Around 1900, the historical center of Petersburg with its famous ensembles, palaces, temples and theaters found itself girded by an enormous industrial ring, exceeding the center in surface area by far. It was dominated by industrial buildings in red-brick and brownstone, factories and workshops, interspersed with residential housing. Frequently, these were slums. Characteristic for the city’s proletarian outskirts, one of these neighborhoods sprang up on the banks of Obvodny Canal . The poverty and unsanitary conditions that reigned here drew a great deal of protest and dissatisfaction, so that the first Russian urban planners were already proposing measures for the redevelopment of Petersburg as early as the 1900s. Unfortunately, these suggestions remained projects. Real work on reconstruction and improvement of the proletarian outskirts only began with the rise of the Soviet regime. First and foremost, this concerned Narvaskaya Zastava – the city’s largest industrial district, formed near to the Narva Gate and the Putilov Works Petersburg ‘s industrial giant. The first attempts at reconstructing Narvskaya Zastava were undertaken in the early 1920s. They were primarily connected with the construction of new residential areas. The social revolution, not only in Petrograd-Leningrad, began with a revolution in housing. This was connected to the first steps of nascent Soviet architecture, which afforded a great deal of attention to the building of comfortable housing for workers. In Leningrad , real construction-work only began in 1925, once the period of economic ruin after the Revolution and the Civil War had abated. It was at this time that the city administration began to liquidate slums and began to construct the first experimental residential areas. The fact that the reconstruction of the urban outskirts began here was no coincidence. The young Soviet regime was displaying its concern for the workers of the region, which was famous for its stormy, revolutionary past.
In 1925-1927, the first model residential area with cheap, standardized, compact housing for workers was built on Traktornaya Street . Its architects included A.S. Nikolsky, A.I. Gegello, and G.A. Simonov. At the time, Leningrad ‘s new architecture was dominated by constructivism, which established itself as a new aesthetic system with a concrete social program. The creators of constructivism were inspired by art’s life-constructing power. The aim of their activity was to form society, rather than to create a new architectural system. They strove to change the face of the world, transforming everyday life as well as individual consciousness in order to educate the human being of the socialist epoch. In connecting creativity with the goal of organizing the processes of everyday life, the constructivists contributed to the formation of new types of building, developing a comprehensive approach to the projection of new settlements, in which residential buildings were combined with cultural and service facilities Houses of Culture, schools, public baths, and communal kitchens.
The residential area on Traktornaya Street become the core of such a model settlement, intended as a new residential, social and cultural center. Thus, the entire complex of buildings constructed near Narya Gate from the late 1920s to early 1930s was projected to embody the innovative program of life’s total construction. This new life was to take place outside of the home. This is why the apartments of the time were planned with kitchen-elements instead of full-fledged kitchens, and also explains why they were often planned without bathrooms altogether. As A.V. Lunacharsky announced at the time, “It is our goal to eliminate housekeeping altogether”. This meant that ideally, the individual kitchen would be replaced by the communal kitchen; that “Red Proletarian Baths” would replace bathrooms, that children would spend the day in nurseries or kindergartens, and that their parents would go to worker’s clubs in their free time. This program found its ideal implementation in the area around the Narva Gate. The new buildings included the experimental School of the 10-year Anniversary of the October Revolution (A.S. Nikolsky, 1925-1927), the Gorky Palace of Culture (A.I. Gegello and D.L. Krichevsky, 1925-1927), the Gigant public baths (A.S. Nikolsky 1928-1930), the area’s communal kitchen (A.K. Barutchev, I.A. Giler, I.A. Meirzon, Ya.O. Rubanchik, 1929-1931). The studio of A.S. Nikolsky also projected and realized the stadium “Krasny Putilovets (Red Putilov-Worker)” (1928-1929), which did not survive up to the present. The complex was completed by the Kirov City Council (N.A. Trotsky, 1930-1935).
The constructivists attempted to change the world and the human being for the better. However, these utopian attempts to transform architecture into a carrier of social justice did not lead to the desired result. Instead, the dream of a “brighter tomorrow” turned into the forceful imposition of happiness.
During the mid-1930s, constructivism fell victim to ideological ostracism. Architecture returned to the mainstream of neo-classicism, which continuously dominated the next two decades. As a result, Petersburg ‘s constructivist buildings and complexes inhabit a marginal position in both professional and public consciousness until today. Although a significant number of buildings have been placed under government protection as monuments in recent years, the preservation of the architectural legacy of the constructivist epoch makes many people very uneasy. The most pressing problems are connected to low quality of the constructions themselves, which used both the cheap materials and experimental technologies characteristic of the period. Thus, the preservation of many of these unique buildings requires serious scientific research and the development of new restoration-methods, all of which require funding on a massive scale.. Aside from the problems connected to the restoration of these edifices, a further challenge remains: which new function should the buildings from this heroic epoch play today?
The residential areas of constructivism hardly correspond to contemporary ideas of comfort. However, they have one unconditional advantage over housing constructed during the period of the so-called “Stalinist Empire”, for an example: they are inherently democratic. In countries outside of Russia such as Holland, Germany, or France there have been many successful examples of reconstructing such buildings, which appear to enjoy a great deal of popularity among certain social groups. Above all, these consist of young families and people without children. Leading open life-styles, these people are in no financial position to pay for expensive housing. For them, an apartment in one of the houses on Traktornaya Street , for an example, could be very attractive. Of course, the integration of these buildings from the era of constructivism into contemporary life would require extensive governmental social programs, in order to prevent them from becoming slums for low-income populations yet again.