History of Architecture

    The first anti-Stalinist speech?

    The speech Nikita Khrushchev delivered in 1956 at the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is generally seen as the initial step towards the de-Stalinization of the USSR and most of its satellite countries. That text can be finally revisited as a first actual attack against Stalinism launched from the highest level of Soviet authority.
     The speech touted the imperious need to industrialize construction technologies, laying stress on standardization and typification, on prefabs and mass production of structural elements. As an unmediated result of new technologies and industrial production, the Soviet leader harped long on the idea of altering the way in which architecture had to be designed. Thus architecture became second to construction, and a consequence thereof. This very reversal of hierarchies pointed to a rejection of the situation prior to 1953 in the field of construction.
     Khrushchev then proceeded to criticize the monumentalism of Stalinist edifices. The major targets under fire were the unique nature of these edifices and their air of “sacred” constructions. Instead, the Soviet leader almost exclusively stressed on social programs, particularly collective, mass housing. From then on, the only criterion to judge such residential ensembles would be the cost of the square yard of construction to the detriment of the previous one, the amount of decorations affixed to façades.
     Even if he did not explicitly propose constructivism as an ideology and aesthetics reborn of the ashes of Stalinist martyrdom, Khrushchev termed it a “false target”: the struggle against the avant-garde seemed to the Soviet strongman rather a smoke screen covering up the shoddy quality of Stalinist architecture.
     Starting in 1957, Stalinist architecture practically left the picture, in the Soviet Union and in most of its satellites. Several pavilions of the Union Farming Exhibition of Moscow (extensively described by its chief architect A. Jukov, in Arhitektura SSSR 7/1954, respectively Arhitectura RPR 9/1954) were finished after Stalin’s death[i]. The House of the SSFR Soviets in the Krasnopresnenskaia neighborhood was erected subsequently following closely the project made before 1954 but almost entirely freed from ornaments. The Lenin Central Stadium of Lujniki (1956, designed by A. V. Vlasov, chief architect of Moscow in 1954, “a good architect who sometimes does not show the best of his staying power though”, Khrushchev said in a speech) reminds of edifices before the war, such as the Dinamo Stadium of Boris Iofan, still classicist, yet devoid of the flamboyant decoration of constructions after 1948.
     In keeping with the resolution of the CC of the CPSU, dated November 4, 1955, “useless stylistic elements” were officially and finally removed from all architectural discourse, and throughout 1956 previous projects were “purged”. According to a text from 1958, signed by the first secretary of the Union of Soviet Architects, P. Abrosimov, ten billion rubles, i.e. two percent of the total cost, could be thus saved (Arhitektura SSSR 5/1958, 23-5). In 1956-57, Gosstroi (the state construction body) and the Union of Soviet Architects organized new competitions for standardized construction of dwellings and public edifices. The goal pursued was the reduction of costs by 8-11 percent, in a first stage. Then, by application of the one-family apartment provisions, adopted in 1957, of prefabs and typification (“Typification has become the mainline in the development of constructions and architecture in the Soviet Union”, Abrosimov, 23) the target of 15 percent savings had to be reached (as compared to the cost of similar buildings in Stalin’s epoch) on the one hand, and on the other the matter of housing in the USSR was to be solved in a decade. According to Ockman and Eigen, who cautiously recall Khrushchev’s speech as a possible modernist text (1993, 184), the next consequence was that nearly 70 percent of the constructive parts of buildings were prefabs, as to 25 percent in 1950. In 1948, the Academy of Architecture had been requested to turn out prototypes for various buildings, yet this move did not result in a real standardization, as Khrushchev lambasted. The outcome had been 50 various types of apartments and 200 types (take notice!) of public buildings, each with its sets of ornaments and “traditional and national” details. After 1954 no more of this “waste”!
     Things relatively similar to those in the USSR also took place in nearly all the satellite countries. Latvia, for instance, had its own post-1954 alternative to socialist realism. Modern Scandinavian tradition, particularly Finnish, which ran through Baltic architecture after the 1960s, was also a subtle form of marking differences of identity from Soviet Russia. We also know that in Hungary the year 1956 represented the exact moment when socialist realism ceased to be the artistic dogma. Circumstances made it that the construction of a tower similar to that in Moscow and that of Bucharest’s Scânteia House was so much procrastinated in Hungary and Eastern Germany, under pretext of a quest for the most flatteringly adequate location inside the city, that after 1954 the need to erect such a structure disappeared. Individual destinies are also telling. Rimanockzy worked before the war as a modernist, and during Stalinism as a promoter of socialist realism (the University of Budapest), to serenely revert to modernism after 1956. More, Kadar’s party openly refrained from interfering in aesthetic matters anymore.
In Eastern Germany, with western Berlin’s Interbau modern reconstruction project breathing cold air on their back, the party decided, in 1959, to start its own radical reformulation (modernist) of eastern Berlin. After 1960, Bauhaus architecture and CIAM city planning became standard design models throughout Eastern Europe.

[i]The construction was damaged following Yeltsin’s attack on the Russian Parliament, in 1992.

Augustin Ioan, 2017