Alexander Vesnin was a Soviet architect, theater artist and painter. One of the Vesnin brothers, who introduced and formulated main principles of Constructivism style.
Alexander Vesnin was born on May 28, 1883, in the town of Yurevets at the confluence of the Unzha and the Volga Rivers. He was the youngest of three brothers – Victor and Leonid – in the family of a distillery’s owner. The boy’s parents inculcated in their children taste for art. So, in 1901 Alexander and Victor enrolled the Saint-Petersburg University of Architecture and Civil Engineering. In 1904, at the fourth year of studying, the brothers interrupted their education to get practical experience: they began working as architect’s assistants, participated in architectural competitions and trained in private art studios.
Some of the objects Alexander Vesnin worked over before graduating as an assistant, were realized in Moscow, like six-storey Kuznetsov’s apartment block (1910) and Main Post-office (1911). Facades of those buildings were done in typical for that epoch eclectic approach: the first one bears features of neoclassicism, in the second one Romanesque and Byzantine traits were combined.
Alexander was gradually carried away with painting and drawing. After getting his qualification in 1912, he was hesitating about the sphere of art dedicate himself to. Some canvases and drawing by Vesnin, dated back to 1913, were preserved till nowadays. His painted nudes are very laconic in color, with shapes emphasized with chiaroscuro and clear contour. Many of the drawings were traditional by their manner, however, some of them reveal cubistic influence with its the precise interest in analyzing forms.
1913 – 1916th were the period of Vesnin’s active cooperation with his brothers in the architectural field. At that period, “neoclassical” and “neorussian” styles predominated in their buildings.
In winter of 1913 – 1914 Alexander and Victor left for Italy, where visited museums and famous historical monuments. Andrea Palladio’s heritage, which was an orienteer for Classicism and Neoclassicism, largely impressed Vesnin, helping to understand the epoch deeper and overcome academic “aridity” of order compositions.
This could be observed in the first independent and most significant pre-revolutional creation of Vesnin borthers – the mansion of Sirotkin in Nizhniy Novgorod (1913 – 1916) in traditions of Russian Classicism with Palladian features. There Alexander played the role not only of the architect, but of the painter, as well, ‑ he was the author of the murals on the vaulted ceiling in the dining room. Vesnin was obviously inspired with Renaissance compositions, yet, the impact of modernistic movements (particularly, of Paul Cezanne) are present in them.
The aspect of the great importance not only for the further development of Vesnin brother’s creative group, but for architecture of Constructivism in general was Alexander’s activity beyond architecture. For five years (1917 – 1922) he paused his participation in architectural projects, paying more attention to painting and theater art.
Vesnin wanted to escape from architecture to painting, believing the latter to be his main calling. Curiously, his early stage of formation as an artist was connected with the movement that had a clear tendency towards working with three-dimensional world and influenced on emergence of new means of expression in building art and design. It was Cubism, but not exclusively – in his painting and graphical pieces the master tried to embrace as more aesthetical innovations of the “left art” as he could.
In 1917 Alexander executed a series of “color compositions”, where square figures of different sizes and colors (graded red, white, black etc.) were floating in emptiness of complicated greyish tint. All in all, his searches in painting and graphic arts were reflected in Vesnin’s decorations to public festivals and theater plays.
In 1920s the artist was a professor in VKHUTEMAS and held a studio, where the “Color” course was elaborated. Since the April 1921, he was the participant of the INHUK (acronym from Russian “Institute of Art Culture”). The same year participated in the “5 x 5 = 25” exhibition with series “Building of a color space basing on the lines of force”. He was the author of the exhibition catalogue’s cover.
1917 – 1922 was the high point in Alexander’s career as a theater artist. Initially he worked in the Minor Theater, where tried to apply cubistic methods for the stage settings, but his ideas weren’t comprehended, so in 1920 Vesnin came to the Chamber Theater, where the creative group was spiritually consonant with him. Alexander Tairov, the director of the theater, strived for maximum innovation of the scenic space in his plays and wanted to return from the picturesque decoration to the marquette, which allowed vertical composing of mise-en-scenes.
In the Chamber Theater Vesnin designed settings and costumes to such plays as “The Annunciation”, “Phaedra” (by Jean Racine), “The man who was Thursday”. They reveal the master’s deep knowledge of classical architecture, which was mixed with cubistic approach and first signs of constructivist perception of forms. For instance, in “The man who was Thursday” Alexander Vesnin used a special architectonically interpreted constructive installation, with lift-towers, – a sort of the image of the contemporary city. “The man who was Thursday” was an important transitional point of Constructivism from the theater to architecture.
In 1922 – 1923 Vesnin brothers presented their famous project of the Palace of Labor. Even though it didn’t win the contest, it was an important landmark in the history of the style: being fully Constructivist by the design, it marked the flourishing of avant-garde in architecture.
In 1924 Alexander’s project of the advertising office for “Leningradskaya Pravda” newspaper captivated the public. Only a small area of 36 square meters was admeasured for the building, nevertheless the architects managed to place there a six-floor construction with a news stall, entrance hall, reading hall and editorial offices. One of the building’s defining features – synthesis of architecture and technical elements of urban accomplishment – became crucial for the whole early constructivism.
Another project of the same year received the first place in competition was a project for the Moscow headquarters of the British-Soviet trading company “Arcos”. The structure was situated on the corner, included six floors, underground garages, restaurant with a two-story buildup on the flat roof. The composition was laconic, with the accent on the skeleton of reinforced concrete and big glass surfaces. The design was immediately imitated among other Moscow architects, influencing the stylisitic of many buildings of that time.
Alexander Vesnin headed the OSA group (“Organization of Contemporary Architects”), which was the creative association of constructivists, established in the end of 1925. Victor Vesnin and Moisei Ginzburg were his substitutes. Along with that the master edited “Contemporary architecture” magazine.
Constructivism developed, attracting more and more adherents. Vesnin brothers felt they were responsible for its further evolution, desiring to avoid its turning into a stiff set of rules, hence they changed and elaborated their compositional principles. General view of the pieces, projected in the end of 1920s, became more laconic; usage of reinforced concrete became more skillful, so the constructions were dynamic and better blended with urban environment.
Special attention was paid to the rational organization of the buildings’ functionality. That’s why Vesnin referred more often to the pavilion type of structure, when several separate elements were composed into a whole building, complicated by form, but logic and comfortable in utilization. Principles of the pavilion structure were applied in some designs of 1928 – 1932, like in the workers’ club in Baku and suburb settlements for oilmen.
In 1930s the neoclassical tendencies predominated in the soviet architecture. Leaders of constructivism, including Vesnin brothers, participated in the discussion about classical heritage and its role in contemporary building art: they didn’t deny the importance of the architectural discoveries of the proceeding epoch, but insisted that it was only principles of form modeling, not the forms themselves, that should be absorbed from them.
Because of the changed vector Vesnini brothers weren’t as demanded, as they had been before. Since 1933 they headed one of the project studios of the Moscow Soviet of People’s Deputies. Alexander’s last public design, for the government building in Zaryadye, is dated 1940. After the World War I he gave up practicing.
Alexander Vesnin died on November 7, 1959 in Moscow.