(also transliterated Tsentrosoyuz and Centrosoyus)
39 Miasnitskaya Ulitsa, Moscow
(This is somewhat NYH, hence fairly in-depth I would hope. Also, a completely different format to the original project so unlikely to raise copyright issues)
The Centrosoyuz building is a modernist, arguably Constructivist public building in Moscow, designed by Le Corbusier, his cousin and colleague Pierre Jeanneret, with the help of the Russian architect and engineer Nikolai Kolli. It’s situated in inner Moscow, between Miasnitskaya Ulitsa and prospekt Akademika Sakharova. Design was finalised around 1928, but the building was only completed in 1936.
Background: “Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible”
The political situation in the USSR in the mid-1920s was rather complicated. It was in a period of peace after the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21. Lenin had instituted the New Economic Policy in 1921, permitting limited free enterprise and stimulating economic growth (though the process was far from perfect). Bear with me, this bit is important later on.
The Centrosoyuz, or Central Union of Consumer Co-Operatives, was a co-operative business which gained a great deal of power and influence under NEP. The Centrosoyuz had its own in-house architects to design warehouses and shops, but when it came time to design a new headquarters for central Moscow, an international competition would be just the thing to promote modern Russia and build artistic bridges. NEP had created a minor architectural growth industry in Russian cities, as growing businesses put up new offices.
The Russian Constructivist movement, including such luminaries as Konstantin Melnikov, Alexander Vesnin and Vladimir Tatlin (of tower fame) was producing inventive socialist art and architecture, influenced by other modernists and Le Corbusier in particular. At the time, Constructivism was still very much the Party’s “house style”, and Constructivist architects, especially Ginzburg and Alexander Vesnin, were quick to acknowledge Le Corbusier’s influence and welcome him to the city.
Le Corbusier, for his part, was initially very enthusiastic about Russia, particularly having just come from a lengthy conflict over his League of Nations project and others in Switzerland, none of which ended up being built. It’s important, I think, for the modern reader to remember – especially in light of how many otherwise decent intellectuals and creative professionals, including Le Corbusier, would soon be lured to the extreme right – that Le Corbusier was not especially political at this stage, and found allies all over the political spectrum. More than anything else, Le Corbusier was a technocrat, and he was fascinated by what seemed to be the all-encompassing modernity and efficiency of the post-revolutionary USSR. Evidently pleasantly surprised, he wrote at the time:
Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible, the biggest theory, the biggest projects. Maximum. Going to the heart of any question. Examining it in depth. Envisaging the whole. Breadth and size.” Til then, I had understood from our newspapers that Bolshevik meant: a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth.
There was trouble brewing under the surface from the very start. Lenin had died in 1924 and the Communist Party was locked in a power struggle. The Constructivist movement was also split, into the ASNOVA group (which included Melnikov and El Lissitsky) and the Corbusian OSA group (which included Ginzburg, Alexander Vesnin, his two brothers Victor and Leonid ), and there had recently been concerns over the transparency of some architectural competitions. For these reasons and a few others, the Centrosoyuz project was plagued by disasters. Le Corbusier’s somewhat naïve faith in what seemed to be an efficient, modern technocracy was profoundly shaken. It’s interesting to note, though by no means a proven link, that his disillusionment with communism coincided with his move to the right.
“Victory Without Brutality”
Le Corbusier wasn’t the only famous entrant. Other international modernists in the contest included Thomas Tait (of Scottish firm Burnet and Tait), the pioneering German modernist and AEG designer Peter Behrens, and Bruno Taut’s big brother Max. Le Corbusier and Pierre were officially selected in late 1928 and signing the contract in April of the following year.
When it looked like the Centrosoyuz technical committee were raising problems, Le Corbusier’s Constructivist allies - and most of his rivals for the project – pitched in to support him. He was both touched by their selfless placing of architectural taste over personal gain and impressed by the speed with which the committee selected him. Le Corbusier also had significant support from Isidor Liubimov, the President of the Centrosoyuz. A sketch entitled Victory Without Brutality, showing a female figure rising gracefully from a body of water, gives some idea as to his feelings.
What Le Corbusier didn’t know, however, was that Centrosoyuz were secretly planning an alternative option in case things didn’t work out.
Wow, 800 words in and we haven’t talked about the design yet!
Like some other of Le Corbusier’s public building designs of the period (particularly the unbuilt League of Nations design), it’s essentially made up of a composition of volumes, as separate and hierarchical as his Purist paintings. There are three cuboid volumes containing offices and a restaurant, but the focal point is the auditorium, which viewed from above looks sort of like a parabola.
These forms are all elevated from ground level to make the first floor (second floor for Americans) the principal one, with Le Corbusier’s trademark pilotis, which allows people to walk in under the building and brush the snow off before entering.
The circulation of people within the building was almost an obsession for Le Corbusier. The auditorium contains two ramps running along the sides, while the office blocks are served by two more freestanding horseshoe-shaped ramps, similar in placement to spiral staircases. The innovative use of ramps, well before wheelchair access became a legal requirement, marks Le Corbusier's approach here as highly advanced.
Façade-wise, there’s a stark contrast between surfaces which are opaque and those which are almost entirely glazed. The use of huge blocks of Caucasus tuff to clad the façade is an emphatically Russian method of resisting the climate. Less wise perhaps is the use of enormous expanses of glass, given this predated the invention of double glazing, and the space underneath the building tunnels cold winds into it. As in Le Corbusier’s Indian work, design considerations tended to trump climatic ones.
Corbusier, Communism and cock-ups
The design described above is the final design as built, but it actually had to change quite significantly as the competition progressed. Problems with acquiring land for the site forced the plan to change from a rough trapezoid shape into a rectangle, then back into a trapezoid, and the volumes had to be rearranged to place the auditorium so it faced the prospekt Akademika Sakharova.
Le Corbusier, as always, tried to impose solutions his clients didn’t want. His plan to redesign the entire area was obviously impossible, but he and Pierre also attempted repeatedly to implement an aération ponctuelle system, which they were convinced was a good idea despite it being both expensive and unworkable. Furthermore, even the comparatively mainstream reinforced concrete construction was a challenge for the low-tech Soviet construction industry.
Meanwhile, Josef Stalin had become the most powerful man in the Party, and political upheaval had also influenced the artistic sphere. Constructivism was out, and Socialist Realism – a highly propagandist style which advocated monumental Classicism in architecture – was in. Perhaps the clearest proof of this change in tastes was the Palace of the Soviets competition of 1930, in which a Le Corbusier design was beaten by the monumental classicism of Boris Iofan (though the project was never built), and Socialist Realism was confirmed as the official Communist style a couple of years later.
Stalin’s policy of collectivisation caused upheaval within the actually quite fragile Soviet economy, especially as it was combined with the rapid industrialisation of the First Five-Year Plan. Industry was prioritised to such an extent that the Tsars' collections of paintings were largely sold off to pay for factories.
As a result of these policies, the Centrosoyuz underwent a change of name and function, becoming Narkomlegprom (the Ministry of Light Industry) in 1932. Luckily, Isidor Liubimov remained at the head, becoming Minister of Light Industry. However, because Stalinist economic policy prioritised industrial construction, funds were diverted away from the project, and construction had to be paused in July 1931. For several months, the building stood unfinished, attracting growing criticism both from architectural conservatives and even some left-wing modernists (who saw the design as too American-inspired).
Liubimov, Kolli, Alexander Vesnin and some others were still loyal to Le Corbusier, and with Kolli’s guidance in particular the building was resumed in 1932 and completed in 1936. Kolli had to make changes to the original interior so the offices would be suited to the new organisation, which was not helped by the government attempting to censor Kolli’s correspondence with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret (who by this time were back in Paris and were unwilling and probably unable to return to Moscow).
Much of this information has only come to light fairly recently, having been kept secret by the Soviet authorities, and it took until 1939 for Le Corbusier and Pierre to be paid. The building, viewed for some time as a youthful mistake of the early Communist years, has stood the test of time and is now acknowledged as a major work of Russian Modernism, as well as an important part of Le Corbusier’s career. It now houses Goskomstat, the Russian State Committee for Statistics.
Sources and Further Reading
The main book I used for researching the project, and one I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in Le Corbusier’s Russian projects, is Jean-Louis Cohen’s Le Corbusier and the Mystique of the USSR.
For a more general overview of Le Corbusier’s work, try Le Corbusier by Kenneth Frampton (Thames and Hudson, 2001) and The Le Corbusier Guide by Deborah Gans (Princeton Architectural Press, 2000).
It’s not as well covered on the internet as Le Corbusier’s better-known work, unfortunately.
Centrosoyuz building on Google Maps
Centrosoyuz at the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society
(thanks to Wyclef for providing an E2-friendly Cyrillic alphabet)