Le Corbusier was the great traveling salesman of 20th-century architecture. From more or less the moment the Swiss-born designer emerged from the snowy depths of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the former Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was determined to make his mark on the grandest geographical scale possible, pursuing clients in places—India, Brazil, Iraq, the United States—that few western European architects had ventured before. But in the course of a career marked by so much international intrigue, one episode in particular stands out: Corb’s years-long unhappy love affair with Russia, a union that yielded but one offspring, the Centrosoyuz Building in Moscow.
It is, in more than one sense, a foundling. Widely criticised at the time of its completion in 1933, ridiculed by the Bauhaus’s Hannes Meyer as a “half-eaten cake” that deserved to be “abandoned”, the Centrosoyuz has not exactly grown in popularity with time, remaining far down the totem pole of major Le Corbusier landmarks compared with Marseille’s Unité d’Habitation or Notre- Dame-du-Hauts at Ronchamps.
Comprising an I-shaped tower ensemble offset by a horseshoe-like mid-rise complex, the Centrosoyuz office has never quite made sense in its setting near Moscow’s Garden Ring, in part because the proposed street plan for which its curving northern facade was designed was never executed. With the Soviet Union’s collapse exactly 30 years ago this autumn, the building’s intended occupant—the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives, a somewhat obscure arm of the state apparatus—has departed the scene, along with the entire raison d’être that originally informed the design. Le Corbusier himself died in 1965, having never returned to Moscow to see his only completed project in the city.
And yet Centrosoyuz is worth revisiting for its paramount historical interest—both for what it exposes about the state of the Soviet experiment in the early 1930s and for what it tells us about Le Corbusier’s own thinking during that same critical period. As his German colleagues scrambled to keep pace with whiplash political events at home, and his counterparts in Italy pursued a modus operandi with the fascist regime there, Corb took up the tricolour of his adoptive France and carried it boldly abroad, seeking to become the standard-bearer for modernism in the USSR. He almost succeeded, and the failure of Centrosoyuz would serve as a valuable lesson in his future global escapades, as well as a key indicator of Russia’s subsequent architectural direction.
The background for Le Corbusier’s Soviet period, and the commission it ultimately produced, is a story unto itself. Corb was not the first foreign architect to make waves in Russia after the conclusion of the country’s bloody civil war. Germany’s Erich Mendelsohn had arrived in 1925, bringing his own, highly expressive version of modernism to a factory commission in Leningrad. While Mendelsohn was impressed with what he saw of the USSR’s indigenous modernists—the constructivists and other avant-gardists who had flourished under the new regime—he ultimately walked away from his own project, frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of sophistication in the country’s building trades and its bureaucratic culture.
“Technique is Russia’s great problem,” he would write; the physical and social conditions of the newborn nation simply could not keep up with the soaring aesthetic ambitions of Lissitzky, Melnikov and the rest. It was a warning that Le Corbusier would have done well to heed.
An I-shaped tower ensemble set off by a horseshoe-like mid-rise block, the building was ridiculed as a “half-eaten” cake.
After winning the international competition for the Centrosoyuz project in 1928, Corb made his first visit to the Soviet Union, receiving a hero’s welcome. “In Moscow,” he wrote, “I find, not spiritual antagonists, but fervent adherents”. He garnered glowing press, filled auditoria with eager listeners, walked through the streets sketching the buildings of the capitol. Though he would see something of the city’s undeveloped periphery, and spend some time with the governmental nomenklatura overseeing the project, the architect apparently did not encounter anything to dim his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union as the ultimate proving ground for his modernist ideals. “I am present at the birth of a new world,” he wrote to his mother.
What the designer bequeathed to that new world makes for a remarkable sort of patrimony. Sheathed in an envelope of red volcanic ashlar, ranged in the alternating big-small registers that Corb would favour in later projects, the building is not lacking for drama.
Inside, the scenography is even more impressive, with a striking set of the architect’s signature ramps acting as “rivers”, in his words, to channel the nearly 3,000 workers from the raised entrance to the auditorium and office blocks. The overall effect may seem a bit leaden but, as if often the case with Le Corbusier, the building’s real charm is in its perfectly composed plan, as well as its technological sophistication. Years before the advent of modern air conditioning, Centrosoyuz was to feature a mechanical system of Le Corbusier’s own device, involving a highly insulated double glass partition (“mur nutralisant”) along with air-flow control elements (“respiration exacte”) that would allow for a consistent interior climate year-round.
But that was only in concept. The Soviet authorities would ultimately pull the plug on the technology, citing costs and material shortages. More compromises were to follow and the groundbreaking was succeeded by a protracted lull, with the building ultimately taking eight years to complete. When it finally did open, architectural reactionaries in Russia lambasted the final product as “an alien building” —and in a sense they were right; the design had landed on a different political planet than the one Corb had designed it for.
“This was a very transitional moment in Soviet political and cultural history,” notes architecture historian and curator Anna Kats, a specialist in socialist-era architecture. As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, the post-revolutionary avant-garde’s star was already in decline, but the reaction that was to follow had not yet taken hold. Centrosoyuz is a veritable signpost for that transition. By the time of its debut, some of Corb’s signature pilotis had acquired columnar fluting – a neo-classical flourish the architect would never have condoned himself. The “Stalinist ice age” —in the words of another historian of the period, Jean-Louis Cohen—was underway. Architectural progressives in Russia would live to build another day, but Centrosoyuz would not be their model.
Fall from grace
Its creator would learn this the hard way, beginning in 1931 when his scheme for the Palace of the Soviets – one of Le Corbusier’s most ambitious and most celebrated unbuilt projects—was rejected by a blatantly rigged competition jury. The architect’s energetic appeals to the Russian people fell on deaf ears, and he shortly gave up all hope of finding in the USSR the promised land of his nouveau esprit. He did not, however, give up looking for it – in places high and low, from Vichy France to postwar Japan. Le Corbusier came away from his Soviet interlude with the apparent conviction that the political complexion of a given client was less important than their ability to adequately commit to the project at hand.
In 1930, the same year of his final visit to Moscow, Le Corbusier described what he termed “the client disease: acute crisis and lack of sang froid”. In the wayward journeys of his subsequent career, the healthobsessed Corb was in effect seeking a cure, a salubrious climate for architectural invention. Centrosoyuz stands as his first, though hardly his last, attempt at a breakthrough.