June 18, 2019

Was Architecture Better Under Socialism?

“The war between capitalism and socialism is fought not only on the ideological terrain of politics and economics but also in the quotidian domain of everyday life and culture. A recent book by an anthropologist, for example, sets out to prove Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. Was architecture better under socialism, too? If there is a tendency among some to dismiss it all as irredeemably tainted, to see a gulag in every Russian natatorium or playground, there is equally a reverse impulse among proponents of socialism to shower it with praise while offering only perfunctory admonitions about the societies that gave rise to it.

A much more extensive and nuanced assessment was recently on offer in a remarkable exhibit on postwar Yugoslavian architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Its title tiptoes gracefully around the larger political questions. The one certainty of a phrase like “Toward a Concrete Utopia,” after all, is that the goal was never achieved. The failure may prompt a wince or worse, as we all know how badly this attempt ended—and not just for the buildings. Yet many of the relics of that massive and in the end misguided effort to build utopia are still with us, battered by war and neglect, monuments to social experimentation as well as social tragedy. They call out for appreciation and a better understanding of their conception.

The exhibit, which closed in January, was not an island. Eastern Bloc architecture has recently enjoyed a publishing boom, spearheaded first by photo volumes seizing on surreal singularities and lately fueled by a resurgent interest in socialism in the West. Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, first published in 2011 and rereleased this month by the renowned art press Taschen, is one evocative, yet typical, title, composed of photographs by Frédéric Chaubin of what the cover copy calls the “spectacular forms and austere aesthetics” of “extreme” architecture in the final years of the USSR. These photography-heavy volumes tend to focus on curious, if unquestionably great, standouts and emphasize the ghostlike quality of “totalitarian” structures that have survived the states that gave birth to them. They are beautiful, without question. Subsequent books have been more comprehensive, with a higher ratio of text to photos. Excellent work has been done in such corners as the architecture of the Non-Russian Soviet republics, and Owen Hatherley’s fascinating travelogues, which venture beyond individual buildings.

Overlooked, except in one fine study, are the drab majority of Soviet buildings, the ones you see ringing nearly every former Eastern Bloc city but never visit. This oversight is neither surprising nor altogether objectionable; most books on architecture in the United States aren’t about split-levels, after all. But it does leave readers with an incomplete picture of the full range and significance of the architectural productions of the most extensive communist regime in the history of the world.”

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