Russia History Soviet Scottish Architects in the Soviet Union

Scottish Architects in the Soviet Union

Just like Peter the Great founded St Petersburg and created a new secular Russia in the early eighteenth century, the Bolshevik government after the 1917 revolution wanted to build a new capital reflecting the Communist ideology. In 1918, the seat of government was moved to Moscow, which had to be urgently rebuilt in order to accommodate the new ministries of the planned economy and to reflect the city’s status as the headquarters of the world’s first workers’ state.

In 1928, a competition was held to design a new building for Tsentrosoyuz on Myasnitskaya Street in the centre of Moscow – and became one of the most important contests in the architectural life of the USSR. Tsentrosoyuz was a government organisation which controlled the production, trade and acquisition from the population of agricultural products. The competition was organised by the Society of Civil Engineers, one of the country’s oldest professional organisations.

The results of the first round were announced on 19 June 1928, but proved inconclusive. A second (closed) round was held among leading foreign architects, who had received special commissions, including such famous European names as Le Corbusier (Paris), Max Taut (Berlin) and Peter Behrens (Berlin). Two Scottish architects, Sir John James Burnet and Thomas Smith Tait, submitted a project. This second competition also proved inconclusive and the commission was eventually awarded to Le Corbusier following a third round in 1930.

Le Corbusier’s winning design was created with the help of Nikolai Colley – a talented half-Scottish architect. As Le Corbusier did not visit Moscow after 1930, the building was left to Colley to build between 1933 and 1937. It was largely thanks to Colley that the building was constructed with such high-quality materials – and that it was even built at all, following the movement away from Constructivism towards a more pompous Neoclassical style under Stalin in the 1930s.

Nikolai Colley was born in Moscow in 1894 to a Scottish merchant called James Colley (1862–1917) and his Russian wife Varvara Sapunova (1864–1941). He studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture/State Free Art Studios/VKhUTEMAS from 1912 to 1922. Colley actually came up with the concept of the “red wedge” in a design of 1918, one year before it was stolen by El Lissitzky and used in his iconic agitprop poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.

Nikolai Colley helped to build such important structures as the Kazan Railway Station in Moscow (1913–15), All-Union Exhibition of Agriculture in Moscow (1923) and the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station in the Ukraine (1927–32). He designed several underground stations of the Moscow Metro in the 1930s and helped to reconstruct Tver, Minsk and Riga after the Second World War. Colley died in Moscow in 1966 and was buried at the former German Cemetery in Lefortovo.

To learn about the presence of Scottish architects in Russia before the revolution, click on the following link to read about Scottish Architects in Imperial Russia.

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