In March 1976, while touring Barvikha sanatorium outside Moscow, a doctor found famed architect Boris Iofan unconscious in his chair. He was holding a drawing of a statue, worker and Kolkhoz woman by Vera Mukhina, who had topped Iofan’s most famous work, the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. where this sculpture had ended up, on an undersized plinth in a Moscow fairground.
It was amazing that Iofan was still (just) alive. Born into a Jewish family in Odessa in 1891, he lived through pogroms, revolutions, world wars and times of famine. As the architect of Stalin’s most important projects, he spent years close to the murderous and capricious dictator. His entourage – patrons, friends, colleagues, associates, colleagues from the Jewish Antifascist Committee – were murdered in large numbers, sometimes after being tortured. Iofan not only survived, but also created some of the most memorable designs in 20th century architecture.
It is an ideal subject for Deyan Sudjic, whose previous book The building complex explored his interest in the interplay of architecture and power. Iofan has long fascinated Sudjic, who now tells his story – and the mind-boggling horrors and absurdities that surrounded it – in an accessible, informative and observant way. He has an eye for detail, such as the luxurious finishes of facilities built for the Soviet elite, and striking characters. There is Iofan’s snake rival, Karo Alabyan. There’s the clownish ideological architect Hannes Meyer, who continued to praise the Soviet system even after he killed his son’s mother and sent the boy to a prison camp.
At the center of the book is the saga of the Palace of the Soviets, a skyscraper topped by a gigantic statue of Lenin, a planned celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution that merged the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, and would have been larger than both. The project heralded and defined Stalin’s preferred architectural style – monumental, classical, sometimes with Slavic aspects. It finally foundered after the outbreak of war, when its insane need for steel and manpower proved unsustainable.
Something that was built was the pavilion in Paris, another building that served as the base for a large sculpture, the one that preoccupied Iofan at the end of his life, of a young man and a young woman raising a hammer and sickle to the sky. The pavilion stood on one side of a wide avenue facing the Eiffel Tower, directly opposite Albert Speer’s pavilion for Nazi Germany. The confrontation dramatized a clash of two totalitarian ideologies, but also their kinship, as there were similarities in the stripped-down classical styles of Iofan and Speer.
Many who worked with Iofan on the Paris pavilion would be killed when he built another in New York two years later, but he stayed alive and working, despite a defiant taste for smart suits and possession of a Buick convertible. auto. He ended up falling out of favor from the end of the 1940s, partly because of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns against “cosmopolitanism”: he continued to work in the 1960s, but on less prestigious projects than before. He died a few days after this doctor found him in his chair.
His legacy is said to include significant buildings, such as one of Moscow’s metro stations, a prominent apartment building called the House on the Embankment, and the sanatorium where he ended his life. But his greatest impact was through the images: the drawings of the unbuilt palace and the photographs of the short-lived Parisian pavilion. His influence is evident in the seven skyscrapers of Moscow – stacked, fantastical, Russianized versions of the Manhattan towers – that other architects designed for Stalin after the war.
Iofan remains somewhat inscrutable in all of this, the means of his survival a mystery. Those who knew him described him as charming, gentle, and “able to compromise in personal relationships”, or, less favorably, as “cunning”. But he was also “inflexible” in artistic matters. Like many architects, it seems, his job was everything to him and he would go to great lengths to realize his vision.
You could say he was a stooge, an accomplice in great crimes, a propagandist, although endowed with considerable talent and flair. You could, more charitably, say he was struggling to survive under near impossible circumstances. Sudjic chooses not to condemn him, but exposes the facts of his life as best he can. The result is a vivid account of a demented world.