This is the first publication in an English language website of a chapter extract from Vladimir Ivanov’s new book “Architecture Inspired by Space: Images of the Future in Late Soviet Architecture”. It is always interesting for a Western audience to read the interpretation of Soviet architecture by writers living in the post-Soviet world, Ivanov, for example, is based in St Petersburg, Russia. I am very glad that Nullus Locus Sine Genio by publishing this extract can act as a cultural bridge between Russia and the West at this time when the building and strengthening of this cultural bridge is most required.
by Vladimir Ivanov
Contrary to Lenin’s well-known quote that “of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important”, theatre in the USSR was valued more than film-making. The cinema of that epoch gravitated towards theatrical elements; Soviet society was essentially theatre-centric. Following the pre-revolutionary theatre traditions where, according to Gogol, theatre was a tribune, Soviet theatre sought to use “staginess” to expose the spectators to higher meanings conveyed by the arts.
For Soviet people going to the theatre was not just going out in the evening, it was more of an educational activity. Consequently, plays at the theatre had more in common with the Divine Liturgy rather than with gladiator fights.
Theatre enabled both to mix and match different kinds of arts and to take down the borders between the audience and the events on stage, thus connecting the spectator to the spiritual aspect of the play. This urge for integration can be traced in all Soviet theatre designs at all stages of its development. We can see it in the projects for city decorations during festival street performances of the early 1920s (a re-born tradition going back to the Renaissance street theatres). Later it turns up in the projects of synthetic theatres and forums of the Stalin era. We can also trace the same tendency in the unique drama theatre in Veliky Novgorod of the 1980s, where it is the needs of the theatre that predetermine the architecture.
In the Soviet era theatres ceased to be a privilege of the elite and became available to the general public. In order to widen and educate the new audiences it was necessary to launch a large-scale theatre construction campaign. Several hundreds of theatres were built during the period from 1926 to 1985, with a construction boom in the 1960–80s. Theatre played the key role in urban development.
In Western countries theatre was often only a part of the cultural and business centre of the city or part of a commercial building, whereas Soviet theatres would become the new city centre or cause the construction of a new city block around them.
In the mid 1960s the Soviet government made an unspoken decision to start the construction of major theatres in all cities with population exceeding two hundred thousand people. There was no standard design to use in all cities. National and regional specific features were always taken into account. Most of the theatres were designed by the following two Moscow design institutes:
—— The State Institute for the Design of Theatrical and Performance Buildings (Giproteatr), under the USSR Ministry of Culture;
—— The Central Scientific Institute for the Typical and Experimental Design of Performance and Sports Buildings, under the USSR Gosstroy (State Committee for Construction).
At the same time members of the USSR Union of architects, journalists of “Arkhitektura SSSR” magazine, and research departments of the design institutes conducted an analysis of modern and traditional practice for theatre construction, and held surveys among theatre directors and staff.
Moreover, there were a number of competitions held for the development of the concept for the theatre of the future, including the contest of the USSR Union of architects for the architecture of the so-called “total theatre” in the early 1970s, “Theatre of the future generations competition” among students in 1977, and an all-union contest for the prospective theatre in 1978. These contests resembled festivals of futuristic architecture: a vast majority of the design projects were not for implementation but rather served to prompt the architects to visualize their ideas and discuss them. For instance, a range of elements found in the paper model of the total theatre design project by V.A. Somov were later embodied by the author in the building of the drama theatre in Veliky Novgorod.
When the USSR Ministry of Culture made the decision to begin the construction of a new theatre in Veliky Novgorod in 1973, this centuries-old city was a major tourist attraction with a solid historic core and at the same time an industrial centre with booming infrastructure and construction of housing. Historical sites in one part of the city were complemented with residential areas in the other part. Consolidating the two areas remains a key issue for Veliky Novgorod even at the present day.
The area allocated for the construction of the theatre was part of a park on the Sofiyskaya side of the Volkhov River, in the buffer zone between the historical sites and the new residential areas. On the one hand, designers had to take into account the historical context; on the other, they had to extend the city centre and mingle in some elements of the modern Veliky Novgorod.
Even though the theatre is without a doubt a completely modern building and all architectural allusions in it are highly vague, we can say that intuitively the theatre designed by Vladimir Somov resembles the city’s Medieval churches. Against each other’s background, the theatre acquires an ultramodern cosmic ring and the churches receive a new look and become something more than merely matter-of-fact museum showpieces.
The theatre is a complex system of volumes placed one over another. It combines modern architecture techniques like glazed foyer or clear space on the ground floor level with the rhythms of Novgorod architecture that is characterized by smooth lines, active use of arches, and the lack of supporting pillars. We can find these features not only in the appearance of the building, but also in its interior and predominantly in the theatre foyer.
The idea of the architect was to predetermine the viewer’s perception of theatrical performances. This was done by means of introducing theatrical elements to the architecture and with the help of lighting. The idea was to highlight the marble in the colours of the performance the audience was to see that night. Round lamps would be installed at different levels on special tubes around the theatre.
In addition, in his Novgorod creation the architect V.A. Somov sought to embody the principles of the contemporary theatre architecture that he had elaborated in his paper model for the contest of the USSR Union of Architects. The essence of his plan was for the theatre to reach out of the stage so that the architecture could convey the dramatic conventions. How did he achieve this?
In the architect’s design the central volume is surrounded with numerous auxiliary buildings in the same style. Transformer substations, fire towers, air intake shafts resemble props placed outside the scene. In addition, for the façade, where the main element is the arcade, the architect uses the technique of open arches. In this technique the arch, which has always been considered a solid basis, has no capstone and becomes illusory, theatrical in nature.
Thanks to the console spatial structure made of standard elements (design by O.G. Smirnov), the overall architectural design acquires an inner unity. The same design is used to structure the auditorium, to set up the area around the theatre, to work on the layout of auxiliary buildings and the stele, a sign in front of the theatre.
State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre in Vilnius
1968-1974, architects E. Bučiūtė and Yu. Markeev
The theatre in Vilnius was inspired by architecture typical of Catholic churches: the upbeat atmosphere of the opera reminded the young architect Elena Bučiūtė of the atmosphere close to that of a Catholic festive procession. The theatre composition implemented in the form of a glazed parallelepiped with a massive stage box over it can be called a fairly standard solution for late Soviet architecture; however, we can still see re-examined motives of church architecture. For example, one of the facades is decorated with red brick.
In the theatre interior the architect also tried to infuse the solemn characteristic of Catholic Church service by means of shiny copper surfaces, muted light, and lush chandeliers. Broad flights of stairs with low rise steps make the spectators walk in a particularly ceremonial rhythm.
Like the theatre in Vilnius, Grodno theatre recalls the Catholic baroque and neo-Gothic that dominates the architecture of the historic core of this city in Belarus located on the border between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds.
The theatre in Grodno has a vertical organization like a cathedral bell tower or the tower of a medieval castle. Covered with openwork bars, the main volume of the central pavilion unfolds upwards from the hill on which the theatre stands. Buttresses holding up the main pavilion are a reference to neo-Gothic church designs of the 19 century.
A large-scale construction campaign for circuses began in the USSR in early 1970s when travelling circuses were replaced by stationary ones with their own buildings. This was the time when Giproteatr and CNIIEP, named after B.S. Mezentsev, began to work on standard design projects for the southern and northern parts of the Soviet Union and for the Central Asia seismic regions. Climate, landscape and social factors were taken into account. Further project alignment to the specific features of a particular city was conducted by local design institutes.
This was especially true for capital cities of the republics and cities that wanted to have a circus of extra high capacity. The active use of modern technologies like super-light ferrocement roofs allowed to both construct a few dozens cost-effective large capacity buildings over a short period of time and to give an expressive look to the enclosures.
Kazan circus was the first circus in the USSR which was built in the shape of a bowl placed on top of a stylobate shaped as a grand-piano. This design inspired by the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer was subsequently further developed in the standard project for circus buildings in the southern regions of the country (Krasnodar, Stavropol, Grozny). Kazan circus is in the city centre near the Kremlin, but the modern design does not lead to a dissonance between the circus building and historical sites. Smooth lines follow the curves of the Kazan landscapes so that the circus seems to be part of nature rather than just a man-made construction.
The building is formed by two interlocking bowls made of reinforced concrete. The bowls are connected to each other without joints. From the foyer the audience can walk up the an unusual giraffe shaped staircase to a platform ring at the junction of the dome and the amphitheater. Another walking area is on the roof of the stylobate, which serves as a utility space.
The Kazan-based Institute of Experimental Aesthetics (“Prometheus”) developed “smart lights system” for the circus. The lighting varied depending on the weather conditions and daylight intensity.
The book “Architecture Inspired by Space: Images of the Future in Late Soviet Architecture” (St. Petersburg: Borey Art, 2017) is available for overseas deliveries through Russian on-line bookstore svoi-knigi.ru. To order the book you can contact the bookseller at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the number +78129661691.