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Career Case Study #6: Ivan Illich Leonidov

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Ivan Illich Leonidov
9 February, 1902 – 6 November 1959

Ivan Leonidov’s star shone brilliantly at the very beginning of his career, perhaps too brilliantly. His misfortune was to have been born in 1902. If he’d been born in 1952 we’d remember him today as one of those infernal starchitects and, if early photographs are anything to go by, one emitting the intense earnestness of an Ara­ve­na rather than the easy affability of an Ingels.

Leodinov first appears as a blip on our architectural radar in 1921 when he was admitted to the VKhUTEMAS but he soon transferred from painting to architecture and the studio of Aleksandr Vesnin. Vesnin himself was to soon start making waves, first of all with stage design in 1923 for G.K. Chesterton’s play The Man Who Was Thursday,


but more architecturally famously for winning the 1923 competition for the Palace of Labour and articulating for the first time the tenets of this new thing called Constructivism.


For Leonidov, being in the Vesnin brothers’ studio at the VKhUTEMAS in 1925 must have been like being in Rem Koolhaas’ class at the Architectural Association in 1976. He was 23.


Leonidov is said to have had a hand in Aleksandr Vesnin’s 1923 design for the Izvestia Printworks and perhaps he did. A design by G. Barkhin was eventually built. 


He certainly began to shine from 1925 with a series of competition wins.

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These projects are documented in Aleksandrov, P. A. and S. O. Khan-Magomedov’s 1965 book but nowhere else.

To his credit as an educator, Aleksandr Vesnin spotted talent and encouraged it but it was Leonidov’s graduation project for the Lenin Institute of Librarianship that set the course of his future. It was exhibited at the first exhibition of Contemporary Architecture (organised by OSA) in Moscow in 1927. Images of it were reproduced in publications around the world.


Lenin died in 1924 so we don’t know what he would have thought of it. I can’t think of any student project, anywhere, ever, that has made a comparable splash. Even today, Leonidov’s Lenin Institute of Librarianship is used to illustrate Constructivism for modern audiences – not because it actually did so even then, but because it fits our image of what an expressive and visionary architecture of any time should be.

Then, as now, the element invariably singled out for praise for its architectural expressiveness was the glass-domed auditorium that appears to be held down by cables to prevent it floating away. It’s sometimes noted how this perfectly encapsulated the dream expressed by poets and dreamers of the time, for The People to have infinite mobility, freed from the land.

• • •

It is no surprise then that the glass auditorium also satisfies the four necessary and sufficient conditions for an iconic building.

  1. VISUAL DIFFERENCE: It looks unlike anything else in sight. This can only be a fair assumption, unless the building were to be located in a field of hot-air balloons.
  2. CONCEPTUAL DIFFERENCE: It is like no other known building known. The standard novelty factor.
  3. CONCEPTUAL SIMILARITY: It is evocative of some unifying quality. This is that shared poetic sensibility of the time and place.
  4. CONCEPTUAL NEGATION: It does not seem to be a building (or at least not the building it is). This is the hot-air balloon analogy.

The combination of the glass dome and the cables that run over it press all four of these buttons at once, but the fourth most strongly. In passing, a building does not need cables thrown over it to stop it floating away – gravity alone is sufficient. Even if the cables were intended as stabilising guy lines like those on Vesnin’s Palace of Labour, attaching them around the dome’s equator would’ve been more effective and also avoid transferring forces through the glass dome. So no, it’s definitely and purely expressionistic and, as such, Leonidov and his expressionistic architectural proposition would have been more at home amongst Ladovsky’s ASNOVA expressionists – bizarrely known as ‘Rationalists’ – than Ginzberg’s OSA Constructivists with whom he now found himself not only associated with but unwilling poster boy for. William Curtis is not the only historian to believe Leonidov synthesised the two approaches but to say that is to consider them both conceptually equivalent styles to begin with.

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No written or visual evidence remains of Leonidov’s thoughts or output over 1921-1926 so there isn’t much basis for Curtis saying Leonidov admired Corbusier other than his desire for it to be true. I’d wanted to write at least one post not mentioning Corbusier but this isn’t going to be it for, (much to the increasing exasperation of the Savoyes,) LC travelled frequently to Moscow over the period 1928-1930 as (1) Tsentrosoyuz was on site, (2) he’d passed the first round of judging for the Palace of The Soviets competition, and (3) he was anticipating being asked to redesign Moscow. Until Corbuski fell rapidly out of love with the Soviet Union for not awarding him the Palace of the Soviets, he and Moisei Ginzburg were frequent communicators. It’s quite likely Leonidov had an opportunity to say ‘pleased to meet you’. People were pencilling people in. 

1928: The VKhUTEMAS was reformed as VKhUTEIN and Leonidov became one of those people who gets a place tutoring at the institution from which they’ve just graduated. Here he is photographed with Mosei Ginzburg’s studio in 1930. He’s the one not fully in the frame.


During this time, like everyone else, Leonidov produced proposals for every competition going.

1929: Here he is at the first OSA conference, separated from Mosei Ginzburg’s necktie by Aleksandr Vesnin, somebody we don’t know, and Viktor Vesnin’s impressive moustache.

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1930: Despite Leonidov’s project for the new socialist town around the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine,

1930 was never going to be a good year. Differences between the various architectural groups went political and his proposal for the Palace of Culture of the Proletarksy District competition allowed detractors to brand him a ‘dreamer on paper’ and to make noises about the harm done by having such people teach. Leonidov was now 28.

He was openly accused of sabotage by Arkady Mordvinov in an article titled Leonidovism and its Misdeeds. 1930 was not a good year to be called a saboteur, let alone by the spokesperson of rival architectural group VOPRA then in political ascendance. Ginzburg stepped in to defuse the row, admitting some of Leonidov’s weaknesses but praising his strengths in an article in the OSA journal, Contemporary Architecture.

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It was to be one of the magazine’s final articles before folding in 1930, the same year VKhUTEIN closed and Leonidov was out of a job along with Ginzberg, the Vesnins and everyone else.

1931-3: Leonidov found work at the state town-planning bureau GIPROGOR and, with a team of former students, worked on planning and competition proposals. No trace remains. One design for a club for Pravda workers was to go ahead, but then it didn’t.

1934: Leonidov’s next high point was his proposal for the competition for Narkomtiazhprom (People’s Commisariat for Heavy Industry) in Red Square. Later the same year he joined Moisei Ginzburg who was heading the architectural bureau there. Viktor Vesnin was there too.

Once again, with this project, the visual effect of the dominant tower derives from external bracing countering non-existent internal forces. Note that stumpy fourth tower on the left.

Lenin had never been keen on the idea of the proletariat freely moving about the country and in 1934 Stalin was even less so. Peasants had their place and it was best they stay there. Fanciful schemes and poetry about soaring and glass balloons were all very well, but the reality for everyone was a system of domestic passports and increasingly harsh restrictions placed on internal travel.

To mollify this loss of freedom, aviators were elevated into popular heroes soaring above the world, seeing everything, freed from petty earthbound concerns. This is an early example of the representation of something being valued more than the thing itself. 

  • In 1927, Leonidov’s restrained balloon imagery had encapsulated something people had wanted to exist and believed, however misguidedly, that could exist some day.
  • By 1934, Leonidov had learned how to keep his head above water if not quite swim. His imagery is still hugely original and seductive, but it now toes the party line in that NOBODY IS GOING ANYWHERE but they can still look up at people who are and have their hearts refreshed and spirits lifted vicariously.


1935: Moisei Ginzburg maintained his links with the Commissariat of Heavy Industry bu left Moscow for The Crimea, taking Leonidov with him. There, amongst other things, Ginzburg was responsible for urban planning and for this sanitorium.

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Leonidov’s only built work is this staircase he designed for the sanitorium and which was built 1937-38.

The staircase running down to the sea at the Voroshilov Sanatorium in Sochi (and, incidentally, photographed by Hannes Meyer in 1930) were a precedent.


1940: This was the year Leonidov started work at the Studio for Monumental Art at the Academy of Architecture of the USSR but he was drafted (at age 38) the next year only to be discharged in 1943 after being wounded. He rejoined the Academy and produced studies for the postwar reconstruction of Stalingrad, Kiev, and Moscow but left when they found no support. This is unsurprising, considering the then head of the Academy of Architecture was Arkady Mordvinov – the same Arkady Mordvinov who’d called him a saboteur and coined the term Leonidovism a decade earlier.


1950s: The last twenty years of Leodinov’s life were occupied by drafts for a work collectively known as City of The Sun.

In these artworks, for they are artworks not architecture, buildings feature in various landscapes that more often than not feature a sun. They were explorations, but into what and for what purpose is anyone’s guess. They occupied most of Leonidov’s time when there were no exhibitions that needed designing and are mostly thought of in the following manner.

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To evaluate Leonidov’s drawings by their colour, line style, media and compositions as if they were art is to suggest that in 1923 he might have been better continuing in the faculty of painting rather than changing to architecture. Painting, graphics, three-dimensionality and buildings as subjects were all constants in Leonidov’s life but the importance of the buildings lessened towards the end. This is understandable. Architecture had treated him so badly.


A happier ending is to consider Leonidov as the world’s first modern architecture student, living a full life of successive fantasy projects. If the teaching gig had continued along with the occasional commission we’d think of Leonidov today not as some luckless visionary but as the forerunner of today’s research-driven practice.


Leonidov lived his final years here, in Moisei Ginzburg’s 1928 RSZKT Commune building in Moscow.


• • •

Some say Leonidov would have been another Corbusier if his working life hadn’t spanned three of the grimmest decades in Soviet history. I’m not so sure. Adjectives such as outspoken, strong-willed, flamboyant, intellectual and ambitious have never been used to describe him. He had no instinct for self-preservation, no talent for self promotion and no appetite for fame. Even before it began to get nasty, he was unequipped to navigate the world in which he found himself. Moisei Ginzburg recognised this and not only defended him in 1930 but kept him under his wing whether in Moscow (1927-1930) or Crimea (1934-1937).

• • •

Leonidov’s most celebrated projects all relied on elevators that, at the time, existed only in the United States. It is one of those sad jokes his only extant project is a staircase.


‘Here he not only demonstrated his desire and capacity to build, but realized many of the fundamental elements of his professional vocabulary for the first time. A familiarity with this only extant example of Leonidov’s built work enables us, albeit to a limited degree, to evaluate the notions of space-time and three dimensional composition underlying his work at this period’ 

People can say what they like about time and space and three-dimensional composition (for how could a staircase not be?) but despite not leading anywhere like the staircase at Sochi, it looks like it does its job quite well, beginning monumental and grand at the top, having various rest spots and diversions and choices along the way and, trailing off into the forest at the bottom. In their rush to celebrate Leonidov’s genius, people choose to overlook how this staircase might have excelled at its job of pleasantly yet firmly exercising the lungs of tubercular patients. Leonidov would have been hugely aware this was his first built project so we should at least credit him for making it fit for purpose. We do him a disservice by seeing this staircase only in terms of his supposed artistic preoccupations. We do ourselves no favours either. If we can’t even identify something that can be learned from, it’s unlikely we’ll learn anything.

• • •

Leonidov and his Lenin Institute proposal in particular are still celebrated today. They align with contemporary cults of the architect as artist, and agendas that value expressionism over everything else.

Leonidov is a legend. He is the artist-poet-dreamer we like to believe in because it continues to fulfil or otherwise substitute for something lacking in our own lives and realities. The thing about legendary visionaries is that we like them to remain so. We don’t want to know about the job that got built or the pains they may have taken to make it worth building. We only want to know the bits that feed the myth. Leonidov is a huge resource for myth-makers. That his projects exist only as images only increases their value. The fact he left no body of writings, theory or manifestos means half the work’s already done. His drawings can be shaped into anything one wants to make of them.


• • •

The cult of the aviator soaring above the world and its mere mortals was the Stalinist take on the Roman invention of bread and circuses, albeit with less of the bread and less of the theatrics. We have no right to sneer. Our modern world is exactly the same with its manufactured cults of celebrity achievement thrust in our faces to distract us from the shortcomings of reality. More worrying is our unabated need for them.


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Further reading: