Stalin's Favorite Architect

Ulf Meyer
8. 二月 2022
Palace of the Soviets. First open competition. Perspectivesketch, 1931, charcoal on paper, 370 × 490 mm. (Image courtesy of Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing)

When the world exhibition took place in Paris in 1937, the monumental Soviet Pavilion was supposed to tell of the “victory of Communism,” but it also announced to visitors the approaching Second World War and the Stalinist terror. The impressive national pavilion in the style of Socialist Classicism was the work of architect Boris Iofan, the most important Soviet architect of the Stalin era. The huge statue on the roof of the pavilion, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman by Vera Mukhina, was the culmination of the architectural expression of a new ideology.

Design for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. One of the first sketches. Perspective view, 1937, pencil on paper,445 × 555 mm. (Image courtesy of Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing)

As the favorite architect of Josef Stalin, a number of Iofan’s own designs were realized in the 1930s and 40s, when he also implemented the dictator's creative ideas. Even if Iofan's most important work, the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, never got beyond the construction of the foundations, his oeuvre bears witness to the different stages of the increasingly exaggerated Socialist Classicism. Stalin himself had suggested crowning the building with a gigantic statue of Lenin. The Palace of the Soviets in the center of the Russian capital was meant to be an architectural reply to the American skyscrapers that were reshaping the skylines of New York and Chicago at the time.

Palace of the Soviets. Final version. Perspective view from the Moskva River, 1934, charcoal on paper, 1670 × 1880 mm. (Image courtesy of Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing)

Iofan's work is currently being rediscovered and critically reflected upon in an exhibition at the Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin, which presents precious drawings by Iofan from the museum's collection, and a new biography by Vladimir Sedow (DOM Publishers) that sheds light on Iofan's career. Even as a child, Iofan drew buildings in his hometown of Odessa as huge monumental caricatures. His brother Dmitri showed him books on neoclassical art, which left a lasting impression on Boris. After graduating from the Odessa Art School in 1911, Iofan worked in the then-capital of St. Petersburg with architect Alexander Tamanian, whose neoclassical buildings still dominate the city of Yerevan, Armenia, today. In Rome, Iofan studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and worked for architect Armando Brasini, joining the Italian Communist Party.

Design for the Barvikha sanatorium. Perspective view of a courtyard with part of the building, 1940, watercolour, brush, red chalk on paper, 556 × 416 mm. (Image courtesy of Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing)

In 1924, after Mussolini came to power, Iofan returned to his home country, by then the Soviet Union, and was able to transfer elements of Italy's fascist architecture into Socialist Classicism, as his designs for the Barvikha Sanatorium show. The famous House on the Embankment in Moscow was one of the first Stalinist buildings in the Soviet Union. The architectural politics of the 1930s gave his talent scope: pompous forms and strictly axial compositions were intended to promise society the "idea of ​​realizing a bright future."

Design for the apartment buildings on Shcherbakovskaya Street in Moscow. Perspective, 1962–1969, ruling pen, brush, ink, watercolor, pencil on board, 629 × 870 mm. (Image courtesy of Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing)

From 1932 to 1947, Iofan was the key figure in USSR architecture, but then he fell out of favor. After Stalin's death in 1953, Iofan suddenly started designing modern, neo-constructivist buildings. Despite this radical change in style, he remained a believer in Communism, for which he tailored very different structural clothing throughout his life.

Design for the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. Version 2, panoramic view, 1969, charcoal, watercolour on tracing paper, 255 × 584 mm. (Image courtesy of Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing)

Stalin's Architect: The Rise and Fall of Boris Iofan is on display at the Museum for Architectural Drawing (Christinenstrasse 18a, Berlin) from February 5 – May 15, 2022.