Lissitzky's building in Moscow, the Zhurgaz apartment house, and their typical story

Lissitzky's building in Moscow, the Zhurgaz apartment house, and their typical story.

The printing house of the joint stock company "Ogonek", which issued the famous eponymous journal, has recently been identified as Lissitzky's only building in Moscow. 
This finding needs to be clarified from a scientific perspective, and the first attempt to do just that will be presented below.

 However, first things first. As authors of the European Commission project "Moskonstruct" we have received many appeals from those who wish to save this landmark, as well as another cultural heritage site located nearby -- the apartment house built for employees of the journalistic association (Zhurgaz) -- from destruction.Given that in Moscow even the Bolshoi theater could not be safeguarded, these concerns are evidently not without ground.

It is worth mentioning at the outset that construction of these buildings was initiated by the legendary Mikhail Koltsov, whose articles and books were read with delight by the whole country. He was an editor at the Pravda newspaper and chief editor of Ogonek. Like Lissitzky, Koltsov spent much time working in Germany. He also headed the international committee of the Writers' Union. From 1936 on he worked as a correspondent of Pravda in Spain and wrote a book titled "Spanish Diary", which enjoyed great success. In 1938 Koltsov was arrested and executed, sharing the fate of Vsevolod Meyerhold and many other prominent cultural figures. It was Koltsov who turned to Lissitzky for architectural design of a complex of buildings for the JSC Ogonek, knowing him as a leader of the avant-garde, regarded as an artistic authority in Russia and Europe.

It is commonly thought that Lazar Markovich Lissitzky, who used the pseudonym El Lissitzky, carried out virtually no construction projects, although he had an architectural education, studied at Darmstadt, Germany, and in 1914 graduated from the Riga Polytechnic Institute (which was transferred to Moscow during World War I). Lissitzky is widely known as an innovative visual artist. Kazimir Malevich, who headed the Vitebsk Art School during the 1920s, invited him to work as an instructor and gave him forceful artistic support.

Among Lissitzky's works the best known are the non-representative compositions developing Malevich's ideas in the middle of 1920s. Many of his works were architectural fantasias. This is the case for his famous project of "horizontal skyscrapers" for the public squares on the Boulevard Ring in Moscow. Also well known is his collage-based "Red Stadium" project (a theme that was being developed by students of VKhUTEMAS studios).
A special place belongs to "Tribune"-- a memorable graphical composition in the form of an openwork metallic mast, set at a deliberate slant and carrying a tribune on which Lenin is depicted making a speech. The story of this project began in Vitebsk, where an almost identical composition was created in 1924 by Malevich's most talented pupil Ilya Chashnik, who died young in 1929. It was intended as a monument for the Red Square in Smolensk, but was revised as a more practical theme and published by Lissitzky. Also widely known are Lissitzky's abstract compositions which he called Prouns.

Lissitzky's work was well known abroad. Having been dispatched to Germany in 1922, he illustrated the magazine "Veshch", published by Ilya Ehrenburg in Berlin. Later he lived in Holland and Switzerland, receiving commissions from a company producing office equipment ("Pelican"), and thereby paying for him medical treatment (he was suffering from tuberculosis). Lissitzky was a member of the innovative Dutch artistic movement De Stijl, provided interior design for many Soviet exhibitions abroad (as did other associates of Malevich -- K. Rozhdestvensky and N. Suetin), and taught at VKhUTEMAS. In the 1930s his activities focused on graphic arts. 

In 1930 the Moscow department of public utilities allotted territory in the Krasnoprenensky district of Moscow for construction of a complex for graphic arts of Ogonek. The allotted territory was located in the 1st Samotechny Lane (17 and 19) and in the 2nd Shchemilovsky Lane (6, 8, and 10). The commission was made in the form of a letter dated from March 2, 1930:

"To: Lazar Markovich Lissitzky, architect, Stromynka 23, apt. 5. The management of the joint stock company Ogonek is proposing to you to carry out an architectural draft project for a printing factory of the publishing house . . . according to the attached general plan and our production program. Prior to creation of the final version you should create a general plan for construction, plans of floors, cross-sections, facades and coordinate the drafts with the management of Ogonek. The management of Ogonek is to pay you 1500 rubles for the project drafted by you, once it has been accepted by the management. The deadline for carrying out the project is 6 weeks from now."

These archival documents and Lissitzky's drafts make it clear that the project included two editorial wings, printing shop, garage and a transformer substation. The first phase involved construction of the printing house wing, whose facade looked out on the 1st Samotechny Lane, and the transformer station. Both building held a central position on the allotted land plot. The second phase involved construction of the corner production wing, garage and section for rotary printing machines, which were located deep inside the plot, adjacent to the first wing.

In is also not without interest that the letter to Lissitzky cites his home address, which makes it clear that the architect lived on Stromynka, perhaps in one of the houses constructed in the late 1920s in that district. The building of the printing house was designed by Lissitzky as an elaborate thee-dimensional composition with use of frame structures allowing large glass surfaces on the facades.

The four-story (counting the ground floor) L-shaped volume was intended to house all primary technical services, with space for paper storage located below them. A three-story rounded wing, typical for factory administration buildings of those years, was to be built in an adjacent position (it would have faced the red line on the 1st Samotechny Lane). Its plan indicates locker rooms with a shower on the ground floor, thus combining both administrative and residential functions. A boiler room is depicted on the opposite side (deep inside the plot). The complex would have had staircases on two sides, inscribed in high tower-shaped volumes, one of which would have had a cylindrical surface.

Deep inside the plot (along the border with the park adjacent to this territory) the multi-story wing would abut a printing factory shop with solid-glass longitudinal walls, which was intended to have a single story and a long lamp on its roof. Lissitzky's axionometry shows 4 arches above the roofing into which this lamp is inscribed. By this the architect clearly emphasized the specifics of printing technology -- the impressive rotation of the drums of the rotary machines. 

 The realized variant of the project does not have such extravagant elements. The complex of buildings is much more compact, and the two printing shops are covered by pitched roofs.  

The light in them is provided by enormous windows, which are almost of the size of the entire facade and are connected by a staircase block with round windows (not shown in the project before), which are typical for the pan-European architectural style of those years. As is now established, Lissitzky's project was adapted to the changed considerations of the commissioner by Mikhail Barshch, one of creators of the Moscow Planetarium.

The five-story production complex at the corner, which faced the 1st Samotechny and 2nd Shchemilovsky Lanes according to the project, was not realized. In its place an apartment house was built for employees of Zhurgaz. It was designed by architects M.O. Barshch and G.A. Zundblat. We remind the reader that the former was an author of the Moscow Planetarium, and the latter created a whole range of remarkable residential building.

This five-story house with an attic is noteworthy not only because Mikhail Koltsov lived there. Its architecture reflects a typical tendency of the early 1930s, where a geometrically simple volume (in the spirit of architecture of the avant-garde of the 1920s) was decorated in a simple and elegant manner, which had not yet turned into the luxuriant "triumphalist" forms of Soviet post-war architecture. This style is currently called "art deco" (a term which appeared in 1966, but only recently gained currency). The same holds for the paintings of the building's cornice.

An as example these tendencies, where the generalized form and decoration coexist without clashing, the Zhurgaz house is unique in its degree of preservation. Similarly astonishing is the degree of preservation of the interior of its staircase spaces. This is clearly an accomplishment of its tenants. Its preserved details include cast floors with decorative inlays of staircase landings, stairways with original railings, and cofferred stairway ceilings. The house contains comfortable apartments, occupying the whole width of the buildings (facing both sides), furnished with loggias and balconies. Almost each one of them is a museum of a sort (many descendents of Soviet publishers and other representatives of Moscow's cultural elite still live here).

Koltsov lived in this house with his wife, the German journalist Maria Osten and their adopted German son Hubert L'Hoste, the protagonist of the illustrated book by Maria Osten "Hubert in Wonderland", popular at the time. When Koltsov was arrested, Maria Osten, trying to save a person to whom she was close (as the text of Koltsov's investigation file put it), in the end shared his fate. Koltsov's apartment in the Zhurgaz house was frequented by outstanding cultural figures: Sergei Eisenstein, Mikhail Bulgakov, Yuri Olesha, the chairman of the Comintern Georgy Dimitrov. The second floor of this house also contained a dormitory for members of the Comintern who obtained USSR citizenship after Hitler's rise to power. The noted public figure and diplomat Mikhail Borodin also lived in the Zhurgaz house.

Therefore, on July 26, 2007, at the request of the Russian Avant-Garde fund, both buildings were entered into the Directory of Cultural Heritage of Moscow and on August 21. 2008 passed committee examination and were recognized as cultural heritage landmarks of the city of Moscow. However, soon afterward the printing house was set on fire and to this day stands without a roof. According to information obtained by a group of tenants from the Prefecture of the Central Administrative District, this territory will be the location for construction of a multi-story residential building with an underground garage for 120 parking places.

The situation with the Zhurgaz house is no less dire. Under the appearances of a charitable action by the government of Moscow for the benefit of the Filmmakers' Union, at a distance of several meters from the house, JSC INTECO is building a new multi-story residential building, which has occupied the entire territory of the yard of the Zhurgaz house. This is despite the ban on "pinpoint construction" announced by Moscow's mayor, despite the categorical disagreement of the tenants, and without coordination with Moskomnasledie (Committee for the Cultural Heritage of the City of Moscow). Moskosekpertisa (Moscow Government Appraisal authority) gave a positive assessment for laying of a city-grid heating pipeline under the landmark, which could have caused hidden damage to the house.

From all of the above it is clear that destruction of landmarks like these generally benefits the construction industry and its commercial interests. Along the way neither important historical aspects (Lissitzky's design of the project and its later revision by the famous architect Mikhail Barshch) nor purely architectural considerations are taken into account. Nonetheless, despite their neglected state, the view of the buildings of the Ogonek complex continues to amaze with their non-standard wall shapes and a whole "symphony" of large and small round windows. Therefore, today we want to draw attention to the situation around this complex and the Zhurgaz apartment house.

Usually all plans for intrusion into the historical texture of the city (and avant-garde has long become part of history), city authorities offer interests of local residents as a pretext. However, it is obvious that if we lose the landmark works of this -- the most brilliant, according to international art criticism -- period of our history, the people of Moscow, who have not forgotten their roots, will gain nothing.

 Elena Ovsyannikova
Translated by Michael Subotin, USA