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Answers to problems of the built environment do not lie in Soviet ideology

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James McLachlan responds to Tony Fretton’s essay on Soviet-era architecture

James McLachlan

For a certain generation in the west, the disintegration of the Soviet Union represented the death of a dream. In the end, capitalism proved far stronger economically, and democracy an equally formidable counter to the one party state. The far left was hit hardest. George Galloway described it as the ‘biggest tragedy of his lifetime’. But as the visions of military parades in snowy Red Square fades, there are some that still lament its passing. Writers like Richard Seymour and Seumas Milne in the Guardian are good examples of intellectuals with a distaste for socially-controlled capitalism of the sort the UK follows. Architects are not immune either. Perhaps it taps into a regret regarding the demise of the city architect and optimistic state social housing projects of the 60s – one suspects the only time when architects truly felt they could shape a better world. Judging by his recent essay examining Soviet era architecture in Moscow, London architect Tony Fretton falls into the Seymour camp. Fretton’s educated critique of a subject he clearly knows well is certainly engaging. Who could not share his enthusiasm for the idiosyncratic modernism of Platonov’s Russian Academy of Sciences or the forthright vim of the Izvestia building. 

The architect is on shakier ground, however, when he conflates his appreciation of the built environment with the political system that produced it. Towards the end of the essay Fretton finally arrives at the point one sensed was brewing throughout the first 800 words. ‘I am no apologist for the dark days of the Soviet Union,’ he says before inevitably going on to do just that. The architect accuses Western governments and media of being ‘endemically propagandist’ regarding the Soviet Union’s fall, forgetting the reason it collapsed was because it took weeks to get a shit car and there was no food on the shelves. The extraordinarily rapid creation of the Workers State of which Fretton is so enamoured may well have produced some great buildings, but then so did the ancient Egyptians. This fact has not prompted a return to slave labour, at least not in the West. He acknowledges that though Stalinist buildings are ‘forbidding’ they are well composed and located. Indeed they might be, but all the better to keep an eye on you comrade. Fretton continues, lambasting the current state of Moscovian architecture as determined by ‘tasteless ornaments produced by an unholy alliance of developers and their coterie of international architects,’ – which is of course far worse than the well-ordered buildings of the world’s biggest ever police state. If the new Moscow is to be shaped by global capital then the responsibility for curbing its worst excesses lies with the Duma. These tasteless baubles polluting the ‘mantelshelf’ can be blocked or improved if Russians care enough about their city, but perhaps they don’t see these latest additions as all that bad. Fretton scores a point when he blames global capital for destroying jobs in the west (though I suspect this idea is overplayed), and there may well be a reckoning on the horizon, but if the answer lies in the defunct Soviet ideology then we are all in trouble.  

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