Armando Brasini and Boris Iofan. This is the story of how two architects went from working together in Rome, were Iofan worked for Brasini, to one working for Mussolini and the other for Stalin, and how the project for what was going to be the tallest and most important building of the USSR was influenced by its Soviet architect’s time spent in his master’s office in Rome.
In 1931 the Soviet Union, following an unsuccessful national competition, organized a second open international competition to design the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow which was going to house the central administrative centre and congress hall for the whole territory of the USSR. The foreign architects who participated included Le Corbusier, Perret, Gropius, Mendelsohn, Poelzig, and an Italian called Armando Brasini.
Armando Brasini (1879-1965) was an Italian neo-baroque architect who was in favour with Mussolini, who reportedly was not very pleased with his architect’s participation in the Palace of the Soviets competition. Brasini’s main style of architecture is a personalised offshoot of the Barocchetto Romano of the early twentieth century. Brasini had an almost Piranesian interest for the monumental architecture of Classical Rome, and pursued a number of monumental towers for the eternal city. In 1916-17 Brasini proposed a Monument to Dante, consisting of a tall tower, crowned by a statue of Dante at the top. The base of the faceted tower rested on a circular plinth of columns, which itself rested on a raised podium. The tower top was also conceived as a lighthouse for the city of Rome.
In 1923 Brasini had been commissioned by Count Gaetano Manzoni, nephew of Alessandro Manzoni author of The Betrothed, to design Villa Manzoni, a private residence on the Via Cassia in Rome on the site near where once stood the residence of Emperor Lucius Verus (130-169).
Significantly, the foundations for Brasini’s villa design were poured in 1924, year in which Brasini’s client Gaetano Manzoni had been nominated the first Italian Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and had also moved to Moscow.
In 1929 Brasini proposed another version of his tower for Rome, now dedicated not to Dante but to the fascist mythologizing of the ancient Roman lictors, and called “Mole Littoria” . The “Mole Littoria” was the second version of a project for a skyscraper initially proposed for the centre of Rome to Mussolini’s government by Mario Palanti in 1924. Instead of Dante, the summit of the tower is now occupied by what looks like an ancient Roman centurion.
The earlier motifs of a rounded base, faceted towers and lighthouses re-emerged in Brasini’s competition entry for the Palace of the Soviets of 1931. Brasini placed a statue of Lenin on top of the tallest tower, lit up by floodlights from other smaller lighthouse towers. The project was commended but did not receive any official awards in the competition.
Brasini had been invited to participate in the competition for the Palace of Soviets in Moscow by Boris Iofan. Odessa born Boris Iofan (1891-1976) was initially a consultant of the competition organization committee, and having then entered the competition himself was ultimately declared the winner in 1932.
After some building work experience for his architect brother Dmitry in St. Petersburg, Iofan, on the advice of the same brother, went to study architecture in Rome, at the Regio Istituto Superiore di Belle Arti, arriving in 1914 and graduating in 1916. During his Roman period Iofan worked for Armando Brasini, although he later said that his artistic taste “diverged” from that of his master. Iofan wrote that his work for Brasini was useful to him because Brasini possessed “great fantasy and openness in his architectural projects”. Brasini led the way yet gave the young Iofan a certain freedom to develop projects in his office. In 1921 Iofan had become a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and is said to have frequented Togliatti and Gramsci. In his memoirs, he writes about how he was struck by the burning love of the Italian masses for Soviet Russia. He met and later married Olga di Sasso Ruffo, daughter of an Italian Duke and a Russian Princess, who according to the Italian secret services was a very active “Bolshevik propagandist”. Iofan also worked for himself and built houses, villas, chapels, baths, cemeteries an electrical power station. All these projects were designed in a neoclassical style. Iofan designed the first exhibitions on Soviet Russia and also proposed a project for the Soviet Embassy in Italy (1923). In 1923, following Mussolini’s repression of Communists, Iofan decided to leave Rome for Moscow, where he established contact with Alexei Rykov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR.
Lenin had died in 1924, and shortly after his death a national campaign began to build Lenin monuments. Victor Balikhin, a graduate student at Vkhutemas, proposed to construct a statue of Lenin on top of new building for the Comintern, on the same site in which stood Christ the Saviour’s Cathedral. This became the site of the competition which took place years later, resulting in the Cathedral being demolished. The first national competition bore no fruits that were appreciated by the Soviet leaders, and an international competition was launched, which went through at least four rounds and a mixing of team members until a satisfactory project was crowned final winner.
In Iofan’s early project proposals, a statue of a worker the “Liberation of the Proletarian” was positioned at the top of a tower with other administrative and congress buildings dispersed across the site.
In a later 1932 project, the various buildings get condensed into one structure, following a jury recommendation, and the statue of the “Liberation of the Proletarian” is removed.
Subsequently a larger statue of the “Liberation of the Proletarian” makes its comeback on the rooftop of the condensed building proposal.
At this stage of development, the project looks more and more like the Lighthouse of Alexandria, a project that was probably also part of the repertoire of the imagination of Brasini, whose towers also always doubled as symbolic lighthouses.
Later projects, now in collaboration with architects Schuko and Gelfreikh, received instructions by Stalin to emphasize the height of the building and that the building had to celebrate that this was going to be a monument to Lenin. Stalin had suggested statues of Lenin, Marx and Engels above the entrance podium. Iofan took this one step further and suggested a statue of Lenin on top of a tower, following the lead of Brasini’s competition proposal. It is probable that the concept of placing the statue on top of a skyscraper was in fact suggested, directly or indirectly by Brasini to Iofan.
The Palace of the Soviets was began but never completed due to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, however the idea of placing symbolic Soviet sculptures on top of tower like structures was realized in two Soviet pavilions designed by Iofan: for the Paris 1937 and New York 1939 Expos. The project for the Soviet Pavilion at the 1937 Expo included at its summit a statue of the “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman”. The Paris version has been reconstructed and is now visible outside the VDNKh in Moscow.
In 1951 Brasini revived his concept of a Lighthouse tower crowned by a symbol in his project for the Lighthouse of Christianity. Having tried Dante, fascist symbols, and Lenin on the top of the Palace Soviets, Brasini had now settled on Christ’s cross for his latest symbolic tower project, perhaps angling for a commission from the Vatican, the cross on a shield being also the symbol of Italy’s postwar power held by the Christian Democrat government.
None of Brasini’s towers, nor the Palace of the Soviets were ever completed, however Boris Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets remains a defining moment in the history of architecture of the Soviet turn to Classicism during the times of Stalin. This turn was not, as has been the general belief, imposed by Stalin the dictator upon a uniform body of unwilling architects, but rather, with Stalin’s intervention, it allowed those architects whose natural inclination was towards a historicist approach to be given a chance to experiment with this return to history and symbolism.
Who could have been better than Armando Brasini to prepare a young Boris Iofan for this new phase of experimentation of Stalinist Soviet architecture?
Read more on Brasini Architetture di Armando Brasini
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