What Would Cities Look Like without Greedy Landlords and Property Development Sharks?
We interviewed Owen Hatherley, author of a book about what happens to architecture when you get rid of capitalists and estate agents.
Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture the architecture of the Soviet Union. Let me guess, you're seeing one giant, cuboid mass of monolithic, factory-produced concrete sprawling across a frozen Eastern Bloc vista? You're probably not alone. In the UK, our greedy landlords are token baddies, and shoe-box flats for mansion sized rents are emblematic of social injustice. But weirdly, perhaps the only thing with worse pariah status are the state built housing estates of Moscow, Tallinn or their UK equivalents in any British city. Communism's monoliths are enough to convince us – however bad things might be in the UK – that an entire political ideology is invalid.
Part of this loathing is obviously understandable. They may have been designed with good intentions but much of the housing that was produced in the soviet bloc was oppressive, poorly constructed and plain fucking ugly. But these depressing apartments – however entrenched they are in our heads – certainly weren't the only thing that got built during a time of immense political change.
In his new book Landscapes of Communism, British architecture critic Owen Hatherley offers up four years worth of work drifting through the cities of communist Europe, detailing its architectural complexity – both good and bad – in extraordinary detail. From opulent metro stations to baroque skyscrapers, Hatherley shatters the misconceptions many of us are familiar with. Keen to find out what a city without Barratt Homes and Redrow's American Psycho style adverts would look like, I called him up for a chat.
VICE: Hi Owen. This is your sixth book about architecture in just six years. Why do you think the built environment is such a good way of exploring and thinking about politics?
Owen Hatherley: Well firstly because it's there. It's incredibly easy to explore because you're completely surrounded by it at all times. But also architecture unlike pretty much any other art form has a very direct relation to power. Architecture is so capital intensive and requires so many resources and materials which means it's almost always done by either big business or the state. So the very fact of what gets built is an expression of quite naked and straightforward power. If you want to know the values of society, who is in control and who is not, it's very useful.
Most of your work so far has been about British architecture. Why did you decide to write a book about communism in Europe?
I wanted to question what happened in a city when you have no property developers. One of the first things that took place after October 1917 was land nationalisation, which was then imported after the war across Eastern and Central Europe. That meant those in power had this enormous instrument which they could wield in cities. And the results were very mixed. In many ways this is a book about what not to do when you get rid of landlords and capitalists, it's about the problems you face. But still it's really interesting to ask the question, "did something happen that was different?" In the end there's certain stuff I think is quite admirable and certain stuff I think is completely terrible.
When people tend to think about architecture in communist countries what sort of picture do you think they build up in their minds?
I imagine stag tourists on their way to the centre of place like Prague, Vilnius, Riga and Krakow. As they get on the bus that takes them to the centre rather than seeing the lovely spires and churches they've seen in the tourist brochures, they're seeing block after block after block of gigantic prefabricated towers and they think "this is terrifying, this is like Broadwater Farm times 1000". They think, "this is what communism is". Then they get to the old town and they're like this is lovely. And they come away with the idea that pre-communist architecture means lovely old towns and communist architecture means gigantic concrete slabs.
So why is that wrong?
Well during the first fifteen years from 1917 to 1932 you have modernism of various different kinds and competing movements, most of them with the idea that in a new society you should do architecture in a new way.
Then from about 1932 to Stalin's death in 1953 you have this change to a very eclectic neo-baroque and neoclassical style. Often it was on a very large scale, like massive skyscrapers and huge boulevards. But it was also very decorative and in many cases much closer to what people actually think they like.
From about 1953 to about 1989 you get modernism again. You have the notorious estates on the outskirts and the very strange concrete expressionist buildings.
Then later on in the 1980s there's an emphasis on post-modernism, on ironic, more traditional architecture, as much as there was in the West. In actual fact the old towns people are visiting survive so well either because they were reconstructed to the last detail under Stalinism, or left alone by them because there was no financial pressure to build on them because of land nationalisation – really, Stalinism is the reason why they're so much prettier than most capital cities in the west.
Right, so the architecture produced when Stalin was at the helm is precisely the opposite to what the lads on the tour bus think when they describe something as "Stalinist"?
Exactly the opposite. Stalin tended to build very decorative, grandiose classical things.
Were the mass-produced housing estates as bad as people think architecturally though?
In some cases, yes, and they were often worse than those built in the West. The standard of construction was often very low. And there's just so much of it. There are particular ones – if you go to Mustamäe on the outskirts of Tallinn for example – that just seems to go on forever. I think if you are used to a certain kind of Western European city there is something Orwellian and totalitarian about a gigantic housing estate from the 1960s.
But I think that is what happens if you have an industrial revolution in the age of the mass production of housing. The industrial revolution happened in most of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s rather than the 1860s. So the massive urbanisation that happened there occurred in the era of the concrete panel. You also had a huge housing problem that needed to be solved fast and which hadn't been solved at all under Stalin.
I guess giant, homogenous, oppressive buildings are hardly peculiar to the Soviet Union either. We have lots of volume house builders over here producing some dreadful stuff right?
Absolutely. And actually your average cubicle built in a concrete bloc on the outskirts of Warsaw in the 1970s is probably bigger than the average Barratt Homes flat today.
So what were the other things you found during the time you spent writing the book that were architecturally unique?
The first chapter is all about boulevards because there was nowhere really in the West after the war where you got these huge Haussmann- style things being ploughed through. I thought it was interesting how the kind of planning that was basically introduced by Haussmann to stop a revolution – boulevards are very wide so you can't build barricades – was then used by a government that constantly tells you that it's "revolutionary".
There's also a chapter on high-rises which is mostly about the skyscrapers which were built under Stalin in the 40s and 50s. They are placed strategically around the city and have huge footprints Unlike the little plots you get in New York they occupy several blocks and come down in tiers which makes them look incredibly authoritarian.
And there's also a chapter on the metro which was the most fun to write. It's about how the Soviet Union produced probably the most interesting public spaces of the 20th century in the metro as well as how huge the human cost was. What happened there in terms of these incredibly opulent public halls filled with artwork – there's nothing else like it on earth.
You say at the end of the book that a city which is communally owned, democratically managed and made by its inhabitants is yet to be built. Why do you think the Soviet Union failed to achieve this?
Two main reasons. The first is not their fault – they had to contend with an economic situation that no country could have dealt with. They had a country that was almost totally non-industrial, with the heritage of Tsarism and obscurantism. They also had a brutal civil war and World War II to deal with. So much of what they did and the reason why they failed was because they wanted to be better and more economically successful that the West rather than just trying to just to provide a good quality of life. The idea was implausible because the West had hundreds of years of economic success already behind it.
The other reason – which is definitely their fault – is the complete suspicion of any kind of popular democracy and the instinct for suppressing any dissent. They thought if they let people make their own decisions they would all turn out to be closet capitalists so they completely distrusted ordinary people.
Landscapes of Communism is published today by Allen Lane
More from VICE: