As the soviet union crumbled, it gave rise to a chaotic age of building. Yet poetic images of its decay spark an unexpected rebirth of architectural imagination
This project came about by chance. It began with a second-hand book bought on a sidewalk in Tbilisi one day in August 2003. Under the rather anonymous grey dust jacket 200 pages in Cyrillic, published 20 years earlier, surveyed 70 years of architecture in Soviet Georgia. Among the listed buildings, two curiosities stood out. As the captions indicated, they were located in Tbilisi. I was there to interview President Shevardnadze. I had time to spare, so I looked for them and found them. Stunned by their sheer scale, I took photographs. Usually, that’s as far as it goes. You return home with a photographic souvenir of something exotic and unusual. The adventure fades once the journey is over. Not this time, however. The photographs inspired by a book were the beginning of another book.
The key event in this process came a few months later, when I met a woman in Lithuania. Working alongside her architect husband, she had helped to build a monumental health centre there in the 1970s. The construction work took 10 years. The building went up in the middle of the woods, near the border with Belarus, and was made, she told me, with total freedom. A homage to the work of Gaudí, she said. This spa at Druskininkai was the worthy product of such an ambition. There, surrounded by conifers, I found colossal concrete curves, modelled by an extraordinary aesthetic. .
This was miles away from my preconceived ideas about the Soviet world. How had this building managed to come into existence, so far off the beaten tracks of architecture? Was its formal liberty compatible with an official commission, bearing in mind that in the USSR every construction was commissioned by the State? There seemed to be no work of reference, no precise documentation that might answer my questions. And then I remembered a real folly of a building that I had glimpsed on the road from Minsk to the airport. In the 1990s, for no particular reason, I had gone to spend a weekend in Belarus, an unknown country. There I caught an absentminded glimpse of the Institute of Technology.
Back in Minsk, a copy of an old issue of ARCA about Perestroika architecture brought other ‘monsters’ to my attention. This was a whole field of investigation. And also the beginning of a game. Its rules were simple: to locate the diverse manifestations of this very different style of architecture, and generate an effect of mass by methodically pinpointing, one after another, these particular buildings. The Soviet world was huge. The adventure was a fine pretext for travel. I was not looking for formatted or inventoried objects, but for a form of extravagance that I alone could delineate.
A powerful, dreamlike presence that I wanted to capture in my photos. I saw an opening and I went for it with pleasure. Not only was this a chance to sketch the outlines of a history that had not been written, an almost fictional history, but also, and with the same gaze, it was possible to reverse what for 20 years had been a cliché of contemporary photography, ‘the post-Soviet world seen in terms of decay.’ I much preferred its utopias.
Contrary to the usual logic, it was at the end of the whole process that I discovered the archives and, in particular, the authoritative Soviet monthly, Arhitektura SSSR, which enabled me to be more rigorous. I found constructions that people told me had been destroyed. I photographed buildings that have disappeared since. Sometimes I got there too late. But wherever I went, my interest was deemed unusual, no doubt because the people who lived near these buildings still had a strong hangover from the Soviet period.
The Russians were at least as eager to turn their backs on their past as anyone else. The complex response to the collapse of the USSR developed into amnesia, a denial commonly applied to those years of disintegration. Hence the strange purgatory in which these objects seem to float: so close in time and yet out of time. This void taught me that history does not write itself. We must invent it, risk making mistakes. We must imagine it.
There was another circumstance to explain the neglect of this architecture: lack of ‘historical distance’ was compounded by geography. Today, the Soviet Empire has been replaced by a mosaic of states, making overall perceptions that much hazier. The very object of this collection has been fragmented, dispersed by the formation of new political boundaries. Most of the states concerned now have hostile or at least distant relations with Moscow. As well as the particular case of Georgia, the Baltic States were annexed late in the day and occupied with a brutality long masked by a convenient version of history. Emancipation therefore went hand in hand with rejection. Depending on local sensibilities, the architecture of those years generally met with indifference because it was too directly associated with the bad years and a collectivism imposed from outside.
Today, however, there are signs of rehabilitation. In Estonia and Lithuania, for example, new generations are calling for certain buildings to be listed. Rejecting ideological assumptions, they are simply realizing that it is better to preserve an ambiguous heritage than to face a historical void. Slowly, and unevenly, people are beginning to look at these strange vestiges. But it took the freedom of movement and thought of a ‘tourist’ to re-establish the connections between one country and another, and to compose this set of images.
My hope is that this ‘archaeology of the present,’ while not exhaustive, will allow readers to share my emotions as they learn about a long-forgotten reality, and that it will vividly convey the dreams of forgotten, sometimes nameless architects. This piece of work is a homage to their extravagance. Aesthetic outsiders. Anyone’s first trip to New York always comes with a feeling of déjà-vu, as if you were walking onto the set of a movie seen a hundred times. In contrast, there are vestiges of the Soviet Union that seem like backdrops to movies that never hit the screen, because they were never made. A collection of exuberant sets oscillating between audacity and folly. Placed in the middle of nowhere, with no context or norm, some of these buildings really stand out. They seem to have no obvious rationale, to ignore all architectural doctrines. They are like orphaned moments, scattered over the planet of collectivism.
Their defining characteristics? First of all, they are aesthetic outsiders in an ocean of grey. Soviet architecture is synonymous with monotony, with stereotyped developments repeating the same forms again and again over phenomenal distances, based on the same urban models, the same economy of materials. Here we are somewhere else. In the singular. Secondly, the construction of these buildings extended from the late Brezhnev era to the collapse of the USSR, a period of barely 15 years. A period of crumbling walls. It is as if, growing old, the Soviet net grew slack, allowing big holes of freedom to form between its gaping threads. Hypothesis: the inertia of the Soviet machine, too busy putting off its own demise, let the work it commissioned on its margins float free of its control. In this sense it is surely no coincidence if most of these specimens came into existence on the fringes - the Polish border, the Caucuses, or on the Black Sea.
Counter-hypothesis: these projects were not ignored but actively encouraged. After Brezhnev and nearly 20 years of stagnation, Russia under Yuri Andropov suddenly grew bolder. The need was felt to freshen up the image of a country disfigured by several decades of architectural cloning. After the Second World War, the proletarian paradise was covered with forests of concrete housing, the khrushchevka. The fact is that in Russia the most Neanderthal conformism always coexists with the boldest avant-gardes. In the 1960s the young avant-gardes that were unable to build drew attention to their purely utopian constructions.
Although it never left the drawing board, and while the phenomenon was no more than a flash in the pan, this work won them international recognition. Then, in the early 1980s, they reappeared, bearing the label of ‘paper architects,’ displaying once again the same wild imaginings. The tradition they were reviving was born with the 20th century; it was that of the revolutionaries of Russian art, who were determined to change the world by aesthetics. Except that these newcomers were not touting collective progress - building communism was no longer on the agenda - but campaigning for the needs of the individual. Their creative exuberance was an implicit criticism of Soviet inertia. Their projects, their drawings mimicking Escher and de Chirico, were attempts to elude a gloomy reality.
It is precisely the same quasi-psychedelic, crypto-Pop aesthetic that insinuated itself into the prestige architecture and manifested itself in some of the most spectacular projects of those times. As if the administrations were attuned to the world and its changes and at last allowing themselves a few flights of fancy. The regime just let it go, allowing a great variety of forms to emerge. It even encouraged architects to take regional specificities into account. Although it denied it, the USSR was subject to outside influences and had been aping the International Style since the 1960s. Now at last it gave free rein to unexpected, sometimes even irrational impulses. Whichever hypothesis we opt for, these buildings designed at the hinge of different worlds, in which sci-fi futurism conjoins with monumentalism, constitute one of the most disconcerting manifestations of the dying USSR. The disconcerting effect of a house of mirrors.
In the vast post-Soviet world, with its diverse landscapes and uncertain, abandoned terrains, that transitional period lives on in vestiges such as these. These buildings are happy accidents for some, and for others lapses of taste, but most of them, whether modest or not, somehow managed to dodge the norms. Neither modern nor postmodern, like free-floating dreams, they loom up on the horizons like pointers to a fourth dimension. The ultimate dimension of the Soviet world.
CCCP - Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, by Frédéric Chaubin, Taschen, £34.99, is available to buy at www.taschen.com