A Soviet Legacy, Not Quite Lost

Modernist architecture from the USSR is not all boxy concrete and drab Bolshevik towers

Now a bank, the space-age Ministry of Transportation, was built in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1974 | Photo: Simona Rota

this ­apartment building on ­Minskaya Street in ­Bobruysk, Belarus was built in the 1980s Photo: Belorussian State Archive of Scientific-Technical Documentation

Ministry of Transportation

Now a bank, the space-age Ministry of Transportation was built in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1974 | Photo: Simona Rota

To most westerners, Soviet architecture means imposing, Neo-Gothic Stalinist towers, but the USSR’s 70-odd-year history saw other equally striking – if less celebrated – architectural styles.

In the 1920s, a movement of Constructivist architects sought to reshape urban life with an ideal of a utilitarian, strictly functional living and working space. Driven by revolutionary fervour, they envisaged buildings of perfect orderliness and dimension, devoid of what they denounced as the “expendable” luxury of art.

Before long, however, Constructivism’s austerity began to jar with the new regime’s increasing ambitions, and art made a comeback with the Stalinist towers designed to represent the country’s industrial and cultural achievements. But despite the millions who died in the USSR during Joseph Stalin’s purges and World War II, post-war Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had a massive housing problem on his hands when he took office in 1953. To solve it, he went for the time-tested solution: massive low-quality housing construction.

It is at this point that the Architekturzentrum Wien’s exhibition Soviet Modernism, 1955-1991: Unknown Stories takes up the story, documenting building forms and construction techniques from the Khrushchev thaw to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.


Regional influence

The drab panel and brick apartment blocks are not the only legacy of the time, however. This was a period of genuine change for Soviet artists, with poets and fiction writers, for example, allowed to openly explore formerly taboo subjects. Soviet architecture, too, opened to the West, a trend that included exchange programmes for architects.

The bulk of the work on display through 25 February comes not from the former Soviet heartland of Russia but from the smaller republics, whose heritage has been largely ignored. “These buildings are important witnesses of their time and its problems,” curator Alexandra Wachter told The Vienna Review.

“For us, it was interesting to look at the regions,” said Wachter. “We wanted to see how it developed in different ways. If we had included Russia as well, the show would be diluted.”

To aid visitors, the 14 republics have been split up into four geographical groups – Eastern Europe, the Baltic, the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia, each characterised by distinctive designs, traditions and building practices.

But they all share common architectural types which appear under the heading Gebaute Ideologie, “Built Ideology”. The most prominent among those were the ubiquitous “Houses of the Soviets”, the seats of local authorities, and “Palaces of Pioneers”, educational and sports facilities designed to raise Soviet children in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism.

One concentration is Wedding Palaces, built in the late 1950s. Every Soviet town had one, many with modern and extreme designs, scarcely resembling palaces in the traditional sense. It was in these edifices – with Communist murals and busts of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin – that millions of Soviet citizens tied the knot.

The exhibit also emphasises WWII memorials, with the first two springing up in Berlin’s Treptower Park and Vienna’s Schwarzenbergplatz immediately after the war. These purposefully bare and crude monuments evoke the Volksgedächtnis, or the “people’s memory”, a powerful notion in the former Soviet Union which captured the nationwide grief at the loss of more than 20 million people in the fight against Nazi Germany, and one which has been sadly misused by Russian politicians since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

But there was a more adventurous side to this architecture, too. The Ministry of Highways building in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi looks as strikingly futuristic today as it did when it was built in 1974. Like something out of Star Wars, the building – now a bank – grows out of a steep hillside and quite literally hangs over the city.

No less unusual is the 1980s apartment block in the eastern Belarusian town of Bobruisk, whose projecting parts and round windows make it resemble a multidirectional traffic light.


In the “Bloc’s” shadow

Exciting as they are, these buildings are little known in the former Soviet Union. For most people, says Denis Romodin, a Moscow-based expert on Soviet architecture, they simply don’t exist, or don’t seem to be of much value.

“Soviet architecture discredited itself in the second half of the 20th century, with industrialised housing built according to standardised projects,” Romodin explained. “These buildings overshadowed those very few pearls which were being created.”

Also, most of these buildings are crumbling, slowly but surely, due to the poor materials used in their construction. And while the show is primarily aimed at changing negative perceptions in the West, Wachter also hopes it will pressure the authorities in the former Soviet republics to do more to safeguard their heritage.

But as most of them, especially the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, have been hit hard by economic distress since the break-up of the Soviet Union, this may be an insurmountable task.

“We need thorough repairs on these buildings or we will lose them forever,” Romodin sighed – and with them the memory of a unique modernist movement that changed the face of Eastern Europe, creating oases of artistic hope, forged in a climate of unfettered practicality.


Soviet Modernism 1955-1991 – Unknown Stories
Daily, 10:00-19:00
Through 25 Feb.
Architekturzentrum Wien – Alte Halle
7., Museumsplatz 1


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