Photographer Frederic Chaubin's weird and wonderful Soviet architecture
Photographer Frédéric Chaubin likes to believe he uncovered a fourth age of Russian architecture. In his book "CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed" (Taschen, $59.99), Chaubin captured 90 unconventional, rarely seen buildings constructed in the 20 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
These weird, modernistic structures reveal a surprising freedom after the strict controls in 1920s Constructivism, Stalin's so-called Empire (or Gothic) style and Nikita Khrushchev's Modernism initiated in the '50s and '60s.
Chaubin's journey of excavation began in 2003 while waiting to interview Eduard Shevardnadze, then president of Georgia. Chaubin, chief editor of the French lifestyle magazine "Citizen K," came across a dusty 20-year-old book in a Tbilisi bookstore that contained images of local architecture unlike any he had ever seen.
When he returned to seek out more of these astonishing structures, he met a Lithuanian woman who was married to an architect who worked on the Druskininkai Hydrotherapy Center, an ode to Barcelona's Antonio Gaudi. "She said it took nearly 10 years and they were free to produce what they wanted, there was no more control," said Chaubin from his home in Paris. "I thought this was a subject that deserved further investigation."
For the next several years, he explored the landscape of 14 former republics, creating a game of sorts to find and photograph the craziest and most aberrant buildings. What he uncovered was a multiplicity of futuristic styles, many with grand, sweeping curves and flying-saucer shaped roofs, often constructed in bleak, remote areas emanating a sci-fi vibe. Although a few structures have been razed, most remain in good condition or have been renovated and transformed.
Others continue to operate in their original intended purposes. The Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics in St. Petersburg (1987) resembles a tower-like rocket ready to blast off. The Druzhba Sanatorium in Yalta, Ukraine, designed by Igor Vasilevsky in 1985, was once mistaken by the Pentagon as a launch pad.
Many of the images dispel previous beliefs that there was little outside influence in the design of the USSR. One example is the Demirchyan Arena, Sports and Music Complex in Yerevan, Armenia. Completed in 1984, it bears an eerie similarity to Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal in New York's JFK Airport built in 1962.
"In some ways, these architects had to be more skillful because of limited materials and economic conditions," said Chaubin. "I tried to understand how they were freer to express their own visions instead of sticking to an ideological formula."
One of Chaubin's favorite stories is his discovery of the Prometheus Camp for youth offenders on the Finnish border. What he found was not the ominous concrete structures he had previously encountered, but a cluster of ramshackle beach-like bungalows with a Suprematist form. The buildings were constructed with sketches of lunar bases intended to be built on the moon.
"The people in charge of architecture heritage in Russia told me it didn't exist, but I found it." Built with wood, the camp was already in decaying conditions.
In the end, these extraordinary structures represented the dreams and hopes of a few innovators looking toward the future, a space-age era with endless possibilities while their country was collapsing around them.
-- Liesl Bradner
Images, from top: Druzhba sanatorium Yalta, Ukraine, 1985; Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1987; Palace of Ceremonies, Tbilisi, Georgia, 1985.