Still Standing

Eytan Levi

Of all the construction programs carried out globally during the 20th century, the Soviet drive to address its domestic housing shortage through prefabricated construction and separate dwelling units is by far the most ambitious in terms of output: between 1960 and 1975, 1.55 billion square meters of new housing were erected, and two out of every three inhabitants in the USSR were rehoused.[1] Despite its scope, the buildings were often low quality, and the program did not manage to rehouse the entire population.[2] In the time since the dissolution of the USSR, the Soviet approach to mass housing construction has been perpetuated and adapted. To this day, mass housing is still troubled by issues of material decay, financing, and governance. New civic initiatives are required to improve the lives of the countless post-Soviet citizens who live in these structures.

1:50 and 1:200 models from Eytan Levi and Ben Hoyle’s Still Standing thesis at MIT. Cambridge, MA, USA. Picture: Ziyan Zhang, 2021
Introduction

The 1917 Bolshevik revolution triggered a rural exodus across the Russian Soviet Republic, which eventually spread to the entire USSR. All private housing was taken over by municipal Soviets in August 1918, and the Russian government subdivided those spaces for use by multiple families, who would each be given a room.[3] A 1922 decree stated that each person in the USSR should have nine square meters of living space, though this was not widely maintained.[4] Constructivist architects also led experiments in collective living through the 1920s. The 1933 approval of Boris Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets marked the rise of Socialist Classicism under Stalin. The Soviet economy at the time was focused on industrialization, but several monumental projects – from the Seven Sisters high-rise towers in Moscow to ornate nine-story residential buildings – were also erected across Soviet cities. Although the state built 350 million square meters of housing between 1918 and 1950,[5] by mid-century the average amount of living space per inhabitant was below four square meters, not even half of the 1922 sanitary minimum.[6] By the time Stalin died in 1953, the state of housing across the country was appalling.

Though marginalized by state-sponsored Classicism, architects like Konstantin Melnikov had conducted experiments in prefabrication and construction optimization in the USSR since the 1917 revolutions.[7] But this mentality, albeit divorced from its early proponents, took center stage during the 1954 All-Union Conference of Builders. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor and a former metal worker, lamented the superfluous architectural detailing favored during the previous decades and pushed instead for the industrialization of housing construction. In order to minimize the use of timber and steel, which were in short supply, he outlined a program that would rely heavily on reinforced concrete. Buildings, along with the districts they constituted and the systems that produced them, were to be optimized for efficiency and cost, which would effectively eliminate the possibility of aesthetic expression in their architecture. By making these changes, Khrushchev claimed he could provide each Soviet family with their own separate apartment. He set off the program by launching the construction of 402 new factories and 200 open-air yards across Soviet republics, which would be devoted to pre-cast concrete panel manufacturing.[8]

In the wake of this speech, the Academy of Architecture became the Academy of Construction and Architecture, signifying how the profession became purely technical.[9] The construction industry was reorganized to conform to norms of the manufacturing sector. It was directed and financed by the Communist leadership, with design as a small aspect managed by the Academy of Construction and Architecture.[10]

Ramenki district at night. Moscow, Russia. Photo: Teo Konukhov
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This piece was originally written in fall 2020 for HIS-4399 Architecture and Construction: From the Vitruvian Tradition to the Digital, a class taught by Professor Antoine Picon at Harvard Graduate School of Design. It subsequently served as one of many ingredients for Still Standing, a graduate thesis about the renovation of Soviet mass housing from the 1960s co-authored by Eytan Levi and Ben Hoyle between the MIT Department of Architecture and the MIT Center for Real Estate. The author would like to thank the people behind the MIT-Russia Program and at APEX Project Bureau for supporting fieldwork in Russia during the summer of 2019.
[1] Bater, James H. The Soviet City: Ideal and Reality. Explorations in Urban Analysis. London: E. Arnold, 1980. 102.
[2] Varga-Harris, Christine. Stories of House and Home: Soviet Apartment Life during the Khrushchev Years. Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 2015. 219.
[3] Bater, James H. The Soviet City: Ideal and Reality. Explorations in Urban Analysis. London: E. Arnold, 1980. 98.
[4] Jacobs, E. M. Urban Housing in the Soviet Union. Economic aspects of life in the USSR. Brussels: NATO, 1975. 67.
[5] Narodnoye khozyaystovo SSSR v 1977 g. 1978. Moscow: Statistika, 1977. 492.
[6] Sosnovy, Timothy. The Housing Problem in the Soviet Union. New York: Research Program on the U.S.S.R., 1954. 269.
[7] Davies, Robert William, R. W. Davies, Mark Harrison, and S. G. Wheatcroft. The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945. Cambridge University Press, 1994. 48-56.
[8] Huntington, Sheldon D. CIA Internal Report on Khrushchev’s speech at Soviet construction conference. Washington, D.C: Central Intelligence Agency, 1954. 3.
[9] Varga-Harris, Christine. Stories of House and Home: Soviet Apartment Life during the Khrushchev Years. Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 2015. 25-26.
[10] Cooke, Catherine. “Beauty as a Route to ‘the Radiant Future’: Responses of Soviet Architecture.” Journal of Design History 10, no. 2, 1997. 137–160.
[11] Hanson, P. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy: An Economic History of the USSR 1945–1991. London; New York: Routledge, 2014. 9.
[12] Malaia, Kateryna. “A Unit of Homemaking: The Prefabricated Panel and Domestic Architecture in the Late Soviet Union.” Architectural Histories 8, no. 12, 2020. 7.
[13] Getty, J. Arch, Gábor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov. “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence.” The American Historical Review 98, no. 4, 1993. 1017.
[14] Heleniak, T. “Out-Migration and Depopulation of the Russian North during the 1990s.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 40, no. 3, 1999. 155.
[15] Meuser, Philipp; Zadorin, Dimitrij; Sheina Katia; Knowles, Clarice. Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing. Berlin: DOM publishers, 2016. 16.
[16] Meuser, Philipp; Zadorin, Dimitrij; Sheina Katia; Knowles, Clarice. Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing. Berlin: DOM publishers, 2016. 41.
[17] Forty, Adrian. Concrete and Culture: A Material History. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. 117.
[18] Meuser, Philipp. Die Ästhetik der Platte: Wohnungsbau in der Sowjetunion zwischen Stalin und Glasnost. Berlin: DOM Publishers, 2015. 8.
[19] Meuser, Philipp; Zadorin, Dimitrij; Sheina Katia; Knowles, Clarice. Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing. Berlin: DOM publishers, 2016. 441.
[20] Orttung, Robert W., ed. Sustaining Russia’s Arctic Cities: Resource Politics, Migration, and Climate Change. Studies in the Circumpolar North, volume 2. New York: Berghahn Books, 2017. 207-212.
[21] Bater, James H. The Soviet City: Ideal and Reality. Explorations in Urban Analysis. London: E. Arnold, 1980. 108.
[22] Meuser, Philipp; Zadorin, Dimitrij; Sheina Katia; Knowles, Clarice. Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing. Berlin: DOM publishers, 2016. 16.
[23] Alonso, Pedro Ignacio, and Hugo Palmarola Sagredo. “A Panel’s Tale: The Soviet I-464 System and the Politics of Assemblage.” In Latin American Modern Architectures, 167–183. Routledge, 2013.
[24] Meuser, Philipp; Zadorin, Dimitrij; Sheina Katia; Knowles, Clarice. Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing. Berlin: DOM publishers, 2016. 36.
[25] Shur, Yuri; Goering, Douglas J. “Climate Change and Foundations of Buildings in Permafrost Regions.” In Permafrost Soils, edited by Rosa Margesin, 251–60. Soil Biology. Berlin; Heidelberg: Springer, 2009.
[26] Meuser, Philipp; Zadorin, Dimitrij; Sheina Katia; Knowles, Clarice. Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing. Berlin: DOM publishers, 2016. 39.
[27] Ibid., 73.
[28] Hill, Fiona, and Clifford G. Gaddy. The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia out in the Cold. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2003.
[29] Morton, Henry W. “Housing in the Soviet Union.” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 35, no. 3, 1984. 69.
[30] Ibid., 74.
[31] Ibid., 70.
[32] Struyk, Raymond J. “Homeownership and Housing Finance Policy in the Former Soviet Bloc - Costly Populism,” n.d., 2000. 236.
[33] Kosareva, Nadezhda, and Raymond Struyk. “Housing Privatization in the Russian Federation.” Housing Policy Debate 4, no. 1, 1993. 83.
[34] Morton, Henry W. “Housing in the Soviet Union.” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 35, no. 3, 1984. 70-75.
[35] Gerasimova, Katerina. “The Soviet Communal Apartment,” in Beyond the Limits: The Concept of Space in Russian History and Culture. Smith, Jeremy, ed. Helsinki: SHS, 1999. 129.
[36] Federal State Statistics Service. Russia Home Ownership Rate. Accessed 12/14/2020. https://tradingeconomics.com/russia/home-ownership-rate
[37] Evgenia Ivanova, “End in Sight for ‘Khrushchyovki’ Houses,” in St. Petersburg Times, 24 February 2007, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/26541941/pdf-version-the-st-petersburg-times
[38] Moscow Architecture Council, interview with Philipp Meuser, June 19, 2016.
[39] Morton, Henry W. “Housing in the Soviet Union.” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 35, no. 3, 1984. 73.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Turner, Bengt, József Hegedüs, and Iván Tosics, eds. The Reform of Housing in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. London; New York: Routledge, 1992. 246.
[42] Kalamees, Targo, Karl Õiger, Teet-Andrus Kõiv, Roode Liias, Urve Kallavus, Lauri Mikli, Andres Lehtla, Georg Kodi, and Endrik Arumägi. “Technical Condition of Prefabricated Concrete Large Panel Apartment Buildings in Estonia,” 2011. 6.
[43] Berend, Ivan T. From the Soviet Bloc to the European Union: The Economic and Social Transformation of Central and Eastern Europe since 1973. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 7-37.
[44] Harris, Steven. Communism on Tomorrow Street: Mass Housing and Everyday Life after Stalin. Washington, D.C.: Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. 267.
[45] Turner, Bengt, József Hegedüs, and Iván Tosics, eds. The Reform of Housing in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. London; New York: Routledge, 1992. 239.
[46] Morton, Henry W. “Housing in the Soviet Union.” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 35, no. 3, 1984. 79.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Ibid.
[49] Sotsiologicheskie iisledovaniia, 1 (January-March 1982); CD, 34, 10 (April 7, 1982), 7.
[50] Morton, Henry W. “Housing in the Soviet Union.” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 35, no. 3, 1984. 76.
[51] Bater, James H. The Soviet City: Ideal and Reality. Explorations in Urban Analysis. London: E. Arnold, 1980. 102.
[52] Varga-Harris, Christine. Stories of House and Home: Soviet Apartment Life during the Khrushchev Years. Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 2015. 36-52.
[53] Gradov, Georgei. “Osnovnye napravleniya perspektivnogo razvitiya sistemy i tipov zdany kul’turno-bytogo obsluzhivaniya.” In Perspektivy razvitiya sovetskogo gradostroitel’stva. Moscow: Stroyizdat, 1973. 343.
[54] Janušauskaitė, Viltė. “Living in a Large Housing Estate: Insider Perspectives from Lithuania.” In Housing Estates in the Baltic Countries: The Legacy of Central Planning in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, edited by Daniel Baldwin Hess and Tiit Tammaru. The Urban Book Series. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019. 186-187.
[55] Hegedüs, József, Vera Horváth, Eszter Somogyi, Veronika Reháková, and Richard Sendi. “Affordable Housing in Central and Eastern Europe: Identifying and Overcoming Constrains in New Member States.” in Research for the European Housing Partnership. Metropolitan Research Institute: 2017. 31.
[56] Constitution of the Russian Federation. Adopted December 12, 1993. Article 40. http://www.constitution.ru/en/10003000-03.htm
[57] PIK Group of Companies. Consolidated Financial Statements for 2019. 2020.
[58] Uskov, Vladislav, and Emma Shariapova. “Issues of Shared-Equity Construction Development in the Russian Federation.” E3S Web of Conferences 135, 2019. 2.
[59] Manyakhin, Pyotr. “‘We’ve Lost All Hope’: The Investment Scandal Wrecking Russian Lives.” The Guardian, May 30, 2018.
[60] Moscow City Government. Resolution, 1999. http://docs.cntd.ru/document/901738444
[61] Pertsova, Varvara. “Sobyanin and Luzhkov: how different are the programs for the renovation of two Moscow mayors.” Forbes, 2017.
[62] Bekbulatova T, Voronov A, Ivanov M. “Renovation on the march.” Kommersant, 2017.
[63] Gunko, Maria, Polina Bogacheva, Andrey Medvedev, and Ilya Kashnitsky. “Path-Dependent Development of Mass Housing in Moscow, Russia.” In Urban Book Series, 2018. 306.
[64] Trudolyubov, Maxim. “Moscow’s New Housing Megaproject Confronts Soviet History.” The Moscow Times, March 2, 2017.
[65] Staff writer. “Turning Germany’s Tower Blocks into Family Homes.” The Guardian, November 14, 2005, sec. Art and design.
[66] Rambert, Francis. Un bâtiment, combien de vies ? La transformation comme acte de création. Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana Editoriale, 2014. 7.
[67] Trudolyubov, Maxim. “Moscow’s New Housing Megaproject Confronts Soviet History.” The Moscow Times, March 2, 2017.
[68] Heleniak, T. “Out-Migration and Depopulation of the Russian North during the 1990s.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 40, no. 3, 1999. 171.
[69] Orttung, Robert W., ed. Sustaining Russia’s Arctic Cities: Resource Politics, Migration, and Climate Change. Studies in the Circumpolar North, volume 2. New York: Berghahn Books, 2017. 20.
[70] Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. Pour un catastrophisme éclairé : Quand l’impossible est certain. Paris: Seuil, 2004.
[71] Zarecor, Kimberly Elman. Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1960. Pitt Series in Russian and East European Studies. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011. 15.
[72] Cohen, Jean-Louis. Architecture, Modernité, Modernisation. Leçons Inaugurales du Collège de France, no 265. Paris : Collège de France : Fayard, 2017. 35.
[73] Bater, James H. The Soviet City: Ideal and Reality. Explorations in Urban Analysis. London: E. Arnold, 1980. 104.
[74] Cohen, Jean-Louis. Architecture, Modernité, Modernisation. Leçons Inaugurales du Collège de France, no 265. Paris : Collège de France : Fayard, 2017. 84.
[75] Nägeli, Walter, Niloufar Tajeri, and James Roderick O’Donovan. Small Interventions: New Ways of Living in Post-War Modernism. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 2016. 30.