Thursday, 3 May 2012

The many returns of Socialist Realism



[slightly changed version of an essay that appeared on the Afterall.org online]

Whatever happened to the architecture of the Eastern Bloc? The shock therapy brought in 1989 to install capitalism economically meant a year zero between the past and the present, shattering all the previous networks between countries. What followed was the biggest decline since Great Depression. The late communist economy, a distant shadow of original socialist ideas, dragged down every other dimension of life, erasing also the way cities were planned. Urban and social planning disappeared for the sake of a so-called ‘freestyle’ in architecture, reflecting the new methods of the free market. Suddenly, many carefully planned cities in the ex-Bloc started to look like cheap, Third World versions of North American über-capitalist cities, with horrifically lumpen versions of skyscrapers and financial districts. This so-called ‘style’, characteristic of so many post-Soviet metropolises (most of all, Moscow) wasn’t exactly postmodernism, although it was similar to the stylistic mish-mash of bombastic forms, pastiche historicism and love for money that typified the roughly contemporaneous style in the West. Far more apt is the term coined by Bart Goldhoorn and Philip Meuser on their book about post-1989 Russian architecture, Capitalist Realism.[1] and cultural critic Mark Fisher in a book of the same title (Zero Books, 2009).


The term was actually coined on the occasion of an exhibition by the West German group of painters, like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke or Wolf Vostell in Dusseldorf in 1963, Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, where they took their name from. Young generation of artists reacted to growing consumerism and media-saturation, and though inspired by Pop art’s attitudes, the austerity of German painters never actually shared Pop’s affirmation of capitalism hidden behind irony.

Who was building these new edifices? Did the architects of the previous system disappear? In Poland often the very same architects, whose practices had been privatized, embraced the new reality, and designed Poland’s new parodies of New York and Chicago. Their ability to work in this idiom didn’t come from nowhere, but from the specific, complicated experiences that Polish architects endured in the 1960s and 70s. In that period, they were employed en masse by underdeveloped countries, most of all in the Middle East and North Africa, to work on building and city-planning projects. In recent years, architectural historian Lukasz Stanek and his collaborators at the ETH in Zurich have been working on a research on the interaction between the former Second and Third Worlds, telling a surprising story about development and “underdevelopment”.

In the new capitalist architecture, the legacy of the socialist times was still visible, now expressed through the most grandiose and then-hated reminder of the old regime, Socialist Realism. Many tend to see Socialist and Capitalist Realisms as oppositional ideologies, which obscures how much they have in common. Traditionalism, nationalism, symmetries, grand scale – all that is reflected in both architectural styles. For example, the 90s and 00s skyscrapers of Moscow and Astana were directly modeled after those of late 40s and 50s Moscow and Warsaw, which in turn had been inspired by 1910s Chicago. What happened between Stalinist Socialist realism and Capitalist Realism were three decades of Modernism, mostly in the form of prefabricated social housing. The model for this actually came from pre-War experiences. Poland, for instance, had built Modernist, co-operative public housing estates in the 1920s and 30s. In USSR, Modernism ceased in the early 1930s when the General Plan for rebuilding Moscow demanded a new, Stalinist style termed ‘socialist in content and national in form’.[2]




The new socialist realist style, deployed after the Second World War, has effects that are still visible in all ebuilt Eastern Bloc cities. Those Polish cities, like Warsaw, that had been nearly completely destroyed by the Nazis, were reconstructed from scratch by the new, Moscow-controlled authorities. The Polish Six Year Plan (1950-1955) saw Warsaw spectacularly brought from the dead. Similarly, a building boom happened in the rest of Poland, with reconstructions of Gdańsk, Wrocław, Tychy, and the building of new towns like Nowa Huta – essentially - a steelworks colony, built by an outrageous effort between 1949 and 1954 in suburban Krakow in a grandiose Socialist Realist style, with boulevards wide enough to be able to host tanks in case of the Third World War. This was the reality of the Cold War – a constant competitiveness in all fields including technology, which the Soviet Bloc could mostly win only by propaganda. But where did the rest of the postcolonial world fit in this division?

In the ‘thaw’ of 1956 Boleslaw Bierut, the Communist Party of Poland, died, and was replaced during great turmoil by Władyslaw Gomułka, who criticized the period of Socialist Realism as “the era of errors and distortions”. This event opened a new chapter in Polish planning and architecture. What was from then state-supported was entirely opposed to the totalitarian opulence of the Stalinist Palaces of Culture - cheap, prefabricated blocks of flats. With a housing crisis still pervading society after the war, the quickly built, though initially well-planned estates started to fill the cities in the whole Bloc. Interestingly, this spectacular achievement put Eastern Bloc architects at the frontline of new ideas for housing solutions, as masterplanners and city constructors.



The success of this attracted ‘developing’ countries from outside the Eastern and Western Blocs to hire the cities’ planners and architects. Large state-owned national architectural practices like Miastoprojekt from Krakow or Energoprojekt from Belgrade started working for Middle Eastern and African countries who were members of the Non-Aligned Movement.[3] Miastoprojekt, the designers of Nowa Huta, won a prestigious competition for Baghdad’s master plan in 1967, a general housing programme for Iraq between 1976 and 1980. They continued to work in the Middle East until the 1980s.

The founding of and collaboration with the Non-Aligned Movement was part of the geo-political development of a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. And there was a lot in between: the oil-rich Middle East, Africa emerging from colonial rule and Latin America. They were all underdeveloped and needed new kind of cities and housing. The fact that socialist Poland assisted in it was a source of prestige for urbanists, was seen as proof of the success of socialism, and thus expressed the Eastern Bloc’s political and economic support for the newly founded states. Through this, Functionalist urbanism became a global idiom in the 1960s at the hands of architects from the ‘socialist countries’. Master plans of Baghdad (1967) and Aleppo (from 1962), administrative buildings in Kabul, museums in Nigeria (from 1969), and the trade fair in Accra (1967), followed by governmental buildings in Ghana, were all drawn up by Polish architects, and were recently collected in the exhibition ‘PRL™ Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Poland’[4] at the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art in 2010. The exhibition showed conclusively how the USSR and its periphery, which had gone from being rural to industrial economies in rapid time, were considered by Non-Aligned countries to be a model for their own modernisation. During the 1970s this work abroad was increasingly economically motivated, as Poland had to pay off the loans taken in the 70s by the new leader Edward Gierek. As the crisis in Poland developed, it sparked a crisis of belief in ‘real socialism’ among its citizens. Polish architects were especially keen on exporting their work, as their task was completely subsumed under the requirements of the state building industry and bureaucratic apparatus.

Until a certain moment Polish skills and techniques were highly desirable. They stopped being so in the late 1970s, when imperialism moved into the Non-Aligned nations, forcibly shifting alignments: Indonesia faced a US-backed coup in the 1960s; Egypt reconciled itself to the USA after Sadat became president and in Iraq, Saddam Hussein similarly had the USA’s support. From being the forerunners of architectural planning, all of a sudden Poles had to learn and absorb a completely different architectural idiom – a more Americanised form of postmodern architecture and planning. And perhaps now that the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement were no longer neutral, they were no longer so keen to be associated with the Eastern Bloc.





Rather than being modern, from this point former Non-Aligned countries were keen to market themselves as tourist destinations and started to favour more traditional architectural styles, exoticising their otherness. Meanwhile, countries that became wealthy from oil in the 1970s soon had the wealthiest ruling class in the world. Thus they wanted to build aptly representational buildings, focusing less on housing and basic infrastructure and more on display. One can endlessly ask the question of what caused the rise of postmodernism, but it is clear that the reaction happened everywhere. Each country, in the First, Third and Second Worlds, had adopted modern architecture, so in the end an attack was made across the board on a style apparently boring, monolithic and monofunctional.

The replacement was a corporate and parodic aesthetic. Much of the criticism and pomo ideology came from the US, where the new architecture was already incorporating the elements of what was once-considered avant-garde modernism - collage, violent juxtapositions – and calling it new. Postmodern architecture’s leaders like Philip Johnson once created boring modern architecture, then decided to clad it pink and make jokes. At the same time, postmodernism was socially reactionary, stripping modernism of everything social: welfare state, equality, planning. A symptomatic case is The Iron Gate in Warsaw – a famous, Corbusian council estate built in the center of the city between 1965 and 1972, with micro-flats of 11 sq m per inhabitant. It is now overshadowed by tacky capitalist realist skyscrapers such as Atrium (built in 2001) by architects Kazimierski & Ryba, previously the designers of a ‘Sports-City’ in Latakia, Syria. The Iron Gate, criticized as “a good idea went bad”, was itself the subject of a recent film[5] - the interviews with inhabitants showed it is still often popular, with residents using the communal spaces provided in exactly in the way designers projected.





The problem there now, is the light and space permanently taken by corporate high-rises built onto the parkland originally between the blocks. It’s an interesting example of how modernist zoning (the area was zoned solely for housing) was replaced and crowded by banks, office blocks and restaurants, that all belong not only to another ‘zone’, but another social class. When the influential American writer Jane Jacobs opposed zoning, she was opposing the tendency of spaces in estates to become bleak and abandoned. But what followed was the insistance on making places “vibrant”. In the case of the Iron Gate, this meant building around the monolithic, huge and identical Ville Radieuse-style blocks in green space a net of significantly higher, clad with an especially cheap and perishable material - trespa, speculation flats & and imposing office/retail developments like Atrium. Its architects even quote Socialist Realism as a source of inspiration: “It is the only contemporary style noticeable and consequently realized in Warsaw. In the arcades and cornices of Atrium we applied a pastiche of Socialist Realism, to which we added signs of our time”: atriums, elevators, facades etc.”[6]

Some of the new ideas came from Polish architects’ earlier adaptation of modernist rules to changing local conditions in their Non-Aligned clients. This is too easily read as an embrace of ‘freedom’. In fact, Middle East countries, such as Iraq or Kuwait were much more harsh and undemocratic than any Eastern Bloc country - they treated their political opponents in a much more brutal way than General Jaruzelski did after introducing Martial Law in Poland during 1981.

In 1991 Miastoprojekt Krakow transformed itself into a trade company, consisting of fifteen different offices coordinating the overall practice. The highlights of their practice include, for instance, the headquarters for Philip Morris in Krakow. The planners of cities first in Poland and then the Middle East have become the designers of malls, banks, conference centres, private villas and speculative offices. It’s this movement, from involvement in the Non-Aligned countries before 1989 and then new buildings in Poland after, in which the architects evoked Socialist Realism more often than Modernism, that forms the subject of the exhibition ‘Postmodernism Is Almost All Right’, held at the Warsaw School of Economics last autumn.

It would be interesting to more closely examine the strange recurrence of Socialist Realism, first, as the USSR’s equivalent of the capitalist architecture of the US, drawing at the same time on native Tsarist flamboyance, and then later rhyming with the Po-mo shift worldwide and after 1989, fitting so well within the demands of Capitalist Realism. The future of Socialist Realism is complex. In the West and the newly Westernised EU-members of Osteuropa, it is alternately rejected as a relic of the condemned past or unexpectedly embraced – the grand public spaces of Karl-Marx Allee in Berlin or the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw are now often liked by locals, although certainly no new buildings try and emulate them. In the East, sometimes a very far East indeed, the style unironically adorns undemocratic, turbo-capitalist regimes, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and even extends to oil-garchies Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Mecca’s Abraj al Bait skyscraper closely evokes the Stalinist towers of the 1950s, with its grandiose historicist ornament, its axial symmetry and its lofty spire. With a sense of guilt for ‘exploitation’, this kitsch oligarchitecture is occasionally exposed in contemporary design magazines or exhibitions, but is seldom taken seriously. But is there really such a distance between the ‘high architecture’ of, say, cityscape of Dubai or Norman Foster’s sinister glass Pyramid of Peace for the Kazakh capital, and the ‘kitsch’ simulation of Stalinist styles in the same city’s Triumph Astana?







These recent projects and exhibitions on the many worldwide legacies of socialist architecture ask some pointed questions about where we might position the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’. We find first, an authoritarian Socialist Realist style abandoned in the late ‘50s which is then evoked, stripped of its direct political associations in the new capitalist architecture of the 1990s; and when we try and find out where this evocation of demonized styles comes from, we find the experiences of architects forced to adapt to new trends from the west. Nothing is certain, nothing corresponds to the cliché of totally hostile rival Blocs. More than anything else, we find an era and an architecture that was struggling for alternative scenarios of modernity, rather than limiting itself to a familiar dichotomy between Empires East and West.



[1] Bart Goldhoorn and Philipp Meuser, Capitalist Realism: New Architecture in Russia, Berlin: DOM Publishers, 2006. (the book has parallel text in English, German and Russian)
[3] The Non-Aligned Movement, like the similar Group of 77, was founded during a thaw in the Cold War in 1961 in Belgrade to unite the ‘Third World’ countries that were neither a part of the capitalist West nor the Eastern communist Bloc.)
[4] Exhibition carried out by ETH Zurich's Lukasz Stanek and Piotr Bujas http://www.south-of-eastwest.net/index.php?id=1
[5] Heidrun Holzfeind, Za Zelazna Brama (Behind the Iron Gate) http://www.heidrunholzfeind.com/ZZB.html
[6] Quoted from a leaflet of the exhibition.

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