Communist Power Architecture
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.