Stalinist Architecture: Style, Characteristics & Buildings

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we will learn about the characteristics and styles of Stalinist architecture as it developed in the Soviet Union, especially Moscow during the decades when Joseph Stalin was in power. We will also explore some of the best examples of architecture from this time.

Stalinist architecture

The years of Stalin's government were crucial in consolidating the image of a strong Soviet Union. It was a time of architectural experimentation and ambitious projects. Those tall and imposing Soviet buildings with the star on top that have been immortalized in movies and books were built while Stalin was in power. Let's find out more.

The term Stalinist architecture is used to refer to the different constructions that were commissioned during the government of Stalin in the Soviet Union, between 1922 and 1952. The style of constructions changed during those years and it reached its peak in the fifties, with the construction of skyscrapers in Moscow. After Stalin's death in 1953, Stalinist architecture soon came to an end, and constructions changed again to proletarian housing projects.

Kudrinskaya Square Building in Moscow
Kudrinskaya Square Building in Moscow

Style and Characteristics of Stalinist architecture

When Stalin gained the power of the Soviet Union, the main goal was to turn the country into a world power, so new buildings were needed in order to show growth and prosperity.

In early constructions during the Stalinist era, there was an experimentation with different styles. A very austere constructivist style developed in the twenties but soon proved not to be good enough to show the glory of the Soviet Union and support the propagandistic image of prosperity. Classical references were then incorporated into buildings, and elements such as columns with elaborate capitals, arches, and moldings were used to promote the glory of the nation.

Urban planning was also a priority for Stalin's government. New, wider and straight avenues were needed as settings for military parades, strengthening the image of power and prosperity. Most of the urban planning was done by decree, and entire areas of the city were demolished and rebuilt under the new ideas.

Stalinist architecture was marked by a strong influence of the government during the design and construction processes. The personal preferences of Stalin influenced architecture and it was common for one design to be rejected by one member of the party and then be prized the next year. This close relationship between the government and the architects lead to a consistency in the characteristics of the designs, regardless of the architect creating it. The new constructions were rigid and sober, with only a few ornaments on the facades. Architecture was a means to show power, so buildings had massive proportions. During all of Stalin's era, the layout of buildings was based on symmetry.

In terms of construction materials, most buildings were simply made out of brick and then covered with stucco and paint. For the skyscrapers, however, reinforced concrete was used given the height of the buildings. The interior of civic buildings was often finished with natural stone and marbles and decoration of propagandistic motifs was often used.

Residential buildings were strongly differentiated by social class. Simple mass constructions for the popular classes coexisted with elaborate developments for the elite. The buildings for high-range officials incorporated expensive elements, like massive columns, elaborate capitals, arches, and balconies, making the influence of the tenants evident. On the other hand, the working class faced a shortage of housing, and experiments with different techniques and materials took place in order to minimize costs and supply the demand. These constructions were very plain and simple, deprived of all luxury and ornaments, and sometimes ineffective in covering the basic needs of the tenants.

After World War II, Stalinist architecture reached its peak with the construction of seven massive high-rise buildings that became landmarks of Soviet architecture. These Stalin's skyscrapers, often referred to as the ''Seven Sisters,'' share similar characteristics and were built incorporating new-Gothic references, like arches, moldings and a strong sense of verticality. The buildings consisted of a higher central tower with a pointed tip, usually crowned by a Soviet star. Secondary towers were often built at the corners. More importance was given to form over function, and as a consequence, there was an inefficient use of space. Very tall buildings often had little usable floors. Most of these constructions took several years to build and were finished after Stalin left power and even after his death.

In 1955, two years after Stalin's death, a decree to eliminate excess from constructions was issued, putting this style to an end. Stalinist architecture was used as a reference for civic constructions in all other Soviet countries, and also by the communist governments of Eastern Europe and Asia.

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