Soviet style: Frédéric Chaubin puts cosmic Communist constructions in the frame

Inspired by the finest Suprematist utopias, the Georgian Ministry of Highways
Inspired by the finest Suprematist utopias, the Georgian Ministry of Highways, with its reduced anchorage, in Tbilisi, Georgia, by G Chakhava, Z Dzhalaganiya, T Tkhilava and V Klinberg, 1974
(Image credit: press)

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

The architecture faculty at the Polytechnic Institute of Minsk

The architecture faculty at the Polytechnic Institute of Minsk, Belarus, and its succession of overhanging lecture theatres, by V Anikin and I Yesman, 1983

(Image credit: press)

The anthropomorphic House of Soviets in Kaliningrad stands on the site of the Saxon castle of Königsberg

The anthropomorphic House of Soviets in Kaliningrad stands on the site of the Saxon castle of Königsberg. Begun in 1974, its construction was never completed because of its structural flaws and the collapse of the USSR

(Image credit: press)

Palace of Ceremonies in Tbilisi,

Palace of Ceremonies in Tbilisi, Georgia, by R Dzhorbenadze and V Orbeladze, 1985

(Image credit: press)

Soviet embassy in Havana

Soviet embassy in Havana, Cuba, by Alexander Rochegov, 1985

(Image credit: press)

Druzhba sanatorium in Yalta, Ukraine,

Druzhba sanatorium in Yalta, Ukraine, by I Vasilevsky and Y Stefanchuk, 1985

(Image credit: press)

Ukrainian Institute of Scientific and Technological Research and Development in Kiev

Ukrainian Institute of Scientific and Technological Research and Development in Kiev, Ukraine, by L Novikov and F Turiev, 1971

(Image credit: press)

Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics in St Petersburg

Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics in St Petersburg, Russia, by S Savin and B Artiushin, 1987

(Image credit: press)

This spectacular evocation of suffering and death was designed by the sculptor Alfonsas Ambraziunas in 1983

Built in the 19th century, the Ninth Fort at Kaunas in Lithuania was used by the Soviet NKVD as a detention centre and then by the German occupying forces. The 32 metre-high memorial stands on the site of mass executions carried out during the Holocaust. This spectacular evocation of suffering and death was designed by the sculptor Alfonsas Ambraziunas in 1983

(Image credit: press)

Crematorium in Kiev

Crematorium in Kiev, Ukraine, by A Miletski, 1985

(Image credit: press)

Monument to the Battle of Bash-Aparanin Armeniam

Monument to the Battle of Bash-Aparanin Armeniam, by Rafael Israelyan, 1979

(Image credit: press)

INFORMATION
Frédéric Chaubin. Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, £ 34.99, published by Taschen (opens in new tab)

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.