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Perestroika of life

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The ‘social condenser’ encouraged collective consciousness and elevated the design of life to a science

In 1927, the editors of the leading Constructivist journal, Contemporary Architecture, sketched out a radical architectural concept intended to foster a social revolution. Led by Moisei Ginzburg, the editors declared that it was the duty of the Soviet architect to develop the ‘social condensers of our epoch’. A ‘social condenser’, they explained, was architecture that ‘shaped and crystallised a new socialist way of life’. Be it in the form of communal housing, public kitchens, workers’ clubs, administrative buildings, factories or parks, they insisted the social condenser should cultivate a new code of behaviours, norms and habits that would elevate human consciousness and secure the advancement of humanity, through the as yet unrealised potential of socialist organisation. This was a daring vision based on the imagined virtues of greater human interaction and cooperation.

This was, as CA put it, the ‘epoch of socialism-under-construction’. For the editors, the social condenser was to be the primary architectural means of fulfilling socialist visions. It was a highly theoretical and, in places, vague blueprint for change. Yet it was a blueprint infused with the utopian ambitions of the age. 

Full screen crawford poles

Full screen crawford poles

Construction workers take to the streets in Moscow with models of Modernist housing units, 1931 

Like all of the loftiest architectural visions, the social condenser distilled and projected aspirations for a future life. Not content with the status quo, here architecture offered a unique opportunity to concentrate visions of what should be – entertaining and demonstrating new ways of thinking and living. Architecture, feeding off the zeitgeist of its time, makes ideas tangible, translates ideas into form. Key milestones in human history, from the birth of democracy to the formation of the welfare state, have been precipitated by utopian thinking – an indignant reaction to the established way of doing things that stimulates visions of an alternative. In these moments, utopia and architecture often fuel one another. 

The transformative architecture envisioned on the pages of CA grew out of the ‘new way of life’ (novyi byt) promised in October 1917. This was a revolution premised on the belief that it was possible to overturn the unchanging hierarchical social order of Tsarist Russia and redesign society along collective lines. It was a revolution that rejected the inherited, unquestioned ‘way of life’ (byt) – the assumptions about what is natural in life. The overthrow of the capitalist economic system remained the primary goal for the Bolshevik leadership, but what came next for society remained a hot topic. As Trotsky later proclaimed, it was a revolution that marked out ‘the problems of everyday life’ as a central site for building socialism. 

Sovremmenaia arkhitektura 1927

Sovremmenaia arkhitektura 1927

Sovremennaya Arkhitektura (Contemporary Architecture), 1927, edited by Moisei Ginzburg, became Russia’s leading Constructivist journal

Such thinking was the product of a broader Russian revolutionary experience stretching back before 1917. Ever since the publication of Nikolai Chernyshevky’s utopian novel What is to be Done?  (1863), Russian revolutionaries had been contemplating and discussing the transformative effects of collective regimens and cooperative spaces. Labelled a ‘handbook of radicalism’, What is to be Done? inspired a generation of revolutionaries, presenting purposeful characters, living in a self-consciously collective fashion, as the vanguard of the ‘new way of life’. The novel follows the protagonist, Vera Pavlovna, on her journey from the wife-beating confines of the patriarchal home to the emancipation of a ‘common apartment’, where all live equally, sharing the housework under a collective code. 

Lenin’s favourite book, What is to be Done? rejected superfluous decoration and ornamentation in favour of a rational utilitarian lifestyle. What were muslin curtains for, other than catching dust? It also rejected the infamous idleness of Russian nobility and Russian society, as epitomised by the title character of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859), a member of the landed gentry who spends much of his time lazing around in his dressing gown, apathetic, unkempt, lacking any resolve. To revolutionary eyes, Russia’s perennial state of backwardness and her slovenly society went hand in hand. Acutely aware of Russia’s backwardness, revolutionaries saw the ‘new people’ and the ‘new way of life’ depicted in What is to be Done?  as a revolutionary imperative. Deliverance from entrenched backwardness was a key component of Russian revolutionary thinking. 

0be58 orlik seamstress detailvera pavlovna

0be58 orlik seamstress detailvera pavlovna

Seamstress by Emil Orlik, 1920, depicts Vera Pavlovna, the protagonist in Chernyshevky’s utopian novel, What is to be Done?  

It was no coincidence that the social condenser envisaged across the pages of CA was billed as a distinctly modern ‘utilitarian-constructive formation’. This was the opposite to the world of Oblomov. The idea of the ‘social condenser’ captured the modern ambition of Constructivism. As a concept it specifically rejected the ‘eclecticism and retrospectivism’ of pre-revolutionary architecture and pre-revolutionary Russian society. It was the antithesis of the ‘enfilade’, as exemplified by the Hermitage. Instead, socialist buildings were to reflect and foster cooperation and equality. 

The social condenser was to serve a social purpose, promoting comradely attitudes through spatial designs that encouraged human interaction, interdependence and a collective consciousness. Building on the fashionable ideas of ‘scientific management’, the social condenser was also meant to extend a functional approach to daily life. As the Constructivist Ivan Leonidov explained, it was ‘imperative to turn architecture into engineering’. Domestic dwellings, clubs and public spaces – much like modern factories – were to be ‘scientifically arranged’. Ad hoc would not do. It was no longer acceptable to leave life to fate. The design of life was elevated to a science. In form and function, then, the social condenser was envisioned as the progeny and progenitor of modern socialist values. 

Alfbronovitskaya

Alfbronovitskaya

Aleksandr Deyneka’s V Rayonnom Klube (At the Local Club) depicts workers’ clubs, which became the setting for many activities to promote proletariat culture. Courtesy of DACS 2017 

The vitality of the social condenser, as imagined during the ‘epoch of socialism-under-construction’, was the product of a time, a pique, that questioned how society should be organised, a period that grappled with how to reconcile visions of a better life. Flawed and naive though many of their answers may appear in hindsight, the visionaries behind the social condenser sought to challenge directionless development. Like the vanguard communities envisioned by 19th-century utopian socialists, such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, the social condenser was formulated to address the unaddressed social ills of the age. Like the Garden City schemes of Ebenezer Howard, it was formulated to check the unquestioned assumptions about what was natural in life – a break with conventional wisdom. The communities designed and envisioned by these thinkers were not replicated ad litteram or ad infinitum, but the ideas embodied within them had an influential afterlife. 

And it is telling that, despite the specific context in which it was born, the concept of the social condenser would not be bound. It arose once more when assumptions and norms were being chall-enged, on the eve on the 1968 student revolution for instance. The French-Russian architectural historian, Anatole Kopp, reminded the world about modern architecture’s radical roots. Published in 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, Kopp’s Town and Revolution referenced the social condenser as a guiding concept of Constructivist architecture. In a beautiful piece of symmetry, the anniversary of October once again saw the social condenser explicated as a force for social revolution. 

From here the French intellectual heavyweight Henri Lefebvre, a friend of Kopp, was inspired to extend the concept to explain how social spaces and social ideas intersected, ultimately helping to spark a ‘spatial turn’ that has changed the way scholars approach, among other things, urban theory and human geography. As Michał Murawski and Jane Rendell recently reminded us, Lefebvre was interested in something more akin to the ‘accidental condenser’: spaces that became a focus for certain social questions and concerns, such as the Nanterre campus outside Paris, where French students gathered in 1968, turning the built environment into a centre of protest, before marching on to the capital. Quite different to the spatial determinism that underpinned Constructivism, Lefebvre’s understanding of the social condenser was nevertheless associated with the daring of social reform. 

Untitled 9 moscow metro  2015

Untitled 9 moscow metro 2015

Moscow’s sumptuous Metro stations – ‘the palaces of the people’ – provided sites of passenger interaction and public luxury. In these accidental social condensers, art and function combined to teach the merits of socialism and Soviet culture. Photographs by David Burdeny

More recently, it has been the Postmodern, Deconstructivist architects who have had cause to draw on the social condenser and the work of the Constructivists, inverting the functionalism and determinism of this early avant-garde work, while ironically also drawing on its deep-seated desire to challenge established professional wisdom. Coming to public attention in 1982, in the Parc de la Villette architectural competition, Deconstructivism seems to revel in a form of iconoclasm: exposing and fragmenting buildings, breaking the appearance of harmony.  And yet, such intellectual exercises lack the scope and social daring exhibited on the pages of CA. Deconstructivist architecture often seems to stand alone, offering an isolated comment, reflecting, as much as anything, the emasculation of municipal authorities, town planning and grand imaginings. 

Today, in turn, the social benefits of a ‘collective lifestyle’ are espoused by co-living entrepreneurs, who are commissioning serviced accommodation for young professionals in major urban centres. Emerging out of the ‘hacker mansions’ of San Francisco at the start of the 21st century – providing affordable shared housing to the young techies flocking to work in Silicon Valley – co-living has appropriated the language of radical utopia. The Collective Old Oak, a recent co-living venture launched in north-west London, presents itself as a ‘commune’, offering a rational ‘design to life’, an ‘intentional way of living’, accenting the prospect of a new type of ‘community’. Residents do not rent space, but an experience: small bedroom quarters are supplemented with serviced amenities, including a communal library, cinema, sports bar, restaurant, games room, launderette, gym, spa and roof terrace. 

Just as the first socialist utopias arose in response to the hardships of early capitalism and laissez-faire economics, so co-living for millennials has emerged against the backdrop of a prohibitively expensive and frequently isolating cityscape. Indeed, those behind The Collective cite an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ caused by cities and a work-life balance that limit social interaction. Yet, here too, such ventures develop in near isolation: the business models upon which they are run prevent the development of the more holistic approaches that have traditionally driven utopian visions. In this form, co-living might not develop beyond a transitory amenity or commodity that serves an age group locked out of the housing market – a stopgap experience. Likewise, thus far the commissioned architecture in which these ventures develop does not fuel a discourse of innovation, it repackages amenity. Given the genuine challenges co-living promises to tackle, a broader perspective, combined with input from the municipal or government level, might yield interesting potentials.

Geograph 5046380 by david hawgood

Geograph 5046380 by david hawgood

The Collective Old Oak offers more than 500 individuals a private bedroom and access to communal kitchens and other amenities. Photograph by David Hawgood

The innovation of the social condenser was contingent on a broader dialogue with utopian thinking. The Narkomfin Communal House – designed by Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis, and built between 1928 and 1932 – is the most famous example of a realised Constructivist social condenser.  Designed in opposition to the traditional family hearth, Narkomfin contained a mix of private (bourgeois) and communal (socialist) domestic units, within a wider complex of inter-connected zones and collective facilities calculated to encourage inhabitants to transition towards a fully socialised  life.

Incorporating a communal canteen, gym-nasium, crèche and library, the structure of the complex was meant to tempt residents away from their separate kitchens and private spaces, into the open, airy and efficient parts of the building. The socialist units (F-units) and common spaces were open-plan and flooded by light, facilitating air circulation and good health, as well as an ethos of collectivism. This was optimal scientific, hygienic, rational, socialist design. Modern socialism demanded functional and material innovation. 

Given the optimism of the 1920s – when conventional wisdom was being most vigorously questioned – Ginzburg was able to put theory into practice and construct an exemplar of the social condenser. He picked up on the writings of leading Bolsheviks, such as Alexandra Kollontai, who advocated the construction of huge municipal canteens to feed workers and see to the abolition of the private kitchen – that conceited space where old habits are passed down like recipes being passed from mother to daughter. But, extending such radical ideas, Ginzburg vied to create a complex that would rethink every aspect of everyday life. 

A rodchenko e28093 v stepanova archive moscow house of photography museum lunch mechanized canteen 1932 vintage print collection of moscow house of photography museum multimedia art mu

A rodchenko e28093 v stepanova archive moscow house of photography museum lunch mechanized canteen 1932 vintage print collection of moscow house of photography museum multimedia art mu

Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs from 1930s Russia reflect the growth in communal activities. Courtesy of Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2017

In this undertaking, he also channelled the neo-positivist currents that had found their way into Bolshevik thinking at the turn of the 20th century, most obviously in the work of Alexander Bogdanov, whose utopian sci-fi Red Star (1908) went one further than Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?  Bogdanov envisioned a harmonious Martian community in which functional order – in the form of central child colonies, communal accommodation and collectivist infrastructure – made for a technologically and psychologically advanced civilisation. Comradely cooperation and collective creativity unleashed new potentials. This world was so devoid of discrimination and exploitation – and all the inefficiencies this entailed – that male and female Martians had become indistinguishable. Bogdanov died from an infection in 1928 – the result of a series of extraordinary self-experimentations motivated by his desire to realise one of his utopian visions: human rejuvenation and eternal youth through blood transfusion. But Red Star lived on. The book was highly popular, republished in 1918, 1922 and 1928. 

This was a time when the revolutionary press of the new Soviet state enthused about the prospect of a ‘new way of life’, advancing the notion that, given the right conditions, a ‘New Soviet Person’ might appear. Extolling the virtues of collective living, school colonies and ‘new people’, the Soviet press sometimes referenced Chernyshevksy directly; at other times it expanded on the leitmotifs first put forth in 1863. Soviet advice literature was the medium through which these ideas were most commonly circulated. Writing in the advice sections of the youth press, the likes of Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya averred that if a person lived in a collective manner they could be taught to think like a socialist. Everyday life was declared a battleground for socialism, young activists embraced radical visions of socialist domesticity, and urban planners and architects dreamed up experimental collective designs. The utopian visions of Russian socialism – a response to the ridged autocracy, patriarchy and religiosity of the old order – exploded into life across the 1920s.

C13gty

C13gty

Nikita Khrushchev, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev exchange words during the 1959 ‘Kitchen Debate’ in Moscow, when the merits of communism were pitted against those of capitalism. Photograph courtesy of Everett Collection Inc /Alamy

The potency of ambition was such that even the narrow imagination and unconscionable practices of the Stalin years were not enough to kill it off. Under Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union would again embrace Promethean designs for the transformation of daily life, most notably in the form of ‘micro-districts’ (mikroraiony). These were model community designs typically comprising accommodation buildings set within a complex of communal gardens and public services, including schools, nurseries, laundries, sports facilities and food stores. The private apartment, it was now theorised, allowed for rest and relaxation after work. But each accommodation block was meant to form an organic part of the wider complex, fostering a sense of community. The micro-district became the ideal vision of home and community within Khrushchev’s broader mass housing programme. In House of the Future (1962), the Soviet architect Aleksandr Peremyslov imagined a grand micro-district complex in the not-too-distant future that included a swimming pool and public stadium. Modern amenities and consumer services rendered life modern and communist. Buildings were once more utilitarian and functional. This was a harbinger of things to come – a microcosm of a not-too-distant communism. Boyed by a renewed sense of revolutionary optimism, the Soviet press openly celebrated attempts to reproduce the collectivist spirit of the past. 

The micro-districts were never overtly associated with the social condensers of the late 1920s, but they echoed many of the same influences and ideals. They urged tomorrow to come today. The built environment – now bolstered by the advances of the space age, serviced by public vending machines and technological conveniences – was seen as a means of instilling comradely values and modern habits. Just as the vacuum cleaner paved the way to free time, the general technological promise of the 1960s seemingly made the ‘new way of life’ possible. The cultured redesign of life was a prospect once more. Revolutionary imagination was reinvigorated, for now. This spike in creativity would tail off with the demise of Khrushchev’s political career in the mid-1960s. But the Soviets had, albeit briefly, reminded themselves of the importance of the broader socio-cultural mission that underpinned and motivated the October Revolution. 

Avd43243

Avd43243

Khrushchevki housing schemes in the Moscow district of Belyaevo. Photograph by Max Avdeev

We still await a similar spike in utopian-architectural creativity. But we also await the wealth and depth of utopian discussion needed to foster it. Co-living, like Deconstructivist architecture, eschews the Modernist conviction that it is possible to remake the world and strive towards a perfected life. They are both the products of a postmodern world in this sense. The arrogance of modern utopian thought, which taught us that progress was attained by ripping apart the past and starting afresh, has been thoroughly and rightly checked. But, at the same time, it has become hard to imagine establishing a dialogue with utopia in a world that only promotes fractures. Critique is easier than creation. In our perception of society, as in our politics, we appear to be experiencing a moment of upheaval. Established institutions and convictions have been challenged. The strength of the Constructivist social condenser was to make the prosaic exciting and to view everyday life as a central site of concern. 

In order to contemplate visions of an alternative, politicians, intellectuals, architects – all of us – need to remember that the milestones of humanity emerge out of dialogue with utopia. 

The social condenser: a century of revolution through architecture, 1917-2017 was published by The Journal of Architecture earlier this year, co-edited by Michał Murawski and Jane Rendell. Click on the links to read the editors’ prefaceIntroduction: crystallising the social condenser by Michał Murawski and ‘How do you live?’: experiments in revolutionary living after 1917 by Andrew Willimott