Soviet Architecture in Moscow.
following the refraction laws
While regular development of architecture resembles the currents of a gradual change, Soviet architecture obeyed to the light refraction laws, where the eye of the political power dictated new rules and imposed turning points artificially.
Growing up on a post-soviet area meant seeing its socialist housing on everyday basis. Full of what we call Paneliki (Plattenbau in English), specific aesthetic was an innate part of the image of my hometown. Going to any European Union country felt like a getaway to a different universe: first time visiting Denmark I was astonished by its neat streets, bike lanes and brick houses. No crushed roads, no prominent architectural grayness, no trash on the streets and no hurry.

Now, when living in the Netherlands for more than a year already, I am used to this neat environment; I am being surprised when the road is not refurbished until the mentioned date and can even occasionally complain about Dutch trains. The table has turned: I see way better now interesting and unconventional beauty of the Soviet Architecture. This change made me realize: what was habitual for me in Moldova became more valuable now; and it might even feel exotic to some of my friends.

In Moscow I always felt close to home: the language and its fast pace resonated with my character, I felt comfortable in the metro or in its wide streets, I loved wrapping the scarf all around my face not to freeze when observing it in cold January nights. Its residential gray architecture was so familiar that I felt myself at home there.

The image of Moscow today is a powerful build-up of various impressive architectural movements. Soviet architecture started with the avant-garde movement of 1920-s, which grew up essentially from art: Malevich painted the "Black square", works of Kandinsky were in their prime. The tendency passed on the architecture: by scraping art from the constructional surface and narrowing architecture down to form and structure, laconic and abstract shapes. Only space was seen as the chance for architectural expression and experiment.

With Stalin coming to power, the change began. Going hand-in-hand with the cult of Stalin and arranging his absolute power and different means of pressure, abstract character of avant-garde was denounced. With the winning project of Boris Iofan for the tremendous Palace of the Soviets in 1933, the Stalinist style began, occasionally referred as the Soviet classicism. This monumental project approved by Stalin identified a sharp turn in Soviet Architecture from monumentalism to this historicism. The Palace of the Soviets, which was supposed to be the tallest building in the world at that time – 415 meters, including the tremendous statue of Lenin on top of it – has never been built because of the war, but remained a symbol of radical change in architectural movement of the time

Boris Iofan winning project of The Palace of the Soviets, 1933. The starting point of Stalinist style.
The Seven Sisters (or сталинские высотки - so called Stalin skyscrapers) which were built around Moscow, are an inalienable part of its image nowadays. Being nothing like avant-garde architecture and guided by the leadership of Stalin, it simultaneously showed the power of engineering together with, ironically, the power of Stalin. Innovative engineering techniques of freezing the ground for foundations went hand-in-hand with Stalin dictating architectural rules. One of the funny examples is connected to the Ministry of International affairs (third image below) which initially had no spire. However, when seeing the new building, Stalin called it to be 'too american' without one, and therefore, required a change.
Nothing is known in-detail about the management processes of Seven Sisters, the projects were given to the young generation of architects instead of renowned professionals, and some of the stories might never be unveiled. Stalinist style in Soviet architecture remains a mysterious part of architectural history which can mainly be judged by its result rather than a process, only partially discovering it through different fragments of notes.

The death of Stalin in 1953 became an extra turning point for Soviet history, society and architecture. Khrushchev, who came into power in 1955, determined the new Soviet age – the Kruschcev Thaw. The Thaw was the time of relaxation and a strong desire of Khruschcev to distance himself from the image and authority of Stalin. The cult of Stalin was widely critisised, censorship was relaxed and even international books, movies and festivals were allowed. With de-Stalinization came the new rules: if avant-garde and constructivist architecture was disregarded by Stalin who eventually imposed his new style, Khruschcev judged Stalinist architecture to be unreasonably grandiose and too pretentious. This is where the law 'Of elimination of architectural excesses in design and construction' appeared: ornamentality and aesthetics were to be abandoned in favour of construction speed and fulfillment of the building needs of the time. Projects, which were at the time being built, were redeveloped or stopped; the new ones took a turn into its pure functionality, switching to powerful Soviet modernism.

Residential architecture became the first priority in order to give people housing; poor living conditions were the most important matter to be solved. This is where judgement of Stalinist architecture was enhanced: it was referred as a unreasonable waste of time and money, while the construction had to be, first of all, fast and efficient.

When housing crisis is an arising topic in the Netherlands, I amusingly refer to the Soviet Union mass house construction of Khrushchev, and this is where the 9th District of Experiments Novye Cheryomushki comes into place. Being the area with the first Hrushiovka ever built, it was a starting point for the massive construction around Soviet Union.
9th District of Experiments Novye Cheryomushki was the first Soviet neighbourhood to provide separate apartments for each family as an attempt to help solve housing crisis. It was supposed to test the research for the best spatial organization of such apartments together with determining the most efficient and least expensive construction techniques. The district was planned to have its own infrastructure; it included stores, kindergarten, school and even cinema.

Landscape design of the area for that time was innovative, and 60% of the district was taken by greenery. Eliminating the need of change, apartment blocks were arranged according to the existing relief. Pathways were created by means of observation and participatory design after completion of construction: pavement was installed at the walking routes of habitants. Courtyards were planned to create a comfortable environment for the residents by eliminating car roads (the happy car owners had to leave them at the parking), splitting into silent and loud areas and even creating the children summer pool. Such a careful landscape design, additional greenery to facades and external flower pots contrasted to the strict appearance of the buildings with the intent to balance out the small living areas. Buildings had to be practical: story height of 2.7 meters, the useful living space was sometimes of 18 m2.

Site plan of the district
Site plan of the district
(Москва: Архитектура Советского Модернизма 1955-1991)
Additional greenery
Additional greenery
(Москва: Архитектура Советского Модернизма 1955-1991)
View of the district
View of the district
(Москва: Архитектура Советского Модернизма 1955-1991)
The district is a powerful illustration of modernist residential architecture: the material is used to its extent with the large attention paid to reinforced concrete and glass construction, and brought the new housing aesthetic in USSR. Eight-floor apartment blocks were considered successful for mass-production and were extensively used for the whole Soviet Union.

A 4-floor apartment block (on the image in the middle), which was later given the name of Khrushchyovka (if you say this word on a post-soviet area everyone will know what you are talking about), also originated in the Novye Cheryomushki. The thickness of panels used in this building is just 4 cm, which aligns with the best modernist techniques of material properties maximization. By making them carry the function of beams (as the I-profile beam), it became a lightweight and strong framework for the house. It allowed to save 15% of material and make the construction both time- and cost-efficient. This house was later set into mass production under the name of K7, giving the birth to one of the most used types of housing in Soviet Union and signifying the revolutionary character of the district.

Funny enough, some of the buildings were, apparently, never meant to fulfill the goal: most likely none of the architects ever expected the brick apartment blocks to be efficient enough but were rather made for the joy of experimenting without limits in that not quite experimental time. With the project of 9th district, construction of houses sometimes gained a competitive element, where Khrushchevki were built in a month, and in extreme cases – a week.
Houses of the 9th district still stand: 50 years without substantial refurbishment. Moreover, at this moment the deterioration of the buildings is estimated to be 10%, which, for their age and state, is extremely low. In comparison we could think of all other Khrushchevki, which are already in the emergency state or even got demolished (Moscow started demolishing them in 21st century and replacing with high-rise buildings).
When the matter of housing crisis stays in the top-3 relevant topics in the Netherlands and the question of what it takes to make a powerful housing architecture comes to mind, Soviet Union might not be the first instance to think of. However, there might be more to discover than it seems at first. When nowadays the brutal architecture of such blocks associates with a non-welcoming area, the origin, as proven by the 9th quarter of experiments, was aimed to create comfortable living space combined with the harmonious landscape design. It is surprising how looking back the Soviet architects of the district pointed out best construction techniques and concepts, which we now address as green architecture, participatory design, lightweight structures and co-housing. Later techniques were unfairly left out, forgotten in the mass-production of USSR, showing the implications of political power over the human needs and the smart architectural choices. Now I see this architectural aesthetics from a completely different viewpoint: this is something you can barely find in Western Europe, and therefore makes it special for the whole post-soviet area. From today's perspective, when Netherlands is figuring out how to solve the housing crisis, maybe it is worth to give that USSR case-study a closer look?

After boarding on a KLM plane Moscow-Amsterdam to leave the habitual culture, surroundings and my native language, I was listening to the flight instructions. When I just heard first words in Dutch, the sudden thought appeared in my mind: I'm flying home. Going from my native language environment to the Dutch one suddenly brought me the feeling of approaching home, and therefore made me think: am I still a part of those Paneliki districts of the post-soviet area? And if so, how is it possible to feel like home in different countries and places at the same time?

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