As a devotee of Soviet art in 2017, one is currently spoiled for choice in a sea of centenary exhibitions dedicated to contextualising the early years of upheaval that followed the Russian revolution. The Design Museum’s current exhibition, Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution offers a distinct study of architectural utopianism during the initial years of Soviet communism. The compactness of this exhibition relative to, for example, the larger project recently undertaken by the Royal Academy (about which you can read culturised’s thoughts here), provides a visitor the opportunity for prolonged contemplation of monumental aspirations in a more intimate setting, making it a valuable addition to the large number of Soviet exhibitions taking place throughout this momentous year.
Imagine Moscow takes as its subject six unrealised architectural projects that sought to transform the landscape of young Communist Russia. In a single large space, divided ingeniously to create the sense of being surrounded by these potential projects, one interacts with architectural drawing plans, small-scale models, and video installations for Nikolai Ladovsky’s “Communal House” (1920), El Lissitzky’s “Cloud Iron (Wolkenbügel)” (1923-25), Ivan Leonidov’s “Lenin Institute” (1927), Nikolai Sokolov’s “Health Factory” (1928), three entries for the “Commissariat of Heavy Industry” (1934-36) by the Vesnin brothers, Ivan Leonidov, and Konstantin Melnikov, and Boris Iofan’s “Palace of the Soviets” (1931-41). Inspired by the October Revolution, which the museum posits as a kind of tabula rasa for architectural theory, these design visions sought to transform Moscow into a new world order. The planned building sites were political statements: the embodiment of communist principles writ (literally) large. The architectural projects undertaken by Lissitzky, Iofan, Leonidov, and others were fundamentally different than those being designed and built in Western Europe during this period. Soviet architects felt an emphatic need to monumentalise and memorialise the new Soviet world. Revolution meant radical renewal across all aspects of life; in the field of architecture this entailed an entirely novel, revolutionised envisioning of the built environment.
The key word repeated across numerous labels in this exhibition is “unrealised.” Multiple of the architectural projects on display were never actually built; they remained skyscrapers that lived only on flat paper. The oft-cited reason for these unrealised visions is a lack of materials and funding during this period of great tumult: the bloody Civil War in Russia during the years 1917–1922, for example, greatly restricted access to building supplies and funds for city refurbishment. This limiting factor returned in later years, for instance the Palace of the Soviets, begun in 1937, soon found its construction halted with the invasion of the German army during the Second World War. Despite the very real practical limitations imposed upon architects during these years, one cannot help but speculate about the realistic potential for these visions to be constructed in physical space. The Palace of the Soviets was intended to be the largest building in the world: if built it would have stood at 416 metres tall, and would have been topped with a 100 metre statue of Lenin. It would indeed have been the most dramatic expression of Soviet power in Moscow, but in considering the design plans and a vast 1:1 model fragment of Lenin’s finger for the monument (4 metres long and also on display), one is struck both by the impossibility of such magnitude and grandeur, and by just how lofty the dreams of the revolution one hundred years ago were. El Lissitzky’s “Cloud Iron” design, meanwhile, intended to be “the communist foundation of steel and concrete for the people of the earth”, aimed to maximise the horizontal spaces of the sky, spreading out around Moscow’s Boulevard Ring in enormous L-shaped skyscrapers. Were these utopian visions too monumental for production? Given their permanent unrealised shape, the practical functionality of these buildings will never be known: the title Imagine Moscow has been well chosen indeed.
The visionary works of these ambitious, dedicated Soviet artists live on only through surviving designs and miniature models, monumental projects confined perpetually to intimate sketches, but these artifacts give us a vision into a moment in time when people believed they were embarking on a period of history that would see a more substantial change in society than anything that had preceded it. This exhibition has captured a past generation’s dreams and put them on display, and the viewer interacts with these lofty ambitions with the full knowledge that the world took a distinctly different turn.
Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution is on show at the Design Museum until the 4th of June. Tickets and more information can be found here.
 Wall label, Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution, Design Museum