Building a New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture 
by Jean-Louis Cohen.
Yale, 544 pp., £30, September 2020, 978 0 300 24815 9
Show More
Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital 
by Katherine Zubovich.
Princeton, 280 pp., £34, January, 978 0 691 17890 5
Show More
Show More

The Red Gate tower in Moscow, designed by 
Alexei Nikolayevich Dushkin and completed in 1953.

One of the more intriguing​ recent conspiracy theories centres on the putative suppression of a global ‘Tartarian Empire’, which, before it was destroyed either by the world wars or by a tidal wave of mud, went in for an opulent, gigantist architecture of domes and spires, encompassing everything from St Paul’s in London to St Basil’s in Moscow. Once the empire was gone, the world was rebuilt by a technologically inferior civilisation that preferred a mass-produced architecture of boxes, without ornament or craft. To my knowledge Tartarian theorists haven’t yet included in their system the seven skyscrapers – or vysotki, ‘high buildings’ – that have dominated the skyline of Moscow since the early 1950s. Yet the vysotki fit the bill in every respect. Enormous, luxurious and encrusted with spires and crenellations, when seen from a distance flanked by the more mundane high-rise architecture built since the 1960s they look like they belong to a totally different civilisation.

One of the American skyscrapers that Tartarian theorists are obsessed with is the Singer Building, a tall steel-framed tower encased in stone cladding and topped by a cupola. At one time the ‘world’s tallest building’, it was demolished with very little fanfare in the late 1960s, when public esteem for this sort of historicist architecture was at its lowest. The cover of Jean-Louis Cohen’s book on Soviet ‘Amerikanizm’ features an image by Kazimir Malevich of the New York skyline circa 1920. The Singer Building and the similarly ‘Tartarian’ Woolworth Building are both visible, but montaged carefully into the foreground is an ‘Architekton’, an assembly of floating forms, straight-lined and stark, yet also dramatic and expressive, surging inexorably upwards, dominating the heavy, pretentious structures around it. Rather than emphasising weight, as New York’s early skyscrapers did, Malevich’s ‘Architekton’ defies gravity. One could compare it, only slightly fancifully, to One Liberty Plaza, the chillingly blank and metallic International Style skyscraper that replaced the Singer Building. Mies van der Rohe, the Weimar exile who started that particular fashion, was an enthusiast for Malevich’s work, which inspired the free planning and rectilinear geometry of his buildings from the mid-1920s onwards. But the romance was lost in translation, and imported European socialist modernism became a sober American corporate style. When the Soviet Union finally began to build skyscrapers in the 1950s, the work of visionaries such as Mies, Soviet-inspired though he may have been, was spurned as ‘imperialist’ in favour of towers that very closely resembled the ones in the background of Malevich’s Manhattan montage.

These ironies of circulation, exchange and transformation have long been Cohen’s speciality. His books Le Corbusier and the Mystique of the USSR (1992) and Scenes of the World to Come (1995) focused on the conflicts and correspondences in architecture and design, mostly in the interwar decades, under the influence of two revolutions: the promised global socialist transformation begun in October 1917 in Petrograd, and the American leap into the technological unknown, embodied in the Ford factories of Detroit as much as the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. The protagonists were interlinked rival groups of designers and thinkers who interpreted these ‘new worlds’ in varying ways. Building a New World is the culmination of this project, which Cohen has been working on in some shape or form since the 1970s, and the sheer weight of material is immense, though it has been streamlined into a sequential narrative running roughly from the 18th century into the 1980s, with the 1920s and 1930s as the fulcrum. The book isn’t argumentative or polemical so much as illuminating, a collection of extraordinary anecdotes, objects and ephemera best consulted at random.

The illustrations, some of which are assembled into photo-essays between chapters, are stories in themselves: a late tsarist drawing of monorails above the Kremlin and sleds below; the domes of the Luna Park on Coney Island, lit up by lurid electric light; row after row of Fordson tractors; abstract photographic light-plays that are actually time and motion studies by the ‘scientific management’ theorists Frank and Lillian Gilbreth; the Rockefeller Centre, seen from a daringly Constructivist angle by a Soviet photographer; candid photos of rural Americans by the Soviet humorists Ilf and Petrov, taken on their ‘American road trip’; young Muscovites gazing lovingly at a giant model of a sprawling skyscraper. Seen as a montage, this array of images has the quality of an Adam Curtis film, a procession of strange, jarring anecdotes set in an exciting and terrifying ultramodern world which now exists only in fragments. There are dozens of possible routes through the book’s texts, whether via Tocqueville’s comparisons of the United States and imperial Russia, or the influence of periods of American exile on figures such as Trotsky and Bukharin, or the effects of American preserved and tinned food on Soviet cuisine, or the competition between the two mid-century empires for military-industrial supremacy.

It’s a familiar enough idea that there were elective affinities between the two empires, both reaching (or almost, in the Soviet case) from one ocean to another, both bent on settling and exploiting a vast, inhospitable interior. Each came to identify itself with one of the major ideologies of the time, although in each case the claim was tenuous. These affinities have been explored by a long list of writers, fully acknowledged by Cohen. Just three of the most prominent are René Fülöp-Miller, who in The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (1927) found Russian peasants worshipping Henry Ford and Soviet revolutionaries aiming to introduce Taylorist ‘scientific management’ to their factories; Rem Koolhaas, whose Delirious New York (1978) linked the collective dream projects of the Soviet avant-garde to the built realities of Coney Island and the Rockefeller Centre; and, after one of the two empires had disappeared, Susan Buck-Morss, who in Dreamworld and Catastrophe (2000) shifted from elegiac speculations about the death of utopia to the low comedy of the resemblance between Stalin’s unbuilt Palace of the Soviets – a skyscraper topped by a giant Lenin – and its cousin in King Kong, where the giant ape straddles the radio mast on top of the Empire State Building.

Cohen’s cabinet of curiosities confirms numerous hunches. For instance, it seems clear from Stalinist architectural publications that the dream projects of the American architectural draughtsman Hugh Ferriss in his visionary book The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) did in fact directly influence Stalin’s Moscow skyscrapers, which Koolhaas guessed purely by looking at pictures. Fans of apocalyptic mid-20th-century culture will be delighted that Cohen has included the young Soviet film critic Alisa Rozenbaum’s Hollywood: The American Cinema City (1926), whose Constructivist cover features a giant Charlie Chaplin bestriding New York skyscrapers, a biplane flying overhead. Rozenbaum left for the US the same year, and renamed herself Ayn Rand; it turns out that the resemblance between her obnoxious aesthetic and Constructivism isn’t a coincidence after all. Rand’s Hollywood would itself be an influence on Boris Shumyatsky, the Soviet film dictator and nemesis of Eisenstein, before he was killed in the Great Purge. There are also wonderful sections on the work of the engineer Vladimir Shukhov, whose career spanned the pre and post-revolutionary eras and whose beautiful latticework towers, which made such an impression on the likes of Norman Foster, were adopted as masts in the design of American battleships.

Cohen also discusses the pre-Soviet affinity between America and Russia. One of the origin stories of modernist architecture concerns the monumental, apparently abstract concrete grain silos that dominated industrial cities such as Buffalo in the early 20th century. These were ‘discovered’ by Alma Mahler on a tour of the US: she sent photographs to Walter Gropius, who published them in the journal of the Deutscher Werkbund, where they were discovered by Le Corbusier, who put them in his Vers une architecture (translated in 1927 as Towards a New Architecture). Yet Cohen finds that the Russian architectural press was years ahead, publishing detailed research on these silos as early as 1905. Around the same time, Maxim Gorky was lurking around New York, at first in ecstasies, presented with this vision of ultramodern progress – ‘Socialism should first be realised here, that is the first thing you think of when you see the amazing houses, machines etc’ – but soon souring as he witnessed the poverty and brutality that underpinned it. His writings were republished at the height of the Cold War by Moscow’s Foreign Languages Press: the cover features a cop with a truncheon beneath an intimidating canyon of skyscrapers.

But all this is a sideshow to the main event: Cohen’s account of the ways in which the Soviet Union modelled itself after a socialist America, enlisting much of American industry for the task during the first Five Year Plan of 1928-32. This wasn’t just a matter of state and industrial planning. The Soviets had conjured a dreamworld America onto which anarchists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, Constructivists, rationalists and classicists all projected their deepest desires. Some of the results were comic or cute: the ‘Nat Pinkerton’ detective stories, much loved in Russia, were emulated and parodied in the radical literary circles of Moscow and Leningrad, most prominently in Marietta Shaginyan’s Mess-Mend (1924), in which the American communist engineer and superhero Mike Thingsmaster thwarts the forces of imperialism. Then there is the story of the proletarian poet Alexei Gastev, who constructed an elaborate theoretical edifice on the foundation of F.W. Taylor’s (largely mythical) system of scientific management, in which workers’ movements were carefully measured and precision rewarded with piece rates. Interpreted through the time and motion studies of the Gilbreths and the ‘Psycho-technics’ of the German-American psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, Gastev’s work became a crucial part of Constructivism, whether in the theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold, the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky or the architecture of Moisei Ginzburg.

Most Americans had no notion of the strange uses their ideas were being put to. The exception was Henry Ford, whose work, for all its obsessive anti-socialism and antisemitism, was extensively published in the Soviet Union from the early 1920s onwards. There were peasants in Russia who knew little about Marxism-Leninism but could discuss the American inventor responsible for the Model T and the Fordson tractor. As the Great Depression and the first Five Year Plan coincided, Ford became a major investor in the Soviet industrial leap. His preferred team of architects, led by Albert Kahn, designed dozens of factories across the Soviet Union in the first half of the 1930s – something that had been written out of official histories of both countries by the end of the 1940s.

The Soviet Amerika was predicated on taking what was considered useful: the technology, largely, and not the aesthetics or the ideology, although there was much enthusiasm for jazz and for the slapstick comedy of Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Constructivists and other avant-gardists found high architecture in the US – those skylines of cupolas and Gothic spires, draped over steel skeletons – gauche and illiterate, especially compared with the grandeur of American factories and grain silos. Mayakovsky dismissed skyscrapers as silly; the architect and painter El Lissitzky proposed instead suspending horizontal ‘Cloud-Irons’ in a ring around the centre of Moscow. But the people at the top disagreed. They loved the kitsch neoclassical and neo-Gothic skyscrapers every bit as much as they loved the clean lines of American industry, and in 1932 a call went out inviting designs for a ‘supreme building’ – the Palace of the Soviets – at the heart of Moscow. Extraordinary submissions by Soviet modernists and by Le Corbusier were spurned in favour of two proposals by more retardataire Soviet architects and one by the American architect Hector Hamilton. These were worked up into a design for what would have been the world’s tallest building – a work of such outrageous imperial absurdity that a generation of architects around the world avoided all mention of it. The plans were finally abandoned in the 1950s and an open-air swimming pool built instead, only to be displaced in the 1990s by a tacky replica of the Victorian cathedral that had been demolished to free up the site in the first place.

A crucial figure in this story is the relatively unknown Viacheslav Oltarzhevskii. He spent the second half of the 1920s as an anti-Soviet exile in the US, working for the hugely successful corporate architect Harvey Wiley Corbett designing neo-Russian villas for exiles on Long Island and designing the Royal Pines Hotel in New Jersey, which, as Cohen mentions, served as Al Capone’s headquarters. Meanwhile he was drawing ideal cities with moving skywalks above mobile skyscrapers. His gorgeous book of drawings of New York, Contemporary Babylon (1933), is an obvious source for the Moscow skyscrapers he was involved in engineering two decades later. In the interim, he had returned to Russia to design for Stalin, but the connections that made him so appealing to Soviet industrialists at the start of the 1930s became a liability a few years later. He was sent to the gulag. After both the US and the USSR had entered the war and conversations between architects from the two sides had started up again, the Americans pressed their ambassador, Averell Harriman, to make inquiries into Oltarzhevskii’s disappearance. ‘Careful to preserve his precious connections in light of a possible extension of the Lend-Lease Act,’ Cohen writes, ‘Stalin quickly ordered the repatriation of the former émigré, clearing him of all charges.’

Soviet modernists had attempted to design skyscrapers on their own terms. The proposed office block and printworks for the newspaper Izvestia was modelled on Gropius’s unsuccessful entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1922, although in the event Moscow’s height restrictions cut it down to a mere six storeys. The built project that most closely realised a Constructivist-Amerikanist dream architecture was the Derzhprom Building in Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine. A complex office block made up of towers connected by skyways, it was essentially a miniature skyscraper city built from scratch. Béla Bartók visited in 1929 and correctly recognised Derzhprom as a fusion of Manhattan and the Bauhaus. It was celebrated on magazine covers in the 1920s in images of workers on girders in the sky – a motif borrowed from the US precedent, used extensively by the Soviets when they came to build real skyscrapers after the war.

Constructivist architects treated the steel frame as the principle of a skyscraper’s design – an idea that started with the early, spurned American modernists such as Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. But when Soviet architects visited the US in the 1930s, they had the Palace of the Soviets – a stepped tower above the world’s largest conference hall – in mind, and needed to know how to disguise steel frame construction. It was Oltarzhevskii who taught them how to clad the frame in ornamental stone and tile, a defining feature of the Moscow towers, whose steel frames remain illegible.

The architectural affinities with pre-modernist American buildings are inescapable. The resemblance between Dmitrii Chechulin’s Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building and McKim, Mead and White’s Municipal Building, or Gelfreikh and Minkus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, is obvious – though it was vehemently denied by Soviet architects and critics, for whom these buildings were responses to the ‘decadence’ of American architecture as it had developed under the influence of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies et al. But although the buildings were similar in construction and aesthetics, they were quite distinct in terms of planning. As the reformed avant-garde architects Andrei Bunin and Mariia Kruglova put it in The Architectural Composition of the City (1940), it was thought possible in Russia at the time to use skyscrapers to make ‘striking vertical compositions’. The chaos of the Manhattan skyline, with its canyons and shadows and randomness, wasn’t inescapable.

Eight towers were planned, five of which ‘formed a system’, a ring around the Kremlin and the mooted Palace of the Soviets, whose frame was no more than a few storeys high when it was finally dismantled for scrap at the start of the Great Patriotic War. The scheme reflected what Cohen calls the ‘specifically Russian, even Moscovian nature of the programme’, a new interpretation of the capital’s concentric structure, with the Kremlin in the middle, surrounded by the Boulevard Ring, and outside that the Garden Ring, where five of the towers were built. A sixth tower overlooked the cluster of railway stations to the north of the city centre, and the seventh was built on the Sparrow Hills (at that time the Lenin Hills). The structures became ‘specialised’ in the process of planning, according to Cohen: ‘Science dominated the south-east, politics was in the centre and the south, and housing settled in the furthest points, as if Ferriss’s model for the “metropolis of tomorrow” … had taken on a polygonal shape.’ Spires were added later on, influenced by the admittedly ‘unsightly’ cupola of the Singer Building.

These extraordinary​ towers are the subject of Katherine Zubovich’s Moscow Monumental, which along with Michał Murawski’s The Palace Complex – a very funny but also serious account of the Palace of Culture and Science, their Soviet-designed cousin in Warsaw – historicises buildings that have usually been regarded merely as freaks.* The Russian architectural theorist Vladimir Paperny cited them as examples of the way professionals were ‘forced’ under Stalin to create ‘folklore’. It’s true that nobody associated with them (except for Oltarzhevskii) ever designed anything similar before or after, but it’s important to recognise the towers’ distinct historical context – and that they have continued to be useful and functional several decades after the Soviet collapse. In restoring these buildings to history, rather than leaving them to conspiracy theory (of which there is plenty, especially about the extent of Stalin’s involvement), Zubovich also brings the cloud-dwelling dreamworld of Soviet Americanism crashing down to Earth.

She is particularly keen to shift the focus away from the Palace of the Soviets, which is usually at the centre of Western histories of Soviet architecture. The palace ‘lends itself well to moralising narratives of the Soviet Union’s foolishness and hubris’, she writes, while the towers, by contrast, tell us about the USSR as it actually existed in the late Stalinist era, and how such ‘ornate, monumental structures’ came ‘to be built at a time of deep physical and economic devastation’, representing ‘the hope of a grand Soviet capital and the disillusionment of displaced populations and workers who would never be allowed to live in the buildings they constructed’. In her account of the origins of the buildings, Zubovich draws particular attention to the profound housing crisis in Moscow at the time. Already severe at the start of the 1920s, it was exacerbated by the doubling of the city’s population as it became a centre of heavy industry as well as textiles and bureaucracy, and was then made almost unbearable by bomb damage and the population flux caused by the war of extermination on the Eastern Front. Zubovich also stresses the significance of the Zhdanovschina, a sort of second Stalinist cultural counter-revolution. The first, in the 1930s, had been aimed at the Soviet avant-garde; this time it was the relatively open intellectual climate during the war and its immediate aftermath, when the old links between Soviet and Western European and American artists, writers and architects were tentatively (in the event, briefly) re-established. Andrei Zhdanov’s campaign against ‘cosmopolitan’ (this frequently meant ‘Jewish’) individuals and movements crushed all this, reasserting a combination of Russian nationalism, cultural conservatism and hypocritical insularity familiar from the late 1930s.

Zubovich makes clear what Stalin was and wasn’t responsible for. According to Georgii Popov, a city committee member at that time, Stalin proposed the towers as befitting Moscow’s new role as capital of the second-most powerful state in the world. He imagined foreign visitors arriving in the city and noting the absence of skyscrapers – an intolerable humiliation. Allegedly, he then sketched a prototype tower with a spire on office paper (the spires were not in the architects’ original designs). He may also have suggested that the skyscraper planned for the Lenin Hills should house not flats or offices but a ‘cathedral of science’, eventually built as Moscow State University, the largest completed Soviet skyscraper and for decades the tallest building in Europe. But aside from these interferences, Stalin had no direct involvement. The retrograde style of the towers was inspired by Manhattan circa 1910, not the modernism pioneered by Soviet architects. According to Lazar Kaganovich, head of the Moscow city committee in the 1930s, workers didn’t want ‘simplification and crude design’, they wanted ‘housing that is beautiful’. All well and good, except that it wasn’t the proletariat that would get to live in the towers.

‘Gone were the days,’ Zubovich writes, ‘when Soviet architects would go abroad – least of all to America – for assistance. Now, architects from the expanding socialist world would flock to Moscow … There was newfound irony in transforming the icon of capitalist triumph, the skyscraper, into a symbol of communism.’ The government decree that mandated the construction of the towers in January 1947 ‘listed the desired heights and locations for each of the structures and it specified that steel frames be used to support them, the interiors of the buildings be comfortable and fitted with modern amenities, and the façades be made with “durable and stable” material’. From here, a ‘mountain of paperwork’ ensued; but the decree also stated that Moscow’s new structures ‘must not repeat the famous examples of foreign multi-storey buildings’. The shift in American skyscraper construction from the masonry-encased Empire State Building to the likes of the United Nations building in New York or Mies’s Lake Shore Drive in Chicago meant meant there was little danger of them looking like contemporary foreign multi-storey buildings.

Each of the towers is the size of an entire city block – sometimes two or three – and several contain subsidiary towers, giving them a density and complexity that anticipates the ‘megastructures’ of the 1960s. The towers were used almost exclusively by the Soviet elite. There are two ministries, the Ministry of Heavy Industry and the Ministry of Transport Construction (along with some flats for their bureaucrats), in the Red Gate ‘High Building’; two blocks of opulent luxury flats, at Kudrinskaya Square and the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment; two luxury hotels, the Hotel Leningradskaya by the main railway stations and the Hotel Ukraina on the south bank of the Moskva; the main building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Moscow State University, the only public building among the seven. The site for the eighth tower, intended for Zariad’e, next to the Kremlin, was cleared, but the project was abandoned after Stalin’s death and the modernist Hotel Rossiia built instead (closed in 2006, it was demolished and eventually replaced with a public park).

The amount​ of effort and materials that went into these extravagant projects in a period of such acute poverty and misery is remarkable. Each of the towers was lavishly decorated, with chandeliers, glassware and exquisite details in wood, brass and stone. Khrushchev denounced the project in 1954, just months after Stalin’s death. As Zubovich writes, these ‘gargantuan structures [had diverted] resources away from housing construction’, which would be the focus of the new regime. This explains the incredible contrast in the Moscow skyline between the seven castles of marble, granite and faïence and the thousands of concrete and brick tower blocks that rose up soon after. The towers had done nothing to alleviate Moscow’s housing crisis in the late Stalin era; indeed, tens of thousands of Muscovites were displaced to make way for them. The ministries responsible for the towers were charged with building housing and facilities for displaced residents, which usually meant moving them from the centre to the new suburbs. The project had ‘introduced into the planning and governance of Moscow a permanent conflict between the symbolic needs of Soviet power and the practical needs of urban life’.

The seven towers – the two housing complexes and the university in particular – were part of what Vera Dunham has described as the ‘big deal’ made after 1945 between the Soviet state and the intelligentsia, in which the working class lost out. In not one case, Zubovich notes, was an appeal from a construction worker for a flat in the towers successful. Some of the most interesting, albeit depressing, material in Moscow Monumental concerns the many letters written by residents of Moscow begging for flats. Public protest and residents’ associations were impossible; ‘the tool that Soviet citizens did have at their disposal was the letter.’ Various petitioners addressed their requests to Lavrentii Beria, who was at the top of the pyramid of ministries building the towers. One high-rise building worker (vysotnik) wrote to tell him that while he was building the Red Gate tower, he ‘cherished a dream that I might be lucky enough to live out my old age in that building’ (there’s a Soviet-American dream for you). The more successful applications came from writers, ballerinas, composers and the like – Lily Brik, for example, the avant-garde filmmaker and muse of Mayakovsky. Zubovich includes a note that she didn’t find in the archives. A convict labourer inscribed the following words on the underside of a wooden board in the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment housing complex, found during renovations years later:

Year of birth 1896
convicted by order to ten years
just finishing touches on the tall building
That is how we lived
in this country.

The Soviets appeared to have taken the worst aspects of the American ‘gilded age’ – workers in hovels constructing skyscraping palaces, the endemic use of convict labour, a Wellsian spatial divide between rich and poor – and called it ‘socialism’. That they freely chose as their model for this project the architecture of Chicago and New York at the peak of early 20th-century robber-baron capitalism suggests that the divide between aesthetics and politics isn’t as large as some claim. Some of the most remarkable photographs in Moscow Monumental capture the terrifying contrasts revealed during the construction of the towers. The architect Mikhail Posokhin’s glossy rendering of his Kudrinskaya Square tower, gleaming in clear space, is contrasted with the reality of the surrounding district in Moscow as it was being built, its towering steel frame dominating shabby tenements and single-storey houses. Alongside the Life magazine-style airbrushed photographs of labourers, many of them women, erecting the steel frames and affixing Oltarzhevskii’s ornamental cladding, are images of the wooden barracks spreading along the Lenin Hills that housed the labour force building Moscow State University.

The speed with which, beginning as early as 1954, the effort to build these outrageous monuments to despotic luxury gave way to the world’s largest programme of mass-produced modernist housing meant that the two projects effectively merged. This was most obvious in the case of Moscow State University, which initiated the transformation of Moscow’s south-Western hinterland into the centre of the Soviet intelligentsia, stretching from the Lenin Hills down through Belyayevo to Chertanovo, mostly comprising Corbusian towers and slabs in green space. The temporary housing estates built on the outskirts of Moscow for the construction workers became semi-permanent. ‘Remnants of these settlements linger in Moscow today,’ Zubovich notes, ‘like the vysotnik House of Culture, which still stands on Ramenka Street, its portico and pediment newly restored.’ One of these impromptu settlements would soon become the showcase housing scheme of the Khrushchev era, Novye Cheryomushki, a modernist collective utopia based on principles of architectural and social equality. These were, Zubovich points out, partly the result of another letter-writing campaign – the letters sent by the unrepentant Constructivist architect Georgii Gradov, who eventually managed to get the ear of the new general secretary.

There is still much to uncover about the transfer of ideas, technologies and aesthetics between the 20th century’s superpowers, as Cohen and Zubovich both demonstrate, and it’s good to have accounts of the rather brutal and shabby reality of the Soviet-American dreamworld. So far, however, almost all research has focused on one side of this dynamic – the aspects of American life and the American economy that the Bolshevik state and its citizens decided to adopt or adapt. There hasn’t been nearly enough discussion of the transfer in the other direction, though it is just as abundant. In architecture, Soviet design has been comprehensively ransacked: tributes, imitations and outright intellectual property theft abound, from Radio City Music Hall to Finsbury Health Centre to Lloyds of London. The work of most Western architects since the 1960s would have been inconceivable without Soviet precedent, much as a huge amount of American commercial cinema is unimaginable without Eisenstein, or arthouse cinema without Tarkovsky. The murals and reliefs of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration projects owed a large debt to Soviet heroic realism, and the abstraction sponsored after the war owed almost as much to Malevich. Skyscrapers, too, were Sovietised; nothing resembling Malevich’s Manhattan Architekton has yet been built, but Rem Koolhaas has designed a dozen tributes to El Lissitzky’s ‘Cloud-Irons’, and a proposed tower for Moscow designed by Ivan Volodko in the mid-1920s looks remarkably like the Sears Tower, Chicago’s tallest building since the 1970s. Not least among the reasons for the gradual stagnation of the architectural and urbanist imagination in the West since the end of the 1980s is that the Soviets were no longer there to steal from.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences