Switching styles whenever they came into fashion, Alexey Shchusev is a reminder that great architecture needn’t be built with strong political or architectural convictions
‘What can we do to oblige, sirs? We are not proud people’. So reads the slogan across an article in Russian Constructivist journal Contemporary Architecture, on Alexey Shchusev’s two entries in the competition for Moscow’s Lenin Library in 1928. Shchusev ‘s first submission was ‘classical’: heavy masonry pilasters served as backdrop to heroic sculptures and reliefs. The second was ‘Modernist’: smooth concrete, Bauhaus-style glazed walkways, ribbon windows and Mendelsohnian curves. However, not much had changed in the monumental plan of the building − these were two ways of dressing up the same thing, incurring the Constructivists’ ire. They hit on something that makes Shchusev peculiarly fascinating.
Probably the most successful and influential Russian architect of the 20th century − Moscow’s national architecture museum is named after him − he was capable of practising in any architectural idiom requested. Art Nouveau, neo-Byzantine, Rococo, Neoclassical, Modernist, socialist realist, Constructivist − all executed with panache. As such, he’s one of the most successful confirmations of Philip Johnson’s assertion that architects are high-class whores − but, in contrast to, say, Mies, who would work for anyone from Communists to Nazis to whisky distillers but wouldn’t modify his architecture to fit, Shchusev had no obvious architectural convictions.
The earliest of Shchusev’s major buildings was the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow, 1908. As with many other designers at the time, he was aiming at a fusion of the native ‘vernacular’ − here, the distinctive Russian adaptation of Byzantine architecture − with the abstracted forms of Art Nouveau, using blank whitewashed volumes and particularly outré, stretched onion domes. This grounding in Russian religious architecture would stand him in good stead in later years, but the extreme stylisation of these designs doesn’t show any more obvious ‘commitment’ to Orthodox architecture than his later work does to the Communist project.
After these ecclesiastical buildings, Shchusev won the commission to design the Kazan Railway Station, started under one regime in 1913 and completed under another, quite different, in 1940, but undergoing few major changes to its neo-Russian design, with its decorative mural panels showing historical scenes. The main facade to the ‘three stations square’, it is based on the Kremlin of Kazan, rather than Moscow, but the legend is that visitors from the provinces still disembark from the station thinking they’ve arrived at the Moscow Kremlin already.
In the first half of the 1920s little was built by Shchusev or anyone else, and in that time he taught at Vkhutemas, the state technical school, and worked as an urban planner in Moscow − notably, he had a hand in setting up a height limit, blocking various skyscraper proposals. Unlike many intellectuals of his generation, he appeared to have no problem with working for the new socialist regime; accordingly, he was a natural choice, over the untried and inexperienced young communist architects of Constructivism, when it was decided to entomb the revolutionary leader.
The embalming of Lenin − opposed by his family and many communists − was first accommodated by a temporary wooden step pyramid, based by Shchusev not on Russian despotic precedent, but on Egyptian and Sumerian architecture. It began the stepped, pyramidal, strictly hierarchical architecture that would succeed the horizontal and egalitarian forms of Constructivism − what the Soviet architectural historian Vladimir Paperny considered a distinct ‘Culture One’ and ‘Culture Two’. In 1930, Shchusev remodelled the Lenin Mausoleum into what might be his masterpiece, a cold, imposing, ornament-free pyramid of red and black granite, as abstract as anything by Malevich, as authoritarian as any Kremlin.
Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow (1908)
Kazan Railway Station (1913)
Lenin’s Mausoleum (1924)
‘We are the only direct successors of Rome; only in socialist society and with socialist technology is the construction of even greater dimensions and greater artistic perfection possible’
But swimming with the tide as he obviously did, Shchusev moved unassumingly into Constructivism when it briefly became the official architecture at the turn of the 1930s. Shchusev’s Modernist buildings are generally in a flashier idiom than the strict Corbusian of many Moscow architects at the time − Erich Mendelsohn, who had designed a factory in Leningrad, was a more obvious influence, visible in his Sanatorium for Army Officers in Sochi. The city-block sized Narkomzem (Commissariat of Architecture), completed in 1933, is one of the largest Modernist buildings in Moscow, an example of the Constructivist love for clocks and bright colours, a red-painted, dramatic, streamlined design culminating in a partly glazed, curved corner, very closely resembling the second Lenin Library competition entry that so irked the committed Constructivists.
Only two years later came the Hotel Moscow, which abandons the recently acquired Modernist language of horizontality, lightness and artificiality in favour of a heavy, tile and masonry clad high-rise close to Red Square, stepped, monumental and, from a distance, symmetrical, until you notice that each of its wings is to an entirely different design, something apocryphally claimed to be the consequence of Stalin being presented with two variants and absent-mindedly signing both. But each side is equally ‘Stalinist’, in the peculiar free classical style that would define official architecture under his rule. When it rejected modern architecture, the Soviet government also rejected the ‘straight’ Palladianism represented by architects like Ivan Zholtovsky. In the Hotel Moscow, Shchusev provided the synthesis. Closely comparable to the opulence of contemporary Art Deco, albeit without the commercialism, the success of the new style would furnish Shchusev with state commissions from Tashkent to Tbilisi (the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, recently demolished).
In 1937, during the Great Purge, Shchusev was expelled by the heads of the official Architects’ Union as a pre-revolutionary remnant. Incredibly, given the bloodbath of the time, this denunciation did not lead to his demotion − he appealed to Moscow City Council and was immediately reinstated. Rather than being imprisoned in the NKVD’s notorious Lubyanka, he redesigned it from 1940 onwards, transforming the florid neo-Baroque block into a chilling Stalinist monolith. Shchusev worked as a planner after the war until his death in 1949; his posthumously completed Komsomolskaya metro station is just opposite the Kazan Station. It forsakes Russianisms for a bizarre neo-Rococo, dripping with plaster and gold, like a valediction.
What Shchusev’s work does is completely upend the usual dichotomy of the early 20th century’s style wars. Unlike, say, Asplund, he did not move from classicism to Modernism, but from one to the other depending on the fashion (or rather, depending on the current edicts); unlike Albert Speer or Hannes Meyer, he wasn’t politically and architecturally committed; unlike Corbusier or Mies, he wasn’t architecturally committed and politically mercenary. Rather, he was both. Architecture would be impossible with only Shchusevs, as there’d be no original architects to steal from − but the sheer success of his work is a reminder that great architecture can be created without any principles whatsoever.
Illustration by Mick Brownfield