In the decade after WW2, a new wave of architectural design emerged from the UK. Featuring monolithic blocks of raw concrete and steel, its name neatly summarised its look: Brutalism.
Brutalism quickly took root across Europe, but nowhere was it adopted more enthusiastically than in the Soviet east. There, the style seemed to best communicate the aspirationalism of space-age Marxism, and became the go-to aesthetic for untold thousands of civic buildings and high-rise apartments.
Today, these buildings are increasingly scorned as reminders of a Soviet past, and are being torn down. In others regions, they continue to stand silent and imposing.
Melbourne-based photographer Alex Schoelcher has spent the last two years traveling across the former Eastern Bloc, from Georgia to Moldova and Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, documenting these surviving buildings and the people who inhabit them. VICE spoke to him to find out more about his ongoing project “Concrete Citizens.”
VICE: Hey Alex, how did Concrete Citizens come about?
Alex Schoelcher: I only switched onto architectural photography in the last few years. I was assisting several architectural photographers and until then I didn't really pay attention to it. I started following these Instagram accounts about all these brutalist buildings and old soviet architecture and was like woah, this shit is insane. It's so dystopian, it's so oppressive and scary but it's also really interesting.
I noticed there was a lot of content of the buildings, but nothing that really gave you any evidence that people lived inside them, or how people felt. There was no human element to the photography, and it frustrated me because it leads to a bit of an unhealthy relationship to the act of appreciating it. I feel like it fetishizes the buildings and takes away the reality of the fact that people live there.
I guess the whole concept of the project was to dig beneath the surface and gain access inside and see what it looked like; get some stories and actually find out whether people were happy to be there.
Was there one Instagram post, or one moment that really set everything into motion?
One of the buildings I'd started paying attention to in these Instagram profiles was the Nutsubidze Plato—it's the three buildings connected by bridges. I just wanted to check the building out, and I was with my Georgian friend and he was like “If you want a better angle of the building let's try and go into a different building and take a picture of it from there.”
So we went into another apartment building, and my friend was like “Let's just knock on someone’s door and see if we can take a photo from their balcony.” I was like “That’s crazy, no one is going to let us do that,” but a lady opened her door and sitting there in the living room was this topless man and a huskie dog. And I was like “Holy shit that's incredible.” It was such a crazy scenario.
I took some shit photos from their balcony and then I was like I have to take some photos of this. And that was the moment where it was like ding: the buildings are interesting, but the most interesting thing is what's inside them. I've been taking photos of people on the street for years and years and I never really thought I could just knock on someone's door and take a picture inside their home.
Looking at some of the photographs, they’re quite intimate. How did you get to the point where people were comfortable with you entering their homes and placing them in these positions?
Some of those photos I actually look at now and I'm like how the fuck did I get that; how did anyone let me do that? But I think it's just the case that you'd be surprised the access people will give you, because it's just something we don't do on a day-to-day basis. Most people don't walk up to a stranger and say “can I take your photo.” The concept to them is so bizarre and so kind of unfathomable that actually, when you do it you'll realise that quite of a lot of people are into it or open to it.
I don't know if you saw but there's a picture of quite a large lady just kind of laying down on the sofa. It’s quite shocking to me that she'd let me take it; some of it I look back at now and I can’t believe it happened. It was almost like I wasn't there, and I was just the vessel that it took place in.
I guess if we backtrack a little, you mentioned one of the main elements you wanted to explore was the attitudes of those living in these buildings. What was the general consensus like?
It was a whole spectrum. There were people who love it, based on the community of the building, or the view they had from their home, or the fact that these buildings are really well made. And sometimes older people are proud of it because they have such fond memories of the Soviet Union. And those buildings often represent that.
Then there are the people who absolutely hate it. They think it's ugly. They're shocked that I even liked the building, because to them it's the bane of their existence. And you know, a lot of poverty: a lot of people whose living room was also their bedroom; a lot of shitty stories and quite heart-wrenching accounts.
Would you be able to tell me about some of those?
The elderly struggled a lot because some of the building's lifts would break, or they'd get really hot in the summer. Most people were poor. There was a lady who was in her 60s and just in a really floral type environment and she just had her cat, and after I took the photo she just started crying.
There were a lot of very dissatisfied people, mostly in Moldova and in Kyrgyzstan. Most had loads of kids. One guy had eight children in his flat; it’s impossible to imagine that many people living in a tiny apartment.
I know that in some countries these buildings are being torn down. Were you aware of or did you witness similar things happening in these regions?
Yes, definitely. It's definitely a problem where some of them are under threat of disappearing—or not just that, but a lot of new buildings are being built around them, so the views and the landscape are changing. That spiky tower in Moldova: the area it’s in is becoming quite rapidly gentrified, and there’s actually some really nice property around it which was quite bizarre to see. I’d have this Instagram version in my head and almost every time I'd show up I'd be like that wasn't there; there'd be a new thing fucking with me, like a building, or a cafe, or a road.
Interview by Joseph Lew. Follow him on Instagram.
All photos by Alex Schoelcher. Scroll down for more of his work.