St Petersburg

Feeding the 5000

The ‘factory kitchen’ was a new type of building devised in the second half of the 1920s as part of a system intended to accommodate the lifestyle of a new species of man, homo Sovieticus. This way of living was to be based on de-individualization, collectivization, rationalization, mechanization, and industrialization.

Construcivist poster, 1926
Liberated woman, build socialism! (1926)
People were to live not as families in individual apartments, but in communes – ‘commune houses’, where the individual spaces were small sleeping units usually without their own kitchens. Alternatively, they might have their sleep manufactured for them on an industrial scale, as in Konstantin Melnikov’s unbuilt Sonata of Sleep (1929-1930), designed to put 600 people at a time into a state of perfectly modulated somnolence. Citizens’ free time was likewise to be centralized in large buildings – ‘palaces’ or ‘houses of culture’ – providing a range of different activities whose breadth would keep the population off the streets and out of the bars. Meanwhile, workers were to be fed en masse by vast industrialized food factories near their place of work (on site at the factory kitchen, by means of thermoses food delivered to their place of work, or through the sale of ready-made meals which they could warm up when they got home).

Leningrad’s four kitchen factories were the result of a design competition held in 1928 and won by a team led by Armen Barutchev. They are positioned at a distance from the old city centre, in areas which, following the Revolution, formed the frontline of the city’s development, i.e. in industrial districts inhabited by the working masses. Built in the Constructivist style, the three surviving buildings share clean lines; simple, geometrical volumes; large expanses of smooth undecorated plaster and glazing; and flat roofs (possibly intended for open-air eating).

The factory kitchen on Vasilievsky Island is a pleasing puzzle of interlocking geometrical shapes. Two horizontal two-storey volumes are interrupted by four vertical projections which reach back to a three-storey central core, forming terraces top of the two-storey bases. The vertical projections, which contain stairwells, are all different. On one a single balcony floats in an unrippling sea of glass. A porthole window and rounded single-storey projection at the west end offset the rectilinearity of the rest of the building. After continuing to provide mass-manufactured food almost to the end of the 1980s, the building has recently been successfully converted to a shopping centre.

The Vyborgskaya factory kitchen stands on the intersection of Bolshoy Sampsonievsky prospekt and Grenadierskaya ulitsa. It has two tower-like structures facing Grenadierskaya. Of these the more important is the corner tower, which, in recognition of its emphatic position, has been given the lion’s share of the building’s architectural features – a vast screen window, semicircular balcony, and an overhanging canopy which literally takes off into flight over the intersection, vying for control of the air with nearby Sampsonievsky Cathedral.

Factory kitchen, Vyborgskaya storona, Leningrad
Between the two towers is a recessed block with two rows of large but relatively inexpressive windows. From the corner tower a long tail with characteristic ribbon windows stretches back along B. Sampsionevsky prospekt; this originally contained dining rooms and shops. The canopy provides shade for an area for outdoors eating. The courtyard has a curious shallow cylinder supported by a smaller cylindrical pillar.

The supermarket and factory kitchen at the Narva Gate is the largest and most impressive of the city’s surviving factory kitchens – an aerodynamically sleek, confidently asymmetrical configuration of glazed and solid surfaces, complex interlocking geometrical forms, horizontal and vertical elements, and straight and curved edges that seems almost to be in motion, gliding smoothly into the future. This was Leningrad’s first supermarket. The kitchen could produce up to 60,000 meals a day. The deck and canopy on the flat roof of the supermarket (the front part of the building), originally a venue for summer eating en plein air, have since been filled in, stripping the structure of some of its sure-handed lightness.

Factory kitchen, prospekt Stachek, Leningrad (St Petersburg)
Constructivist poster, 1932