The ‘hidden architectural gem’ is an established trope of the modern age, something to be unearthed by an eager photographer and then propagated via the internet to an eager, ever increasing audience. Frédéric Chaubin’s visual exploration of the ‘fourth and final age of Soviet architecture’ is a case in point.
The sheer space-age strangeness of these buildings shows an architecture that was still ideologically charged, a noble communist assault against the value of abstract forms that Western designers had begun to turn their back on by the 1970s and 80s. A single example of any of these structures would throw a Western conservation body worth their salt into paroxysms of delight, for Chaubin presents a hidden history of architectural inventiveness, with a heft, solidity and fantastical outlook that today’s icon builders can only dream of.
The material of choice is concrete; raw, rich, sculptural, evocative and truly inspirational concrete, seen here fulfilling every dream of the early modernists and more. There is also chaos at work, a chaos that predates the parametric wet dreams and CGI-inspired voluptuousness of so much modern design, depending instead on the slide rule and certainty of poured, hammered concrete and exotically abstract decoration. Drawn from the far reaches of the USSR, soon to be fragmented away from the motherland, the diversity of the 90 featured buildings foreshadows the chaos that led to the end of the Soviet era.
Today, the heady combination of Soviet style and architectural extravagance is very much back in fashion, and the tragic ideological missteps that underpin so many of these structures is easily overlooked. As Chaubin notes in his introduction, ‘the Soviet Union was a labour camp, but also a gigantic holiday camp, a place where recreational activities were rigorously planned’.
From stadiums to scientific laboratories, playgrounds to health clubs, these buildings carried the torch of Constructivism, mixed in with American Googie, and central European Expressionism, creating slices of space age modern baroque that are now forgotten, faded and patched. For the most part, the infrastructure and systems that spawned this work have long since evaporated, leaving behind examples of high architectural melodrama that can never be repeated.
This article was originally published in January 2011 and updated for the book’s September 2017 reissue