Landscapes of Communism review – flights of fancy in an age of revolution
Source:theguardian Author:Rowan Moore Date: 2015-06-24 Size:
Owen Hatherley goes in search of socialism via an epic and insightful study of Eastern bloc architecture landscapes of communism……

‘From scientific future to Roman-Asiatic antiquity and back’: Elektrozavodskaya station on the Moscow metro.

My aunt, shy, saintly and adventurous (she was a teacher in Uganda), went to Russia in the 1960s. She came back with tales of how, in the state-run restaurants, soup, main course and dessert would arrive in whatever order suited the kitchens. I thought of her when reading Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism, in which the architecture of successive regimes switches from scientific future to Roman-Asiatic antiquity and back, with similarly bewildering and atemporal ease.

The book comes with an endorsement from Philip Pullman. This looks like a sales-boosting celebrity name-drop, and a gauche one at that – what would the author of The Golden Compass know about Comecon architecture? – but it becomes clear why. For this is an account of a Pullmanian parallel universe, both like and unlike the histories of 20th-century architecture told in the west.

There are the same movements and styles – modernism, neoclassicism, postmodernism, regionalism – and the same debates: mass production v craft, efficiency v poetry, concrete v marble, popular taste v professional, blocks in verdure v the virtues of the traditional street. But there are also dislocations. The past and the future don’t always happen in the order that you would expect. The scene is populated by a different cast of starchitects from Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Unlike a Pullman world, that described by Hatherley is real, very much physically, concretely (in all meanings of the word) there.

Landscapes of Communism is therefore a revelatory voyage into fantastical domains made more so by the fact that they were often enormous forms of propaganda: slave-built expressions of equality, non-functioning functionalism, or representations of futures that would never arrive. Sometimes the results achieved unexpected marvels, sometimes not. “Most people think this is crap,” is a favourite Hatherley line (I paraphrase), “but actually it’s not.” But, being honest, he points out when it is.

The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, formerly the Romanian Communist leader Ceausescu's palace.

The outlines of these places might be familiar – vast factory-built housing estates, TV towers, the grandiose palaces and boulevards built by Stalin and Ceausescu, the brave constructivist experiments of the early years of the Russian revolution – but Hatherley fills in these vague forms, and reveals their complexities. He also introduces such lesser-known types as a Bulgarian beach resort shaped like ziggurats, or the modern-baroque churches in Poland that were authorised by the regime as part of their compromise with the power of Catholicism. It is an epic work. Comrade Stakhanov would have saluted.

Hatherley’s commitment to the subject exceeds that of the average architectural writer. His girlfriend of five years is Polish, and they share a modern flat on the edge of Warsaw with a view in one direction of tower blocks built by the communist state, and in the other of those created by post-communist speculators. The couple seem touchingly well matched: their shared idea of a romantic outing, to gather from the book, is to explore housing estates in Kiev, or the Monument to socialist Labour in Kutaisi, the second city of Georgia.

As he says at the outset, he comes from a family of the left. His grandparents were communists, and his parents were members of Militant Tendency. One childhood holiday was spent at the Militant Labour summer camp on Mersea Island, Essex. The book is in these ways personal. Part of its mission is to find “what socialism is”, to recover from its disappointments, abuses and atrocities what was good about his family’s convictions. He is therefore keen to puncture ideas of western superiority and exonerate where he can the alleged failures of communism.

Communist-era housing blocks in Strausbergerplatz, east Berlin.

At the same time, as he acknowledges, his viewpoint is often that of a tourist. He doesn’t want to be like the 1930s English intellectuals who were suckered by stage-managed visits to model factories and collective farms, but Hatherley’s approach to his subject is still that of the roving eye, the educated wanderer gathering impressions. There is a danger not always avoided of the political picturesque: of blurring what buildings look like with what they do. A hymn to the Moscow metro, for example, does not deal convincingly with the atrocious cruelties of its construction.

For this reason, and because of the size of the territory covered, much of this fat work is best experienced as a guidebook or travelogue rather than a developing narrative or argument. To read from beginning to end is to risk getting bogged down in accumulations of descriptive detail. To visit particular subjects is to find such things as a fine account of the simulacrum of old Warsaw that was built after wartime devastation, and much insight, passion, humanity and wit. There is this, of a space-age tower on top of a mountain in Bohemia: “A hotel-restaurant serves rich, stodgy Czech food, as if to counteract the effect of weightlessness.”

The book is bracketed with an introduction and conclusion where Hatherley tries to discover a better and truer socialism. A little abruptly, as his journeys in the pages between don’t get him much closer. It turns out it isn’t there, just suggestions of what it might be in the architecture. As he says in the book’s last line: “It remains for the future to find it.”

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern