Inspired by Soviet buildings and books: behind the scenes of Readymag’s new architectural editorial

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Symbols of the Thaw: the Architecture of Soviet Leisure is our new digital editorial, made in partnership with Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. It tells the stories of three polarizing modernist buildings in Moscow — their architecture elicits strong emotions, from admiration to complete rejection or incomprehension.

The editorial is aimed to lure new audiences to the book Moscow: A Guide to Soviet Modernist Architecture. 1955–1991 made by Garage and coincides with the release of the guide in English. In our project, we took three book chapters and turned them into digital longreads. In this text, we tell how this work came to be.

Unfriendly lettering

Structurally, the project presents an intro page with a navigation menu, plus three longreads—about the Central House of Artists, Paleontological Museum, and the former cafe Seasons of the Year that now houses Garage Museum. The starting page opens with the name of the editorial. The lettering is massive, angular and brutal — this is a reference to the shapes and forms of Soviet modernist buildings, usually made of monolithic concrete blocks. “I wanted to make the letters a bit imposing, so that viewers could feel their size and solidity,” explains Vasily Podryadchikov, the designer who carried out the project. Each letter is based on simple geometric forms — rectangles, circles, and triangles.

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The first part of the project reveals only some of the lettering — it’s cropped deliberately, with the intention to create a feeling of something really big lurking below, luring viewers into scrolling down. Our first on-scroll animation begins here: blue bars appear over the words, then stretch and cover them before revealing the rest of the name.

That’s a visual metaphor for the Khrushchev Thaw — an unofficial name for the period in Soviet history after the death of dictator Joseph Stalin (from 1953 to 1964). This period saw the rule of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, to which some positive changes can be traced: repression eased, some of those imprisoned by Stalin were released, and glimpses of political and cultural life returned. In terms of architecture, the change was represented with a stylistic shift from Stalinist Neoclassicism to avant-garde modernism. All museums described in the editorial were built during this period.

City fonts with urban forms

The description of the project comes into view as you scroll down. “Intilally, I wanted to use Airport — a font that to me is very ‘urban’ and ‘architectural’, but later I preferred its twin from Readymag’s font collection, Stratos.

Stratos is very close to the Soviet epoch. I thoroughly explored many Soviet books — as a rule, they use geometric grotesques. Stratos is the perfect modern reminiscence of that spirit. I use it as the main text font and also for image captions,” Vasiliy says.

The second font is Marlene (a typical Thaw name that combines the names of Marx and Lenin). “That antique that now feels a bit superfluous to me, but I still like the nice contrast it creates with Stratos”, Vasiliy adds. Soviet book designers also loved combinations of antiques and grotesques.

Bookish grids and illuminated letters

After the project description you see a navigation menu that guides you through each chapter: three vertical rectangular cards set in line, each with a pictogram of the buildings they refer to.

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If you hover the cursor over any of the cards, it changes color, in this way hinting that it’s not a mere image — click and you’ll be taken to that chapter. Throughout the project I use only three colors — red, yellow, and Garage Green (the brand color of Garage Museum). All of the shades are a bit bleached — similar colors could be found in Soviet and Swiss posters.

“Besides architecture, Soviet book design of the 1950–60s was my greatest inspiration. Before starting, I thoroughly explored several books published at the time, scanning pages and putting them in Photoshop to establish what grid they used. It turned out that they were most frequently using a 14-column grid, so I made the same,” Vasiliy explains.

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Chapters begin with illuminated numbers and letters — decorative elements that bear roots in medieval book design. In the editorial, the approximate ratio between white space and content (photographs, texts, headlines, and colored backgrounds) is 9:5. I love this balanced proportion — it makes the project look clear and uncluttered.

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