The competition for a building of the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow was a key event in the domestic culture history. The Palace was designed during several decades, no building was built anyway, but the history of competitive proposals, their presentations and discussions had a decisive impact on formation and development of the entire Soviet architecture.
The competition history began in 1922 from a solution to build the House of the USSR in Moscow. Two years later, the Association of New Architects (ASNOVA) suggested an idea to build the Palace of the Soviets. 16 innovative avant-garde proposals of the preliminary competition stage were shot down by the press. Thus, the ideas of architectural avant-guard became discredited in the USSR.
272 designs were proposed to the All-Union Open Competition which terms and conditions were published in the Izvestia newspaper in 1931. Architects of different schools were among the authors of competitive proposals: Vesnin brothers, Nikolai Ladovsky, Alexei Shchusev, Ivan Zholtovsky, Alexei Dushkin, Vladimir Shchuko, Vladimir Gelfreich, etc.
In the early 1932, the competition jury awarded the three first prizes to the designs of Boris Iofan, Ivan Zholtovsky, and an American architect Hector Hamilton.
By the time the competition for "the main building of the country" was announced, the academician in architecture, Zholtovsky had already succeeded as a talented master of Neo-Renaissance and Neoclassicism. His design of the Palace of the Soviets was a monumental ensemble referred to constructions of the Republican Rome. The ensemble entrance was arranged as rows of columns and flanked with a high, square in plan, tiered tower with a statuary on the top. Behind the entrance, there was a ceremonial square-yard as a trapezium framed with a colonnade with no exits to a street or embankment. The arrangement center was occupied by the circular Large Hall concepted as an amphitheater similar to the Roman Colosseum. Behind it, across a cortile which went outside through arcades to Volkhonka Street and Moskva River Embankment, there was the Small Hall in the form of a semicircle as an ancient Greek theater. The Zholtovsky's design represented a new urban ensemble fitted into the context area. The Small Hall space framed with a fortification body with narrow loopholes, and the entrance tower referred to the Moscow Kremlin structures.
The Zholtovsky’s Palace of the Soviets was the most consistent development of architectural historicism. The complex of "the main building" was based on a classic method - the correlation of a large cylindrical volume, a square, and a tower vertical. The direct adaptation of architectural orders proposed by the architect was scarified for "dead imitation of classics", absence of creative rework of "last epoch heritage".
However, aspiration for regularity and symmetry, the attempt of hierarchical taxonomy of volumes, and the idea of a large-scale and imposing ensemble were conformable to requirements of the "new official architecture", and thereby the design received one of the highest awards.
The Boris Iofan’s design of "the main building of the country" repeated in a remarkable manner the principles of the Zholtovsky’s design: it was also based on the combination of a circular large hall, a semicircular small hall, and a high tower. The style of Boris Iofan, an architect studied in Odessa, St. Petersburg, Paris, and Rome, developed in a neoclassical course. Invited to the Soviet Union from Italy by the Chairman of Council of Ministers of the USSR Rykov in 1924, Iofan built two buildings as early as in the late twenties using constructivist principles and details: they were a housing estate "The House on the Embankment" and a government sanatorium in Barvikha.
Having the academic education and working with classical traditions, Iofan succeeded in attribution of new expressiveness and some freedom of new architectural avant-guard form creation to his designs.
The ensemble of the Palace of the Soviets in the Iofan's design was not closed in plan: it was an open composition with a rectangular square in the center. The square surrounded with stands was intended for parades and public events. From Volkhonka, the ensemble opened with a semicircle of the Small Hall, then the square went to a tower column which lower part led to the large circular hall. Porticoes with auxiliary rooms connected the spaces of the main halls. The principal axis of the complex was parallel to the Moskva River Embankment along which volumes of different shapes and silhouettes created an asymmetric facade.
The library tower was the core sense element of the entire ensemble: topped with a sculpture of a worker with a torch in hand, it became an allegory of free labour in the Soviet country. The architect successfully concepted the space under the complex central part created by the difference of square and embankment levels to arrange there a large garage.
The design master plan proposed redevelopment of the Palace of the Soviets surroundings by arrangement of wide motorways and squares. As a principal axis, an Ilyicha Avenue was projected which went from the Sverdlov Square (now, Revolution Square) through the Okhotny Ryad and widened Mokhovaya streets to the Palace square in front of its main entrance.
The decorative solution of the design was based on a rhythm of vertical pylons referred to the classical architectural order system. The rhythm of vertical articulations which spirally surrounded the tower acted as an organizing link of the entire composition, emphasized proportionality of the main spaces, and strengthened the dynamic tower vertical.
In general, the Boris Iofan's design for the All-Union Open Competition for the Palace of the Soviets provided a quite laconic solution not overloaded with decorative elements and based on a successful combination of new forms, past experience, dynamics, and expressiveness.
The design of the Palace of the Soviets created by architect Hector Hamilton under the "Simplicity" slogan was conferred with the first prize for "the most expressive image". Hamilton was one of the youngest competitors - the American architect, an Englishman by birth, who built in Italy and the USA, was only 28. Although the International Congress of Modern Architecture scarified the Hamilton’s design for a weak technical section and the appearance referred to "grandiose ceremonies of the kings’ epoch", the jury of the Palace of the Soviets Competition ignored that criticism.
The Hector Hamilton’s Palace ensemble represented a clearly readable compositional and figurative solution: the tiered composition consisted of two spaces of large and small halls connected by a passage. The architect symmetrized unequal halls and counterbalanced them with a number of auxiliary rooms.
The arrangement of public event movements was not thought over well enough: there was no architecturally arranged square in front of the Palace of the Soviets, and crowds could flow around the structure only. Hamilton solved the junction layout problem by introducing a tram line, as well as motor and bus transport directly near the Palace of the Soviets. A distributive corridor with spiral ladders and elevators was provided along the longitudinal axis of the building to unload various groups of rooms.
The Hector Hamilton's design was drawn towards modernization of traditional forms based on domination of vertical articulations to the greater extent than the designs of the Soviet architects Boris Iofan and Ivan Zholtovsky . The architect Georgy Barkhin characterized the exterior of the Hamilton’s Palace of the Soviets as "not lacking in some impressiveness". At the same time, the frequent monotonous rhythm of verticals which was the main element of the facade arrangement combined with the general symmetry of construction made the appearance of the supermonumental building boring and uniform. As a whole, the architectural and art solution represented "the main palace of the Soviet Union" as compact, simple, and large-scale.
24 foreign designs were accepted for the Open All-Union Competition for the Palace of the Soviets: 11 from the USA, 5 from Germany, 3 from France, 2 from Holland, one from Switzerland, one from Italy, and one from Estonia. Some architects were specially invited, namely Poelzig, Mendelsohn, and Gropius from Germany, Perret and Le Corbusier from France, Lamb and Urban from the USA, and Brasini from Italy. The orders were paid in the amount of $2,000 per each and coordinated by commercial attaches in each country.
The foreign designs were daring architectural concepts considered technical innovations and reckoned for possibility of their implementation: engineering sections were worked out carefully, acoustics and optics were calculated, options of transportation provision were proposed.
The proposal from France prepared by the most prominent architect of the 20th century, Le Corbusier, became the most renowned foreign design of the Palace of the Soviets. The extremely daring innovative design solution was made by an original arrangement of basic rooms, an artful plan image, and a huge parabola in the large hall symbolizing the sun path and dominating in the general composition.
The novelty of compositional idea was also defined by the structural space frame brought outside. Transparent spaces of halls were suspended on powerful load-bearing structures, thus clearing the area under the ceiling. Application of a naked structural framework, transformation of an engineering form into an element of the architectural composition brought this design together with works of the Soviet architectural avant-gard: Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Vesnin, Ivan Leonidov.
Le Corbusier successfully solved a transport problem. Two parallel traffic arteries, Moskva River Embankment and Volkhonka Street, were connected by two garages under the Large and Small Halls. The architect paid special attention to heating, ventilation, acoustics, and traffic arrangement inside the complex. However, recognizing original architectural and town-planning concepts of the Le Corbusier’s design, the competition jury considered it too industrial.
Upon completion of the Open All-Union Competition, the final phase of the architectural competition started in March, 1932. During two close stages of consideration of ordered designs and proposals submitted by authors on their own, the competition jury gave preference to the Boris Iofan's design.
To create a final version of the Palace of the Soviets, co-authors - architects Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreich - were engaged. The Council of Palace Construction approved the design with cylindrical tiers and the centric arrangement of a Lenin sculpture. The design of Vladimir Gelfreich, Boris Iofan, and Vladimir Shchuko which based on the above was filed in 1934. Ultimately, the building height would be 415 m, while the statue height would make 100 m. The stylistics of the Palace of the Soviets was based on close interaction of various kinds of fine arts and decorative and applied arts.
The building of the Palace of the Soviets was based on two volumes: rectangular and cylindrical. The lower stylobate where the Large and Small Halls were located, passed as rows of rectangular terraces from the horizontal square to the cylindrical section of the structure. The high-rise section was decorated with vertical articulations and strong pylons topped with statuaries. The building was assumed to be faced with granite with stainless steel insertions. As cylindrical projections narrowed with the height increased, the steel gradually turned into a white metal the Lenin sculpture had to be made of.
A big team of masters worked on the interior of the main building of the country because it had to be at least as impressive as facades. There was a Large Hall in the interior center with 140 m in diameter and 97 m in height, a sublime amphitheater for an audience of 21 thousand. Its ceiling had to make an impression of "an absolutely light and not pressing architectural sky". The pit of the Large Hall might be transformed into an arena, performance venue, water pool, and even into an artificial ice skating rink. The hall number two, Small Hall, represented a theater with a huge scene of common type. The artist Pavel Korin took part in development of future Palace of the Soviets interiors and made sketches of picturesque panels and mosaics.
It would really be a huge structure designed to become a dominant in the future urban silhouette. Not commensurable in terms of scope with any construction in Moscow, it made the town-planning situation change. Road interchanges, squares, avenues were thought over. Several high-rise buildings were planned to be built within the city with stylistic features common with the new architectural urban dominant. Periodicals published special diagrams showing the largest and highest well-known structures worldwide, all surpassed by the Palace of the Soviets in scope and dimensions.
The Palace construction commenced but the Great Patriotic War interfered, and some part of foundations was disassembled and used for anti-tank obstacles.
The competition was resumed after the war but then the Palace building was going to be built on the Lenin (Sparrow) Hills. In the late fifties, a year-round outdoor pool was built on the place of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour destroyed in 1931. In the early nineties, the pool was closed and the Cathedral was restored on its former place.
It is commonly believed that the results of the Palace of the Soviets competition have changed the domestic architecture style orientation from rational principles and advanced technologies of the Modern Movement to monumental, formal and stylizational compositions of the neoclassical architectural line.