MOSCOW x DETROIT: Transnational Modernity in the Built Environment

Department of the History of Art, The University of Michigan

In conjunction with Amerikanizm: Russian Architecture in Search of a New New World, The Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal


Claire Zimmerman, University of Michigan

Christina E. Crawford, Emory University

Jean-Louis Cohen, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University


Between 1928 and 1932 a group of American architects and engineers, many of them affiliated with Albert Kahn Associates, migrated from Detroit to Moscow to build factory campuses as part of Josef Stalin’s first Five Year Plan (FFYP). They set in motion over 500 construction projects and trained over 300 Soviet designers, technicians, and draftsmen in American methods of design and implementation. During the very years in which architects from Detroit helped build Soviet factories (in notable cases with prefabricated components imported from the US), urban theories on linear city morphology as a fitting mode for industrialization blossomed in the USSR. English-language publications such as USSR in Construction featured compelling images of these monumental achievements, depicting Soviet progress in culture as well as technology. “Soviet Detroit,” as the industrial capital Nizhny-Novgorod would be called, was only one of many America-inspired cities developed during the first Five-Year Plan, which also included “Sibirsky Chicago” (Novosibirsk) and “Soviet Gary” (Magnitogorsk).

By the end of 1932, most of the American experts had returned, both to Detroit and to sites spread across the country. Over the years of their stay, American journalists had celebrated their work on a regular basis. As the US economy recovered from the Great Depression and moved inexorably toward war, a small number of architects and engineers who participated in Soviet industrialization performed comparable tasks back in the United States. Linear urbanism grew up around American metropolises, particularly in the Midwest, in new communities such as Livonia, Michigan, strung alongside massive new factory complexes. The impact of Soviet urbanism on these communities remains to be assessed.

Only recently has the complex of industrial developments that unfolded between Moscow and Detroit begun to receive notice in architectural and urban studies scholarship. Groundbreaking research has focused new attention on the larger ramifications of this massive transfer of knowledge in both directions. Looking further into these developments, the symposium is scheduled to coincide with the opening of an exhibition at The Canadian Centre for Architecture, Building a New New World: Amerikanizm in Russian Architecture, in November 2019 (curator: Jean-Louis Cohen).

Moscow x Detroit: Transnational Modernity in the Built Environment will bring together historians of art, architecture, urbanism, and social history, to consider a critical moment in twentieth-century history, one that ramifies outward from the late 1920s to ripple through the later industrialization of the US and the USSR, affecting culture, global politics, and the built environment for decades after. Its focus will be transnational exchange in both directions (initially toward the USSR, but also back to the USA), infrastructure development, and the impact of built environments (factories, housing, green zones) on cities built to serve industry, but surviving long after its evacuation. Participants, including specialists in both the American and the Soviet situation, will consider specific spatial questions, as well as broader analyses of the hidden effects of the “Second Industrial Revolution” on culture, social organization, and the built environment on two continents.


KEYNOTE: October 11, 2019, 5:00 p.m., University of Michigan Museum of Art Auditorium

“Americanized Bolshevism and its new New Worlds,” Jean-Louis Cohen, New York University

SYMPOSIUM: October 12, 2019, 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m., Rackham Amphitheater, University of Michigan

9:00-11:00 Session I: SURVEYING 
  1. “’Improve the Roads’: Valerian Osinsky, the American Automobile, and the Campaign to Overcome Russian Roadlessness in the 1920s-30s,” Lewis Siegelbaum, Michigan State University
  2. “The Art of the Standard: Andrei Burov discovers America,” Richard Anderson, Edinburgh University
  3. “Foreign Specialists in Soviet Industry in the 1920 and1930s: Forgotten History or Soviet Ideology? The case of Eastern Ukraine,” Oksana Chabanyuk, Kharkiv National University of Civil Engineering and Architecture
  4. “A Monument to the First Five-Year Plan: Moscow’s Palace of Soviets and the Afterlife of Amerikanizm through the 1930s,” Katherine Zubovich, Ryerson University

11:30-1:00 Session II: EMBEDDING
  1. “Rationalization, Typification, Unification: New Strategies in the Planning of the Socialist City’ during the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932,” Evgenia Konysheva, South Urals State University
  2. “Citizen Kahn: Moritz and the Soviet Experience, 1929-39,” Claire Zimmerman, University of Michigan
  3. “African-amerikanizm and Soviet Anti-Racism: Detroit Worker Robert Robinson in the USSR,” Christina Kiaer, Northwestern University

1:00-2:00 Lunch

2:00-4:00 Session III: ADJUSTING
  1. “People Making Things, Things Making People: Americanism in Soviet Genre Cinema, 1927,” Robert Bird, University of Chicago
  2. “’The searchlight of exact and impartial investigation:’ Soviet memoirs of American technical consultants,” Christina E. Crawford, Emory University
  3. “On the Line: Workers in the linear city,” Robert Fishman, University of Michigan
  4. “’To Eradicate the Vestiges’: Ivan Nikolaev and the Reconstruction of Soviet Factories, 1933-1938,” Maria Taylor, University of Washington

4:00-4:30 Break

4:30 Closing discussion 

Howard Brick, University of Michigan

Ron Suny, University of Michigan

5:30 Reception 


SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
for its operating support.
Society of Architectural Historians
1365 N. Astor Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
Copyright - (c) 2019