M. Ilyin’s “Moscow: Russian Urbanism” (1931)

Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch.  From El Lissitzky, Russia:

An Architecture for World Revolution.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1970).

• • •

In connection with industrial recovery in the USSR, problems of urbanism vigorously debated in Russia during the last two years.  Two diametrically opposed theories have evolved so far, and both have been widely discussed in print.  Sabsovich, the author of one of these theories, demands that all newly founded cities belong either to an urban type having all the characteristics of a Socialist community, based on a completely communal way of life and the accompanying dissolution of the family.  Such ‘urbanism’ desires to create industrial towns as well as agricultural towns with fixed populations (ca.  50,000), providing collective housing for all the inhabitants.  This theory is opposed by the ‘constructivists,’ [this is, of course, only partially true, since Sabsovich was also a member of OSA] under the leadership of the architects Ginsburg and Okhitovich who are proposing so-called ‘linear cities.’  This group of [180] architects considers the contrast between city and country to be one of the principle mistakes of the capitalist system, and they wish to bridge this gap by advancing a theory that, in effect, proposes complete de-urbanization and an amalgamation of all real and formal boundaries between city and country.  All cities are to be dissolved, meaning that even Moscow would be reduced to a park with a few representative buildings remaining.  Residential development would no longer be allowed to develop in a radial fashion around industry, but would be planned in a predetermined, regular way, i.e., in long strips along traffic arteries which in turn would relate intimately to life-sustaining agricultural production.  In this type of scheme, each individual would be supplied with his own industrially produced small house.  Such residential development obviously presupposes extensive development of all types of traffic and transport facilities; but aside from this it has other serious defects.  For example, there is a complete separation of dwelling, administration, and work centers, while frequent intersections of residential strips would eventually be hard to avoid.  In the end this may well result in an unplanned city of the conventional type.

The material that has come out of the violent discussions concerning these two theories is now incorporated into plans slated for actual implementation.  At the moment 38 new cities are being developed in Russia alone.

One of the most interesting and most radical development plans is that of the Socialist city of Novosibirsk, being built on the left bank of the Ob opposite the old city.  The new Novosibirsk has been growing at a speed that can only be compared to the rapid pace of American city growth.  It is being developed into the most important urban center in Siberia.  Its spacious layout is the work of the architects Babenkov, Vlassov, and Poliakov.  The construction of the huge industrial complex for the manufacture of ‘combines’ is the most important element of the plan and vitally affects the general planning concept of the new city.  All matters concerning the relationship between the dwelling and work are being taken into consideration in advance by the planners.  The new city is situated between two main railroad lines on a high plateau that falls off steeply toward the river Ob.  The industrial district is separated from the industrial district by means of a 750-meter wide green belt.  The location of industry in the north of the city is determined by taking into account the prevailing winds from the southeast.  In the city itself, rows of so-called ‘communal houses’ are separated by green belts [181] 500 to 650 meters wide.  The dwellings cover 15 to 20 percent of the strips dedicated to residential land use; the remaining area of the city is reserved for parks and gardens.  The linear dwelling areas consist of ‘communal housing,’ proletarian dwellings for 800 to 1,000 people, and regular four-story apartment blocks.  Each so-called ‘communal house’ has attached to it a nursery, a kindergarten, a dining hall, clubs, and sports facilities.  All these service strictires are two stories high.  The buildings are oriented north to south along their long axis, without regard to important street directions, so as not to coincide with the prevailing wind direction.  Three large boulevards are designed to [182] penetrate the city from different directions.  One of these will connect the old town with the new one across a newly planned bridge spanning the Ob and will touch the administrative center at the same time.  The second connects the two railroad stations, while the third one leads from the main square to a so-called ‘food center’ (see below) in the vicinity of the industrial district.  Freight and truck traffic is relegated to roads outside of the city, which in turn are connected to the principal railroad lines.  Traffic problems within the city are thereby considerably eased.  The Center of Culture, museums, hotels, and the Central Palace of Culture are located on the fringes of the central park area, deliberately at some distance from the administrative center.

Parks are given an important place in the life of the city: they provide protection from industry and supply fresh air to the city.  Apart from the sports facilities, schools and colleges will also be located in the green areas.  These green belts make up 30 percent of the built-up area of the city not including the smaller tree-planted areas between the individual houses.  Outside the city the plan calls for a central hospital and a number of sanatoria, one for each 110 to 125 acres.

The new plan of the city pays special attention to physical training.  Sports facilities are not only attached to the communal houses, but are also placed within the park areas, which will accommodate sports centers of 4 to 4½ acres and include stadia of up to 10,000 capacity.  The largest sports complex will be located on the shore of the Ob, easily accessible to the inhabitants of both the old an the new city.  Apart from a racetrack, including racing stables, it will feature a sports palace, a stadium for 40,000 to 60,000 spectators, a swimming pool, an open-air Greek amphitheater, and many other facilities.  After its completion, this boldly planned sports center will rank supreme among modern international park facilities.

The architects of this giant project have solved the question of food services by the planning of mechanized superkitchen facilities, which in general have become accepted in the USSR as an essential component of city-planning practice.  These superkitchens will serve the community in the interim only, until 1944-45 — this being the target date for the completion of the construction plan — at which time they will be combined into a large food commune that will eventually be located somewhere in the vicinity of the railroads, the warehouses, and the combine factory in the southeastern part of the city.  The food commune should thus eventually be able to supply all inhabitants of the city with meals by the shortest possible route.  It is expected that with the development of [183] this district the center of the old city will shift and fuse with the center of the new city by means of the new bridge.

The above represents merely a rough outline of the concept of the Socialist city that is being evolved on the basis of completely new principles, unheard of so far in Western Europe and America.  The old form of street blocks has been abandoned and is being replaced by linear housing interspersed with green belts — the main characteristic of the new city.  It would be wrong to regard such a city as just another version of the garden city.  On the contrary, the governing principle here is to include nature directly in the life of the city and to provide plenty of light and air.  Still, some elements peculiar to West European architecture (Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for the City of Paris has indeed exerted a wide influence on the proposals discussed above) seem to have crept in just the same.  The essential difference between Socialist and Western planning is revealed by the general uniformity of Russian city plans, based on the underlying assumption of a maximum communization of the population’s mode of life.  There is no passion for skyscrapers (Le Corbusier), neither are their any barrack-style residential stereotypes à la Ernst May, whose designs have been sharply criticized and rejected by the youth workers’ press and the architectural societies alike.  In this context, standardization is used to serve the goal of maximum comfort and expediency rather than oppressing and debasing human beings, as for instance in the case of the standardized settlements of Thomas Bata in Bohemia.  The plan of Novosibirsk is a classic example of an entirely new city concept, and its realization represents one of the great events in modern architecture.

[From Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau, 1931, No. 5, pgs. 237-240]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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