The Moscow government has just launched the biggest demolition program in the city’s history. Its goal is to get rid of 8,000 5-story residential buildings constructed in the Soviet era—it is probably the biggest program of erasure of modernist architectural heritage in world history. The main assumptions of the plan, as well as the press comments following it, show that we have forgotten what modernism was about, and what the real values of this architecture are.
A few years ago I published an essay titled Belyayevo Forever, dedicated to the preservation of generic modernist architecture. I focused on Moscow’s microrayons—vast, state-funded housing estates built in the Soviet era. In the essay, I explained the spatial and cultural values these prefabricated landscapes had. I also speculated about how one would go about preserving architecture that completely lacks uniqueness. The essay ended with a provocative statement: we should put Belyayevo—the most generic of all Soviet estates—on the UNESCO heritage list.
For many, the idea to add something seemingly worthless to the list of humanity’s most precious artifacts was disturbing. But it also ignited exciting discussions. How can we define the value of architecture that completely lacks uniqueness? How should preservation deal with the unprecedented scale of modernism? Which elements of those vast housing estates are worth preserving and which can go? Although Belyayevo Forever was focused on Russia, I intended to give my essay a universal tone. I imagined that answering these challenging questions on the scale of one microrayon would help better understand the values of modernist architecture in general.
Earlier this year, my call to preserve a microrayon suddenly became dramatically relevant. On February 21st, the mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin and the president of Russia Vladimir Putin launched the biggest demolition campaign against modernist architecture in history. They agreed to bulldoze all of Moscow's khrushchevkas—the 5-story residential buildings that are the basic units of the microrayons I had proposed to preserve. The scale of this planned destruction is unprecedented. The demolition list includes 8,000 residential buildings, totaling 25 million square meters of housing. Dozens of entire housing estates will be torn down and replaced with new ones. But, this Russian precedent holds universal importance for modernist architecture, and the proposed plan is, therefore, a very bad idea.
Why Was the Demolition Campaign Launched?
The mayor of Moscow presented a consistent and well-argued rationale behind the demolition plan, presenting arguments from two fields: the building technology and the social aspect of demolition. The technological arguments focus on the extremely poor physical condition the khrushchevkas are in today. The pipes are leaking, balconies are falling off. The concrete walls don’t meet contemporary insulation norms. Though cutting-edge in the fifties, today the apartments provide a living standard that is way below expectations. The dwellings are also extremely small—an extraordinarily tiny bathroom is a trademark feature of a khrushchevka. Most importantly, the khrushchevkas lack the flexibility required to improve these standards. The rigid system of parallel load-bearing walls makes it almost impossible to noticeably improve apartment layouts. Broken prefabricated elements also need to be replaced rather than fixed. That makes any renovation very costly.
The social line of reasoning completes the technological one. If the khrushchevkas cannot be saved, let’s use the demolition to at least improve the standard of living for their current residents. Since 1999, 1,650 of Moscow’s khrushchevkas have already been demolished and some 400,000 people moved to new homes. During this “pilot program,” the Moscow government developed a method of demolition that reduces negative social impact. Counterintuitively, the demolition starts with the construction a new building—typically a highrise, erected by a private developer. Once the tower is ready, residents of a nearby khrushchevka receive apartments in the new building—slightly bigger than their previous ones and built to a higher standard. The rest of the apartments are sold on the free market and the old building is demolished to make space for another highrise.
The new program estimates that 1.6 million people will be relocated from their homes—equal to the whole population of Barcelona or double the population of San Francisco. Many families are looking forward to the demolition, hoping for a radical increase in their standard of housing. Many others fear it, but the scale of protests is small. Under the force of the arguments presented, the residents, experts, and journalists seem to agree that the demolition and replacement of the khrushchevkas is a sad necessity.
The technocratic argument of Mr Sobyanin seems convincing and final. But it completely misses an important point: the architectural value of the housing estates in which the khrushchevkas are located. The key to fully understanding the disappearing value of Moscow’s modernist estates is understanding the relation between the khrushchevka and the microrayon.
What Is a Khrushchevka? What Is a Microrayon?
The khrushchevka is the most basic unit of Soviet housing. There are many sub-types (a so-called “series of houses”), but they all share very similar features. All the khrushchevkas are five-story buildings that contain around 40-50 tiny flats. The apartments are equipped with toilets, kitchens, and balconies, but lack elevators or cellars. Khrushchevkas had to be extremely simple and cheap, for their primary objective was to quickly satisfy the dramatic housing need. That is why they were also extremely simple to build: the first series, the K-7, was designed to be assembled on site from only about two dozen different components, brought there directly from a factory. In terms of its efficiency in providing living space, its simplicity, and its low price, the khrushchevka was the kalashnikov of mass housing.
The production of khrushchevkas dates back to the mid-fifties. Immediately after replacing Joseph Stalin as leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev had to deal with a terrible housing deficit. Russian cities were overcrowded, and millions lived in wooden barracks or primitive dugouts. In December 1954 Mr Khrushchev made an uncompromising speech, in which he ordered the full industrialization of construction. The idea was to harness heavy Soviet industry for work on housing and to quickly end the housing crisis. For the following decades, the Soviet factories worked 24 hours a day and seven days a week, producing millions of square meters of dwellings. By the end of the sixties, as much as 400 million square meters of apartments was created in the form of khrushchevkas all over the USSR—a scale unprecedented in world history.
Khrushchev’s U-turn revolutionized Soviet architecture. The scale of the projects started growing immediately after the 1954 speech and with them, the scale of responsibility of architects. Existing architectural practices were quickly consolidated into huge design offices and subordinated to Soviet industry. As a consequence, architects lost control over the design of separate buildings. Their field of action moved from designing individual buildings to laying out masterplans for whole neighborhoods. A completely new typology of architectural project was born: the microrayon.
A microrayon (Russian for “micro-district”) was simply a modernist housing estate—and the most basic unit of Soviet city planning. It typically occupied an area from a few dozen to a few hundred hectares. Besides the apartments, it included services like schools and kindergartens, cinemas, and cultural and medical centers. It contained carefully designed green zones and a system of circulation—pedestrian and public transport. The structure of a microrayon’s space was hierarchical and based on rational calculations. In other words: a microrayon was as complete and self-sufficient as a housing estate possibly could be.
The microrayon was also the basic project that the architects of the time worked on. Having lost the opportunity to design individual buildings, architects invested their creative energy and talent in designing perfect masterplans. Instead of composing facades, they planned perfect compositions of buildings. They thoughtfully juxtaposed ready-made buildings of different heights in order to create dynamic compositions and provide the optimal amount of sunlight and fresh air. They skillfully complemented these compositions with trees, orchards, and ponds, in order to maximize the positive effect the created space would have on everyday life. In their new role, architects also designed the invisible: comfortable trajectories for the residents’ daily routines. They meticulously calculated optimal distances between homes, services, and hubs of public transport and laid out the most convenient paths between them. Designing those huge projects, the architects focused on the logic of the use of space: they proposed optimal land use intensity for each space. They tailored the sizes of different services to the size of the expected population. A separate khrushchevka might not be impressive, but the whole spatial system into which it was embedded is complex and extremely well thought out. Designers of microrayons studied them from all possible angles: visual composition, public transport, functionality, and health. Clearly, it is the architecture of the whole spatial system which harbors exceptional value, not the architecture of separate buildings.
If we shift our focus from the architectural to the urban scale, the Moscow demolition plan seems disastrous. There is no overall masterplan for the future neighborhoods. Nor is there a consistent vision of how they should look like and how they should function. All demolition-reconstruction operations are carried out separately and not coordinated by architects. As a result, in each affected microrayon, its consistent overall composition will be replaced by a completely random one. At the same time, the newly-built towers will be much taller than the original ones, which will multiply the density of these neighborhoods. Consequently, all the meticulous calculations behind the sizes of schools, kindergartens and green zones will instantly become meaningless. The same will happen to the design of the internal circulation: calculations regarding public transport or parking places. When the invisible part of the architectural project is lost, the whole system will work counter-efficiently.
Shifting our focus to the city scale allows us to see a parallel logic standing behind the demolition—one of a grand real-estate operation. The 8,000 buildings that have been sentenced to demolition are located on the fringe of Moscow’s center. They form a belt, several kilometers wide. On its inside, the belt meets the city center; on its outside, the newer housing estates, composed of much taller buildings. In other words, the khrushchevkas occupy relatively central land and use it with considerably low density. They occupy extremely valuable land in a city with a lot of economic pressure. Complex and multilayered thinking about city planning was reduced to business logic based on land value. Architecture was replaced by land development.
What Should We Remember About Modernism?
The Soviet experiment with mass housing had an exceptional scale, but the logic standing behind Soviet modernism and European architecture of the time was not very different. In all countries of post-war Europe modernist architecture was about much more than just buildings—there was a rich social agenda behind it. The continent needed to be quickly rebuilt after the war. Architects and policy makers were working hand in hand, using the recent disaster as an opportunity to improve living conditions in European cities. This mix of pragmatism and idealism emerges in modernist architecture as simplicity of form and modesty, exactly the features that make modernism so vulnerable for criticism today. An ugly prefabricated residential slab is easy to condemn if it is not seen as a part of a system of mass housing that solved the housing deficit. The architecture of a simple primary school is easy to criticize unless it is seen as a part of a system of schools that helped fight illiteracy, and so on.
Working on the fringes between architectural scales and the scale of grand spatial policies, the modernist architects were able to smuggle additional values into their designs. One of their priorities was to generate spaces that are healthy—full of light, fresh air, and greenery. The other, to efficiently use the available space and scarce building resources. The case of Moscow’s new demolition plan shows how easy it is to manipulate the discussion about modernist heritage, focusing on the flaws of separate buildings and ignoring the values of much bigger entities. I do not think that all modernist heritage should be preserved—maybe the majority of these buildings should actually go. But before it is destroyed, this idealistic architecture deserves a fair trial.
Kuba Snopek (born 1985) is an urban planner and researcher. Kuba graduated in urban planning from Wrocław University of Technology and Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has worked on architectural, urban planning and research projects in Poland, Russia, and Denmark. In 2011-2015, he taught at the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He is one of the authors of the research project “Architecture of the VII day.” His book “Belyayevo Forever,” on the preservation of intangible heritage, was published in English, Polish and Russian.
Read an excerpt of Kuba Snopek's book "Belyayevo Forever" here.