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On the path to the socialist bloc

Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism, Edited by Inka Schube, texts by Till Briegleb, Christian Raabe, Inka Schube and Hatje Cantz

This is perhaps how revolutions start, at least in taste: a ‘look’ becomes less abhorrent, begins to have an appeal long before scholarship has caught up. The orgy of destruction is in full swing when, against all the odds, someone begins to think that there may be something worth looking at there after all, but no one has had a chance to find out how it got there.

This is a book about a ‘look’ rather than architecture − a collection of photographs of buildings and urban scenes in the former Soviet Bloc, dating from about 1955 to 1990. The start date is significant: just after the radical change of policy in construction initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in a speech in 1954, which ushered out Stalinist populism and neo-traditionalism in favour of mass production and an acceptance of some of the ideology of the Modern Movement.

The photographs − each one occupying a full page and taken since 2005 by Roman Bezjak, who was born in Slovenia (then Yugoslavia) in 1962 but raised in West Germany − reflect the current German fashion in photography for panoramic semi-urban landscapes with a lot of sky, still, and with few and small evidences of humanity. As with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the sky is preferably flat and grey without any shadows, the focus is sharp with all verticals parallel, and the presentation is apparently factual and value-free. This approach often proves to be well suited to its subject: as we know from innumerable sketches and texts by Le Corbusier, the object of building taller in widely spaced blocks was to open up the view of the sky, to create a vista of space and stillness in which human beings would perforce appear relatively small.

A striking example is the first photograph in the book showing Victory Square, St Petersburg, with the over life-size bronze figures of the Second World War memorial grouped around an obelisk in a vast plaza framed by two residential tower blocks all under a flat sky − but no actual people or vehicles. The photograph of Augustus Square, Leipzig, is similar, but with Lowry-like stick-figures scurrying across the plaza and an air of better maintenance. It may be that the East excelled at this kind of composition, where land values were not an issue.

Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction, Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction, Tbilisi, Georgia

But the photographer is not an architect and all buildings are presented in a similar way, whether exhibiting the banality of prefabricated repetitive housing blocks in Kołobrzeg, Poland, the sculptural kitsch of the ‘Manhattan’ apartment block in Wrocław, or the Neo-Constructivist heroics of the Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction, Tbilisi. No attempt is made to attribute any of them to designers or to give them dates, or to group them by locality, so that a scene in Yalta is preceded by one in Prague and followed by others in Berlin and Minsk. But Russian place-names alone are also given in Cyrillic. Buildings of the period that I believe actually to have architectural quality or interest, such as the Comecon Building or the angled blocks on the Kalinin Prospect in Moscow, both designed by Mikhail Posokhin and others in about 1964, are not shown.

The text by Till Briegleb, in particular, often contains perceptive observations, but the English translation is in places an impediment. Christian Raabe begins with an interesting 1966 quote from East German writer Hermann Henselmann: ‘As we are designing our [socialist] cities, we should keep in mind that not only will vehicular traffic increase in the future, but that more people will be moving through the streets with increasing freedom, and these people will be highly educated, curious and having a great zest for life. They require an environment that is not only well ordered, but also filled with poetry.’

Bezjak is reportedly sympathetic to the former socialism of ‘the East’ but there is a pervasive feeling of melancholy, and beneath it the palette of architectural styles does not appear to be very different from what was prevalent in the West. Perhaps this book should have been called Modernism in the Socialist Bloc.

Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism − Archaeology of an Era

Edited by Inka Schube

Texts by Till Briegleb, Christian Raabe, Inka Schube

Publisher: Hatje Cantz

Price: £35

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