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The Crisis of State Socialism

Many have sought to understand the social character of the USSR and ascertain what led to its collapse. Today, wreckage from that grandiose experiment lingers in cities throughout the former communist world. But the ruins themselves offer a window into the workings of this bygone society.


Text: Ross Wolfe – 5.10.2021


Within a single mode of production multiple architectural styles can coexist, though it is only within capitalism that the dialectic of tradition and modernity appears. Avant-garde movements such as rationalism and constructivism flourished in the USSR during the 1920s, representing the pinnacle of modern architecture. The so-called “international style” was a radical departure from the past and had sprung up simultaneously in several different countries (France, Holland, Germany) out of independent sources. Modernism expressed a desire to reorder society, if not the universe entirely. In the Soviet Union, avant-garde architecture was rejected by the early 1930s in favor of an atavistic, monumental kitsch that matched Stalin’s Thermidorian sensibilities. Following the war, a depoliticized version of mid-century modern triumphed in the West, from corporate boardrooms and office buildings across North America to social-democratic housing estates in Western Europe and the Scandinavian peninsula. Even in the USSR, there was a revival of avant-garde building typologies during the 1960s and 1970s with the transition from Stalinka to Khrushchevka apartments. Stalinist architecture could be considered the first postmodern style, and this too made its way back into state socialist countries in the 1980s, in a kind of boomerang.
Brutalism was probably the last gasp of utopianism in architecture. With construction starting in 1970 and unfinished as it still remains, the House of Soviets is an particularly poignant example of architectural utopianism.
In our latest issue Ross Wolfe looks back into the workings of the fallen USSR and for this draws parallels to the unfinished House of Soviets in Kaliningrad.

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> Sowietische Papierarchitekur – about utopianism and fantasy. Read an article about an exhibition in the Tchoban Foundation Berlin here.

> In 2010 archithese published an issue on Russia. More information.

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