The strange attraction of communist brutalism

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Last month “The New York Times Style Magazine” asked the question that no one has really been asking anywhere: “Can Poland’s Faded Brutalist Architecture Be Redeemed?” My short answer was no, and why would anyone want to for God’s sake? Only someone who has never actually had to live, study, work, shop, or play in or amidst the communist modernism can feel in any non-ironic way nostalgic about these monstrous mountains of poor quality concrete. If, as La Corbusier said, houses are machines for living, the Soviet-inspired machines for living were as terrifying as the Soviet-inspired machines for producing: badly put together in the pursuit of abstract plans rather than human needs.

Now, comes nostalgia from a more explicitly socialist source, the “Jacobin” magazine (why not call it “Bolshevik”?):

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The author of this amazing piece is  one Marianela D’Aprile, “an architecture writer in Chicago. She is a member of the Architecture Lobby and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s National Political Committee”, i.e. someone who again never herself experienced the Soviet Union’s – and the Soviet Bloc’s – “built environment for the many”. Hence gems like “we get a glimpse of what architecture designed for people’s needs rather than profit might look like”.

Hi there, Marianela. Yes, we do get a glimpse. It’s shit. That’s because a) there is nothing inherently wrong with architecture designed for profit – most of the architecture in the world has been and is designed for profit and it’s good, bad and ugly – and b) just because the communist architecture was not designed for profit, it does not mean it was designed for people’s needs. It was designed the way it was to glorify the might and the achievement of communism (and failed because there was nothing there to glorify; sure the Soviet Union got crash-industrialised but last century it would have gotten industrialised under any scenario, and without imprisoning, starving to death and murdering tens of millions of people). It was designed the way it was because the rulers needed the largest amount of new accommodation in the shortest amount of time, without comprehending the economic realities or the social needs. It was designed the way it was because those implementing the five year plans and other unrealistic dictates from the centre were often faced with death if the Party’s wishes were not implemented or at least seen to be implemented; thus corners were cut, quality was sacrificed for the sake of quantity and time, and lies were prioritised over the reality. It was designed the way it was because most people aren’t actually idealists and absent the profit motive, most people under the communism “pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them”. It was designed the way it was because the communist government saw people’s needs differently than “Jacobin” imagines they did – people were considered to be machines, and not particularly valuable ones; they were the means to an end rather than ends in themselves. It was  designed the way it was because apart from a few experimental projects that can be held up as examples by Western socialists, neither innovation nor aesthetics nor usability were considered important.

Of all the communist crimes against humanity, its architecture is perhaps the least bloody, but a crime it nonetheless is.

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