Part retro-futurist, part sci-fi, part Gotham City, part neo-Assyrian, the architectural legacy of the former Soviet Union preserves the memory of a utopian future that was never realised.
Landscapes of Communism is the formidably researched and richly illustrated record of a journey by the architectural and political commentator Owen Hatherley through the former USSR, exploring how the 70-year Soviet experiment in building a new socialist society found expression through architecture.
Hatherley’s earlier books A New Kind of Bleak and A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain took an acerbic look at the influence of 30 years of neoliberalism on the British skyline, finding a market-driven utilitarian landscape of shopping malls, Private Finance Initiative post-modernism and Wimpey housing estates. The Communist Landscape turns to the cityscapes of the old Soviet Bloc for signs of what an architecture free of the cost-benefit constraints of the market might look like.
What sort of cities did the communists build, what sort of buildings did they expect people to live in, what places to work in, what places to meet, what did they do that was different from the capitalist norm, compared with either the age of social democracy or with the neoliberal era of the last thirty years? Was (is) there something in it that suggests ways of building cities outside of capitalism?
Hatherley’s odyssey is perhaps not quite as idiosyncratic as it might have seemed a few years ago, during the triumphalist ‘end-of-history’ period that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The gradual opening up of the more obscure corners of the USSR over the past 25 years has made possible a new genre of coffee table book – a kind of Soviet hauntology – exploring much previously unseen eastern European architecture, including The Lost Vanguard by Richard Pare, Frédéric Chaubin’s CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, and most recently photographer Christopher Herwig’s record of Soviet Bus Stops.
And the shock of the financial crisis, the ongoing imposition of austerity and the seemingly intractable challenge of designing an ecologically sustainable form of capitalism has revived interest in the feasibility of alternative economic models. Mainstream European social democracy might be in disarray, but since the crash the radical left has emerged from its post–1989 depression: there’s been new interest in Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s tendency to crisis ; fashionable intellectuals have sought to revive the ‘c’ word, Alain Badiou, Jodi Dean, Slavoj Žižek and others publishing books openly exploring the ‘idea of communism’; and, on the ground, activists have gradually moved beyond flickering inchoate protest movements – Occupy et al – to form new political coalitions, most notably Syriza and Podemos, that have started to win power. Here in the UK the left’s revival has found expression through elements of the Scottish independence movement and – of course – Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely ascension to the Labour leadership.
His own Marx-ish sympathies notwithstanding Hatherley’s book is characteristically unsentimental, acknowledging from the outset that the Soviet experiment failed, undone by chronic authoritarianism and economic inefficiency. But in the course of its suitably monumental 600-odd pages Landscapes of Communism finds, amidst the ruins, fragments of a strange, compelling architecture signposting a future that once seemed possible.
The Constructivist moment
The most unashamedly utopian Soviet buildings were designed during the first few years after the 1917 Revolution by the avant-garde Constructivist movement, which under Bolshevik patronage suddenly found itself able to start turning its blueprints for a shining new modernist landscape into reality, no longer obstructed by ‘bourgeois’ planning restrictions:
[W]hether it resulted in ‘socialism’ or despotism, [land nationalisation] meant the possibility of a new spaciousness, a completeness, the treatment of any given site as a potentially blank slate, and the possibility that town plans could be completed without the obstruction of any private interests.
The Constructivists’ day in the sun turned out to be brief – just a few bright years during the early 1920s – but they were able leave a few landmark structures that still stand as indications of the technologically advanced socialist dreamworld they imagined. Hatherley visits the imposing Gosprom complex in Kharkiv, a network of interconnected ‘socialist skyscrapers’, and Moscow’s ethereal Shabolovka Radio Tower, whose spiralling steel patterns – evoking ‘stylised radio waves billowing from the bottom upwards into the sky’ – continue to influence contemporary architects, as seen in Sir Norman Foster’s designs for the court of the British Museum and St Mary’s Axe (better known as ‘the Gherkin’).
But the Constructivists’ most enduring legacy turned out to be the sketches and models for the fantastic projects they left unrealised, most famously Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 proposal for a Monument to the Third International, a gloriously implausible 300 metre steel and glass structure designed for the banks of St Petersburg’s River Neva, within whose rotating glass command centre party officials would proselytise world revolution. It is one of the ironies of architectural history that through their influence on contemporary architects like Foster and Zaha Hadid the Constructivists have had more impact on the megastructures of the west’s financial districts than anything in the former Soviet Union.
Soviet Constructivism was choked in its infancy by Stalin, for whom its abstractions were too cold and cerebral: something more visceral was required to inspire the masses through a brutal age of force-marched industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation.
During his long reign the Soviet aesthetic was dictated by the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’, which recast cultural life as an agent of state propaganda. Constructivism’s sleek modernism was replaced by a curious freewheeling post-modernism, in which the architectural styles of Russia’s past – Byzantine, Orthodox, Gothic, neoclassical – were blended in the service of Soviet proselytisation.
The Moscow skyline is perhaps the most dramatic legacy of this deployment of architecture as exhortation, dominated by the looming outlines of the ‘Seven Sisters’, colossal ziggurat-like structures designed under the personal supervision of Stalin, to this extent ‘the Great Architect of Communism’ in a literal sense. Though he and his planners would never have admitted it these vast stepped towers are recognisable descendants of the skyscrapers of early 20th century New York, but whereas the Manhattan skyline is capitalist, each tower competing for attention with its neighbours, Moscow’s is Stalinist, the precise placement of a set of such large buildings of similar design only possible under an absolute autocracy. Hatherley describes the intimidating effect:
The city centre is literally encircled by six advancing skyscrapers, each with a towering, scraping spire, all of which bear down on you, paranoid and threatening, like an Inquisition; try to escape, and another is waiting for you, wings outstretched, at the Lenin Hills.
Close up another difference becomes clear. New York’s skyscrapers have stark, simple designs, their sheer, bare surfaces blunt expressions of the financial power of their respective private owners. But Stalin’s towers are elaborate, ornamented with mosaics, inscriptions, symbols and carvings. They are layered with the wreaths, hammer-and-sickles and outlines of heroic workers characteristic of Socialist Realist propaganda, but also references to the architectural styles of the past – cupolas, domes, pilasters and arches – now proclaimed as having found their final and proper expression under communism. While Constructivism aspired to a pure geometrical architecture free of the residue of pre-Revolutionary history, Socialist Realism sought to gather the past into a new synthesis, looking back to myth more than any vision of the future. Hatherley quotes the Soviet architectural historian Vladimir Paperny:
Moscow State University has nothing in common with professional architecture; it should instead be examined together with the Illiad, the Mahabharata, the Finnish Kalevala, or Beowulf – or at least together with the building folklore of India, Egypt, or Babylon.
The sheer size of these and other Socialist Realist structures – the University was the tallest building in Europe till as late as 1990 – has something to do with a certain Promethean strand within Marxism, the supposed capacity of humankind ‘set free’ from capitalism to ‘storm heaven’, but more to do with Stalin’s predilection, like that of so many autocrats, for grand architectural projects: many of the monumental buildings of his era recall the legendary structures of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. This was the period that saw the construction of the grand boulevards that run through the centres of so many Soviet cities, typically used for military parades designed to showcase the might of the state:
Socialist Realist architecture is full of grand archways, passageways, triumphal routes – aimed at instilling the feeling that you are always about to arrive at something.
Modernism only re-emerged as permissible architectural style after Stalin’s death. There was to be no resumption of the utopian Constructivist project, but rather the adoption of a utilitarian modernism as a pragmatic response to the urgent challenge of accommodating huge migration to cities caused by rapid industrialisation. Its most visible legacy is the grey, monochromatic Soviet urban landscape of the popular imagination: the sprawling social housing estates that encircle so many eastern European and Russian cities, great seas of pre-fabricated concrete so vast that they are known locally as the ‘microrayans’, the ‘small regions’, not just suburbs.
Their appearance might be forbidding but the microrayans were among the USSR’s most humane projects, providing sanitary, functional homes for millions of workers who had previously had to survive, a family to a single room, in crumbling inner city communal apartments. This was the Soviet equivalent of the western European post-war housing programmes, but on a yet greater scale, with all the pragmatic benefits and aesthetic weaknesses of those projects magnified: the repeated use of a limited range of pre-fabricated building blocks, poor build quality, and a certain ideological zeal for standardisation.
Despite their immense size the microrayans were actually even more precisely planned than their western equivalents, built all at once, to a single design, conforming to a pure uniformity possible only under an authoritarian state. Here, Le Corbusier’s maxim that ‘a house is a machine for living’ is taken to fanatic extremes by planners with a state-sanctioned freedom to design urban environments idealising absolute order, regularity and consistency. Hatherley quotes an anonymous architect proudly describing the carefully designed aesthetic experience of driving through the Lazdynai estate, on the outskirts of Vilnius:
Every bend in the street has been thought out. If you go along Architectas Street by car, new vistas and compositions continually open out before you, flashing by at kaleidoscopic speed like sequences of a film. Skilled town-builders of yore perfectly mastered the art of creating this visual effect and their traditions are now being continued by the architects of today.
This fetish for consistency invests the microrayans with a certain sublimity, but the sheer unrelenting monotony is ultimately dispiriting. Hatherley finds an apt quote by the dissident Czech playwright and future President Vaclav Havel:
It would be to the greatest advantage of a centrally directed system of production, if only one type of prefabricated panel were constructed, from which one type of apartment building would be constructed; these buildings in turn would be fitted with a single kind of door, door handle, window, toilet, washbasin and so on, and together this would create a single type of housing development constructed according to one standardised urban development plan, with minor adjustments for landscape, given the regrettable irregularity of the Earth’s surface.
If the overbearing monuments of Socialist Realism and the monomania of the microrayans testify to the chronic authoritarianism into which the USSR declined soon after the Revolution Hatherley also finds, amidst the wreckage, signs of a more open, adventurous and even democratic architecture.
One of the many contradictions of the Soviet experiment was that the motivating ideal of a radically decentralised workers’ state in which power is devolved to networks of self-governing workplaces – Marx’s ‘free associations of producers’ – was almost completely inverted, the post-revolutionary ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ hardening into dictatorship, pure and simple.
But something like it was tried in one of the USSR’s neighbours, the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in which economic production was organised through a kind of market socialism that exemplified elements of what we would today call radical participative democracy. Responsibility for managing centres of production – factories, agricultural collectives, offices – was vested in worker councils, each council responsible not only for managing and planning their respective products and services but also their workforce’s social welfare, a duty encompassing not just the payment of wages and the maintenance of working conditions, but also worker health, education and housing.
In one of the book’s most fascinating chapters Hatherley visits New Belgrade, an industrialised anarchist city, built and managed by a network of worker councils, that existed in reality, not just in the pages of a book of political theory. He finds a disparate urban space whose architecture manifests the principles of radical decentralisation according to which it was organised, clusters of factories, offices, tower blocks and social housing – each managed by a different council – forming distinct skylines
The unique architecture generated by the city’s political system is taken to a logical extreme by the Genex Tower, a ‘self-managed skyscraper’ mixing ‘Brutalist grandeur and space-age kitsch’ – a kind of alien cousin to London’s Trellick Tower – that meets the challenge of integrating work and welfare in the most direct fashion possible: the building consists of two towers, linked by a skywalk, one providing flats for workers, the other office and factory space.
For Hatherley New Belgrade illustrates both the promise and problems inherent in this kind of self-managed socialism. There is an abundance of innovative architecture, reflecting the freedom each council had to design its own workplace and housing districts. But while each of these is carefully planned, New Belgrade feels less like a shared public space than a loose network of urban islands segmented by roads and flyovers. And the radical devolution of responsibility for social welfare to the councils meant that many people not in employment fell through the gaps in the system. Cut off from the support of the councils, the primary sources of social welfare, they were forced to subsist in makeshift shanty towns, eastern European ‘favelas’ that grew up in the spaces between each district.
The architectural legacy of New Belgrade illustrates, perhaps, that even under a libertarian socialism that approaches Marx’s ideal the state can only ‘wither away’ so much.
Hatherley finds further signs of the more innovative, even playful architecture that might have developed under a more open socialism in the buildings designed to provide suitable communal spaces for the new ‘classless’ society’s leisure hours.
Soon after the Revolution a new, distinctively Soviet kind of building was conceived to replace the ‘bourgeois’ theatres, churches and clubs of the old regime, whose segregated spaces reflected its rigid social hierarchies. These ‘social condensers’ included hundreds of workers clubs, so-called ‘houses of the people’ designed to encourage the integration of citizens from every background, provided spaces for socialising, education, film and theatre. Their utopian function as facilitators of a post-revolutionary ‘socialist consciousness’ inspired some of the boldest, most unclassifiable Soviet architecture, perhaps most famously Konstantin Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers’ Club, a proto-Brutalist structure from 1925 that still seems an outpost of some architecture of the future.
The same era also saw the emergence of the ‘factory kitchens’, collective dining facilities located close to workplaces inspired by the Bolsheviks’ (fleeting) feminist aspirations. The kitchens were designed to help relieve women of their traditional burden of preparing meals for large families, giving them more time to participate in the new society. The buildings that once functioned as factory kitchens have long since disappeared or been repurposed – Hatherley visits one that now houses a McDonalds – but something of their essence survives in the so-called ‘milk bars’ still found in Polish cities: no-nonsense, functional eating places that offer cheap, healthy food dispensed in factory canteen style, suffused with an earnest, egalitarian ambience that communicates something of the old communist ideal.
Hatherley finds similar resonances in the holiday resorts built to provide affordable vacations for the ordinary worker. He visits Albena, on the shores of the Black Sea in Bulgaria, a kind of Leninist Benidorm carefully designed to avoid the stark gradations of accommodation characteristic of western resorts. An ‘experimental project of the Bulgarian Research Institute on Standardisation and Industrialisation in Architecture’ Albena’s open public spaces allow holidaymakers to wander freely from the grounds of one hotel to another; the gardens and swimming pools are interconnected; and every hotel room is the same size, the buildings carefully angled to afford each balcony the same daily access to the sunlight. Here is a design, Hatherley ventures, that realises something of Le Corbusier’s concept of the egalitarian ‘Radiant City’.
Beyond these fragments however Hatherley argues that the Soviet Union did leave one unequivocal architectural masterpiece that would only have been possible under some kind of socialist system: the extensive, sophisticated and aesthetically overwhelming underground transit systems that serve most of the major cities of Russia and eastern Europe.
The networks were built out of sheer economic necessity. As industrialisation gathered pace in the 1930s some kind of modern transport infrastructure was needed to get the millions of workers who had migrated to the cities to their factories, but because the Soviet economy couldn’t support a western-style car-based transport system the only possibility was a comprehensive tram and underground system. Whether a matter of choice or not the development of the Metro network now appears far-sighted in light of contemporary concerns about environmental sustainability: western cities now find themselves scrambling to catch up as they make the expensive transition from car dependent infrastructures to public transport systems.
But the Soviet Metro is remarkable not just for its size and usefulness, but the sheer gratuitous extravagance of its construction, which transcends all utilitarian considerations. In the course of a long, lyrical chapter, Hatherley surveys dozens of outrageously opulent Metro stations, palatial spaces built of marble and majolica, decorated with stained glass murals, illuminated by chandeliers:
At Komsomolskaya Koltsevaya … there are gold chandeliers and gold mosaics; in Novoslobodskaya there are niches with stained glass ringed by gilded leaves and swags; in Aviamotornaya, the ceiling of the hall is dressed with golden triangles arranged in an abstract pattern, with the electric lights set into them…
He tries not to sentimentalise: the first lines of the Moscow Metro were built during the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s, and as with the other grand Soviet engineering projects of the period much of the workforce was conscripted, safety was sacrificed to speed, and hundreds of lives were lost as the tunnels were excavated.
But that wasn’t the whole story: as is evident from the redundant splendour of so many stations their construction became a labour of love, their surfaces lavished with ever more elaborate layers of ornamentation as the work progressed, their engineers, designers and architects conscious of the monumentality of what they were creating.
For Hatherley the underground systems of the great cities – Moscow, Kiev, St Petersburg, Warsaw and others – are among the greatest artworks of the last century, manifestations of a strand of socialist utopianism more commonly associated with Victorian social critics like Ruskin and Morris than Soviet communism, which celebrates craftsmanship as the ideal expression of unalienated labour:
For the first time since William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the workers’ movement was displaying in its structures a showcase of workmanship, and the many diverse, rich and strange surfaces and shapes it can create, rather than a celebration of machine work and its concomitant promise to alleviate hard physical labour.
Clues and fragments…
Hatherley’s absorbing survey reveals a complex communist landscape, preserving the architectural record of several socialisms: the abortive new world of the Constructivists; the bombast of Socialist Realism; the obsessive uniformity of the microrayans; the freewheeling cityscapes of Yugoslavia’s worker democracy; the quirkiness of the ‘social condensers’; and the unexpected splendour of the Metro system.
In a melancholy closing chapter Hatherley, as sympathetic a guide to the Soviet architectural legacy as it is ever likely to have, acknowledges its failure: the untidy and largely unloved record of a dream of some other world that never came close to realisation. There are clues amidst the ruins, but the ‘socialist city, communally owned, democratically run, consciously created, made by its inhabitants, dedicated to their own enjoyment and development’ remains ‘a dream of the future’. Reflecting on a trip to Vällingby, a well-preserved showcase of post-war social housing on the outskirts of Stockholm, Hatherley muses that post-war social democracy came rather closer to realising the ideal socialist landscape than the USSR: ‘the relative affluence of Swedish social democracy meant that their town planning was careful and unhurried, and hence much more truly ‘planned’ than that of the “planned economies”.’
The uncanny exception, perhaps, is that extraordinary Metro system, which for Hatherley continues to intimate the possibility of an unbounded architecture liberated from the constraints of the profit motive, offering a ‘glimpse of the practice of everyday life being completely transformed and transcended, with mundane tasks transfigured into a dream of egalitarian space. The Metro systems of the Soviet Union and its satellites are [the] most convincing microcosms of a communist future you can walk through, smell and touch.’
Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley is published by Allen Lane. Unless otherwise stated all of the photos illustrating this article can be viewed on Owen Hatherley’s Flickr account and used here with permission. This article was first published on Metropolis/2520 and is re-posted here with permission.