Non-Public Public Space

Austin Williams | August 2009

Is there such a thing as Communist architecture? Well just as we only really ascribe the label “capitalist architecture” to the high-rise corporate edifices of Westernized democracies – from New York’s ill-fated Twin Towers to Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur – so the phrase “communist architecture” encapsulates similar political parodies. Typically, “communist architecture” attaches itself to failed experiments in communal living or monolithic palaces for Politburo apparatchiks. Capitalist architecture is glittering glass and steel; communist architecture is just drab, damp and depressing.

These are caricatures but in a discussion about national and historical architectural styles, generalizations are important and provide us with useful cultural reference points. But we have to recognise that in so doing, we miss some of the subtlety. So when we think of Communist architecture, we think of buildings like East Berlin’s ominous Palast Der Republik, the former East German parliament building, rather than the beautiful DOMUS Furniture Store in Budapest built in 1974. We think of the dictatorial authority of Ceauscescu’s Palace rather than artistic grandeur of Moscow’s lavish underground system. We think of the eerie wasteland of Potsdamer Platz during the Cold War before its glitzy reincarnation after the Wall came down, rather than the grand socialist classicism of Stalinallee (subsequently named Karl Marx Allee).

In other words, in the popular Western imagination, communist architecture is typified by the paneláks, the crumbling, concrete panelled, high-rise apartments of Prague. On the other hand communist architecture also conjures up images of gargantuan architectural expressions of autocracy, as in the KGB headquarters in Belarus. But should either of these really be considered “communist architecture” rather than architecture which happens to be in a communist country?

Well without stretching a point too far, similar descriptions could be made of some of Britain’s architectural opposites, like its Brutalist post-war social housing or its elitist Buckingham Palace, for example. Indeed, it is not such a far-fetched comparison. Social housing in the West, especially in Europe was heavily influenced by Soviet socialism; and ironically some early Soviet architecture was genuinely influenced by Italianate Neoclassicism. (If you recall, the Romania’s socialist dictator NicolaeCeausescu was actually knighted by the queen in 1978).

So we come back to the eternal debate about form and content. The form of Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate, for example, built in 1962 was modelled on Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation apartments in Paris (1946-52) which itself was heavily influenced by the Narkomfin Building block of flats in Moscow (1929-32). The distinguishing features of all of these were that they were tenant-centred: they included social engagement strategies and combination of living spaces, utility and leisure facilities in one location. Indeed, Eric Lyons who created the boom in post-war SPAN housing in the UK, specifically included residents’ committees (as a contractual obligation) together with generous landscaping for the enjoyment of these new-found communities. Early SPAN housing covenants insisted that “No person of drunken or immoral habits shall reside in the house.” Similar communal mandates in Soviet blocks made exercise regimes compulsory for the residents.

While there are similarities in ambition and in the design, the political landscape giving rise to these various architectural expressions were clearly different. Let’s not forget that there still remained a clear ideological division between the anti-capitalist and pro-capitalist model of living at that time. As Winson Churchill said: “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” – and architecture in Stalinist regimes certainly represented an alternative vision of social organisation that paid only lip-service to democracy. So it was with architecture. Whether things look the same, the intent behind them and the historical conditions in which they were created, are the keys to their understanding. So what were the social conditions pertaining at that time?

In Dessau, Germany, the Bauhaus school – where many architects and designers with close sympathies to the Russian Revolution were based – was condemned as a front for communists and un-German activities and was forced to close in 1933. The same year, the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) was formed, professing “architecture as a social art”. And it was in 1933, in this period of social turmoil and ideological retrenchment that the era of Stalinist architecture began.

Other totalitarian regimes – from Hitler to Mussolini to Franco – had monumental architectural pretensions, these were often founded on a desire to express a continuity with the past. Conversely, communism in its hey-day, attempted to develop a proletarian, future-orientated architecture. But this was short lived. Unfortunately, Constructivist and Modernist architecture with an avowedly communist social purpose fell out of favour in Soviet Union at the very time that Stalin came to power. By 1933, liberty was denied as Stalin sought to feed off the gains of the revolution while fundamentally undermining it.

The tragedy was that many architectural emigrés from Hitler’s Germany together with empathetic left-wingers in Europe and America became uncritically pro-Soviet as an expression of their anti-fascism. So even though, between 1936 and 1938, millions of Russians were arrested and more than a million executed, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the hugely influential founders of the British Labour Party who witnessed the beginnings of the forced collectivisation lauded Soviet Communism as a “new civilization”. Thus not only was a blind eye turned to Soviet barbarism but no-one criticised the way that this barbarism reflected itself in the built urban form.

Unlike Albert Speer’s central role as the first architect to the Third Reich, Stalin didn’t pick single architects, or a single style, for his commssions. Stalin’s architects sought to convey a contrived populism, mixing a variety of culture references as if to proclaim their internationalism by default. In fact, much of it was little more than neo-classical kitsch approved by the self-proclaimed infallibility of the Central Committee.

Stalin died in 1953, and his successor, Krushchev was quick to erase his memory. In the same way that Stalin had airbrushed political foes out of early Soviet history books, the new powers in the Kremlin wasted no time in distancing themselves from their predecessor. Krushchev’s decree in 1955 that there would be a “liquidation of excesses in design and construction” paved the way for the new era of so-called Soviet liberalization. But actually, it was still based on a closed repressive Stalinist society and one, entering the Cold War, that was to become even more dour.

The invasions of the 50s and 60s, bringing Security Police, purges and show trials to Hungary and Czechoslovakia did not bode well for harmonious urban conditions. Indeed, the forcible removal of thousands of Hungarians by secret police in order that they might expropriate their property for the People’s Party, didn’t sit well with progressive housing initiatives. Across the Soviet Empire, investment – and there wasn’t much of it – went into heavy smokestack industries in preference to dwellings. Michael Kort, professor of social science at Boston University says that, in 1981, the ‘Soviets could not meet the minimum (housing) standards that had been set by the government in 1928”. As a consequence, seriously crap housing was built for years and years. Hardly surprising given that the Stalinist quota system frequently stipulated production targets in terms of quantity, with little concern for quality.

So with such basic living standards on offer, it is hardly surprising that party loyalists were keen to receive privileges in housing allocation that reflected their status. Such inducements created the sense that there was a way out of the cramped proletarian living conditions without recourse to market forces and as such maintained the pretence of a socialist state. Control was a mix of repression tempered by bribes, but also by public displays of political unity.

Director of the Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic says that huge urban squares were “the physical embodiment and a metaphorical representation of a new political order”. From Red Square to Tianenman Square; from Wenceslas Square to Kim Il-sung Square these were public spaces for national engagement. But this was sham urbanism. Ironically, these were public spaces without a public. They were civic parade grounds but without a civil society.

Such faux public mobilizations, under the auspices of the authorities, were exposed when these public squares were commandeered by the real public, during the anti-communist revolutions of the late 80s and 90s. Suddenly genuine public space shone through. Once again, these became arenas of public autonomy – places where individuals come together without the legitimisation of the bureaucracy. They were robust arenas for political ideas. As political commentator Josie Appleton says: public space is “a space that (is) neither the market nor the state – where people collaborate informally and freely with one another.”

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communist architecture – or rather architecture from ex-communist states – is undergoing something of a revival. Just as 60s concrete blocks are treated with less contempt in the West than they were at the time, so some of rare cases of well-designed Modernist simplicity of the Stalinist era are regaining their appeal. And a good thing too. We should not confuse Brutalist architecture with brutal political legitimacy.

The final twist in this tale of authoritarian urbanism is yet to materialise (it is not the End of History, after all), but it is worth noting that contemporary Western societies are toying with increasingly illiberal urban policy interventions. Architectural discourse in Britain, mainland Europe and America regularly refers to the need to create social capital and civil society… at the same time that independent, informal spheres of public life are becoming increasingly regulated. Architects are frequently encouraged to engender “responsible behaviour” in their designs and civic space is now being fashioned to engineer the ‘correct’ public response.

But contrary to the accepted deterministic norm in the West, it is not the built environment that determines the political environment, generates social capital, builds self-esteem or generates a more meaningfully engaged civil society. It’s the other way round.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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