The Rusakov Workers’ Club in Moscow is a notable example of constructivist architecture. Designed by Konstantin Melnikov, it was constructed in 1927-28. The club is built on a fan-shaped plan, with three cantilevered concrete seating areas rising above the base. Each of these volumes can be used as a separate auditorium, and combined they result in a capacity of over 1,000 people. At the rear of the building are more conventional offices. The only visible materials used in its construction are concrete, brick and glass. The function of the building is to some extent expressed in the exterior, which Melnikov described as a “tensedmuscle”.
Once again I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and walked into one of the Royal Academy’s ‘Saturday Social’s’ this weekend. I’m now quite ashamed to say that I had never heard of 'Tatlin’s Tower’ or had any idea of all that it represents (but then the Russian Revolution didn’t quite make the cut into the history syllabus at my school so I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation with huge knowledge gaps, thank you very much British National Curriculum).
Nevertheless, after forty well spent minutes listening to Lutz Becker (an architect involved in the 1971 construction of the tower at the Hayward) and Kate Goodwin (one of the exhibition’s curators), I now feel thoroughly informed.
Vladimir Tatlin designed the tower as a monument to the Russian revolutionary Congress in 1920. It was intended to be 400m tall (100m higher than the Eiffel Tower) with three ever rotating levels and entirely made from steel.
The thing is, at the time there wasn’t even enough steel to construct a 10m model and nowhere near enough available money to making the tower a reality.
In 1971 a group of architects and civil engineers came together attempting to construct a 1:50 model of the tower for display at the Hayward Gallery on Southbank - a problematic task considering there are only two of Tatlin’s drawings surviving. Whilst the project was a success, the 1971 model was made from timber and has since disintegrated meaning that the Royal Academy’s 2011 attempt was all the more significant being the first time anyone had tried to build the tower from steel. The result is incredible and stands proudly in the courtyard of the RA.
Tatlin’s Tower was a concept. It is highly unlikely he thought it would ever be built (and indeed there are serious doubts over whether it would be structually practical), yet its image has been reproduced so many times that it remains an icon of constructivist architecture.
That a ninety year old daydream can still inspire, is magnificent.
Ivan Sergeevich Nikolaev, Communal Housing for the Students of the Textile Institute in Moscow, (1931)
The Communal Housing of the Textile Institute of Moscow became the first solo project for 28 year old Ivan Nikolaev of the OSA group; the contract awarded to him was a part of a larger project that included three student campuses in the (then) remote areas surrounding Moscow. The contract specification defined a modest maximum construction cost and building volume (50 cubic meters) per student. Any communal facilities, from staircases to libraries, counted towards the quota and decreased the actual living space. While all architects addressed these constraints by reducing available living space, Nikolaev’s proposal was the most radical of all.
Nikolaev’s principal design rule was a strict physical separation of common study space, public services (with cafeteria, showers and storage rooms) and the living space. Thus the building was H-shaped: a public services block connected a 200-metre long, 8-storey dormitory with a 3-story study block. Since all the students’ possessions - from textbooks to day clothing - had to be stored in the lockers of the public services block, Nikolaev reduced dormitory rooms to sleeping space only. Initially, a standard sleeping cabin for two had a very small area, 2×2 meters, but 3.2 meters tall. It had no windows and was connected by the door to a long corridor running along the exterior wall. Nikolaev attempted to compensate for the shortage of space with elaborate ventilation system. This proposal seemed too radical even for the Soviet avant-garde, and the cabins were increased to 2,7×2,3 meters with proper windows.
These windows ran the full length of a 200-meter building - narrow continuous bands of glass without apparent structural support; they were only 90 cm high (110 cm after 1968 reconstruction). The residential block relied on a steel frame structure. Initially Nikolaev designed all load bearing in steel, but due to metal rationing he eventually replaced internal floor supports with wooden girders. The building had elevators, but they were reserved for cargo deliveries only. Instead, the students had to use three spacious staircases - two in the living block and one in the public services building. The latter had an unusual triangular shape, with smooth ramps instead of stairs, as in contemporaneous work by Le Corbusier. These staircases are sometimes compared to the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim Museum.
According to Nikolaev, the lives of the students should have been regulated in a nearly military communal fashion. After a common wake-up call all the students proceeded to common physical exercise areas (either a gym in winter or an open area in summer); at this moment the residential block was to be locked until late evening. After exercise, the students took a shower and dressed up in the public service locker rooms; after a breakfast in the canteen they followed their college schedule - either in off-site auditoriums or in the study block facilities. Nikolaev suggested injecting ozone into ventilation ducts at night and even considered sedating students to ensure they all fall asleep in due time (Russian: “не исключена возможность усыпляющих добавок”, “do not rule out the feasibility of sleepening additives”). Except for centralized sedation, this paramilitary order was actually maintained in the first years of operation, but later the regulations were eased up