Moscow – What happened with the cathedral

The monument and IKEA

The city of Moscow never interested me much. But when I went back to Moscow early November 2012 it was my fifth visit that year. Arriving in Moscow is mostly by night. When I take the evening plane it lands more than three hours later on Sheremetyevo where local time is three hours later from Amsterdam. What makes it really late. Past customs there is mostly a car waiting for me.  After some kilometres on the highway one can see Moscow appearing in the dark, like a big cloud of light: more than 20 million people gathered together in this one place. The blue light of IKEA shows up. There are some huge metal structures here next to the road, like a roadblock: the monument for the defenders of Moscow, symbolizing the boundary against Hitler’s troops in 1941. As if it’s to make you aware: you’re there.

The Cathedral

More than a century before Hitler’s troops left Moscow another army retreated from Russia. Tsar Alexander decided to have a cathedral constructed after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812. The cathedral of Christ the Saviour was constructed on the edge of the Moskva River directly opposite the Kremlin.

I went to see the cathedral on a cold Friday afternoon in November. For the unknown tourist it seems as if this enormous building has always been there. But for the largest part of the 20th century it was not.

It took 45 years and three different Tsars to build the cathedral. It was just ready to have Tchaikovsky’s “Overture 1812” premiered here in 1883.  But after another 48 years the political situation in Russia had completely changed and Stalin decided that the church had to be demolished. To commemorate Lenin who died in 1924 a Mausoleum on Red Square simply was not enough. The Cathedral had to make place for the Palace of the Soviets,  a monument for Lenin and the meeting place for all communists in the world: ‘a symbolic expression of the magnificent results of the proletarian dictatorship’. The Palace of the Soviets again had to become the world’s tallest structure of its time.

When you enter the cathedral you have to be checked. Since Pussy Riot used this church to play their protest song and ended up in a prison in Siberia it is not very easy to get inside. You can buy candles and light them in front of one of the many altars. There is a small museum with pictures of a swimming pool and drawings of the proposed Palace of the Soviets. I bought five candles and lighted them where I thought it was appropriate.

Many intellectuals throughout the whole world had been inspired by the communist revolution and believed that it would be the start of a new (and better) world to come. For the design of the Palace of the Soviets hopes were high. An international competition was undertaken. Many of the architects that found each other in the modern movement (like Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mendelsohn) hoped that this commission was going to be an important step into the modernization of Moscow and Russia. Some of them had been travelling to Russia and even one or two had decided to join the revolution. But in February 1932 the competition jury decided on a neoclassic construction to win. The European ‘avant-garde’ architects were furious: they saw it as a tragic betrayal of the revolution.

The international competitors did not make a protest against the demolition of the cathedral. It is as if one takes away the Notre Dame from Paris, St Pauls Cathedral out of London, or the Palace on Dam Square from Amsterdam. The marble of the Cathedral made good use for the Moscow Metro, then under construction. And the golden domes of the church contained over 20 tons of gold, which was considered an unnecessary luxury for the Soviet Union at that time. This gold was used to finance the industrialization of the country. And so in early 1930 the destruction of the Cathedral started. On December 5, 1931, the Cathedral was completely demolished with two final explosions. It took more than a year to remove all the rubble.

Palace of the Soviets

Le Corbusier and the swimming pool

My friend Marina took me to the Pushkin Museum on the other side of the street from the Cathedral a day later. The Pushkin hosted a special exhibition: Le Corbusier in Moscow. For the first time since 1933 Le Corbusier’s work was back in the city.The famous architect’s first arrival in Moscow had been in 1928 when Pravda put him on the front page. He then gave a lecture at the Polytechnic Museum. Four years later Pravda described Le Corbusier’s design for the Palace of the Soviets as a “congress hangar” and Le Corbusier never returned to the city again. The design of the Palace of the Soviets by Le Corbusier
The Pushkin expo showed a model of Corbusier’s design for the Palace of the Soviets: what a beautiful building that could have been. Le Corbusier’s work always has that standout quality that makes it unique. I have to admit it would have been a mind-blowing experience: this Corbusier building on this spot.

Jean Louis Cohen, professor of architectural history at New York University and the Sorbonne, curated the exposition. Cohen has written several books on Le Corbusier as well as on Russian, European, American and North American architecture. I remembered him from a book that I intensively used some years ago in my research on the Casablanca abattoir. His book “Casablanca Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures” is the one and only book ever written on Casablanca architecture and city planning. Remarkable man.

For me the expo in the Pushkin was a bit disappointing. I’ve seen better ones on this “architect of the 20th century”, like the one in the Hayward Gallery in London in 1987. The enormity of Le Corbusier’s presence in Moscow at the time and the consequences of his thinking are not discussed. We could see paintings and sculptures that give an interesting insight in Le Corbusier’s qualities but the man certainly did not become famous because of his painting. There were many documents in the exposition, among them a copy of a book, “La Ville Radieuse”. And I started to think that this little book had a much larger influence on Moscow city planning than any other item in the expo, not only on Moscow but also on any other fast growing city in the world today.

The Palace of the Soviets was never to be built. Construction started, the foundation was finished in 1939, but that was leaking. Rem Koolhaas describes it in S, M, L, XL: “The water kept leaking through the foundations, obstinately inundating humankind’s largest basement”. A metro station with the same name (Dvorets Sovetov) opened in 1935. World War II came. The steel of the construction was needed for weapons and to build the metal constructions that had to stop the German army directly outside Moscow. After the war new plans were made. Stalin died and the metro station was renamed into Kropotkinskaya. The empty foundation stayed unused till 1958. A brilliant solution was found: the foundations of the palace were cleared of rubble and converted into an open-air hot water swimming pool. With a diameter of 130 meter this was one of the largest swimming pools in the world. The pool was open all year round so that in winter the clouds of steam over the water made the pool itself almost invisible.

After the collapse of communism it was decided to rebuild the Cathedral on the same spot. The pool closed in 1994. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour reopened in August 2000.

A swimming pool in the foundations of the Cathedral

Moscow modernism

The decision that was made by the jury of the Palace of the Soviets would have another unexpected result. In June 1928 the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) was founded by a group of architects in Switzerland. Among the founding members were people like Berlage, Rietveld, Giedion, May, Moser and Mart Stam. Russian members of CIAM were El Lissitzky and Moisei Ginzburg among others. There was hope that with the revolution modernism would spread all over Europe and consequently over the rest of the world.

The plan was to have the fourth CIAM conference in Moscow in 1933. But the refusal of Le Corbusier’s proposal for the Palace of the Soviets and the choice for a neo classical design by the Russian jury changed all that. New plans had to be made. It was decided to have the conference on neutral ground, on a ship, the SS Patris II that would be sailing from Marseille to Athens.

1933 was the year that millions of people starved of hunger in the rural areas of the Ukraine, and not only there.

Although Le Corbusier was undoubtedly the intellectual leader of the movement of the modern architects the role of the Dutch delegation, to be more precise the planners from the Amsterdam Planning Department, should not be underestimated. Their director, Van Eesteren, was the chairman of CIAM from 1930 till 1947. Van Eesteren was asked to prepare the analytical studies of cities for the fourth CIAM conference in Moscow. The theme for this research was the idea of the functional city. The minutes of the conference state that Van Eesteren opened and closed all of the meetings and made the introductions where Le Corbusier made his presentation in which he explained his ideas on the functional city. But where Le Corbusier was a strong believer is an intuitive approach, Van Eesteren was the promoter of a much more rigid analytical strategy. The delegates stayed in Athens for a week. On their return journey they found it impossible to agree on resolutions for the functional city.

Le Corbusier published the Charter of Athens only in 1945. But it was going to have an enormous, if not to say devastating influence on post war city planning.

The principles of the functional city have been adapted everywhere. The separation of the main functions for a city into housing, working, recreation and transport has been accepted all around the world. Every planning department, especially in the fastest growing cities in the world in Asia and in South America is using this functional approach even today.

I lived and worked fifteen years from 1976 till 1992 in the concrete result of Van Eesteren’s dream: the Amsterdam Bijlmermeer. I started to study the CIAM ideas in 1988 when I wrote my book on Bijlmermeer. I worked with Koolhaas on a “New vison for the Bijlmermeer”. What did I know?

Le Corbusier, Van Eesteren, Koolhaas and Cohen: they keep on coming back.

Making Moscow attractive

That November weekend I travelled to Moscow because I was asked to give a lecture in the Shigeru Ban temporary pavilion in Moscow’s Gorki Park. My presentation had to be on public space, on parks and on how this makes an attractive city. I visited Moscow four times before this year, so I started to get to know the city and it’s people a little bit better.
In March I had been in a jury discussing the possible reuse of a car factory (the ZIL plant), what could be a possibility to create a new type of urban environment inside Moscow’s city boundaries.
In April I took part in a conference about the plan for an international financial centre (IFC). It turned out I had to replace Koolhaas as one of the keynote speakers because neither he nor his replacement showed up.
I had also been taking part in June in a discussion on the future of Skolkovo, a new University that has to become the core of Moscow’s new knowledge based economy, directly outside the present city boundaries. And a week after that I was working with an international team on a grandiose scheme to make a new city park directly next to Red Square on the site of the former Rossia Intourist Hotel.

I started to find my way in the city. Not only in the cold of winter but also in the warmth of June. The people I met, my friends and the different conferences made me see the city in different ways: different hotels, different districts. What I learned is that this city is exploding: the fast growing young middle class is searching for all the hip and hot places to be: for restaurants, nightclubs, shops, and new apartment blocks: for everything that can help them to create a new identity. What I also learned is that every square meter in this city has a history. A story to be told.

3 thoughts on “Moscow – What happened with the cathedral

  1. wow Evert interessant! Als je meer verhalen gaat vertellen, dan kijk ik uit naar het verhaal over de “Tretyakov Galery”. Een prachtige kunstverzameling samengesteld door één van Ruslands grote industriele families. Dit top museum ligt in een zeer aangename upcoming Moskouse wijk. Bijzondere ervaring om een capuccino te drinken op een terrasje met overal kerels in pak met een oortje, bodygards… En op de PC-Hoofd van Moskou, andere wijk kun je ook kroonjuwelen aanschaffen, leuk voor Sinterklaas.. en zet Natasja’s dans maar op je lijstje, het boek geeft je een kijkje in de Russische ziel, een cultuurhistorisch zoektocht naar de eigen identiteit.

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