The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Soviet Modernism 1955-1991: An Unknown History

ed. The Vienna Centre of Architecture (University of Chicago Press, 360pp, £45.50)

Reviewed by Clementine Cecil

Why were the buildings and public spaces in the post-war Soviet Union so vast? This fine book suggests that during the Khrushchev era there was, as in the space race, a wish to ‘catch up with and overtake’ the West. They also reflect the vastness of the Soviet empire, and this book, by reuniting the fourteen former republics, conveys its great variety.

Post-war, both east and west sought to build large public buildings and spaces. Khrushchev was tackling a housing crisis never solved by Stalin, and both he and Brezhnev were remodelling cities for the car. This all led to mass demolitions of historic architecture, for example in Minsk in Belarus. This makes it doubly important to evaluate and appreciate the modernist buildings that replaced that heritage.

The book is the result of a three-year project by the Architecture Centre in Vienna, studying the architecture of the Soviet republics from the Khrushchev ‘thaw’ to the Union’s collapse. Russia itself was beyond the scope of the project, but still makes itself felt: the Party was the client and (until the end of the 1960s) local architects were mostly trained in Moscow and Leningrad.

For each republic there is a sketch of the capital and an essay by a local expert, straddling the academic and the personal and revealing fascinating architectural debates. The tensions between the Party and independent expression comes across strongly in the essay on Kiev, which includes a case study of the construction of the Park of Memory – a park and crematorium on the site of the Nazi massacre of Kievan Jews in Babyn Yar. The book breaks with the idea of a faceless, uniform Soviet architecture: the Baltic countries, who only became part of the Soviet system in 1940, looked to their Scandinavian neighbours for inspiration, while Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus were happy to take their cue from Moscow. The distinctive local cultures and architectural traditions of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan inform their buildings, while the republics of Central Asia incorporated Islamic traditions.

The book is richly illustrated with archival photography, models and drawings, as well as contemporary photographs, and ends with a summary of the most important buildings in each republic. Remnants of an unwanted regime, many are in an advanced state of disrepair. Already demolished classics include a palace of weddings in Tbilisi, and the Moskva cinema in Yerevan. Some building types, too, will be unfamiliar to western readers: here are modernist circuses as well as crematoria. Many buildings and architects are barely documented in the former Soviet Union, let alone the West. Now is the time to study them, for they are, as the authors say, ‘of the same level as comparable works of the Western world.’ In fact many are better, and were certainly constructed under more trying conditions. This book, too, is a considerable achievement.