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Goodbye, Khrushchevki

Soviet Housing in Post-Soviet Europe

Today, on my last day in Riga, I went with Artis to visit Ziepniekkalns, Riga’s most recently built microrayon. The area is located on the southern periphery of the city. A major road divides it into two main sections, East and West.

The Eastern development is defined by a courtyard typology, where sets of three and sometimes four buildings are grouped to define an interior courtyard. All buildings are of a single, 9-story typology.

Fig 1. Typical 9-story building in Eastern Ziepniekkalns, featuring new experimental retail space typologies in front.

In the western portion, the buildings are grouped in long rows. Instead of clearly defined interior courtyards, the interstitial space is badly defined, and is dominated by parking. Although there are a few young trees, the public space here is very poor, compared to other microrayons in Riga. The buildings here are of a more recent typology, with larger flats than earlier versions. They are also arranged in much longer blocks, with up to 11 sets of flats (podyesdy) in each building. This is most notable in the building furthest south (Fig. 2), which according to Artis is the longest (residential) building in Riga.

Fig 2. Longest building in Riga – 11 podyesdy.

Another interesting fact is that since this microrayon was planned and built only in the 1980’s, many buildings were still under construction when the Soviet Union fell apart and Latvia regained its independence. Many of these buildings were left unfinished for the next decade, and were finally finished during Riga’s economic boom of the middle 2000’s. This construction was handled by one construction firm that included not only architects and builders but also environmental engineers. While they inherited the same structure as the other buildings in the microrayon, they did a considerable amount of research into how to improve the buildings for occupation, including better insulation and exterior finishes. One of their buildings is pictured in Fig. 3, and is discernible by its plastered exterior finish and modern window systems. While it is yet unclear whether these buildings will survive longer than their soviet counter-parts, they provide an interesting case study into the possible retrofit of the old structures.

Fig 3. Completion of old building structure with modern materials and upgrades, completed in mid-2000’s.

My first site visit in Riga was to a microrayon situated in a part of town known as Maskavas Forštate, or Moscow Suburb. The area is one of the oldest parts of Riga, dating back to at least the 14th century (Wikipedia). As the name suggests, the area is dominated by Russian speaking people from Russia and Belarus.

The microrayon, situated right on the bank of the Daugava River, was constructed there in the 1960’s, and was also one of Riga’s first microrayons. The development consists of 7 groups of 7 buildings each. The buildings are all of the 5 story Khurshchevka typology, and constructed out of prefabricated panels. The arrangement of the buildings defines two interior courtyards in each group. This space is occupied by public buildings such as kindergardens and also fields for playing sports.

Fig 1. Typical arrangement of 5-story Khrushchevka.

Fig 2. Public courtyard with sport equipment.

Fig 3. Housing block facing river with bike/pedestrian promenade.

This morning I went to check out an exhibition about recent large-scale architectural and infrastructural projects throughout Riga. Hilariously, the exhibit (which was quite nice) took place in a mall, while the official Architectural Museum in the Old City contained only some old drawings. Anyway, it was definitely worth the walk over the bridge.

Fig 1. Entrance to Exhibit.

The projects in the exhibition mostly addressed recent schemes to redevelop Riga’s extensive industrial infrastructure. During soviet times, Riga was the Soviet Union’s main port, and served as its main connection to Western Europe. Thus, during the 1970’s Riga was the site of extensive and fast-paced industrial development, as a result of which the city grew extensively and nearly doubled in population. Most of the city’s microrayons were also built during this time, mainly to house the factory workers, a majority of which were immigrants from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Fig 2. Riga city model with Old City shown.

As much of industry has moved out in the last two decades, Riga now faces a similar problem to many Western European and American post industrial cities. Namely, an obsolete industrial infrastructure. While many of these projects seem interesting, to my knowledge they were all developed during the boom years prior to the economic crisis, and have now been put on hold indefinitely.

One project that I thought was particularly important was the redevelopment of the railroad ring that surrounds the city into a new multi-modal transportation corridor. I think that such infrastructural visions are crucial in re-imagining the future development of the city, and will provide the necessary ground for other development in the future. While it is easy to propose higher density urban development in many of these old industrial sites, pursuing such development without a transportation network that can support it would only add to the escalating traffic problems in the city.

Fig 3. Large scale redevelopment project for the west bank of the Dauguva River.

While I think the show was successful overall, almost all the projects dealt with Riga’s industrial belt, and not one of the projects dealt with the microrayons located just outside of the belt. Although considering the redevelopment of the microrayons is a more complex issue than its industrial heritage, I think that investigating potentials for such redevelopment is crucial to the city’s future.

My last site visit in Moscow was to the Ивановское (Ivanovskoe) microrayon on the far east edge of the city. Built mostly between 1972-1974, the area houses mostly working class families and is considered to be one of the most criminal districts of the city.

The development contains some interesting variations on the typical housing block typology which became more prominent in later periods of construction. As opposed to the straight housing slabs of the earlier period, many buildings here utilize an elongated, curving plan. This creates a more strongly-defined interior space and separates the private courtyard realm from the public street outside. Some of these interior spaces are filled in with taller housing towers, while others are developed as schools, kindergardens, and open public spaces. Although the planning of this microrayon is quite developed, the construction quality of the buildings is considerably worse than other areas.

Fig 1. Brick and panel 12-story building on edge of microrayon.

Fig 2. 12-story panel building with private garages in foreground.

Fig 3. 5-story Khrushchevka infill between larger housing blocks.

I arrived in Riga, Latvia a few days ago by train from Moscow. The trip was 14 hours long, and was generally pleasant. The compartment was no more cramped than the hostels I have been staying at, and the nice train sounds and motions ensured a better sleep.

Fig 1. Stopover in Russia.

My days in Riga so far have been extremely busy. I have been meeting with many people, including a professor from Riga Technical University, and several students that are pursuing research projects similar to mine. I have also explored the city’s pre-war central district with Artis Zvirgzdiņš and taken a bike trip through many of the city’s microrayons with Aleksandrs Feltins. Aleksandrs is a student at the university, and Artis is a former student and now editor of http://www.a4d.lv. They have both been extremely helpful and accommodating during my stay in Riga.

I am currently working on several future posts that will cover some of the topics raised during my conversations in Riga, documentation of the city’s microrayons, and some initial comparisons between what I have discovered in Moscow and Riga.

I spent my final night in Moscow at my uncle’s dacha, about one and a half hours outside of city center. The dacha is traditionally a second home located in the exurbs of many soviet cities, used by city residents seasonally, especially in the summer months. Land for dachas was provided to city residents free of charge, and was meant to support a soviet lifestyle that was more connected to the land. Many people used the land to cultivate their own fruits and vegetables, which provided basic sustenance. The land also provided a retreat from the city, and weekend trips to the dacha became an important part of the lifestyle of soviet cities, which persists to this day.

Fig 1. Newer dacha building on the Moscow River.

During Soviet times, the size and types of dacha construction was severely limited, usually to a single-story building without permanent heating and with living areas less than 25 m² (source: wikipedia). These restrictions, combined with shared local methods of construction, created a consistent vernacular style among the dachas that can be seen on the outskirts of most cities of the former Soviet Union.

Fig 2. Moscow River.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lifting of restrictions caused the dacha regions to gradually transform to more western-like suburban developments. In large cities such as Moscow, there has been considerable competition for the best lots closest to the city, creating a new property market for the buying and selling of this land. Many top Russian officials, including the president, now live in new gated communities established in the old dacha regions west of Moscow.

Newer dachas no longer have to conform to old soviet restrictions, and thus tend to be much bigger than older dachas, resembling more western suburban-type houses. They also tend to have better heating and sometimes even internal plumbing, meaning they can be occupied throughout the year.

A couple of days ago in Moscow I had the chance to meet with Andrey Gnezdilov, who was introduced to me by Andrey Nekrasov at MARCHI. Andrey is a partner at Ostozhenka Architects in Moscow, which was founded shortly after Perestroika, and is thus one of the oldest independant architecture offices in the city. After Andrey showed me around the office, we had a discussion about the current state of architecture in Moscow, and specifically about the role of architects in rethinking many large areas of the post-soviet city, including the microrayons.

Andrey showed me several projects recently completed by Ostozhenka which deal with such large urban-scale areas. A consistent theme of these projects was to return areas of the post-soviet city to pre-soviet conditions, before the revolution and the collectivization of land destroyed the established fabrics of these cities. When asked about this recurring theme in the projects, Andrey told me that this is not necessarily a default position of the firm, but stems from a desire to return the cities to the ways they were originally meant to function. In doing this, the most important element is the reintroduction of land ownership at the scale of the parcel, or lot, which is still lacking in most post-soviet cities. According to Andrey, this lack of ownership has led to a confusion in the city fabric, and a general lack of responsibility for the buildings.

Fig 1. Pre-revolution plan of Samara, featuring rational planned, gridded blocks.

One project in particular, shown here, was a research project in which Ostozhenka proposed introducing a western-style parcel system to a neighborhood in Samara. Like many pre-soviet cities, Samara was originally planned on a grid system, quite similar to many American cities. Within this grid, each block was devided into parcels, which were sold to individual owners who were responsible for building up and maintaining this land. After the revolution, however, the collectivization of land led to a degradation of these blocks, and after Perestroika the lack of an ownership structure created a haphazard situation for further development.

Fig 2. Current condition of confused ownership pattern resulting from haphazard infilling of blocks. Potential hazards or construction disturbances affect all surrounding neighbors.

Fig 3. Proposed reinforcing of traditional property lines, resulting in more controlled development pattern. Construction disturbances or potential hazards do not affect surrounding property owners.

I think that this is a very visionary project for the post-soviet city. The introduction of this kind of ownership structure will be a necessary and crucial step towards the re-introduction of a market-based system for the future development of these cities. This project, however, deals exclusively with pre-soviet cities, which were already planned for a market-based system. Although important, it mainly involves strategies for the return of land to pre-soviet conditions.

Fig 4. Exhibition model of proposed block redevelopment.

However, many areas of post-soviet cities, including the microrayons, were planned and developed during the soviet era, when the govenrment owned and developed entire regions without any structure for individual parcel ownership. Although the governemnt still owns the land in most of these areas, I think developing similar strategies for individual ownership in these microrayons would be a crucial step toward envisioning the development of these areas in the market economy. I agree with Andrey that the reintroduction of ownership is perhaps the most important issue facing the future development of soviet cities. Pursuing similar strategies in the microrayons might be first step in envisioning the future development of these areas.

Note: All images are used with permission of the architect. All rights reserved by Ostozhenka Architects.

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