The Soviet Union’s Glimpse of an Architecture for the Many

For all the Soviet Union’s faults, by traversing its vast architectural landscape, we can get a glimpse of what a built environment for the many, not the few, could look like.

The Lake Sevan Writers' Resort. Courtesy of Repeater Books

The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space doesn’t really have a conclusion. It ends quickly, contrasting a stereotypical idea of the Soviet Union with the much more complex and nuanced reality through which we have just traveled, with Hatherley, through space and time. Reading the book, I imagined Hatherley himself, illustrated in a blue-and-red cosmonaut suit on the book’s cover, not walking but rather floating through this fuzzy post-Soviet space wearing a diving-bell-style helmet, taking down notes about what he sees on a little yellow pad so he can relay it all to us in his straightforward and incisive style.

Adventures has no conclusion because it doesn’t need one. Hatherley tells us that the book is intended to be a guide — not to be read on its own, but rather to be used by visitors to shape their trips to the cities in his log, perhaps hanging out of a traveler’s back pocket or, more realistically, since the book is two inches thick, peeking out the top of a backpack. Adventures “is intended to be useful both to visitors, for whom this will tell them things they do not know, and to curious citizens, who will find an interpretation of what they do already know, which they may or may not agree with.”

But the book isn’t a guidebook in the traditional sense, with practical tips on public transportation or restaurant recommendations or tiny out-of-scale maps with cartoony illustrations of all the sights to be seen. Nor is it a straight history book — there is no chronological or argumentative thread to hold it all together, just a loose agglomeration of stories, histories, and vignettes, accompanied by Hatherley’s own photos, which he describes, borrowing from John Berger, as “simple memoranda.” The book is divided into an introduction and four sections, each subdivided into chapters that correspond to a city. It’s unconventional, perhaps fitting most neatly into the genre of travel writing done by the likes of Alexis de Tocqueville and Victoria Ocampo.

But through this odd format — and the combination of flowing, friendly prose cut through with biting political commentary and images that resemble smartphone photos a friend may show you after a trip — Hatherley makes it easy to approach the difficult histories of each place we visit and the Soviet Union as a whole. In doing so, we get a glimpse of what architecture designed for people’s needs rather than profit might look like.

An Ideal Pit Stop

Our journey begins in Slavutych, a town built to rehouse those displaced in the evacuation of Pripyat following the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. Starting here is like starting nowhere — the city is built in the middle of a forest, seemingly untethered from any preexisting infrastructure, and everywhere — the eight districts of Slavutych are each designed by the architects and built by the builders of eight Soviet republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine.

Slavutych is a Soviet microcosm (or “Microcosmos,” as Hatherley terms it). It is a dream town, if not in its final manifestation, then certainly in its inception. It’s built in the woods; there are no variables; nothing to connect to, no forces behind its design other than the political will of the Soviet government and the aesthetic will of the architects.

Hatherley takes us on a tour through the neighborhoods of Slavutych — the Leningrad quarter with its odd scaled-down versions of St Peterburg’s open loggias and canals, the Yerevan quarter with barbecues of pink tufa attached to the balconies of every house, the Tallinn quarter with its houses and apartments tucked in between tufts of trees — showing how, in its form, Slavutych attempted a representation of the ideal values of socialism, and, in its substance, a carrying-out of those values. This was a humanist city, one whose sidewalks and bicycle lanes made it easy to get around on foot or on two wheels and whose cypress-tree-lined streets made it pleasant to be outside; it was (perhaps too literally) thoroughly internationalist, with each of its neighborhoods corresponding to and expressing the spirit of a different Soviet republic; and it was environmentalist — especially in stark contrast to Pripyat, which had become entirely polluted and virtually uninhabitable.

Slavutych is the perfect place to start our journey because it is an actually existing example of a fully realized ideal Soviet city plan. In examining the city’s built environment, we see an attempt to rectify what hadn’t worked elsewhere in the Soviet Union, whose cities were often criticized for being too inhuman, too cold, too prefabricated. In an attempt to “show off how good and reformed the system could be,” the designers of Slavutych doubled down on Soviet values but changed the way they manifested physically and aesthetically. Because it was a city-from-scratch, they were able to do so without resistance.

The results allow us to understand the goals of Soviet city planning — building the Soviet identity and carrying out the Soviet political program — in an extraordinarily simple context, before we attempt to understand how these same goals manifested under more complex historical conditions.

Back From the Microcosmos

After our brief stop in this Microcosmos, Hatherley brings us back to Earth. Our trip takes us into the “Western Periphery,” which includes cities in current Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and western Russia; then southward into the “Debatable Lands” of Ukraine and Moldova; later northward right into the heart of the Soviet Union, what Hatherley calls “The Centre;” and finally far afield, into the “Eastern Periphery,” which stretches as far as the city of Almaty in eastern Kazakhstan. The geographic distinctions are not so much markers of any similarities of commonalities of the cities within them, but rather gentle tethers to geography, loose boundaries that we can use to track where we’re going and where we’ve been within what sometimes seems like boundless post-Soviet space.

Within these loose boundaries, Hatherley’s project becomes apparent. This book is not about Soviet architecture, though it certainly spends plenty of time describing it. Rather, it’s about what architecture reveals about Soviet history and the process of “de-communization” that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

Hatherley seems aware that he is writing in the universe of highly fetishized and aestheticized Soviet architecture, at a time when websites like the Tumblr blog “fuckyeahbrutalism” and the online catalog of Brutalist architecture “#SOSBRUTALISM” have seen years of popularity, and books like Frédéric Chaubin’s CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed feature 435 pages of glossy, full-color images of triumphant, concrete buildings with nary a person in sight.

In Adventures, there are no flashy images, no photographs of triumphant structures of Brutalist concrete, no red-and-gold-and-white-and-black imagery on glossy pages. Part of Hatherley’s project is to do away with the fetishization of the aesthetics of Soviet architecture and instead tell the story of these buildings within their historical, social, and economic context, using them as a way to understand the conditions that led to their creation. These conditions tend to be underpinned by two general motivations, the same ones that drove the architecture of Slavutych: building the identity of the nation and carrying out the social program of the Soviet state.

The Palace of Pioneers.
Courtesy of Repeater Books

Outside of Slavutych, though, with more variables and much less controlled conditions, the architecture, as well as its history, tend to be much more complex and more difficult to understand, and certainly more difficult to consume as objects of tourism. In the Ukranian towno of Dnipro, for example, we see how the late-Soviet (very late — built in 1991) Palace of Pioneers blends in its design the gaudy decoration and fine materials associated with the Stalin era with structural elements meant to evoke the techno-centric, futurist ethos of its contemporaries, like the Pompidou Center in Paris. On the exterior, a smooth, sand-colored stone combines with rough, geometric concrete structural elements, while inside, carefully patterned and glossy-finished parquet floors contrast brightly colored, kistchy murals.

While the Pompidou has formal clarity — it’s easy to understand as a stand-alone object within the surrounding landscape of buildings and is made of only a few materials — the Palace of Pioneers does not. It’s too messy, its straight-edged concrete structure clumsily coming together with more classically curved elements like a sculptural stair, and its overall form spilling awkwardly out into the landscape through a series of stairs and elevated walkways that make it hard to tell where the building ends or begins. It’s the architecture of a city trying to grapple with its past as it speculates about its future.

A mosaic at a hospital in Slavutych.
Courtesy of Repeater Books

Complex as it may be, the project of nation-building embodied by the Palace of Pioneers seems straightforward when compared to some of the buildings that stray even further from a typical travel guide. When, instead of monuments, museums, or palaces, Hatherley takes us to housing complexes, hospitals, or factories — places where people carry out their everyday lives — we see that the magic of Adventures lies in how carefully Hatherley toes the line between playing the role of tour guide and friendly pseudo-local, just showing us around some interesting places.

In the latter, the relationship between the physical present and the past is never static, and history is read through the ever-changing lens of everyday life. In a housing complex in Kuldīga, a small industrial town in Latvia, we see how prefabricated architecture housed people who worked at a local concrete-panel factory, and how, over time, the droning standardization of the buildings was amended to be a bit more human with things like built-in benches, patterned screens, brick and concrete entrances, and wood decorative elements. The architecture wasn’t perfect to begin with, but it did leave enough room for its inhabitants to adapt it as their lifestyles evolved.

Sotsmisto, a modernist housing complex in Zaporizhia.
Courtesy of Repeater Books

Similarly, in Zaporizhia, a Ukranian town, a housing complex illustrates the constant nation-making and remaking that took place for decades within the Soviet Union. The complex, a modernist project dubbed Sotsmisto, which translates from Ukranian to mean “Socialist City,” was originally built in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Since then, the buildings in it have seen a number of adaptations, expansions, and additions: some were refinished with stone in the forties in an attempt to make them seem more weighty and monumental; others have had their balconies adapted into interior spaces; and others still have been left alone to dilapidate. Each change marks a particular time in the building’s lifespan and manifests as a layer upon the ones before it; what we’re meant to see here is that nothing from the past is either fully erased nor visible in its original form.

We stay just long enough to let the place serve as a touchstone for something else, a small gateway into a morsel of history that we wouldn’t otherwise have understood or been able to access. In Sotsmisto, for example, Hatherley spots a faded, torn poster with an image of the Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, “the only poster for a political party [he’s] seen in Ukraine that is on someone’s flat rather than on a billboard” — leading him to launch into a brief history of the Communist Party in Ukraine.

These pieces of history are never tangential or tacked-on; rather, they are central to our understanding of where we are, what we’re looking at, why it’s there. They fill out in high detail the contours of the post-Soviet space through which we’re traveling — and which most of the book’s readers likely imagine as an endless, monotonous landscape of prefabricated houses and factories, dotted with statues of Lenin and abstract, triumphant concrete monuments. As Hatherley brings these histories to the surface, the monotony of that imagined landscape starts to break down, as does the impenetrable, supposedly monolithic nature of Soviet history.

Hatherley’s demystification of Soviet architecture does something else, too: it elucidates the reasons for building architecture under an economic system other than capitalism, something that his readers have likely never seen before. The results are not always perfect, or even always good, but it’s thoroughly novel for anyone who has spent their entire life under capitalism to see, for example, countries whose best architects were hired to design social housing. This is perhaps Adventures’ greatest triumph: thoroughly illustrating — even with its messy histories, ugly buildings, kitschy statues — a built environment that existed without a profit motive driving it.

Buildings of a Better World

Of course, this started to change even during Perestroika, the market-friendly restructuring of the Soviet Union that took place in the eighties and nineties, and Hatherley has no illusions that architecture (or any other aspect of life and work) in the Soviet Union was ever ideal, even when it was made to directly fulfill the needs of workers. As Perestroika gave way to capitalism, though, “architects … commissioned largely by private business, fell into ‘a primitive fulfillment of their clients’ wishes and needs,’ resulting in … a ‘complete loss of professional and aesthetic skills, and of the moral and ethical concerns of an architect.’”

What might have these concerns been, and did they ever fully manifest in a building in the Soviet Union? Hatherley gives us one building by way of example.

Lake Sevan Writer’s Resort, with its 1960s addition cantilevering over two cars.
Courtesy of Repeater Books

Near the end of our journey, we find ourselves on a peninsula in Lake Sevan in Armenia, standing near a ninth-century monastery made of reddish-brown rocks quarried from the land around it. On this same peninsula is our destination: the Sevan Writers’ Resort, designed in 1932 by Gevorg Kochar and Mikael Mazmanyan, founders of the Organization of Proletarian Architects of Armenia, a group that argued against creating buildings in any particular “style” and in favor of taking cues from the climate and the landscape to drive architectural design.

Their Writers’ Resort on the shores of Lake Sevan is a typically spare, boxy modernist building; it’s “laconic, rationalist, and calm — four storeys, built into the lower part of the peninsula, with curved balconies and a glazed stair-tower to offer as much sight of the lake as possible.” Once we’ve settled into this place, Hatherley clues us into a tragic detail of its history: “in 1937, not very long after the resort hosted its first guests, Kochar and Mazmanyan were arrested and deported to the Arctic Circle, about as far from Lake Sean as it’s possible to imagine.” After Stalin died, Kochar returned to Armenia and was shortly thereafter commissioned to design a cafe wing for the resort.

A view of the lake from the terrace of the Lake Sevan Writers’ Resort.
Courtesy of Repeater Books

It’s here where things get interesting. For all of Kochar’s and Mazmanyan’s insistence on architecture being responsive to its natural site, their 1932 resort is relatively conservative and typically modern. But in 1963, Kochar designed and built an addition to the original design that actually demonstrated the values espoused by the Organization of Proletarian Architects of Armenia.

The cafe wing is “completely integrated into its site, a sentry nestled above the rocks, allowing cafe customers panoramic views of the lake and the mountains. It doesn’t genuflect to the monastery or the historic architecture around, preferring instead a futurist aesthetic suited to a country that was sending people into space.” The resort is still owned by the Writers’ Union of Armenia, still takes guests for less than thirty dollars a night, still has beautiful views of the lake and fresh-caught trout on its cafe menu.

The image of the Sevan Writers’ Resort is humble yet idyllic, and it lingers long after a first reading. It’s an anomaly in Adventures, the only chapter focused on a single building. But the building is also unlike any other we might be used to. Even without idealizing it, it’s difficult to imagine a place like the Sevan Writers’ Resort in any capitalist country, much less in the United States. It has a kind of quiet luxury that’s typically reserved for those who can pay large sums for it — and owned by those with the capital to make even more money from it.

In taking us to the Sevan Writers’ Resort, Hatherley cuts through some of the chaos and complexity in the post-Soviet space, through the failed attempts at city planning that’s friendly to pedestrians, through the extreme swing of the pendulum toward capitalism in many post-Soviet cities. It’s there, at the resort, that he gives us a glimpse of that possible better world.

Who Gives a Shit?

It’s in this chapter that I found myself pondering a question that had nagged at me through the whole book: Why should socialists care about architecture?

The easy answer is that we spend the majority of our lives in it. Whether we live in cities, suburbs, exurbs, or the countryside, we depend on the built environment. But under capitalism, architecture isn’t built for people — it’s built for profit. Housing is made not as a place for workers to live, but as a tool for capitalists to speculate in the real estate market. The architecture of public institutions — schools, libraries, train stations — is low-cost and mass-produced. If it doesn’t turn a profit, it’s not worth making it beautiful.

The best architecture, designed by the contemporary version of Kochar and Mazmanyan’s writers’ resort, is reserved for the most rarefied venues and inaccessible to working-class people. That profit is the main motive behind building has become so commonplace to us that it’s difficult to imagine why an ordinary person would ever care about architecture.

Even with the Soviet Union, with all its grave missteps and brutality and failures, as the source material, we see almost firsthand in Hatherley’s Adventures instances of architecture built with a motive other than profit. Hatherley opens the door for us to imagine what it might be like, for example, if unions could send their members to their lakeside resort. And he tells us, indirectly but repeatedly, that it’s through what we build — and who we build it for — that our history will be read and retold.

We know the history of capitalism will be legible in our architecture. We can already see it around us. Adventures reminds socialists, however momentarily, that if we keep fighting, our architecture may also tell the history of workers building, literally, the world they want for themselves.