“Stalin’s Architect. Power and Survival in Moscow” by Deyan Sudjic (published by Thames & Hudson)

Murder and ambition – where to draw the line?

The question is, as posed by this biography of the life and career of Boris Mikhailovich Iofan (1891-1976), if you have worked your way up to be the state archictect to the murderous megalomaniac Joseph Stalin, how do you survive years close to the dictator, how far do you compromise your talent by following the leader’s instructions to the letter while he is executing and torturing your friends, patrons, colleagues and associates in large numbers?
4. March 2023 8:53

Deyan Sudjic’s book is described by his publisher as the first major publication about Iofan, who held his position in the midst of Stalin’s bloodthirsty purges and when the dictator’s henchmen crushed the architectural avant-garde. A new national style was created from the grand projects that Iofan realised, such as the megastructure House on the Embankment in Moscow with 505 homes for the Soviet elite, to the even more ambitious unbuilt ones.

The latter included the chance to build the tallest building in the world, the monumental Palace of the Soviets, a baroque Stalinist dream that remained on the drawing board but whose image was still reproduced throughout the Soviet Union. The  Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow was destroyed by Stalin in 1931 to make way for this skyscraper surmounted by a gigantic statue of Lenin, an intended celebration of the Bolshevik revolution that fused the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, and would have been larger than both.

The base was even larger than the height but the project eventually foundered after the outbreak of World War Two, with its unsustainable requirements for steel and labour. The circular foundation pit was converted into a big outdoor swimming pool.

Iofan. the most prominent of Stalin’s architects, earned the patronage of the supreme ruler at serious personal risk, as the author tells it, as much to his critical reputation as to his life. “Rather than not build at all, he was prepared to build what the dictator demanded of him. As a result, Iofan is now remembered not for his considerable talent, but for the way that his buildings came to define Stalinist architecture as it was practised from Warsaw to Beijing.”

There’s definitely a worthwhile story in there, and Deyan Sudjic elects to tell it. He is a writer and broadcaster, and a former architecture critic for British newspapers the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Guardian. He is the Director Emeritus of the Design Museum in Kensington, London, and Distinguished Professor of Design and Architectural Studies at Lancaster University in the UK. His books include “The Language of Cities” (2017) and “B is for Bauhaus” (2014).

In 2008 he visited Iofan’s former apartment on the top 11th floor of the famous House on the Embankment, alongside the Moscow River, which, apart from the 505 apartments, included its own cinema, theatre and department store. Iofan, his aristocratic half-Italian wife Olga, daughter of a Russian princess, their two stepchildren and Iofan’s sister Anna were among the first to take up residence there, in 1931. Iofan lived there for 45 years, and Sudjic found a four-room apartment hardly touched since the architect’s death in 1976. 30 years earlier, aged 84, a long life by USSR standards.

Sudjic says the apartment had the smell of years of neglect, with a plastic shower curtain slung over boxes of the architect’s papers. After the visit Sudjic couldn’t get the man out of his mind and “… I began trying to learn as much as I could about what had gone on in Iofan’s mind as he saw his work turned into a monstrous tribute to Stalin…” As many as 800 of the House on the Embankment’s residents – one-third of the people living there in 1932 – were eventually arrested by Stalin’s secret policemen, and more than 300 of them were shot.

The reader is taken from Iofan’s childhood in Odessa as Borukh Solomonovich Iofan, the child of moderately prosperous Solomon and Golda Iofan, He had an elder brother Dmitry and sisters Raisa and Anna, and changing name to Mikhailovich was their response to Russia’s vicious anti-Semitism. From the very beginning it was a willingness to make compromises in order to survive, Sudjic points out.

Both of the Iofan brothers showed a natural ability for drawing and went to the Odessa Drawing School. In the fast-growing city, architecture seemed a promising career. Dmitry and then Boris both qualified as architectural technicians and moved on to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg, Boris in 1911. But gifted Jewish students were compelled to leave Russia and study abroad because of a discriminatory quota system, and Boris chose Rome, where the classical architecture brought to life the monuments he had studied in Odessa and St Petersburg.

His 10-year stay in Italy included architecture study at the Istituto Superiore di Belle Arti and a stint in the Italian Communist Party. He met the leading Bolshevik Aleksei Rykov, who was visiting and who became Lenin’s successor as premier. Rykov persuaded Iofan to return to Moscow with Olga. Within six years he had built three substantial housing developments, a new physics research institute and a major expansion of Moscow’s Agricultural Academy.

Sudjic charts Iofan’s ascendance from talented but relatively unknown young architect to Generalissimo Stalin’s court architect of choice, designing the Soviet pavilions at the Paris International Exposition in 1937 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Iofan translated the dictator’s design ideas into reality, placing him at the heart of political life in the Soviet Union and leading to questions about his compromises with power. From 1932 to 1947 he was one of the most important, if not the most important architect of the USSR.

His name is associated as much with the projects he created as it is with those that were never realised, primarily the Palace of the Soviets. He devoted 25 years of his life to what ultimately turned out to be a futile attempt at creating the world’s tallest building. In the end, writes Sudjic, this came to define his career – just not in the way he wanted. “He became more famous for not having built it than any of his positive achievements.”

And the big question – to what extent was Iofan a passive victim of the Palace of the Soviets, and to what extend did he himself drive the process? Was he simply accepting Stalin’s imaginings … as the price of retaining his privileges – or even his life?” Compared with the squalor of life for most USSR citizens, Iofan had much to lose: his comfy flat, his privileged travel, transatlantic trips on luxury liners and access to foreign publications. It paid to be always enthusiastically loyal. Architects were far from exempt from Stalin’s arbitrary death lists.

Here is a generously illustrated study of a man who lived through civil unrest, pogroms, two world wars including the Holocaust, a revolution, a civil war and purges. The final chapters of this biography show his rather ignoble decline from the go-to architect of the Soviet elite to a relic of Stalinist excess who “put most of his energy into making increasingly forlorn submissions for competitions that he never won”.

He died at Barvikha, a sanatorium he had built for the communist elite nearly 50 years earlier.

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