovtus. (...) All members of the team were involved, with Hannes Meyer as the chief architect. According to Meyer’s orders, standardization and type design practice were to be applied as much as possible, from the elements of design and construction to the buildings in his ensemble, and only the simplest and the most consistent materials and building techniques were to be used. The Brigade worked on the standardization of technical institutions and developed project types along with individual solutions. (…) One of the most important individual projects was the Higher Technical School of the city of Perm, which was created by Hannes Meyer and Antonin Urban (Tolziner, 1989). The House of Teachers situated in front of the workers’ club by P. Golosov is also accredited to Hannes Meyer (Kiselev, 2008). If, in our mixed panoply of sometimes contradictory accounts, we take into consideration the fact that the Technical School also housed the headquarters and flats for NKVD officers who guarded the Motovilikha plant and other local industries and institutions (Semyannikov, 2002), we could locate the Technical School in Zemlyachka street. Indeed, this building of carbonated concrete constructed before 1932 has a very similar design to the drawings which we found in the archives of Philip Tolziner. The standardization of constructive elements and the industrial language of the facade lead us to the conclusion that the design of this building could belong to Meyer’s team, and the team might have never become aware of its construction (Tolziner, 1989). Sotsgorod na Gorkach There is, however, an indisputable evidence that the project for the Molotov master plan was created by Meyer, and it was called Sotsgorod na Gorkakh (translated as « a socialist town on hills"). Sotsgorod na Gorkach has never been realised, but it is an important witness helping in the understanding of Molotov. Situated between the village of Motovilikha and H. Meyer’s project, Molotov is the anchor between reality and imagination. By superimposing Meyer’s plan on the existing layout, we can recognize the buildings that were built before 1932. It is possible to establish the construction dates of the agricultural college, the infirmary, the workers’ club and all the blocks of flats (fig 16). By proposing a plan for the whole Sotsgorod, Meyer goes beyond the limits of the combinat suggested by projects of Ladovsky’s students. The residential blocks of the Sotsgorod na Gorkakh stretch from Molotov along the plateau between Motovilikha and Perm. Meyer develops a flexible urban plan of a linear city that can be adapted to climatic restrictions, to the topography, the location of the plant and the availability of natural resources (Jung, 1989). Meyer’s Bandstadt is in fact nothing else than the realisation of N. Milyutin ’s linear city, which is described in Sotsgorod, the manifesto of Soviet avant-guard urbanism.
Sotsgorod na Gorkakh develops itself in a linear layout, its main axis being the prolongation of Ural street, which separates Molotov from Motovilikha Plant. Most of the programmatic bands situated between Molotov and the Kama river are the ones proposed by Milyutin : 1. The industry; 2. The railway; 3. The green belt; 4. Residential houses and public facilities; 5. Green spaces and sports facilities; 6. Agricultural fields (Kruft, 1985) (fig. 16). Between the combinats there are public facilities of a greater scale: sports facilities, technical colleges or hospitals. Therefore, we can read the concentration of communal buildings of Molotov as a transition zone between the present and the future of Molotov’s urban development. This programmatic alternation between housing combinats and public facilities is reproduced along the main axis. An axonometric drawing coming from Meyer’s studio provides the detailed structure of standard combinats. The lines of blocks of flats are rearranged around green courtyards, which are sometimes closed by perpendicular lines. This creates more ‘private’ courtyards that provide community facilities, like playgrounds and sports grounds, for residents of that particular block. Public buildings situated inside the courtyards are lower than the surrounding buildings. Meyer’s axonometric projection also shows that both public and residential buildings are made to a standardized design. The combinats in Molotov are organized in the same way. Standard blocks of flats form semi-public open spaces including lower height public services buildings. The fact that the entrances are situated in the courtyards suggests a hierarchy in the use of spaces graduating from private to public. We can also reconstruct the gleam of the Soviet collectivism, the rhythm of which was created by the places the people visited daily: the individual cell, the communal programs within the combinat (crèche, laundry room, public bath house), workers’ canteen, the place of work (intellectual or industrial) and then again the canteen (but also the workers’ club or sports grounds), finally returning to the individual cell. Utopia ? This organisation of life induced by the urban composition of the Sotsgorod is now changed, but it can still be traced. While the Motovilikha Plant continues working and the concrete blocks are still inhabited, the public infrastructure is crumbling, and this corps of dilapidated concrete does not inspire hopes for a better society any more. The contemporary Russia is now regaining its past values, its cities beginning to cherish their pre-Revolution history. Old churches are being rehabilitated, new ones are being constructed, and the houses of the nobility are being restored. However, there is a unique past which seems to be destined to fall into oblivion, a history or a utopia of an egalitarian society that came to be realised, of which Molotov is an emblem. Molotov is an open book of contemporary history of the first attempts at creating the Sotsgorod, where classical forms and avant-guard lines come together. It is a rusty machine of the communal life at the dawn of socialism, but it is also a combinat integrating the principles of the functionalist city of the Bauhaus, whose master plan is the manifest of Soviet urbanism. The stones have been laid. It remains only to hope that the local authorities will realise that Molotov represents a treasure from the point of view of history, culture and the identity of a Russia that was once capable of creating a utopia.
1 Sotsgorod, The Problem and the Construction of Socialist Cities was published in 1930 by the State Publishing House in Moscow
and Leningrad. The word Sotsgorod translates from Russian as socialist city
2 This principle used by Melniov will become one of the fundamental principles of constructivist architecture, which was integrated in the concept of Sotsgorod named defined in 1928 by M. Guinsburg « social condensor »
3 The first houses of this block were constructed in 1926 as a prolongation of Motovilikha district, at the doors of the neighboring factory of the same name. The first brick houses were constructed in the following year (Semyannikov, 2002). In 1928 the town council decided to build a new workers’ block with all the services that its inhabitants would need (Kiselev, 2008)
4 The team was managed by Hannes Meyer and consisted of young architects from Bauhaus: R. Mensch, K. Pueschel, T. Weiner, A. Urban, B. Schefler, K. Meumann and Ph. Tolziner
Brumfield, W., & Ruble, B. A. (1993). Russian Housing in the Modern Age. New York: Cambridge university press.
Chan-Magomedow, S. O. (1991). Gartenstädte und Probleme des Arbeiterwohnungsbau. In Avantgarde 1900-1923. Sowjetische Architektur. Stuttgart: Gerd Hatje.
Chan-Magomedow, S. O. (1983). Pioniere der sowjetischen Architektur. Berlin-Wien: Löcker Verlag.
Gladyshev, V. (2008, July 7). Constructivism in Perm. (O. Buson, & G. de Morsier, Interviewers)
Jung, K. C. (1989). Planung des sozialistischen Stadt, Hannes Meyer in der Sowjetunion 1930-1936. Berlin: Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn.
Kiselev, B. A. (2008). Формирование застройки Мотовилихи и вклад в нее Ганнаса Майера. non spécifié: non spécifié.
Kruft, H. W. (1985). Geschichte der Architekturtheorie. München: C. H. Beck oHG.
Maglio, A. (2002). Hannes Meyer: un razionalista in esilio. Milano: Franco Angeli.
Milyutin , N. (2002). Sotsgorod, Le problème de la construction des villes socialistes. (E. Essaïan, Trans.) Ballainvilliers: Seuil.
Semyannikov, V. (2002). The history of Perm. Retrieved October 30, 2008, from
Techeun, A. C. (1980). Пермь: Очерк архитектуры. Perm.
Tolziner, P. (1989). Bibliographie. Unpublished essay. Berlin: Bauhaus Archiv.
Author: Oscar Buson