The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1584] History is architectural.

Russian Federation

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us… “

C. Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities”

The epoch always gives rise to the architecture, which conforms to contemporary political system, moral principles, human life and death values.

The epoch of “Stalin architecture", totalitarian architecture of the forties of twentieth century, assumes pomposity, grandiosity, and dramatic disproportion. As if shouting that human lives standing in the way of the nation progress do not matter at all. It scares you and enraptures you at the same time. It leaves no doubts; it is single-valued, authoritative and relentless. The buildings, which were constructed in that epoch still greatly impress by their volumes, forms, materials, and architectural details. They still conserve that unique atmosphere of history that just old buildings own. Everything has changed around: people, speed, and technical equipment except the architecture that remembers and keeps the time.

One of these buildings preserves a terrible epoch. It stopped there in the spaces of stuffy quadrangles and staircases, up to the top-floor and into the small flat on the ground floor where the museum of the House on Embankment in Moscow was organized. The time tells us the stories about happiness followed by sorrow, about life followed by death; how people went to the work in the morning, disappeared in the night and would never come back, how their own flats became their main enemies, and how some authorities clung to the power by imprisoning others. In a moment, the great impregnable fortress turned its inhabitants into hostages, though those people seemed to be quite untouchable.

The majority of all inhabitants were the elite of new Soviet State. Since 1931 many well-known scientists, writers, professors, cabinet ranks, party members, military leaders got flats in the Residential House for the Government. Here, there were no casual people and so much the following history was unbelievable. It was an unusual occurrence that government members, working side by side, were neighbors at the same time. But this House was built specially for them by decision of Joseph Stalin. He accepted it in 1927 when the catastrophic lack of dwelling space for government members in Moscow became clear. It happened because of the transfer of the capital of Soviet Union from Petrograd (Saint-Petersburg) to Moscow. At first, the soviet government lodged them in the Kremlin and in so-called Houses of the Soviets (“Hotel National” and “Hotel Metropol”) but this was also not enough. And besides that, the Soviet Union faced the problem of hotel accommodation for foreign guests. So, building of a new special house for government employees seemed to be the right solution.

To implement this solution, Boris Iofan, a well-known Russian soviet architect started working on its project in 1927, and in four years the House was built on the premises of former wine storehouses in Moscow. It “looked like a ship, unwieldy and ungainly, without masts, rudderless, and without smokestacks, a huge box, an ark, crammed full of people, ready to sail. Where to? No one knew, no one wondered about that. To people who walked down the street past its walls, glimmering with hundreds of small fortress windows, the building seemed indestructible and permanent, like a rock: in thirty years the dark gray color of the walls had not changed” [1]

The House was an architectural realization of soviet architect's ideas about lifestyle of the soviet man. It was incredibly large; it was the biggest house in Europe with 11 floors, 24 entrances, 505 apartments, dining hall, kindergarten, club with cinema hall, department store, hairdressing salon, post office, library and gym.

The House was placed on the island washed by the river Moskva, connected with the remaining part of the city by two bridges. Fantastic Moscow panoramas to the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, to the Zamoskvorechye, Neskuchniy Garden were in display in front of you from this place. Each yard had a fountain; each entrance was guarded. The concierge met you at the entrance and accompanied you by elevator to the right flat. All the furniture for the apartments was standardized; however Boris Iofan specially designed it for this project. It covered everything required: from chairs to wardrobes and chest of drawers. It was made out of fumed oak and leather. The basement floor of the House served as big bomb shelter. It seemed to be built far ahead of its time. But later everybody understood that the high level of comfort was followed by total control. The guardians started to close the courts for the whole night and unleashed dogs. And there were special rooms up to the top-floor for tapping all the phones. Moreover, all the service personnel were NKVD (The Commissariat for Internal Affairs) workers.

Nowadays, many lovers of mystic coincidences used to mention one special detail in their studies about the Government Building. They refer the facades decoration work. First Boris Iofan proposed to cover the walls with yellow sand color tiles, but then, because of lack of money, he had to order grey ash color stone. Thus the House was left dark and gloomy, standing along the embankment. It was like a portent of the terrible events to come.

From an outsider's point of view the House looked as a separate town, something foreign with a totally different life inside. And it was indeed definitely like this. Inhabitants visited each other, they celebrated together holidays, listened to jazz music in the cinema hall before film shows; they discussed, shared their impressions, debated. Many of old members of Bolshevik party were from villages and small towns and it had played a certain role in their relationships; others had been together in exiles, prisons or fought the Civil War. It would seem the new life had started for them, with its prospects and promises; all the doors were open for those people. Yes, there were hutments, dilapidated houses, sank to one side churches around, but here, in the House, people knew neither famine nor lines for essential products, nor narrowness. Their children went to kindergarten and then to school together. Many of them became friends and kept this friendship for the whole life, and it was the only gift for them from life in the House, as it would become clear lately. But it was just the beginning.

A while later inhabitants began to disappear. No one was ready, no one was expecting it. In fact, how could they imagine it? Those were the people that had been assigned the task of building the future of the Soviet State. But they were being taken away one by one at night by cars with curtained off windows, and most never made their way back. About a third of all the inhabitants were targeted by the terrible Stalinist persecutions. Since 1932 misfortunes had fallen upon the House one after the other. Many times children returned from walking to a sealed apartment. The museum of the House on Embankment keeps a lot of stories about how neighbors sheltered orphan children in spite the fact that the country considered their parents to be public enemies; how boys passed through the closed doors to their former apartments and took off necessary family things; how sometimes they found out little kids inside wardrobes, where they hid during arrests; how people simulated madness so they would be taken to a Clinic instead of a Prison camp; and how black cars arrived twice a night. It was a terrible period when people permanently lived in fear, waiting …

The House became deserted very fast. At times there was no light at the windows in whole sections. Sometimes, one returned after several years, but usually found either locked doors or new occupants in their previous flat. The House didn't wait for its former inhabitants. They came back and had nothing and nobody. At once they, along with wives, brothers and sisters turned to public enemies, became foreign for its nation and state, stopped existing.

What can be more terrible than such a treachery? Just the fact that your own flat, house, walls can't protect you and there is escape nowhere. No one is irreplaceable and nobody was. Time scares by its indiscrimination and ruthlessness.

The years had passed, the Great Patriotic War ended, then the era of Stalin's power was over and the interest into the Government Building decreased. New inhabitants got renewed apartments, changed all the furniture, window frames and started the history of their lives. One by one the epochs were replaced: the Khrushchev thaw, then Brezhnev stagnation, Perestroika, modern history and modern heroes arrived. Nowadays, the parti-colored advertising posters curtained the House on Embankment in Moscow and there is a huge offensive symbol of “Mercedes” on the top of one tower. The House has thus changed from “exceptional” to “common” with small uncomfortable kitchens, old pipes and outdated wiring system. But old people remember everything and they try to keep the history for the next generations.

We owe thanks the woman who was one of the oldest inhabitants and started organizing the museum of the House on Embankment in November 1989. She asked relatives of former inhabitants to bring family archives, photos, memoirs, interior objects. And a lot of people took up that call. Soon, the museum began to enrich with history and time. People brought here all kind of things as the today's museum director says: “they brought all the necessary things and all the useless ones and then it was found all the useless things to be the most valuable”. Museum workers made a list of the first inhabitants and wrote chronicles with information of witnesses. They collected everything like precious grains and many rare objects were found in the local House dump. The photographer who also works at the museum was able to make pictures of token details before major repairs of the House. They managed to salvage the complete set of Iofan’s furniture of Art Deco style. The exposition presents an historical accurate interior rebuilding. And it is one of the most valuable items of the Museum, because it helps you to feel easily, deeply inside that epoch. Everything there attracts by its unusualness by today's standards. You seem to enter somebody's home whose owners would come back soon. But to the end of exposition you understand that the owners have died. Year after year, the small first-floor flat at the House on Embankment collected inhabitant's histories, which the House had lost, forgot, and made orphans.

Last year, the museum celebrated its twentieth anniversary. In this period it became the memorial museum of the dead instead of the museum of the living, but this is the history of the state itself, the history of totalitarianism that offered everything to its heroes but deprived them of these gifts in the next moment. The majority of those who were shot down or died in prison camps are now rehabilitated. Their families can at last get to know the reasons behind their criminal cases, read archive documentation and exact obit dates. While the time passed, fortunately there are people who still remember it and try to understand. But what will be when they also leave us? We will stay along with our pending questions; and only the architecture will be able to answer.

The history of the House on Embankment reflects that long era. It is like a reminder of the unbelief and cruel times which stand in the heart of the city between the Kremlin (political centre) and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (spiritual centre). The House became a symbol of depreciation of human life and cowardice of government towards the rising social layer of soviet intelligence. Over the visual pomposity and huge-scaled "Stalin architecture" are hidden a lot of tragic destinies of unknown, disappeared people. It preserves the history of the “little man”. Near buildings of those times you first feel the strength and unbelievable scope of constructions, spaces, height, materials … but then you understand that all has been made to force upon you total government control and power and your own helplessness behind its power. For all times architecture preserves past events and history. But architecture is not eternal and now many buildings of the Stalin era became wore. And now our main goal is to avoid disturbing that unique historical atmosphere that is so compelling and is the most important value to preserve the culture and create strong connections among us and the history of our country.

We certainly cannot move forth looking backwards. But also we have no right to forget our history, because it is the key to our memory and our self-identification. Our attention to past mistakes allows reconsidering our present. The Government Building in Moscow is not just the history of a certain architectural heritage that has been built by a character of its time. It is moreover a generalized character of the tragedy that did spare no one's lives.

1. Disappearance/Yury Trifonov; translated by David Lowe, Northwestern University Press edition, 1996

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