How Eastern Bloc Architects Shaped Cities Across the Third World

Łukasz Stanek

In the era of decolonization, even nonsocialist states in Africa and Asia drew heavily on architects and planners from Eastern Bloc countries. Experts from the “Second World” adapted their work to local cultures and expectations — and often brought “Third World” lessons back with them.

Sükhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia). On the left, the Palace of Culture (TsNIIEP Im. B. Mezentseva, Moscow); on the right, the Music and Drama Theatre (arch. Gerhard Kosel and M. S. Shirov, 1942). Photo by Łukasz Stanek, 2012.

Interview by
Ondřej Bělíček

When we talk about globalization, we often mean the extension of capitalist hegemony over the world since the end of the Cold War. But after World War II the socialist bloc practiced alternative models of worldwide collaboration — ones supposedly based on the principles of solidarity, international cooperation, anti-imperialism, and scientific-technological revolution. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), the economic organization founded by the Soviet Union and its satellites in 1949, abandoned the Stalinist policy of autarkic national economies and aimed at inter-socialist economic collaboration. In the wake of decolonization in the Global South, these ambitions were extended toward the newly independent countries in Africa and Asia.

This is the story architectural and urban historian Łukasz Stanek tells in his new book Architecture in Global Socialism. He recounts this history from the perspective of the cooperation between architects, planners, and construction companies from Eastern Europe and the Global South. In particular, he focuses on five cities in Ghana, Nigeria, Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, shaped by the collaboration between the “Second” and the “Third” worlds. Against the backdrop of the urbanization processes in Accra, Lagos, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, and Kuwait City, he shows both sides’ interest in cooperation, the dynamics of their collaborative efforts, and their political and economic goals.

He also shows how personal contacts between architects, planners, managers, and engineers from Southern, Eastern, and Western countries impacted urbanization processes in Eastern Europe after the end of socialism. The recent explosion of the grain silo in the Beirut harbor — designed and built by a Czech company — has again brought this topic back into view. It shows how state-socialist architectural export permeated urbanization processes around the world and continues to do so today. We talked about these questions and many more in our interview with Łukasz Stanek.

Housing project for Libya,1980s. Romproiect (Romania), Arhivele Naţionale ale
României, Bucharest (Romania).

OB

The involvement of Eastern European countries in the “Third World” is often interpreted as an extension of the Cold War beyond Europe, to other continents. But your book shows how these newly decolonized countries didn’t just jump into new dependency relations with the socialist world. Rather, they chose carefully between partners from the West and East, as they looked for the most favorable offer. How did they make this choice?

LS

The answer to this question differs from country to country. Some countries in the Global South were closely linked to the Soviet Union. This pertains in particular to Mongolia, Vietnam, and Cuba, which were member states of the Comecon. But in my book, I chose to focus on countries which were nonaligned and were neither Soviet satellites nor Marxist-Leninist regimes. This is true even of Ghana under the socialist government of Kwame Nkrumah, let alone Nigeria, Iraq, the Gulf states, and, indeed, the majority of countries in the Global South during the Cold War. In the wake of decolonization, their governments carefully negotiated their position within and across Cold War divides.

The motivations of these countries to collaborate with socialist Eastern Europe were diverse and changing. Nkrumah’s government embarked on a socialist path of development, and the Soviet Union and its satellite countries sent architects, planners, and engineers to assist Ghana. They facilitated industrial modernization, collectivization of agriculture, and an egalitarian distribution of welfare, but also a fundamental restructuring of times and spaces of everyday life beyond the racialized colonial city. These exchanges shaped the urban landscapes of Ghana, including housing, schools, health care and cultural facilities, administrative buildings, and industry.

By contrast, Nigeria’s elites were generally hostile toward socialism. They invited Eastern European architects and construction companies because of other reasons: in order to offset the dominance of Western countries, to develop the Nigerian construction industry, to stimulate competition on their market, and to alleviate the shortages of labor power in state administration, professional services, and higher education. Similar motivations can be seen in Iraq, at least since the late 1970s, and in the Gulf states. This is a key dynamic that the book describes: the ways in which Eastern Europeans, West Africans, and Middle Easterners exploited differences between state socialism as an economic system and the emerging “globalization” of design and construction services, increasingly dominated by the West.

OB

What about the motivations of socialist countries? What did they expect to gain from their collaboration with Global South countries like Nigeria?

LS

Their motivations were also diverse and changing, both within the Comecon and among countries that pursued distinct models of socialism, including Yugoslavia and China after the Sino-Soviet split. Under Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet policy of coexistence with the West — both peaceful and competitive — architects, planners, and engineers were recruited to demonstrate that socialism was a valid development model. Their work was instrumental for the geopolitical aims of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, for example, the effort to obtain diplomatic recognition by East Germany. But already then economic considerations were important, too. They were often translated into barter agreements, according to which the work of professionals and industrial goods like machinery or construction materials were exchanged for raw materials and agricultural produce, for example, Ghanaian cocoa.

With the regime change in Moscow, the objective of securing raw materials became even more important. In particular, the oil crisis in 1973 was a game changer for many Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe. The loans which they had taken did not translate into an industrial leap forward and left these countries with huge debts in foreign currencies. State companies in East Germany, Hungary, and Poland came under growing pressure from the communist parties and governments to sign deals that would provide them with convertible currency, oil, and gas. This resulted in expanded exchanges with oil-producing countries in North Africa and the Middle East, in which state-socialist design institutes and contractors participated.

Municipality and Town Planning Department, Abu Dhabi (UAE), 1979-85. Bulgarproject (Bulgaria), Dimitar Bogdanov. Photo by Łukasz Stanek, 2015.
OB

When you studied the architectural development in the Global South, what concepts did planners from socialist countries try to implement there?

LS

A good place to understand the main principles that informed the mobility of architecture, planning, and construction from the Soviet Union is Mongolia, a recipient of Soviet resources and expertise from the 1920s to the 1980s. I would argue that these exchanges were informed by three principles — integration, adaptation, and collaboration. First, the Soviets prioritized investments which would trigger the development of an integrated construction industry. Under Khrushchev, Soviet technical assistance agreements with Mongolia, but also with Ghana, Cuba, Afghanistan, and other countries, included the design and construction of Soviet “housing factories” which produced large-scale prefabricated panels. In order to fulfill its purpose, such a factory required a profound restructuring of the construction industry in the country. You need people to operate it, building materials, roads, trains, cranes, and architects able to design in this system.

The second principle is adaptation. Sometimes we think of Soviet architecture as heavy-handed, standardized, and uniform. Yet the adaptation of buildings to their geographical locations was a central concern for Soviet architects, both within and outside the country. This is why Soviet Central Asia became such an important place for Soviet “Third World” policy. Delegations from Africa and Asia were invited to look at buildings in Tashkent and elsewhere in the region. They studied how prefabrication systems were adapted to hot, dry climates but also to “national traditions” — which meant everyday lives and customs largely influenced by Islam. In similar ways, when working in Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, or the Caribbean, Soviet architects and planners adapted their technologies and typologies to the local contexts. For example, on the request of Ghanaian administrators, they redrew their designs of blocks of flats in Ghana to allow for the possibility of cooking outdoors.

OB

So, they had to adjust their plans according to the demands of these countries?

LS

Yes. This points to the third principle — collaboration. Again, in contrast to Western propaganda that saw African and Asian countries as Soviet “pawns” or “proxies,” the Soviets explicitly aimed at collaborating with local decision-makers and professionals.

The Soviets insisted on collaboration for many reasons. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the Western colonizers, even if they did not always succeed in this regard. They also needed local knowledge about climate, geology, vegetation, ways of life, and so on.

Architecture connects so many registers of society, from questions of political economy and the construction industry to very intimate ones: where do you sleep, how do you cook, what are the dynamics within the family. In order to respond to these questions, architects and planners need situated knowledge. But the Soviets wanted to collaborate also in order to share the responsibility for the projects and to tap into local resources, including labor and construction materials. They wanted local decision-makers to take over not only because of ideological and political reasons, but also because of economic ones.

Advertisement of Cekop (Foreign Trade Organization for Complete Industrial Plants, Poland), 1958. Archiwum Akt Nowych (Warsaw, Poland), z. 2309. Reproduced with permission.
OB

Your book shows that socialist countries were sometimes working together on different projects, but they also competed against each other, in particular from the 1970s.

LS

Decision-makers in Africa and Asia were fully aware that the socialist countries were not a homogenous “Soviet bloc.” Representatives of Eastern European countries were eager to claim the specificity of their experience and the competence stemming from it. For example, Bulgarians promoted their tourist architecture at the Black Sea coast, Czechs and Slovaks pointed at the heritage preservation in historic Czech and Moravian towns, Poles showcased the reconstruction of Warsaw, and East Germans promoted their country’s industrialized construction technology.

These messages were tailored to the expectations of their recipients. In countries that did not embark on a socialist development path, such as Nigeria, Eastern Europeans pointed at longer historical affinities that, presumably, they shared with Africans. They included the experience of colonization by foreign empires during the long nineteenth century, accompanied by economic exploitation and cultural devalorization by Western Europe.

Eastern Europeans sometimes revised these claims during their travels to the Global South, which confronted them with their own colonial history, notably Poland’s “internal colonization” during the interwar period. But in Nigeria and elsewhere, these imagined affinities provided them with specific planning procedures and design tools from Eastern European architectural culture. They included turn-of-the-century debates about “national styles” and strategies of overcoming rural underdevelopment, or “backwardness.”

These narratives were rarely consistent with attempts at the division of labor in the design, planning, and construction industries envisaged by Comecon institutions. In particular, in the wake of the debt crisis of the 1970s, state-socialist construction companies both subcontracted each other’s services and competed against each other in tender procedures organized by governments of booming oil-producing countries.

OB

What was the division of labor in these joint projects of state firms from the Eastern bloc? How did they collaborate, and how did they resolve their differences?

LS

In the book I address this question by focusing on an industrial slaughterhouse in Baghdad. It was designed by East Germans and constructed by Romanians in the course of the late 1970s. Their cooperation was far from smooth, and sometimes conflicts needed to be resolved by negotiations between officials in the respective ministries in East Berlin and Bucharest. This example points to a particular division of labor between socialist countries.

One of the more surprising discoveries in my research were the extensive design and construction activities of actors from countries rarely given attention by architectural historians, such as Romania and Bulgaria. They were much more present in the places which I studied than, for example, East Germany and Czechoslovakia — the two most technologically advanced countries in Eastern Europe. The latter two had simply more to offer in terms of trade, including industrial products and machinery.

But the Baghdad slaughterhouse also shows how the political economy of state socialism deeply impacted the technology, materiality, and programs of the constructed buildings. After receiving the commission for the slaughterhouse, the Romanians redrew the sophisticated East German prefabricated design in order to construct it by means of Romanian materials and labor. This was a rather typical procedure among Romanian contractors who signed barter agreements with oil-producing countries, and aimed at a maximal use of Romanian construction materials, machinery, equipment, and labor, exchanged for crude oil.

Sabah al-Salem Neighborhood Site C (Kuwait), 1977-82. Shiber Consult and INCO, Andrzej Bohdanowicz, Wojciech Jarząbek, Krzysztof Wiśniowski. Photo by Łukasz Stanek, 2014.
OB

How did the architects, managers, planners, and engineers from Eastern Europe capitalize on these experiences after coming back from the “Third World,” after 1989 or maybe even earlier?

LS

For most architects, travels to the Global South were an attractive prospect, because of financial reasons, the possibility to see the world, and professional opportunities. The latter became particularly important in the 1970s and 1980s, when many countries in Eastern Europe were increasingly stagnating and isolated. In this condition, contracts in the booming countries in North Africa and the Middle East became for Eastern Europeans an opportunity to learn about local architecture, but also about architecture from Western Europe and North America. Many architects from Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania who I interviewed told me that they were following what large American corporate firms were designing and building in Baghdad, Kuwait City, or Abu Dhabi.

These lessons were transported back to Eastern Europe, and architects benefited from them, in particular after the end of socialism. They included knowledge of modern building technology and materials, construction management, computer-aided design software, and functional programs with which architects practicing in state socialism had little experience, such as office parks or middle-class housing. The exposure to the new architectural idiom of postmodernism was relevant, too, as was the experience of practicing architecture in a competitive market. They benefited from contacts with contractors and developers, including those from the West, who were entering postsocialist Europe in the 1990s.

OB

Can we say that this involvement of socialist countries in the Third World helped to shape the forms of global capitalism after 1989?

LS

When writing the book, I realized that the impact of these exchanges on urbanization processes in Eastern Europe started before the end of socialism. A lot of my interviews took place in single-family houses located in the suburbs of Belgrade, Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw. During my visits, I often heard the phrase: “I bought this house thanks to my work on foreign contracts.” This suggests that the suburbanization in Eastern Europe during the Cold War should be understood by looking at exchanges with the Global South — resulting not only in financial transfers, but also in flows of oil, knowledge, technology, and consumer patterns.

For a younger generation of architects, those who entered the profession in the late 1970s and 1980s, work in oil-producing countries became a formative experience, including the various lessons that I mentioned before. But I think that this experience also contributed to the renouncement of the social obligation of architecture in Eastern Europe after 1989. This obligation, which had been part of the tradition of the modern movement, was undermined already by the crisis of “actually existing” modernism in socialist Europe. Its active forgetting was also facilitated by the architects’ work in the Middle East or North Africa by the end of the Cold War.

In these countries, characterized by competitive markets and authoritarian politics, Eastern European architects answered only to their clients, including authorities, developers, and construction firms. The broader “public” often appeared to them as too opaque, too fragmented, or too contingent to become an obligation for their designs. These experiences dovetailed with the new professional habitus in Eastern Europe in the wake of the shock therapies in the 1990s.

National Arts Theatre, Lagos (Nigeria), 1972-77. Technoexportstroy (Bulgaria); Stefan Kolchev and the Regional Planning Office of the City of Varna (Bulgaria); Building Research Institute, Sofia (Bulgaria). Photo by Łukasz Stanek, 2015.
OB

When you interviewed architects from socialist countries about their experiences in “Third World” countries, how did they recall their work there?

LS

Most of them argued that their work had very little to do with socialism. This included architects who worked in Ghana in the 1960s, who often stressed the emancipatory character of Nkrumah’s regime, but did not necessarily see themselves as building socialism. The same was the case in other countries, including Algeria, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, even if architects who worked there admitted that they exploited to their advantage the political economy of state socialism, for example, the procedure of barter.

But the politics of architecture is not the politics of its architects. This may be best seen when the recollections of Eastern Europeans are confronted with the memories of their African and Arab counterparts. My book starts with a recollection by a Ghanaian architect who worked with Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish, and Yugoslav architects in Accra in the 1960s. He told me that “he remembers very well these Eastern European architects, because it was the first and the last time that a white man had an African boss in Ghana.”

This sentence conveys a sense of a rupture that took place at independence, but also that this rupture was just an intermezzo. In many ways, my book is an extended commentary on this sentence.