Owen Hatherley is one of the UK’s best-known and most controversial architecture critics. Over the last few years in a series of books (Militant Modernism, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak) he has made a name for himself as a fiercely left-wing advocate for the British social democratic post-war settlement and defender of brutalist and modernist styles of architecture often derided in recent decades.
In Landscapes of Communism, published earlier this year, he turned his attention to the architecture of Communism across the former Eastern Bloc, from Stalinist prestige projects like the Moscow Metro to the vast housing developments begun under Nikita Khrushchev to the war memorials left across the Eastern Bloc. The book combines a focus on the architectural and political successes and failures of the Communist movement across Eastern and Central Europe with a sharp criticism of the politically neoliberal philosophy dominant across the region since the collapse of Communism. He travels throughout the various countries of the former Communist bloc, from his base in Warsaw as far as Bucharest and the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast; Nizhny Novgorod in Russia and Kharkiv and Kiev in Ukraine. The three Baltic capitals play a particularly important role in his survey – the 1970s district of Lazydnai in Vilnius is selected as a particularly important housing development, the Riga Academy of Sciences as an example of Stalinist architecture, and the Tallinn Maarjamäe complex features prominently in a chapter on Soviet memorials. Deep Baltic editor Will Mawhood caught up with Hatherley recently to talk about the Communist architectural and political heritage in the Baltics and beyond.
Could you talk me through the origins of your book Landscapes of Communism? Where did the inspiration come from?
That’s quite a big question! On a practical level, it came from the fact that I was living about half the year in Warsaw, and I had written two books that were peripatetic books about architecture in the UK, and it seemed quite natural to do that in those countries that were in close proximity to the Polish capital, which is most of central and eastern Europe – it’s a very good spot to go to everywhere else from. So there was that. And then there are much more long-term things which are much more complicated – the stuff I’ve done on Britain was very much politicised and very much about the legacy of post-war social democracy and what had been left by it. So obviously it make sense to look at the other side of the split in the Communist International and what they got up to.
And I come from a background that’s very explicitly from the various traditions of Marxism. It’s a way of looking at that that was quite intriguing to me. You know, I start the book by talking about my grandparents, who were in the CPGB [the Communist Party of Great Britain], and I didn’t want to do a condemnatory book, so it was more about what would they have thought about all of this, being what they were, which was slightly sort of William Morris-y Communists, and trying to work out what they would have made of the actual landscapes built by the party that they supported. And I don’t really come to a conclusion on that, but I suspect they wouldn’t have massively enjoyed most of it. I imagine they would have thought it deeply odd, for the most part. Although they would certainly have appreciated the reconstructed old towns, which you didn’t really get in the south of England at that time.
Definitely not in Southampton. [Hatherley’s home town on the south coast of England, badly damaged by German bombing in World War II]
No, not in Southampton. And my grandma’s from Portsmouth, which was rebuilt even worse than Southampton was.
I want to pick up on an interesting point you make in the introduction to the book: you say that people who defend modern architecture, particularly anything connected with post-Communist Europe, are generally assumed to be apologists for all of the worst aspects of what went on there, whereas if you express appreciation for the architecture of Athens, for example, people don’t assume you’re in favour of slave labour or an oligarchical system or anything like this…
There’s also Washington D.C. – no one ever mentions the fact that was built by slaves.
Why do you think that is? Why is this connection made with this subject and not with others?
I think to be honest in this particular case, although I’m generally quite loath to make Nazi-Soviet comparisons – I don’t think they’re generally useful – there’s kind of a view that the two totalitarianisms, if you will, were aberrations. You know, that the growth of Western society since the 17th century doesn’t include them as part of their history. And they’re these weird, freakish things that happened and no one supported them (laughs), and they happened by magic… and they’re uniquely evil.
So capitalism is just the normal state of things.
Yes, the normal state of things. And what’s happened since 1991 has been the reassertion of the normality – and actually both those regimes in different ways, are deeply, deeply rooted in Western traditions. So that’s partly where it comes from, the belief that “here be dragons”. Whereas you can study them in a way that is quite good, that is politically neutral. The one that I mention at the start is Jonathan Meades’s two films – on Nazi architecture and Soviet architecture – which are very clever and benefit a lot from being non-academic. But Meades has no sympathy with either whatsoever, and I obviously have some sympathy with one of them, and I wanted to get that out of the way at the start; I wanted to put my cards on the table a little bit, because that criticism is always going to happen, so there’s a certain amount of shrugging my shoulders at the start and saying “well, yeah”. But a different critic could certainly write a book about this stuff that has no sympathy for Socialist politics whatsoever – and people have.
Connected to this, what are your feelings about Eastern Europe as an alternative travel destination, something for people who want a weird holiday, something to marvel at. You mentioned this concept of these books of “totally awesome Soviet…”
“Totally awesome ruined Soviet architecture”. That’s sort of bundling up a few books into an insult. Something like that basically did end up being published, called Soviet Ghosts which came out last year. That was kind of the worst aspects of all of those books compounded.
Why do you think this is something pernicious? Is it not just something exotic for people, that they find unusual?
I’m probably a bit Protestant about it really. But just looking at pictures with no analysis, with something as loaded as this, is just flimsy. It can be done well or done badly. I mean, the Soviet Ghosts one I’ve just mentioned – Rebecca Litchfield, I think, is the photographer. That one was just gob-smackingly ill-informed. I actually think you have to look quite hard in much of the former Soviet Union – and I may be wrong about this – I think you have to look quite hard to find ruins. You have to look quite hard to find places that aren’t inhabited.
This came to a large degree from my then-partner Agata Pyzik who, as a Varsovian, had always been infuriated by this particular trend, and it’s something that hadn’t particularly bothered me before we started travelling together. And then she brought me round to her position, let’s say, so I owe that very much to her. She basically finds that stuff to be incredibly Orientalist – so she changed my angle on that stuff.
It takes something that’s hugely loaded and hugely connected with people’s actual lives and their workplaces and the places they live, and turns it into porn, basically. And some of it’s good porn. There’s a book by a photographer called Roman Bezjak called Socialist Modernism, which I think is superb and I think it really captures those landscapes incredibly well – and partly what’s interesting about that book is that it records the alterations that people have made a lot more than most of them do. But lots of the stuff what people do is either “woah! Awesome sci-fi building!” like Frederic Chaubin’s book Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, or “let’s gaze sadly at some ruins”, and I don’t think either of them are very useful – not useful politically, but also not useful architecturally, because it’s completely at this level of just staring at stuff.
Because there’s no context?
Yeah, a very deliberate avoidance of context. As if it would ruin the experience if there was too much context. There will usually be a commissioned essay by a historian of some description who will try to provide some kind of context. But not usually much.
And, you know, I’m not a proper architectural historian, so I did want to write about it in an experiential way, but I wanted to combine that with talking about where stuff actually comes from.
How would you define yourself politically? Socialist? Marxist?
OH: I would say Communist with a small “c”, if that’s a thing (laughs). I don’t adhere to any particular tendency – I’m not a Trotskyist, and obviously I’m not a Stalinist. But in terms of the obvious things that make you a Communist rather than a social democrat: the analysis of capitalism in Das Kapital is, I think, the most accurate analysis of that system; I adhere to the stuff in the Communist manifesto; I think that the October Revolution was a great and important thing. On that level, I’m a Communist rather than a social democrat, although I have major social democratic leanings – I’m torn that way somewhat. But yeah, there somewhere, somewhere between those two things.
Throughout the book, you present images of post-Communist Europe as it is now, obviously struggling with huge numbers of problems of various kinds. And this is presented as an indictment of capitalism – a sense that this system is inherently a failure. Couldn’t it be seen in another way: as an indictment of Communism, in that the countries of Eastern Europe find it difficult to compete on the world market?
One thing that people tend to do rather ahistorically, although it varies from country to country, is assume that everything was fine in the garden before 1939. And in fact, with two major exceptions – Czechoslovakia, especially the Czech part, and eastern Germany – with those exceptions, these were not industrial countries, they were not developed countries. These were countries with very low levels of literacy, very low educational levels – aside from Estonia and Latvia, in fact, which I imagine because of the Lutheran thing are rather exceptional in that – countries with enormous power of the church, enormous power of landowners, that were dominated by huge latifundia and, as they are now, by Western capital. In terms of their relationship to capitalism as a world system, they were deeply, deeply peripheral, and were very poor and divided countries, and again, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, were all dictatorships in 1939.
So I think to a large degree, lots of what happened was continuity: after 1945 they continued to be dictatorships, they continued to be quite peripheral to the world system. But I think the difference is that because of the Soviet economy, at least to a large degree until the ‘70s and ‘80s, aspires towards autarky and didn’t have to compete on the world market, it meant that things like full employment were actually plausible, which they weren’t in the ‘30s or the ‘90s, because you had an internal market. Textiles produced in Łódź were not really sellable in France or America – and when they tried to do this in the ‘70s with the export strategy, it was a disaster. But they would be bought by people in the USSR or Mongolia or Vietnam. But because of the fact that there was this parallel system, I think that those economies at that time were much more stable during that time.
You can find very conflicting comparisons. You can point to Portugal or Greece – Greece less so nowadays – and go “we could have been that”. Or you can point to Argentina or Turkey or Brazil and say “we could have been that”. And I think they’re equally plausible, although given the balance of political power, I think it’s much more likely that those countries would have gone on to be like Latin America than to be like Greece or Portugal.
The comparison that is frequently made in the Baltics, especially in Estonia and Latvia, is with Finland, which was in 1939 at a relatively similar level of development and prosperity.
Which is funny because of course the Finnish economy after 1945 – and you could also mention the Norwegian economy after they discover the oil – both of those countries weren’t too far off Estonia economically, and they take fire to a large degree, having the most socialistic capitalist economies in the world. Finland, for God’s sake, Finland was an extraordinarily planned economy. The Scandinavian countries – and also Austria, which is a parallel very close to the Soviet sphere – those countries were at the left end of social democracy. They did not use the methods that are tried now about free trade and so forth, and the idea that if you keep taxes low you’ll have this wonderful flurry of small businesses. All the things that the Baltics have been applying over the last 25 years are not how Finland and Norway and Sweden and Denmark got to where they were – far from it. Now it’s quite possible that those two countries could have been at the level of Finland – I think it’s much less plausible about Bulgaria or Romania. The other thing about Finland is that, although it had the civil war after 1917, it didn’t have a right-wing dictatorship in the 1930s.
They were allied with the Nazis.
They were allied with the Nazis. But they were the only country in the Axis who continued to have a legal social democratic party and so forth. I mean, I have no desire to apologise for people who were complicit in the Siege of Leningrad, but there is a big difference between the level of political debate in a country like Finland in the ‘30s, and in Estonia and Latvia in the ‘30s. In terms of all the things that liberals like about civil society – those things had been crushed in Estonia and Latvia in the 1930s, and they managed to continue in Finland even during the war. So it’s an unknowable thing, but people have a certainty that their historic course has been derailed, which I think is a little questionable. And Lithuania is such a separate case altogether that I don’t think it’s remotely plausible.
It’s striking that many of the places you have the most praise for architecturally in the book are in countries that have never had Communist administrations at all – Vällingby in Sweden; Vienna, as a result of its very left-wing administration in the ’20s and ‘30s. Also the post-war reconstruction of Coventry in the English Midlands (covered extensively in A New Kind of Bleak) is praised far more than any of the rebuilding projects undertaken in destroyed cities in the Eastern Bloc. Does this demonstrate that, for architecture, the best system is capitalism but with a strong left influence?
(Laughs) Well, we’ll never know. It’s a question of taste. I suspect actually that if you were to take most people in Coventry to Warsaw or Gdańsk or St. Petersburg, and go “how do you like this rebuilding”, they would far, far prefer it to their own. Now I may disagree with them. But I think that the way cities were reconstructed in the Eastern Bloc is a way that is far closer to popular architectural taste, by a long chalk.
The book is a little bit neutral about certain things. Edwin Heathcote picked up on this in his review that I don’t really say when things are ugly, which I have done in other books. Because to a large degree it’s an attempt to understand something, rather than to come to a definite judgement on it. But I don’t think that it would be correct to say that the rebuilding of Warsaw, say, proves the inferiority of the system compared to the rebuilding of Coventry. I think most people, both west and east would disagree with this.
Why do you think that is?
Well I think that the really basic answer is that at least until 1955 these cities were not constructed along modernist lines, they were reconstructed with an enormous amount of historical fidelity and attention to decoration and local tradition and craftsmanship and so on, that was not of interest in Coventry or Rotterdam or Southampton or Le Havre or Milan or – fill in your Western city. What was destroyed was put back together to a large degree. And in the chapter I write about reconstructions I end up trying to prove the bits where they took licence, but about three-quarters of it is extremely faithful. And given the rise of interest since the ‘70s – which shows no sign of stopping – in the qualities of the historical city, I think that’s much more appreciated. And one of the reasons that I made much more effort in something like A New Kind of Bleak to make a case for something like Coventry is because I know it’s not popular. There’s no need to make a case for Warsaw Old Town – everyone loves Warsaw Old Town. Apart from a few passionate modernists in Warsaw who would rather it had been reconstructed along the lines of Coventry or Rotterdam, but that’s quite a minority taste.
But in terms of providing a better life for ordinary people.
But this goes back to the previous question. Did people have a better life in the Midlands that they did in Silesia or Daugavpils? Yes. They did in the 1930s; they did in the 1960s; they do now. And short of a complete transformation in the world system, they will. I think it’s a meaningless comparison.
You mentioned that it was commented in the review that you don’t mention when buildings are ugly. Could you single out a few that are particularly ugly?
Where to start? There are a few that are so ugly and so monstrous that they’re beyond taste. Things like the Seven Skyscrapers in Moscow – I find them absolutely fascinating and also hideous. The Riga Academy of Sciences is in that category as well. There are lots of things I find ugly and interesting, like the Nikolaiviertel in Berlin, which is this very weird ‘80s reconstructed old Berlin – that is completely clunky and ridiculous, but very charming. There are certain buildings, particularly from the Stalinist era, that are just preposterous, and certain things, like the Red Army Theatre in Moscow, that are just really bad illiterate architecture
The obvious one, the one that I think is really indefensible – the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest. And that’s the only one where I was pushed too far.
Is that just the structure itself or also the history that goes along with it – the fact that so much of the city was destroyed to make way for it?
No, I couldn’t very well praise the Moscow Metro, which I do, and then draw the line at Ceaușescu. Ceaușescu was a monster, but compared to Stalin, he was a very minor monster. So it’s not really that. It’s just a shit design – in terms of architecture it’s just the most banal neo-baroque with no real ideas, no imagination. It’s just a load of – a first-year student at the Beaux Arts. In terms of its effect on the city, it’s ridiculous.
A lot of the buildings that people always affected to hate I found were actually very useful and very well used and well-liked – the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw being an obvious example. The Palace of Culture and Science, looked at superficially, is this huge totalitarian monster chucked into the middle of the city, but actually after a bit of time using it, you see that it’s actually enormously well-connected to the city, that all the various functions of it are used extremely heavily by Varsovians, that practially everyone in the city uses it on a regular basis, and that public access to is quite clear. Architecturally, I think it’s extremely kitsch, but it has a certain dash to it – it has a New York skyscraper feel to it that I think is quite attractive.
Whereas the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, aside from its architectural banality, is a black hole in the centre. It’s almost impossible to use; it’s surrounded by a defensive system of hills and escarpments; it has a very unclear entrance system. It’s surrounded by a stone fence, and at the back side of it, you’ve got still a huge swathe – the size of four Palaces of Culture and Science – that’s still wasteland, and will probably always be wasteland, because the whole idea from the start was utterly stupid. And something like that is just an urban and architectural failure on the worst scale, and there’s no possible excuse for it at all. So that was the obvious one; that was the only building where I was utterly disgusted.
You mentioned the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. I wanted to talk about that because in the book you talk about how this building has gone from being this structure whose existence is almost denied by Poles to something that many people are proud of or identify with or at least feel some affection for. Having canvassed a few people I know throughout the Baltic countries, I can say that this is happening to a degree in the Baltics as well: certain Soviet, and even certain Stalinist, buildings are regarded with a degree of fondness. Why do you think this is happening even in countries as anti-Soviet as the Baltics?
I think it’s generational. It’s probably quite closely linked to the fact that post-war architecture is being revalued in Britain or the US or the Netherlands or Brazil or whatever. It’s the stuff our parents hated, and it’s the stuff their parents in the Baltics hated too. And therefore there’s a certain reaction, which always happens and I don’t think means a great deal – that people will look at it with fresh eyes, people who don’t have the same assoiations. I think it’s also much more fashionable – lots of that stuff has a certain frisson – and also, although I think that it’s better than most post-Communist architecture, most contemporary architecture in the Baltics is pretty boring, and this stuff is very flamboyant a lot of the time. It’s very expressive, and when so much is kind of straight and trying to look like Frankfurt, I think that’s quite appealing to people.
What’s an example of boring architecture in the Baltics?
There’s one that really upset me in the main square in Riga. It’s called Kamarins’ House – it’s just this tiny little office block and it’s between the reconstructions of the town hall and the House of the Blackheads. You’re in somewhere that important and that loaded, and they’ve just dumped something that looks like it’s in Reading in the middle of it – because it’s modern and it’s western… It’s pitiful. Actually, mostly the architecture that I found depressing – the contemporary architecture anyway – was much more in Riga than anywhere else. That’s much more where things have been dumped down without any real thought.
Then there’s other stuff that is much less offensive than what has been done in Riga, but it’s just “really? Is that it?”. Like all of the little white-walled houses on the outskirts of Tallinn. Especially since they had so much interesting domestic architecture in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ’80s, and instead you get these little tight-arsed pseudo-Le Corbusier boxes. And it’s like “come on! You can do better than that.”
But what’s good is generally very polite – like the high-rises across the river in Vilnius. The public spaces there are really bad, but the skyline’s not awful; it’s just rather lacking in ambition or expression or presence. It just signifies a sort of aspiration to be modern and clean and such.
Do you feel you’re fighting the same kinds of battles as you are with your books about Britain?
No, I don’t feel I’m fighting a battle with this book on this at all. The book, as I’ve said, is an attempt to understand something. It’s based on the premise that “they fucked this up”. And then “OK, so they fucked this up, but what did they do in the process?” It’s not a defence of anything – and it’s not an attack on anything. Occasionally people describe it as “a defence of Socialist architecture”, and that’s not what I was trying to do.
The two books you refer to – A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak – both of those were about influencing a particular argument going on in a particular place, and I wanted to convince people of something. Whereas this is much more about trying to explore particular ideas and their consequences, and it’s a thing with a beginning and an end. I’m generally quite keen on books being useful, but I didn’t want this book to be useful.
Could you explain a little bit what the battle you’re trying to fight in the UK is?
There are analogues to Eastern and Central Europe. It’s about the complete evisceration of the public sphere – the destruction of things like council housing and comprehensive schooling and town planning – the entire infrastructure set up after 1945, and the way they have been denigrated and destroyed. Lots of it is an attempt to argue for certain aspects of that – not in total: you’ll know from A New Kind of Bleak that there’s quite a lot of stuff that I don’t particularly like from that era. But I think as a project, it’s one that I very much support – and it’s been very very easily, and kind of crudely dismissed. Certain things have been accepted as being common sense, which I wanted to challenge.
Well, such as that council housing was bad, and worse than private housing. That private ownership is always better than public ownership. That private space is better than public space. That cities work better if the market is left to do what it likes. These are the obvious ones.
Are the criticisms levelled at you for making these kinds of arguments similar to the criticisms that would have been levelled at Communist architecture?
Yeah, I guess. Lots of the same cliches do come up. Often things are described as being made of concrete that aren’t made of concrete in both cases. Certain insults – concrete, Stalinist. And one of the fun things that I found doing this is that certain narratives that are imposed on the history of architecture in the Soviet sphere are wildly inaccurate. Like people will talk about the housing estates being Stalinist, for instance, which I always think is hilarious. And I was very keen to do a chapter on historical reconstruction, because I think that was a really, really important thing about the way cities worked in those countries, and that’s a thing that is habitually ignored – or they try to disassociate it from the regime, I think quite spuriously. So yeah, you do get similar sorts of things coming in. But it’s different in that it’s not really a book about the past. It’s about objects from the past and the way they affect life in the present, but it’s not in the same way about the present.
Turning to your comments about contemporary politics expressed in the book: you say about the occupation of the Baltic states that it was “a straightforwardly colonial act”, but you’re also very critical of the citizenship laws in Estonia and Latvia requiring a certain level of language proficiency for Soviet-era immigrants. Isn’t this in itself a rather colonial attitude? Isn’t it reasonable for these countries to expect a certain level of language and integration from people who have entered?
I think that there are certain things that naturally should be enforced: all schools should obviously teach Estonian in Estonia, and Lithuanian in Lithuania and Latvian in Latvia – that strikes me as entirely sensible. On the other hand, something like the situation in Narva, where you have a 95% Russian population and no Russian street signs seems to me grotesque. So it seems to be just an act of bullying, and the fact that it’s in response to a much greater act of bullying doesn’t seem to me to make it OK.
The way I was trying to think about it was what if something like this had happened in Northern Ireland or South Africa. Let’s say that at the end of apartheid, the voting and citizenship rights of whites had been restricted. Now I would say actually that the blacks in South Africa had way more right to do so: the level of oppression to which they were subjected was far greater than the level of oppression to which Estonians and Latvians were subjected. They did not do so, and they did not do so because they knew there would be an international outcry. Similarly, I thought with the Baltic Russians, it’s a rather similar situation to if Northern Ireland had become independent in the ‘70s, the Protestant population, the descendants of the settlers, would probably have got a fairly hard time of it. But if they had had to take Gaelic tests or if they had had their voting rights restricted or access to certain jobs restricted, there would have been a massive international outcry.
Gaelic isn’t the working language of Ireland, though, whereas Estonian and Latvian are state languages.
It isn’t the working language of Ireland, but it is the official language and it’s taught in all Irish schools. It’s very difficult to extricate creating a viable state in which I think that people obviously should be integrated into that state and should be able to speak both languages, but a lot of it seemed to be straightforward revenge. The laws I know have been relaxed since they joined the EU, which I think is a good thing, but I still think they’re way beyond the level which most European countres would accept. I think that much of that is to do with rectifying historical grievances. If you’ve got someone who came over in the 1950s to work in a factory, and you then say to them “you can’t vote in this country you’ve lived in for 30 or 40 years because you’ve not learnt this language”. I don’t think that’s OK, and I don’t think it would be accepted in most of the world, and I think it was accepted there from a mixture of the passivity of the local population and the fact it was considered to be rectifying a historical grievance. I suspect over the next generation or two it will disappear as people grow up speaking both languages, but I do think that it was fairly nasty politics.
How far is nationalism in the Baltic states, which you mention as a negative development since the ‘90s, a result of what happened during the Soviet Union?
I think one thing that does have to be stressed, actually is that the Baltic states are a little bit different, because to my knowledge it’s the one area where nationalism was not encouraged under the Communist regime, and that makes them atypical, and I think that is because they were occupied. Whereas in Central Asia or the Caucasus, and in Bulgaria and Romania, or massively in Poland, nationalism was actively encouraged, and the nationalism that came out in the ‘90s has really clear continuities with the stuff that happened under the Socialist regimes. Whereas to my knowledge in the Baltic states that’s not the case, and I think that may explain – that, as well as the presence of the Russian populations in Estonia and Latvia – may explain why they take such a sharp form, the nationalisms there.
Do you think there’s any hope for the left in Eastern Europe? After a Polish election where the combined left got around 10%.
It’s also worth looking at the huge quantity of abstentions in those elections. There’s a little kernel of optimism I take from the Polish elections, which is that it may mean that at some point the post-Communist left may be superseded by the younger new left. The post-Communist left in almost all central and eastern European countries has not only been complicit with the previous system, they’ve also been complicit in neoliberalism – occasionally a somewhat slower-paced neoliberalism, but nonetheless… And I think that their removal from the political scene is actually potentially quite encouraging, and I think the fact that something like Razem (Partia Razem – a social democratic party formed earlier this year) in Poland managed to get nearly 4%, and the SLD (the traditional party of the left post-1989 in Poland) plus two coalition partners didn’t get much more than that, suggests that they may be supplanted, and that’s good. Whether they’ll be supplanted, and it will be Razem getting 10% rather than the two of them getting 10% is another matter. It may be that there’s for the forseeable future not a bigger electorate for the left in Poland than 10%.
What about in the Baltics?
Latvia’s the kind of obvious one on this because the notionally left-wing party there have a plurality, right?
Harmony are the largest party, yes, but no one will work with them because they are widely seen as promoting Russia’s interests.
And to my knowledge, they are quite close to various Russian interests that are not particularly pretty. I suspect it’s a mixture of racism and self-preservation. I don’t know enough about Ušakovs really – I know that he made some very ill-advised comments about Putin at the last election.
I wanted to pick up on something you talk about in Landscapes of Communism, and are quite disapproving of in certain cases, which is people adapting buildings – adding balconies or connecting things, or so. You make a connection to shanty towns, that it’s not necessarily a positive thing, this kind of bending of the rules.
That comparison was about Georgia. And in Georgia it’s the most extreme of any place, and in Georgia it comes from something different. In most of them it seems to be kind of self-organised. And like most things that look self-organised, I suspect there’s probably a certain amount of greasing of palms and a certain amount of organised crime going on, but nonetheless…. I only get upset about it when you’re in a building that obviously has an architectural composition to it. In Kiev I talk about a lot of pre-Communist apartment blocks that are photographed in the book – buildings from the Belle Époque that have these things on them – and also in some kinds of ‘70s things: Šeškinė outside Vilnius would be a good example.
The structure of those buildings is important; it’s important that those things are a coherent whole. They would look better, they would look less poor if they were kept as a coherent whole. But on the whole, on your average Khrushchyovka I don’t think it matters – that’s not really what they’re for.
The Georgian example was so extreme because it actually comes out of a sort of fiddle with the Five Year Plan in the mid-‘80s, that they were given the housing targets under Gorbachev that were very high, and they decided “well, we already have a culture of self-building in this country, so why don’t we just let people build extensions and then we’ll add that to the plan at the end of the year”, which is what they did. And then in the early ‘90s when you have the wars over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that became the way of accommodating refugees. So it’s emergency housing, and like most emergency housing, it’s really dangerous. And people have a tendency to look at that at think “wow, isn’t that sexy, isn’t that cool”, and I think that’s a little bit dodgy.
Does this not though kind of feed into the perception that many people have about the left – and, to a certain extent, about architects as well – that you’re not really interested in people’s freedom, or in this case, people’s ability to take a building and make it more compatible with what they want?
I’d like to see how the people who are arguing that react to the same thing being done in Paris. In Kiev you have Belle Époque tenements with
these giant things stuck on top of them. And the idea that in any Western country you could build gigantic extensions out from the front of and on the top of late-19th century and early-20th century tenements: a) it would be illegal and b) the common sense would just be “that’s gross”. It just simply wouldn’t happen, and that here is entirely considered to be common sense; it’s not a controversial opinion to say “you can’t do that”. The law in the UK would stop you doing that. What’s commonplace in Kiev would be illegal in San Francisco.
So on that level, I don’t think it’s a particular provocative or anal thing to argue. With something really banal like your average Khrushchyovka, I don’t think it really matters. I think the important thing is to make sure that they’re well-built and that the buildings that they’re in are actually properly upkept, which they’re usually not. And the worst thing you find is a Khrushchev-era or a Brezhnev-era apartment building with loads of balcony extensions, where the fabric of the building is really dilapidated. And that’s a problem. You have this thing that people are doing essentially in the absence of any real care for those buildings. People making them as liveable as they can in quite a grim context.
Whereas you see quite a lot less of them in countries where those buildings were looked after – Poland being a really obvious example. You see far fewer balcony extensions in Poland simply because of the fact that those buildings have been looked after and they’ve been given insulation… I’m not entirely keen on the lime-green everywhere, but those buildings are now liveable. And with their liveability, you don’t see people building shit all over them. I think it’s about poverty more than aesthetics.
While I mentioned that I have noticed a fondness for certain Communist-era structures among the younger generation in the Baltics, the one types of structures that no one ever has anything positive to say about are the housing projects constructed under Khrushchev and his successors. They’re seen as dangerous, dilapidated, grey, depressing. But what’s interesting from your book is how meticulously at least some of them were planned. About Lazdynai in Vilnius, for example, you quote a planner saying: “every bend in the street has been thought out… so it is both fragmented – like a film – and complete, a series of vistas. ”
Lazdynai’s a funny one, because it really really was a really big thing. It won awards all over the place. It was publicised in the West. It was a big project. I’m going to be really boring on this and just repeat the point I’ve just made, which is that a lot of this depends on upkeep. If you go to the Czech Republic or Poland, where they’ve been done up, they’re much more popular because they’re no longer leaky. And if you go to a city where they’re very well-connected to the centre of town, like Prague or Warsaw, they’re much more popular, and you actually get a lot of property development in their interstices. Actually, Moscow is the worst for that by far – Moscow has a monstrous level of infill building in between those blocks.
On one level, I think it’s funny that there is this dislike, because it’s the most humanitarian thing they did in the building field. And most of the other stuff we’re talking about is prestige building – it’s theatres, over-the-top metro systems, opera houses, monuments, academies. Stuff that’s not really the basic building blocks of society, whereas this stuff is, and it’s something there was very little of in the Stalinist era. In the Stalinist era, there was a huge housing crisis – people were appallingly housed. This was an attempt to give people what they wanted which was their own flat and their own space with some air and some trees, rather than living in a cramped converted communal flat from the 19th century, which is where most people were living. So it’s funny that that failed so spectacularly. And I think that’s connected with one thing that the Soviet economy couldn’t do: it was very very good at solving a numbers problem. If it was simply a question of “we need 100,000 of these housing units at this place at this time. Right we can do it, and it will be done in twelve months”. Something like that, it was very good at it.
But then going: OK, it needs to be differentiated, it needs some sort of structure to it that people might identify with, it needs high-quality materials, it needs public spaces to be looked after. All of that sort of stuff the Soviet economy was really really bad at. Mass architecture of any era is seldom popular. If you were to canvas people’s opinion on Victorian architecture, and you showed them pictures of the Natural History Museum [in London] or Birmingham Town Hall or the centre of Glasgow, people would go “ooh, that’s lovely!”; and then if you show them the average terrace in Wigan, people’s opinion would be quite different. And that’s also tied up with the fact that that’s the architecture of industrial revolution. In Central and Eastern Europe, the industrial revolution – again, pretty much everywhere apart from East Germany and Czechoslovakia – happens in the ‘50s, and with an industrial revolution, you have millions of people going into the towns. And in the Industrial Revolution that we had in Britain, they were housed in quickly knocked-up speculative terraces – or worse – and there they were in quickly-knocked-up prefabricated high rises.
And they vary; they vary very widely. The most interesting of them are often from the ‘70s and ‘80s, where there was a certain kind of “we can’t keep building these endless slabs, we have to differentiate somewhat”. And then you do get things that are worth defending on architectural grounds. Šeškinė being an obvious example, but there’s also a housing estate outside Katowice [in Poland] called the Thousandth Anniversary Estate, that I put alongside Šeškinė as a similar case.
And I think architecturally they’re really quite exciting. And in most of these cases, the problems they have can be solved fairly easily. The Polish examples do work so much better, simply because they’ve been insulated and cleaned and painted and the lifts have been fixed.
You mentioned that Estonians and Lithuanians are quite over-represented in contemporary architecture. Why do you think that is?
I don’t write about contemporary architecture very much, but if I was to write about contemporary architecture in east-central Europe, the four countries where I think there is anything interesting going on would be Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia and – to a degree – Poland. In terms of making well-made and interesting mainstream architecture – not stuff that I find terribly exciting, but stuff which is of a high quality – what you’re going to encounter there will be way better than what you’ll find in Ukraine or Bulgaria or Serbia or Croatia or Slovakia – or Latvia, Latvia is also on that list with Ukraine and Russia, places that just have a lot of very shoddy new architecture. And I don’t know why, I’d love to know why Latvia’s architectural and town planning culture is so poor compared to its two neighbours.
Do you think there’s anything inherent in the culture or the traditions of the country that can explain the high quality in Estonia and Lithuania?
Well, they’ve always been very highly educated countries, and I think that’s probably part of it. And they’ve not lost that. Ukraine seems to be a good counter to those. People will come up with their own reasons as to why, but it seems clear that over the last 25 years the Ukrainian public sphere has been completely dominated by a particularly brutal and thuggish kind of capitalism, in which all of the assets of the country that have been built up, in terms of its industrial base and its level of education etc, etc, were squandered. People in Ukraine still are very educated, but they don’t get to do anything with it.
As a good example – something like the Rotermann Quarter in Tallinn. Not my cup of tea, architecturally, but of its kind its very good. You could put that in any country, I think, and it would be a good example of its kind. If we’re doing ex-industrial gentrification in an inner-city it’s a very good example. The buildings are very well-treated; the public spaces are well done; the materials are very rich; the surfaces of the buildings are very thoughtfully done. It’s been thought about; it’s not just dumped on it. The equivalent in Kiev – or I would have to say in Riga – will have been dumped on it. And I don’t know why that is – well, I could say why it is in Ukraine, but not in Latvia. It just baffles me.
Because, of course, the turn-of-the-century architecture in Latvia is wonderful, and is largely done by Latvian architects.
Yes, of the three cities, the most interesting historically in terms of its architecture, by far, is Riga. And it’s the only one that feels like a real metropolis. It’s got so much going for it, but it seems the saddest of the three at the moment.
Do you think that there’s any way that the preservation or reconceptualising of the Soviet heritage could be presented in a way that it would appeal to the average semi-patriotic Estonian or Latvian or Lithuanian?
I wonder. I mean there were three books I drew on that were published bilingually on each of the three capitals. Those on Riga and Tallinn were pretty prosaic, but Vilnius – a Guide to the City’s Architecture 1900-2013, edited by Julija Reklaitė and Rūta Leitanaitė, was superb. From the biographies of the authors they’re all fairly young, which I thought was telling.It was very restrained and very nuanced, very good pictures, and went through and contextualised it. So you have the Tsarist-era stuff, the stuff from the Polish period, and the stuff post-’91, all very much part of a continuum. And the differences between the different eras are brought out very nicely: so Stalinism gets its own chapter, because what happens between ’45 and ’55 is very different from what happens from ’55 to ’91, as different in many ways from what happens between 1918 and 1939. So that book fulfils the task very well.
Which I find really, really funny, because historically, if we’re talking about 1917, the one of those three countries that’s least involved in the revolution was Lithuania. Lithuania’s more connected at that point with Poland: Polish revanchism and trying to preserve independence against Poland. Whereas Riga and Tallinn are cities that, I would argue the historical record shows quite clearly, had a huge amount of support for the October Revolution. Particularly actually Latvia in general, but also Tallinn. There’s a wonderful monument there next to the city walls of people who were killed in 1917. And you look at the names and it’s roughly about half Estonian names and half German names, and a couple of Russian names. That was a real thing there.
It’s notable, though, that Lithuania was the Baltic country changed the least by their experience of the Soviet Union – there was relatively little immigration, for one thing.
It’s interesting how in the USSR there was actually quite a wide range of different policies on nationality. Trying that kind of shit in Georgia would have got you shot. There were very very different rules going on in nationality policies, and those three countries did seem to have got the worst of it, and I think that has a huge amount to do with the time that they were brought into the Soviet Union – that their experience is wholly one of Stalinism and post-Stalinism. That apart from the Civil War they don’t have an experience of the revolution. There’s no authentic social base for Communism; it’s purely something that’s imported.
One thing I did a lot while writing the book is go through old issues of the New Left Review from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, because they had a lot of correspondents out there. And there was a terrific article from Otto Lācis, who was from a family of old Latvian Bolsheviks, and it was published in Izvestia in 1990, and he was just saying “look, can we stop pretending that there was a revolutionary situation in Latvia in 1939. If we want people to take us seriously, let’s stop lying to them.” But on the other hand he also makes the point that in 1917, it was one of the reddest places in the Russian Empire. So it’s a very complicated history.
Landscape of Communism: A History through Buildings is available now in hardback
© Deep Baltic 2015. All rights reserved.
Header Image: Lazdynai, Vilnius, Lithuania (miestai.net)