Soviet architects of the 1930s created monumental structures and large scale projects, but it's their dachas near Moscow that most accurately reflect their personal tastes
This article originally appeared at AD Magazine. Translated by Svetlana Kyrzhaly and Rhod Mackenzie
Vladimir Semyonov was the founder of a great architectural dynasty and the brains behind the master plan for the reconstruction of Moscow in 1935. That same year, Semyonov began to build a dacha in the village of NIL (Russian abbreviation for "Science. Art. Literature"), which he founded along with other prominent architects on the banks of the river Istra.
His homestead with half-round verandah (porch) and pillars, was being build for 30 years, using wood, which was used for building ships - tall, straight and strong. Semyonov used to paint full-scale windows, stained-glass windows on large sheets of paper, then pinned them on the front of the house, trying to figure out if it would work out well. The railings and banisters were made on a lathe - first at scale, then in full size.
The main room has a large fireplace. There, the Semyonov family would gather and listen to entertaining stories at dusk, such as Semyonov’s African adventure, taking part in the Boer War in 1901. On July 28th, St. Vladimir Day, guests would lounge on the terrace, seated at a large oak table and treated to vareniki with cherries.
In 1960, Semyonov’s granddaughter married actor Alexander Shirvindt. His friends - Andrei Mironov, Mark Zakharov and Michael Kozak began to frequent the dacha. Once, Mironov and Shirvindt caused a ruckus riding around the village on motorbikes. Vacationers, irate with the noise, rushed out of their houses but relented when they saw the famous artists were the ones causing the trouble...
Today, Semyonov’s great-grandchildren are growing up in the house. The garth, which used to be spick and span and was called a recreation park for that, is still well kept - flowers are still grown on the borders of the lawns. People gather on the terrace or sit next to the fireplace in the evenings. And they still regret that the porch with columns was never built.
Georgy Goltz was creator of the Large Ustinsky bridge, the famous gateway on the Yauza river and a brilliant theater artist. Friends called him "a glass of champagne" for his wit and energy. He began to build his own dacha in the village of NIL in 1937. He obtained one of the last plots on the river, with a view of the monastery in New Jerusalem and two elm trees - a landscape in the spirit of Camille Corot.
The blueprints of the cottage have not survived. Only several sketches and drawings of the construction process. In the summer of 1938, Goltz, his wife Galina and their daughter Nika moved into the unfinished dacha’s first floor.
Goltz built the house of wood, a material he loved. An old brick house was bought in a nearby village and material used to build the six pillars of the foundations and an oven. Oak poles were placed under the terrace with floor boards made from fir trees growing on the site and a roof covered with shingles.
He spent much time there, drawing and tending to his flower garden, bartering seedlings from his neighbors in return for construction advice. He wore overalls of his own design with sewn pockets and fasteners. Galina’s sister and her children also lived at the dacha with Goltz. They enjoyed dining on the south balcony together and spent evenings by the living room fireplace, taking turns telling stories and playing charades.
In 1942, the Goltz’s were evacuated and NIL was occupied by the Germans. A shell struck the cottage with shrapnel remaining stuck in the walls for a long time. The house was later partially destroyed and left untouched for three years. Goltz wanted to reconstruct the dacha, but passed away in 1946 and the family limited itself to repair works. Today, the daughter of the architect, artist Nika Goltz, lives in the dacha.
Grigory Senatov was not the most famous of architects as he mainly built hospital buildings in Moscow. He was born in 1885 and studied at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture as a student of Valentin Serov. He was familiar with Mayakovsky, but didn’t approve of him and considered him a hooligan. He preferred architecture to painting as it provided him a more reliable means of income.
In 1938, Senatov joined the Cooperative of Soviet Architects. He chose a steeply sloped site at Lugovaya station and turned it into a park with terraces, lawns, flowers and fruit trees. His dacha, a cube covered with a dome and four porches was assembled from parts of neighboring condemned buildings and a foundation made of oak logs.
The space under the dome was set up as a workshop. His family lived downstairs and often complained that the house as one large room, was not comfortable to live in and difficult to heat. The house’s symmetry was altered when he built on an addition but that wasn’t done until after the war.
The family moved out to their dacha in April, taking their possessions and a housekeeper, making - 180 pounds jam, enough for the whole year. Taking stove to the garden for that and cleansing of brass washbowl became a kind of a ritual. Reluctantly returning to Moscow in November, they dreamt of installing heating in the cottage so as to be able to live in it year round. These days, they don’t make jam at Senatov’s dacha and the wild festivities have also passed. But the house, which turns 76 this year, remains intact.
Viktor Vesnin was one of three brothers, all legendary architects. A leader and ideologue of Soviet avant-garde style and architect of the Dnieper hydroelectric power station. In contrast to his professional masterpieces made of glass and concrete, for his dacha he chose to build a traditional log cabin with a glass veranda. Built in 1935, the dacha is located within the cottage cooperative village of NIL, established at the initiative of the cooperative’s first chairman, Vesnin himself.
All the furniture and paintings in the cottage originated from the 18th and 19th century. By contrast, Vesnin was not fond of gardens and merely made an attempt to reinforce a steep slope on the property with retaining walls.
Vesnin wore velvet shirts, sported a flamboyant hair style and beard, painted still portraits and liked to lay out foraged mushrooms to dry on his garden table. Concerts and poetry readings were common at the dacha – Vesnin’s wife Natalia could also sing well. Vladimir Semyonov was their neighbor, their plots separated only by a small ravine.
In 1950 Victor Vesnin died and his wife sold the dacha to the family of Michael Wrangel, a fellow student of Vesnin’s at the Institute of Civil Engineers and senior architects of Sevastopol. To this day though, the old house is still called "Vesnin’s dacha".
Vyacheslav Vladimirov was a beloved disciple of the great Zholtovsky and one of the most prominent architects of the 1930s. In 1942, he was killed in the Great Patriotic War at the age of 42. The ‘Istra dacha’ in the village of NIL is one of the few surviving buildings by Vladimirov.
Designed in 1935 by him and his wife Tamara. He began its construction but was then commissioned for the design of a major resort complex at the foot of Mount Elbrus and the dacha remained unfinished.
Vladimirov was often the ringleader when in the company of a jovial band of architects, filmmakers, frequenting jazz concerts, dances at the Metropolis and the tennis courts in Gagra. But he escaped to the cottage at every opportunity. He was there the day before leaving for the front, going to the recruiting office on the first available train.
From its inception, the dacha was planned as a very modest building when contrasted with the vibrant urban life the architect pursued, travelling there by train from Moscow, which ran only four times a day covering the rest of the way by foot. Since then, little has changed: the village of NIL is still a modest and quiet place, almost untouched by the "Modern Russian" construction all around.