The brutal, futuristic building style seemingly plucked out of the Star Wars franchise is not a rarity within the post–Soviet Union. Miles away in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev—rearing its head out of an otherwise normal section of the Institute of Scientific and Technological Research and Development—is a smooth saucer, or a sore thumb touchdown by a shoddy Galactic Senate. Even in the southern Caucasus country of Georgia—a region filled with romantic, sweeping Middle Eastern–influenced architecture, is the Bank of Georgia in Tbilisi, an 18-story stack of jutting rectangles that possesses a sort of violent looming comparable to the fictional 40-plus-foot-tall combative AT-AT walkers—another character from The Empire Strikes Back.
The celestial style of architecture is virtually everywhere in the former Soviet Union—a long-lasting vestige of the Space Race that spanned from the 1950s to the early 1970s. It’s been documented before, perhaps best in the Frédéric Chaubin–lensed book, Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, which captures 90 sites. But that otherworldly architecture is more than just a trend: Space, or rather, what the Russians refer to as “cosmos,” is something that had been ingrained within the Soviet culture well before the construction of the first rocket ship or satellite. “Dreaming cosmos is deeply rooted in the society’s mentality,” says Columbia professor specializing in Soviet architecture Xenia Vytuleva. “It has a different edge, so to say. It is also about intimate relationship.”
That intimate relationship between human and cosmos permeated every sphere of Russian life, from poetry and art to film—and, eventually, architecture. In 1924, there was the Soviet silent film Aelita: Queen of Mars directed by Yakov Protazanov, a black-and-white tale of telescopic love, political uprisings, and space travel. Some of the Mars-based scenes take place in a sterile Orpheum setting filled with curved, metal structures—like an Art Deco abstract interior of the Death Star. Four years later, in 1928, the Russian architect Georgii Krutikov sketched a “flying city,” a floating group of stacked saucers—a sci-fi solution to overcrowding and, possibly, another crude Cloud City. […]