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Russia's Historic Hammer-And-Sickle Building Faces Wrecking Ball

A Soviet poster featuring the 'Fabrika Kukhnya' (Kitchen Factory)
A Soviet poster featuring the 'Fabrika Kukhnya' (Kitchen Factory)
SAMARA, Russia -- On Ulitsa Novosadovaya in Samara, one building stands out -- especially when viewed from above. In satellite photos, like those on Google Maps, one can clearly see the bright blue roof of a building in the shape of a hammer and sickle -- the only such building in the world.

The building is Fabrika Kukhnya, or Kitchen Factory, a huge factory canteen dating from the height of Soviet industrialization in the 1930s. And in a scene playing out in cities throughout Russia, it is at the center of a struggle between local developers who want to tear it down and preservationists who value it as a historic example of Soviet Constructivist architecture.

Fabrika Kukhnya was built to serve employees at the Maslennikov military equipment factory across the road. Vitaly Stadnikov, a Moscow-based architect who hails from Samara, says that in its heyday, the Maslennikov Kitchen Factory served more than 9,000 meals per shift.

"The factory was designed to feed the whole workforce for each factory shift,” Stadnikov says. “Because of its unique composition, the canteen was in the sickle, administrative offices were in the handle of the hammer, and the kitchen was in the head of the hammer."

The canteen was part of the Soviet Union's attempt to transform working and family life. The revolution was supposed to sweep away the bourgeois idea of eating at home, to free women from cooking and produce a shared experience in canteens where people could eat together.

The first factory-canteen was built in Ivanovo in 1925 and the idea soon spread to other parts of the country. Initially they were supposed to be for ordinary people in residential areas, but soon became linked to factories.

The Maslennikov Kitchen Factory was the only structure built in the unwieldy shape of the hammer and sickle. But much Soviet architecture took its cue from the emblematic shapes and symbols of the era -- the most famous example being the Red Army Theater in Moscow, in the shape of a star.

The Kitchen Factory around 1944
Stadnikov says the society-building zeal that characterized the early Soviet years led to the creation of buildings like the Fabrika Kukhnya that could never have existed elsewhere.

"It would never have occurred to a Western architect from the rational school to design a building in the shape of a hammer and sickle, and to give such a utilitarian function to such a strange form,” he says. “But in our mentality, a task was set, and the implementation of that strange task was done using professional methods and professional quality."

In keeping with the Soviet ideal of providing healthy stimuli for factory workers, Fabrika Kukhnya also came equipped with a reading room and a gymnasium.

Stadnikov notes that it was also one of the few Soviet buildings to be designed by a female architect, Yekaterina Maksimova.

"For that time -- and in fact, for our time -- it is a huge rarity to have a working woman architect. There are no women you can think of who practiced architecture in the avant-garde epoch," he says.

Threatened Monument

But the building's uniqueness has not protected it from the development craze that has swept through many Russian cities. Fabrika Kukhnya, which briefly served as a shopping center after the canteen closed in the late 1990s, currently stands empty. It has been purchased by Clover, a development group which hopes to tear it down to make way for a massive new construction project.

Preservationists say the plan will destroy a historically valuable and architecturally sound building for no reason other than economic greed.

The fight for the canteen comes against a backdrop of huge development in Samara and other provincial towns, which are also losing many historical buildings. More than a thousand buildings, hundreds of which have historic and architectural importance, have been destroyed in the last five years in Moscow alone.

Approximately 200 of those had special monument status, which is meant to confer protection, but often provides only the flimsiest of defenses when money and developers are involved.

Andrei Gozak, an architect who designed Samara's public library, describes the drive to knock down Fabrika Kukhnya and other local structures as short-sighted maneuvering by what he derisively calls Russia's new capitalist class.

Samara's old buildings, he argues, are part of the city's heritage and could be used as a tourist draw.

"What are these New Russians thinking? They're hurting themselves; they're destroying something that is actually worth something,” Gozak says. “And what they want to do is actually worth nothing -- they just don't know it."

Samara is located some 500 miles southeast of Moscow. But the fight for the Fabrika Kukhnya has attracted the attention of some of the capital city's top preservationists.

Profit Motive

Natalia Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Architecture Institute, is the granddaughter of Aleksei Dushkin, the Soviet architect who designed the Detsky Mir children's department store and the Mayakovsky metro station, considered one of the city's most magnificent examples of pre-World War II Stalinist architecture. She has watched the Samara controversy closely, and claims that city authorities have encouraged developers to go after the city's old buildings.

"To a certain extent, they are focused on the interests of investors, and on the fastest way to make a high profit,” Dushkina says. “We all understand that building a multistory building in the center is the same thing as drilling a well and pumping for oil."

But the wrecking ball has yet to appear. Public support and local media coverage of the issue have put pressure on Clover, which now denies it ever intended to raze the historic building.

Local preservations say they are still worried Fabrika Kukhnya remains at risk. Attempts to put the building on a list of protected local sites have repeatedly failed, and the Samara city administration recently disappointed many by cutting the number of protected sites from 2,000 to just 900.

The drawn-out fight could have its own damaging consequences for Fabrika Kukhnya, which is unoccupied and beginning to suffer from neglect. Ultimately, says Stadnikov, the lack of attention could prove as dangerous as the developers themselves.

"The investors are doing everything they can so that the building can be declared derelict. It is empty, cold, freezing. The ceilings are damaged, and the roof is open in some places,” Stadnikov says. “And of course precipitation will get in, and if it remains like that for another couple of winters, then the building will definitely start to collapse."