Thursday, October 17, 2013

Soviet Architecture and American Echoes

Downtown Yekaterinburg

If Siberia’s wooden houses possess a bucolic charm, its mid-to-late twentieth century architecture lies at the other end of the humanistic spectrum. Dull apartment blocks made of brick or concrete blanket many younger cities in Siberia, particularly Novosibirsk (though these pictures suggest that my eye was most intrigued while in Yekaterinburg).

An odd, interesting geometry up close.
Many Americans associate this type of building with Stalin, but it was actually adopted during the Krushchev era. Stalin preferred a more conservative, classical style of architecture, often on a massive scale. To my eyes, the austere structures that became so ubiquitous in the Second World denote a more sober phase of Communism. After World War Two, Russian planners accepted that worldwide socialist revolution was not just around the corner and began to pursue a shrewder architectural strategy, avoiding the grand and terrible projects of the Stalinist period. Concrete, due to its low cost and malleability, played an important role in the effort to build quick and cheap (as it did in the West). While party director in Moscow, Nikita Krushchev presided over a meeting of planners at which efficiency in architecture was declared paramount. The resulting prefabricated structures, usually five stories tall but sometimes as many as twelve, became known as krushychovka.

Typical krushychovka in Yekaterinburg
Krushychovka are much maligned for their utilitarian appearance, and perhaps justly so. While there are variations in the buildings I observed, they certainly do share a repellent uniformity and absence of color. On the other hand, interiors appeared cosy and well kept, at least from the outside. Many krushychovka have built-in porches, some of which inhabitants turn into greenhouses. Others are used simply as storage.

The exterior to my hotel room, a converted flat, in Novosibirsk

A more modern krushychovka.
Anticipating Communism’s future triumph, architects designed the krushychovka to last twenty-five years. Whoops. Nevertheless, while the style of these buildings might have fit with St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe or the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, they have outlived their counterparts in the west by decades, largely remaining functional today. They were designed for the urban proletariat, which, if it did not love the structures, respected and maintained them.

Outskirts of Prague 
Modernism. Not pretty, but it works in this setting.
I remember taking the metro out to Jižní Město, a neighborhood at last stop of Prague’s C Line, in May 2006, where I observed panelák, the Czech version of krushychovka. How surprised I was to see laundry hanging neatly from balconies and the closely cropped grass out in front. Czechs rejected Communism, but they don't mind cheap, abundant housing atop dependable public transportation.

Downtown Novosibirsk

In the sixties and seventies, Soviet architects applied concrete on a grander scale to public buildings, many of which are truly elephantine. While there is no stylistic parallel for the krushychovka in the United States, Brutalism looks much the same in the First and Second Worlds. Its massive, hulking creations first captured my attention during the college campus tours I took as a teenager. Huge swathes of the American architectural profession succumbed to the influence of Bauhaus and Le Corbusier during the fifties and early sixties. Modernism remade American architecture just in time to allow Brutalism, a virulent strain within the wider movement, to sweep campuses as universities expanded to serve the baby boomers. The individualism inherent in the American private housing market limited Brutalism’s reach, but the movement’s characteristic concrete monoliths are the key feature in institutional and government structures from the period, as they are in the former USSR.

A building on Ul Lenina in Yekaterinburg.
Why did the west embrace a style that is widely reviled by the contemporary public? (In The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler refers to modernism as "a crisis of the human habitat".) Brutalism does have a sleek, futuristic beauty that is today just barely discernible, despite decades of abuse and accumulating grime. Despite Vietnam, public confidence in the expertise of elites was not yet shattered during the era when these behemoths were erected, and Americans still aspired to sophistication, which they found, for a time, in modernism. In their simple humility, they seem to have lacked any regard for their own traditions. Ironically, it took the destruction wrought by urban renewal for modernist projects to wake Americans up to their considerable architectural inheritance.

The Yale Arts and Architecture Building.
Barbican Towers in London, part of a large public housing project.

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