Lost Decade of Soviet Modernism

Art critic and curator Boris Chukhovich on the overlooked and rapidly vanishing brutalist architecture of the 1970s.

Zvartnots International Airport, Yerevan. Architects: Artur Tarkhanyan, Spartak Khachikyan, Zhorzh Shekhlyan, Levon Cherkezyan. Photo by Fred Grinberg via RIA Novosti

A specialist of Central Asian modern and contemporary art, Boris Chukhovich was born in Tashkent but now lives and works in Montreal. Architectural historian Nikolay Erofeev discussed with Boris the ideological crises and social stratification that defined 1970s architecture and distinguished it from the Thaw-era modernist projects.

NI: People living in the post-Soviet world are familiar with the style of the 1970s; it can be seen in music, film, literature and even interior design, but the decade doesn’t stand out so much in architecture. While there’s interest in the 1960s as a time of renewal for the architectural language, when people think of the 1970s, they only think of an increase in size and complexity to Thaw-era projects.

Nonetheless, the 1970s contrast sharply with the preceding decade. It was a time of growing economic and ideological crises: construction deadlines dragged, budgets were cut, and work predominantly took place on standard projects. Meanwhile, certain buildings of this period feature a grandiose style, as if the late-Soviet aesthetic was the proclamation of an already dying empire.

Outside Russia, the main impression people have of the 1970s comes from photographer Frédéric Chaubin’s book. He spent many years traveling across former Soviet territory and photographing buildings from that period. He didn’t research the details and context of their construction, however, and the book turned out to be more like a grotesque collection of architectural artefacts. It still led to the popularization of 1970s Soviet architecture: in England, an album was even released with cut-out models of these buildings. In your view, can the 1970s be considered a distinct period with its own architectural language?

BC: I would agree that, when people analyze Soviet history, the architecture of the 1970s is described differently from music, film or art. Architect Felix Novikov put it like this: “The Pioneers’ Palace on Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) had its grand opening ceremony in the presence of Khrushchev in June 1962, and in December of the same year the “Manezhka” took place [an art exhibition in the Moscow Manege at which avant-garde art was subjected to criticism from the General Secretary – Ed.]. Khruschev blessed new architecture but suppressed avant-garde pursuits in other art forms. It can be said that, for architectural modernism, the Thaw continued until the end of the Soviet era.”

If you look at the architectural process itself, there probably were developments in the Thaw projects of the 1970s. But there’s a more interesting aspect; architecture, like any other art form, is an element of culture and, in one way or another, processes characteristic of that culture leave their mark. That’s why discussions about 1970s architecture are just as legitimate as those about art, poetry or cinema of that period. These discussions can be taken in several directions. The international and forward-thinking 1960s are usually contrasted with the 1970s, which are seen as focused on the national and historical context. But the decade of the Thaw was a far more complex and contradictory era than it is presented in binary comparisons with the following periods.

The Pioneers' Palace on Sparrow Hills, Moscow. Architects: Viktor Egerev, Vladimir Kubasov, Felix Novikov, Igor Pokrovskiy, Boris Paluy, Mikhail Khazhakyan. Photo by Valery Shustov via RIA Novosti

It would be productive to stop comparing these two eras only within the context of Soviet reality and to take a closer look at other elements of the architectural process. The modernists of the 1970s, although they had to use the language of the Soviet aesthetic, did not avoid the challenge of reconciling modernization and tradition, which was being discussed around the world. The Venice Charter, which demanded greater consideration for city memory and historical architecture, had influenced architecture in both the Soviet Union and the West, even if the impact of this influence was different in each case. It was in the 1970s that the discussion of the multi-faceted nature of modernities took place among Soviet architects.

The cultural connections between the USSR and other countries in the Communist bloc should not be ignored. Those countries watched the Soviet Union, and architectural and social experiments in other regions didn’t go unnoticed by the USSR. For example, Moroccan and Algerian experiments with mass industrial housing in hot climates and in traditionally Muslim regions were well-known in Soviet Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

NI: Yes, in the 1970s, many processes in Soviet architecture ran alongside those in the West. The Iron Curtain wasn’t able to prevent the exchange of professional ideas and the dissemination of contemporary trends. Architectural historian Łucasz Stanek, for example, instead of national or transnational processes, writes about non-centralized processes that took place simultaneously worldwide. Likewise, in her article “Why Kazakhstan and Montana Are Nearly the Same Place,” Kate Brown compares two cities that emerged in different ideological conditions yet produced similar architecture.

Meanwhile, the architectural industry in the West broke into smaller communities. Different workshops appeared with their own architects, engineers, and unique construction methods. In contrast, traces of a unitary project appeared in Soviet architecture of the 1970s. Take, for example, the bus stops of Zurab Tsereteli, which allowed for the architect’s self-expression, but had a uniform concrete structure intended to be decorated with monumental art and mosaics. Soviet modernism is recognizable by its standards and construction methods, regardless of the republic in which it was executed. Were the 1970s a continuation of this earlier modernist project? And did independent visions of the future appear in this decade?

BC: At the start of the 1960s, plans were announced in the USSR for the construction of communism for the start of the 1980s. By the 1970s, this plan was still partially theory and, in practice, attempts to perfect the so-called “developed socialism” prevailed. Basically, this meant blurring the vision of the future and substituting a universal goal with local tasks. However, there were those whose execution held potential for the future.

In my writing I often refer to the work of the Moscow architect Andrei Kosinskii, who worked in Tashkent from 1966 to 1978. While developing a plan for reconstructing the Kalkauz historical district, he tried to modernize the architectural environment of the Old Town, not by destroying it, but by reinvigorating the local social institution known as “mahalla.” A mahalla is a traditional neighborhood community in Central Asian cities which didn’t lose its social role under the Soviet regime and regulated many aspects of life for residents.

Kalkauz Residential District Project, Tashkent (1974-1978). Architects: Sabyr Adylov, Andrei Kosinskii.

Taking the idea that the collective character of a mahalla was compatible with the general tenets of Soviet ideology, Kosinskii designed a so-called “communist mahalla” in Kalkauz. He set it out in high-rise complexes, with common areas on several stories. However, these didn’t belong to society as a whole, but to the specific community living in the complex.

Here the buds of the mixed “collective private” sphere can already be seen, which could have become the precursors of a cooperative or associative socialism. The latter would have had at its core a different form of ownership to the totally collectivized ownership of government socialism. Developing this theme theoretically, and thus questioning the basic principles of government politics, was impossible. The Kalkauz project was shelved fairly quickly and Kosinskii’s proposal was only realized by the Tashkent architect Ophelia Aidinova in the 1980s, in a 16-story residential building.

But, in terms of its appearance, the Marx Library in Ashkhabad is probably a more succinct metaphor for the continuation and, at the same time, difference between the 1960s and 1970s. Its initial plan, proposed by Abdullah Ahmedov in 1960, was a stylish baby-boomer project – from afar, it could even have been taken for a youth club with adjacent café. But construction was put on hold at the start of the 1960s and when, at the end of the decade, they returned to it, it was a different era. 

Gradually, the hipster club was turned into a philosophical cathedral, growing out of the soil like a fortress of ancient Merv. And this was in keeping with modernist trends worldwide, which were not unlike a kind of neo-orientalism. The parliaments of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh and Kahn in Dakha were also built in the spirit of brutalist temples. Later, Ahmedov himself admitted that, if the library had been built in this typical schematic style of the 1960s, it probably wouldn’t have attracted the kind of interest that it enjoyed in the future. And there was a certain order in this, too – what is known today as glocalism.

State Library named after Karl Marx, Ashgabat. Architects: Abdullah Akhmedov, Boris Shpak, Vladimir Alekseyev. Photo by T. Kerimi via TASS Archive

NI: Andrei Kosinskii’s story is astonishing because of the level of his independence. The Moscow architect, who went to work in Tashkent and taught in the local university, led his own projects which could influence society and prompt it to make positive changes. As a whole, this is in keeping with materialistic consciousness and the belief in the environment’s ability to determine the development of society.

In theory, the communist mahalla could have facilitated the appearance of new forms of cooperatives. But I think that projects like this were most often intended by the architect for a small community of like-minded people, not for society as a whole. Architectural drawings of the 1970s are very indicative of this: big empty spaces and no inhabitants. The planned environment didn’t have a human scale and everyone felt this – the gap between theory and real social needs was increasingly criticized. But did this criticism lead to any changes? Or was it too late to stop the machine of standardized industrial home construction that had been launched in the 1960s?

BC: I agree with you about drawings of the 1970s. What’s more, this is a typical feature of architecture as a whole. You only have to think of the huge city square of that time; far fewer people gathered on them than in the modest parks and esplanades of the 1960s. As for the criticism of conventional prefabricated constructions, I’d compare the situation in the Soviet Union with that in France. From the end of the 1950s – when Khrushchev announced the new course of Soviet architecture – French city builders also turned to the construction of concrete prefabricated neighborhoods. In France they were given the name “grands ensembles.”

Recently-published research by Camille Canteux examines French society’s view of this architecture through the example of cinema. The evolution of cinematic images of mass, industrial residential buildings is telling: enthusiasm for the industrial utopia was soon replaced with irony, detachment and then horror. The government reacted to these societal feelings in a timely manner, and in 1973 the construction of grands ensembles was banned by special decree.

Judging by cinema, Soviet society went through the same evolution: films about happy new tenants in the 1960s were replaced, toward the end of the decade, by unsettling signs of detachment. And the 1970s are characterized by a series of cinematic manifestos, demonstrating the confusion and loneliness of people against the backdrop of a dehumanized industrial environment. In fact, Joseph Brodsky compared Le Corbusier with the Luftwaffe at the same time – in 1973. 

However, the Soviet government reacted differently. They didn’t abolish the system, but tried to modernize it through creating a greater variety of building types and making them more compatible with their natural and social context. It can’t be said that moving in this direction was completely nonsensical – in many cases, the experimental residential buildings built in the late Brezhnev era were no worse than the elite homes of the Stalin era, and sometimes even better. 

If the 1960s were a time of homogenization, then the 1970s established a process of diverse stratification: geographical, social, cultural.

NI: In this context, it seems important to go back to Kosinskii, whose projects prove that Soviet construction wasn’t an endless process of churning out standardized projects of bad quality. The technological system developed at the start of the 1970s offered great variety and could easily be adapted to local conditions. But it wasn’t always able to fulfill its potential, sometimes for ideological reasons. At that time, what were relations like between architects, the regime and the official ideology? Signs of a growing crisis within Soviet society, and even a throwback to Stalinism in the official sphere, can be seen in the 1970s. Were these processes reflected in architecture?

BC: These relations were probably far more complex than in the previous decade. Of course, you can’t write off ten years to one single concept or process, but I’d say that if the 1960s were a time of homogenization, then the 1970s established a process of diverse stratification: geographical, social, cultural. By then differences in the lifestyle and social status of the socialist white-collar workers, the working class and the party nomenclature elite had fully developed.

And architecture gradually rendered this disparity in the physiognomy of cities. It was the urban constructions of Baltic architects that remained most socialist in their spirit the longest. Sleepy neighborhoods like Lazdynai or Viršuliškės in Vilnius not only developed social and domestic infrastructure, but were also visually attractive. The modernism of their residential buildings was combined with landscaping and intricate hardscaping.

In contrast, in the majority of Central Asian cities there was an obvious difference between the construction of workers’ suburbs and the city centers, with their experimental residential buildings for the growing and thriving elite. Often, this kind of social stratification was justified as a search for a national form. Aidinova’a experimental building, which fulfilled the idea of a “communist mahalla,” was built in central Tashkent within the residential government quarter. Of course, only select representatives of the white-collar workers, whose lifestyle had nothing in common with a mahalla, could find themselves there.

Undoubtedly, architects acknowledged the widening gap between discussion and practice but it was unlikely that they could change how things were and, as a rule, they profited from the social benefits which opened up for them. And since that era was also a time when samizdat texts were being disseminated and people acknowledged not only the uncertain future but also the dark past of Soviet society, many architects replaced their social demiurge togas with the formal attire of professionals. At this time, old modernist discourse about the priority of a clean, new form was joined by many interesting and innovative planning technologies – sociological, cybernetic and so on.

I’d also add that the national flashback produced interesting results at the junction of modernism and pre-classical traditions, but this only related to projects like the Ashkhabad central esplanade or the Yerevan Cascade. With mass housing, differences across the Soviet Union remained superficial.

Zvartnots International Airport, Yerevan. Architects: Artur Tarkhanyan, Spartak Khachikyan, Zhorzh Shekhlyan, Levon Cherkezyan. Photo by Fred Grinberg via RIA Novosti

NI: You have touched on an important theme. In the architecture of the 1970s, a feeling of history appears, and local constructions began to be treated with more care. The main Thaw-era project for the reconstruction of Moscow was the New Arbat, which cut through a historical network of Moscow streets. In the 1970s, the Old Arbat was also built, which, in contrast, recreated the atmosphere of the old back alleys.

And one of the most striking monuments to 1970s architecture is the Zvartnots Airport, which is much more interesting to look at it within the local context of Armenian architecture. According to its designers, the circular building, finished with natural local stone, was a reference to the Zvartnots Cathedral – a unique seventh-century monument located near the airport. In this way, Armenian modernism was not simply a refraction of the international Soviet project but a fully-fledged national style. And such achievements are what make 1970s architecture unique.

Nonetheless, people refuse to see its value and try to replace 1970s architecture with new constructions. We can see how the civil servants in power often hate this architecture. But doesn’t it seem worthwhile to engage with achievements of that time?

BC: The social stratification of Soviet society which influenced the architecture of the 1970s looks almost like war communism in the eyes of today’s government officials, whose unfettered access to financial resources allows them to isolate themselves from the main population. Nonetheless, I don’t believe in the possibility or productivity of a return to the 1970s. It seems to me that the time for modeling a different future has arrived; however, this doesn’t mean that we should accept the degradation or willful destruction of architectural monuments of that time.

It’s clear that the expert community and the architectural workforce in general should continuously fight for the inclusion of unique and characteristic buildings of that era on the list of preserved cultural heritage sites. We are losing the best monuments of the 1970s: the gilded white marble library in Ashkhabad has been emptied of books, and the order to destroy this outstanding building is imminent; the main lobby of the famous Panoramic Cinema in Tashkent, completed in 1976, has been rebuilt in a new style and eight auditoriums were added; the Palace of the Republic in Almaty has been completely rebuilt; and the Zvartnots Airport in Yerevan is endangered. 

It’s difficult to say what future generations will take from them, but to wipe out an entire swathe of architecture would be just as great a catastrophe as losing the ancient, medieval or classical layers of any city.