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Goodbye, Khrushchevki

Soviet Housing in Post-Soviet Europe

Category Archives: Moscow

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 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.

Just got back from a day of rest at my uncle’s dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. Nothing like ending a grueling 4 days of running around Moscow under 37°C heat by swimming in the Moscow river and taking a traditional Russian bath. Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Moscow. I did most of what I wanted to do, and even some things that weren’t in my plans. I have a few posts from the last few days’ activities currently in the works, but thought I would post something from several days ago before departing for my train to Riga. Because I’ve been so busy lately, I’m a bit behind on the posts, but hopefully I will catch up on the train.

For now, I wanted to post about my second site visit, which I took a few days ago to the Тушино-Северное (Tushino-North) microrayon on the north-west outskirts of Moscow. According to Future Faculty: Post-Socialist Russian City Project, this microrayon was built between the mid-60’s and early 70’s, with some buildings added in 1980. Because of its early construction, this district possesses characteristics of an earlier era than other Moscow microrayons. Instead of the bending and breaking patterns that characterize later developments (see my upcoming post about my third site visit), here the urban fabric consists mainly of straight strokes of block segments.

Fig 1. Newer panel-block construction near the metro station.

Fig 2. Older, 1960’s era Khrushevka buildings toward the center of the microrayon.

Fig 3. Later 1970’s 12 story buildings along the edge of the microrayon.

As you notice from the map, this microrayon, like Novye Cheryomushki, is located extremely close to a metro station, located at the last stop of one of Moscow Metro’s radial lines. Although I mentioned it before, the importance of the metro in the planning of these microrayons cannot be overstated. Because individual car ownership was quite low during the soviet era, the metro was the only way to connect these neighborhoods to the city. Infact, because both trains and housing were built by the the central government, the location of a new microrayon often became the basis for further extending a metro line. Because of this close connection to the city, the microrayons remain attractive places to live, despite the mostly run-down building fabric. These attractive benefits should also be a further impetus for the city to reconsider the future redevelopment and rehabilitation of these neighborhoods.

Wish me luck on the train, will post again when I arrive.

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.

This morning I woke up super early because of jetleg and headed out to my first Microrayon site visit, the Cheryomushki area south west of city center. After getting off the train, I walked around the microrayon called Орехово-Борисово (Orekhovo-Borisovo), which is a huge residential area containing examples of several era of soviet housing.

map of Орехово-Борисово (Orekhovo-Borisovo) microrayon in Новые Черёмушки (Novye Cheryomushki) area

Among the developments were what looked like early 60’s brick 5 storey houses, the first typology of the Khrushchev era. These are much older than the other buildings judging from the brick construction and the fully grown trees and foliage completely covering them. Further in there were later examples of concrete panel 12 and 14 storey houses, most likely from the 1980’s. There was even new construction going up that was curvier than the old type of apartments, but honestly not that much more inventive. This development is one of the biggest microrayons in Moscow, and was the testbed of many housing typologies, which were then implemented throughout the soviet union. I will put up more pictures as I edit them, but here is one for now:

Image 1. Newer construction residential highrises on the edge of Орехово-Борисово (Orekhovo-Borisovo) microrayon.

Image 2. Older 5-story brick construction.

Image 3 & 4. Newer 12 and 17 story construction. (Note the amount of wires strung between the roofs. These carry internet and other modern digital amenities)

I hope to discuss this area with Katya and Varvara tonight to get a better idea of the time period and construction typologies represented in this microrayon.

Moscow Metro is the world’s second most heavily used rapid transit system after Tokyo‘s twin subway, with nearly 9 million people using the subway everyday. The key to its widescale use is a combination of the still relatively low levels of car ownership in Moscow (which has been going up steadily in the last decade), and the system’s speed and efficiency.

In my experience, during rush hours the trains run once a minute, and during off-peak I have never experienced a wait of more than 5 minutes. Compare this with New York City MTA, which runs a maximum of one train every four minutes, even during rush hour, which it attributes to safety reasons and the maximum capacity of the lines.

Constructed beginning in 1935, the Moscow Metro was the first subway in the Soviet Union, and was a major factor in the location of the suburban Microrayons. Because of the subway, the large residential areas could be located away from the city center where it was easier to build, but still provide a way for the residents to get to work.

Despite the widescale use and efficiency of the Metro system, the traffic problems on Moscow’s highways are some of the worst in the world.