Urban Bodies
Vol. 7, No. 1, (September  2002)    



___Yekaterina Barabanova
  Earthly Body in a “Castle of Air”




Not only once in the human history the human body was regarded as an image of the sky: both in ancient times, in the Egyptian mythology, and in the Middle Ages, in the cultures of China and Western Europe, an earthly body was treated as a map of constellations and a lap where heavenly bodies move. From very old times, man was believed to be a creature of the cosmos, and at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries this idea had acquired specific value. Representatives of the Russian school of philosophy, followers of the cosmic theory, as they look into the future, see the direction of human body evolution in thinning of the matter. K.E.Tsiolkovsky wrote that human matter, in the process of its adaptation to life in cosmos, “going through the stages of cosmic evolution, will acquire the features of light and radiant energy”.[1] N.Roerich keeps to a similar idea of human evolution: “Gradually, mankind releases itself from crude forms of the matter, getting all the more inspired, it finds specific center points (chakras), through which it penetrates into the multidimensional space of the cosmos, engages in energy exchange with it, turning cosmic.”[2] Not just a natural, but also an artificial body obeys the law of the evolution. An architectural body created by human hands, like a physical body, has several spheres of meaning. On the one hand, it may be represented in the form of a space, filled with a substance or some matter (Slavic “Tel”); on the other, we call a body a space limited with a closed surface (“Telo”); and finally, the notion of a body carries the meaning of bareness, nakedness (“Telesh”).[3]


It is easy to trace changes in an architectural body at all three levels: how the building material evolves (including construction materials , interiors, light), how the surface becomes thinner, how transparent, movable and iridescent it becomes, how acute becomes the understanding of the need for getting back to the essence of architecture, to its prototype. It is in this direction that architecture changes at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries.


A movement of constructivism is born to become an important link in the succession of world architecture development. Stone buildings “without air or light”, isolated and gloomy are left in the past. New architecture is born, … first in the projects of the Vesnin brothers and Ilya Golosov, and later, reaching the summit in the works of Ivan Leonidov.


New construction materials find application. Glass, metal, ferroconcrete are the materials of totally different quality, compared to stone and wood. These are the materials created from liquid substances; solidified liquid (glass and metal) does not fall off with time like stone, nor does it rot like wood, but slowly and gradually flows down under gravity. Solidified liquid takes any form. A building is constructed not from separate pieces (stones, bricks, logs), but from fragments of a preset architectural form. As distinct from molecules of a solid substance, the movement of molecules of liquid is more chaotic, and by learning to put them in order, an architect, while organizing the volume of a building, simultaneously organized the substance, as he smelts from liquid the required part of an architectural body.


All the avant-garde movements in architecture actively use new materials. Popularity of glass constantly grows: it is used to built whole walls and inlay with it isolated glass volumes (for example, the Zouev club in Moscow, architect Golosov); where earlier modernist style admired the plastic opportunities of ferroconcrete, today an eye feasts on transparent walls and architectural structured from metal. Solid substance is used to create not the modernist bionic creatures , but fine crystals able to support the strain of a vast space around them, to structure and harmonize this space.


Architect I. Leonidov goes even further than his contemporaries: he attempts building a wall of gas. In a project of a monument to Columbus in Santo-Domingo submitted to competition, instead of walls, Leonidov puts up a “strong jet of air providing the necessary insulation”.[4] So an even more chaotic  matter gets ordered, and human will reduces entropy of the Universe.


The abundance of glass and fine metallic structures able to stand giant strain fills the architectural body with light. Light is turned to one more construction material actively used by the artist. “Light and air” is the demand of the new time. It is the masses of light and air that the matter of the internal volumes of the building, new interiors are sculptured from air and light. The principle of “flowing” volumes is taken as the basis of making up an interior. “If you want to reach the feeling of freedom and space, you must break open as broadly as you can the volume of the interior,”[5] says Alexander Vesnin. Internal partitions are removed or replaced with glass, stairs are surrounded with ample space, instead of being insulated with the walls of stairwells; the volume expands at the expense of huge glass windows, glass walls and extending glass bay windows. An interior may be saturated with electric light, and with a vertical beam through the glass tower walls cut the night space (the house of Narkomtyazhprom, architect I. Leonidov); through a long banded window, internal volume way absorb the patches of light from the surface of the river (Dneproges, architect Vesnin et al.), or merge with the street through a giant glass wall. Space filling the volume of an architectural body flows freely to external space, the environment. Thus the enclosed internal volume loses its value. The principle of an ensemble gets dominating, when the building subordinates the space of air around it and merges with the environment so much as to include it in its architectural body, being unable to exist without it as an ensemble.


Like capsules, architectural volumes are wrapped in a thin shell of enclosure. Often a body is named by its enclosure. What happens to an architectural enclosure, when it thins out? We already mentioned the principle of an ensemble; at the enclosure level, this principle manifests itself in the following manner. First the enclosure starts to adhere more close to the building frame; the main spaces get clearer outlines, become more expressive; all parts of the body get to be traced more clearly. Gradually, there come forth the more acutely perceptible and important centers organizing the rest of the volume, the whole of the remaining body. Enclosure covers internal space, sticks closely to the volumes.


In the Vesnin brothers’ project of the Theater of mass musical action in Kharkov, a huge shield outlines the space of the auditorium, a separate “fold” of the enclosure fits close to the foyer, with a light canopy it encircles the entrance, thus making easily readable all functional volumes. In the same manner an enclosure covers the association rooms, the entrance-hall, the foyer, the museum block  in the building of the Central House of the Society of former political convicts in Moscow (architect I.Golosov). The next stage is setting off separate functional zones into bodies isolated with closed surfaces; they communicate through special passages (both the project of the Lenin Library in Moscow submitted to competition, architects Vesnin brothers; and the House of the Soviets in Rostov-on-Don, architect I.Golosov). However, the highest achievement of constructivism was the discovery of a specific principle of erecting a building by Ivan Leonidov, when each function was implemented in a separate structure, isolated from others and presenting an active point. Some of those centers, arranged in a harmonious order, are able to keep strained the vast spaces around themselves. The three towers of Narkomtyazhprom of Leonidov look like a beam of light rays condensing the space of the Red Square in themselves, presenting the dominant and the accent of the center of Moscow.


The same principle is used by Leonidov in the project of the Lenin Institute in Moscow on the Leninskiye hills. The glass sphere of the auditorium freely “hovers over the plane”, next to it rises the vertical parallelepiped of the book depository, and one-storey blocks, with smaller auditoriums and studies for research work rest nearby. The compositional solution of the library building utilizes the principle of a “winding-up spiral of a galaxy". With a center and “arms”, the library building presents a giant space with active points at locations of the rooms proper. Thus, the enclosure of an architectural body itself becomes blurred and disappears, the eye is unable to spot it, but there appear the harmoniously arranged crystals of buildings, attracting the tension of the surrounding space. The building becomes an ensemble, a system of commensurate and mutually subordinated structures, resembling in plan showing a solar system with single bodies of planets, living their own life, and simultaneously living the life of the entire unit.


Nuclei straining space emerge and organize the sometimes invisible air masses, the elements, from which before one would seek protection under stone shelters, and which now become part of an architectural body.


Getting thinner, the surface of the forming (Vesnin, Golosov), or the already insulated (Leonidov) centers lives undergoes incredible strain, which makes it mobile, “live”, iridescent. Similar to the varying thickness of a line coming from under the pen of a calligrapher, which creates an unbelievably “live” pattern of a letter, so the incessantly varying thickness of the walls, the play of material textures make movable the architectural body. A surface may move around (cylinders and protruding bay windows), or directly, abruptly, straightforward (angles at joints of ferroconcrete slabs, blind walls cut through with rectangles of windows). It may glitter like metal, or disappear in a glass surface. In the Zouev club, the building surface dips in the apertures of balcony openings, it pulls in space, it attaches itself tenaciously to the environment. Thin lines of metal structures, their open-work patterns make their attachment to the environment even more complicated; they are like multiple recesses, flutes and bulges in the body of a key: only with this complex, accurate and strict set of the finest elements one can penetrate the labyrinth of a keyhole and open the unknown space.


Leonidov employs more additional metal “strings”, antennae, supports and braces. Like a network of communications, hard threads twine around space. The bow-strings of structures tension up, and the whole volume, the whole of the architectural body tightens up and flutters (e.g., the project of the Lenin Institute on the Leninskiye hills, the project of a monument to Columbus in Santo-Domingo submitted to competition, a project of a club of a new social type).


The feeling  of nakedness of an architectural body becomes more acute. Ornaments disappear from façades (architects need neither plasterwork, nor fretwork reliefs and decorations of windows or doors). An architectural body gets free from multiple coats, under which architecture proper is sought for. There gets exposed the gist of architecture – architectonics, i.e., the laws of spatial construction. An architect tries to make these laws visible to viewers. Thus the appearance of a phenomenon of architectural centrism, when environment is organized according to the laws of spatial construction, and not human whim and fantasy. The keen desire of an artist to grasp the essence of architecture makes it turn to a prototype, an archetype, to architecture in its primordial form.


Architecture grow from an altar and a temple. The first living structures remain the building achievements, rather than architectural, for a long time. Fixing of a sacral point (center), the clearly readable  horizontals and verticals impart, in their combination, an amazing property to an architectural body: a building becomes a vessel, within which man addresses the Supreme being in the conditions of a dense earthly substance. Celestial and earthly currents come to a harmony; a person finding himself in such a space undergoes transformation, catching up with the rhythm of development of the Universe, with the rhythm of evolution. A temple fills with sense the active points in the projects of I. Leonidov. The architect resorts to the most ancient compositional devices, establishing the Axis of the World and the Center of the Universe. It is not by chance that parallels are drawn between the St.Basil Church and the House of Narkomtyazhprom. The verticals of Narkomtyazhprom towers are like crystals, i.e., such a highly ordered material that its body is able to specifically refract cosmic rays (for example, decompose a ray of sunlight into a harmonious spectrum). The verticals enabling overflow of fine and coarse energies, open exit beyond the Earth boundaries.


Man’s coming out into the open space in the second half of the 20th century gave an opportunity to find confirmation to a series of insights made by Ivan Leonidov. Under conditions of weightlessness, floor, ceiling and wall planes lose their meaning; volume becomes the dominating characteristic, and the shape of maximum use of space would be not a parallelepiped, but a sphere. The form of a glass sphere hanging in the air on open-work structures was selected by Leonidov for the building of the large auditorium of the Lenin Library on the Leninsky hills. In consideration of the high cost of “earthly substance” brought to cosmos, the architectural volume must be made multifunctional. The main principle of organizing interiors is their maximum transformation in terms of both space, color and light,”[6] concluded Igor Kozlov, who had given twenty years of his life to cosmic architectural design. “In the projects of the House of Centrosoyuz and the House of Industry, while designing spatial organization of a standard house floor, Leonidov works out a practically universal plan. <…> He strives for creating an all-purpose type of a building: one volume-spatial composition for a number of functions. Leonidov saw no need, particularly in office buildings, for detailed arranging of partitions on standard building floor areas and layout of equipment, believing that this should be left to the initiative of those who would come to use this building. He purposefully leaves unfragmented internal spaces of standard flows in office buildings, believing that a universal plan would be most expedient in structures with a huge number of variants of functional processes”.[7] In cosmic space, an architectural body must allow of further growth (e.g., for future expeditions and new tasks), therefore the building compositional system must remain open. Leonidov favors such scheme in construction, e.g., in imitating a “galactic” spiral with several “arms”.


Ivan Leonidov comes to a new understanding of architecture. The project of a Sun City presents an original testimony of Leonidov. Like all his previous works, this architectural body remained paper. The last “castle of air” by Leonidov tells about inevitability of a new attitude in architecture.


Different proportions of a human body make people unlike. Using the measure of parts of a human body, comparing the sizes of his body with various objects of the surrounding world, man uses these ratios as a basis in creating a new protective shell – architecture. This shell fences man from the acts of natural elements and creates a specific environment – space subordinated to man and commensurated with a human body.


When man comes out into the cosmic space, everything changes. Human body is not just an enclosure, but five (and even more) totally different organs of sense. In the cosmic space, all organs of sense work differently. Beyond the Earth boundaries, architecture obeys different laws. Body learns to live anew; earthly thinking gives way to cosmic, and new architecture is born.


- translated by Marina Yakhontova -




[1] Danilenko L.E., Yemelyanov B.V. Ocherki russkogo kosmizma. Ekaterinburg, 2001, p. 30.

[2] Ibidem, p. 84.

[3] Dal V. Tolkovy slovar velikorusskogo yazyka. In 4 volumes. V.4. M., 1980, p. 448.

[4] I.Leonidov. Zapiska k probleme pamyatnika. “Sovremennaya arkhitektura”. 1929, No. 4, p. 148. // Cited from: Aleksandrov P.A., Khan-Magomedov S.O. Arkhitektor Ivan Leonidov. M., 1971.

[5] Mastera sovetskoi arkhitektury ob arkhitekture. Izbrannye otryvki iz pisem, statei, vystuplenii i traktatov. In 2 volumes. V.2. M., 1975. P. 32.

[6] A. Kaftanov. Ot nauki k fantastike. “Proyekt Rossiya”, 2001. No. 1. P. 26.

[7] Aleksandrov P.A., Khan-Magomedov S.O. Arkhitektor Ivan Leonidov. M., 1971. P. 54.