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Designing the Soviet Union

Soviet architecture had diverse and ambitious ideas for transforming the spaces people live, work, and travel in.

For the last few years, the best-selling architectural coffee-table books have all shared the same subject: Soviet buildings. They are part of a strange but popular cult, where the ruins of the Soviet Union are contemplated and documented as an alien landscape.

Agata Pyzik, in her 2014 diatribe Poor But Sexy, describes this trend as a form of intra-European Orientalism. Books like this year’s success story — Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops — explore what she calls an “obsolete ecology,” an irradiated yet magical wasteland, an Urbex paradise littered with wonderfully futuristic ruins. It is a seductive approach, and many Western writers (like me) have joined in.

Herwig’s contribution is a gorgeous example: page after page of bus stops, in an elegant, almost pocket-sized hardback volume, with a terrific design by the Anglo Sovietophile publisher FUEL.

But why bus stops? Because Herwig discovered that the long, straight, often potholed highways that run between the former Soviet Union’s big cities are dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands, of architecturally imaginative bus shelters.

There are none in the cities themselves — urban bus shelters are far more likely to be the sort of metal and glass canopies found in any metropolis. But tiny towns, villages, and hamlets commissioned, through processes that the two introductions to the book manage to leave totally unexplored, a series of exceptionally striking and original designs, in a raw style that combines the local vernacular (Baltic, Central Asian, etc.), concrete futurism (all jagged angles and cantilevers), and bright colors.

It’s fabulous stuff, but to paraphrase Brecht, a photograph of a Soviet bus stop tells us almost nothing about the society that brought it into being.

Tellingly, many of these hit books are made by professional photographers who have chanced upon their subjects — something Herwig shares with the French photographer Frederic Chaubin, author of the smash hit CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. This means they don’t share the compulsion that an academic or journalist might have to include editorial condemnations of the Soviet Union.

Until recently the subject has produced little good work in the English language. Prewar Soviet architecture has been well-served with studies by the likes of Catherine Cooke, Selim Khan-Magomedov, and Vladimir Paperny, but post-Stalin design has been oddly obscure. However, several recent publications combine the innovation of Soviet aesthetics with excellent writing. There’s no excuse to just stare at pictures of incredible Soviet ruins when there are books that can tell you what they are and why they’re there.

Theory and Practice

Zurab Tsereteli — one of the designers of Herwig’s totally awesome Soviet bus stops —maintained a successful career well into the post-Soviet period. The Russian-based Georgian sculptor shifted from expressive, mosaic-clad organic modernism to a monstrous form of figurative, neo-imperialist sculpture in bronze, leaving a trail of horrors in his wake.

Moscow’s Peter the Great statue is Tsereteli’s most notorious creation, set on its own artificial island. German scholar Philipp Meuser christened this style — which combines late Tsarist, high Stalinist and Las Vegas aesthetics — capitalist realism in other words.

As editor at Dom Publishers, Meuser has been responsible for an impressive program of Soviet and post-Soviet architecture publications. In just the last year, these have included a series of city guides for the Latvian capital Riga, one of the most western of ex-Soviet cities, and for Slavutych, an extraordinary planned city in northern Ukraine designed to rehouse workers displaced by the Chernobyl disaster.

The small housing estates in Slavutych were “donated” by various Soviet republics. You can find a Tallinn Quarter, a Baku Quarter, a Leningrad Quarter and so forth, each reflecting the styles and spatial ideas of their namesake republics. The guide, from Ukrainian architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina, strikingly demonstrates how diverse Soviet architecture had become on the eve of its collapse.

However, other recent Dom books, such as Hidden Urbanism — on the astonishing underground palaces of the Moscow Metro — reveal a remarkable level of continuity in Soviet design. The subway stations all share a similar, space-age crypt idiom, whether they were built in 1985 or in 2005.

Another recent Dom book, Meuser and Dmitrij Zadorin’s Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR, focuses on the flipside of special projects like the Metro, Slavutych, and the bus stops. Instead, it examines the immense prefabricated house program, the largest experiment in industrialized housing ever attempted. This deadpan, obsessive-compulsive book attempts to catalog each apartment building series, which were rolled out of specialized, assembly-line factories like automobiles.

Towards a Typology of Mass Housing reveals that by the 1970s Soviet architecture had almost entirely eliminated the figure of the individual architect, who traditionally works on a specific design for a specific site. For this massive urban housing initiative, the USSR transformed architects into industrial designers, except when it came to the creation of showcase public buildings.

Some of Dom’s recent publications focus on these prestige designers — like Felix Novikov, a mercurial figure whose career included Stalinist palaces for the nomenklatura in the 1940s, Khrushchev-era mid-century modernism like the Moscow Palace of Pioneers, and neo-Persian bathhouses and bazaars in Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps the saddest of these books, Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Program, focuses on the engineer-architect who designed the ergonomic interiors and streamlined casings for space capsules and stations. Balashova created real, constructed human environments that floated in space or rotated in orbit, but her most recent work consists of watercolors of her family in Tsarist-era military costumes. Whatever else could be said about it, Soviet collectivism made people do things that they wouldn’t have considered possible, before or since.

One of the few books in the Moscow Institute of Modernism’s series of publications on Soviet architecture to be translated into English is Anna Bronovitskaya and Olga Kazakova’s heavy volume on another prestige architect, Leonid Pavlov.

All the facets of Soviet architecture appear on his resume: he began as a Constructivist, passed through the Socialist Realist period of opulent, elite classicism, and then found his metier in the 1960s as an architect for Gosplan, the agency that officially planned the Soviet economy.

As readers of Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty will already know, in the 1960s the Soviet Union made an abortive attempt to computerize its economy in hopes of solving the socialist calculation problem. Pavlov designed several Moscow-based computer centers for Gosplan, using a pure, mathematical, and finely detailed modern idiom of clean lines and precisely calculated grids, sometimes integrated with abstract sculpture — a Soviet cousin to postwar America’s corporate architecture.

However, the construction industry couldn’t keep up with the pace of Pavlov’s ideas, and most of the centers were completed at least a decade after their design. By that time computers had shrunk, and the computer rooms were changed into conference rooms or left unused; an apt metaphor for the gulf between theory and practice in Soviet planning.

Pavlov’s late work, tellingly, was devoted to sacred spaces for the cult of Lenin — like the Lenin Funerary Train Museum in central Moscow or the Lenin Museum at Gorki, where Lenin lived and slowly died in the early 1920s. These designs borrow from ancient religious architecture and Miesian high modernism in an attempt to create an appropriate architectural language for a secular cult.

One historical study and one city guide — both published in the last year — provide the most interesting analyses of what Soviet architecture actually was and what (if anything) sets it apart from ordinary capitalist architecture.

The first is Richard Anderson’s Russia: Modern Architectures in History, which presents a panoramic history of pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet architecture from the late nineteenth century to the present. It starts with Victorian eclecticism, “style modern,” and Constructivism, then turns to the eclectic, anti-modernist Socialist Realism of the Stalin era and the standardized and plural modernisms of the 1960s through the 1980s, and ends with a very mixed picture of contemporary Russian architecture, dominated — especially outside Moscow — by an overbearing, unplanned, and speculative monumentality.

Whereas the book covers profound social changes, Anderson pulls out an unexpected thread of continuity, as institutions such as Mosprojekt — the municipal architecture-construction department of Brezhnev-era Moscow — reinvented themselves in the 1990s by designing horrific mirror-glass and marble edifices for the new rich.

Anderson’s book also adroitly uncovers some of the lesser-known aspects of twentieth-century “socialist architecture.” Beyond the famous icons of the avant-garde, Russia: Modern Architectures in History takes in the garden cities in Lenin’s Moscow, the oddly Finnish low-rise housing in post-Blockade Leningrad, the entirely new territory Brezhnev attempted to create through a series of planned towns strung along the Baikal-Amur Mainline, and the various imperial exports found both within the Soviet Union — in the Soviet “East” of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — and in the imperial baroque style that represented the central power in Eastern European capitals like Warsaw, East Berlin, and Riga.

The most politicized recent book on Soviet and post-Soviet architecture deals precisely with this imperial legacy. The collectively produced The Book of Kyiv was published to mark the city’s biennale last year, largely by affiliates of the Visual Culture Research Centre (VCRC), a leftist non-governmental organization.

The Book of Kyiv works as a guide to the city by presenting a series of carefully chosen buildings, almost all from the Soviet era: a ghost mall known as the House of Clothes; a Metro station left half-finished just outside the city center; the National Museum of Ukraine, done in the Stalinist Roman Empire style; the haunting, organic Crematorium, designed in the 1970s; various emblematic spaces like the former Dzherzhinsky Square, which features a flying-saucer-shaped Institute (featured in no less than Chaubin’s CCCP) and a gigantic monument to the Cheka, only demolished last month; and various soon-to-be de-Communized mosaics and monuments.

Among the spaces that feature in The Book of Kyiv is the dramatically authoritarian, late Stalin-era Independence Square, best known by the Ukrainian word for square: maidan. The VCRC supported the 2013–14 uprising there, and combine this with a sharp critique of the Ukrainian built environment’s de-Communization, now underway through a legally enforced process of renaming and vandalism.

But what makes The Book of Kyiv a real antidote for the likes of Soviet Bus Stops is its sympathetic account of Soviet architecture and planning, which lets equal stress fall on its failures, continuities, and successes, and trains a ruthless eye on the capitalist city, which has survived by cannibalizing the Soviet legacy, building on its interstices, slathering its public spaces with advertising and cheap commerce, straining its infrastructure, and maintaining a violent divide between rich and poor.

This becomes all the more poignant when it’s enforced on an urbanism that, for all its serious flaws made a serious attempt to create an egalitarian metropolis defined by public space, equality, and planning. It is in that contrast that you can begin to understand what that elusive thing — Soviet architecture — actually was, and what distinguishes it from capitalist architecture. Appropriately, the book is made for the pocket, rather than the coffee table.