Building Beyond Capitalism

By Ben PaynterJuly 4, 2015

Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley

GORBACHEV has come and gone, Yeltsin has done his bit, and Putin is perfecting the transformation of his homeland from the mother of all communist-worker states to the father of all nationalist, oligarchical ones. The Empire is striking back. The “little green men” now dominating headlines — Russian troops in unmarked uniforms, that is — appear to base their chauvinism much more on a Tsarist-imperial, Orthodox-faith patriotism than on any fondness for the former Soviet regime. The colonizing wont of the two historical societies might be conflated but, in many other respects, Putin’s Russia could be said to have taken big steps further away from the days of the Soviet Union.

The defeat of the Soviet Union by capitalist-nationalist forces might have been rubbed in a little bit more — or rubbed out. The parallel efforts of neo-imperialist Russia and the eastward-expanding EU have combined to radically efface the legacy and memory of the USSR. Whereas Westerners raised in the Cold War probably entertained caricatures of communism fed by the propaganda of both sides, the generation since seems not even to know or care about what communism entailed, beyond the sketchiest notion.

Here’s where Owen Hatherley steps in with his arguments for the study of communist architecture. “What is perhaps worth doing now,” he states in the foreword, “with those regimes twenty-five years dead, is assessing and exploring their most obvious legacy, and what will soon, as those who lived through them begin to age and depart, be their only easily explorable legacy outside of the museums, libraries and archives — their buildings.” In the former Eastern Bloc, the citizens themselves will soon have as little idea of communist life as the tourists wandering in from New Europe. If there is anything that will linger on as a reminder of times gone by, it will surely be the architecture that the Soviets so radically imposed.

Hatherley’s book is an entirely unexpected delight: it is both entertaining and revelatory. As I suspect is the case with the majority of fellow Westerners who’ve had any experience of Soviet architecture, my own experience of it is limited to travels in East Berlin. I haven’t visited Russia, I haven’t visited Warsaw, and those Eastern cities I have been to are mostly exceptional cases of pre-20th-century survival: Vienna, Prague, Kraków. I therefore have very little real idea of what communist-built landscapes look like, how they worked, and what it was like to live in them. Hatherley’s very welcome project is to record his wanderings around the estates, monuments, and palaces of communism and to describe these as places where people actually lived, where life went on. This is, in itself, a fascinating project. For those more skeptical, though, who might question the relevance of this, Hatherley has a bolder justification: “Was (is) there something in [communism] that suggests ways of building cities outside of capitalism? It is a question worth asking, as a seemingly endless economic crisis reveals ever more ragingly the insanity of a world system geared largely towards maximizing profit for a small group of people, seemingly impervious to any protest or reform.” Ah, OK. This isn’t simply an objective history, nor a mild flâneur’s journal. There are teeth to this book: unobvious, low-lying ones, gradually grinding away at triumphalist presumptions to get at a more profound understanding.

As the reader might have picked up, this book is not so much the product of bibliophilia and library hours (for all that they’ve played their part) but rather of the author’s days, months, and years of living in and perambulating around East Bloc architecture. Hatherley, an Englishman, has been based for a long time in Warsaw with his Polish partner and has traveled extensively through the East, particularly its urban hubs (it’s fair to say that this is a city-centered work). What’s more — as he is candid enough to declare — his moderate finances have compelled him to go about these places using largely the same transport systems and pedestrian routes as their worker-inhabitants would have taken every day. There are many places he hasn’t seen, and he doesn’t pretend to offer an exhaustive or authoritative treatment of the subject. “So this is an attempt to tell a story of the communist landscape, but it is certainly not the story. It is, by and large, a record of what we found on what were usually unplanned walks, usually for our own pleasure.” In a sense, therefore, it’s a person’s history of communist architecture; this would seem to be a very fitting approach to the topic, given the incalculable crimes done to communism by those bosses bent on defining and asserting it. Not only this; but owing, as it does, a debt to the flânerie of Walter Benjamin and W. G. Sebald, the book is invested with a humaneness and wit that have all too often evaded the discussion — not to mention implementation — of communist architecture.

The personal element is one of the defining qualities of the book throughout. Hatherley is that most excellent kind of nomadic narrators: one who comes with a great deal of knowledge but allows himself to be led primarily by naked curiosity. While the subjects of his attention are always described with the benefit of great learning, the narrative is given greater vivacity by his astonished reaction to real things and his excited observations. In the chapter on “Magistrale” — or grand boulevards, the likes of Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin — he reports a visit to Bucharest and the magistrale of Romania’s “little Stalin,” Ceauşescu. We are given a detailed background of the topic, relating, for example, how Ceauşescu forced the project through during the height of the 1970s oil crisis and national bankruptcy. “And all through this, workers constructed the Centrul Civic, at the cost of 40,000 displaced people, of dozens of historic churches and monasteries, and, eventually, of a violent revolution.”

As the author recalls his exploration of the place, the architectural details become sharper:

The buildings were made entirely out of Romanian materials […] the architects were instructed by the leader to borrow from the ‘Belvedere’ blocks nearby […] The blocks that we found in the Centrul Civic [...] share the Stalinist love of impure form, extraneous decoration (nearly everything seems to have a colonnade on the roof), bay windows and monumental symmetry, but the details have no similarity at all […] there’s something about the heavy concrete eyebrows over big glass windows that specifically suggests real local precedent.

But then, where many an academic text would stop, we are given the benefit of personal insight — what it is like to actually be in such a place. “The boulevard itself is straight, banal, and seemingly endless — it is the only one in this chapter that we did not walk all the way down, because it was just too hot and too tiring. Despite the city’s extreme climate, the boulevard has a notable lack of cafés or bars, with the retail units rather tellingly taken up by ultra-expensive boutiques.” The palatial “House of the People” at the end of the boulevard — the second-biggest building in the world, we’re told — is also described and, as with key features of the book, represented in the form of a small photograph. It’s clear that it’s an awe-inspiring monstrosity. But perhaps the best insight comes, again, from Hatherley’s personal reflection: “At the end of all this Agata and I both found, somewhat to our surprise, that we hated the damn thing […] This was the magistrale with all the shiny red granite, sparkling mosaics and statues of workers, peasants and students stripped away, revealing itself only as a brutal and banal safeguard against revolution. And a failed one, as its builder would find out.” Far more than focusing exclusively and prejudicially on the architecture, the author expands on it to consider the lived experience of such constructions and their context in the organic flux of human history.

Agata deserves more praise than simply for her occasional role as escort, guide, and linguist. Intriguingly, she becomes something of a balance to the author’s educated enthusiasms, which otherwise, outsider as he is, would risk the charge of naivety. The narrative takes us to the communist-built Warsaw district where Agata grew up. There is, of course, the vital investigation of this place as an architectural phenomenon: Hatherley is particularly interested in the contrasts of the tower blocks with the open, green spaces in between, and with these the suburbia of “technical intelligentsia.” But, importantly, he adds that: “By this point we were hanging around places where Agata had grown up, although she wasn’t exactly overcome by nostalgia. […] I defer to Agata’s judgment: it was incredibly depressing living here and she would never do so again under any circumstances.” If this isn’t a brake on academic sentimentality, I don’t know what is.

The great virtue of this aspect of the narrative is its role in helping the reader to grasp, firstly, what effect the described buildings had on the people and, secondly, how the advent of capitalism and its total eclipsing of communism has affected their attitudes. Communist architecture isn’t treated as something hermetically sealed in the past but as an inheritance: giant, unavoidable, and often in need of repair. The author’s writing seems to foreshadow or pre-empt the reactions that we ourselves would have upon visiting such sites; this is more like being on an extremely well informed and intimate tour than a mere sedentary turning of pages.

There are riches galore, too, in this subject area. One of the most comprehensive chapters is on the metro systems built in almost all large cities under the Soviet aegis. Hatherley, in another typically personal comment, admits his huge enthusiasm for these constructions:

I genuinely do believe that the practice of the Soviet Union was vastly superior to that of the West […] 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 story of brutality followed by negligence — the difference is that in this case, there were real, spectacular results.

That negligence is by no means brushed over: detail is given, for example, of Khrushchev’s orders to “push the advance of a shift [of tunnel diggers] to four times what was safe, and ‘whole shifts were sometimes crushed to death in cave-ins or drowned by inundations in the shafts.’” But the achievement of “the ennobling of mundane tasks and everyday life via ‘palaces of the people’” is given ample and fascinating recognition. “The palaces of excess are most overwhelming, spectacular and indigestible on the Ring Line [in Moscow] […] every single one of these stations, built between 1950 and 1954, tells a story, some of them consecutively, eventually building up an entire Metro line that is one continuous epic, an awesome and terrifying propaganda blockbuster, dripping with heroism, stupidity and kitsch.” The Komsomolskaya Koltsevaya station “takes the form of a Rococo ballroom that very closely resembles (as do many Moscow Metro stations) the style and proportions of the Georgievsky Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace […] Here the mosaics are again on the ceilings — this time, illustrating a wartime speech by Stalin.” Hatherley goes on to describe with great intimacy the metro systems of Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Kharkiv, Nizhny Novgorod, Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, Warsaw and Belgrade. This may not be a totally authoritative study of the topic but it’s certainly a very good representation.

For those aforementioned Euro-travelers who’ve ever visited Berlin (most of whom, as I’ve also already suggested, will turn back there and venture no farther east), two other clichés of communist architecture will be striking: foremost, the Alexanderplatz fernsehturm; then, for those who venture to Treptow or along Under den Linden, the Red Army war memorials. These are two of the most spectacular examples of such building anywhere in the Bloc. But Hatherley is keen to avoid reducing the architecture of this remarkably stylistically-varied age to single “brands.” As he points out: “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.” TV towers across the former USSR are, in one respect, incredibly tall demonstrations of the architectural styles that appeared or reappeared in the course of the (communist) 20th century. Thus the reader is reminded — or informed — of the super-Modernist Shabolovka Radio Tower in Moscow: “Few are as original in their structure as this, favoring instead an Eiffel Tower arrangement of straight steel members […] with the (surely unintended) visual effect of looking like stylized radio waves billowing from the bottom upwards into the sky.” The Žižkov tower in Prague is a “minor masterpiece of 1980s high tech […] dark, twisted, both quasi-organic and ruthlessly metallic, Gothic, physical and shamelessly phallic.” While it’s clear that all TV towers served the same basic function and shared essential symbols, it’s also valid to recognize the ingenuity and flair with which many architects approached their tasks. The results were often much more fascinating than attempts in the West.

Hatherley also helps the reader to understand the contradictions and problems arising from the presence of Soviet memorials in former-USSR lands. Enormous Red Army monoliths might be cartoonish, taken from “a giant three-dimensional war comic,” but, standing on the sites of mass graves as they often do, they also rightly commemorate the epic sufferings of Eastern European peoples: “the reminder is how much the shiny affluence of post-war Europe owed to the sacrifices of those men always represented [...] as bestial, grunting Mongols.” In spite of this debt — an informal agreement made with Gorbachev that memorials would not be taken down — many Eastern cities are purging themselves of the memorials to the revolution and war, of images of Lenin and Stalin. In a typically witty anecdote, albeit of an extraordinary occurrence, Hatherley relates how a Lenin statue in Kiev was “recently repaired, having been shot at by an oligarch, passing in his chauffeured car. He blasted the backside of Lenin with a bazooka, and perhaps deserves credit for knowing fully what Lenin actually stood for, i.e. the destruction of people like him.” He is careful to point out that many Ukrainians recently rallied to protect such statues from destruction by far-right and neo-Nazi gangs (mentioning fallen Lenins covered in anti-Semitic graffiti). Nevertheless, the overall absurdity of all these memorials is acknowledged: “Spaces that stressed the history of the worker’s movement were ways of both reviving in the memory the hopes and dreams of that movement, and making sure that their realization was impossible.”

Right at the start of this fascinating book, Hatherley professes to his communist sympathies. That is, he has seen what it meant to his English, communist grandparents, has grown up knowing the influences of post-war British socialism, and continues to value many of the essential principles of socialism over those of the liberal capitalism that have come to dominate the world — “dominate” in its ethically dubious sense. Well versed as he is, therefore, in the theories of Marx and Engels and the original aims of Lenin’s revolution, he seems to have set about writing Landscapes of Communism with the shadow-intention of using real, Soviet-built environments to judge the ultimate failure of socialism in the USSR. That Hatherley hasn’t sought to separate the more personal or opinionated from the purely architectural is, in my opinion, one of the finest characteristics of this book. The subjective responses that he communicates — not only his own and Agata’s but also, by inference, those of most other citizens — breathe life into this study of what are, by and large, concrete monstrosities or marble nightmares. Amid towering Warsaw estate blocks the pair visit an old 1960s milk bar: “For Agata, and who am I to argue with her, the milk bar is the most convincing remnant in Poland of ‘real socialism’ — you get from here exactly what you need [...] it is quick and reliable, and there is no obvious class relation within the space of eating — nobody has to act servilely for the sake of a tip [...]” Relating his experience of living in such a tower-block, he reports: “Visitors often comment on how intimidating it looks, having a hundred or more flats loom down on you all the time, but the result has a certain bleak big-city frisson to it [...]” On a more sinister visit to the Great Patriotic War memorial complex in Kiev, with its Stalinist kitsch temple, we’re told: “There were a few visitors wandering in and out of the hall in the time we spent there, and nobody was genuflecting or saluting, but wandering around wide-eyed and a little (not not too) shaken [...]” In these cases and countless besides, the overwhelming and often creepy landscapes of communism are made comprehensible, seen from the eyes of the individual, of the “worker” in whose interests they were all supposedly constructed.

This is a hefty volume not light on detail. Photographs are interspersed throughout, helpful but also somewhat disappointing, as the quality of their reproduction is half-hearted. Hatherley could occasionally be accused of wandering off topic, as with his potted history of Yugoslavia, which is interesting but not followed by commensurate level of architectural investigation. These are minor faults, however. Hatherley is the most charming, humorous, and well informed narrator one could possibly want. I often felt like I was in the pub with a geeky best friend, listening to his intriguing enthusings. For the topic, this is the ideal mix of the cerebral with the humane. It’s a notable record of a vital but increasingly neglected aspect of the last century.


Ben Paynter currently resides in south Germany.

LARB Contributor

Ben Paynter is a journalist, editor, and writer with a background in book-selling. He holds degrees in Literature, Philosophy, and Creative Writing from the universities of East Anglia and Manchester, in the UK. He currently resides in south Germany.



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