Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR 29.06.16

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Through a book, ceramic model and top trump cards, this ‘set’ explores the astonishing achievements and costs of Soviet efforts to rehouse an entire country within 30 years, says Owen Hatherley

When he was the director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius declared his intention of becoming 'the Ford of housing'. Houses, he insisted, must become machine-made, serial products, as efficient, clean, cheap and essentially disposable as cars. Like so many 20th century dreams, this would eventually be realised in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and with notoriously mixed results. For every Model T, there might be an Edsel. And bad things happen to disposable products when they’re not replaced.

Dom Publishers' account of this story comes either as a standalone book or as a 'set', in a little cardboard slab-block, which contains the book, a pack of Soviet housing top trump cards, and a ceramic miniature by the Belarussian artist Katia Sheina of the 1-464 model, the most widely produced of Soviet housing's various 'Fords'. It's a grey (naturally) five-storey block of walk-up flats, with balconies and a shallow pitched roof. A photograph shows you how enough of these can be assembled into an entire estate, or ‘Mikrorayon’. What sort of a bizarre fetish object is this?

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Preparation for a stability test for a residential building in the TashZNIEEP design institute (1975)

There's something rather uncomfortable about a chic luxury object that tells the story of the widest-scale mass production of standardised housing ever seen on earth. One could speculate unkindly on exactly how many of these 'sets' are likely to find themselves in the bookcases of prefabricated Soviet blocks and how many in the display cases of rather more salubrious housing. But after reading Meuser and Zadorin's book, it seems more a diversionary measure so that the buyers of coffee table albums of Totally Awesome Ruined Soviet Architecture don't realise they're actually buying a scholarly slab of historical research, leavened only by some dry humour. As a standalone book, Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing shows an exemplary division of labour, with Meuser providing historical background and Zadorin a type-by-type analysis, recapitulated in more raised-eyebrow form in the accompanying pack of top trumps.

Although some efforts had been made to combine industrialised construction and Stalinist luxury in the 1940s, the story begins with Nikita Khrushchev's decree On the Elimination of Excess in Design and Construction, in 1954. The vast territory of the USSR was divided into three climate zones and three soil types, and an often-dysfunctional system of numbering and classification emerged, giving an (apparently deceptive) impression of rationality. Room sizes, block heights and lengths were decided on the basis of mathematical calculation, not landscape or context.

However, the system didn't remain the same from 1955 to 1991 – it had three distinct moments, which Meuser divides into three games. ‘Chessboards’ in the 1950s and early 60s, somewhat more spaced-out 'dominoes' in the 60s, and the final complexities of the 'Tetris' arrangements found in the 1970s and 1980s. Standard blocks that were identical in layout, height and flat size in a multinational federation several times the size of the EU might be, if you were lucky, leavened with decorative mosaic panels on revolutionary, scientific, heroic and historical themes.

Often, in the southern republics of the USSR, the need for shading led to some more sculptural, Op-Art effects with loggias. But these variations aside, this is a story of mindboggling homogeneity. In some of the photographs here, you will see areas the size of small towns made up of the exact same prefabricated module. The intention appears to have been automation of both design and construction, and aesthetics was a matter of optional applied facades.

 

 

Words

Owen Hatherley

 

Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR: The Set
By Philipp Meuser, Dimitrij Zadorin, Katia Sheina,
Dom Publishers, €68

 

Above: It comes either as a standalone book or a 'set', with a pack of Soviet housing top trump cards, a ceramic miniature of the 1-464 housing development

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One could speculate unkindly on exactly how many of these 'sets' are likely to find themselves in the bookcases of prefabricated Soviet blocks and how many in the display cases of rather more salubrious housing

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Soviet housing top trumps

In functional terms, these systems had their virtues. All prefabricated blocks survived the Tashkent earthquake of 1966 intact, for instance. As for the faults: a gas explosion in a prefab block in Dnepropetrovsk in 2007 had results identical to that which occurred in London's Ronan Point in 1968, with one side of the building collapsing like a house of cards. Some types, like the K7, have been eliminated almost entirely due to their poor construction and fire hazards; others, such as the ship-like 1LG-600, were so popular that residents refused to believe they were Soviet at all, assuming (incorrectly) they were copies of a Polish design.Similarly, the robust, brick-clad Lithuanian 117 Series looked 'foreign', largely because the House Factories of Vilnius were comparatively sophisticated compared to the monoliths churned out by those in most Russian cities. These factories are found to be still in existence, mostly churning out variants of the duller blocks of the 1960s.

All this information is presented alongside some archival images that range from terrifyingly bureaucratic to rather utopian. Quotes from architects and bureaucrats show this drastic, wildly ambitious, landscape-transforming programme being justified with a stone-faced combination of tautology and bombast. The thoroughness of the book can be measured by Zadorin's catalogue of types, each featuring detailed plans and sections, as these mass-produced containers are treated with the detail and reverence more often given to a Mies. A few myths are also dispelled – the story of the lightweight 'K7' being built in the millions, repeated by many historians and writers (myself included), turns out to be nonsense, owed largely to Khrushchev's personal enthusiasm for the design.

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Eighteen-storey tower block belonging to Series 105 in Frunse, today known as Bishkeke (built in 1985)

Soviet commentators were often proud of their systems. When Moshe Safdie presented his 'Habitat' at Expo '67, they noted that the Soviets had been working on similar complete, automated 'spatial-units' for some time, although Zadorin finds that these mostly survive today in the form of some unlovely, worn tower blocks in Krasnodar. Rather than (or as well as) being oppressed by a weird enclosed world of assembly-line lunacy, architects were aware of, for instance, Japanese metabolism, and tried, with sporadic success, to make their systems similarly flexible.

These moments of international engagement implies the Soviets were not the only economy to have deployed such methods on such a scale. It would have been useful to have had some comparison with, say, Britain in the '60s, Sweden's 'Million Programme' or the French banlieue, which they rightly note was the Soviets' original model. There is no attempt at any sociology of what sort of people lived in these various places, and only slightly more on what they thought of them. There's also sadly little on often attractive landscaping, which other analyses – such as Kuba Snopek's provocative Belyayevo Forever – have found to be the saving grace of otherwise bleak schemes.

However, the obsessive focus on one system and its results is the point of the book, a fascinating investigation of a now barely comprehensible, titanic, and deeply questionable effort to rehouse an entire country within barely 30 years. Like much of what happened in the USSR, the achievement was immense, and so too was the cost. Maybe, one day the similarly systematised, prefabricated worlds of 21st century student housing or budget hotels will feature in similarly deadpan books (you could imagine them being modelled on Unite brochures, or being packaged with Jury's Inn pens and notepads).

What is so much more interesting about the Soviet example, though, is the combination of technological rationality taken to an extreme alongside a social effort that is, at this distance, impressive, especially in places where housing has shifted from a right into a financial instrument. Whether it was possible, as the architects of the 'Tetris' typologies of the 70s hoped, to combine this sort of mass production with better attention to place and people, is something a book of this kind can't explore. On its own terms, this is an intriguing and scientific exploration of both the banality and possibility of mass-production.

   

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Prefabricated building construction site in Ashgabat (2013)

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