Unbuilt historical architecture is preserved by museums and archives, circulated in a variety of media, and studied by a range of design fields, both academic and practical.Its enduring appeal arises from its dual existence as a document of historical actuality and a reservoir of unrealized potential. This duality took on special importance during the first decade of the Soviet Union’s existence. After a protracted civil war between the Bolsheviks and the allied forces of the WhiteArmy, building activity had come to a standstill. At the same time, the onset of political stability after 1918 allowed the restructuring of former Imperial arts institutions to serve the needs of a new socialist society. The leading role played by the avant-garde in newly reformed institutes like Moscow’sHigher Artistic State and Technical Studios, Vkhutemas, gave rise to a design ethos that combined utopian formalism and political radicalism. The abundantly produced paper architecture of this brief optimistic period has served as an inspiration for subsequent generations of architects, whose efforts enter a symbiotic relationship with the work of historians. These practical and historical currents often draw from the same fund of archival material, yet their aims are distinct. For historians, knowledge of the past is an end in itself; for designers that knowledge can be brought to bear on present-day possibilities.
To overcome this disciplinary separation, we undertook a collaborative approach to historical research, which applied current design research methods to a set of historical drawings. The object of our study is a building that the Russian-Jewish architect El Lissitzky developed sometime in the mid-1920s as a companion to the horizontal skyscraper he completed in collaboration with the Swiss statics’ expert Emil Roth, which he called der Wolkenbügel. Following the architect’s own abbreviation, we shall call these projects WB1 and WB2. In 1926, Lissitzky proposed his WB1 design as a series of eight towers located at the intersection of Moscow’s boulevard ring and its major arterials, which would also connect to a projected underground rail system. This widely circulated proposal has long been an object of interest among both architects and historians. Not only is its legacy well documented, Roth’s construction drawings have been used more than once to fabricate contemporary exhibition models of the building’s steel frame. Lissitzky’s three studies for a second Wolkenbügel project, two of which came to light only recently, have yet to receive a similar critical attention (figs. 1-3). Our investigation not only results in a new understanding of this extraordinary design, it also permits a methodological reflection on the kinds of knowledge that contemporary design tools can generate from similar documents of unbuilt historical architecture.