Housing and architecture in the Soviet Union

A variety of housing was built for working people designed to reflect the varied character, climate and context of the vast territories of the USSR.

View of Lenin Avenue in Sverdlovsk, 1936, showing the scale of the new town and the incorporation of public spaces lined with trees.

This article is the second of two presentations to the Stalin Society.

This contribution follows from my previous presentation, which looked at the sheer scale of the housing problem that the Bolsheviks faced after taking power in the October Revolution of 1917.

We looked at how the Soviet Union embarked on tackling the problem, taking the task seriously from the first days of the revolution – nationalising large homes, redistributing living space to those in need and embarking on a massive building programme.

We also looked at how conditions in the Soviet Union compared to those in Britain, and how the trajectory in the USSR was one of improving conditions and reducing costs for the workers, while providing healthy cities and towns with access to amenities and culture, while in Britain the housing problem got worse and worse, and has continued to do so.

Having addressed all of that previously, we will in this session be looking in more detail at where, how and what the housing was like across the USSR. We’ll also look at how the character and quality of the housing provision changed just a year after the death of Josef Stalin, creating a legacy for the Soviet Union that is typically used by opponents of socialism as an example of how socialism is ‘bad’, since it only produces ‘monotonous concrete blocks’ for people to live in.

Hopefully, by the end of this contribution, it will be clear that this is not the case, and that it was revisionism that promoted such a bland and standardised approache to architecture.

But more of that later. First let’s look at where housing was being built after the revolution.

Rapid urbanisation

In 1917, Russia was predominantly agricultural. Over the next few decades it rapidly developed its industrial capacity as its urban population rose. Between 1927 and 1939 – ie, in the first 12 years, the urban population of the Soviet Union more than doubled, reaching a total of 56 million.

Leningrad doubled its population, as did Moscow and Kharkov. That of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) and Novosibirsk more than trebled, while Chelyabinsk and Omsk more than quadrupled their populations. These cities were not isolated cases but were entirely typical of the rapid urbanisation that was taking place across the entire Soviet Union.

With this swell of numbers in these existing cities came the requirement for significant house building to accommodate the influx of people. Indeed, they needed not just house building but all the amenities and infrastructure that goes with it, which required a significant level of town planning and organisation.

In order to facilitate this, a comprehensive study of the history of town planning throughout the world was undertaken at the request of the Soviet state. This was started before the war, which delayed its completion. Despite the delay, the research and the final study proved a valuable textbook for all involved in planning Soviet cities.

Within the study, a series of chapters were devoted to town planning in Britain, and the development of London was treated at considerable length. Although reference is made to London as a “nightmare of a modern city”, the authors also reserved their special admiration for its numerous and varied parks. These will not only have influenced but have been surpassed by the parks of culture and rest that the Soviets incorporated into the majority of their cities, along with the numerous other parks and open spaces spread through the cities, towns and villages.

For example, when walking through Moscow or Leningrad (now St Petersburg) today, it is noticeable that it is not possible to walk more than a couple of blocks without seeing an area of green space, quite often containing some play equipment for children along with benches for communal gatherings.

Expansion and re-planning of existing cities and towns

A typical example of the reconstruction of an established industrial city is Sverdlovsk, formerly Yekaterinburg (renamed from 1924-91 after the great Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov).

Yekaterinburg arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the centre of the mining industry of the Urals under the tsar. Typical of a Ural town, the old layout consisted of a mass of wooden huts where the workers lived. Then in the town centre there would be a few imposing buildings where the local industrial enterprises had their offices. And in the suburbs, usually standing on higher ground, were the villas of the administrative staffs, with trim gardens and shady trees.

By 1932, at the end of the first five-year plan, construction of new large industrial enterprises and, first of all, a huge heavy engineering plant (Uralmash) began in Sverdlovsk. With this, re-planning of the town was essential, and a masterplan was drawn up. This took into account the impact of these new powerful city-forming factors, allocating areas for the expansion of the city on the basis of preliminary considerations and analysis.

In 1936, S Dombrovsky headed work on the master plan, which, while maintaining the existing structure, focused on the development of city that would connect the old part with new industrial areas. The city’s regular plan was defined by two highways: Lenin Avenue, stretching for 4km from west to east, and Lunacharsky Prospect which passed from south to north towards one of the new industrial zones. These two lines, like central axes of orientation, clearly fixed the structure of the city.

In reconstructing Sverdlovsk, new streets and squares were designed, providing areas for housing along with amenities, cultural buildings and other public buildings. At the same time, all the roadways and sidewalks were paved, an up-to-date water and sewer system was installed, and bus and trolley-bus services came into operation.

As Pavel Zlobin, the chief architect of the Urals region in 1946, put it: “In re-planning our towns we look upon each as a single architectural whole, consisting of residential sections, squares, river embankments, green belt, and so on. The natural beauty of the Urals landscape is brought into the town by planning the building so that broad views open out.

“The architect’s purpose is to create the maximum amenities for the population. Nor is he handicapped in his work by dependence on individual landowners, because all the land and most of the buildings in the town are state property.”

Sverdlovsk’s population rose from fewer than 50,000 before the revolution to 140,000 (the size of Newport or Blackpool) by 1926, more than doubling again by 1939 to 423,000 (the size of Cardiff or Leicester). Today it has a population of 1.3 million (the size of Birmingham).

The need for new towns

As existing towns were increasing in population and requiring re-planning, there was also an appreciation by the state that, hand in hand with the drive to develop heavy industry, was the need to establish new towns. The building of new towns in remote districts was of tremendous importance for the rapid economic and cultural development of the country, bringing industry nearer to the sources of raw materials and to areas of consumption.

A host of new cities came into existence. In fact, between 1926 and 1963 over 800 new towns were built across the USSR. They were partly built on the sites of existing small settlements, but approximately one third of them were entirely new towns founded on vacant sites. The building of new towns was particularly intensive in the eastern regions in the union republics of Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kirghiz, Tajik, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – where over two-thirds of the towns were new.

This challenge was one that was taken on with the typical high level of research development and enthusiasm. As a Russian correspondent to the Soviet Times wrote:

“Our housing authorities and architects are used to thinking big. They are used to kaleidoscopic population shifts, to the character of Soviet man, who storms desert and jungle and arctic waste, and from a wilderness of sand or swamp or eternal frost announces: ‘Here I will work. Build me a city.’”

The master plans of these new towns were based on progressive town-planning principles, on clear functional zoning of town territories, on the organisation of convenient connections between residence and work, on the uniform distribution of welfare facilities, and on the principles of creating favourable conditions of work, life and rest for all the inhabitants of the town. Such factors as landscape features, sizes of towns and their national economic importance were taken into account as well.

Typical of these new towns were Magnitogorsk and Karaganda. In 1926, Magnitogorsk was a small settlement surrounded by grasslands where nomads pastured their flocks at the foot of the Magnitanaja mountain in the southern Urals, while Karanganda, not even on the map as a settlement, was a sweltering wasteland in Kazakhstan.

By 1946, Magnitogorsk had a population of 146,000 people. It has now risen to 417,775 (2015); and Karaganda, from nothing in 1926, the population rose to 166,000 by 1946 and now stands at 459,778 (2010).

In planning these new towns, not only were housing, cultural facilities, hospitals and educational facilities incorporated, but the Soviets also took providing green infrastructure and spaces seriously. As LB Lunts, a Russian correspondent, pointed out:

“No site is too grim or arid for our gardeners to tackle. Saline soils are washed clean, the earth is transformed by skilled fertilisation, rocky outcrops are blasted away, and Michurin’s [a notable Russian horticulturalist and geneticist] school of gardeners will undertake to make a flowering orchard in the most improbable place.”

Indeed, the rocky Magnitogorstk, the Urals’ iron and steel colossus, was clothed in verdure; and Karaganda, the centre of the great Kazakh coalfield, managed to turn itself into a creditable version of a ‘garden city’, in spite of its excessively salty soil and great shortage of water.

Another new town was that of Zaporizhia, in Ukraine, which was founded in 1928, at the same time as the building of the hydroelectric power plant on the Dnieper. The first stage of the development was the construction of large blocks of multistorey flats, completely equipped with all kinds of facilities; the outlying districts were built up with cottage-type houses. These were built first by the state building organisation and subsequently by the industrial enterprises.

As Zaporozhje lies in a steppe deprived of any natural plantations, much attention was paid to planting. The plan incorporated many parks and gardens, and its streets and residential quarters, as well as sites of schools and children’s institutions, were lavishly planted. Khortitza island was turned into a forest-park with rest homes, as well as pioneer camps for children of the workers and employees in the town enterprises.

Some examples of the 800 new towns that were built across the Soviet Union are Komsomolsk on the Amur in the far east, supporting large shipyards, and Novokuznetsk in the Kuznetsk coal basin in western Siberia.

In Estonia, Kohtla-Yarve developed around the oil shale production. Rustavi, a large industrial centre of major significance, was built in the Georgian Soviet republic on the basis of the Trans-Caucasian metallurgical works. In Azerbaijan, on the basis of metallurgical and chemical production, the town of Sumgait appeared.

New houses for working people

There is a tendency to think that all Soviet housing was in massive highrise blocks. Indeed, opponents of the Soviet Union, and of socialism, would have you think that not only was the standard for massive blocks of highrise flats but that they were all the same type of monolithic block.

In fact, that was not the case. Up to the mid-1950s the main type of housing construction was low or mid-rise. One reason for this was available materials: you do not need steel or concrete to build low-rise. Another is that the scale of these buildings is appropriate where land is available. Since land had been nationalised, its supply was no longer subject to the limitations that had previously been suffered when ownership and, importantly, financial returns, governed development.

In the majority of towns, most houses were no more than two storeys. In larger cities, buildings within the central area would extend up to three, four or five storeys. For example in the Urals, it was Sverdlovsk, Nizhni-Tagil and Kemensk-Uralsk where buildings of up to five storeys were erected in the main streets, while the surrounding towns were all low-rise. In the larger cities of Leningrad and Moscow these scales would rise to over 10 storeys.

In terms of who built the houses, approximately two-thirds of the dwellings in the USSR were built by state building organisations, while the remainder were built by the collective farms, housing cooperatives and individuals. Many of the state industrial enterprises, such as iron and steel works, built big housing projects of low-rise, bungalow and two-storey houses and cottages. Once built, these would be transferred to individual workers for their occupation.

Mr Vozyakov, manager of the Central Communal Bank of the USSR, commented in 1946: “Some of the nicest cottages I have seen have been built at Nizhny Tagil, in the Urals, by the Visokogorsk Iron Ore Trust for its workers. Each one has a personality of its own, some slightly different treatment of the facade which sets it apart from the rest. The owners are particularly proud of their gardens.” (Quoted in We encourage private house building, Soviet Times, 1946)

While the state building organisations built most of the new housing that was much needed, there was also some encouragement to individuals to build their own houses with the assistance of state loans and in accordance with their local village or town plan. The Academy of Architecture set up the Institute of Mass Construction with the object of producing designs for houses suitable for erection by people building their own homes.

During 1943-4 a set of general principles of design for rural housing was prepared, taking into account the conditions that were expected to prevail after the war. It was agreed that the construction of separate bungalows and two-storey houses would best meet the demands of the time, and plans were drawn up accordingly.

These plans took into account the probable shortage of building materials and of skilled labour. In view of these two factors, allowances had to be made for maximum use of all sorts of local building materials, and architects were asked to bear in mind, when preparing their designs, that most of the houses put up in the country areas would probably not be built by skilled building workers, but by untrained local labour without mechanical aid.

Not only did it research, create and publish designs to assist in local rural house building, the institute also gave exhaustive directions for construction so that amateur builders would have full instructions to work from.

The size of rooms was planned in consultation with the institute responsible for designing household utility furniture. Every cottage had storage and outbuildings. It was suggested and expected that gardens would be used for both fruit and vegetables, with the plans also providing some useful advice on garden layouts.

In style these cottages had a modest neatness, but the architects refrained from laying down any rules for decoration. Their main aim was to provide guidance for the most economical and convenient use of space. It was recognised that with so much varied local material and with so great a variety of climatic conditions to be taken into account, there could be no real standardisation. Local authorities and builders were expected to use their judgement and draw on the great human capacity for improvisation.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the extensive developments of housing and community facilities were still typically low-rise, and showed serious attempts to reinterpret local building traditions in form as well as decoration, in many cases most successfully. Unfortunately, much of this work has been swept away in later redevelopments and is little known, though it might now have offered some useful models.

For example, the low-rise apartments in and around Moscow took the form of courtyards similar to old urban estates, a layout which was characteristic of the old city. By contrast, in Kiev, the layout was characterised by a more street-oriented architecture, with terraced housing and the use of florid Ukrainian sculpted decoration. In Central Asia, meanwhile, the equivalent housing was constructed with thick solid walls of high thermal mass with small apertures and deeply recessed shaded balconies, often reflecting local arch forms in their profile.

An example of a residential development in Liublino, Moscow, shows a layout based around central courtyards, with ornate planted gardens as well as garden space in front of the surrounding buildings. The rendered houses form a block around the garden. The block is predominantly two-storey, with elements of three-storey that add focal points to the building. The use of gables, corbel detailing, arched accesses through the block and generous proportions to the windows, creates a development that is extremely pleasing.

Images of new houses built in Stalinabad (the capital city of Tajikistan, now named Dushanbe) show a linear plan with terraced two-storey buildings. The facades in white render are detailed with first floor balconies creating a rhythm along the street. The stone balustrades on the balconies and the corbelled parapet roofs give the buildings a classical style, while the sculpted heads to the windows follow the traditional forms of the region. It is worth noting that the front gardens provided on some of the streets are generous and show an abundance of plants and trees.

The scale rose in the early 1950s to five storeys and above. By then, particularly in Moscow, very high standards of spatial provision, construction and finish were creating a suitably high-quality environment for the main public thoroughfares. It is in the bigger cities like Moscow and Leningrad that the majority of the high-rise development took place.

Not only were the external facades considered but the internal detailing and provision was deemed important and given suitable attention. Examples of some of the indoor communal spaces include: staircases with generous proportions and spaces to allow for gatherings of residents; crafted balustrades and grand wooden carved doors specific to each block; iron gates embellished with arches and details giving character to entrances; and glazed partition doors to allow light through the building. Inside the apartments there were examples of built-in wooden wardrobes with compartments and drawers.

While there was a level of standardisation and application of common layouts to housing across the Soviet Union, there was encouragement and attention paid to local vernacular architecture and its incorporation with classical forms. Arkady Mordvinov, a Soviet architect who became the president of the Academy of Architecture in 1950, pointed out:

“National forms offer colourful variety. The humanism expressed in classical forms serves to unify the architecture of all the national republics, while yet allowing them to preserve traits peculiarly their own.” (Quoted in Reconstruction of towns and art problems confronting Soviet architecture, VOKS bulletin, 1944)

Architectural style

From the mid-1920s and through the 1930s there had been an ideological battle over design. The avant-garde movement, which was developing across the western world, had also taken root in Russia. Many liberal critics see the first decade of the revolution as an ‘exciting moment’ for the expression of the ‘new’ stylised movement in the arts, with architecture being no exception.

Constructivism was the expression of this ‘new’ thinking in architecture, seeing simplicity in design as fundamental. Its proponents opposed the idea of celebrating traditional forms of architecture and design, instead placing emphasis on new technologies and the machine, considering form to follow function with a focus on clean lines, minimal detailing and geometric form.

After the revolution, the constructivists built many individual commissions across the Soviet Union, which gained support amongst the academics for their formalist approach to architecture and design. However, there was increasing opposition amongst the masses to the geometric ‘boxes’ that were being built in parallel lines across the steppe or in Moscow suburbs. Popular discontent with bad modern buildings bred the desire for something that spoke the language of mass aspiration, and with it the need to address the role of architecture.

In 1926, Anatoly Lunarcharsky delivered a speech to the State Academy of Artistic Sciences (GAKhN) that reinforced a clear approach to design in opposition to that of the constructivists: namely, the application of socialist realism in architecture – socialist realism being a method of artistic reflection (otrazheniya) and creative work, and not a specift style; a method of artistic expression that uses examples of the world as it is and seeks within that to raise the understanding of the masses and point to what is possible; to help in the creation of the new man.

In his speech, Comrade Lunarcharsky pointed out: “It is being said that this is a new stage in human history; that the proletariat is entering into the stage of urbanisation; that the machine is poetic; that the factory is the most powerful thing that can be seen on earth; that any form of literary tale is a mere mirage compared to the poetic situation in which science brings about a new factory.

“I do not in any way deny that the proletariat may find original and attractive colouration for its life in poems of productivity … But it has to be said that … only futurism and the artists of the LEF (a literary group), that seedbed of constructivism, who are the avant-garde of a leftist Euro-American urban culture, can become wholly immersed in this element …

“We [Bolsheviks] have not entered the world in order to finally make the machine the mistress of our lives, as advocates of time-and-motion study like Gastev are advocating through their sociopolitical literature. We came in order to liberate the individual from under the power of the machine … Let the rhythm of the machine certainly become an important element in our culture … but the machine cannot be the centre of our art.

“There exists with us in Russia a vast Euro-American conception of the culture of individual creative work, of that high art which was created by the geniuses, the great talents of Euro-American culture. Certainly there is a very great deal that can be absorbed from the products of this individual art. But as a whole it is alien to us …

“Much more nourishing an environment for proletarian art is that mass of vernacular, peasant art, that art which developed in the primal period of our ancestors …

“It is precisely from here that we should draw models, from this art evolved over the course of centuries, which devised a ‘style’ that is almost irreproachable in the inner rigour and order of its crystallisation of form.

“Despite the fact that it developed while civilisation itself was still beginning to emerge, it is precisely this vast body of creativity which can now provide that nutritious environment for proletarian artistic labour – because of its multi-valued character, and because of the collective nature of the basic principles underlying its products.”

This speech demolished the constructivists’ claim that their machine-led approach to design was somehow related to socialist development, making the distinction between the role of the machine in building society and its domination over man.

Lunarcharsky further outlined how proletarian art, including architecture, should not be alien to the masses but come from the art that has developed for centuries. As Vladimir Lenin rather bluntly pointed out in relation to the constructivist approach to design when speaking to Clara Zetkin:

“I have the courage to show myself a barbarian. I cannot value the works of expressionism, futurism, cubism or other such ‘isms’ as the highest manifestations of artistic genius. I do not understand them …

“Art belongs to the people. It must grow deep roots in the very midst of the broad mass of workers. It must be understood and loved by them. It must unite the feelings, thoughts, and will of the masses and inspire them.” (Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, 1924)

Lenin further made the point, when speaking at the third congress of the Komsomol (Young Communist League), that culture is not ‘invented’ by people who deem themselves specialists. The constructivists saw themselves as the new thinkers applying their art to the socialist requirements of the day, very much falling into the category of just such self-annointed ‘specialism’ in proletarian culture.

Lenin, on the other hand, stressed just where it is that proletarian culture comes from: “Proletarian culture is not something dreamed up out of nowhere; nor is it the invention of people who call themselves specialists in proletarian culture. That is all complete nonsense. Proletarian culture must emerge from the steady development of those reserves of experience which humanity has built up under the yoke of capitalism.” (Speech to the third all-Russian congress of the Komsomol, 1920)

Having gone through this ideological battle against the avant-garde constructivists, the state developed flourishing building organisations and institutes that ably tackled the housing problem while maintaining the long-term implications of building structures that not only housed people but also created the environment in which the peoples of the Soviet Union were living their daily lives.

Then in 1954, just a year after the death of Stalin, the new revisionist leader of the Soviet state and the communist party Nikita Khrushchev made a speech to the all-union conference on building problems denouncing “Stalinist architecture” and “all ornamentation on buildings”.

Khrushchev had been a senior party member in Moscow during the construction of the city’s metro and the realisation of the 1935 plan for Moscow. He had involvement in the building institutes and was aware of all the discussions and debates that had taken place previously. And yet it was not until after Stalin died that he spoke on the matter of design and announced that “architecture is not art”, asserting that “it is technology and should be treated as such”.

At the conference, he made an uncompromising attack on the Academy of Architecture, the president of the academy, Arkady Mordvinov, and the profession as a whole, using the need for more housing as his justification. He accused them of “skating around the problem of building economies”, claiming they were not “interested in costs per square metre of living space”, but were “indulging themselves with unnecessary ornamentation of facades, and permitting all manner of excesses”.

He went on: “Architects are more concerned with beautiful silhouettes than with living quarters … Modern apartment houses must not be transformed into a replica of a church or museum … Some leading architects refuse to adapt their work to the new materials by referring to the need of combating constructivism … Such architects should probably be called constructivists in reverse, since they themselves are lapsing into aesthetic admiration of form divorced from content.”

He outlined that the direction of the future must be “standard designs for housing, schools, hospitals, kindergartens and so on”, with “effective use of new materials … and of pre-fabricated reinforced concrete components, large-panel and large-block construction systems”.

All this stood in sharp contrast to the previous Soviet tradition in architecture.

“The greatest traditions of the past will live on not as historical reminiscences but in an organic new creation on a national soil – national in its fullest reference to the people …

“The creative task of the modern architect is to give architectural expression to the peoples, the localities, the cities in individuality, and not hide this individuality behind a simplified screen of reinforced concrete, glass and metal.”

These hopeful words of leading architect D Arkin, in 1947, were not to be fulfilled by the state building organisations from the mid-1950s onwards.

In November 1955, the second congress of Soviet architects was convened, following a decree on 10 November ‘On removing decorative excesses in architectural design and in building’. From there on across the Soviet Union mid-rise and high-rise blocks were built to standard plans, with standard elevations based on a set of standard prefabricated concrete elements. The Khrushchyovka, a standardised five-storey housing block, was born and spread like wildfire.

This prefabrication and standardisation was not limited to housing: all cultural and service buildings were also required to be built based on standardised elements.

No longer were the steppes of the Urals and the suburbs of Moscow to be distinct and evoke traditions and characters that celebrated the peoples of the Soviet Union. The landscape of the edges of towns was the same whether you went to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Sverdlovsk, Tashkent, Nizhny Tagil, Cherepovets or any other city, where entire neighbourhoods still today consist of these large-panel prefabricated buildings.

The Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s famous line “The streets are our brushes, the squares our palates” was no longer applicable to the housing development that took place under Khrushchev. The art in architecture was removed, and with it the character and aspirations of the people.