Modernist architecture transformed the modern city in the 20th century, for good and ill. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than the former Soviet Union and its former republics. There, we find truth in the western stereotypes of the Soviet city as cold, faceless, and soul-crushingly nondescript — so much so that the plot of a 1975 Russian TV film called The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, hinges on a man drunkenly traveling to Leningrad by mistake and falling asleep in a stranger’s apartment, thinking it’s his own place in Moscow. Russians found the joke so relatable, they began a tradition of watching the film each year on Christmas, as the City Beautiful above video on Soviet urban architecture points out.
Once it had eliminated private property, the experiment of the Soviet Union began with good intentions, architecturally-speaking. Constructivism, the first form of distinctly Soviet architecture, was developed first as an art movement by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. Constructivists sought to balance the nation’s need to build tons of new housing under harsh economic conditions with “ambition for using the built environment to engineer societal changes and instill the avant-garde in everyday life,” points out the Designing Buildings Wiki. Drawing from Bauhaus and Futurism, the movement only lasted into the 1930s. Many of its finest designs went unrealized, but it left a significant mark on subsequent architectural movements like Brutalism.
The synthesis of beauty and utility would fall apart, however, under the massive collectivizing drives of Stalin. When his reign ended, public housing blocks known as “Krushchyovkas” sprang up, named after the premier “who initiated their mass production in the late 1950s,” writes Mark Byrnes at Bloomberg CityLab. This was “a distinctly banal architectural type” built quickly and cheaply when Moscow “had twice the population its housing stock could accommodate. Five-story Krushchoyvkas popped up in newly planned microdistricts.” These, as you’ll see in the explainer video, could be added on to existing cities indefinitely for maximal urban sprawl “in hopes of alleviating the severe housing crisis exacerbated under Joseph Stalin.”
As the popularity of The Irony of Fate demonstrates, Krushchoyvkas introduced serious problems of their own, including their grimly comic sameness. The film begins with an animated history lesson on Soviet urban planning. “The urban design was not flexible,” author Philipp Meuser tells Byrnes. “This was the first critique of them dating back to the early ‘60s.” Later versions built under Brezhnev and called “Brezhnevkis” introduced different shapes and sizes to break up the monotony. All of the housing blocks were built to last 20 to 25 years and were not well-maintained, if they were maintained at all. The earliest began deteriorating in the ‘70s.
At their height, however, Krushchoyvkas “were popular because it was revolutionary for housing politics.” One U.S. official put it in 1967: “What the Russians have done is to develop the only technology in the world to produce acceptable, low-cost housing on a large scale.” Cities around the world followed suit in buildings like the Japanese danchi, for example, and the infamously awful American public housing projects of the 60s and 70s, built along similar lines as the Krushchyovkas and the misguided urban design theories of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, another modernist who, like the Constructivists, reimagined city space according to a model of mass production.
The original Constructivist manifesto, published in 1923, promised art and building “of no discernible ‘style’ but simply a product of an industrial order like a car, an aeroplane and such like.” The reality of Constructivist designs — like the designs of cars and aeroplanes — involved a great deal of imagination and creativity. But the architectural legacy of what Constructivists touted as “technical mastery and organization of materials” — under the massively centralized bureaucracy of the fully realized one-party Communist state — created something entirely different than the idealistic avant-gardists had once intended for the modern city.