Beyond Buildings


Communist Power Architecture

Submit A Comment | View Comments

Wedding Palace in Tbilisi, Georgia. (1985) by Frederick Chaubin. Courtesy: PingMag


Totalitarian states are good for monumental and expressive architecture. That has been true since the days of the pharaohs, and someday before too long we might lament the disappearance of Saddam Hussein’s and now Hosni Mubarak’s and Colonel Gaddafi’s follies—not for their quality, but because of their ability to represent power and the power of form that derives from that force. The Pearl, the absurd monument in Bahrain that became the focus of protesters against the regime, was even demolished by the government itself before the revolution could take place.


I was reminded of the power of totalitarianism, both to awe and to shock, not only by my recent trips to Eastern Europe (about which I blogged here and here), but by the appearance of photographer and writer Frédéric Chaubin’s Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (Taschen; 2011). While the title is not completely accurate, it does evoke the Soviet Russian era when you call it out, as the book cover designers do, as CCCP (the transliteration of Soviet Socialist Republics).


In his short introductory essay, Chaubin points out the theatrical quality of much of the work he has collected, calling them “vestiges of the Soviet Union that seem like backdrops to movies that never hit the screen, because they were never made.”  As he goes on to point out, however, the real reason for these buildings was to stage mass performances in which the workers, or elite groups of workers, could act out collective rituals.  They were resorts, camps, and retreats, but, more often than not, stadia, auditoria, and other places for the circuses the regime had to provide, especially when providing bread became harder.


Chaubin focuses on that doomed multinational state’s final 15 years, after the death of Leonid Ilich Brezhnev, when strange forms started to appear, especially on the margins. Curves and domes proliferated, cantilevers became ever more daring, and buildings piled up into unsteady stacks that sometimes even recalled the Constructivist era.The Georgian Ministry of Highways is the best example of this last mode, as is the Druzbha Sanatorium in Yalta.


Polytechnic Institute in Minsk, Belarus. (1981) by Frederick Chaubin. Courtesy: PingMag


Buildings such as the Minsk Polytechnic Institute, a long bar ending in stacked, swooping auditoria, is equally impressive, but the oddest buildings here are the collections of curves, round forms, and elaborate decoration typified by the Druskininkai Hydrotherapy Center in Lithuania or the Palace of Weddings in Vilnius. These designs seem without precedent, and Chaubin thinks they were as much inspired by science fiction books as by anything in architectural history.


A separate subset I found fascinating were the various resorts that looked as if the architects were channeling MLTW’s designs for Sea Ranch. These rather awkward assemblies of concrete and wood made you all the more aware that this work was and is not beautiful or original (other than those really swoopy monuments) by any stretch of the imagination. It is their otherness to what we think of as good architecture, and their earnest attempt to break through the bleakness of the landscapes in which they appeared with a populist zeal, that makes them so attractive.


Chaubin does not provide much background or analysis of these structures (it is a Taschen book, after all, and he writes for the lifestyle magazine Citizen K), leaving you with many questions about function, plan, context, and intended meaning. If these images make you curious, I would recommend Happy: Cities and Public Happiness in Postwar Europe, edited by Cor Wagenaar and published in this country by D.A.P. in 2005. It provides the background on how regimes both in the West and the East tried to use architecture to make us happy, and how that effort distorted, distended, and broke the back of buildings.




Be the first to add a comment to this post.

Comment on this Post

Post your comment below. If you wish, enter a username and password though they are not required. Please read our Content Guidelines before posting.


Enter the code shown in the image

Username is optional


Enter a password if you want a username


About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.