The idea behind the show is to convey the effects on the architectural imagination of key Soviet ideas

The “Maxim Gorky” aeroplane was the biggest in the world in 1934, with a wing span about the same as a Boeing 747. A flying propaganda machine, it had on board a rotary press capable of printing 10,000 copies an hour, a lab for developing aerial photos, a radio station, library and a cinema screen that could be unfolded on the ground and was big enough for 10,000 people to see clearly. It flew to remote parts of the Soviet Union to bring the message of socialist technical prowess. And in 1935 it crashed during a show over Moscow, killing more than 40 people: a tragedy, but also a potent metaphor for the limitations of Soviet utopianism.

Pictures of the Maxim Gorky adorn the walls of Imagine Moscow at London’s Design Museum, a centenary celebration of the astonishing architectural and design ambitions unleashed by the Russian revolution and an interesting partner to the Royal Academy’s bigger Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932. The sky was the limit when it came to communism’s capital: curator Eszter Steierhoffer makes the point that while architectural depictions of Los Angeles at the time inevitably featured an automobile, to give the buildings scale and place them in the present, for Moscow the default accoutrement was always an aeroplane.

And indeed, many of the collages and renderings here feature aircraft hovering in the sky, as if to imply that this was not just any earthbound city but one whose influence extended much further — perhaps even into the cosmos. A screen shows the magically inventive Aelita (1924), the first Soviet sci-fi movie, in which Russian spacefarers bring about a revolution on Mars.


The idea behind the show is to convey the effects on the architectural imagination of key Soviet ideas. As well as Leonidov’s Lenin Institute, there’s El Lissitzky’s “Cloud Iron”, a system of cantilevered skyscrapers, and an exploration of the idea of the holiday camp as health factory. Another theme is the communal building, an attempt to liberate women from domestic slavery but which also stripped children away from their families. It is represented here by some very strange, twisted and stacked fairytale castles by Nikolai Ladovsky, striking visions for a sinister new society.

Then there is a section on industry (illustrated by Yakov Chernikhov’s brilliant factory fantasias) and the exhibition’s centrepiece, Boris Iofan’s design for the vast Palace of the Soviets, a 500-metre memorial that would have dwarfed everything in the Russian capital and which permeated interwar Soviet culture. The scheme was abandoned in 1941 — the country understandably had other priorities — and the site was occupied first by an outdoor swimming pool and then by reconstruction of the cathedral that had originally stood there until demolished on Stalin’s orders. The Palace is represented here by Iofan’s mesmeric sketches and a full-scale model of Lenin’s finger — the structure would have been crowned by a huge statue of the great revolutionary — which lurks surreally in a dark corner. The exhibition ends with Lenin’s mausoleum, which still stands in Red Square despite the collapse of communism.