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Imagining the Socialist City

We will not go into the socialist city blindly, but with lessons from a century of experiments.

The most prolific of the Amsterdam School buildings, Het Schip (The Schip) was designed by Michael de Klerk in 1919 as a product of the 1901 Housing Act, which provided for the creation of cooperative housing associations.

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The Italian historian Manfredo Tafuri didn’t believe that there could be an architecture that was distinctively socialist, given that we did not live under socialism. “There is no class architecture, only a class critique of architecture.”

Tafuri, in his influential, sharply argued 1970s works — Architecture and Utopia and The Sphere and the Labyrinth — closed off a debate that had existed for nearly a century: whether it was possible or worthwhile to even think about a specifically socialist city under capitalism — and, more to the point, whether we could build fragments of it within capitalism. Tafuri’s strident “no” to the second question accompanied a quieter “no” to the first.

But since the rise of neoliberalism, those little fragments of the “socialist city,” unevenly built in the hundred years between William Morris and Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, have gradually started to be seen not as a way of maintaining a quiet and healthy population for capitalism to exploit, but as objects of nostalgia.

Did the socialist city ever exist? Is thinking about it entirely pointless until we succeed in the much more difficult task of overcoming capitalism? And — if we break the rule that we’re not supposed to conjure images of utopia — what could it actually look like?

Socialist Gothic

Tafuri’s interventions were partly intended as clarifications. Decades of social experiments in architecture, of council estates and new towns and egalitarian settlements, had not made capitalism weaker by creating subversive islands within it; rather, they had strengthened it.

Citing Antonio Negri, Tafuri invoked the “Planner State” of a corporatist compromise where capital absorbed social democracy, making it all the more powerful in so doing. That his critique is still often cited is strange, given what a striking misreading this was of the way the wind was blowing in the 1970s, when capital was actually preparing to almost completely jettison this class compromise, favoring instead a war on everything from trade unions to municipal housing.

At the time, forgivably, Tafuri asserted that the end result of reformism of the Arts and Crafts movement — of expressionism, constructivism, brutalism — was the administered city of Fordist capitalism. However, we do not need to make the same mistake, and can look more objectively at the islands of the socialist city, at those places that were, to quote another dissident Italian communist, Mario Tronti, “within and against capitalism.”

The designer who had perhaps the most influence on these enclaves of progress within and against the capitalist city did not think that socialism would have much use for the modern city at all. William Morris’ News from Nowhere is a different creature from previous examples of utopian socialist city planning. Unlike those works, his are surprisingly free of paternalism.

Earlier in the nineteenth century, Charles Fourier had proposed communal, centrally planned open living and working environments called phalanxes; they would be realized at least in part by progressive industrialists, as at the Familiestere at Guise, built in the 1850s for the workers at an iron foundry. Robert Owen’s utopian settlement at New Lanark, where tall stone tenements and social facilities were built tightly around a mill, was, at least at first, a way of ensuring happier, healthier workers for the sake of the firm.

But Morris’ age of rest arrives, as the first part of the book describes, after a violent proletarian revolution. Many years after it, London has depopulated, the Houses of Parliament are used to store dung, iron bridges have been rebuilt in stone, and most of the population lives long, quiet, fulfilled lives in cottages among greenery, something which curiously does not seem to have produced a suburban mentality. No phalanxes, collectives, or communes feature in this vision of communism.

Morris, then a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and a correspondent of Engels, was conspicuous both for the radicalism of his vision of class struggle and the conservatism of his vision of the city. His disciples would lose the first trait, but cling to the second.

The architect and planner Raymond Unwin, a fellow SDF member, would return to the idea, ridiculed by Marx and Engels, of building the socialist society in fragments under capitalism, drawing on the self-organized but otherwise deeply Fabian “common-sense socialism” of Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City of To-morrow.” Between 1903 and 1913, Unwin designed the garden city of Letchworth just outside of London, the Hampstead Garden Suburb, and the massive suburb of Wythenshawe to the south of Manchester.

The first two were funded by philanthropists, and aimed to mix, to the point where it would no longer be obvious which was which, cottages for workers and cottages for the middle class. It was the latter that soon dominated. Letchworth is a commuter town like any other, while Hampstead Garden Suburb — birthplace of Jerry Springer and Elizabeth Taylor and home to a generation of Labour Party leaders — is by some measures the richest part of London.

In Wythenshawe, meanwhile, where houses were rented out by the Manchester City Council to working-class residents on their municipal waiting list, the picturesque arrangements of homes with large gardens along winding tree-lined streets housed tens of thousands. However, they lacked all the facilities — the institutes, the town centers — that were planned and built in the philanthropic settlements. Wythenshawe lacked a center for an astonishing forty years, before one was finally built in the 1970s. It never even had a railway station.

This combination of partial failure for workers and total success for the affluent suggested that Morris’ neo-medieval vision of the socialist city really was impossible under British capitalism. The state could build houses, but wouldn’t pay for the social and collective facilities that might create real urban spaces; while private philanthropy created a deeply insular middle-class utopia, where the conservatism of the suburban vision would become increasingly clear.

More interesting applications came from Morris’ ideas about the alienation of labor, rather than the evils of the industrialized city. One outgrowth of these was the Amsterdam School, a group of expressionist architects in the Dutch capital who evidently took seriously the notion, popularized by the increasingly socialist-leaning High Victorian art critic John Ruskin, that repetitious, dehumanizing labor was common both to classical, renaissance, and baroque architecture and to the mechanized iron and glass products of the capitalist building industry.

In the United Kingdom, the architecture that emerged from these schools often meant merely a different kind of alienated labor, copying and reproducing Gothic detail rather than classical, with an equal focus on “correctness” — whether the mason of a neo-Gothic building was really able to express himself as a whole human being, as Ruskin imagined, was probably moot.

The Amsterdam School’s ornament, however, was vastly more creative, giving lots of room for expression — their buildings, usually in a handsome, robust red brick, are covered in delicate ornament of flora and fauna, bearing little relation to any historic precedent. Although the Amsterdam School owed perhaps more to the architect’s blueprints rather than to the will of the building worker, these buildings were highly crafted objects, their labor obviously not mechanized but intensive.

Most of their buildings were designed for Amsterdam’s social-democratic municipal government or for trade-union building societies, and most, in line with Dutch tradition, were apartments rather than houses, along with schools, town halls, baths, libraries, cafés — an ambitious program that still characterizes the areas just north and south of the city’s historic center.

These areas, mostly dominated by social housing, are still incredible in their combination of fantasy and efficiency, their spatial and textual generosity and tactile nature. They also remain modern and urban, and a lot more attractive as a possible urban model than Wythenshawe or Letchworth.

The Amsterdam School did not seriously challenge capitalism, but it could be said to have prefigured, at least for those able to enjoy it, a socialist city — made from the same material, egalitarian and densely collective, while remaining richly individuated to the point of eccentricity.

Taylorizing Architecture

The architecture of the 1920s in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Soviet Union — whether social democrats or communists held power — oscillated between this sort of expressionism and a more futuristic form of architecture that seemed to aim at exacerbating alienation in order to provoke its transformation.

After an initial flirtation with Morris and Ruskin — encapsulated in the early slogan “The Cathedral of Socialism” — reforming architects in Germany opted for a deliberately mechanized, technophile architecture that, in many cases, actually used Taylorist labor techniques, with time-and-management studies and on-site production lines.

In some cases, there were attempts to combine this with the notion of socialism as working-class self-activity — GEHAG, the trade-union building society that built several workers’ suburbs in 1920s Berlin, tried ambitiously to promote both Taylorism and workers’ councils, with one offsetting the other.

The architectural results — the interwar housing estates of Berlin, Frankfurt, Dessau, Rotterdam, and Moscow — are extremely elegant, precise, brightly colored, and laconic in their details, with a slightly false sense of extreme modernity (mostly, this is brick with render, not steel and concrete). Like the Garden Cities and unlike Amsterdam, they are swamped by a meticulously planned sea of undergrowth, with exotic trees and bushes flowing through the sharp, rectilinear, deliberately artificial buildings.

The self-expression of the worker in building was increasingly seen as a remnant, mere nostalgia for the pre-industrial age. When asked by the German expressionist playwright Ernst Toller how he justified the exploitation of workers, the former head of the metalworkers’ union, Aleksei Gastev, claimed that scientific management was a step on the path to eliminating labor completely. With it, working hours would radically decrease until only a couple of hours a day would be necessary. After a time, the machines would do all the labor.

Aesthetically, the alienating effect of all those right angles was offset by trees, color, and dramatic, exciting experiments in geometry. In terms of the city itself, Berlin and Frankfurt were the closest to Morris, with single-family houses and gardens; Vienna and Moscow favored denser structures with integrated collective facilities, sometimes even eliminating private kitchens in favor of canteens, as at the famous “semi-collectivized” Narkomfin apartments or the “fully collectivized” student hostel for the Moscow Textile Institute.

Craft traditions were still practiced in the unusually radical social-democratic regime of interwar Vienna. Huge city blocks enclosing various collective facilities, almost mini-cities in themselves, were replete with statues, majolica, and mosaics, and were meticulous in their detailing and materials, with little sign of Taylorism. Partly, this avoidance of mechanization was dictated by the need to create employment, creating intensive work in an oversized city that was no longer the capital of an empire.

The Workers’ Palace

It’s unlikely that a similar impulse was behind the Soviet Union’s sudden turn in the mid 1930s from modernism to a strange, eclectic neoclassicism, but the similarities can be striking. Engelsplatz, the last big project in Vienna before its estates were bombarded by fascists, was an immense, tile-clad, symmetrical neoclassical block with symbolic towers, beacons, and statues of burly, advancing workers.

It is a short step from there to the huge, rhetorical “workers’ palaces” of Stalinism. As if in compensation for overcrowding, piece rates, terror, and the absence of political representation, a large and lucky minority of workers — usually those who had distinguished themselves in “shock work” — were given palatial apartments. These boasted high ceilings, abundant surface ornament and an infrastructure of schools, clubs, and cinemas, such as can be seen in workers’ districts of Moscow or in factory towns like Nizhny Novgorod.

Ridiculed, perhaps rightly, as pure spectacle, these structures, like the metro systems below, had the virtue of a “world turned upside-down” approach to the city. They repurposed forms that were invented for the enjoyment of eighteenth-century absolute rulers, Parisian bourgeoises, or Khans and Tsars to house steelworkers and miners. Most, however, continued to live in tightly subdivided nineteenth-century apartment blocks, where several families would share a single small flat.

Rather than being seen as socialist, the Soviet city at its peak resembled what Rudolf Bahro called “non-capitalist industrialization,” owing more to local, non-Western spatial tradition than to mere emulation.

The Stalinist city is Peter the Great’s stood upside down. The Tsar decreed the construction of a neoclassical metropolis of such spatial generosity and order that it couldn’t have been built under a system of speculators and individuated ownership. Stalin’s “seven sisters” adapted the idea of the skyscraper to a system of despotic land use, where immense, Babylonian high-rise hotels, offices, and luxury flats were placed in a circle around the Kremlin, with anything in their path mercilessly cleared away.

In so doing, they recalled an earlier socialist architectural idea — the Berlin architect Bruno Taut’s notion of the “city crown,” where a city would be centered on one giant, pyramidal structure housing a concert hall, a town hall, a dance hall, and much else around which the community’s life would revolve.

It is arguable that such a thing was actually achieved in the form of the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science that was built in the center of Warsaw in the early 1950s, where the definitive building, visible from all points, was devoted to a hodgepodge of social functions, including swimming pools, two concert halls, a theater, a museum of technology, several bars, a cinema, a “Palace of Youth,” various offices, and a public observation point on the thirtieth floor.

The displacements caused by Stalin’s super-Hausmannism only exacerbated a disastrous housing problem — the first sign of de-Stalinization, in 1954, came with a decree recommending simplified, prefabricated construction and an end to architectural “excess.” What happened next is, of course, the familiar image of the socialist city in the world of cliché — the intensification of Weimar Germany’s cult of mechanization and prefabrication to the point where entire districts housing over one hundred thousand people, such as Ursynów, in Warsaw, would be built from identical concrete panels.

The results often lacked much in the way of collective facilities, as had been envisaged in the interwar years — visit many of them now, and you find that dispiriting big-box malls have picked up the slack. As in postwar Western Europe, Latin America, or Japan, there are many fascinating social experiments to be picked out from the era, some of which have proven more capable of surviving “within and against” than others.

An Index of Possibility

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, rather than a monolithic logic of incipient Fordism, the conjunction of socialism and architecture was conspicuous for its sharp shifts of argument, from prefab to crafted and back, from suburban to ultra-urban, from the abundance of social facilities in Red Vienna to the paucity of anything but houses and churches in Wythenshawe.

This presents a complex index of possibilities. Is there a need to choose which of them was genuinely prefigurative of the future? Trotsky’s suggestion in Literature and Revolution that competing schools of aesthetics would replace political parties in the “age of rest” would suggest not. Yet these are still live questions under capitalism.

The enthusiasms of contemporary radical architecture are usually a peculiar emergency analog to those of Morris, favoring the apparently non-alienated labor of self-building, which usually takes the form of single-family houses; meanwhile, perhaps the largest-scale modernist municipal housing estates in history are being built in Chinese cities.

Curiously, it is disused skyscrapers in Caracas rather than municipal high-rises in Chongqing that cause the most fascination in the West. Self-activity and mechanization are still the poles between which reformism oscillates. But in this dialectic, we can perhaps discover more potential for imagining the future of labor, aesthetics, and the city than by relegating it all to an irrelevancy, to that familiar after the revolution.

We will not go into the socialist city blindly, but aware that dozens of attempts at islands of socialism have been established, some more successful and enduring than others. We will need to think about which were defeated because of faults intrinsic to them as architecture and as town planning, and which were simply defeated because they were impossible under capitalism. Of those that did succeed under capitalism, we could ascertain which worked because they reproduced capitalist values and which worked because they were impregnable islands that managed to exist both “within” and “against.”

Most valuable of all, this century-long experience is an index of possibility. These places weren’t just blueprints or paper utopias; they happened. People lived and live in them, and had their lives transformed. If we postpone any thought about architecture until a vague “after the revolution,” we ignore the fact that socialist architects have often created glimpses of what a different society could be like.