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Goodbye, Khrushchevki

Soviet Housing in Post-Soviet Europe

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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 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.

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.

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