When cities grow, fuelled by an expanding population, housing becomes an essential component of the urban character of a metropolis. Across the world, housing experiments have been propagated by governments and states, with mixed results, and undoubtedly mixed opinions. The Soviet-era housing estates of Central and Eastern Europe are particularly interesting in that regard. These mass housing projects have been dismissed as eyesores and viewed as unimaginative monolithic structures. The legacy of these developments, however, is a lot more complicated than that.
In their most recent publication, The Tenants, Zupagrafika illustrates the legacy of mass housing in post-war socialist countries. It’s an immersive project, filled with full-page photographs of housing residents holding paper models in front of the apartments they grew up in, spent a semester in, or still live in. With the photographs accompanied by quotes from residents, it’s a publication that offers an insightful critique of the concrete housing blocks that would become the architectural signature of the Eastern Bloc.
The mid-1950s saw the Soviet government embark on a building program to house its citizens, and its strategy was one that is highly relevant today – pre-fabrication. Industrially-manufactured concrete panels would be slotted together in a highly automated process, with on-site labor virtually eliminated through the use of gantry cranes and production lines. This process resulted in apartment buildings popularly known as Khrushchyovkas, low-cost three-to-five-storied structures, which later gave way to Brezhnevkas, a technological improvement of the former.
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While the construction process might have been prefabricated, the later Soviet housing blocks of the 1970s and 80s are extremely diverse in architectural articulation. In Moscow, the Bolshaya Tulskaya Residential Complex is a 400-meter-long, 50-meter-high building with a repetitive linear façade, explaining its “Titanic” nickname. On the other end of the spectrum, the Aul Residential Complex in Kazakhstan’s largest city is a more expressive design, with cylindrical protrusions on a semi-circular orientation making for a dynamic housing complex.
The architectural form and configuration of the facades, however, is only one part of the Soviet-era housing story. As the residents interviewed in The Tenants can attest, these housing complexes were also condensed experiments in urbanism.
After World War Two left Poland devastated, the country embarked on an extensive rebuilding project. This rebuilding endeavor included the construction of a new town – Nowa Huta. It was built a short while away from Kraków’s city center, a city crafted mainly to accommodate the steelworkers integral to the ramping up of steelworks in Poland.
Its layout is reminiscent of a classical renaissance city, featuring streets radially fanning out from the Central Square. While the popular image of Soviet-era housing estates remains large grey towers at an oppressive scale, Nowa Huta is a noteworthy case study on a more human-centered approach to urbanism. The streets were divided into neighborhood units, with self-contained areas housing 5,000 to 6,000 residents each and fitted with play areas, schools, and shops, with an abundance of allocated green space. Today, the settlement is home to around 200,000 residents and is a key element of the city’s architectural identity.
A similar urban approach was deployed in the Blok V housing project in Podgorica, Montenegro. A collaboration between town planner Vukota Tupa Vukotić and architect Mileta Bojović, it consisted of 13 residential buildings housing 1,800 apartments. These housing blocks came in two varieties – an eight-story structure and a 16-story skyscraper block.
Despite the height of these structures, they in effect took a back seat to the rest of the layout of the complex. Wide avenues and streets, zones marked for pedestrians, and easily accessible public buildings such as sports grounds and policlinics prioritized the pedestrian over the car. Today – forty years after its construction, it remains Podgorica’s greenest urban quarter.
Naturally, after an extensive period of time, some of the Soviet-era housing projects have not fared so well. The Bolshaya Tulskaya Residential Complex suffers from infrastructural issues, with water supply having to be shared between several apartments. Some rooms in the complex are unused, with no access to public areas. A large number of the prefab Khrushchyovkas instituted in the 1950s have been demolished in recent years – mostly due to poor facility management.
Some of the tenants interviewed in Zupagrafika’s publication criticize cramped floor plans and poor heating systems, while some praise the sturdy nature of the housing blocks. Some apartments that were extremely affordable in the past are now extremely expensive for the average person to live in. That is the tricky nature of addressing the legacy of Soviet-era housing projects. Some of which solved pressing housing problems, some that have fallen into disrepair, and some that have found their way into present-day unscathed, becoming integral parts of twenty-first-century cities.