Review: Landscapes of Communism
Owen Hatherley (Allen Lane, 624pp, £25)
Reviewed by Clem Cecil
This is a mammoth, dizzying tome: written over five years, it is a heady, rambling, stimulating exploration of Soviet and communist architecture, including a section on China at the end. The book is simultaneously the telling of history through buildings, an examination of western perceptions of communism and Stalinism, and Hatherley’s own responses to the places and buildings that he visits.
The route and destinations were dictated, as Hatherley outlines in his introduction, by commissions and invitations thrown up by his freelancing work and that of his Polish partner, writer Agata Pyzik, rather than a considered plan backing up a thesis: ‘It is, by and large, a record of what we found on what were usually unplanned walks, usually for own pleasure.’ The book is infused with a stimulating spirit of discovery and exploration, increased by the reported discussions with Pyzik. Hatherley is stronger on countries where he has spent more time (Poland) and less confident to draw conclusions in other countries, which can be frustrating.
Hatherley is the literary heir to Vladimir Paperny, a writer who looked at Soviet politics through its buildings and vice versa, in his book Culture 2, Architecture in the Age of Stalin (1985, published in English in 2002). Hatherley comes at the buildings from a different perspective – a background of committed communism – and although he doesn’t describe himself as communist and can see the failings of the Soviet system, he believes in revolution. Hatherley’s parents were, he tells us, members of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency in the British Labour Party.
Hatherley is interested in understanding to what extent these places and buildings fulfilled the socialist agenda that commissioned them. His style is witty and lugubrious, bringing a highly political, deadpan consciousness to bear on the qualities of this architecture: he is sensitive to its achievements, hypocrisies and inherent contradictions.
Interestingly, the prevalent discussions and debates among Russian architectural historians are largely absent from the book, including the preservation debate which would seem to be important in order to understand present attitudes to the buildings.
However, the absence of such debates has two advantages: not only does Hatherley introduce the reader to a number of interesting English language sources – many of them fellow travellers – he also argues his point from a British perspective which is illuminating, particularly when it comes to international phenomena like reconstructions of historic buildings, which he places in the context of the massive destruction wreaked by the war on East European cities. Commenting on the absence in Eastern Europe of a debate on the validity or otherwise of reconstructions, as there was in the West after the war, he says of the wholesale reconstructions in the Stalinist Soviet Union, ‘Why should there have been, when the architectural theories of “Socialist Realism”, with their deliberate unreality, their facade-deep ornamentalism, were the complete rejection of Loos or Ruskin?’ This is refreshing and helpful.
He is also good on British and American influence on Soviet architecture, and points out that the co-architect of the never-built Palace of the Soviets, which was to have been the tallest building in Europe topped off by a statue of Lenin, was Hector Hamilton, an Anglo-American architect who also had to his name a parade of shops in Woolwich and a luxury apartment block in Bournemouth!
Hatherley has undertaken something epic, truly in the spirit of communism, but at 550 pages it takes stamina to get through. Some of the winding paths of polemic, diverting as they are, take the reader down blind alleys, but perhaps this is to be expected in a book of this scope.
Most joyous is his chapter on the metro, before which Hatherley stands in awe, going into particular detail on the most magnificent of them all: the Moscow metro, but also tracing the history of other metro systems built all over the Soviet Union. He gives architect Alexei Dushkin (author of some of the best Moscow metro stations but largely unknown in the west) a gratifyingly substantial mention.
The list of places I want to visit has expanded greatly as a result of reading this book, and now includes housing estates such as the suburb of Poruba, outside Ostrava in the Czech Republic, where Hatherley finds evidence of the colonial aspect of Soviet architecture in a triumphal archway that is a copy of the General Staff Building on Palace Square in St Petersburg. He doesn’t shy away from any building type, from Polish milk bars – which he convincingly argues are true embodiments of socialism – to modernist Polish Catholic churches, which he suggests are the inheritors of socialist architecture: one of many surprises in this impressive book.