Curator’s Choice - Northern Vision #4
Dr Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski selects his final highlight from the 'Northern Vision' exhibition - Boris Iofan's monumental design for the Palace of the Soviets
This drawing, by Boris Mihailovich Iofan (1891 Odessa – 1976 Moscow), entitled: Project for the competition for the building of the Palace of the Soviets: General view from the Moskva River, 1933–1934, is probably the largest drawing that has ever been displayed at the Soane. It is an extraordinary document of twentieth-century Russian history (although its political connotations could be seen as being contentious).
In 1931, a competition was announced for the construction of the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow – a building large enough to hold the delegates of all the Soviet Republics and a symbol of the triumph of Communism in Russia (and of its foreseen coming to power in the West). The contest was opened up to foreign as well as Soviet architects and 160 entries were submitted, including ones by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Hans Poelzig, Armando Brasini as well as by Iofan. Stalin visited the public exhibition of these designs and is rumoured to have condemned the designs in a modern style, instead choosing Iofan’s. Having trained at the School of Art in Odessa it was the nine years Iofan spent in Italy that had a more profound influence upon the development of his architectural style. In particular, it was the period he spent working in the Rome office of the neoclassical architect Armando Brasini (who worked for the Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini) that would be felt in his later Socialist Realist projects (this drawing forming part of one of his most extraordinary proposals). Brasini’s entry for the Palace of the Soviets included a monumental statue of Lenin. This motif was taken up by Iofan and incorporated with his Tower-of-Babel-like, stepped structure, variations of which he submitted to the first, open competition for the Palace and then for the second, closed competition. Iofan’s stepped skyscraper, crowned by a monumental statue of the leader of the Russian Revolution, became the final, approved version of the Palace.
The monumental scale of this drawing (nearly two metres square), echoes the colossal, inhuman scale of the towering building which would have reached 415 meters (making it the world’s tallest skyscraper if completed). Building work started with the clearing of the site. The nineteenth century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (built in thanks for the defeat of Napoleon) was demolished and a colossal foundation trench was dug and lined with concrete. Work was halted by World War II, and although Iofan continued to refine his designs, by 1958 the project was abandoned. The foundations became the world’s largest open air swimming pool. Following the fall of the Soviet Union the site was given back to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Cathedral was rebuilt between 1995 and 2000. Thus Russia’s turbulent twentieth-century history can be read through this extraordinary example of architectural draughtsmanship.
Northern Vision: Master Drawings from the Tchoban Foundation runs from 21 June to 28 September in the Exhibition Gallery at Sir John Soane's Museum. Featuring highlights from the collection of Europe's newest museum of architecture, the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, as well as drawings by Sergei Tchoban illustrating his practice's interest in the continued use of architectural draughtsmanship. Many of these drawings also reflect the distinctive and historical cityscapes of Berlin and Sergei Tchoban's native St Petersburg.