BOOKS: The Holy Place: Architecture, Ideology, and History in Russia

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The Holy Place: Architecture, Ideology, and History in Russia by Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorij Kozlov, with Sylvia Hochfield. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, first edition, 2007.

Book Review by Anthony Gabriel

I happened to see this book at the Borders closing down sale, noting that it was about a building in Moscow that I knew was blown up by Stalin and rebuilt just ten years ago (August 2000). Fascinated, I took it.

This book covers the creation of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – its construction and its destruction, the creation of the Palace of Soviets in its place, the abandonment of that project and conversion into a swimming pool, the demolition of the swimming pool and reconstruction of the Cathedral – in that order. This bizarre series of flip-flops mirrored the changes in Russia’s political leadership over the years, under various Czars, Communist Party Secretaries and Presidents.

One paragraph of the book sums up the situation:

A member of the Moscow intelligentsia recently commented that during the communist era intellectuals passing the Moscow swimming pool would whisper to each other, ‘There was once a famous cathedral here, but the government destroyed it and built the swimming pool.’

Now they tell each other, ‘There was once a famous swimming pool here, but the government destroyed it and built the cathedral.’

To those who can recall their university History of Architecture course, many masters of the Modern Movement, including Le Corbusier, took part in the international competition for the Palace of the Soviets, and Wright famously criticised the winner, Boris Iofan’s scheme when he addressed the Congress of Soviet Architects.

The book chronicles the ambitions and vanities that decided the courses of the various projects and explores the relationship between power and architecture in Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and the Russian Republic. This culminates in the reconstruction of the Cathedral – sadly not in the same masonry cladded with marble with bronze sculpture and gilded domes, but in concrete clad with a veneer of marble with plastic sculpture and gold lacquer domes.♦

Featured image: Alvesgaspar

Click here for a 360 degree virtual tour of the gilded interior of the Cathedral.

One Response

  1. Pauline Ang says:

    A critical account of the history of the Palace of the Soviets can be found in Rem Koolhaas’ S, M, L, XL: Virtual Architecture: A Bedtime Story (1994). The following is an excerpt of the text:

    This is a Babel story, but without a Bible; a dissonant fairy tale; no lesson, no allegory, just a grasping.

    In the thirties, the Soviets organized a competition for a monument to the Third International; it was won by a grotesque project, partly American skyscraper, partly hollow Babel. It looked like an insane enlargement of a classical wedding cake on top, bride and groom morphed to form a huge Lenin, pointing – as always – forward.

    Ostensibly a Stalinist abberation, a cynical pile of meeting rooms for a nonexistent collective contained in a pastiche of the American skyscraper, this monstrosity was in fact a political decoy, a savage tactical ploy by Moscow’s architects. The realization of the building would consume seven years of the complete concrete production of the USSR: i.e., the thirties would be fat years.

    Then the war was over; Stalin still reigned; the country was exhausted. The palace was a strange “navel” in the heart of the city, an extinguished ideological volcano. The thought of resuming the work was beyond even the most Stalinist imagination. Another solution was found. Instead of a solid, the building would become a void: an absence. The foundation, inundated anyway by persistent leaks, was declared pool. It was big enough for Moscow’s entire population.

    The scale is disconcerting: while most pools impose a regime – specific movement – this one is like a prairie – wide open. Where to go? Why? With whom?

    The pool becomes positively Roman: arena, absorber, social condenser, great emancipator, connector – undeniably fabricator of a community…The evaporation of the actual building infinitely enlarged its possible programs.

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