Monumental and Minimal Space: Soviet Modernism in Architecture and Urban Planning. An introduction

Fountain of National Radio Almaty (Kazakhstan)

While Russian Constructivism and Stalinist architecture are familiar enough to an interested public in Austria, knowledge of Soviet Modernism in the postwar period is still limited. This applies especially to urban planning in peripheral regions. One concern of this project is to present a period of Soviet urbanism that by no means brought forth only monotonous concrete-slab housing developments, but which in part demonstrates marked originality and is in many points congruent with Western planning and concepts. Documenting this architectural epoch appears all the more urgent now that so many buildings are menaced with demolition or ruin.

Different periods in Soviet urban planning

Disused hotel, Baku (Azerbaijan)

After the revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks tried to deal with the dire housing situation in the cities by ousting the middle classes from their residences. Following the transfer of private property into municipal hands, the authorities divided up the apartments into separate units that were then occupied by multiple households. These communal apartments, known as “Kommunalka,” were a fixed component of everyday Soviet life for decades. At the same time, the 20s witnessed a series of avant-garde and municipal building projects aiming at a radical social and aesthetic renewal of society. Attracted by the socialist utopias apparently in the making, foreign architects also flocked to Russia, among them Ernst May and Hannes Meyer, supplying their own plans and buildings. From the Soviet point of view, “urbanization” was at first an exclusively capitalist phenomenon. This gave rise to two visions of the “socialist city”: on the one hand, the “antagonism between city and country” was to be overcome by restricting urban growth and mechanizing the villages. On the other, the demand for “social hygiene through loosely grouped buildings” was directed against the cities of Old Europe, which were based on the principle of “urbanity through density.” The fundamental idea behind the socialist model consisted of a close spatial connection between work and living areas, which were to be separated from one another by green zones. This module in turn formed a spatial sub-system that aligned itself along a main axis with other, identical, units to form the overall city. The concept of the so-called linear industrial city was in part applied when cities such as Volgograd or Magnitogorsk were laid out. Today this era is viewed as the  “constructivist phase” of Soviet urbanism.

Cog railway station, Tiblissi (Georgia)

In the early 30s, Stalin ordained a break with the avant-garde aesthetic. The party declared such architectural experiments to be “formalistic” and  “bourgeois.” Modernism was replaced with a brand of neoclassicism that sought its models in the 19th century Russian past. Soviet architects were called upon to rework and further develop the “great legacy of national architecture.” In all of the capitals throughout the Soviet republics monumental edifices rose up with architecture designed to powerfully bring across the idea of the Soviet state, while underlining the respective national cultural tradition in each region. New apartment buildings were either inserted in the old quarters or built as housing blocks on the outskirts of the city. Their aesthetic quality by all means corresponded with the prevailing societal ideals of the time. The buildings of this era were solidly crafted and relatively comfortable to live in.

Circus, Karaganda (Kazakhstan)

The strategy of relentless inner colonization did in fact have the effect of transforming the huge country from an agricultural backwater into an industrialized society, but the boom in industrial jobs in the cities progressed much faster than the construction of the requisite housing. The majority of the urban population continued to have no choice but to live in overcrowded communal apartments or in barracks.

Circus, Karaganda (Kazakhstan)

In the wake of Stalin’s death (1953), architects turned away from decorative building practices. The problem with historicism was not so much a distaste for elaborately ornamented facades as the contradiction between the artisanal character of such architecture and the increasingly urgent need for industrial construction methods. A rapid and comprehensive improvement in the housing situation thus formed one of the main pillars of the reform project initiated by the new party head, Khrushchev. At the All-Union Conference of Architects in November 1954, he launched a polemic against antiquated construction technology, ornamental building facades and the inadequate standardization of building types. The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 set the goal of putting an end to the housing deficit within 20 years. Long neglected by Stalinist industrialization policies, the construction industry was granted more funding and the resolve made to increase productivity in this sector.

Upheaval in the urbanist disciplines  

Planetarium, Almaty (Kazakhstan)

The Kremlin leadership now urged scientists, technicians and architects to set in motion a radical modernization in their disciplines and to orient themselves wit more advanced, Western, methods. While the Party remained restrictive with regard to any “deviations” in fields such as art, modern architecture by contrast was largely given free rein, since it was regarded as an ideology-free technology.

Technical University, Almaty (Kazakhstan)

Contacts between Soviet intellectuals and specialists and foreign institutions were now more relaxed in comparison with the Stalinist period, although they continued to take place under the close monitoring of the Soviet Secret Service. These exchanges soon allowed the Soviet architects to come up with their own, up-to-date technical solutions. Books on Western architecture were published, at first in the form of translated texts, and later the original versions as well. Great modern architects such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – once abhorred as “formalists” – now received renewed recognition. Starting in the late 50s, in particular French and Soviet urbanists began to collaborate more closely. Thus the first Soviet series of housing blocks constructed using the concrete slab method was built based on a French construction system.

Ulusal Tiyatro, Bakü (Azerbaycan)

But the most important foreign source of influence came from the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. The new Soviet aesthetic was above all inspired by publications from Czechoslovakia and Poland, where the modern movement in architecture and design had continued, only interrupted for a short time in the late 40s and early 50s. Another source of inspiration came from the “inland abroad,” the Baltic republics, which actively participated in shaping a new style. Between the wars, these countries had developed their own architectural Modernism at a high level of quality. Annexed by the Soviet Union in 40, the urbanist disciplines in the Baltic region only had to adapt themselves to Stalinist dictates for a brief period. This is why they took up modern standards much earlier than those republics that had from the start belonged to the Soviet Union.

National Theatre, Baku (Azerbaijan)

The aesthetic of the constructivist period was also rehabilitated, although usually in simplified form. Two state decrees in November 1955 ushered in not only industrialization and cost reduction in the building industry, but also prohibited any form of pomp or decoration. Naturally, Soviet architects continued to be subject to extensive rules and regulations. They could only act within the specifications put forward by the state planning organization, constrained by “construction norms and regulations” that were to be followed to the letter. Plans were to be aligned with a catalogue of prefabricated building elements that offered only a limited selection. To make the discipline more scientific, architecture offices were now called “Research Institutes for the Development of Residences, Schools and Hospitals.” The endeavor to subjugate architectural considerations to a building’s technical and economic functions reinforced the utilitarian tendencies in Soviet urbanism. The imperative of profitability and of construction management crowded out artistic issues and questions of quality. This reduction to the elementary left its mark on the entire architectural practice, especially when it came to the construction of mass housing. Only a few architects had the good fortune to be put to work on more individualistic projects, such as theaters, museums, banquet halls or sports facilities.

National Theatre, Baku (Azerbaijan)

The building program put into effect in 1957 foresaw an increase in available housing by more than eleven million square meters by 1960. Two years later, these forecasts were regarded as insufficient and were raised again substantially. Thanks to the development of the construction industry, the share of prefabricated parts climbed from 25 percent in 1950 to  70 percent in 1958. Brick was now regarded as a material that exuded backwardness – economically inefficient and counteractive to industrialization. Walls were increasingly made of pressed stone instead, and steel-reinforced concrete replaced the quarry stone once used to build foundations. In the early 60s, the proportion of new buildings made of brick was still high, but the use of new and more advanced construction materials was on the rise.

Reservoir Proctorhouse, Medeo (Kazakhstan)

Following the first generation of brick houses with prefabricated ceilings and interior walls, a changeover soon occurred to large-scale block construction and then to large-scale panel construction. Series production and assembly now dominated construction organization. The necessity of combining the new industrialized production methods with redefined residential typologies led to a far-reaching change in the settlement model. The typical city housing blocks of the Stalin era, with buildings surrounding inner courtyards, made way for freestanding apartment complexes. At first, city districts rose up with uniform five-story linear buildings without elevators, arranged in parallel lines or perpendicular to one another. Then, from about the mid-60s, this five-story model was discontinued, since its relatively high development costs had proven to be uneconomical. Replacing it were nine- to twelve-floor residential slabs punctuated by high-rises of 16 to 30 stories.

Kahve, Almatı (Kazakistan)

Modern Soviet architecture developed at the interface between standard building types and experimental architecture. At the end of the 50s, the goal of executing 90 percent of planned buildings as standardized types was envisioned, while the rest was to be reserved for innovative and customized solutions.

Theatre Foyer, Sumgait (Azerbaijan)

This functionalist rigor did not last long, however. In the course of the 60s, architectural details from the 30s once again surfaced. In the various Soviet republics, particularly in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, the national traditions gave rise to more individualistic architecture styles. Unlike what happened in the Stalin era, however, this time the recourse to a retrospective style was made based on a modern architectural vocabulary and industrial building methods. Architects chose to draw on “historical roots” not only as a (postmodern) critique of monotonous functionalism, but also due to the influence of burgeoning nationalist ideologies in the republics.

Monumental centrality and concrete slab building

Kahve, Almatı (Kazakistan)

A key concept in Soviet urbanism was to shape society through urban planning. Architecture was conceived as a symbolic act, as monumental sculpture illustrating future Communist lifestyles. The idea was to create celebratory spaces that would at the same time underpin the unity of People and Party. Even though the emotionalism of the Stalin era was “deconstructed” by Khrushchev, the State and Party leadership continued to set its sights on mega-projects and grandiose edifices. The mission of urban planning was to lend clear physical expression to social hierarchies. The Soviet collective was to be spotlighted, which was also constituted through rallies and thus at the same time legitimated the rule of the Party. For this type of public manifestation, correspondingly spacious boulevards were required (“magistrals”) to serve as marching grounds. Around vast public squares – which were supposed to form political hubs for the “workers,” but actually had more the effect of generating a feeling of individual helplessness in the face of such powerful state authority – were grouped the government and Party buildings, department stores, cultural palaces and monuments.

Disused warehouse, Tiblissi (Georgia)

The central district formed a crystallization point for the hierarchic urban fabric. It functioned not only as a focus for city services, but also represented – in the political, cultural and administrative sense – the Soviet state power. The idea of an urban planning concept designed to form a political center remained a key focus up until the end of the USSR. Decisive here was the fact that all urban projects could be carried out without consideration of private property. The laws of the capitalist land-based economy had been annulled. The staged power setting thus represented a deliberately contrived configuration, which in some cases also entailed drastic reconstruction and the demolition of entire city districts. The aim was to cast the city from a single mold, with the individual objects therein subjugated to an overall ensemble.

Bus Station, Tiblissi (Georgia)

The Soviet city was lacking in diversity. In contrast with the proletarian quarters in the “West,” there was no way to escape the cramped living conditions by spending time in bars or game halls with their specific forms of semi-publicness. Canteens and cafés were available for quick eating, while restaurant dining was strictly regimented and extremely costly. There was also a major shortage of public toilets, which, to make matters worse, were often closed. The authorities tried to drive beggars, disabled and prostitutes out of public space by instituting strict public order policies. In this sense one might say that there was a less visible marginality in the Soviet cities than in the typical capitalist metropolis.

Opera House, Tiblissi (Georgia)

The counterpart to the dramatized settings in the city center was formed by the concrete-slab housing developments on its fringes. State regulation of housing constituted an integral component of the Soviet reward system. Apartments were handed out according to the applicant’s activities and influence. While “privileged” figures in society, such as politicians, members of the military or intellectuals, lived in the city centers, the plain folk were housed either in communal shared apartments or in huge developments on the urban outskirts. Since quantity and profitability took precedence in mass housing, the quality of construction and the outfitting of the rooms suffered. The development of a transport infrastructure and of social facilities likewise lagged behind the dynamic growth of these peripheral areas. New apartments built in the 50s and early 60s were extremely small, but anyone who had previously lived in a “Kommunalka” thought having their own kitchen, bathroom, running water and district heating was a tremendous step forward. Only when apartments finally became more spacious in the Brezhnev era did the rapidly and cheaply built “Khruschevoka” no longer seemed all that appealing. The aesthetic monotony of many new housing developments, especially the five-story apartment buildings blanketing the landscape, was repeatedly criticized by the Soviet public.

Diving platform, Tiblissi (Georgia)

An important basis for city planning was provided by the “Rules and Norms for Urban Planning and Development” instituted in 1958. Now the cities were to be divided into different usage functions, with zones for living, industry, traffic and communal service facilities, each separated from the others through green areas. So-called “microraions” formed the basic spatial unit for planning housing developments. These were 0.3 to 0.5 square kilometers in size, had a population of 10,000 – 15,000 and disposed over the basic supply facilities. Several microraions were in turn united to form a residential zone with its own shops, clinics and cultural centers. Finally, the city centers covered residents’ more specialized needs, offering department stores, theaters, hotels and universities.

Theatre, Sumgait (Azerbaijan)

However, even the gigantic housing developments of the Brezhnev era ultimately pursued the ideals of a small-town community. There were parks, playgrounds, garages and special settings for communication. This kind of manageably sized residential district was designed to deepen interaction between the residents, representing the Soviet variation on the neighborhood concept we are familiar with in this part of the world. With the help of self-administration institutions such as “Residential Offices” and “Residential Committees,” the authorities furthermore tried to promote a collective form of living. But, just like in the West, social reality presented an entirely different picture. Most residents tried to elude state control. Everyday social life in most households was dominated by family and friends, self-made communities that did not correspond to the structures of the microraions.

Basic elements of Soviet urbanism

Apartment block, Tiblissi (Georgia)

In the mid-80s, two-thirds of the Soviet population lived in city housing developments, up from just 18 percent at the time of the revolution. Noticeable here is the marked concentration on big cities. While in the mid-20s only Moscow and Leningrad boasted more than one million  inhabitants, the number of million-population cities had swelled to 24 by 1990. The USSR thus experienced an urbanization process on a scale unparalleled anywhere in the world.

Pavilion, Baku (Azerbaijan)

Even though urbanism here evinced many parallels with Western concepts, a host of singular features can be made out in the Soviet Union’s version of this process, even going beyond the nationalization of land and property. For example, economic policy clearly dominated regional and urban planning policy. The land use scheme was subordinated to the general plan for distributing production locations. Along with recommendations for where to locate production sites, this plan also included guidelines for the development of regional urban systems based on the production projects.

Cog railway station, Tiblissi (Georgia)

Responsible for urban and architectural planning on site was the chief architect in the respective municipal executive committee and his department. These functionaries reported in turn to the State Building Committee in the Council of Ministers of the USSR, as well as to the State Committee for Civil Buildings and Architecture, which supervised both the general plan and building plan and their execution in accordance with standardized guidelines and norms. Nevertheless, despite all centralism, the regional and local authorities still had a certain amount of latitude. Decisions on planned projects and their funding were made in Moscow, but in actual administrative practice the subaltern apparatuses were able to undermine the clearly defined government policies and ultimately have final say in how the available resources were put to use. By means of faked reports and deceptive maneuvers, the local functionaries were able to give their own priorities precedence over those of the central regime.

The federal structure of the multi-ethnic Soviet state likewise played an important role here. The politically significant “Base Nations” maintained the status of union republics. Based on “positive discrimination,” a recruitment and promotion policy prevailed in the State and Party apparatus that favored the respective titular nation, leading to development of indigenous leadership ranks. Without this indirect form of government, it would have been impossible for the Soviets to rule the gigantic country. The central regime put material and financial resources at the disposal of the union republics, which were administered largely independently by “provincial princes.” There was, in general, even greater freedom when it came to cultural affairs and architectural projects. In exchange for this leeway, the regional leaders had to accept the supremacy of the top echelons in Moscow.

Resources and financial grants were distributed according to a hierarchic principle. The winners in the Soviet development strategy were, apart from Moscow, above all the major metropolises in the union republics and those industrial cities that were vital to economic policy. They received disproportionately generous state subsidies, while small and medium-sized cities were disadvantaged. There was a correspondingly strong divide between city and country. Up until the end of the regime, a restrictive pass system discriminated against people from rural areas, in order to protect the metropolises from an uncontrolled influx of new residents. Nonetheless, the migration movement still got out of hand. Rural flight emptied out villages and brought provincial ways to the city. The effects of this phenomenon can still be felt today.

The production of unequal spaces 

French philosopher and space theorist Henri Lefebvre already predicted the downfall of the USSR back in the early 70s. He argued that the Soviet model constituted a revision of capitalist accumulation, working to accelerate this process even further. Intensified growth was to be achieved primarily by privileging outstanding production locations.

Despite what official ideology proclaimed, however, this territorial concept never succeeded at producing sufficient synergy effects to set into motion a self-supporting development throughout the country. The hierarchic structures only led the growth poles to become ever stronger and the neglected regions to weaken. The grand prestige projects and monumental buildings thus ultimately remained imposing gestures whose symbolic integrational power was not enough to lastingly secure the legitimacy of the system. The insoluble contradiction between the imaginary space of power dramatization and the real space of everyday life likewise contributed to sounding the death knell of the Soviet empire.

Klaus Ronneberger and Georg Schöllhammer

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