What a “Cosmic Communist” Architect learnt from English Architecture

I was standing on stage shortly before giving a lecture called “Crimean Architecture, Between Tradition and the Avant Garde” on the occasion of the Zodchestvo 14 festival of architecture, when Alexey Komov, curator of the pavilion in which one of my projects was included, indicated an older man that had just walked down the central stairs of the semi-circular public arena:

“It’s him: Druzhba!” Alexey said with a positively surprised expression while indicating the man’s position with his head. Contrary to the angular projections of the radially arranged rooms of his building, the late Soviet Druzhba (Friendship) sanatorium in Crimea, a space-station-like building made famous worldwide by featuring on the cover of Taschen’s “CCCP; Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed”, its architect seemed approachable and gentle in nature.

I was both surprised and excited by this unexpected guest, but also aware that as I had included four images of his famous building in my lecture, more than I included  for any other building except my own, I was exposing myself to the possibility of voicing an interpretation of his work that may be challenged real time by its architect, who was sitting in one of the front rows of the open auditorium. I did refer to him and his presence directly during the projection of those images, giving him and the other guests a chance to think whether a further direct explanation and conversation may shed light on the work of this master of Soviet architecture. That conversation took place shortly after the end of my lecture. As I approached Vasilevsky to thank him for attending, he ventured some advice to me, a London based architect more than thirty years his junior:

“Do you know what, between nature and architecture, is more important?” He asked.

“Nature is more important, because the landscapes that have been created by God can’t be improved by building on them.” He added.

Druzhba was constructed in 1985, in a Soviet country that had attempted to do away with the idea of God since 1917, replacing it with the idea of the leader of the worker’s revolution.

Vorontsov Palace, Crimea

Vasilevsky then started talking about the Vorontsov palace in Alupka, echoing some comments I had made on it in my lecture. For those who may not know its history, the Vorontsov palace was built between 1828 and 1844 by Mikhail Vorontsov, first Governor General of the nineteenth century Russian province then known as Novorossiya and son of Catherine the Great’s ambassador to England. The architect of Vorontsov’s palace was Edward Blore, who was also responsible for completing Buckingham Palace after Nash had been fired from the job for over spending. Vorontsov’s sister had married the Earl of Pembroke, thus completing the Vorontsovs ties to England. Blore himself had never visited Crimea, but was well informed of its craggy southern landscapes, and had sent William Hunt as site architect for the project. I am not sure of the expediency of the mail between Crimea and England in the mid nineteenth century, but I imagine that William Hunt would have had to take a number of decisions himself. One such decision may have been the selection of the stone to be used for the construction of the palace, for which I believe a quarry had been opened up in the vicinity of the mountains not too distant from the site.

“In Vorontsov’s palace, for example, the stone chosen to build it matches perfectly the colour of the mountains behind, and of the large rocky boulders in the vicinity”

Vasilevsky continued:
“It was always my intention that also the colour of the Druzhba sanatorium would match the colour of the cliff against which it is set, so that it could blend with it in a similar way that Vorontsov’s Palace does with the mountains behind it; architecture has to blend with the landscape, not the other way round. White as a colour looks great on the sea-front, the cranes in the port of Yalta would look great all painted white, but when you set a building further away from the line of the water and into the landscape, then it should respect nature and try and blend with it, rather than standing apart from it.”

Unfortunately for its architect, the Czech team overseeing the building works had very definite ideas that modern architecture should be white, and when half the building had already been completed in the colour of the rock they over-ruled the architect’s will and proceeded to paint the entire building white, setting it off from the colour of the cliff face instead of blending it in with it. The conversation added a useful note to any student of his work: a building of a significant scale and striking design such as the Druzhba sanatorium does not need to be set off from the landscape, and his comments on the man-made being subservient to the natural may also explain why the building is lifted off the ground on three round vertical circulation towers, allowing the landscape to flow beneath it. A green architecture not only in terms of energy use (Druzhba sanatorium used passive cooling ventilation tubes long before the idea became widespread in recent years) but in terms of its architect’s desire to respect nature while not shying away from building a large scale iconic structure necessary to allow a large number of people to enjoy views and access to the sea while floating above the landscape of this holiday destination. Significantly, the only other work of architecture mentioned by Vasilevsky during our conversation was built in the nineteenth century, reinforcing the notion that even the most futuristic of architects has learnt his important lessons from examining the past. What can also be of interest to the British public is that arguably the most iconic late Soviet Russian architect’s true teachers happened to be a team of nineteenth century British architects: Edward Blore and William Hunt.