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Goodbye, Khrushchevki

Soviet Housing in Post-Soviet Europe

Category Archives: interview

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.

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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.

Fig 1. Early rendering of microrayon construction.

It has been a busy couple of days, this is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit down and post. Yesterday I visited with Alessandra Latour and Andrey Nekrasov at the Moscow Institute of Architecture (МАРХИ). This is the pre-eminent architecture school in the city. It was founded in 1933 and has been around throughout many of the political changes in Russia. Therefore, their faculty are experts on the unique architectural history of Moscow and the challenges that have faced their architects.

Andrey Nekrasov is a distinguished professor at МАРХИ. I contacted him through Alessandra Latour, who is currently working with МАРХИ and Columbia GSAPP to set up a one year, 3 semester post-graduate program called Global Metropolis that would explore Moscow and New York City, spending two semesters at GSAPP and one semester in Moscow. I think this would be an extremely exciting program, especially because Moscow is not currently on the radar of most American architects. This program would also be somehow affiliated with GSAPP’s Global Studio initiative, which I believe is looking to open a Studio-X location in Moscow.

Fig 2. Sculpture and drawings at MARHI Institute.

Our talk began with a discussion of Moscow’s microrayons, and the strategy the city is taking towards the soviet buildings. Although there have been periods in which Moscow’s architects actively addressed the reuse and rehabilitation of the khrushchevka buildings, most notably in the 1970’s and during Perestroika, the current strategy is one of replacement. Basically, the Moscow government’s official plan is to tear down all of these old buildings, and replace them with taller, higher density towers. I think Moscow’s strategy is quite unique compared to the rest of Russia and other post-Soviet cities. Even with the crisis, there is a huge amount of investment capital in Moscow, which supports the rebuilding of these residential areas with new construction. As far as I know, other cities such as Riga are still considering retrofitting these old structures, as a large majority of the population still lives in them, and replacing all of them would be impossible. I hope to investigate this further when I go to Riga in a few days.

The conversation then shifted to a more general discussion of Russia and Moscow’s current political climate as it affects architecture and construction. Alessandra made the point that the major problem in Moscow is that in the decade following Perestroika, there was very little regulation in the city (of the kind that planners and city government is responsible for in the states), which led to alot of haphazard development which was ultimately destructive to the city. According to her, however, this has changed somewhat with Putin and Medyedev, who are trying to introduce more regulation and reign in some of the excesses of Moscow’s new rich. An extended discussion of Russia’s politics is somewhat beyond the realm of this project, but needless to say these issues have a huge effect on Moscow’s policies toward their soviet urban history. More than anything, however, the discussion reaffirmed my belief that Moscow views itself as a separate entity, a city undergoing a desparate modernization and globalization, in the process distancing itself further and further from the rest of Russia.

Fig 3. Pre-fabricated panel system construction photos.

After our discussion, Andrey let me use the school’s library, which has a large collection of architectural publications from the soviet era. I found alot of good information in the journal Aрхитектурa СССР (Architecture of the USSR). I looked at the years from 1950-1960, at the time when many soviet architects were working on cost-efficient housing models to answer Khrushchev’s mandate for a practical solution to the USSR’s staggering housing crisis. Many of the articles revolved around discussions of pre-fabricated concrete panel systems, including technical drawings of panels and assembly systems. Although my time was limited, I scanned many of the articles that looked relevant, and hope to have a closer look when I return back to New York. For now, I have included several images of both the panel systems and early visions for laying out the microrayons.

Fig 4. Proposed layout for early microrayon.

The Khrushchevka housing typology was invented by Soviet architects in the late 1950’s to tackle the huge shortage of housing inherited from the Stalin era. Developed during the rule of its namesake Nikita Khrushchev, this typology was utilized not only throughout the USSR, but also in other socialist states such as East Germany, Hungary, Romania, and former Yugoslavia which were under the USSR’s influence. Backed by an aggressive government building program, the implementation of the Khrushchevka led to a massive re-housing of people at a scale never before seen in history. Combining both a social agenda and a material strategy, these housing blocks physically embodied the communist social ideology, and were thus instrumental not only in providing housing but in spreading this ideology throughout the socialist world. Whether due to the forces of nature or economic development, this unique typology now faces extinction, making it more critical than ever to take stock of the remnants of the Khrushchevka, and the legacy it has left throughout Post-Soviet Eastern Europe.

^ map of travel, July 18 – August 18, 2010.

History

The Khrushchevka typology was characterized by five story housing blocks built out of low-cost paneled or brick construction. Its development began in 1950 when an architect’s convention, supervised by Khrushchev, declared low-cost, high-speed technologies the main objective of Soviet architects. This led to the setting up of two prefab concrete plants in Moscow and the testing of several experimental designs in real-life construction. The typology was finalized with the invention of the K-7 design by engineer Vitaly Lagutenko in 1961, which was implemented as the model for all Soviet housing.

The construction of these housing blocks was backed by the aggressive new Party Program of 1961, which promised to eliminate the housing shortage within a decade. In order to do this, the government issued a new five-year plan, which allocated 23.5 percent of total capital investment towards the construction of housing, an all-time high in the USSR. These factors led to the construction of millions of these units during the 1960s, re-housing two-thirds of the USSR’s population by 1975. While space limitations in Moscow forced a switch to nine and twelve story structures by 1971, the rest of the USSR continued to build Khrushchevki until the fall of communism.

Designed for low-cost and speed of construction, the Khrushchevki were never meant as a permanent solution. Their 35 year life-span was specifically designed to be a temporary fix until the arrival of complete communism (projected to occur by the 1980’s) would eliminate shortages of any kind. Fifty years later, Khrushchevki are still found in huge numbers throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In Moscow and other affluent cities, they are now being demolished at a rapid pace to make way for new, higher density construction. Less wealthy communities, however, will rely on the crumbling Khrushchevka stock indefinitely.

While the Khrushchevka typology was a key part of the physical fabric of most Russian cities, its effects are particularly interesting in the other states of the former Soviet Union, as well as Eastern European countries that adopted the housing strategy while under the USSR’s influence. In these countries, the Khrushchevki had to be incorporated into unique historical contexts. The different methods by which these cities adopted these buildings and dealt with them after communism’s collapse highlights the range of influence that the Soviet Union exerted over this part of Europe, and the different strategies these nations have pursued to in order to re-establish their own identities.

Research Proposal

To research the effects of the Khrushchevka typology, I propose to travel to eight cities along the western edge of the former Soviet Union to catalog how the Khrushchevka typology was implemented, how it was integrated with the existing city fabric, and how the housing has been adapted in the Post-Soviet years. The cities chosen provide a cross-section of the gradient of influence of the USSR, starting at the Russian capital of Moscow, extending out to the capitals of the former USSR states of Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine, and then further out to Romania and Hungary. While these states were not officially part of the Soviet Union, they were ruled by socialist governments which had direct ties to the USSR. In addition, I will visit two small cities — Novomichurinsk in Russia and Oradia in Romania — to compare modern adaptation strategies between the wealthier capitals like Moscow, where an excess of money and development has led to the demolition of most Khrushchevka housing, and smaller cities where people still rely on this type of housing. While these cities encompass a wide range of cultures and histories, studying them through the lens of a single housing typology will give me a unique insight into the true legacy of the Soviet Union.

The research will be conducted during the course of one month, during which I will travel mostly by train, spending an average of four days in each city. Before my travel I will contact faculty at the Moscow Institute of Architecture (MARHI), who can help me conduct preliminary research on the Soviet Housing plan, and how the plan was implemented in the countries I have chosen. When I arrive in each city, I will use maps to document how the plan was implemented and what remains of the housing blocks today. I will also create photographic and drawing documentation to investigate the current state of the buildings and how they have been adapted over time. My knowledge of both English and Russian (which is still widely spoken in these areas) will allow me to conduct interviews with the buildings’ current inhabitants about their experiences living in these buildings. I myself spent much of my childhood in a Khrushchevka in Novosibirsk, and I believe that cataloging the experiences of their inhabitants is a key part in gaining an understanding of the lasting legacy of this type of housing.

The invention of the Khrushchevka housing typology and its systematic dissemination throughout much of Eastern Europe and Asia was a unique moment in history that is often overlooked in architectural discourse. Although utopian visions of mass public housing are common in architecture history, this was one of the only cases in which such a vision was successfully implemented on such a large scale. While in Russian “do svedanya” means “goodbye,” its literal translation is “until we meet again”. This ambiguity of meaning is symbolic of the Khrushchevka legacy because while they represent the relics of a defunct social system, the desire to provide public housing on a massive scale is a recurring vision in architecture, one that will likely return again.

Bibliography

Brade/Axenov/Bondarchuk. The Transformation of Urban Space in Post-Soviet Russia. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Gentile/Sjöberg. Intra-Urban Landscapes of Priority: The Soviet Legacy. Europe-Asia Studies Vol. 58, No. 5 (July, 2006). pp. 701-729

Grava, Sigurd. The Urban Heritage of the Soviet Regime: The Case of Riga, Latvia. Journal of the American Planning Association 59: 1 (1993). pp. 9-30

Lahusen, Thomas. Decay or Endurance? The Ruins of Socialism. Slavic Review Vol. 65, No. 4 (Winter, 2006). pp. 736-746

Skultans, Vieda. The Testimony of Lives: Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Titova, Irina. Soviet-Era Housing Gets New Lease on Life. The St. Petersberg Times. Sept. 28, 2001. Accessed at: http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=5483