In March 1976, when doing the rounds of the Barvikha sanatorium outside Moscow, a doctor found the once-celebrated architect Boris Iofan unconscious in his armchair. He was holding a drawing of a statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman by Vera Mukhina, that had surmounted Iofan’s most famous built work, the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. He had been working up proposals, obsessively perhaps, for a less ignominious setting than the one where this sculpture had ended up, on an undersized plinth in a Moscow exhibition ground.
It was amazing that Iofan was still (just) alive. Born to a Jewish family in Odesa in 1891, he lived through pogroms, revolutions, world wars and times of famine. As the architect of Stalin’s most prominent projects, he spent years close to the murderous and capricious dictator. Those around him – patrons, friends, colleagues, associates, fellow members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee – were murdered in large numbers, sometimes after torture. Iofan not only survived, but also created some of the most memorable designs of 20th-century architecture.
He is an ideal subject for Deyan Sudjic, whose earlier book The Edifice Complex explored his interest in the interaction of architecture and power. Iofan has long fascinated Sudjic, who now tells his story – and the boggling horrors and absurdities that surrounded him – in a way that is accessible, informative and observant. He has an eye for telling details, such as the luxury finishes on facilities built for the Soviet elite, and for striking characters. There is Iofan’s snakish rival Karo Alabyan. There is the clownishly ideological architect Hannes Meyer, who continued to praise the Soviet system even after it had killed the mother of his son, and sent the boy to a prison camp.
At the centre of the book is the saga of the Palace of the Soviets, a skyscraper surmounted by a gigantic statue of Lenin, an intended celebration of the Bolshevik revolution that fused the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, and would have been larger than both. The project announced and defined Stalin’s preferred architectural style – monumental, classical, sometimes with Slavic aspects. It eventually foundered after the outbreak of war, when its insane requirements for steel and labour proved unsustainable.
Something that did get built was the pavilion in Paris, another building that acted as a plinth for a large sculpture, the one that preoccupied Iofan at the end of his life, of a young man and a young woman raising a hammer and sickle to the sky. The pavilion stood on one side of a wide avenue oriented towards the Eiffel Tower, directly opposite Albert Speer’s pavilion for Nazi Germany. The confrontation dramatised a clash of two totalitarian ideologies, but also their kinship, as there were similarities in Iofan’s and Speer’s stripped-down classical styles.
Many of those who worked with Iofan on the Paris pavilion would be killed by the time he built another one in New York, two years later, but he somehow stayed alive and working, despite a provocative liking for smart suits and ownership of a Buick convertible car. He eventually fell from favour from the late 40s on, in part as a result of Stalin’s antisemitic campaigns against “cosmopolitanism”: he would continue to work into the 60s, but on less glamorous projects than before. He died a few days after that doctor found him in his chair.
His legacy would include substantial buildings, such as one of Moscow’s metro stations, a prominent apartment building called the House on the Embankment, and the sanatorium where he ended his life. But his greatest impact was through images: the drawings of the unbuilt palace and photographs of the short-lived Paris pavilion. His influence is clear in the seven Moscow skyscrapers – stacked-up, fantastical, Russianised versions of Manhattan towers – that other architects designed for Stalin after the war.
Iofan remains somewhat inscrutable in all this, the means of his survival a mystery. Those who knew him described him as charming, gentle and “able to compromise in personal relationships”, or, less favourably, as “sly”. But he was also “unyielding” when it came to artistic matters. Like many architects, it seems, his work was everything to him, and he would go to great lengths to realise his vision.
You could say he was a stooge, an accomplice of great crimes, a propagandist, albeit one with considerable talent and flair. You might, more charitably, say he was struggling to survive in almost impossible circumstances. Sudjic chooses not to condemn him, but lays out the facts of his life as best can be done. The result is a vivid account of a demented world.