Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley places Landscapes of Communism at an intersection of several modes: serious but not academic architectural criticism; political and social history, as reflected in a region’s built environment; companion for both travellers and residents; and thoughts on living in cities shaped by different social systems. Hatherley writes early on that he uses the term “communist” largely as a matter of convenience. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe ruled by socialist party-states look different from their counterparts in Western Europe, their cities have different landmarks and features. Although “communist” is hardly satisfactory as a descriptor, alternative terms are even worse: “Stalinist,” “state socialist,” “state capitalist,” or even just “Soviet.” This initial choice could stand in for much of the rest of the book. Hatherley is trying to put his finger precisely on things that are difficult to put one’s finger on, and the terminology is slippery across both space and time.

“The paradoxical nature of architecture in the Soviet Bloc, with its sharp, sudden zigzags of official style — from Modernism to classicism to Baroque to a bizarre despotic Rococo to Modernism to Brutalism and back — has long puzzled historians.” (p. 30) Indeed. Hatherley’s careful text, informed by personal experience of almost all of the sites discussed, and copious photographs (three cheers for the digital photography and advances in printing technology that have made this possible and affordable) begins to make sense of the paradoxes involved. Because building in communist countries was always “an architecture parlante, a speaking architecture — one that constantly tells you about the state it represents,” (p. 30) speaking sensibly about what was built requires knowledge of both the history and the politics of the Bloc. Hatherley borrows a framework from Soviet architectural historian Vladimir Paperny, who proposed two cultures competing within the system across time, opposed to each other and supplanting each other in turn as personalities and doctrines in the communist parties fought for ascendancy. Paperny “called the Stalinist style ‘Culture Two,’ contrasting it with the future-oriented ‘Culture One’ of Modernism.” (p. 30) The changing dominance among the two over time, their dialectic as it were, explains much about cities under communism. “Culture one was obsessed with movement, wanting its cities to be fast, instant, disposable, dynamic; Culture Two was equally fixated with immobility, preferring its buildings to be monumental, solid, massive, immovable. Culture One built horizontal blocks of flats, long, low and linear; Culture Two opted for the vertical, creating skylines of spires and state offices which rose, step by step, like pyramids and ziggurats.” (p. 30)

Even that differentiation, and limiting his book to the European parts of the former Second World would leave Hatherley with an impossibly large subject. He chooses, sensibly, to focus on the structures and environments that were distinctive to communist societies.

… we will have a chapter each on the spaces that were, I’ll argue, unique to this place, its ideology and its economy. These are, respectively, the ‘magistrale’, the huge ceremonial boulevards that were built in all the larger ‘socialist’ cities; the ‘microrayons’ (or ‘microregions’), the vast housing estates that were often the size of entire cities in themselves; the ‘social condenser’, the public buildings where collective ideology was supposed to be inculcated; the declarative ‘high buildings’, the often meticulously crafted skylines that spoke of these societies’ unity, hierarchy or coherence; urban rapid transit, a field that was surprisingly often the most impressive showcase of all; the historical reconstructions indulged in by regimes which claimed, paradoxical as it may sound, to be uniquely capable of preserving the national heritage; the many memorials to themselves built by regimes that were obsessed with the judgement of history; and the improvisations that a rather less mediated people’s power has created in these buildings both during and after the existence of the ‘People’s Democracies’. (p. 31)

With that framework set up, Hatherley has put together a fabulous book. It’s interesting enough to argue with, informed enough that its arguments hold up to prodding, and personal enough to lend a humane air to all of the judgements he puts forward. I haven’t traveled quite as widely as he has, but I have lived in five of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, and I found that his descriptions both rang true and captured some of the differences that are otherwise difficult to put one’s finger on. I knew some of the history of the grand boulevards, for example, but it’s something else to see so many of them lined up together, closely compared and contrasted. Themes, variations, changes across time: Hatherley captures these and shows not only the play of ideas and personalities behind the construction but also how local traditions interacted with the supposedly objective notions of Party doctrine.

The concept of “social condenser,” Hatherley’s third chapter, was a new one to me.

In the aftermath of October 1917, and even of November 1918, architects’ drawing boards were filled with miscellaneous ‘houses of the people’, designs for what would replace the transcended places of assembly common under bourgeois society — particularly, the theatre and the church — with something less alienated, something which did not rely either upon the spectacle of actorly performance or on that of religious transcendence. A new collective life was supposed to be coming into being, and new structures were needed for it; otherwise, those new lives would have to be lived in the old structures, which were not fit for the purpose. In the Russian Empire in the first few years after the revolution ‘workers’ clubs’ sprang up everywhere, in order to provide social facilities, education, games, films and plays in a deliberately vodka-free environment. There isn’t much doubt that these were as much a bottom-up as a top-down phenomenon, drawing on the social spaces that wokers had carved out before the revolution; and their early expression was appropriately ad hoc. (p. 149)

Those ad hoc spaces were firmly part of Culture One referred to above, and even the more permanent versions that appeared in the early years after the revolution and civil war drew more strongly from that approach. One of the goals of the social condenser was to mix groups and functions, to draw work and leisure and family time more closely together, approaching socialist ideals. Over time, workers’ clubs shaded into Palaces of Culture, and Culture Two made its mark. The uniquely communist Palaces of Weddings fell into this category. Hatherley makes historical and political sense of these buildings, some of the weirdest I have ever seen, and yet beloved to the people who use them and still a part of civic life even a quarter century after the return of churches and religion in the wedding business. Hatherley also spends ten profitable pages (pp. 191–200) on the very odd historical happenstance of church construction in communist (officially atheist) Poland.

Though the book ranges far and wide, it is strongest on Poland, where Hatherley lives, and on Moscow, for fairly obvious reasons given the subject matter. It’s never unbalanced, though; never a case of Moscow versus Everywhere Else. He also happened on the phenomenon of some of the most interesting structure being in places far removed from the center, whether of the country in question or of the Bloc as a whole. Where the glare of the political spotlight was weakest was often where the greatest space for expression could be found.

His chapter on the Metro is also a delight. Moscow’s Metro is world famous, and Hatherley goes at it full tilt. “The urban underground railways that were built between the early 1930s and the early 1990s were and are a magnificent achievement, and one which many people are still, rightly, proud of. What makes this pride difficult is that here as elsewhere is a history of brutality followed by negligence — the difference is that in this case, there were real, spectacular results.” (p. 251) He correctly calls several stations in the system, “opulence in overdrive.” (p. 254) The Moscow Metro is not merely functional at an astonishing level — trains departed my old home station every 90 seconds — but that this utility for moving vast numbers of people around is quite literally palatial. Hatherley describes the details and the ideology behind different lines and stations. He does not shirk looking at the costs, either: “The building of stations at the height of the Terror is quite unnerving enough, but several were constructed during the Great Patriotic War itself. … There are several other stations showing wartime labour and war itself at the very moment it is happening — Avtozavodskaya, for example, the station for the ZiL Palace of Culture … has at near-ceiling height a mural showing the rolling out of tanks, planes and supplies, interspersed with a sculptural frieze of presumably grateful workers and peasants.” (p. 263) About the system as a whole, he adds, “These palaces really are for the people. They were then and they are now. At worst, they are a cheap holiday in somebody else’s luxury; at best, a glimpse of the practice of everyday life being completely transformed and transcended, with mundane tasks transfigured into a dream of egalitarian space.” (p. 309)

Chapters on reconstruction and improvisation address two of the real problems that communist societies faced. First, rebuilding in the wake of the devastation that was the Eastern Front of the Second World War. The scale of fighting and destruction in the East has often been underestimated in the West. Three-quarters of the Wehrmacht’s casualties were inflicted by the Red Army in Europe’s eastern half. The cities of the region suffered accordingly. How and where and to what extent communist governments rebuilt pre-war cityscapes is an interesting topic, and Hatherley contrasts different approaches. Second, planned economies were always shortage economies, and life was impossible without improvisation. Post-communist circumstances have also encouraged improvisation. I found some of Hatherley’s thinking less convincing here. For example, Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn gives numerous examples of why enclosing balconies or grafting on extensions when possible are phenomena not confined to post-communist societies. I also found parts of his concluding chapter on memorials — anti-communist memorials in particular — less convincing, but I suspect that is because I do not share his views on the revolutions of 1989 or post-communist societies somewhat more broadly.

Even being able to have those differences and arguments is a measure of the strength of Landscapes of Communism. For someone from outside the region, it will open vistas into a world often seen in caricature. Different conditions of life will become visible, and different histories knowable. For someone steeped in the post-communist experience, it will offer points of interest, points of agreement, points of contention. Landscapes of Communism repays the attention a reader gives it, and leaves one thinking about its ideas long after the covers have been closed.

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