Local Modernities. National Architecture and International Style in the Soviet Empire post 1953

Local Modernities_tranzit.at

A cooperation between Armenian Pavilion and tranzit.at / Sweet Sixties, the conference Local Modernities is dedicated to the legacy of postwar Soviet architecture: to its masters and idiosyncrasies, its original styles and erratic buildings. It aims to offer a glance at a still-existing void in the canon of the history of architecture of the last one hundred years.

While Soviet Constructivism and Stalinist architecture are part of the canon, Soviet postwar modernism is still largely unknown. Architecture and urbanism have been one of the strongest warps in the fabric of Soviet postwar society, creating a feeling of social unity while also acting as one of the agents of its dissolution.

Conference by Armenian Pavilion at 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture / “Meetings on Architecture”
21-22 October 2014, 1 pm – 5:30 pm
Venue: Venice Biennale of Architecture Arsenale

For the detailed conference programme, have a look here.

It all started in the “thaw” period of the Khrushchev years after Stalin’s death in 1953. The new ideological call for modernization of the country led to an enormous extension of the urban space. The new urbanization was driven by an ideology of scientific and technological progress. It was conceived by local planning offices with often more than 1,000 employees, and executed by the standardization of the construction industry. Architects in these offices experimented with concepts of international architecture and the legacy of Soviet modernism of the 1920s. Rapidly, an original Soviet language of Late Modernism developed. A key concept in Soviet urbanism was to shape society through urban planning.

Already in the 1960s, a critical countermove to this policy of industrialization of space and architecture arose. Architects and local elites saw the distance from the official canon of architecture as being a confirmation of their regional—or national—search for identity. Thus, an architectural avant-garde was able to form in the republics in contrast to the dominant politics of the central Moscow bureaucracy. In the various Soviet republics, particularly in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, the national traditions gave rise to more individualistic architecture styles. Architects chose to draw on “historical roots,” not only as a (postmodern) critique of monotonous functionalism, but also due to the influence of burgeoning nationalist ideologies in the republics.

Both versions of modernism—the local modern and the Soviet hybrid—reflected the different modern lifestyles, or amalgamated into one whose connotations and political and ethnic spheres of influence conflicted.

In the course of the late 1960s and during the 70s, there was a paradigmatic change. Under Brezhnev, the lifestyle of the whole of Soviet society had become “Westernized.” This could be seen in everyday life and in the rush for Western commodities, but also in the decline of Communist ideologies of community that architecture and urbanism still proposed with singular ideological typologies—from the pioneer camp to the houses of creativity, from the circus to the wedding palace.

At the end of the decade, the neo-functionalism of the early 1970s was followed by a turn towards an appellative postmodernism in which the tendency towards petit-bourgeois and national counter-affirmation was visible as an effort at dissociation from the megalomaniac gesture and the ideological bias of Soviet architecture. Despite what official ideology proclaimed, however, the territorial concept never succeeded at producing sufficient synergy effects to set into motion a self-supporting development throughout the country. The hierarchic structures only led the growth poles to become ever stronger and the neglected regions to weaken. The grand prestige projects and monumental buildings thus ultimately remained imposing gestures whose symbolic integral power was not enough to lastingly secure the legitimacy of the system.

The insoluble contradiction between the progressive ideology of a shared public space and communal organization of the city versus the imaginary space of power dramatization and the real space of everyday life likewise contributed to sounding the death knell of the Soviet empire.

This continent of architecture, afflicted by inner contradictions that enfolded within a homogenized space, is full of masterpieces waiting to be formally discovered. This conference explores this landscape and an approach to building for a fundamentally different idea of society. It aims at countering the stereotypical prejudices against Soviet urbanism that have developed due to the decades-long division of the world into two opposing blocks.