From Moscow to London, promises about new homes are disguising cynical expropriation
A vast pavilion in the All-Union Exhibition Centre hosts the Moscow Urban Forum 2017: musak, smart cities jargon, flickering LCD screens, Ken Livingstone sitting in the corner eating a sandwich, boutique festival organisers plotting gentrification schemes with developers, and so on. The expo stalls dotted around the premises belong, by and large, to real-estate developers, in particular to those signed up to ‘My New Home’ (Moy Novy Dom) – Moscow’s newly launched housing renovation programme.
KROST’s giant LCD screens loop quasi-documentary footage of pensioners in their dreary, obsolete Khrushchev-era kitchens followed by triumphant fly-throughs of gleaming new polychrome high-rises. GALS Corp opts for renderings of gleaming new towers decorated with neo-Stalinist cornices and crenellations.
One of the municipality’s own stalls features another propaganda reel: a miserable young family wastes away in their horrible Khrushchevki kitchen. Next, they load their belongings into a van and smirk with vandalous glee at their ghastly Soviet home, which is about to be obliterated. Finally, they are seen delighting in the surroundings of their spanking new high-rise, devouring freshly baked American-style cookies.
I thought I’d seen it all. Then I stumbled across the ‘showroom’: a four-apartment unit of what looked like a Brezhnev-era prefab block, painted in sickly pastel colours, cheap-as-chips with pale pink interiors and set in a blood-red rubber turf among dystopian playgrounds. An orange slogan splashed across the portal reads ‘Comfort Class For Your Future Life’.
‘My New Home’ is the friendly official moniker of this mammoth scheme to demolish over 5,000 mostly Khrushchev-era housing blocks, or Khrushchevki: predominantly low-rise, five-storey buildings, verdantly landscaped and well-planned but often hurriedly built and today in varying states ranging from good repair to near-dilapidation. The Khrushchevki – many of which have already been demolished in a less systematic scheme during the 1990s and 2000s – will be replaced for the most part with newly built housing. As one local architect explained to me, ‘oil is cheap, the best thing the state has to give away right now to the oligarchs is Moscow land’.
The Khrushchevki are the flagship products of the postwar Soviet mass-housing programme, a project considered by historians to be one of the most successful egalitarian state-led undertakings ever embarked on in the modern world. For all their flaws, they can quite reasonably be considered the greatest social condenser of all time.
The formal parameters of the future Sobyaninki, nicknamed after the current Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin, will be established on the basis of an international (non-binding) concept competition for five experimental pilot schemes, with results expected in November 2017.
So will whoever prevails in the Sobyaninki competition (Zaha Hadid Architects, Erick von Egeraat, Meganom and a number of other well-known practices are in play) improve on the Khrushchevki and create the blueprint for a 21st-century social condenser? Local sceptics, activists and oppositionists suspect that in reality ‘My New Home’ is simply a scheme for the expropriation of poorer Muscovites from the central regions of the city and their deportation into multi-storey alienation factories, built to a low standard and organised not around social facilities or district clubs, but enormous shopping malls and outsized supermarkets.
You do not need to go to Putin’s Moscow to witness 21st-century urban capital’s twisted logic, rhetoric and aesthetics in full swing. You could have gone, for example, to ’Arry’s Bar in Millwall Stadium, where the public hearing on the fate of the Aylesbury Estate was recently held. Here, as Jane Rendell recounts, Southwark Council’s representatives attempted to explain why and how they intended to make use of expropriation mechanisms to seize former council properties from leaseholders. An ‘utterly perverse’ logic, in Rendell’s words, was at work in ’Arry’s Bar: a logic which holds that seizing flats would allow the Aylesbury Estate to be sold off to a property developer, and that this privatisation would be in the ‘public interest’, because it would lead to the rise of property values.
Not only in the former Soviet Union, but in rapidly dismantling welfare states all over the world, public spaces, social housing projects, leisure facilities and other sites of social condensation are being dismantled, neglected, gentrified or sold off to the highest bidder, often – as the fate of Grenfell Tower brutally brought home – with tragic consequences.
All photographs by Michał Murawski