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Soviet Architecture and its Impact on Society

Info: 4427 words (18 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Sep 2021 in Architecture

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Urban planning is one of the key issues in the contemporary society as it largely develops the quality of life of communities. Therefore, it is of interest to consider the historical perspective in order not to repeat mistakes. Soviet Union republics from 1920 to 1990 were subject to one of the most ambitious experiments in the urban history of the 20th century (A. Kalyukin).Formation of new housing had to create the new socialist society. The environment had to be integrated of the oppressive system in order to instill submissive mentality. Therefore, a research of the development of boroughs and the alteration of their features over time is of high relevance to the contemporary architecture and culture.

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In order to achieve the aim of the paper to outline the architectural and cultural context of Soviet boroughs and its impact on shaping the mentality of the society, the following objectives were proposed: (1) to overview the historical background; (2) to conduct a research of changes in stalinka, khrushchevka and brezhnevka housing in Lithuania; (3) to determine how the imposed environment was expected to affect the population. For this research, in addition to the exploration of online maps, extensive research was done in 5 boroughs of Kaunas City (Gričiupis, Dainava, Kalniečiai, Eiguliai, Šilainiai and 5 boroughs of Vilnius City (Šeškinė, Žirmūnai, Karoliniškės, Lazdynai and Pašilaičiai) in order to assess the infrastructure and various aspects of convenience and quality of life. The research involved interviews with three generations of residents of Soviet boroughs. The research was based on the methods of synthesis of scholarly literature, interview and survey research.

In Soviet Russia, the central government had strong authority over local planning. They believed that the physical form of the city should reinforce the principles of Soviet socialism. Reimagined with that goal in mind, private property was eliminated and all land was in control of the Central State. It had a profound impact on how cities were planned, designed and built. At the beginning of the Soviet Union, focus on the transition from the private property to state control land, as well as early attempts at creating cities according to socialist principles, architects and planners at the time championed a form of modern architecture, known as constructivism.  The austere industrial functional design was a perfect fit for planners and architects with providing housing for millions of people. The basic principle of Soviet city design of this era was that everyone should be spending their time outside in communal environments - working, eating, socialising etc. Thus, Soviet housing was built with the barest minimum of living space.

The result was that buildings were like dormitories and that is how they are used today. Multi-level structures were built in a constructivist style so they were not only small but plain. It was seen as a temporary solution for housing shortage. Designed to fullfill the basic neeeds for more than one individual, usually even whole families. The space for them was inadequate - one room for whole family with a shared kitchen in between multiple residential units.

The solution for large number of residents came with a design named dom-komuna. It is a big structure containing services such as children’s homes, clubs, meeting halls, study rooms and so on. This structure had to be conceived as a distinct community, an early attempt of microrayon. An interesting vision of the self-contained community has been implemented by  Michail Barshch and Vladimir Vladimirov in few large dom-komuna’s. The individual space has been kept very modest in order to make collective, social spaces larger. (Karel Teige The Minimum Dwelling (1931)

Next prominent apartment building type is often referred to as the ‘Stalinka’ and they came to be associated with the era of USSR leader Jozeph Stalin. Under his rule from 1930 to 1950 he erected monumental buildings and structures, they had to support the Soviet ideology. In Socialist society categories of classes officially did not exist, however it was obvious that strict hierarchy was existant by the typology of Stalinist architecture. Residential blocks were devided in two different sectors - smaller cinderblock structures erected for working class and larger brick buildings with ornamentation for the Communist party elite.

Communist party housing came in two ‘flavours’ - white or red brick. Those had beautiful facades, were much better insulated and had considerably more space inside. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ‘Stalinkas’ were presented as the most prestigious real estate in the country. Seperate apartments were scarce and it could be allocated only to the most important people of the country - military leaders, famous scientists, professors, artists and communist party were the original inhabitants of these buildings.  (Andrianova)

The working class residential units, were the complete opposite. Almost every building could not meet the standards and has been given the ‘temporary structure’ label. The living space decreased three times from officially required minimum (from 8 square meters for individual to 3.5 meters). (Stalinist Architecture and Stalinist ideology; Dmitrij Chmelnizki)

Following big plannng epoch came after Nikita Khrushchev. He had an interest in domestic policy and reform. Housing was high on his list of concerns. He led a large scale housing construction project throughout all Soviet Union in 1960 to 1970’s. It was important to build many homes and quickly. Nikita Khrushchev and his architects and planners developed a standard building type that came to known as ‘Khrushchevka’. He has made a construction priority to provide every working class family a ‘separate apartment’ (Christine Varga-harris; “Stories of house and home”)  . Almost all of them were five storeys tall because elevators were not in the budget. They were built out of prefabricated concrete panels and a team of builders could assemble the structure in two weeks. Units in these buildings were small, but not as small as the constructivist dorms of the past or temporary ‘Stalinka’ houses. These may have been the perfect size for a two people family but in reality, they often housed multi-generational households. (Alexandrova A. 2004) The layouts were uncomfortable, surrounded by thin walls, but it was a transition from communal space to a family dwelling.

The norm for working class flats has shifted. It combined a single bedroom, living room, small kitchen with a bathroom and some apartments even had study room. The indeology has altered in Soviet Union, where national goals changed the communal goals. The work place and public services were directly linked with the ability of acquiring a flat, it helped working-class to move from cramped communal houses into separate accommodation. ‘Khrushchevkas’ have created different neighbourhoods called microrayon, which translates to micro-district in English. ‘Microrayons’ were new way of communal living, people would live in different houses and be designated to certain community depending on the location of the house.

Soviet Union architectural decisions were under strong influence coming from Khrushchev’s speech (‘On the extensive introduction of industrial methods, improving the quality and reducing the cost of construction’, 1954). ‘’We must select a small number of standard designs for residential buildings, schools, hospitals, kindergartens, children’s nurseries, shops, and other buildings and structures and conduct our mass building programmes using only these designs over the course of, say, five years.’’ ‘’In order to build quickly and successfully, we must use standard designs in our building, but this is evidently not to the taste of certain architects [...]’’

After Nikita Khrushchev came Leonid Brezhnev and some of the laser focus on efficiency and standardisation fell on the wayside. Standardisation was still in place, this was still the Soviet Union, but there was also more consideration of climate and local conditions. At some point Soviet apartments increased to 9 - 16 floors and included elevators during leadership of L. Brezhnev from 1964 until dissolution of the Soviet Union. Brezhnev housing campaign could be characterised as more ‘experimental’, because of internal and external decisions of construction. Multiple decorative features were produced in the factories and builders could incorporate them in the facade of the building to deliver different effect. The units themselves were larger and nicer than those in ‘’Khrushchevkas’’ partly in response to complaints from residents living in apartments built in the Khrushchev years. Overall, the quality of the construction have increased dramatically made possible by improved technology. Residential houses were in different heights in microrayons, providing diversity. (Gender and housing In Soviet Russia: Private life)

Leonid Brezhnev have continued housing programme and the society became progressively privatised. This brought communal living to a halt.  Almost every family could gather in the kitchen and be confident about their privacy and did not have to interact with their neighbours, however, Communist party still encouraged to join committees of the house to keep the living conditions in order. House Committee also had to do some unpaid work such as cleaning the hallway, garden around the house etc.

Soviet Union is the perfect example depicting how different societal goals can reform the urban life. The government regularly compared their housing to the United States public housing, which was eventually possessed by exceptionally low-income families. The housing often lack of maintenance and policing. Multi-level building in Soviet Union on other hand, were provided for everyone and its appearance was looked after at the time. The government often used it as a key element to highlight the supremacy of communist system over capitalist. The contrast between two systems are visible in other social aspects as well. N. Khrushchev’s housing programme made potentially the most important urban planning reform. The new blocks have created different neighbourhoods called microrayon (micro-district in English). Microrayons were the new urban building blocks of new Soviet cities and the additions to the existing ones.

Microrayon is the continuation of communal living, just in bigger scale. These areas were 10 to 60 hectares and could accommodate 9 000 to 18 000 inhabitants. Together with microrayon creation they have introduced tiered system. The public services

Kaunas City was the provisional capital of Lithuania in the interwar period. The city was badly devastated in WW2. As a result, the city lost its elite due to emigration, exile, war losses and internal migration to Vilnius as it regained the status of the capital. During the soviet times, the city was focusing on heavy industry, chemistry and higher education. It was a ‘forbidden’ city, and very few foreign tourists were issued permits to visit Kaunas. During the Soviet times, the following boroughs were developed:

• Gričiupis (1940s-1970s; stalinkas/khrushchevkas/brezhnevkas);

• Dainava (1960s-1980s; khrushchevkas/brezhnevkas)

• Kalniečiai (late 1970s-1980s; brezhnevkas)

• Eiguliai (1980s; brezhnevkas)

• Šilainiai (mid/late-1980s; brezhnevkas).

The early Soviet boroughs of Kaunas had no initial plan (or this plan was frequently modified), the boroughs of Vilnius went from the concept to completion within a decade and are not as ‘motley’ as Gričiupis in Kaunas. ‘Stalinkas’ were mostly built in the centre and around it, usually made out of brick, with high ceilings and spacious layouts. (Alexandrova A. (2004)) Only after the advent of ‘Khrushchevism’, the development of new boroughs started (e.g., Žirmūnai) these were small and had much lower ceilings and the layouts were uncomfortable, surrounded by thin walls. (Alexandrova A. 2004)). The prosperity of the city was observed with in the Brezhnev years (Viršuliškės, Justiniškės, Fabijoniškės) when buildings grew in height and gained more units, were better laid out than ‘Khrushchevkas’ and more spacious, however not as large as Stalin apartments. (Alexandrova A. (2004)).

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If we ignore custom-built houses for the elite, in the khrushchevka years, there were no more than 10 outlines of flats in use in Kaunas and Vilnius newly built houses. It should also be highlighted that Kaunas and Vilnius were using the same types of houses simultaneously until the advent of the relative liberty and creativity starting with the early 1980. By late 1970s, the third influx of housing development, the quality had fairly improved as a result of standard designs and modular components, however standardization came at the price of distinctiveness, as boroughs became increasingly similar. (Alexandrova A. (2004)) For instance, the common five-storey-four-staircase 55-flat house was repeated at least 100 times in each of the cities. Therefore,  if a ground-level picture is taken in a mikrorayon built anytime between 1960 and 1985, it is virtually impossible to determine the city. The differences are evident only in the bird-view pictures.

Although the designs changed with time, this extremely low limit of variety lasted until about 1980 when, suddenly, at least 50 outlines of flats started to be used as a wide variety of houses appeared. Instances of ‘unique’ houses are a 12-storey house Krėvės 47 and 16-storey houses on Lukšio Street in Kaunas. Unfortunately, because of experimentation, the quality of the house diminished immensly: while the ones on Krėvės Street were deemed ‘upmarket’ by their residents, yet, the houses on Lukšio Street were considered hardly livable because of the outline and unbearable cold in winter.

The mentality of the Soviet borough planning was that order must be imposed not only on the society but also on the nature. Therefore, inconvenient hills were levelled and natural features of the district would be destroyed, all structures were made as rectangular/triangular as possible. ( Hess, D.B. (2019) Straight lines of streets were marked beyond the borders of complex environments (slopes, streams, etc.), and the remaining area of an irregular shape was left untouched as a lawn/bush/park. The prevailing mentality may be reflected with the Stalinist slogan: “Either we find a way, or we build it.”

Each borough also had a park, such as Dainavos and Kalniečių parks in Kaunas. However, in this aspect, the situation got worse as the time went by. In Kaunas, Dainavos parkas (1970s) is a full-scale park. Kalniečių parkas (early 1980s) was underdeveloped and failed to serve its purpose (yet, the forest on the other side of the borough had outstanding recreational facilities by the standards of the times). Šilainiai built in mid – late 1980s with its 100,000 population had no park at all. This shows that there were shortcomings in recreational facilities demand and they were better satisfied in the earlier Soviet years. ( Hess, D.B. (2019) Thus, as queue waiting times at the cashier’s in shops sometimes exceeded 20 minutes, shops in some boroughs served as better places for socializing than parks or cafés.

If we look at typical photos of boroughs from different periods from above, we see that Khrushchevist boroughs feature vast open spaces, such as the huge square in Žirmūnai in Vilnius or Gričiupis in Kaunas. It has been considered that in communist cities, such open space would allow for even more recreational opportunities than in capitalist cities. (( Hess, D.B. (2019) ) In Brezhnevist boroughs, huge squares featuring fountains and sculptures are sometimes present, but, mid and late Brezhnevist constructions hardly cared about recreational needs of the population. Overall, the strife for ‘efficiency’ is very evident in the design of housing.

The environment was fairly oppressing. Although people were doing their best to make their homes cosier, the furniture was not ergonomic. The flats were warm in winter, yet stuffy in summer.. Despite the sculptures and murals, Soviet boroughs could look gloomy because of the colour pallet and lack of light. Environment lacked colour mostly because were exceptionally grey (apart from yellow bricks which were occasionally used in Dainava borough in the 1980s). The only difference was coloured balconies mostly worn out yellow or red, but they did not deliver much change to the eye. Aesthetically speaking, there was no visual change in between the periods if one took a look from the distance. The only change was the introduction of taller houses in the mid-Brezhnev period.

It is possible to outline some features of the Soviet boroughs. Repetitive patterns are one of the key characteristics of the Soviet city, during the epochs of production not many different designs were used. It had easily reachable infrastructure, as microrayons developed, almost every daily service could be found by walking distance. Gradually density increased not only by building higher structures, but also the spaces between houses decreased which led to limited recreational space, environment did not promote aspiration.

In terms of the systems of public transport, Kaunas and Vilnius were largely different in the Soviet times. The primary means of daily commute was public transport when walking was not suitable for the journey. There were norms for the maximum walking distance to reach public transport it had to be no more than 500 meters. (Hess, D.B. (2018))  Kaunas routs were largely centered; there were two hubs (Kaunas Castle in the Old Town and Kaunas Railway Station in the centre, from where the lion’s share of the routes were centralized). For example, in 1978, seven out of eight trolleybus routes had a stop or a terminus at the Castle stop. As a result, a sizable part of the population had to do massive detours, and the central park of the network was frequently overloaded. In comparison, Vilnius had a more prominent grid-like system with a dozen hubs and much more efficient connections. This shows totally different attitudes to the system development. Evidently, the Kaunas system was much more rigid.. Meanwhile, the system in Vilnius was more commuter-friendly.

I conducted an experiment of the convenience of reaching the nearest public transport stops in various boroughs (I have called my brother in Lithuania and instructed him to go around the city). I have started from the blocks of flats futherst from the nearest stop. For all the residents of a stalinka, the nearest bus stop was within 2 minutes as these houses were built in convenient locations. Most remote ‘khrushchevkas’ were 6 minutes away from the nearest stop, whereas most remote ‘brezhnevkas’ were 4 minutes away (yet, a few latest brezhnevkas were 5 minutes away). Yet, the average walking time was smaller for ‘khrushchevkas’. This inconsistency comes from the fact that some khrushchevkas were built in previously developed areas in narrow streets where public transport did not reach, whereas, for brezhnevkas, wide streets for public transport were outlined from the start. The average walking speed during this experiment was 90 steps a minute.

The above outlined information allows to suppose a typical day of a Soviet citizen. The typical door-to-door time in Vilnius was 60 minutes in comparison to 40 minutes in Kaunas (distances are much larger in Vilnius). Thus, one had to leave home at about 7:00am., to be able to get to work at 8:00am. The work finished about 5:00pm., thus, before 6:00pm., people were back in their boroughs. Shopping for groceries  would take about 30 minutes and should not require extra walking as all the grocery stores were located conveniently right in front of a bus stop independently from the year of their construction. Thus, the family life typically began at 6:30pm. It should be taken into account that roughly one third of the population were working shifts, and aligning schedules with their partners was not the highest priority. Therefore, family communication was scarce.

Interviews were conducted with three generations of residents of Soviet houses. For the first interview, I use my conversation with Birutė Rumšienė, 72, a retired accountant. “When I got married and our son was born, we immediately got this two-room flat at Šiaurės 19, in Kalniečiai neighbourhood. My husband was a blue-collar worker, he was doing maintenance at Kaunas Power Plant. He was a top grade specialist, and the employer really cared. You know, in the Soviet times, all the houses looked the same, but they were not. When this house was being built, the process was supervised by the power plant as all the residents were its staff and their family members. They selected a great place: there was a direct bus for the people to go to work. A forest is half a kilometer away, they only built a shop within walking distance five years after we settled in. Thus, for five years, we had to take public transport if we needed the simplest groceries. Thus the development of boroughs was definitely not harmonious. This is so different from the Stalin-times house in which my sister lives in Klaipėda, Plytų 2. No entrance hall. You enter straight into a room. To the right, the kitchen. To the left, another room. No toilet. There is a shared toilet upstairs. To have a shower, you go to a public bath. And the steepness of the steps. Some steps are 40 centimetres high. Good for trekking, but not for living. You play survival games in this house, you don’t live there. Meanwhile, I have been living here for 43 years, and I am satisfied. The houses are not too dense, there is greenery aplenty. The size of the flat is right, spacious and warm enough. But mind that the same-looking houses where my friends live look much worse than this one. Even the number of the house was specially painted in red to warn the providers of communal services that if the quality of their work is not good enough, the director of the power plant will settle the matter on his own (and he was a crazily influential guy). This was the way how things worked in the Soviet Union.”

The second interview was conducted with Erlendas Bartulis, 50, a prominent photographer. “First my family moved into a block of flats in 1977. It was a five-storey house at Trakų 45-3, Kaunas. In your terms, it would be a brezhnevka. It is a house of unique design, the only one of this type in the world. It was specially built for artists. The house definitely shows ambition: the flats are huge, the environment is nice. Even the bathroom has a window. This is an unheard thing in Soviet blocks of flats. The location is excellent – in between a park and a hill, 20 minutes to walk to the theatre, with the public transport also available. We lived as a community. Visiting a neighbour was our lifestyle. However, the planning was unsuccessful. Too many external walls, the heat-protecting layers are insufficient, and it sometimes felt like inside a fridge in winter. One room is just too small for doing anything sensible, the entrance hall is insufficient for hanging all the ‘current’ clothes and keeping some extra. Wall insulation is inadequate: you always hear your neighbours. The staircase is inadequate: when you need to haul some furniture in, it just won’t go through. There was a case when someone had to resell a piece as they could not get it into their flat. And I do not speak about the quality of construction: it was Brezhnevist cheating of epic proportions. A neighbor was replacing windows, and they found emptiness in the wall: two layers of bricks were missing completely. A builder must have used them for his dacha. When I married, we lived at Kęstučio 7. This was a late brezhnevka. The planning was much more efficient, there were no prominent drawbacks. The house was of a rare project, it was definitely non-standard. Its exterior was impeccable, maybe because it was located in the very centre, where foreigners were likely to see it. So, they could do something right when they really wanted. But ordinary people could never get such a flat. After I got divorced, I bought myself a tiny one-room flat at Partizanų 36. This is a typical khrushchevka. The quality of construction is much better, incomparable with my first house. It is warmer and cosier. Maybe slightly too damp. This concept was used for single individuals and childless families. Most people would find it too cramped and dark, too basic and rational. In the kitchen, there is only enough space for two to eat. For me personally it’s ok. If someone scaled down my first flat to the size of this one, I would take this khrushchevka hands down. Even though we got that one brand new. Look for yourself: the house is nearly sixty years old, but definitely not dilapidated.”

The third interview was taken from a 18-year-old female student of Kaunas Juozas Grušas Art Gymnasium residing in a nine-storey block of flats on Kuršių Street in Šilainiai borough, Kaunas City. “I have been living here all of my life. You call this house a brezhnevka, right? Actually, I think you got the term wrong as it was built several years after the death of Brezhnev. Šilainiai was the last soviet borough, and oh do I hate it. Look how cramped everything is. The houses are flanking each other. Damn they had lots of space to build, but they wanted to stuff 100,000 into four square kilometres. Idiots is the nicest word I can afford to use. I can only imagine the queues in the grocery store at the time of building. There was a single store for 30,000-strong population. This spirit stifles an artist in me. I’m really dying here. My friends live in other boroughs. At least they got space. Our flat is ok. There is enough space. But omg it is dark. My windows are covered by the shadow of the opposite house. I never get to see the sun. When I was a little girl, there was no place to play outside. Two hundred kids were playing hide-and-seek in between neighbours’ cars. In short, they were crazy, and I’m glad these times won’t come back.”

 

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