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Review: Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings by Owen Hatherley

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Tony Fretton reviews the AJ’s Owen Hatherley’s latest book

What is Landscapes of Communism? In essence it is a book that describes the parallel but largely unknown world of Soviet architecture and planning in ways that will make you want to visit the places it describes and give you the means to look at them receptively.

Like recent critical writings by economists and the alternative politics of leftist Greek and Spanish political parties Syriza and Podemos, the book and its author are revisionist and seek an alternative view to that which flows out of Neoliberalism. More generally, it is part of a tendency to bring architecture made outside the  Western European and American spheres into the architectural history of Modernism. Owen Hatherley writes with a very British sensibility: empirical, conversational and personal, with his intelligence showing though. That said, unlike Ian Nairn, another great and impassioned observer of buildings and cities, Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism has footnotes and a bibliography of books that will be worth reading.

Stories of ideology and design are brought together with great intensity

Like his A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Landscapes of Communism is lightly illustrated, this time with photographs taken by the author and sometimes with postcards dating from the time when the project was completed. It is the writing that conveys the form of projects and also their ideological grounding, experiential qualities and, perhaps surprisingly, the artistic aims of their architects.

Hatherley’s travels as a journalist, the book’s forward motion and the quality of his writing make it a pleasure to read. Threading through the narrative is an account of the changes in Soviet architecture from Modernism to Socialist Realism and Stalinism, the impact of the regimes of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and of Perestroika, and, most fascinatingly, of the different styles of architecture that developed the regions and countries of the USSR.

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Stories of ideology and design are brought together with great intensity and produce arrays of very interesting facts. Here are some examples: Mikhail Okhitovich’s proposal for a socialist metropolis to match Los Angeles; Ford Motors’ construction of a Soviet car plant in Nizhny Novgorod and the strong relation between the USA and USSR before the Cold War; Soviet rituals and their representation in symbols, architecture and figurative sculpture and, particularly, in memorials to events in Soviet history, including – extraordinarily – a whole urban ensemble; Stalinism’s formulation of an architecture of prescribed quotations that was national in form and socialist in content; and the Soviets’ independent development of skyscrapers, Art Deco and Postmodernism.

Hatherley’s account of the Soviet regime’s record in providing homes, culture, education and social benefits for its citizens, and of the success of the  Yugoslavian economic system and the IMF’s role in its undoing makes compelling reading.

People in the USSR believed in their lives and cities, which were made by Soviet architects who were well trained, extremely capable and often world-class. Landscapes of Communism makes their history visible and able to be seen more fairly, and enables us to view our history in the West more critically.

Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings, by Owen Hatherley, published by Allen Lane, RRP £25

 

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