Samara is not the most popular city among tourists in Russia. Primarily, people come here to walk along the four-kilometer-long embankment, swim in the Volga, drink the iconic “Zhigulevskoe” beer, and take thousands of photos of wooden houses and Art Nouveau architecture. But Samara has one unique building — a vertical elevator (grain silo) in the Brutalist style. It had long been abandoned, and now there are plans to demolish it. Our editor Misha Mityukov tells its story.
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Samara — The “Bread Capital”
Samara is a city with a population of over one million, located at the confluence of the Volga and Samara rivers, 1000 kilometers east of Moscow. Currently, the city lacks a clear economic focus, but 100–200 years ago, Samara was the center of grain trade. In the 17th–19th centuries, Samara supplied 10–14% of grain exports for the Russian Empire. The city’s grain exchange was the largest in the Volga region (covering 15 regions along the Volga river) until the 1930s.
Numerous granaries, mills, and elevators were situated along the banks of the two rivers. The State Bank Elevator was the first of three major elevators built in 1916. In the 1930s, a second elevator was completed on the banks of the Volga river, using convict labor. The third, and most conspicuous, was the vertical elevator built in the Brutalist style. It was completed in 1980 and became one of the dominant features of the city.
Currently, only one of the three elevators is in operation (built in 1916), and even that is not running at full capacity. The elevator from the 1930s has been demolished, and the vertical elevator has stood abandoned for 30 years; there are now plans to demolish it and redevelop the site for housing. The grain industry is no longer important for the Samara region. As of 2021, the region produced just 1.5% of Russia’s grain.
The period of modernism in architecture began in the 1900s and continued until the 1960s, and in some countries, even until the late 1980s. Within modernism, many movements came and went over the years, with Brutalism being one of them. Its distinctive features are raw concrete surfaces and massiveness. Brutalism emerged in the period after World War II when cities needed to be rebuilt as quickly as possible. Using reinforced concrete made this easier and eliminated the need to spend time and money on decor.
Soviet Union architecture somewhat lagged behind global trends. In the USSR, buildings in the style of modernism were constructed until the late 1980s, and even in the early 1990s, some projects were still being completed based on old designs. Brutalist buildings in the Soviet Union often combined a futuristic spirit, which is why architecture from this period is sometimes referred to as “cosmic.” This is particularly relevant for Samara, which is home to a major enterprise that produces rocket engines. One of the books about the city’s modernist architecture is even called “Cosmic Kuybyshev.” From 1935 to 1991, Samara was named Kuybyshev.
There are many examples of modernist architecture in Russia. However, neither the authorities nor the residents generally value it and consider it important heritage. Modernism is often seen as something mundane and gray. Yet even with the use of unadorned concrete, architects managed to work with rhythm, texture, forms, and plasticity. Using just one material and color, they built architectural masterpieces. Examples include the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry and the Severnoye Chertanovo district in Moscow, Yarygin Sports Palace in Krasnoyarsk, the Center for Cybernetics in Saint Petersburg, and the Government House and vertical elevator in Samara. Nevertheless, these buildings are being remodeled and demolished without active opposition from the community. The same threat looms for the unique vertical elevator in Samara.
The Vertical Grain Elevator (Two Towers)
On May 21, 1977, the city newspaper “Volzhskaya Kommuna” wrote: “This is ‘not just a grain storage’ but a ‘unique architectural structure,’ which will ‘look good from the side of [Khlebnaya] Square and the [Old] Bridge’ and ‘will embellish the beginning of the future embankment of the Samara River.'”
In the late 1970s, “Promzernoproekt” (Industrial Grain Project) was commissioned to develop an elevator project on the bank of the Samara River. Due to the small size of the site, architect Valentin Smirnov proposed an experimental project. No similar vertical elevators existed in the USSR.
The project was approved in Moscow over the course of three years, but the construction was faster—completed in two years. Each of the towers was built in just 30 days using the slip formwork method. During the design and construction process, 32 patents were registered, from the original idea to the moving formwork. Eight years later, another building was constructed in Samara using the same method—a 20-story residential building called “Rashpil” (or “Corn”).
The vertical elevator consists of two 65-meter cylindrical storage towers and a “noria” (a bucket elevator) between them. The concept of a noria dates back to Ancient Rome. It allowed the grain that came to the upper tier to be evenly distributed between the two storage facilities. The elevator is capped with two concrete crowns, which were added by another architect—Nikolay Degtyarev, who further developed Valentin Smirnov’s project.
Thus, the elevator in Samara is unique in several respects: its original architectural design, being the first vertical-type elevator in the USSR, the use of advanced engineering and construction technologies for which 32 patents were obtained, record construction time, and the first use of the slip formwork method in Samara.
On the Brink: Elevator and the Risk of Losing a Unique Architectural Heritage
After its construction, the elevator operated for less than 20 years and stood in a neglected state, filled with grain. In 2021, the elevator got a new owner, and a residential development project was presented to the city’s urban planning council. The plan proposes two glass buildings on the site of the elevator, mirroring the shape of the original structure. Many architects criticized the “luxury housing” project for the small size of the apartments, their number—288 units (around a thousand residents), and the absence of sunlight exposure and infrastructure.
Before the announcement of the redevelopment project, urban conservationists from the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments (VOOPIK) tried to list the elevator as a cultural heritage site. Such status prohibits alterations and demolition. However, in April 2021, the Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage denied their application. VOOPIK has since taken the matter to court, where it is still pending.
Many Samara architects and activists have proposed alternative uses for the elevator building, such as transforming it into a center for contemporary culture, a museum, or a storage facility for some of Samara’s museums. Journalists are writing articles and producing films, activists are creating merchandise (posters, t-shirts, figurines), and even getting tattoos. Foreign architects have written open letters defending the elevator. However, both the property owner and the city authorities are unwilling to discuss alternatives and generally not engaging in any dialogue.
In recent years, several elevators around the world have been successfully repurposed. Each project has garnered much attention, if not becoming iconic. These former industrial sites, aside from gaining new functionality, have become new landmarks and serve as examples for other cities and countries on how to repurpose unused buildings. Examples include the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, the Grünerløkka student housing in Oslo, the Quaker Square hotel in Akron (Ohio, USA), and The Silo residential complex in Copenhagen. Not just elevators, but many other industrial structures are being revitalized—like the Armani Museum in Milan, which occupies an old bunker, or the “GES-2” House of Culture in Moscow, situated in a former power station. Many of these are much older than the Samara elevator and had also stood neglected for many years, but they were successfully repurposed. However, architect Leonid Kuderov, whose project may possibly replace the elevator, primarily argues that restoring the elevator is impossible due to its structural integrity.
Architects compare Smirnov’s elevator to a bastion, “which is appropriate right here—at the traces of the lost Samara fortress.” Now, it remains one of the symbols of “Bread-bearing Samara,” an important vertical landmark in the old city.
Author: Misha Mityukov