Nikolai Ladovsky: the house-commune and the psychoanalytic method of teaching architecture | Jelena Prokopljević

Housing was one of the great themes of architectural research since the early post-revolutionary years in the Soviet Union. The house commune was being drawn as one of the best solutions and developed in two directions: the reorganization of existing homes and building new ones. The first option comprehended the subdivision of expropriated houses and the new division of the surfaces at a rate of 8-12m2 per person so that in a single apartment could live different families (often with completely different backgrounds and interests) sharing all spaces except the bedrooms. Something like shared flats where colleagues were not elected, but had to be tolerated indefinitely.  The Komunalki converted flats were the majority and some still remain in the former Soviet space.

The second variation of the commune homes were the newly built houses. The concepts and projects began to be studied shortly after the revolution, because the commune house was the sublime symbol of socialism in construction, the revolution of the everyday life. One’s property was reduced to a bedroom, while everything else was a compacted public space: living room, dining room, children’s playroom, reading space, kitchen, bathroom, hallways. With it, the intimate and individual space (and time) was minimized while the collective space, with the relevant social control occupied most of the house. The community house was the subject of numerous studies and projects from architecture schools to associations of architects and state institutes and together with cultural centres, was the main topic of constructivism.

The finest example of the commune house is without dount the Narkomfin building, apartment building for workers in the People’s Commissariat of Finance, built in 1928-1930 on Novinsky Boulevard in Moscow by architects Moisei Guinsburg and Ignaty Milinis. The complex planned four blocks: block of flats, communal block with dining room and sports hall, kindergarten and service patio with laundry, dryer, garage, etc., of which only the first two were built and some of the services . The housing block consisted of 3 apartment types developed in the Department of Standardization of Stoikom in 1928 (architects: Moisei Guinzburg, Mikhail Barsch, V. Vladimirov, Alexander Pasternak, G. Sum-Shik): the minimal apartment type F (and some 2F with two bedrooms), K type –family apartment- and community residence with rooms for 1 or 2 people. The building was not only a success (in spite of unfinished) of the residential typology, echoed in buildings as famous as the Bloc House or the Unité d’Habitation, but was also a tribute to the new construction technique. Concrete structure, free cantilevered facade with thermal insulation, hermetic doors, sliding windows. The building tested the prefabrication of building elements as well as the arrangement and size of the openings based on the quantity of light and on visual enlargement the internal space by means of light. The colors of the interior had their role in improving the experience of interior space and to assist the orientation in community spaces.

The first commune house of Soviet architecture was not a scientific work in search of the new distribution according to the functional minimum for each space or perfect materials for the new construction. It was a experimental project conducted in 1920 by Nikolai Ladovski, the ideologue of rationalism, an architectural avant-garde current parallel to constructivism. As an introduction to this project and in relation to the problems of the new conception of architecture and space studied by architects in Zhivskulptarj (Commission for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture) Ladovsky pointed out his position:

“The technique makes wonders. Wonders should be made in architecture. The wonders of antiquity were constructed with base in the slave labor of the masses and their most important feature is the amount of work. Contemporary architectural wonders that reside in space will be built as a sum of art and intelligence, and most important in them will be the amount of intelligence. It is space and no the stone, the raw material of architecture.”

The commune-house of Ladovsky is a complex space with the volumetric composition of intersection of forms, heir of cubism. The initial plant or the ground floor, is an irregular trapezoid containing a multitude of spaces organized around the central hall. Units belong to different levels, and separated volumes and spaces are organized following the interior movement. The separation of the units in volumes (used for example in the homes of Habitat ’67) potentiated their perception as individual spaces. While the absence of a core of community media to give access to all levels, expanding the community space to a network of internal and complicated connections, which merged with the private space. The outer shape -a cluster of basic geometric volumes- follows the upward movement with a pronounced diagonal that ends with a rocket or pyramidal arrow at the tip carries the red flag.

The experiment previous to the house-commune was the project for the Temple of People’s Relations (a precursor of the house of culture or the workers’ club) of 1919, which sought to solve the problem of the interior space from the point of view of the continuity of user’s perception during his movement towards and through the building. The project was developed in two parallel versions: a dynamic composition with volumes united one over the other creating a tower with a spiral movement or based on intersection of large volumes where dynamism was created jointly with the user’s action, his vision and movement.

“The architect designs a manner adding elements that are neither technical nor utilitarian items that can be broadly defined as architectural site related motifs. These motifs have to be rational and to serve the basic human need-the need to orient in space.”

These experiments, contemporary with the Monument to the Third International by Tatlin, show the same manner of thinking the dynamic composition, although were mostly influenced by the analysis and synthesis of geometric shapes of El Lisitsky’s Prouns and Kazimir Malevich’s Architectons. Since 1920, Nikolay Ladovsky taught at Vkhutemas (later Vkhutein), the state school for art and architecture, founded the same year in Moscow, which included three artistic currents of the first post-revolutionary decade: Constructivism, Suprematism and Rationalism. Ladovsky was the leader of the latter, which declared itself free of architectural utilitarianism. With full confidence in the capacity of the technique to resolve almost any structural problem, rationalism was trying to create spaces a priori independent of its materialization. Unlike constructivism that used structures and materials as artistic and expressive elements, approximating architecture to engineering, rationalists projects dealt with volume, void, weight, ground contact, movement of the form, the observer and the user.

Inside VKhUTEMAS School, Ladovsky founded the Obmas -Union of Leftist Workshops- where he systematized his conception of creation of forms and developed a teaching method based not on the study of classical order, but on mastering the fundamentals of architecture. What he called the psychoanalytic method, was based on the study of composition elements, on their theoretical, formal and functional analysis to explore the possibilities of their reinterpretation for possible new applications. Unlike the conventional method studying styles and producing two-dimensional drawings, workshop imagined new forms and developed the three-dimensional language of the new architecture. The group of architects linked to Ladovsky in Obmas later founded the Association of New Architects, ASNOVA, with El LissitskyKonstantin Mélnikov or Berthold Lubetkin as periodical members.

This article began by collective housing; actually, it began with the end, with housing transformed into a social dystopia, the image that tends to extend over the majority of the residential construction in the Soviet space. The intention was to investigate its origins in an approach distant of utilitarianism and existenzminimum calculations, seeking the solution in quality and perception of interior spaces. The housing community character was represented in connections and itineraries rather than in functional subdivisions. As one of the vital issues in the USSR, housing prompted investigations that ended up creating a new architectural language which however managed to materialize only in a small part and during a very short period. Still, these investigations continue to be valid: the relationship between public and private space, in the individual or in collective sphere; the increasing privatization of public space and reduction of the strictly individual space, make Ladovsky’s sketches and experiments worth a recall.

Jelena Prokopljevic. PhD Architect.
Barcelona. September 2014


S.O. Khan Magomedov “Las 100 Mejores Obras Maestras del Vanguardismo Arquitectónico Soviético”. Editorial URSS, Moscú 2004.

Jelena Prokopljević

Arquitecta e investigadora serbia, titulada por la Universidad de Belgrado, y residente en Barcelona, miembro del Comité de Expertos del Premio Europeo del Espacio Público Urbano desde la edición del 2014. Se doctoró en 2006 en la ETSAB, ciudad en la que reside y trabaja. Ha colaborado con la plataforma Eurasian Hub en proyectos de transformación urbana y ha sido responsable del área de arquitectura y urbanismo en la Casa del Este, organización radicada en Barcelona y dedicada a promover la cooperación con la Europa Central y Oriental. Entre sus publicaciones más destacadas, consta el libro Corea del Norte: Utopía de hormigón; arquitectura y urbanismo al servicio de una ideología (escrito con Roger Mateos, 2012) y el artículo «Espacio público en la ciudad socialista: entre la abundancia y la indefinición», publicado en URBS, revista de estudios urbanos y ciencias sociales. Además, suele impartir conferencias y participar en coloquios en lugares como la ETSAB, la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB), la fundación Amigos de la UNESCO de Barcelona o la Universidad Ion Mincu de Bucarest. Prokopljević es miembro del Comité de expertos del Premio Europeo del Espacio Público Urbano desde su edición de 2014.

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