The Seven Sisters, or ‘Stalin’s high-risesRussian: Stalinskiye vysotki or Сталинские высотки’, are among Moscow’s best examples of Stalinist architecture, a term given to Soviet architecture under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Constructed between the mid-1940s and the early 1950s, these high-rises came to symbolize the new Moscow, which was perceived as a victorious city that had overcome the hardships of war and entered a peaceful new era. These giant structures became the attributes of a modern metropolitan city. The Seven Sisters include the main building of the Lomonosov Moscow State UniversityRussian: Moskovskiy gosudarstvennyi universitet im. M. V. Lomonosova or Московский государственный университет им. М. В. Ломоносова, the Ministry of Foreign AffairsRussian: Ministerstvo inostrannykh del or Министерство иностранных дел, hotels Ukraina and LeningradskayaRussian: gostinitsy «Ukraina» i «Leningradskaya» or гостиницы «Украина» и «Ленинградская», apartment buildings on Kotelnicheskaya EmbankmentRussian: Kotelnicheskaya naberezhnaya or Котельническая набережная and Kudrinskaya SquareRussian: Kudrinskaya ploschad or Кудринская площадь, and the administrative and residential complex near Red Gate SquareRussian: Krasnye vorota or Красные ворота.
Unfortunately, not every high-rise is easy to get into. This applies in particular to the MSURussian: МГУ building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but their exterior alone is worth examining. Even today, where skyscrapers are commonplace, the Seven Sisters are still unique in their grandeur, the opulence of their décor and their monumental stature.
After WWII was over, Moscow needed reconstruction; bombs had damaged many buildings, while others were simply outdated. Housing was a pressing issue, too, because the capital’s population was rapidly increasing, and many had to live in cramped ‘communal’ apartments, where several families shared one apartment. The Communist Party also needed symbols that would visually glorify the victorious country. It is therefore a well-known fact that the construction of the Seven Sisters was ideology-driven. Ornate facades, opulent interiors, huge columned porticos, spires and rich sculptured décor were intended to demonstrate the wealth and might of a country, a place where people were incredibly privileged to live. The university, the hotels and the apartment buildings were constructed for none other than the people. In the Soviet Union, opulence was intended for everyone and not just the privileged few.
The project was launched in 1947 with the Council of Ministers approving the ‘Decree on the construction of high-rise buildings in Moscow’. The initiative came personally from Stalin, which implies that the Seven Sisters were designed in accordance with his personal tastes and preferences. According to Stalin’s concept, the seven skyscrapers were intended as a visual framework for the central and most important building, the Palace of the SovietsRussian: Dvorets Sovetov or Дворец Советов, which was to be erected on the bank of the Moskva RiverRussian: Moskva-reka or Москва-река, on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the SaviourRussian: Khram Khrista Spasitelya or Храм Христа Спасителя, which was blown up in 1931. The Palace of the Soviets was intended to become the world’s tallest building and serve as a meeting place for the Supreme Soviet of the USSRRussian: Verkhovnyi Sovet SSSR or Верховный Совет СССР (the Soviet analogue of a parliament).
Concept and construction
As early as the 1930s, most leading Soviet architects submitted bids to design the palace, and it was B. M. Iofana Jewish Soviet architect, known for his Stalinist architecture buildings who won, designing the palace in the Empire style. A colossal tower adorned with numerous columns was to soar into the sky above Moscow, topped with a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin, which would disappear in the clouds, if the project had been carried out. The height of the building and the statue combined was intended to be over 400 metres!
Stalin launched construction in 1939, hoping to carry out this grandiose project quickly, but the war broke out, and funding it became impossible. Despite the victory over Nazi Germany, the project was never resumed, but the fact that it was planned still says a lot about the ideology underlying the construction of the Soviet high-rises. The construction of the other high-rises was completed in record time, however – in fact, the Seven Sisters were commissioned as early as the 1950s.
Although the Seven Sisters cannot rival the scale of the utopic Palace of the Soviets, Iofan’s project and the seven high-rises have something in common – all these buildings seem to grow out of a vast, massive foundation and share a step-shaped structure. None of them are designed as simple towers like those in Chicago, one of the skyscraper capitals of the world. Instead, Moscow’s Empire-style high-rises have more in common with New York’s skyscrapers – Stalin is known to have been greatly impressed with the Manhattan Municipal Building designed by W. Kendall. Each of Stalin’s high-rises features a central tower with a vertical axis balanced by a horizontal one. There are structures adjacent to the main building, but they are shorter than the central tower.
This peculiarity is most evident in the tallest (240 m) of all the Sisters, the main building of the Moscow State University (1, Vorobyovy Gory StreetRussian: ulitsa Vorobyovy gory or улица Воробьевы горы). The height of the spired central tower is balanced horizontally by the four wings, each of which could be a separate multi-storey building. Designed by L. Rudnev, the University Building showcased the Soviet government’s priorities, namely, science and education. The main MSU building towers over the Moskva River, dominating the panorama of the entire area. The University needed new premises, and a whole campus was to be centred around the new MSU building, housing the rector’s office, several faculties, the student dormitory, professors’ accommodation, an assembly hall and a student theatre. MSU students joke that one can live inside this building without ever needing to go outside, as it has a variety of shops, cafeterias, a gym with a swimming pool, a cultural centre hosting concerts on a regular basis and a geoscience museumRussian: Muzey zemlevedeniya or Музей землеведения.
Both the exterior and the interior of the MSU building are very impressive, with their stunning sculptures created by Vera Mukhinaa prominent Soviet sculptor’s team, polished jasper, granite and marble columns, stucco work and wooden panels. The building is topped with a tall glass-clad spire crowned by a five-pointed star. Each of the five major parts of the building is thought to have been initially meant as a pedestal for a giant sculptural group with a statue of Mikhail Lomonosova Russian polymath, scientist and writer, who made important contributions to literature, education, and science in the centre. It is hard to tell whether this is true, since many urban myths and legends surround the Seven Sisters. Especially popular are stories about MSU’s cellars. Vast, deep and designed to endure direct bomb hits, these cellars are still restricted military facilities, hence the rumours about an underground city, enormous refrigerators used as a measure against collapsible soils and a secret entrance to an alternative underground transportation system.
Each of the Seven Sisters has become a landmark defining the city’s views and skyline. Thus, Kutuzovsky Avenue begins with the 34-storey Hotel UkrainaRussian: gostinitsa «Ukraina» or гостиница «Украина», situated on a bank of the Moskva River (Block 1, 2/1, Kutuzovsky AvenueRussian: Kutuzovskiy prospekt or Кутузовский проспект ). The leader of this project, A. Mordvinov, managed to design one of the largest hotels in the world, while making it as user-friendly as possible. Its luxurious interiors, spacious guest rooms, breathtaking views from the windows, and its ideal location close to the city centre are all intended to make the visitor’s impressions of their stay in Moscow nothing but positive.
The building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (32/34, Smolenskaya-Sennaya SquareRussian: Smolenskaya-Sennaya ploschad or Смоленская-Сенная площадь), designed by V. Helfreich and M. Minkus, looks quite severe. In fact, this appearance is in line with its purpose. The building’s main decoration is a huge national emblem of the Soviet Union. The initial design did not include any spires, yet one was subsequently added. The spire, however, had to be produced of lightweight steel, which is, most likely, why the spire lacks the traditional five-pointed star on top, as the purely decorative spire was not strong enough to support the additional weight.
On Kotelnicheskaya Embankment stands a residential building designed by D. Chechulin and A. Rostkovsky, which completes the panorama from the Kremlin towards the Yauza Rivera river in Moscow, a tributary of the Moskva River. The building has 700 spacious apartments and also includes the movie theatre ILLUSIONRussian: kinoteatr «Illuzion» or кинотеатр «Иллюзион», a post office, a few shops and restaurants and many other facilities. Today, it also houses G. Ulanova’s Apartment MuseumRussian: Muzey-kvartira G. Ulanovoy or Музей-квартира Г. Улановой dedicated to the renowned ballet dancer Galina Ulanova. The sumptuous lobby walls are adorned with picturesque paintings, probably painted by A. Deynekaa Soviet Russian painter, graphic artist and sculptor. The building is now one of the most prestigious residential apartment buildings in Moscow.
Another apartment building is situated on 1, Kudrinskaya Square (architects M. Posokhin and A. Mndoyants). It is often referred to as ‘the Aviators’ HouseRussian: Dom aviatorov or Дом авиаторов’, since many aviation industry workers had apartments there. The building is made up of multiple pieces grouped in an intricate manner, creating the impression that the central tower grows out of a pile of similar but smaller structures. The inner living space is divided into sections with a separate entrance and no more than 3 or 4 apartments per floor. The building also features a cinema, which is currently closed.
The Red Gate High-RiseRussian: Vysotka u Krasnykh vorot or Высотка у Красных ворот (21, Sadovaya-Spasskaya StreetRussian: Sadovaya-Spasskaya ulitsa or Садовая-Спасская улица) designed by A. Dushkin and B. Mezentsev is a combination of administrative offices and apartments. Of particular importance is its location at the most elevated point of the Garden RingRussian: Sadovoe koltso or Садовое кольцо, making this 24-storey building stand out even more. Its interior includes pillars similar to those inside MayakovskayaМаяковская Metro Station – these are the signature elements of Dushkin’s design. Decorated with corrugated sheets of stainless steel, they have a lightweight and somewhat graceful appearance.
Hotel LeningradskayaRussian: gostinitsa «Leningradskaya» or гостиница «Ленинградская» (21/40 Kalanchyovskaya StreetRussian: Kalanchyovskaya ulitsa or Каланчёвская улица), designed by L. Polyakov and A. Boretsky, is the smallest of the Seven Sisters. It is currently run by Hilton Hotels & Resorts, which carried out a major renovation of the building while taking care to preserve the grandeur of its original appearance. The interior decoration features ancient Russian motifs; for example, the lobby contains two bas-reliefs depicting Princes Alexander Nevskya key figure of medieval Rus' known for his military victories over German and Swedish invaders in the 13th century and Dmitry Donskoythe first prince of Moscow to openly challenge Mongol authority in Russia.
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