The Contemporary Soviet City

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  1. The Contemporary Soviet City
  2. The Contemporary Soviet city - Semantic Scholar
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  4. Loss and (re-)construction of public space in post-Soviet cities

By the mids, the brutalist trend of modern architecture began to emerge on the international scene. However, these heavy, hard-looking structures with raw concrete textures were still on the drawing boards when Soviet architects began to visit Western Europe and America to explore newly built works. Additionally, the trips of these architects were neither regular nor long-term, and the few books and publications available in the professional press of the country kept them only superficially informed of the real state of their craft worldwide.

Many years would pass before brutalist forms would appear in the USSR. In addition to stylistic matters, a plethora of global building types was completely missing in the Soviet Union, so there was no practice to be had in designing them. They included super-tall skyscrapers, corporate headquarters, temples, automobile garages, private universities, science laboratories, museums, banks, condominiums, restaurants, and fashion boutiques.

And a vitally important experimental type in architecture, the single-family home, did not exist. Masterwork private houses were created by nearly all of the great architects. European villas designed by Corbusier and Mies, for example, became their early manifestos.

The Contemporary Soviet City

However, in the Soviet Union, there was no personalized housing after , when renowned architect Konstantin Melnikov built his own house-studio in Moscow. Architecture is a slow art.

It takes years to create the masterworks that develop in the atmosphere of lively discussions among colleagues and clients and the endless experiments that occur during design and construction, not to mention the crucial roles of an advanced building industry and a high level of craftsmanship. The mid-century Soviet architects had no real opportunities or a competitive environment to trigger the development of world-class projects. No one really set such goals before them, either. There were two main objectives at the time: solve the housing shortage by providing millions of Soviet families with individual apartments—not the communal ones that were the norm—and to achieve this goal economically.

One noteworthy aspect of the newly-mandated projects was that their aesthetic qualities remained unspecified.

The Contemporary Soviet city - Semantic Scholar

These choices were entrusted to the architects themselves, who were expected to learn the means and methods for generating contemporary architecture in the West. Learning from foreign examples was the logical—and the only possible—solution. Yet, the actual control over the construction process was passed to the hands of the contractors, who could blame the architects for being excessive regarding any deviation from mandated standards. The potential of the Soviet architects was limited on all accounts: ideologically, creatively, economically, and technically. It may seem that, under the conditions of total government administrative control, there would be no space for creativity whatsoever.

The reality is that a true artist can remain free under any dictatorship, as much as one might be constrained in any democracy.

And what else, if not to obtain personal freedom, were the architects striving for by trying to express their original visions? The choice is always made by the artists themselves, and the proof of such is clearly visible in the innovative, if rare, examples of the architecture of Soviet modernism. It is very hard to evaluate architecture of this period without fully understanding the circumstances of the time.

Soviet modernism cannot be judged just by its results, ignoring the struggle of the architects regarding stereotypes, standards, and the inertia of playing it safe by architectural bureaucrats. The practitioners of the day had to argue with the authorities for unfamiliar solutions, and the outcome was often based on the willingness of the architects to openly defend their positions. Architecture does not begin with a form, but with a social position; and with form, architecture ends. Today, Soviet modernist architecture is criticized without factoring in the constraints of the time.

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It is often derided as derivative, unexpressive, and inhumane. Yet, this album showcases the standout works of the period. The evaluation of any style on a mass scale is meaningless. Classical architecture is defined by the Parthenon; Gothic, by the Chartres Cathedral; but in our own time, architecture is often judged by the mediocre building next door.

Such a practice is not objective and is unjust. Modernism should be judged by the best creations of masters such as Corbusier, Mies, Alvar Aalto, and Eero Saarinen, and not by the banal and featureless residential and corporate buildings that similarly depress people in cities and suburbs worldwide. While the works of the master Soviet architects and others like them were influenced by the West, that influence was not literally translated, as the examples I have mentioned demonstrate.

It was not an easy task to accomplish. The question of self-identity remains central to our own time. It seems that we can build virtually anything. We know so much about what is going on professionally around the world, as well as the architectural precedents of the entire twentieth century, but, even today, the appearance of a strong, expressive work is a rare occurrence. Buildings that are now being built on different continents by different architects could, in reality, be shuffled around with hardly any difference noticed.

Jean-Louis Cohen, history of architecture professor at New York University, a leading expert on Soviet architecture, and organizer and moderator of the event, was quick to retort, noting several impressive structures built in the s. Western architecture attracted the Soviet modernists through its plasticity, transparency, airiness, spatial complexity, innovative methods of using contemporary materials, refinement of details, novelty and abstract imagery, and beauty of contrasting forms. Still, even compared with the best examples of modernist projects around the world, the Soviet architects succeeded in creating their own distinctive works.

There are very few of them, but they cannot be ignored. They are rendered with a sense of dignity, and they are expressive in their own way. Among them, there are some real gems. These buildings and complexes need to be publicized much more, as some of them, due to their lack of landmark designation, have already fallen victim to shortsighted contemporary development. Interestingly, the particular architectural solutions of its young authors were often made on the construction site and were spontaneous and emotional in character.

Then, all spheres of culture had their leaders, named shestidesyatniki [of the s], in theater, cinema, literature, music, art. We wanted to become shestidesyatniki in architecture. Nonetheless, we succeeded in defining Soviet modernism for many years to come. This free, democratic design turned over a new leaf in the USSR. It introduced many innovations, and, most importantly, its architecture was treated informally, without any decorative curtseys to the past. The architects offered impressive, solid compositions with features including harmonious proportions; the efficient performance of flexible free forms; canopies thrusting far forward; extended glazing that effectively blurred the boundary between interior and landscape; diagonals of sculptural flights of stairs; and unconventional brickwork with bright inlays depicting images of a great future.

Planned over a vast site, the Palace of Pioneers became a new experimental city in miniature, a true dream of idealists.

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Many shestidesyatniki were united by a feeling of freedom, a foretaste of change, and an optimistic longing for something new. Even today, we can still see that cheerful outlook on the future in the best architectural designs of those decades. How could it be otherwise?

But in those days, it seemed that there were more optimists than usual. New, freshly built buildings were just appearing. Their contrast to the Soviet architecture of the early s, which was richly decorated with classical details, was overwhelming. This was not meant to be. Soon, a wave of dull panel construction, indifferent to humanity and environment, washed over the whole country. In the West, all styles of architecture peacefully coexisted with modernism, but, in the Soviet Union, architecture of the period was exclusively modernist and almost entirely standardized.

Customized works were a rarity. Many cities had no masterworks at all. Mass production in the mode of the industrial conveyor belt had flattened the city. The amount of residential space increased, but blandness was implacable. It is not surprising that, in the public conscience, Soviet modernism is not viewed as an artistic movement. Nevertheless, in its best iterations, it is possible to trace an emotional connection to both world contemporary architecture and to s constructivism.

In such a standardized world, only functionally unique projects had a chance to incorporate architectural breakthroughs. One such an example is the Ostankino TV Tower, the tallest building in the world at the time. Popularly, the tower is associated with a rocket blasting off into space. In my opinion, one of the most successful projects is the Council of Economic Cooperation SEV Building, which has a two-winged main facade. Its open, free profile is somewhat reminiscent of Lake Point Tower, built one year earlier in Chicago, which also sits over a base structure.

Yet, the Chicago project can be more closely associated with one of the three towers of the competition complex of Narkomtyazhprom on Red Square by Ivan Leonidov. So, in a way, the SEV Building, by incorporating various codes into its canonic form, is linked to earlier projects but also contributed to the development of the glass tower in its own right. The solution of the Lego-like structure of the Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, Georgia, very appropriately reminds one of a multi-level highway flyover. To fit all the necessary functions in a typical building would have required an expensive thirty-five-story tower.

In reality, the project is a pure and original artistic composition, the thoughts about which surely preceded any rational explanation by the architect. Gear wheel forms, both complete and fragmented, were used by Melnikov as industrial symbols in some of his works. But, for this project, the expressive gear wheels are locked into what appears to be a giant working mechanism, quite literally incorporating the various programs of the complex.

The design is a provocative metaphor for a recreation facility for the masses. Yet, the complex presents a very effective, memorable, and unprecedented image. One of the most expressive and effective examples of Soviet modernism is Krylatsky Cycle Track, in the form of a hovering butterfly. Nevertheless, the Moscow cycle track is an independent and noble artistic work, perhaps the most uninhibited and expressive of all Soviet buildings. While, for the most part, architecture in Moscow and other western cities of the Soviet Union was confined to the strict limits of modernist ideology, architects in the eastern part of the country were more successful in escaping predictability and monotony by referencing climactic, cultural, seismic, and other local features.

Even though declarations concerned with tradition and the establishment of modernism seemed to turn away from the past, in fact, a nationally influenced architecture was created—something that was new and unprecedented in form but nevertheless distinctly national and local. The Soviet Central Asian Republics became the true laboratory of local form development in the nation.

Many public buildings including museums, libraries, cinemas, hotels, railroad stations, and markets were built with facade sunscreens featuring traditional Eastern ornaments. Of course, even in the use of national ornaments, the Soviet architects were not the first, as the buildings in Tashkent and Ashgabat evoke previous projects by American modernist Edward Durell Stone, who was often criticized for his refusal to stick to the strict modernist language of his early career. The design for his American Embassy in New Delhi, India, recalls on the one hand the finest edifices in Indian architecture with its use of concrete sunscreens, but on the other hand, symbolizes the might and power of the United States.

Nonetheless, in their search for ways of uniting contemporary architecture with local culture, the Soviet architects established a fresh view and discovered new design directions. All of the aforementioned projects prove the distinct vision, unpretentious enthusiasm, and innovative spirit of the Soviet architects. The uniqueness of their work is now being confirmed by burgeoning public interest in the heritage of Soviet modernism. The buildings are studied by aspirants of Yale University and other elite institutions. And students of other notable American universities are exploring the planning strategies of the microraion residential developments.

This interest is fueled by the fact that Soviet architecture is not well known—it was, in many ways, quite isolated, developed in circumstances very different from those in the West. Architecture has many angles and layers, conveying not only visual, but initially, emotional dimension. The Soviet architects succeeded in adopting the experience of such outstanding modern architects as those I have mentioned in addition to others, including Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Louis Kahn, and Paul Rudolph, and also succeeded in expressing their own contemporary visions.

Likely not. One might compare the degree of talent displayed if the creative circumstances had been similar, but they were not. The Soviet construction industry fell behind that of the West, and whatever critics may say today, the main goals of the Soviet architects were social, not aesthetic. And they were addressed with the means available. Haute architecture was a rarity. The central achievement of the architects of the period is the fact that some original architecture was realized at all. And its best examples hold their own when compared to structures built in our time.

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There is no doubt that modernism of the Soviet period presents a link in the chain of the development of world architecture. This anthology, featuring preeminent examples of the time, confirms the independent and original merits of the last style of the Soviet Empire. This subject has been waiting for serious explorers, as it hides many fascinating discoveries, which are now only beginning to be revealed.

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Loss and (re-)construction of public space in post-Soviet cities

Voices: Buenos Aires. Voices: Mexico City. Voices: Chicago. Voices: Sydney. Emilio Ambasz: Singapore. Emilio Ambasz: Beijing. Emilio Ambasz: Shanghai. Emilio Ambasz: Moscow. Emilio Ambasz: St. Industrial production fell by 60 per cent between and —and a further 6 per cent between and —and with the de facto bankruptcy of the core of the industrial economy, the secure revenue-base for the regional and federal authorities disappeared also. Expenditure was financed at a rate of only By March , government-issued debt accounted for just under 11 per cent of officially estimated gdp , and, although tax collection had improved, half was still in the form of tax credits.

As one governor declared to pensioners armed with staves and pitchforks blocking a bridge over the Volga:. Enterprises are standing idle, and no payments are being made into the Pension Fund. In November , 6. A further 6. Poverty is endemic. And many were either not being paid for months on end, or not receiving their pensions. By the end of , it was estimated that 65m—67m had not been paid wages, salaries or pensions for some period that year. One series reported was at Tver, where pensioners, every Tuesday, had picketed the regional administration, blocked the streets, and eventually sat down on the St.

Petersburg—Moscow railway tracks. Fear and desperation were said to be the motivation:.