SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 193 November 2015

Building bloc

Landscapes of Communism: a history through buildings

By Owen Hatherley

Published by Allen Lane, 2015, £25

Reviewed by Matt Kilsby

Owen Hatherley’s grandparents were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain who lived in a suburban, small, semi-detached house on the outskirts of Southampton. Owen’s parents were supporters of Militant. What, wonders Hatherley, would his grandparents have made of the places and spaces that were created by communists. What would they have made "of Seskine, on the outskirts of Vilnius, Lithuania, where grey prefabricated towers with balconies at unlikely angles are cantilevered over vast, usually empty public spaces. Would they have liked it?"

Hatherley’s previous books include, Militant Modernism, a paean to architectural brutalism and, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, an angry tour of our cities that were ‘regenerated’ by New Labour. So it makes sense that he should survey the places that were built in Russia and the Eastern Bloc. There is also a renewed interest in modernist, brutalist and Soviet architecture, particularly among young people. So much so that a book has just been published about the vast array and variety of bus stops that were constructed in the Soviet Union.

But what can we learn from what was built there, and from the places that people were expected to live and work? What did they do differently outside the capitalist norm? As Hatherley points out, "it is a question worth asking, as a seemingly endless economic crisis reveals ever more ragingly the insanity of a world system geared largely towards maximising profit for a small group of people".

After the Russian revolution of October 1917, there was an explosion of creativity in architecture, art and literature. As Leon Trotsky wrote, in The Revolution Betrayed, "the popular masses were still quivering in every fibre, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick". Constructivist architecture emerged from the wider constructivist art movement, which grew out of Russian futurism. Its proponents turned their attentions to the social and industrial needs of the new Bolshevik government.

The constructivists aimed to revolutionise and modernise the backwards Russian society into a new and technologically advanced industrialised society, free of social hierarchies, organised around creating socially equitable spaces. The term ‘social condenser’ was coined to summarise their aims, inspired by Lenin who wrote in 1919 that "the real emancipation of women and real communism begins with the mass struggle against these petty household chores and the true reforming of the mass into a vast socialist household".

Accordingly, these social condensers, as the Soviet architect Moisei Ginzburg argued in 1928, "would have certain features that would stimulate the transition to a socially superior mode of life". This would be done by mixing private and public spaces, for instance, constructing buildings with corridors wide enough to act as public forums and ensuring that workers’ homes were as close as possible to public facilities. A far cry from the modern capitalist norm of ‘mixed use developments’, which are about speculation and maximising profits, rather than building better places for people to live and work.

Perhaps the most iconic of the revolutionary constructivist buildings is the Rusakov Workers’ Club in Moscow. Designed by Konstantin Melnikov in 1927 for employees of Moscow’s municipal tram company it is, as Hatherley describes, "breath-taking and utterly, spectacularly unique". The workers’ clubs, usually built in factory districts, were communal leisure facilities with the aim of instilling the experimental and progressive into everyday life.

As the revolution degenerated on the basis of isolation and economic backwardness, and Stalin became leader at the head of a bureaucratic elite, the constructivist movement fell out of favour. Constructivism’s main political benefactor was Trotsky and firmly captured the spirit and energy of the revolution, which explains why the Stalinist bureaucracy moved against it after the expulsion of Trotsky and purge of the Left Opposition. Stalinism decried constructivism and modernism as "inhuman, technocratic, tedious, repetitious, constricting". In its place came ‘socialist realism’, which Stalin declared in 1932 "as the only acceptable artistic style".

Stalinism in architectural form meant "columns, marble, ornament, variety" and perhaps its most quintessential building projects were the ‘magistrale’. These huge boulevards, usually terminating at vast open squares where the Stalinist regimes paraded their tanks and military might, were carved through cities between the 1930s and 1980s. The buildings were designed to intimidate their inhabitants and to display the power and control of the ruling bureaucracy.

Despite the generally oppressive nature of these magistrale and Stalinist architecture, there are some exceptions. In East Berlin, Karl-Marx-Allee – formerly Stalinallee – is the most accessible and impressive of all. It has been described by Italian architect and historian Aldo Rossi as "Europe’s last great street" and has been immaculately restored and preserved. Hatherley "found it hugely exhilarating", in particular "the width of the streets, the generosity of the public spaces… the general sense of ease, openness and metropolitan grandeur".

However, as was the case with many Stalinist projects, ‘Stakanhovism’ and ‘shock work’ were enforced whereby workers had to work ever harder and longer hours. When in East Germany the minimum norms were suddenly raised on 17 June 1953, the workers went on strike and led an uprising up Stalinallee with the aim of overthrowing the Stalinist bureaucracy. The uprising was ultimately suppressed by Russian tanks.

One of Nikita Khrushchev’s first acts, after succeeding Stalin in 1953, was to cancel this new, eclectic Stalinist architecture, favouring a return to functional mass housing. Like Britain after 1945, the Soviet Union needed housing and it needed it fast as the war and industrialisation had caused over-population in most cities.

Huge numbers of houses were built, often shoddily and with cheap system-build processes, to form ‘microrayons’, best translated as micro-districts. By the 1970s there was more factory-made housing being built in the USSR than anywhere else in the world. Sixty million residents of the former Soviet republics still live in these houses. The problem with these buildings, Hatherley argues, is that "they are so relentless, so different from what went before, and so inescapable". Hatherley’s partner, who accompanied him through eastern Europe while writing the book, grew-up in a Warsaw microrayon and explains that "it was incredibly depressing living here and she would never do so again under any circumstances".

Paradoxically, though, these most inhuman and bleak structures that the Stalinist regimes built, are largely the result of one of their most humane policies: the provision of decent housing that was subsidised so much that it was virtually free. However, in the Eastern Bloc as under capitalism, there was no democratic control by the working class over the places where they lived and worked.

What shines through in this entertaining, though lengthy, tour is the huge social and technological advances that were achieved in spite of the excesses of Stalinism and the bureaucratic elite. Millions of homes were built for working-class people, surrounded by public open space, while jobs and education were available to almost everyone.

It is also an optimistic book that invokes the spirit of the 1917 revolution and argues that socialism and democratic planning can rebuild society and places based on need, rather than profit for the few. Hatherley writes: "Revolution might be a rather exciting thing, one that would transform the world, and transform space, for the better. Worth doing. Why not try it?"

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page