The false path to gold for public lavatories

This is my review of Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings by Owen Hatherley.

4 stars for subject matter.

For what might be more accurately called “townscapes", journalist Owen Hatherley presents a detailed, at times indigestible, analysis of Soviet era architecture. Despite limited finances, he managed to roam quite widely with firsthand impressions of cities including Moscow, Berlin, Kiev during the recent demonstrations on the Maidan, the remains of Ceaucescu’s Bucharest, Warsaw, Vilnius, even Shanghai.

Each starting with a relevant quotation, the chapters are themed: the “magistrales” or wide boulevards cut through cities to permit state-orchestrated demonstrations of power; the massive, impersonal to the point of soulless suburban blocks of apartments to house large numbers of workers as fast as possible; “houses of the people” to encourage suitable social activities; palatial metros, some stations ironically built in Moscow at the height of Stalin’s Reign of Terror. There is even a chapter on quirky examples of improvisation: extra rooms tacked onto the sides of high-rise flats, and self-managed tower blocks in New Belgrade like the Genex, resembling two enormous linked grain silos. Themes are set in context by an initial introduction on the nature and aims of Soviet architecture.

I learned a good deal from this book. I had not realised how much Soviet styles varied in a relatively short period and liked Paperny’s useful if simplistic definition of “Culture One” Modernism, dynamic, with horizontal structures, low, long and linear, as opposed to “Culture Two” Stalinist, with its “monumental, solid, massive, immovable” vertical structures. These harked back to past grandeur for the frontages of “people’s palaces”, intended as spacious flats for ordinary workers as in East Berlin’s flagship project, Stalinallee, together with major buildings like Moscow State University with their stepped ziggurats and the “Socialist Realism” of the huge, stylised statues of patriotic workers.

I had not considered how “Utopian Soviet planners” rejected distinct urban quarters as a survival of “obsolete capitalist structures”, so that individuality was only possible through chance variations in a site. Even under Krushchev’s less extreme regime, decrees led to an “International Style” extending between the far-flung borders with Scandinavia, Afghanistan and Japan, with identical standardised plans down to the use of the same mass-produced doorknob.

Ironically, the “social condensers” constructed to provide under one roof a variety of activities to create good socialist citizens often became rare examples of creative, “one-off” architecture, such as Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers' Centre in Moscow.

I accept that for reasons of economy only small, grainy black-and-white photographs are used, but they are often not placed right next to the relevant text. Some buildings, like the famous Dessau-Törten cubic houses of Gropius are described without the inclusion of any photograph at all, which is like a radio programme explaining how to make a complicated origami bird. Hatherley’s prose is a little too leaden to get away with this. Key points may be lost in his verbose and sometimes opaque style. Hatherley’s lack of clarity matters because it is confusing. The omission of the construction dates of many developments discussed is also unhelpful.

Concepts like Modernism and Constructivism need concise definitions, and a glossary of terms (Potemkin village, phalanstery – both very interesting) and architects would have been useful for reference. The book would have been more effective with fewer examples, each with a better photograph and concise text. When I took the trouble to find buildings on Google images, I could understand much better what the author was getting at, but it is cumbersome to read a book in this way.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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