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Memory bloc: socialist structures under threat

Former Eastern Bloc countries are bulldozing their socialist architectural heritage at an alarming rate, but there is much to save, argues Edwin Heathcote

There’s a rash of books out at the moment covering an architectural Ostalgia – a recent term to describe the nostalgia for life under the socialist system. These are books showing the grand, extraordinary, often visionary buildings of the late communist era in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. There’s the wonderful Soviet Modernism 1955-1991: An Unknown History, there’s Holidays After the Fall: Seaside Architecture and Urbanism in Bulgaria and Croatia and on a lower level of my multi-tiered coffee table I still have the astonishing CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, alongside a guidebook to the architecture of Pyongyang and a number of others. Yet, at the exact moment this deluge of books is appearing in the west, the buildings they feature are under threat. Across the former Eastern Bloc, wonderful, imaginative architecture is being threatened with demolition; usually to make way for the kind of large-scale, second-rate commercial architecture which will obliterate any sense of place and leaves cities looking more and more the same.

In Budapest, the former Moszkva Tér (now named Széll Kálmán Tér) subway station exists under a cloud of uncertainty. In Prague, the undulating and terraced Hotel Praha is about to be demolished. In Warsaw, the cylindrical Rotunda bank spent years under threat, but was recently saved and has now been replaced on the danger list by the extraordinary cylindrical bus station at Kielce with its proto-Future Systems roof.

Narkomfin Building in Moscow, designed by Moisei Ginzburg with Ignaty Milinis in 1928. Photo: Heritage at Risk.

Narkomfin Building in Moscow, designed by Moisei Ginzburg with Ignaty Milinis in 1928. Photo: Heritage at Risk.

This is not even to mention the lamentable state of the early major works of the communist era, from Melnikov’s famous drum-shaped house to the crumbling Narkomfin Building. The difficulty, particularly in the central and eastern European countries, is that there is little affection for the period of Soviet domination and communist government. These buildings symbolise oppression, and they remind people of the petty indignities and the lack of freedom or choice they encountered over decades of Soviet influence. Successive right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland have sought to target the architecture of this era (although with little real passion) as the buildings are felt not only as reminders of a repressive, alien regime, but also as an infrastructure which is holding the cities back. These are supposed to be difficult buildings to reuse. That just means expensive; it is almost always cheaper to demolish and start again. 

This politicisation of the problem introduces a level of complexity that makes these buildings difficult to protect – and arguably even difficult to justify. To preach to populations from the comfort of the west about what should be preserved appears patronising. It is akin to the once perennial problem in the UK of architects living in grand central London houses preaching to the proletariat about the virtues of high-rise living and access decks.

And that problem is compounded by the utter devastation we in Britain have wrought on our own Modernist legacy, a far more benign, if often less theatrical heritage. The bulldozers and rubble nibblers have fiercely been active in London destroying the last remains of the kind of council housing that will never be built again. Not only are we destroying those last crumbs of a socialist-inspired housing experiment, but we have let our post-war commercial architecture go too. The City of London has lost nearly every major 1950s block to redevelopment with barely a murmur of protest. Not only is Robin Hood Gardens on its way out with the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth and the Gateshead parking garage, but along with them went the rather elegant Bucklersbury House along with dozens of other fine commercial buildings – an entire layer of history obliterated. Who are we to preach?

In the former communist countries, these schemes form an irretrievable layer of the city which expresses the other side of socialism. Of course we all remember (or at least can imagine) the darkness of life under Soviet rule; the constant, low-level fear of officials, of having your papers checked, the knowledge that informers were everywhere and that anyone could be an informer – but these architectures remind us that there was a social project inherent in the political system too. These were the successors to the magical Moscow Metro, civic buildings meant to foster social life (albeit circumscribed) and an urban life lived in the communal spaces of the city. At their best, in the resorts of Georgia and the Crimea, on the skiing pistes of Slovakia and the trade union holiday complexes in Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria, these buildings have the ambition of science fiction, far ahead of anything we have here (although Folkestone’s incongruous Grand Burstin Hotel would have slotted right in – check in one day). And they were recent. Many of the best of these buildings were only completed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they were built to last. Not only can they be saved, they absolutely have to be saved because nothing quite like them will ever be built again. 

OMA’s designs for the Garage art gallery in Gorky Park, Moscow. Photo: OMA

OMA’s designs for the Garage art gallery in Gorky Park, Moscow. Photo: OMA

There are signs of change. OMA’s current conversion of a pavilion left over from an agricultural fair in Moscow’s Gorky Park into the new home of the Garage art gallery (for Roman Abramovich’s partner Dasha Zhukova) is leading the way with a characteristically clever intervention which will leave the scars of years of neglect visible, but still celebrate the building’s fabric. Fashion is, quite frankly, different in the east. Our affection for these relics is very different to that of the majority of the populations living with them everyday. They do not notice this legacy. And when they do, that’s when it gets even worse because they begin to think about replacing them. 

The difficulty is in our impotence. To interfere is to condescend, to infer a lack of understanding about the degree of trauma inflicted by an era still too fresh in the minds of many to be forgotten or forgiven. The hope must be that it is the post-communist generation, the architects and designers too young to remember much before 1989 who have a very different attitude to these buildings and are able to perceive them as historical, rather than personal. This is happening. In Poland in particular, there is a real sophistication in appreciating the buildings of this era and the possibilities of re-use. Bus station buffets and pavilions in the park have all been imaginatively re-used alongside communist era department stores (always a bit of a tautology) and community centres. Then there are artists like Ilona Karwinska who see beauty in the relics of communist design. Karwinska’s collection of communist era neon signs is a marvel to match the Vegas neon graveyard, an exuberant mass of lights which questions the memories of an era of unrelieved greyness. This rash of ostalgic books shows there is much to be saved. But also, perhaps, that there is much to be learned. From bus station buffets to trade union resorts, these were palaces for the people. Where are our equivalents?

Edwin Heathcote, architecture and design critic of The Financial Times

BOOKS:

Soviet Modernism 1955-1991: An Unknown History, by Vienna Centre Vcfa, University of Chicago Press, December 2013, 360pp, £45.50
Holidays After the Fall: Seaside Architecture and Urbanism in Bulgaria and Croatia, by Elke Beyer, Jovis, April 2013, 240pp, £30
CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, by Frederic Chaubin, Taschen, February 2011, 288pp, £34.99

 

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