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Socialism at the Seaside: The holiday architecture of the left

Post-privatisation, the holiday resorts built by socialist governments are a reminder of utopian possibility at the seaside

In his sixty-year career as a philosopher and commentator on urbanism, Henri Lefebvre didn’t publish a single book on architecture. This hasn’t stopped his work from having a great effect on many architectural theorists and historians, particularly on the left - his resounding phrases, such as ‘The Production of Space’, ‘The Urban Revolution’ and most of all ‘The Right to The City’ (all book titles long before they were slogans) echo in the more politicised architecture schools. But architecture, strictly conceived - that is, the matter of actual built form, facades, interior spaces, what can be done in and with them - Lefebvre seemed not to have considered worthy of an entire book. That is, until Łukasz Stanek stumbled upon this unpublished but essentially complete 1973 manuscript. It was elicited as part of a project on the development of the Costa del Sol, something Lefebvre regarded both as a classic example of exploitative capitalist development, and, perhaps, as a foreshadowing of a possible architecture of leisure and pleasure that would be possible after capitalism. Because of this, it’s worth reading alongside Holidays after the Fall, a recent volume by a group of German, Croatian and Bulgarian scholars studying the way ‘real socialist’ governments developed their Adriatic and Black Sea coastlines, equally sandy, sun-kissed and attractive as those of the Med. Lefebvre was not a supporter of these regimes (he was expelled from the Communist Party of France in the 1950s for unorthodoxy) but his ideas both about banal exploitation and utopian possibility at the seaside are confirmed therein.

The most diverting part of Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment is actually Stanek’s introduction, placing it in context with Lefebvre’s contemporaries in radical architecture and the development of postwar leisure. For all its brilliance, conceptual sweep and political intractability, Lefebvre’s work could be rambling - he often dictated rather than wrote, and at worst, you can hear it. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment certainly has its longueurs. Nonetheless, what does ring out of it is an implicit dismissal of the ‘Venice school’ of Marxian architectural historiography developed most famously by Manfredo Tafuri, and a determination to avoid ‘the incessant repetition of the idea that there is nothing to be done, nothing to be thought … because capitalism rules and co-opts everything’. In contrast to Tafuri’s Grand Hotel Abyss, this is leftist architecture as a Pleasure Palace. The book pursues various disciplines (chapters plot the central idea with excursions into economics, sociology, anthropology and so forth) but retains this basic optimism. After all, he asks, ‘who has never wanted to make love on a bed of sand or beneath the caress of waves?’

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Haludovo Resort in Malinska, Croatia, as designed in 1972 by Boris Magas

Lefebvre’s arguments here have been made familiar by his most famous students, the Situationists; against the rigid architecture of state power, for fluidity and sensuality. However, Lefebvre is critical of much of the alienated gadgetry found in the goofier radical architecture of the 1970s - there are indictments of projects that sound much like those of Reyner Banham or Archigram, although the great philosopher does not name names. ‘The architectural revolution will not replace other forms of upheaval and subversion’, says Lefebvre, but ‘it has a life of its own’, and can’t be reduced to a mere appendage of power. This may help to explain why his specific positive examples of a democratic architecture of pleasure, aside from his nod towards the Med (where, at best, we have ‘spaces of enjoyment [with] all class distinctions being dissolved’), come from feudal or slave societies - the Baths of Diocletian in Rome or ‘erotic cathedrals’ of Ajanta in India. Could leisure architecture of ‘state socialism’ improve on these?

The two regimes that sponsored the resorts profiled in Holidays after the Fall were, respectively, the strictly Soviet-style command economy of Bulgaria, and the much more decentralised, self-managed system of Yugoslavia. That divide can be detected in the architecture. Bulgaria went for a highly planned but recognisable form of Costa del Sol urbanisation on the Black Sea coast, attracting working-class holidaymakers to high-rise developments with tellingly straightforward names like Golden Sands and Sunny Beach. These formed a linear city between the large port cities of Varna and Bourgas. Architecturally, by far the most ambitious was Albena, a series of prefabricated ziggurats and a central tower placed geometrically along a wide, sandy beach. It was all rather monumental, and it’s not that easy to discern the difference from capitalist precedent, bar perhaps a greater spaciousness.

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Hotel Libertas in Dubrovnik, Croatia

The socialist republic of Croatia, the main coastal part of Yugoslavia, pursued a more differentiated approach, with nudist beaches, holiday camps, casinos, preserved historic towns and large mega-structural resorts. Lefebvre makes great play of the overloaded erotic sculpture of Hindu temples, and at Haludovo we find Bob Guccione of Penthouse collaborating with a self-managed socialist company to create a holiday village explicitly sponsored by pornographers as a means to ‘international understanding’, designed in an elegant Modernist style.

The contributors to Holidays after the Fall always track the fate of the resorts post-privatisation; mostly the results are grim. Those in Croatia are often derelict, while those in Bulgaria became subject to wild over-development and grotesque Russian-style oligarchitecture. Albena became a joint stock company and got off lightly, preserving its spectacular design at the expense of some un-socialist prices; I can testify from a visit last summer that its combination of sun, sea and Brutalism is still a rather utopian, if somewhat regimented experience. That aside, the architecture of socialist enjoyment turns out to have been pretty comprehensively defeated by Lefebvre’s countervailing forces of profit and power.

Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment

Author: Henri Lefebvre

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Price: £21

Holidays after the Fall: Seaside Architecture and Urbanism in Bulgaria and Croatia

Editors: Elke Beyer, Anke Hagemann and Michael Zinganel

Publisher: Jovis

Price: £30

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