Ivan Leonidov’s City of the Sun

During a few days in London last week I was able to visit the Imagine Moscow exhibition at The Design Museum, an intriguing complement to the Royal Academy’s Revolution: Russian Art 1917–32.

The exhibition surveys the Soviet effort through the 1920s and 30s to reimagine Moscow, the ancient feudal city of Orthodoxy and the Tsars, as a 20th century socialist metropolis, the electrified capital of world revolution.

‘Imagine’ is the key word: only one of the seven revolutionary projects highlighted in the show was realised.

Four of them were driven by the avant-garde architects, designers and engineers who flourished briefly during the first half of the 1920s.

El Lissitsky’s ‘Cloud Iron’ proposed a series of horizontal skyscrapers positioned on the city’s Garden Ring, glass and steel megastructures designed to serve the dual function of solving the city’s housing crisis and introducing a new futurist skyline. (The plan was realised in gothic form some 25 years later through the Stalinist ‘Seven Sisters’ that still circle Moscow city centre.)

A blueprint for a national library – the Lenin Institute – envisaged a tower housing 15 million books, linked to reading rooms, lecture theatres and a planetarium.

Plans for health factories and new forms of communal living were motivated by a desire for a large, dynamic workforce, doubled by the inclusion of women, relieved of the burden of child care through the introduction of collective nurseries.

Two later projects were guided by the Socialist Realist orthodoxy imposed by Stalin from the beginning of the 1930s: a Commissariat of Heavy Industry, designed to encourage the USSR’s

rapid industrialisation, and a forbidding ‘Palace of the Soviets’, a socialist skyscraper from Gotham City, topped by a giant statue of Lenin, intended for party assemblies and other mass gatherings. Both would have been built in the heart of the city, overlooking the Kremlin.

The seventh project, and the only one that was realised, was the Lenin Mausoleum, the constructivist ziggurat built in 1924 that still stands in Red Square, where what remains of Lenin lies ‘incorrupt’, in the manner of an Orthodox saint.

Each project is illuminated through fascinating collections of architectural drawings, photographs, film and models that convey a powerful picture of a socialist dreamworld that never arrived.

But I was particularly surprised and delighted to find that the exhibition included a significant selection of designs by the architect Ivan Leonidov (1902–59), a lesser known but brilliant member of the avant-garde whose work I have so far only been able to find online.

Like many of his fellow radicals Leonidov’s star shone brightly through the 1920s before he fell out of favour and into obscurity with the turn to Socialist Realism. Only one of his many blueprints was ever realised, a landscaped flight of stairs in for a Kislovodsk sanatorium. But through the hardship of a life blighted by poverty, war and unrealised hopes, his work retained its visionary quality.

The exhibition gives generous space to Leonidov’s best known designs, his intricate blueprints for the Lenin Institute and the Commissariat of Heavy Industry.

Leonidov’s 1927 design for the Institute, completed while he was still a student, is a delicate exploration of the possibilities of abstract geometric form, an poetry of spheres, cubes, rectangles and planes that still seems a herald of some unrealised future. A stylised vector reproduction of Leonidov’s stark black and white side elevation for the complex spans the full width of one of the exhibition’s walls, complemented by photos of the original architectural model, an exquisite prototype fashioned from whatever materials were available in impoverished 1920s Moscow: wire, card, wood, thread, the glass from an electric light bulb. Here, as with virtually everything the avant-garde conceived, dreams ran far ahead of scarce resources and technology.

Leonidov’s design for the Commissariat of Heavy Industry is also luxoriusly illustrated, a large scale reproduction of one of his sketches showing a soaring steel and glass skyscraper that, aside from the airships and biplanes circling its heights, could pass as a blueprint for a radical addition to the contemporary skylines of London, Dubai or Shanghai.

But for me the most fascinating works by Leonidov featured in the exhibition are a set of luminous images from a series he produced through the 1940s and 50s inspired by the 17th century utopian essay The City of the Sun by the Italian Dominican Tommaso Campanella.

Campanella, following Plato’s Republic and the description of Atlantis in Timaeus, imagines an ideal city state governed by the principles of egalitarianism, rational enquiry and the pursuit of beauty. The desire of its citizens for knowledge is symbolised by the City’s concentric architecture, modelled on the Solar System, each the circular walls dividing its sections painted with images imparting knowledge from the arts and sciences.

The innermost circle encloses a place of worship open to the sky, dedicated to the Sun, the source of life, a space where, in Campanella’s words, ’the heavens are a temple and the stars an altar’.

With its elevation of science over faith, insistence that all labour be honoured, and that all property be held in common, the book was interpreted by Soviet intellectuals as an early vision of a harmonious communist society. Influenced by Maxim Gorky, who presented Campanella’s city as a prototype for the new socialist Moscow, Lenin published a decree in April 1918 which, as its admirably descriptive title indicates – On the Removal of Monuments Raised in Honour of the Tsars and Their Servants and the Working out of Designs for Monuments to the Russian Socialist Revolution – established a commission to replace symbols of feudalism with socialist iconography.

Leonidov began illustrating his own City of the Sun after discovering Campanella in the 1930s, and continued to work on the series through the 1940s and 50s till his death.

The meticulous draughtmanship characteristic of his architectural blueprints runs throughout the sequence, but the clinical precision of those earlier designs is succeeded by an impressionism that recalls Turner’s late landscapes. Leonidov’s images of his ideal city are suffused with a warm, luminous ambience, its enigmatic architectural forms shimmering in the watery light of early morning or the heat haze of high afternoon, each scene permeated with sunlight and air. A golden sphere symbolising the Sun, for Campanella ‘the face and living image of God’, hovers over everything.

I’ve often admired what can be seen of these paintings online -the only books showcasing Leonidov’s work are out of print – but they are quite beautiful when experienced at first hand, shining with something of the numinous presence of an Orthodox icon. As with an icon the textures are as evocative as the design, a complex of materials including paint, fabric, paper, thread, whitewash and silver, layered on a variety of surfaces including wood, paper and canvas.

Leonidov’s city has an archetypal quality, its unclassifiable architectural forms seeming to transcend time. It is possible to make out towers, arches, pyramids and domes that recall the styles of the ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and cupolas that evoke Orthodox churches and Buddhist pagodas. But there are also columns, spheres, rostrums and other abstractions that suggest Leonidov’s futurist prototypes of the 1920s. His solar city owes as much to Le Corbusier’s modernist Ville Radieuse as any romantic classicism or medievalism.

Here the pragmatic architectural blueprint is elevated to the realm of myth, to the image of the eternal city. The overwhelming impression is of ascent, the parabolic structures reaching to the Sun foregrounded in most of the paintings, a suitable symbol for Leonidov’s abiding belief in the capicity of architecture to inspire.

For more on Leonidov I recommend Ross Wolfe’s The Charnel House, an excellent resource for the visual and intellectual history of early 20th century architecture. See for example the articles Ivan Leonidov’s late series on Campanella’s City of the Sun, Ivan Leonidov’s proposal for the Lenin Institute and Ivan Leonidov: Artist, dreamer, poet (which includes extensive quotations from an illuminating essay by Andrei Gozak introducing Leonidov’s work).

Imagine Moscow runs until 4 June at The Design Museum, Kensington High Street, London.