This presentation was given on the colloquium: 'Why Preserve Public Housing?' held on 31 March at Columbia University. Below we offer an adapted version of it.
The study of the history of public housing is a very important undertaking, especially now, in the condition of current financial crisis, in creating of which the irresponsible housing and real estate policies have a great share.
It is striking that in contrast with the western world, that has been intensively studying and analyzing the policies of the USSR, there is a great shortage of the methodological analysis and reflection of the Soviet period in our country. Even more sadly the Soviet heritage in its entirety is condemned as a necessarily ill phenomenon by the current political ideology.
Although the presentation is focused on the post war mass housing and its transformation after the fall of Soviet Union, we think for full understanding of the post war development it’s useful to briefly review the earlier periods. The history of soviet public housing can be roughly divided in three main phases:
The first phase - from 1917 October revolution to the early 1930ies when Stalin’s power became solidified; the second phase – a period of Stalin’s rule including several years following his death, when his main urban policies continued running and the third phase - from Khrushchev’s reforms in1957to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.
First two periods
After the revolution the newly formed soviet government inherited severe urban housing shortage. The first step that the new government did for coping with the problem was to nationalize entire urban property of the country in 1918 and convert the houses of the rich into the communal dwellings. Such converted buildings still constitute the major part of the historic districts of Tbilisi.
The 1920ies was the decade of continued debates and radical experimentation in every field starting from the political practice to the city planning and architecture that were aimed at the reconstruction of the existing patterns of social relations. These experiments were geared by the belief that physical environment is capable of influencing and changing the human behavior. One of the central ideas in the search for an appropriate model for the new society was a communal way of living and dissolution of the traditional family structure as a nucleus of the capitalist society.
This objective was materialized in the form of first communal housing buildings or so called “Social Condensers” designed to lead its inhabitants to the communist way of life. One of the great examples of such buildings is Narkomfin building in Moscow (1928-1932) designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis.
In the early 1930ies when Stalin’s power became solidified the avant-garde ideas were dismissed in favor of more traditional approaches to town planning and housing. However 1920ies was the time of originating many ideas that had found life in the post – Stalinist period such as standardization of construction and planning.
For comparative analysis it is interesting to touch in few words the Stalin era housing and planning policies: Stalin put the main emphasis on the rapid industrialization of Soviet Union that in turn resulted in accelerated urbanization and increase of urban population. The growth of urban population exacerbated the housing shortage. In this context the adopted approach to housing, with spacious, expensive and lavishly decorated buildings, available only for the elite, was more than inappropriate for satisfying the urgent need of the majority of the population. The buildings were put up along the main avenues and squares to hide behind the ordinary neighborhoods with poor conditions. This was a kind of “facadism” of that time aiming to show the glory of the Soviet Union.
The third period
The return to the mass housing objectives was made possible only after Stalin’s death in 1953. That is why when we talk on post war housing in the USSR we do not mean the post WWII but the post-Stalin period. Nikita Khrushchev, the successor of Stalin, was the author of the major housing and planning reforms in mid 1950ies. The first attack on Stalinist building policies appeared in the communist party resolution of 1955 “on elimination of excesses in construction and design”. Two years after, Khrushchev has launched a construction drive with an aim to relieve the severe urban housing shortage inherited from Stalin’s epoch.
The changes initiated by Khrushchev nurtured the hope for new experiments and implementation of new approaches in planning and architecture. The ideas from the early avant-garde period seemed to find new life. Standardization of planning and construction was one of such old ideas to be applied in the new reality. Khrushchev established number of research institutes with the task to achieve greater construction speed and economy through standardized and rationalized planning methods.
The major changes in urban planning of this period were determined from the twinning of early Russian avant-garde and western late modernist ideas. In the context of residential planning it is important to mention the introduction of Microrayon as a basic planning unit. It was a reworked and standardized version of original 1920ies concept, subordinated to the strict norms.
It was conceived as a group of residential blocks containing 5.ooo to 10.000 inhabitants equipped with necessary services such as preschool facilities, basic food supplies, health care facilities, and some form of entertainment or leisure centre – club, cinema or library.
The microrayons were typically built on an empty land. The additional costs of cleaning the inner-city land from old buildings and concerns of keeping the existing housing stock in order to enable gradual resettling of the residents in new flats, did not allow building in the inner city areas, resulting in the greater urban sprawl.
Planning was subordinated to norms in every aspect on paper however they were often neglected in practice. Except the first microrayons in the beginning of 1960ies, where housing as well as facilities were planned and built at the same time, majority of microrayons built in the following periods lacked the infrastructure and service provisions. The accelerated need for housing and economic crisis that became tangible in 1970ies didn’t allow the budget for providing planned facilities. Thus the majority of such microrayons have acquired the role of a sleeping zone.
The major challenge of the architects and engineers in Khrushchev’s period was to design standardized plans and construction methods that would increase the speed of construction and reduce costs, while providing more egalitarian living conditions. This task also involved definition of the minimum living standards that would set the norms for the new construction such as dimensions of the staircases, minimum floor height, living area per resident, number of rooms etc.
The idea of standardization was inherited from early avant-garde architecture, although the major idea of early housing prototypes – the idea of Communal living – was dropped from the agenda as from 1940ies a family was reclaimed as a basic unit of the socialist society. Thus the avant garde design for communal living was replaced by the designs for individual family apartments.
This period was characterized with the frenzy of finding more appropriate engineering solutions for mass housing. Even reduced to the minimum norms the brick buildings proved to be slow and expensive.
Therefore the development of methods for prefabrication and assemblage of standardized housing units was put as a major goal, also using western achievements as examples. As a result the first buildings constructed from prefab large blocks appeared in the late 1950ies.
Just in few years the construction method was advanced to the prefabricated panels. This method was dominating building industry in Soviet Union for the rest of the period, later also combined with skeleton frameworks.
Initially the standards for construction were uniform in the entire Soviet Union however it soon became evident that construction with the same norms in all climatic zones of the USSR was unacceptable. Georgian professionals and government had a continued dispute with Moscow to allow conditions to meet warm climate needs such as: higher ceiling norms for better ventilation, additional summer spaces like loggias or balconies, etc. It can be also perceived as a specificity of the Georgian construction industry that the major construction techniques implemented after Khruschevs reforms run almost parallel to each other until the end of the Soviet Union, while in other republics it was common to abandon ‘old methods’ in favor to newly implemented ones.
It has to be admitted that even in the event of total mass housing policy, the different forms of housing co-existed with the basic typologies. For example institutions could initiate construction of housing for their employees, based on the monthly installments from their salaries. This was a so called Cooperative form of housing, where along the state subsidies the construction was financed by the individuals. This method gave a chance to some institutions to acquire a privilege, although informal, to build better quality housing for their employees.
The industrialization of construction in the third period of Soviet Union proved to be effective in providing immediate shelter for large masses of working class population. Most of the residents of new microregions admitted their new homes as an improvement of living standard despite the limited space and uniformity of design. In this period, only in Georgia about 500 000 m2 of residential floor space was put in use each year. In entire Soviet Union, despite the considerable increase of urban population, reaching 56.3% of total population in 1970, the new housing program managed to raise a standard of living to 11.2 m2 useful spaces per urban dweller. This was almost double amount of the space available in 1940.
Here it is impossible to look closer to the institutional system (the scheme is incomplete) behind the construction industry, however in two words it can be said that it was highly bureaucratic characterized with the vertical decision making. The overlapping of functions was frequent. All these features made it ineffective and resource consuming.
Standardization of planning, design and construction has resulted in highly homogenous urban environments throughout entire Soviet Union. Apart of the physical homogeneity, the uniformity of new urban spaces was accelerated by the centralized and strictly regulated allocation of services.
Another issue that has become evident over time was the social homogeneity of new housing districts. The hierarchical Soviet society found its expression in these new spaces. The residential districts situated closer to the city centre were occupied by the middle class skilled professionals, while others on the outskirts were provided for unskilled working classes. Most privileged citizens were still occupying luxury buildings of Stalin period or high quality exclusive apartments built during the later periods. To masque the stratification of the society it was a common practice to have one or two working class families settled in the high quality apartment blocks together with the elite. This way for example in an exclusive residence built for the Communist Party Secretary, the workers family was also housed. This was of course a very poor way to portrait the Soviet society as an egalitarian one.
Still another problem that exacerbated over time was the low quality of construction. The pressing need for housing and demands on cost and time efficiency often compromised the quality of the new construction. The government put an emphasis on the fulfillment of yearly plans for total floor area construction rather than on the quality. In 1980ies it became typical for the government organizations to formally adopt unfinished constructions as completed just to show the achievement of the annual plans. Such as situation was a perfect ground for construction trusts to initiate and engage different kinds of corrupt speculations with planning institutions. Due to the industrialization of construction they have gradually acquired the leading role in housing field and pushed the architects and engineers out of the decision making. The architects and engineers were framed with the norms and objectives of yearly or 5 year plans that left little time and room for experimentation. The former employees of ZNIEP (Zonal Institute for Experimental Design) recall very well the pressing demand of authorities for inventing techniques for till cheaper construction, In their words cheaper was just not possible without compromising the very basic quality standards and energy efficiency.
In 1970ies these situation has already become the subject of public critique. The voices emerged to call on major changes in urbanization policy. One of the great examples of the sarcastic critique of the standardized planning was Eldar Ryazanov’s 1975 movie Ironiya Sud’by (Irony of Fate). The film was an open critique of standardized apartment blocks where not only streets, buildings and entrance doors were the same, but equally kitchens, bathrooms and furniture.
The same spirit was expressed in Georgian writer Nodar Dumbadze’s novel “Build quickly, cheaply and…” where the hero of the novel visits a friend in a newly finished apartment and finds out that every detail of the building is falling apart.
Such a public attitude however did not prevent Gorbachev to declare an even more ambitious intention for solving the housing problem in 1985. This of course put still heavier press on national governments to face the increased construction demands which the deteriorated Soviet economy was not any more capable to support.
The Georgian way of “solving” housing problem in this period deserves a special admission: In response to the new objectives the Gosstroy (State Construction Committee) of Georgia decided to allow and encourage inhabitants of the housing blocks to join together and build multistory additions to their buildings.
This was of course a trick to pretend construction of the requested amount of floor area. The state allowed the inhabitants to build with their own money extra floor space, that would seemingly suit the increased living standards, while the state would claim the results of construction into the total built floor area.
This policy had resulted in a massive campaign of additions in late 1980ies in Georgia and had a tremendous impact on the existing housing stock and in general on urban landscape all over the country. Along with disintegration of Soviet Union the process went out of the state control. The technical execution of these additions was of diverse quality, having many catastrophic consequences in the following period.
In early 1990ies the fall of the Soviet Union and shift towards the unfettered capitalism destroyed the entire economy of the country, causing extreme poverty, unemployment, crime, decline of life quality of the ordinary citizens and polarization of the society few very rich and masses of very poor.
A turning momentum in housing policy was the resolution of the new government of Georgia in 1992 on privatization of the housing properties. Unlike Russia, where the state has retained in ownership quite a big share of housing, in Georgia almost 100% of housing stock was privatized. One of the reasons was that properties were given to the tenants almost for free. Along with formal privatization the massive and uncontrolled appropriation of public space for garages and small gardens, shops, parking places, etc took place.
Privatization and liberalization of economy resulted in rapid changes of uniform housing districts: additions and alterations were accelerated in a way that some of the buildings have become totally unrecognizable.
The mass layoffs, no jobs drove people to search alternative income sources, thus new functions: small shops, services, on the first floors, open markets around transportation hubs, etc have appeared and multiplied in the microrayons changing their appearance and identity. The influx of new functions formed more comfortable service provisions and new centralities and increased diversity in the homogenous soviet microregions this was one good aspect of the new reality.
Naturally the soviet planning system was not applicable in the new reality while there were no alternative planning strategies designed (a new land use plan for Tbilisi was adopted only in 2009, while many other towns still not have any plans). Old soviet regulations were formally extended but their inadequacy in the new reality made them extremely ineffective. As the state mechanism of housing construction was collapsed, the leading role was taken by the quickly emerging construction businesses that took an advantage of the situation: no adequate control system in place, corruption and crime flourishing in the country, all these gave raise to uncontrolled developments in the town centers: massive constructions in public parks, squares, with no basic norms of planning, design or construction applied.
The legacy of the 90ies is still tangible in Georgia today. The Neoliberal market based development policy has just become formalized. Thus anyone who can pay a fee can construct whatever height or volume, against the regulations. The difference with 1990ies is that what was then regarded as criminal is now a legalized and openly encouraged by the government.
As far as Soviet housing legacy is concerned the state has so far not developed a strategy in this regard. The microrayons and soviet apartment blocks constitute the biggest share of the housing in the country. Unlike Western world, where the social housing got marginalized as a place for poor, in Georgia these housing blocks are still the most ordinary living condition of average citizens.
Taking this into account in recent years the state is trying to support and maintain these housing blocks in order to prolong their lifespan. House unions are encouraged and supported by Municipality. The land registry has been accomplished almost all over the country that included the definition of public land around the apartment buildings. This made it possible to re-appropriate some of the squatted lands and clean the public courtyards of garages.
We have not heard so far about the destruction of the soviet housing blocks for the purpose of redevelopment the land. For the investor such project must be not very attractive taking into account the potential costs and risks for such undertaking. The neoliberal regime makes it easy for them to invest in much more profitable projects such as: building on empty land, clearing low density areas for high rise development, building on vacant lands (often parks and public spaces) in the central areas of the cities, privatization of public property etc.
Housing as heritage.
Perhaps due to their mass occurrence Soviet housing has never been regarded as cultural heritage in Georgia. They have undoubtedly become part of the local identity, although their cultural or historical values have not been systematically studied and evaluated.
Heritage policies that have developed in Soviet Union since 1960ies and in 1970ies put more emphasis of preservation of prehistoric, medieval buildings and sites. However along with them the buildings from early Avant garde, Stalinist epoch as well as some outstanding administrative and public buildings of late modernism were also listed protected under the Soviet legislation.
The new government of Georgia has inherited, adopted and enhanced the Soviet period register of cultural heritage monuments, however has been a evident that the compromises between the government and the investors were easily achieved over the de-listing, demolition or reconstruction of 20th century buildings. Due to aggressive Desovietization policies increasingly supported by the government in the last years many of the major modernist buildings have been demolished or altered to the greatest possible extent.
In such a situation it is not surprising that the late modernist mass housing still goes unrecognized by the professionals as well as government. It should be noted that the majority of these housing projects have lost their authentic features in the process of mass extension campaign at the end of 1980-ies and in 1990ies. Nevertheless this process also created completely different cultural and aesthetic paradigms that is worthy of research and evaluation.
In conclusion we would like to come back to the main question of preservation that stands open for us and I believe for many heritage activists worldwide - what are we trying to preserve in these buildings? Their physical bodies? It is essential to study these buildings architecturally and technology wise but their classical preservation-restoration in our reality seems senseless. Or may be we are trying to protect our collective memory that dominant power is trying with every means to erase? This question has the right to exist. But we think the most important thing is to preserve the values and ideas behind these projects, that is, the right of each citizen, in spite of income and class belonging, to the decent housing.
I am Levan Asabashvili. I am an architect and writer. I live in of Georgia, post USSR and I will write about the social-spatial things happening over here.