Kond: A City Within a City


Old stairs and narrow alleys from Proshyan, Saryan, Paronyan and Leo streets lead you into a hidden city within a city. As you enter what appears to be an uncharted world, wooden doors, walls constructed of asymmetric bricks and labyrinthine lanes take you on an adventurous journey to old Yerevan. Residents, with their doors and hearts open, welcome you and often forcibly invite you to have a cup of coffee. While your eyes try to grasp and remember every single intricate detail, they start to tell you the history of their life and proudly proclaim that they are the residents of Kond – the oldest district of Yerevan.

Historically, Kond was one of the three main districts of Yerevan. Perched above the city, it gets its name from the Armenian, which means “long hill.” In the 18th century, the main residents of Kond were Armenians engaged in farming, cattle-breeding and gardening. Later, when Persians and Turks captured Yerevan, the district was renamed Tapabashi (Turkish for “top of the hill”). Throughout the centuries, Kond was one of the most vibrant districts of Yerevan and was home to several ethno-religious groups. Other residents included Boshas or Caucasian/Armenian gypsies. Historian, literary critic and folklorist Yervand Shahazis, in his book about Yerevan (published in 1933) notes that 46 families lived and worked in the territory of Saint John the Baptist Church (Surb Hovhannes) and actively participated in city life. According to ethnographer Hamlet Sargsyan, in 1830 of the 4,300 residents of Kond 1,568 were Armenians, 2,537 Tatars, and 195 Boshas (Caucasian Gypsies).

Melik-Aghamalyan Family

Kond was also the residence of the aristocratic Melik-Aghamalyan family. According to Shahazis, the family owned numerous buildings and land in the territory of Kond. For several centuries, Surb Hovhannes was known as their ancestral church and the family donated money to rebuild it after it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1679; their name is inscribed on one of the walls of the church. Famous for their participation in several battles in the territory of Yerevan, the Aghamalyans were considered one of the richest and well-known families of Old Yerevan but for the current residents of Kond, the Aghamalyans are famous for their kindness and generous support to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. As Kondetsis recall, the Aghamalyan family provided shelter to the orphans and immigrants from Western Armenia.

However, the descendants of the Aghamalyans suffered tremendously during the Stalin repressions. The last member of the aristocratic family, Sasha Aghamalyan was ousted from his home in Kond during the Stalin purges and died in a small basement apartment.

Currently, there is a gold watch kept in the Yerevan History Museum that was presented to the Melik-Aghamalyans from Russian Tsar Nikolai I for their contribution to the Russian-Persian war. Their princely residence constructed of black tufa stone, standing half-ruined near the entrance of the quarter, is the only reminder of the family’s existence.

The Mosque

Dating back to 1687, the Thapha Bashi mosque, the remnants of which only remain in Kond is listed as a historical monument and is protected by the Armenian state. When Muslims left Armenia in the beginning of the 20th century, the mosque became a residence for many survivors of the Armenian Genocide. One can still see the influence of Persian architecture that fortunately remain intact. As the residents recall, the “huge dome”  of the mosque collapsed more than two decades ago, several years after the Spitak Earthquake.

Present-Day Kond

Though one can get lost among the dozens of small and narrow lanes of Kond, the district does have three main streets: Rustaveli, Simeon Yerevantsi and Kond. Many houses are covered in vines, while simple rural-style communal springs appear at corners of its narrow meandering roads.

While the novelty of the district often attracts the curious, residents of Kond feel ignored and abandoned by the municipal and national governments. Conversations with locals reveal widespread discontent with the former authorities who for the most part were not able or refused to address issues faced by the residents – from lack of proper services to poor road conditions. An older woman living in Kond, a supporter of Karen Demirchyan, the late Soviet Armenian leader and native of Kond who became parliament speaker after independence wanted to highlight the socio-economic conditions of the district, hoping for some reaction from municipal authorities.

A Soviet era building now stands entirely abandoned in the middle of Kond. It used to house a library and a pharmacy until it became a dumping ground, just like the public toilet close by.

Like Demirchyan’s parents, many of the residents of Kond are descendants of Western Armenian refugees. Many genocide survivors from Van, Mush, Erzerum and elsewhere settled in Kond after 1915. Though Muslims (mostly Azerbaijanis and Persians) lived in Kond in the early 20th century, only a few remained by the late Soviet period. One resident says he was friends with his Azerbaijani neighbors, some of whom were “thieves in law.” He says Turks, Yazidis, Jews, and Boshas (Gypsies) formerly lived in their quarter.

Harutyun, a 68 year-old retired sculptor, is a typical Kondetsi. “We had several opportunities to leave Kond, but we stayed here,” he said. Named after the resurrection of Jesus (Harutyun is Armenian for resurrection), the old man said he speaks baradi lezu, simple language, staying true to his origins. The locals are well aware of the district’s status as the only surviving part of “old Yerevan.” A local guide, a woman in her 30s, pointed to several houses. “These are from the 1920s. You won’t find buildings this old in Yerevan,” she claimed. A neighbor reacted, “Not 1920s, but older. Both my grandmothers were born in these houses in 1908 and 1912.”


View of Kond, 1909.  
The Mosque in Kond, 1923.  
Kond, 1900.  
Kond, 1932.  

Historical Value

Sevada Petrossian, an urban architect who has researched the quarter with fellow architect Sarhat Petrosyan, notes that Kond’s value is not only in its historical buildings, such as Surb Hovhannes, the Persian mosque, the Aghamalyan residence but the fact that the layout of the streets have largely kept their original form from the 18th century. “Moreover, people are the ones who give a distinct local identity to a district,” Petrossian explains. “Kond is one of the rare places in the city where generations have continuously lived.” It is because of this longevity that residents of Kond identify more with their district than with Yerevan.

However, because of the unbearable living conditions – lack of running water, decrepit buildings, outhouses – residents have been trying to reconstruct their homes and as such are altering the original structures, many of which have historical value. While this is destroying the feel, ambience and value of the district’s old buildings, Petrossian understands and notes that people do not have other options.”



Though there have been plans to reconstruct Kond from as early as the 1930s (according to Alexander Tamanian’s plan for Yerevan) they were never realized. “Tamanian had an idea of a transforming Kond into a museum district, and Kond has always been in the city reconstruction plans,” Petrossian notes.

The last big project for the district was initiated in the 1980s by Karen Demirchyan who wanted to turn it into Yerevan’s Montmartre. Kond was declared eminent domain by the authorities. The large scale initiative that was under the direct supervision of Demirchyan was conducted by young architect, Arshavir Aghekyan. Unfortunately, after the 1988 earthquake and the dire social and economic situation of the country, the project was never finished. After independence, mainly in the 2000s, there were several revitalization projects for Kond which, again, were never realized.

While there are no current plans for redevelopment, Petrossian sees a future for Kond. With minimal investment, the district could become an amazing place, he said. Today, Kond is the only preserved district of Yerevan that has a great potential to become a center for tourism in the capital.

Soviet Monuments

Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument in Moscow. Photography
Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument in Moscow. Photography: Andrey S. Shulgin

Across the former Soviet Union there are countless examples of monolithic structures rising high from the ground to shelter, collect or govern the citizens living in their shadows.

These strange, sloping forms, concrete parabolic rises and angular designs signify an age of futuristic optimism manifest in the built environment. But what is the relationship between monuments or buildings designed by one regime and passed onto a public for whom that no longer applies? What is their legacy? How are these spaces recontextualised in contemporary society?

The theme of the Venice Architectural Biennale this year was ‘Reporting from the Front’. Curator Alejandro Aravena invited participants to respond and reflect on the role of the architect in the struggle to improve living conditions for all. Titled VDNH Urban Phenomenon, the Russian pavilion showcases the ‘global significance’ of the 2,379,000 sq m VDNKh park in Moscow.

Falling into disrepair in the latter days of the Soviet Union, the park is currently the centre of a large city-led regeneration investment programme, renovating the many pavilions that celebrate the scientific and cultural prestige of the former nation.

‘The coherence of this urban ensemble,’ says curator Sergey Kuznetsov, ‘and its necklace of national and thematic pavilions create a territory which is capable of accumulating and multiplying society’s intellectual and cultural energy, and it is this which in the final analysis is helping us win the battle for quality of life.’

Given the recent history of many of these spaces and the complex environment that they came from it’s no wonder they are so fascinating. In Moscow we see grand structures of socialist realism such as the ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ statue. Originally designed for the World Fair in 1937 in Paris, it towers over the public platform of VDNKh, designed as ‘a multi-format cultural and educational space, accessible to all’.

Narkomfin building in Moscow. Courtesy of Calvert 22 Foundation
Narkomfin building in Moscow. Courtesy of Calvert 22 Foundation

Contrast this with the Narkomfin building in Moscow, originally designed as the architectural manifestation of the Soviet ‘social condenser’. It now stands derelict and semi-ruinous at the centre of a commercial dispute over land.

This example presents us with a dichotomy that echoes globally. The safeguarding and abandonment of space at very least raises questions about what the intentions of these buildings were, whom they are for and what agency decides their preservation.

Can space designed with utopian ideals effectively traverse periods of different socio-political orthodoxy? Do these structures belong in contemporary society? VDNKh Urban Phenomenon provides food for thought on the cultural value placed on the inherited architecture from Soviet times.

Russian-born, US-based artist Anton Ginzburg explores these themes using iconic examples from the post Soviet landscape in his film Turo which will have its UK debut at Calvert 22 Foundation’s Power and Architecture season in London.

The film’s four chapters explore landmarks of Soviet constructivist architecture, presenting them as allegories for a contemporary reflection on their utopian intention. Turo gets its name from the word for ‘tower’ in the artificial international language of Esperanto. ‘Each part of the film is a metaphorical tower that gets deconstructed throughout the duration of the chapter,’ says Ginzburg about the work. ‘It still resonates deeply with contemporary culture, but today it exists as an archive of ruins, the record of fragmentation.’

Melnikov House
Photography: Nikolai Vassiliev

We are guided through Melnikov House, the Narkomfin Building, ZIL (an automobile factory designed by Vesnin brothers, now demolished) and the Monument to the Third International, designed by Vladimir Tatlin but never realised. Ginzburg places the iconic unbuilt structure in the ‘ghost mode’ of a video game, siting this tower in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat, famously decimated in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. In Turo, Ginzburg is able to explore the cultural legacy of these real and imagined spaces, from the stage of their own dilapidation.

xxx. Courtesy of Anton Ginzburg (c)
Still from Turo by Anton Ginzburg. Courtesy of the artist

Each of the four towers stood once as lofty pillars of high modernity, signifiers of an optimistic wave of the Constructivist avant-garde. This is now the vantage point of their critique. Two of the three buildings from the film have at least survived the drastic changes in Moscow following the collapse of the union.

Today they stand away from centre stage, as monuments to the utopian ambitions of the movement. With numerous reports of planning activity from the city, it is clear that these towers share an awkward relationship with the future that they were designed for.

‘Dead Space and Ruins: Power and architecture Part II’ runs at the Calvert 22 Foundation until 7 August 2016. Part III opens 11 August 2016

Monuments and Memorials

Monuments and Memorials in Changing Societies: A Semiotic and Geographical Approach

By Federico Bellentani


Monuments and memorials are built forms with commemorative as well as political functions. They can articulate selective historical narratives focusing attention on convenient events and individuals, while obliterating what is discomforting for an elite. While articulating historical narratives, monuments can set cultural agendas and legitimate political power. Thus, elites design monuments to convey the kinds of ideals they want citizens to strive towards.

This is particularly evident in transitional societies associated with regime change (Grava 1993: 19-10). In transitional societies, monuments and memorials are used to set cultural and political agendas and to educate citizens toward dominant meanings (Tamm 2013). Nevertheless, individuals can differently interpret and use monuments in ways designers might have never envisioned.

This post argues that a connection between analytical frames developed in the field of cultural geography and semiotics can contribute to a better understanding of the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials in regime change.

Three limitations of the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on monuments and memorials

There is a significant geographical and semiotic literature looking at the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials. Cultural geography has assessed the role of monuments in perpetuating cultural norms, social order and power relations. Since David Harvey (1979) analysed the political controversy over the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris, several publications in human and cultural geography have appeared documenting the cultural and political significance of monuments (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991; Hershkovitz 1993; Johnson 1995; Peet 1996; Withers 1996; Atkinson and Cosgrove 1998; Osborne 1998; Dwyer 2000; Whelan 2002; Hay et al. 2004; Benton-Short 2006). Despite variety in empirical analysis, this geographical research has based on two common assumptions. First, monuments play an important role in the definition of a uniform national memory and identity. Second, monuments are tools to legitimise and reinforce political power. These two assumptions can be seen as interdependent: in practice, the national politics of memory and identity embodied in monuments can legitimise and reinforce political power.

While assessing the role of monuments in perpetuating power relations, geographers have rarely discussed how the materiality of monuments can effectively convey political messages and thus legitimate political power. Furthermore, geographical research has tended to focus on the elite intentions, while underestimating how monuments are interpreted at non-elite levels.

By inviting questions on ‘readership’, semiotics has sought to overcome the restricted focus on the designers’ intentions that has characterised the geographical approach. Inspired by the debate around the conflation between memory, history and place (e.g. Nora 1989), semiotics has begun to analyse monuments as communicative devices to promote selective “discourses on the past” (Violi 2014: 11, my trans.). Discourses on the past always present a “partial vision” focusing attention on selective histories while concealing others (Eco 1976: 289-290). As a consequence, discourses on the past can affect present and future identity as well as the ways in which individuals represent themselves and relate to each other (Violi 2014: 18). Several semiotic analyses have aimed to explain how monuments can establish specific understandings of the past addressing the effects a given material representation of memory has had at the societal level (Pezzini 2006; Sozzi 2012; Abousnnouga and Machin 2013).

Despite the efforts to focus attention on ‘readerships’, the key limitations identified in the geographical perspective persist in the semiotic analysis of monuments and memorials. Semiotic analysis has scarcely discussed how the materiality of monuments actually conveys political meanings. Moreover, it has largely considered non-elite interpretations as spontaneous reactions to more prominent elite meanings.

In brief, the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on the interpretations of monuments and memorials have grounded themselves on three key limitations:

  1. There has been no extended discussion of how the material and the symbolic levels of monuments actually convey political meanings.
  2. There has been no extended discussion of how monuments actually reinforce political power.
  3. Little attention has been paid to how monuments are interpreted at the non-elite levels.

A holistic perspective on meaning-making of monuments and memorials

A holistic perspective connecting analytical frameworks in cultural geography and semiotics can overcome the limitations identified in the section above, developing a theory that conceives the interpretations of monuments and memorials as depending on three interplays: a) between the material, symbolic and political dimensions; b) between designers and users; and c) between monuments, the cultural context and the built environment.

As for a), the material, symbolic and political dimensions are useful analytical concepts, but at the empirical level they equally contribute to a better understanding of how the meanings of monuments and memorials are constructed and negotiated. There is the need for a theory that conceives the material, symbolic and political dimensions as interacting in the interpretation of monuments.

As for the interplay between designers and users, a set of “semiotic resources” is available to designers to entice users along specific interpretations of monuments (Abousnnouga and Machin 2013: 57). Nevertheless, not all users conform to the designers’ intentions. As for textual interpretation, the interpretation of monuments lies in an intermediate position between the designers’ intended meanings and the users’ interpretations (Eco 1990). Hence, there is the need for a theory that conceives the interpretations of monuments and memorials as originating at the intersection between designers and users.

As for c), monuments and memorials cannot be analysed separately from the cultural context. Culture can mould the designers’ and the users’ interpretations and even influence actions and interactions within the space of monuments. In turn, monuments convey cultural meanings in space contributing to the shaping and reshaping of culture. Finally, monuments and memorials cannot be analysed separately from their interrelations with the surrounding built environment. Post-structural geography has used the term ‘intertextuality’ to describe the relations that built forms establish between them (Duncan 1990: 22-23). As texts reinterpret other texts (Eco 1984: 68), newly erected monuments actively affect the interpretation of the existing built environment.

The conceptual scheme below symbolically represents the three interplays here identified. The scheme presumes that a relationship is established between the material, symbolic and the political dimensions of monuments and memorials. An arrow links the two rectangles representing the terms ‘designers’ and ‘users’ to visualise their interaction. A polygon visually representing the term ‘culture’ is added at the top of the scheme. The dashed oval including monuments and memorials represents the built environment.

Establishing the logic for case study research: The Victory Column in Tallinn, Estonia

To develop the theoretical framework identified in the previous section, this post presents a case study: the multiple interpretations of the War of Independence Victory Column in Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

Estonia restored its independence from the Soviet Union on 20 August 1991. There since, a cultural reinvention of the post-Soviet built environment has evolved through two distinct but concurrent practices: the redesign of the inherited built environment created by the Soviets and the simultaneous establishment of a new built environment reflecting the needs of post-Soviet culture and society. Cultural reinvention is the process of filling the built environment with specific cultural meanings through practices of redesign, reconstruction, restoration, relocation and removal.

The Estonian EU and NATO memberships in 2004 provided an adequate “sense of security” in such a manner as to underpin the redesign of the built environment and monuments and memorials specifically (Ehala 2009: 152). Hence, Estonian national elites have taken various initiatives to marginalise, remove and relocate Soviet monuments and memorials while establishing new monuments signifying specific future expectations.

One of the most sticking cases of this process is the 2009 erection of the War of Independence Victory Column in Tallinn (hence the Victory Column, fig. 1). The Victory Column is a large column-shape memorial commemorating those who served in a war against Soviet Russia and Baltic German forces between 1918 and 1920. The war ended with the first recognition of Estonia as an independent state. For this reason, in the current Estonian historical narratives, this war is known as the ‘War of Independence’ (in Estonian Vabadussõda) and it is closely linked with ideals of freedom and sovereignty.


Fig. 1 – The War of Independence Victory Column. Picture taken 5.10.2015


Articulating specific conceptualisation of the past, present and future, the Victory Column has helped to reflect and sustain the cultural and political agendas of the Estonian Government. As such, the Victory Column has reflected the intention to establish an exclusive space filled with dominant cultural and political meanings.

However, the meanings that the Estonian Government has strived to convey through the Victory Column are not reflected at non-elite levels. Users have largely reconceptualised the designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column. Furthermore, the unexpected interpretations have spawned uses that are different from those envisioned by the designers of the memorial.

Analysis of the multiple interpretations of the Victory Column

This section aims to analyse the embodied cultural and political meanings of the Victory Column and the different ways in which these meanings are interpreted at the non-elite levels. The analysis is divided into three parts. The first part addresses the designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column (§ 5.2). The second part presents the interpretations of users and their practices within the space of the memorial (§ 5.3). The third part progresses toward the theoretical dimension aiming at a deeper understanding of the designer’ and users’ interpretations of the Victory Column (§ 5.4). Before, the following section 5.1 explains the need for an extensive fieldwork and a multi-method approach for data collection.

 Research methods

The analysis of the multiple interpretations of the Victory Column is based on data collected through a fieldwork carried out in Tallinn from February to October 2015. Planning documents and literature provided an account of the meanings designers strived to convey through the Victory Column. Documents and literature available in English on the Victory Column were collected through visits at archives and libraries. The analysis of the users’ interpretations, actions and interactions was based on primary data collected through interviews and observations.

Semi-structured interviews aimed to collect a range of interpretations on the Victory Column at non-elite levels. Interview data derived from sixteen interviews with respondents that resided in Tallinn their entire life or that left Tallinn only temporarily. Respondents varied in terms of ethnic origins, age, gender, education and profession. A suitable balance of Estonians and Russophones was guaranteed: eight respondents were Estonians and eight belonged to the Russophone community of Tallinn. ‘Russophones’ refers to Russian speakers that are in possession of Estonian citizenship, including ethnic communities that speak Russian as first language and do not define their ethnic identity as ‘Estonian’. After Estonia regained independence, the Russophone community suffered status decline; conversely, Estonians found new economic opportunities and political power. In Estonia, the relations between Estonians and Russophones have not always been peaceful and this antagonism has often resulted in conflicts over the interpretations of memorials.

Participant observations concentrated on the actions and interactions of users who daily cross and use the space of the Victory Column. Observations were arranged at different times of the day and on different days of the week, including weekends and public holidays. They were carried out during the day and occasionally at night, under wide range of environmental conditions.

The designers’ intentions behind the Victory Column

The Victory Column is a 23.5 meters-high column (≈ 86.6 feet) featuring a symmetrical shape with regular forms and straight edges. It is made of 143 glass plates supported by eight concrete blocks. The iconography of the Victory Column features the Cross of Liberty, a military decoration established to honour remarkable services during the War of Independence (fig. 2). During the Estonia’s first period of independence, the Cross of Liberty became a symbol associated with the War of Independence and, in turn, with the Estonia’s fight for freedom and sovereignty. That is why the Victory Column – as most of the memorials to this war – included the Cross of Liberty in its iconography.

Fig. 2 – The Cross of Liberty at the top of the Victory Column during the constructions. Picture from Pihlak et al. 2009: 120.


The first ideas to erect a memorial to celebrate those who served during the War of Independence dated back to 1919 (Pihlak et al. 2009: 42). There since, a number of design competitions were held, but no plan was realised due to lack of money, lack of agreement on the design, outbreak of the Second War World and obstruction of foreign ruling powers (Pihlak et al. 2009: 41-48). After Estonia regained independence, questions about erecting a memorial to the War of Independence arose again from time to time.

In spring 2005, the Estonian Parliament entrusted the Ministry of Defence to lead the development phase of the project. The Ministry of Defence sponsored a design competition in 2007. The selected winning entry was Libertas, designed by the engineering students Rainer Sternfeld, Andri Laidre and Anto Savi.

The Estonian Government set a short deadline for the Victory Column to be erected. The time pressure created by the deadline drastically reduced participative planning practices and resulted in a lack of the required supervision on the quality of the works for constructing the memorial. The financing process was not transparent: for example, public donations were used for purposes other than covering the costs for erecting this memorial (Mattson 2012).

Today, the Victory Column stands on an elevated platform on Freedom Square, a large square on the southern edge of Tallinn’s Old Town (fig. 3). Throughout history, Freedom Square has been an arena where different political regimes have tried to assert themselves via architecture, monuments and public rituals. Freedom Square lost its function as a venue for public rituals and turned into a parking lot during the last years of the Soviet regime. In 1998, the Tallinn City Council manifested the need for revitalising Freedom Square and held an architectural competition to transform Freedom Square into an attractive public space (UNESCO 2014: 291). In consequence, Freedom Square underwent a complete reconstruction in 2009.

The reconstruction aimed to provide a venue for Estonia’s public rituals and cultural events. In Freedom Square, Estonian authorities regularly organise celebrations of public holidays, commemorative practices and official meetings. Freedom Square is also the location for cultural events, popular entertainment and attractions.


Fig. 3 – The Victory Column in Freedom Square. Picture taken 14.03.2015

The interpretations, actions and interactions of the users

Interviews concerned issues related with the material, symbolic and political dimensions of the Victory Column. As for the material dimension, the material of construction and the size of the Victory Column came in for a great deal of criticism during interviews. Four respondents considered glass panels as an “inappropriate” material for two reasons. The first reason concerned practical problems related to weather conditions: glass panels do not easily resist the harsh Estonian winter. The second reason concerned the inconsistency of a glass construction in Tallinn’s Old Town: respondents considered glass as a present-day construction material that does not fit in with the adjacent medieval built environment.

Six respondents considered the great size and the verticality of the Victory Column as in conflict with existing built forms in the immediate surroundings. They expressed discontent toward the chosen location of the Victory Column: to build the elevated platform of the memorial, encroachments on the nearby park and on the medieval bastions were necessary. Respondents considered the erection of the Victory Column not worth losing this natural and historical heritage. Consistent with this view, observations showed that the elevated platform of the Victory Column remained largely unused.

As for the symbolic dimension, interviews concerned two main issues: the purpose of commemoration and the iconography of the Victory Column. All respondents acknowledged the intended purpose of the memorial to commemorate those who served in the War of Independence. They stated they understood the need for this commemoration and respected it. However, observations did not register any commemorative practice, if not during the formal commemorations arranged by the Estonian Government and its affiliates.

Eight respondents clearly manifested negative attitudes toward the inclusion of the Cross of Liberty in the iconography of the Victory Column. They argued that this iconography is highly hermetic and not many users can correctly understand it – visitors as well as Estonian citizens themselves. As proof of this, three respondents did not know what the Cross of Liberty was. Four respondents claimed that this iconography conveys meanings of might and control. Two respondents defined the cross-shaped figure of the Victory Column as a “primitive symbol”. They associated the cross with Christian symbolism and defined this association as “provocative”, considering that Christianity was brought into Estonian territories through church-sanctioned campaigns against paganism.

A Russophone respondent from the oldest age band associated the iconography of the Victory Column with totalitarian aesthetics. In her opinion, the Victory Column presented a Nazi iconography, being a military insignia used by Estonian soldiers fighting alongside the German army during the Second World War. The association of the Victory Column with Nazi iconography was repeatedly reported in Russian media, which considered inconceivable and outrageous to erect a memorial presenting symbols used by the German army during the Second World War.

As for the political dimensions, seven respondents defined the Victory Column as a memorial erected to convey dominant political power. These respondents considered the power of the Victory Column as something “controversial” for a memorial erected with the intention to commemorate ideals of freedom and sovereignty. Ironically, two Estonian respondents born in independent Estonia considered the Victory Column as resembling the typical monuments erected during totalitarian regimes:

The Victory Column looks like really Soviet for me. […] For me, it is like a combination of something that we fought against for so long time. That is why it is odd. (Interview 1, Estonian, born 1991, female, hostel receptionist)

Conclusions: The multiple interpretation of the Victory Column between designers and users

The erection of memorials and the public rituals centred on them are political tools by which specific histories and geographies become embodied in space. Political elites erect memorials to educate users toward the kinds of ideals that they want users to strive towards. To do that, elites use a set of design strategies to entice users along specific interpretations. However, users can interpret and use memorials in ways that are different from those envisioned by designers.

Estonian elites erected the Victory Column to promote an ideological understanding of the past to symbolise a range of expectations about Estonia’s future. The memorial emphasized past links with the Estonia’s first period of independence to signify the aspiration of returning to pre-war traditions and institutions, which were destroyed by foreign regimes (Tamm 2013: 654). The first Estonia independence is remembered as a pre-Soviet “golden age” creating the ground for the development of Estonian national culture (Young and Kaczmarek 2008: 54). Hence, the Victory Column was erected as a tool to reinforce sentiments of national belonging and to promote practices signalling devotion for the entire nation. Public rituals in the surroundings of the memorial have facilitated the spread of these sentiments and practices.

However, the meanings that the Estonian Government strived to attach to the Victory Column were not reflected at non-elite levels. The memorial revealed a case in which users have largely reconceptualised the designers’ intentions. A multi-method approach based on interviews and observations demonstrated that the Victory Column came in for a great deal of criticism and remained largely unused. This criticism regarded the way in which the War of Independence is remembered through the material and the symbolic design choices of the memorial.

Tallinn citizens expressed discontent toward the fact that the remembered events and identities were presented through a hermetic iconography and controversial design, in a location that does not facilitate interactions and that it does not fit in with the adjacent built environment. Specifically, criticism regarded three material aspects of the Victory Column. First, respondents believed that the design of the memorial is inappropriate and disconnected from the adjacent medieval built environment of Tallinn’s Old Town. Second, they considered the great size and the verticality of the Victory Column as in conflict with existing built forms in the surroundings. Finally, they considered the loss of natural and historical heritage caused by the earthworks to build the elevated platform to be not a worthwhile cost.

Observations showed that on rare occasions users climb the staircase of this platform to approach the Victory Column. Users crossing Freedom Square remain literally at the feet of the memorial. For this reason, the memorial does not facilitate comfortable interactions: users have to look upwards and from an appropriate distance to have a complete vision of the memorial. The elevated location and the great size are design choices typically used for monuments and memorials erected during totalitarian regimes or in places where there is a high control over population. Indeed, respondents claimed that the Victory Column conveys powerful meanings rather than freedom, as the intended purpose of the memorial would suggest.

The negative attitudes of respondents link with the fact that the Victory Column has remained largely unused. The memorial attracts practices of commemorations – i.e. practices in accordance with its intended purpose – only during public rituals periodically arranged in its surroundings. For the rest of the year, the Victory Column attracts only unexpected practices that are different from those envisioned by its designers: for example, skaters and bikers trying out their tricks during the warmer weather.

The interpretations and uses of the Victory Column may change over time following change in social relations, in concepts of nation and in views on past events. Designers can encourage this process attaching new meanings to the Victory Column. A new interpretative pattern may originate once Estonian authorities reduce the anxiety towards their original intentions and accept the plurality of interpretations, practices and relationships embodied in the memorial. Cultural entertaining events and more informal practices of commemoration may help to create new attitudes toward the Victory Column. For example, Tallinn citizens enthusiastically attended the 2016 commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the Soviet deportations of 14 June in Freedom Square. On this occasion, thousands of blue balloons were installed to symbolically represent tears being shed for the victims (fig. 4). Many people visited the installation and kids joyfully played with the balloons. The installation named Sea of Tears was conceived and developed by the Estonian Institute of Human Rights in cooperation with the Estonian Ministry of Justice and other organisations dealing with the national politics of memory and identity. This people-friendly public display encouraged lively practices of consumption of the space of Freedom Square and active learning about the commemorated event.

Fig. 4 – The installation ‘Sea of Tears’ in Freedom Square. Available at: News.err.ee [Accessed: 18 July 2017]


Federico Bellentani recently obtained a Ph.D. at School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University (UK). He holds a master’s degree in semiotics and a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences from University of Bologna (Italy).

Federico’s research interests range from semiotics of culture, cultural geography, planning theory and national landscape imagery.

His research focuses on monuments and memorials as tools to articulate selective historical narratives and, in turn, to inculcate particular conceptions of the present and encourage future possibilities.

Federico’s analysis concentrates on the multiple interpretations of the post-Soviet memorial landscape, with a focus on Estonia. In Estonia, Federico conducted ethnographic fieldwork, based on a multi-method approach including observation, interviewing and the examination of archival documents.

The results of Federico’s research are published in peer-review journals in the field of semiotics and architecture.



List of References


Abousnnouga, G. and Machin, D. 2013. The Language of War Monuments. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

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Assemblage Thinking and the City: Implications for Urban Studies

Current Urban Studies
Vol.03 No.04(2015), Article ID:62067,7 pages

Assemblage Thinking and the City: Implications for Urban Studies

Hesam Kamalipour, Nastaran Peimani

Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

Copyright © 2015 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).


Received 25 November 2015; accepted 18 December 2015; published 21 December 2015


The last decade has seen an increasing interest in the application of assemblage thinking, in geography, sociology, and urban studies. Different interpretations of the Deleuzian concept of assemblage give rise to the multiple articulations of the term in urban studies so far. This paper aims to review the recently published research on assemblage theory and explore the implications of assemblage thinking in urban studies. The study thus provides an overview of the most significant contributions in the area, including a succinct bibliography on the subject. The paper concludes that assemblage can be effectively adopted as a way of thinking in urban studies to provide a theoretical lens for understanding the complexity of the city problems by emphasising the relations between sociality and spatiality at different scales.


Assemblage, Urban Theory, Deleuze, Critical, De Landa, Urbanism

1. Introduction

Assemblage is one of the key concepts in the Deleuzian philosophy that has been interpreted, adopted, and understood in different ways within the last decade. Assemblage is related to the notions of apparatus, network, multiplicity, emergence, and indeterminacy, and there is not a simple “correct” way to adopt the term (Anderson & McFarlane, 2011) . Reading Deleuze and Guattari (1987) conception of assemblage, De Landa (2006) , as one of the main interpreters of the concept, has critically theorized the multiplicity of assemblage thinking for exploring the complexity of the society. Since then, the concept of assemblage has been adopted in various academic disciplines with different articulations as theoretical and methodological frameworks for exploring the socio-spatial complexities. In urban studies, assemblage thinking has been challenged by various traditions of thinking such as political economy and critical urbanism. Since the 1960s, it has been argued that the city problems are often “complex” (Alexander, 1964; Jacobs, 1961) in a way that the outcomes cannot be simply predicted. Reviewing the recently published research on assemblage theory, the paper addresses its implications for urban studies to conclude that assemblage thinking has the capacity to provide theoretical and methodological frameworks for exploring the complexity of the city problems and the processes through which urbanity emerges in relation to intricate socio-spatial networks at multiple scales.

2. Assemblage Thinking

The concept of assemblage has been adapted from the work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987) and applies to an extensive variety of wholes like the social entities generated by the heterogeneous parts (De Landa, 2006) . The idea of assemblage has been addressed as “agencement” that refers to the process of putting together a mix of relations (Dewsbury, 2011) , and in its original French sense refers to “arrangement”, “fixing”, and “fitting” (Phillips, 2006) . Thus, assemblage as a whole refers to the “process” of arranging and organizing and claims for identity, character, and territory(Wise, 2005) . Opposed to the “relations of interiority” in the “organic totalities”, the “relations of exteriority” are characterizing the assemblages as the wholes (De Landa, 2006) . In other words, new identities are generated through connections (Ballantyne, 2007) . In this way, as De Landa (2006) argues assemblage as a whole cannot be simply reduced to the aggregate properties of its parts since it is characterised by connections and capacities rather than the properties of the parts(De Landa, 2006) . Thus, assemblages include heterogeneous human/non-human, organic/inorganic, and technical/natural elements (Anderson & McFarlane, 2011) . Enabling and constraining its parts, the assemblage is an alliance of various heterogeneous elements (De Landa, 2010) . Assemblages are dynamically made and unmade in terms of the two axes of “territorialisation (stabilization)/deterritorialisation (destabilization)” and “language (express)/technology (material)”(Wise, 2005). In a sense, assemblages are at once both express and material (Dovey, 2010) . In other words, assemblages focus on both actual/material and possible/emergent (Farías, 2010) . Assemblages are fundamentally territorial (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) where territorialisation is both spatial and non-spatial (social) (De Landa, 2006) . In other words, the territory is a stabilized assemblage (Dovey, 2010) . Accentuating the relations and capacities to express and change, orienting towards a kind of experiment-based realism, and rethinking causality and agency, assemblage thinking contributes to the contemporary articulation of social-spatial relations (Anderson, Kearnes, McFarlane, & Swanton, 2012) . In effect, it addresses the inseparability of sociality and spatiality and the ways in which their relations and liaisons are established in the city and urban life (Angelo, 2011) . Hence, assemblage theory is against a priori reduction of sociality/spatiality to any fixed forms/set of forms in terms of processes or relations(Anderson & McFarlane, 2011) Figure 1 illustrates a conception of assemblage in relation to the two axes of express/material and territorialisation/deterritorialisation.

Figure 1. A conception of assemblage based on De Landa (2006) .

Assemblage theory offers a “bottom-up” ontology that works with analytical techniques rather than logical reasoning and refers to the universal singularities instead of reducing individuals to the essentialist myths of the species and natural kinds (De Landa, 2006) . It also avoids phenomenological idealism and different types of reductionism, including the reduction to text, essence, social construction, and discourse (Dovey, 2010) . Hence, the theory of assemblage opposes the reduction of the entities to the essences as a deficiency of the social realism (De Landa, 2006) . While “realist” philosophers refer to the identity of the mind-independent contents as the “essences”, Deleuze argues that these identities cannot be ever “taken for granted” since there is always a need for explaining the historical processes of their production (De Landa, 2005) . Although the capacity to generate an assemblage is reliant on the emergent properties of the parts, it cannot be simply reduced to them (De Landa, 2002) .

Deleuzian conceptions of “dis-order” and “assemblage” stem from his relatively explicit indebtedness to the works of Foucault in terms of the “order” and “apparatus” (Legg, 2011) . The concept of apparatus refers to an entirely “heterogeneous ensemble” containing the institutions, discourses, propositions, laws, regulations, and architectural forms (Foucault, 1980) . Considering the evolution of the “apparatus” term, Legg (2011) argues that the idea of controlling the human thoughts and behaviours is central to the notion of apparatus. Capturing the continuous presence of “problematisation” in the works of Foucault, Deleuze conceptualises the “assemblage theory” to dissolve the “bordered thinking” of territory, philosophy, and desires (Legg, 2011) . Referring to the slippage of Foucault between assemblage and apparatus, Legg (2011) argues that the Foucaultian usage of “assemblage” stems from almost a decade of collaboration with Deleuze (1960s-1970s), and it does not systematically refer to the process of destabilization or deterritorialisation. However, the Deleuzian interpretive conception of “apparatus” is plausibly “assemblage-like” in terms of referring to both stratification and creativity (Legg, 2011) .

Assemblage thinking is about relations, heterogeneity, and differences rather than parts, homogeneity, and similarities. There is a distinction here between “diversity” and “difference”. Distinguishing between phenomena (appearance) and noumena (in itself), Deleuzian thinking refers to “diversity” as phenomena while it considers “difference” as a noumena (De Landa, 2005) . Assemblage thinking is about multiplicities rather than singularities since the concept of “multiplicity/manifold” refers to the ways of change and the “space of possibilities” (De Landa, 2005) . In fact, the identity of a whole is defined by its emergent tendencies, capacities, and properties (De Landa, 2011) since the “virtual status of possibility” is “immanent to the material world” rather than being something transcendent (De Landa, 2005) . Moreover, assemblages work across multiple scales, and they can be considered as the “abstract machines” expressing a broader set of functions (Wise, 2005) . In this way, considering that the existence of some parts is prior to the emergence of a whole while the other parts can be generated by the whole, assemblages are continuously in the process of emerging and becoming, which requires a “multiscale” explanation(De Landa, 2006) . In other words, assemblages are constantly in the fluid status of “becoming” rather than “being” (Dovey, 2010) . Thus, “becoming” is the process of unfolding the complexity of events in between territorialisation and deterritorialisation of an assemblage (Buchanan & Parr, 2006) .

Assemblage theory offers a broad range of twofold conceptions that resonate with material/express and territorialisation/deterritorialisation. One of the key twofold conceptions is tree-like/rhizomatic. Tree-like structures are hierarchic and rigidly stratified while rhizomatic and meshwork-like ones are often loosely structured. In a sense, rhizomatic structures contribute to the generation of resilient and flexible assemblages as intensive networks of multiplicities with external/internal relations (Bonta & Protevi, 2004) . In other words, the differences between “strata/tree-like” and “rhizome/self-consistent aggregate” are about the articulation of the homogeneous and the heterogeneous elements (De Landa, 2000) . Hence, The hierarchical city (central place structure) is distinguishable from the meshwork-like one (network system) since the former gives rise to the rigidified pyramid-like and homogenised cultural structures while the latter advocates for interlocking heterogeneous elements (De Landa, 1997) . Nonetheless, the dichotomy of strata and rhizome is a continuum with two ends of the most hierarchic and the most intense and destratified matter (De Landa, 2000) . As Dovey (2010) argues, the experience of the everyday urban life encompasses a variety of rhizomatic and hierarchic practices in relation to the public and private spaces. In the same vein, being/becoming is another twofold that resonates with tree/rhizome and striated/smooth in assemblage thinking. The notion of “being” refers to the status of remaining constant as the source or foundation whereas the concept of “becoming” relates to a less substantial changing and ephemeral situation (May, 2005) . Suggesting the Deleuzian idea of “becoming-in-the-world” instead of Heideggerian concept of “being-in-the-world”, Dovey (2010)cuts across the social-spatial division, and addresses the question of place in relation to spatiality and sociality where spatiality is connected to sociality through the intensity of place in everyday urban life.

3. Assemblage and the City

Being unfinished, cultural/physical, constitutive, socio-material, subjective/objective, and tricky, the urban areas and cities are ideal models for adopting assemblage thinking (Tonkiss, 2011) . Assemblage thinking addresses the city as a “multiplicity” rather than a “whole” (Farías, 2011) . In a sense, assemblage refers to the ways in which urbanism is produced not as a “resultant formation”, but as an ongoing process of construction (McFarlane, 2011a) . Adopting “assemblage thinking” for conceptualizing the city, McFarlane (2011b) argues that assemblage relates to the city as a “verb” in “making urbanism” through historical and potential relations. Thus, an assemblage is the result of the “interactions” between elements rather than the properties of the components and it is defined by the “co-functioning” of the individual elements in terms of stabilizing/destabilizing(McFarlane, 2011b) . In a sense, McFarlane (2011b) adopts a political orientation to the assemblage for thinking about the actual/possible relations in the city since assemblage can be considered as both an object regarding the urban policies and orientation in terms of the policy productions. In this way, McFarlane (2011b) argues that the conception of the “city as assemblage” is accompanied by a quest for an entity (who/what) that has the “capacity” for assembling the city. Hence, assemblage refers to the issue of power as “plurality in transformation” rather than being centrally adopted or equally distributed (Anderson & McFarlane, 2011) since it offers the possibility of holding together the heterogeneous elements, such as the nation state or the regional political formations, without an actual establishment of a coherent whole (Allen, 2011) . Being heterogeneous and discontinuous, power regionally and temporarily comes about in distinct, interrelated, and overlapped assemblages (Eriksson, 2005) . In a sense, assemblages are the main products of the “flows of desire” as the primary “force of life” and the basis of the productive and positive power (Dovey, 2010) . The potential structure of an assemblage has been considered as a capacity for organizing and distributing power (Bell & Colebrook, 2009) since assemblage process is hierarchically structured through “inequalities of power” and resource (McFarlane, 2011a) McCann (2011) addresses the analytical and political potentials of assemblage for exploring urban politics and the global/ urban connections. For McCann, Roy, and Ward (2013) , assemblage thinking is likely to contribute to the conceptualization of the contemporary city in relation to the global condition.

4. Assemblage and Critical Urbanism

Although the critical urban theory has been addressed to be capable of contributing to the understanding of the city, the relations between critical urbanism and assemblage thinking is controversial among scholars with different critical stances. Critical urban theory refers to an ongoing process of constructing/reconstructing the city as a medium/result of historical “relations of social power” (Brenner, 2009) . Thus, critical urban theory interrogates the existing urban formations and refers to the critique of power, ideology, injustice, exploitation, and inequities in the cities (Brenner, 2009) .

Exploring the relations between assemblage and critical urbanism, McFarlane (2011a) adopts assemblage as a concept, orientation, and imaginary where he refers to assemblage as a relational composition process that contributes to the labour and socio-materiality of the city. He reads assemblage as an orientation to the potentiality of actors and sites in relation to the history, required labour, and the capacity of urban processes (McFarlane, 2011b) . He further argues that while assemblage concentrates on multiple practices of achieving urbanism in actual/possible relations, it is related to a broader history of critical urbanism (McFarlane, 2011b) . Thus, for him, assemblage offers some orientations to “critical urbanism” in terms of focusing on potentiality, agency of materials, and composition of the cosmopolitan imaginary (McFarlane, 2011a) . ForTonkiss (2011) , assemblage thinking is likely to generate a “template urbanism”, rather than a critical one. She argues that since the matters generally facilitate the agency of the people, the “effectivity” of things is not like the human agency (Tonkiss, 2011) . Hence, while McFarlane (2011a) argues that assemblage provides a thick description of history/potenti- ality relations along with the distribution of agency across materiality/sociality, Tonkiss (2011) doubts the relation of the assemblage theory to the interpretation, semiotics, and meaning.

Rejecting the existence of a single “assemblage urbanism” in urban theory, Brenner, Madden, and Wachsmuth (2011) tend to adopt assemblage theory in relation to the political economy rather than addressing assemblage thinking as a basis for the critical urban theory. Moreover, criticizing the adoption of the assemblage theory as an ontology for urban studies in which the position of political economy and concept of capitalism are ambiguous, Brenner et al. (2011) refer to assemblage concept as a methodological practice and outlinethat a broad framework of “assemblage-theoretical urbanism” might have impact on its potentiality of analysis. Brenner et al. (2011) further argue that the thick descriptive focus of the assemblage thinking ignores the “context of context” regarding the broader global/national/regional structures.

While Marxian-origin critical urban study tends to adopt city as an “instance” of capitalistic organization in terms of industrial or space production, assemblage thinking does not address capitalism as a “form of life” rather than a global “abstract logic” and proposes an inquiry to the city/urbanization as an actual and ecological process (Farías, 2011) . Thus, although Acuto (2011)denotes that the ontological, methodological, and empirical conceptions of the assemblage cannot simply be explored separately from each other, Farías (2011) argues that assemblage thinking tends to develop empirical knowledge rather than theoretical analysis and critique since it involves both agency and arrangement. Hence, assemblage thinking is about inquiry and explorative engagement rather than power/knowledge/ideology-based critique since inquiry quests for an empirical commitment rather than a general theory of the relatively fixed concepts (Farías, 2011) . He further denotes that the critique is better to be involved with empirical practices rather than mere general theories (Farías, 2011) . Affirming the effects of capital, Simone (2011) argues that detailed inquiries need to be put in place for exploring the particular practices and sites of urbanisation since assemblages have the capacity to generate multiple surfaces that can always be built and erased. Moreover, referring to critical urbanism as an extensive scholarly involvement with processes in which the practices of power are associated with the cities, Dovey (2011) argues that assemblage thinking cannot be simply constrained within the rigid framework of political economy since it has the capacity to critically contribute to the ontologies of place and power.

5. Implications for Urban Studies

One of the critical contributions of assemblage thinking for understanding the complexity of the city problems is to encourage multiscalar thinking. A key to understand the urban issues in a given city area is geared to the exploration of the ways that area connects with the urban environments over a range of different scales. Thus, limiting the analysis of an urban environment to a certain scale runs the risk of overlooking the relations to the both larger and smaller scales. Multiscalar thinking as a toolkit can be applied to unravel how urban assemblages work across different scales. Hence, the ways in which socio-spatial multiplicities link at various scales need to be analysed to contribute to the most effective interventions in urban environments. For instance, to improve the access network in a given area, the focus needs to be concentrated on the boundary effect and the ways in which micro, meso, and macro scales are interrelated. In a sense, both theory and practice can benefit from multiscalar thinking since it has the capacity to stimulate integral approaches to planning and design.

The diagram can be understood as an “abstract machine” in Deleuzian concept of assemblage thinking. In this way, diagrammatic thinking can be used as a means to abstractly illustrate the complexities of an urban assemblage as both a product and process. In the same vein, the mapping can be considered as an abstraction that has the capacity to unravel what De Landa (2005) calls “real virtuality”, which is a kind of “reality” that has not been “actualised” yet. In effect, not only assemblage thinking puts emphasis on the “thick description” of the relationships that have assembled urban networks in different ways, but also it focuses on the space of possibilities that are associated with the latent capacities. For instance, when it comes to the study of urban morphology, typology can be considered as a process in which types work as the “abstract machines” that have the capacity to illustrate the morphogenesis of the urban form (Kamalipour, Memarian, & Mousavian, 2012; Kamalipour & Zaroudi, 2014) . In this way, diagrams, maps, and types have the capacity to produce a kind of “spatial knowledge” that can be effectively used as a basis to draw on the ways in which the city works in relation to spatiality and sociality. It also assists with specifying the space of possible solutions for the existing city problems and embodied capacities for transformational change.

Assemblage thinking is against essentialism and reductionism in different ways. While essentialist approaches in urban studies tend to reduce the concept of place to an essence with a stabilised identity (Kamalipour, Faizi, & Memarian, 2014; Kamalipour, Yeganeh, & Alalhesabi, 2012) , assemblage theory reads place as a multiplicity that is in the process of “becoming” in relation to social-spatial and material-express alignments. Hence, methodological frameworks can also run the risk of reductionism. In a sense, focusing on the production of “numerical knowledge” and attempts to quantify some of the unquantifiable concepts can be considered as a reductionist approach in urban studies that often overlooks the complexity of place as a socio-spatial assemblage. In effect, to explore how a place works requires a deep understanding of its socio-political processes in relation to the spatial structures. As discussed earlier in the paper, since assemblage thinking focuses on the relations, an urban assemblage cannot simply be reduced to its parts. That is why “extensive” properties, such as height, coverage, and length, cannot necessarily predict “intensive” properties, such as “atmosphere” and “character”.

Assemblage thinking offers a range of twofold concepts that can be used as a theoretical toolkit to understand the underlying processes of continuity and change in the cities. Formal/informal is one of the key twofold conceptions that resonates with a range of other twofold concepts including tree/rhizome, striated/smooth, and hierarchy/network. The formal/informal twofold can elaborate on the ways in which the “strategies” of the state collide with the everyday “tactics” of the citizens. Moreover, assemblage thinking has the capacity to explore the in-between conditions where the boundaries between the two ends of a twofold conception are blurry.

Assemblage thinking extends the conception of the “reality” to encompass both the “actual” and the “possible”. In other words, “reality” cannot be limited to the study of what is “actual”. In a sense, exploring the space of possibilities can become a particular line of inquiry in both theory and practice where design professions can benefit from the process of “design as research” in the city. Moreover, assemblage thinking moves from the analysis of the parts to the exploration of the relations between parts across different scales. In this way, it can be adopted as an effective theoretical lens for understanding generativity, emergence, and complexity where the outcomes are often unpredictable (Kamalipour, 2015; Peimani, 2015) . That is indeed a focus on the processes rather than the products. In a sense, it can stimulate a move from a desire to put emphasis on the form to an initiative for exploring the possibilities for incrementalism, adaptation, and temporality in the city.

Cite this paper

Hesam Kamalipour, Nastaran Peimani (2015) Assemblage Thinking and the City: Implications for Urban Studies. Current Urban Studies,03,402-408. doi: 10.4236/cus.2015.34031


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Architectural Rumors in Baku

This article examines the agency of unrealized megaprojects in bolstering economic activity, legitimizing political regimes, and expanding designer’s portfolios. It argues that such proposals serve as a form of “Architectural Rumor,” providing politico-economic agency despite ultimate project infeasibility. Specifically, it looks at two case studies of proposed yet unrealized island megaprojects in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan: the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands Plan. Spectacular urban design and architecture have long served as catalysts for development, investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities compete with one another to lure capital and boost their global status, many design proposals have become increasingly expensive, ostentatious, and technologically sophisticated. The high-risk financial nature of grand urban design proposals and their frequent associations with displacement or environmental destruction suggests that the megaproject model is becoming flawed. At the same time, there remain advantages for clients and politicians to proposing designs that are more spectacular than feasible. Using a mixed-methods approach, four key arenas in which unrealized proposals circulate are described. The various benefits and detriments of such an approach to architectural commodification are also discussed, foregrounding the broader societal costs.


Spectacular architecture and urban design have long served as catalysts for development, foreign investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities work to attract capital and boost their global status, design proposals have become increasingly ostentatious and technologically sophisticated in nature (Altshuler and Luberoff 2003Altshuler, Alan, and David Luberoff2003Megaprojects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public InvestmentWashington, DCBrookings Institute. [Google Scholar]; Orueta and Fainstein 2008Orueta, Fernando Diaz, and Susan S.Fainstein2008. “The New Megaprojects: Genesis and Impacts.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32: 759767.10.1111/ijur.2008.32.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). They have also grown overwhelming in scale, requiring billions of dollars for execution and decades of time to reach completion. Many such projects invariably end up scaled back or redesigned, bearing little resemblance to their original proposals. Others are left incomplete or frozen after the design phase. While on the surface this high-risk nature of grand urban design proposals would suggest that the megaproject model is flawed and bears great challenges for designers and their clients, there are a number of advantages to proposing designs that are more spectacular than they are feasible. Unrealized projects offer many opportunities to those deploying them. Not only are the costs of project construction avoided, images of the project can be positioned outside the daily reality of host cities – buildings can appear more populated, inhabitants more socially content, and public space more accessible to all. The technical engineering complexities of such megaprojects are also bypassed. The proposal phase is thus one of the most marketable moments of a project’s lifetime. As a vague, yet uncompromised visual imagining, such proposals communicate to the world a utopic vision of their host city’s future. There are also real-life financial gains to be made from the commodification and media circulation of unbuilt proposals since such projects can attract foreign investment by reinforcing an image of the city as more politically stable and economically prosperous than it may be in reality.

This article unpacks the distinct forms of agency embedded within unrealized design proposals and then examines four key arenas through which they circulate globally in order to gain greater notoriety and legitimization. The process of design proposals extensively circulating as media prior to their physical construction is referred to here as an “Architectural Rumor,” since the viability of these projects is often questionable and it is unclear as to whether or not they will ever be realized in their proposed form. Architectural rumors are project design proposals put forward by the government or private sector which travel widely as imagery and spoken word prior to their construction. They are presented as genuine endeavors, receive great media attention, corral public support, and even win awards, but rarely reach construction completion. As with traditional spoken rumors, architectural rumors function by circulating ideas with uncertain or doubtful truth. Beyond skepticism regarding project feasibility, architectural rumors propagate a selective narrative of present-day urban life, one that foregrounds prosperity, political stability, and civilian contentment, and which is not necessarily in keeping with the lived realities of the host city.

Using a mixed-methods approach, including field observations, media analysis, and interviews,11. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.View all notes this paper looks at the early stages of marketing and media circulation for two architectural rumors, both island megaprojects in Baku, Azerbaijan; the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands development. It describes how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of constructed projects. The first case study is the luxury net-zero resort and residential project, Zira Island, designed by the Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) on a former military island five kilometers off the coast of Baku in the Caspian Sea. The second case study is the Khazar Islands development, an artificial archipelago of over 50 islands also located in the Caspian Sea, 25 kilometers south of Baku (Figure 1). These two case studies show how design proposals are used to promote a new image of Baku both domestically and abroad, affording the ruling elite and project design professionals greater legitimacy.

Figure 1. Map of the two case study island megaproject sites in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Image by authors).

In 1991, the resource-rich nation of Azerbaijan emerged from the Soviet Union with great potential for economic growth as an independent country and regional hub of capitalist accumulation. As the world’s first center for oil and natural gas extraction, Azerbaijan has a long history of reflecting economic prosperity through built form (O’Lear 2001O’Lear, Shannon2001. “Azerbaijan: Territorial Issues and Internal Challenges in mid-2001.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 42: 305312.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Grant 2010Grant, Bruce2010. “Cosmopolitan Baku.” Ethnos 75: 123147.10.1080/00141841003753222[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Koch and Valiyev 2015Koch, Natalie, and Anar Valiyev2015. “Urban Boosterism in Closed Contexts: Spectacular Urbanization and Second-Tier Mega-Events in Three Caspian Capitals.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 56: 575598.10.1080/15387216.2016.1146621[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Following independence, a capitalist class emerged from within the country’s governing elite, carried forward from Soviet times. It resulted in a coalition of state officials and entrepreneurs that have directed the nation’s development primarily in their own interests. Such was accomplished through large-scale urban projects and the hosting of mega-events (Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Gogishvili 2018Gogishvili, David2018. “Baku Formula 1 City Circuit: Exploring the Temporary Spaces of Exception.” Cities 74: 169178.10.1016/j.cities.2017.11.018[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Behind the façades of luxurious new development projects and spectacular mega-events, the ruling elite of Azerbaijan have been accused of gross human rights violations and of exacerbating the socioeconomic inequality of the country (Human Rights Watch 2012Human Rights Watch. 2012. “‘THEY TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME’ Forced Evictions, Unlawful Expropriations, and House Demolitions in Azerbaijan’s Capital.” Accessed August 10, 2017.https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/02/29/they-took-everything-me/forced-evictions-unlawful-expropriations-and-house [Google Scholar]; Amnesty International 2017Amnesty International. 2017. “AZERBAIJAN 2016/2017.” Accessed January 10, 2018.https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/azerbaijan/report-azerbaijan/ [Google Scholar]; Destexhe 2017Destexhe, Alain2017. “Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE), Resolution 2185 (2017); Report of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.” Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What Follow-up on Respect for Human Rights? October 11, 32nd setting. April 30. Accessed January 10, 2018.http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-EN.asp?fileid=24196&lang=en [Google Scholar]). Freedom of speech and the press are also overwhelmingly suppressed. Much new development has involved mass displacement and community demolition, with replacement projects benefitting mainly those affiliated with the Aliyev dynasty. Put succinctly by anthropologist Bruce Grant (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), “to speak in any critical way of the new construction in the city [is] therefore necessarily to criticize the government, a body politics with which most have their own clientelist relations” (514). Valiyev (2014Valiyev, Anar2014. “The Post-Communist Growth Machine: The Case of Baku, Azerbaijan.” Cities 41: S45S53.10.1016/j.cities.2014.06.008[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) similarly describes the ways in which the nation’s ruling elite directly profit from spectacular urban development, using Logan and Molotch’s (1987Logan, John R., and Harvey L. Molotch1987Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of PlaceBerkeleyUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]) term “urban growth machine.”

Megaproject proposals and spectacular architecture are particularly well suited for growth machine and urban boosterism development. Grant (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) describes the political life of Azerbaijan’s architecture as part of an “Edifice Complex” and shows how it is tied to various forms of capital surplus. His description of Baku’s “surplus of images” in particular relates to this paper’s notion of architectural rumors in that “many in Baku see a kind of surplus in the widely circulating images, posted online and plastered on billboards and construction sites across the city, that claim that the future is now” (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507). Whereas Grant underscores the efficacy of “architecture as an opiate for the masses” (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507), this paper foregrounds how the production of architectural rumors is taking place and discusses their related societal costs. We argue that the circulation of architecture through mediated images has reached an increased level of commodification and political agency in the twenty-first century, operating separately from that of built projects. Although completed urban megaprojects are also heavily mediatized and branded, their initial design proposals have distinct types of agency on account of their immateriality.

The following two sections provide summaries of literature on spectacular megaprojects and architectural image production before moving on to the case descriptions of the Khazar and Zira Islands and an analysis of the economic and sociopolitical ramifications of their proposals. Finally, the conclusion recognizes the shortcomings of architectural rumors resulting from the overuse of false project promises.

Spectacular megaprojects: the value of architectural superlatives

Global shifts in capitalist production since the mid-twentieth century have dramatically changed the landscapes of cities and generated new demands for forms of urbanism based on experience economies and mass spectacle rather than industrial production (Clark 2004Clark, Terry Nichols, ed. 2004The City as an Entertainment MachineAmsterdamElsevier. [Google Scholar]; Guggenheim and Söderström 2009Guggenheim, Michael, and OlaSöderström2009Re-Shaping Cities: How Global Mobility Transforms Architecture and Urban FormLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]). In line with this trend, forms of city-to-city competition have also grown (Sassen 2001Sassen, Saskia2001The Global City: New York, London, TokyoPrinceton, NJPrinceton University Press.10.1515/9781400847488[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Roy and Ong 2011Roy, Ananya, and Aihwa Ong, eds. 2011Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being GlobalChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Within scholarly work examining the increased development of spectacular architecture over the past half-century, particular attention has been paid to the greater prominence of urban megaprojects (McNeill and Tewdwr-Jones 2003McNeill, Donald, and Mark Tewdwr-Jones2003. “Architecture, Banal Nationalism and Re-Territorialization.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27: 738743.10.1111/ijur.2003.27.issue-3[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Siemiatycki 2013Siemiatycki, Matti2013. “Riding the Wave: Explaining Cycles in Urban Megaproject Development.” Journal of Economic Policy Reform 16: 160178.10.1080/17487870.2013.797904[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The dramatic scope, size, and cost of megaprojects affords them the ability to draw international attention, engender national prestige – and crucially, attract investment money. But megaprojects also embody great precarity and risk (Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter 2003Flyvbjerg, BentNilsBruzelius, and Werner Rothengatter2003Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of AmbitionCambridgeCambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781107050891[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Haines 2011Haines, Chad2011. “Cracks in the Façade: Landscapes of Hope and Desire in Dubai.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong160181. Chapter 6. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Flyvbjerg 2013Flyvbjerg, Bent2013. “Design by Deception: The Politics of Megaproject Approval.” Harvard Design Magazine 22 (Summer/Spring): 5059. [Google Scholar]; Müller 2014Müller, Martin2014. “After Sochi 2014: Costs and Impacts of Russia’s Olympic Games.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 55: 628655.10.1080/15387216.2015.1040432[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Deploying untested technologies and requiring decades to reach completion, megaprojects suffer the very real threat of physically malfunctioning or being rendered obsolete before they are even complete – all prior to a weighing of their social and environmental costs and benefits.

One noticeable megaproject typology to rise in prominence over the past two decades is that of the urban island development. Islands function as prime sites of design innovation and fantasy that can provide their host nations with greater clout (Adham 2008Adham, Khaled2008. “Rediscovering the Island: Doha’s Urbanity from Pearls to Spectacle.” In The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, Modernity and Urban Development, edited by YasserElsheshtawy218257AbingdonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Jackson and Dora 2009Jackson, Mark, and Veronica della Dora2009. “‘Dreams So Big Only the Sea Can Hold Them’: Man-Made Islands as Anxious Spaces, Cultural Icons, and Travelling Visions.” Environment and Planning A 41: 20862104.10.1068/a41237[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Sheller 2009Sheller, Mimi2009. “Infrastructures of the Imagined Island: Software, Mobilities, and the Architecture of Caribbean Paradise.” Environment and Planning A 41: 13861403.10.1068/a41248[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouis 2011Ouis, Pernilla2011. “‘And an Island Never Cries’: Cultural and Societal Perspectives on the Mega Development of Islands in the United Arab Emirates.” In Macro-Engineering Seawater in Unique Environments, edited by V. Badescu and R. B. Cathcart5975BerlinSpringer-Verlag. [Google Scholar]; Gupta and Pamila 2015Gupta, Pamila2015. “Futures, Fakes and Discourses of the Gigantic and Miniature in ‘The World’ Islands, Dubai.” Island Studies Journal 10 (2): 181–196. [Google Scholar]). As sites of remote large-scale construction, islands offer characteristics distinct from those of other mega-developments, such as private waterfront access for residential and resort areas.

The high-end nature of private residential waterfront development on islands also dovetails with another unique offering of islands – their sense of security enclosure. In their locations off mainland coasts, islands represent a tension between urban proximity and distance, being near enough to selectively participate in the life of the city, yet sufficiently removed to afford maximum control and privacy. It is in this way that spectacular island geographies are coming to embody the promises of insularity tied to other private enclaved urban spaces such as gated communities and tourist resorts.

In the face of increased environmental volatility due to climate change, some islands further present a bound space of elite climate protection. In this manner, they follow global precedents in enclaved eco-development (Hoffman 2011Hoffman, Lisa2011. “Urban Modeling and Contemporary Technologies of City-Building in China: The Production of Regimes of Green Urbanisms.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong5576. Chapter 2. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Caprotti, Springer, and Harmer 2015Caprotti, FedericoCecili Springer, and Nichola Harmer2015. “‘Eco’ for Whom? Envisioning Eco-Urbanism in the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, China.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39: 495517.10.1111/1468-2427.12233[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The bold claims of ecological urbanism and sustainable architectural projects are very much in keeping with architectural rumors in that critiques of “green-washing” also represent accusations of project overambition and desire to garner clout on false pretenses. The questionable use of sustainability rhetoric in architecture is covered at length by authors such as Crot (2013Crot, Laurence2013. “Planning for Sustainability in Non-Democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City.” Urban Studies50: 28092825.10.1177/0042098012474697[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Cugurullo (2013Cugurullo, Federico2013. “How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City.” Journal of Urban Technology20: 2337.10.1080/10630732.2012.735105[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Koch (2014Koch, Natalie2014. “‘Building Glass Refrigerators in the Desert’: Discourses of Urban Sustainability and Nation Building in Qatar.” Urban Geography 35: 11181139.10.1080/02723638.2014.952538[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Rapoport (2014Rapoport, Elizabeth2014. “Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-City past, Present and Future.” Geography Compass 8: 137149.10.1111/gec3.12113[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and Pow and Neo (2015Pow, C. P., and Harvey Neo2015. “Modelling Green Urbanism in China.” Area 47: 132140.10.1111/area.12128[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

When overlaid with proposals for environmental sustainability, elite island geographies become laboratories for future ecological urbanism paradigms propounding utopic/dystopic visions of climate survival. For example, Sze (2015Sze, Julie2015Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate CrisisOaklandUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]) draws attention to China’s use of sustainable rhetoric in the Dongtan City project in Shanghai, which depicts the country as technologically advanced and environmentally focused, rather than polluted and overcrowded. Grydehøj and Kelman (2017Grydehøj, Adam, and Ilan Kelman2017. “The Eco-Island Trap: Climate Change Mitigation and Conspicuous Sustainability.” Area49: 106113.10.1111/area.2017.49.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) similarly raise caution about the “eco-island trap,” where small islands continue to invest in inefficient environmental sustainability initiatives in order to benefit from eco-tourism.

On account of their artificial nature, man-made islands take on additional performative roles as works of technology and iconic communication. This is best exemplified in the Palm Islands of Dubai, which are shaped as palm trees, and other island megaprojects, such as the iconic Tulip-shaped island in the Netherlands. The engineered forms of these islands maximize waterfront property while branding new communities through their iconic shapes. As such, island megaprojects demonstrate that one of the most assured ways for a city to climb the ranks of international media attention is through superlatives and bold claims toward originality. Elsheshtawy (2009Elsheshtawy, Yasser2009Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle, Planning, History and EnvironmentNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]), Gupta and Pamila (2015Gupta, Pamila2015. “Futures, Fakes and Discourses of the Gigantic and Miniature in ‘The World’ Islands, Dubai.” Island Studies Journal 10 (2): 181–196. [Google Scholar]); Haines (2011Haines, Chad2011. “Cracks in the Façade: Landscapes of Hope and Desire in Dubai.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong160181. Chapter 6. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and Ouis (2011Ouis, Pernilla2011. “‘And an Island Never Cries’: Cultural and Societal Perspectives on the Mega Development of Islands in the United Arab Emirates.” In Macro-Engineering Seawater in Unique Environments, edited by V. Badescu and R. B. Cathcart5975BerlinSpringer-Verlag. [Google Scholar]) describe how Dubai’s heavy reliance on such superlatives was integral to its cultural branding and market transformation, while Domosh (1988Domosh, Mona1988. “The Symbolism of the Skyscraper.” Journal of Urban History 14: 320345.10.1177/009614428801400302[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and King (2004King, Anthony2004Spaces of Global Cultures: Architecture, Urbanism, IdentityLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) explain the global drive toward increasingly taller skyscrapers in branding cities.

Image production and circulation

In the past few decades, scholarly work has begun unpacking the mediatization of architecture and the global circulation of its imagery. Biddulph (1995Biddulph, Mike1995. “The Value of Manipulated Meanings in Urban Design and Architecture.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 22: 739762.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) assesses the characteristics of signs and sign values in American housing markets and shows how housing developers manufacture signs to enhance their sales. Vale (1999Vale, Lawrence1999. “Mediated Monuments and National Identity.” The Journal of Architecture4 (4): 391408.10.1080/136023699373774[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]) uses the term “Mediated Monuments” to describe how media campaigns aimed at controlling public interpretations of monuments are inseparable from the physical forms they describe. Likewise, Rattenbury (2002Rattenbury, Kester, ed. 2002This is Not Architecture: Media ConstructionsNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) and Colomina (1996Colomina, Beatriz1996Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass MediaCambridge, MAThe MIT Press. [Google Scholar]) probe at the various relationships between architecture and representation and question the intrinsic nature of architectural production as one which deals in fictional imaginings. Focusing on the post-Soviet urban context of Astana, Kazakhstan, Laszczkowski (2011Laszczkowski, Mateusz2011. “Building the Future: Construction, Temporality, and Politics in Astana.” Focaal 60: 7792.[Crossref][Google Scholar], 1) describes how representations of Astana’s new buildings worked “to mobilize citizens’ agency and capture their imaginations, thus producing complicity” (See also Koch [2012Koch, Natalie2012. “Urban ‘Utopias’: The Disney Stigma and Discourses of ‘False Modernity’.” Environment and Planning A 44 (10): 24452462.10.1068/a44647[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] for media depictions of Astana). Such works can be seen as building upon Marx’s more classic notions of surplus value in commodities (Marx1992Marx, Karl1992Capital: Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by B. FowkesNew YorkPenguin Classics. [Google Scholar]), and specifically, on the relationship between surplus images and sign values (Mitchell 2002Mitchell, William2002. “The Surplus Value of Images.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35: 123.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Academic interest in image production in architecture, however, has remained primarily focused on examining the media surrounding realized projects – or comparing realized projects to their originally designed forms – rather than on the politico-economic opportunities afforded by project proposals in their own right. For example, while Jackson and Dora (2009Jackson, Mark, and Veronica della Dora2009. “‘Dreams So Big Only the Sea Can Hold Them’: Man-Made Islands as Anxious Spaces, Cultural Icons, and Travelling Visions.” Environment and Planning A 41: 20862104.10.1068/a41237[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) acknowledge that “many island projects are purely speculative, and act as attractants of capital, investment, and curiosity” and that “some will be built, but many will not” (2809), they abstain from probing further at the specific ways in which such speculations operate, the arenas through which they circulate, and the reasons behind why they may do so. Insight into the political agency of unrealized design proposals can be found more specifically in literature looking at the propaganda projects of the Soviet Union. Soviet officials put forward many ostentatious and ideologically ridden works of architecture that were never built, the most famous of which is Boris Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets intended for Moscow. However, there were dozens of others.22. For example, see, The Guardian, “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City that Never Was” (Rogers 2017Rogers, Alexandra2017. “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City That Never Was.” The Guardian, March 8. Accessed August 14, 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2017/mar/08/imagine-moscow-city-new-soviets-design-museum-in-pictures?page=with:img-6 [Google Scholar]).View all notes Buck-Morss (2002Buck-Morss, Susan2002Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and WestCambridge, MAThe MIT press. [Google Scholar]) coins the term “utopian supplement” to describe the cognitive power of such dream images in conveying plans for the making of a new socialist society.

Understanding how such image production works under capitalism, and more specifically in each of the phases of building construction under capitalism, is an area of research with room for greater exploration. Lehrer (2003Lehrer, Ute2003. “The Spectacularization of the Building Process: Berlin, Potsdamer Platz.” Genre 36 (3–4): 383404.10.1215/00166928-36-3-4-383[Crossref][Google Scholar]) notes a trend toward “the specularization of the building process”; that is, toward the commodification of the experience of the project’s construction in its own right. In a similar vein, this paper looks at the commodification of architecture even before its construction phase and shows how, distinct from building commodification and construction commodification, design phase commodification affords its own great politico-economic agency. In drawing a distinction between the use of images of finished architecture and that of design proposals in branding, this paper’s analysis foregrounds the agency of architectural rumors that remain suspended in a protracted state of “near-future” development.

Project case descriptions

Zira Island

Officially announced on 27 January 2009, the Zira Island Masterplan proposed to redevelop the entire 1,000,000 m² of Nargin Island (Boyuk Zira) off the coast of central Baku in the Caspian Sea.33. Images of the project proposal are available online at www.ziraisland.com/View all notes The project is located on the site of a former Soviet detainment camp and naval station currently being used for natural gas extraction. Construction of the project was estimated to cost USD $3 billion at the time of its announcement (Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island 2009Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island. 2009The Edge Markets. June 21. Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/zero-carbon-living-zira-island [Google Scholar]). The developer for the project is Azerbaijan-based Avrositi Holding (Eurocity Holding), whose self-declared mandate is “to create world-class real estate developments in Azerbaijan and Central Asia” (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.ziraisland.com [Google Scholar]). As an urban redevelopment project, this proposal promises to reactivate not only the island but also Baku’s wider harbor front, rebranding the city’s industrial image. Project renderings show small sailboats meandering across the harbor in some of the world’s most industrially contaminated water (Jafari 2010Jafari, Nasar2010. “Review of Pollution Sources and Controls in Caspian Sea Region.” Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment2: 025029. [Google Scholar]). At present, the harbor’s boat traffic is almost exclusively from large government-run international ferries and tankers, with the exception of minimal high-end private yacht traffic.

In terms of the project program, the master plan for Zira Island offers multiple high-end private beaches, resorts, and residential developments, including approximately 300 private waterfront villas, all physically linked through an elaborate landscaping design. The project’s grand vision is said to get its design inspiration from the seven mountain peaks of Azerbaijan, the forms of which have been parametrically reconfigured into shiny glass and steel inhabitable objects using sophisticated design and imaging software. The particular molding of these islands into buildings can be seen not only as a reflection of the geography of Azerbaijan, but also a trademark of the project’s architect, famous Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which has proposed similar terraced, mountain-shaped designs in cities as disparate as Copenhagen and Los Angeles.

Beyond the branding provided by its star architect, Zira Island has sought acclaim through its innovative approach to environmental sustainability. Sometimes referred to as Zira Zero Island, the project has proudly declared itself the first carbon-neutral project in the region, rendering it an example of the aforementioned coming together of “green-washing” and architectural rumors. In order to obtain this environmental goal, the island claimed it would deploy not only traditional sustainable design approaches (such as solar heat panels, photovoltaic cells, waste water and rainwater collection, and an offshore wind farm), it would also become,

An autonomous ecosystem where the flow of air, water, heat, and energy are channeled in almost natural ways. A mountain creates biotopes and eco-niches, it channels water and stores heat, it provides viewpoints and valleys, access and shelter. The Seven Peaks are conceived not only as icons but engineered as entire ecosystems (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.ziraisland.com [Google Scholar]).

The coming together of high-end residential architecture with technologically advanced environmental design approaches reflects global real estate trends to commodify environmentalism and package it as a luxury product (Hoffman 2011Hoffman, Lisa2011. “Urban Modeling and Contemporary Technologies of City-Building in China: The Production of Regimes of Green Urbanisms.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong5576. Chapter 2. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Crot 2013Crot, Laurence2013. “Planning for Sustainability in Non-Democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City.” Urban Studies50: 28092825.10.1177/0042098012474697[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Cugurullo 2013Cugurullo, Federico2013. “How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City.” Journal of Urban Technology20: 2337.10.1080/10630732.2012.735105[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rapoport 2014Rapoport, Elizabeth2014. “Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-City past, Present and Future.” Geography Compass 8: 137149.10.1111/gec3.12113[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hudson 2015Hudson, Kris2015. “Builders’ New Power Play: Net-Zero Homes.” The Wall Street Journal, January 20. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.wsj.com/articles/builders-new-power-play-net-zero-homes-1421794129 [Google Scholar]; and Pow and Neo 2015Pow, C. P., and Harvey Neo2015. “Modelling Green Urbanism in China.” Area 47: 132140.10.1111/area.12128[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). At the same time, the design appears completely indifferent to the socioeconomic exclusivity that it proposes for Azerbaijan, or to the necessary fuel requirements associated with daily travel to and from an urban island. As such, the Zira Island proposal carries forward both the existing socioeconomic disparity of local Azeri society and the contaminated water legacies of the Caspian Sea (Jafari 2010Jafari, Nasar2010. “Review of Pollution Sources and Controls in Caspian Sea Region.” Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment2: 025029. [Google Scholar]). Descriptions of the project as being completely self-dependent and removed from Baku intend to celebrate the net-zero accomplishments of this proposal. But they could equally describe its exclusionary social characteristics and broader nature as a restricted island enclave.

Khazar Islands

The Khazar Islands Development is an artificial archipelago megaproject situated 25 km south of Baku on the Caspian Sea. It was designed to consist of 41 artificial islands located in 19 different new districts and intended to occupy almost 31 km2 of land (Figure 2). The project’s central connective boulevard was designed at an astounding 50 km long (Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The project was launched in 2010 by Avesta Concern, a local Azerbaijani development company founded by the Azeri billionaire Ibrahim Ibrahimov. Ibrahimov was known for his extensive ties to the ruling Aliyev family, which deteriorated in 2015, when he was arrested on allegations of unpaid state debts (Snip 2017Snip, Inge2017. “Azerbaijan’s Corrupt Construction Sector to Blame for Cut Corners.” MeydanTV, March 5. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.meydan.tv/en/site/society/21613/ [Google Scholar]). The overall cost to realize the project was estimated at USD $100 billion and it was optimistically slated for completion in three phases over a 15-year period.

Figure 2. Conceptual rendering of Azerbaijan Tower and the Khazar Islands on a billboard advertisement in Azerbaijan. (Image by authors).

The first phase of the project emphasized land massing and the installation of basic site infrastructure, including the development of parks and boulevards. It was intended to provide a period for further investment attraction through the circulation of the project’s design images and the pre-sale of the second phase residential units. It is in this manner that despite actual work commencing on the project’s foundations, the proposal still very much functions as an architectural rumor, distributing information about the latter phases least likely to get built.44. Here, it is particularly the use of images of the world’s tallest building and Formula One race track that serve as rumors on the project.View all notes The relative attractiveness of investing in the area has consistently been framed in relation to the extravagance and novelty of the future phases of the project. The central skyscraper of the islands, “Azerbaijan Tower,” was rumored to become the tallest building in the world at 1050 m and would consist of 186 floors (compared to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa at 828 m and 160 stories). The tower was aimed to stand in dramatic juxtaposition to its surrounding proposed towers, the majority of which were designed to range in height from 19 to 25 floors, or up to 80 floors for a few prominent hotel proposals.

According to various news sources, if built, the Khazar Islands would have the capacity to house between 400,000 and 1 million residents and host up to 200,000 tourists – staggering figures considering Baku’s population of 2.25 million (The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2017The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan. 2017. “Population.” Accessed January 10, 2018.https://www.stat.gov.az/source/demoqraphy/ [Google Scholar]). In support of this dramatic influx of residents, the project design entails the additional construction of 150 new schools, 50 new hospitals, and a variety of support facilities such as parks, retail areas, university campuses, cultural centers, and an airport. All these facilities would be elaborately connected by 150 bridges weaving throughout the project. Considering that Azerbaijan is in a relatively active seismic zone, the buildings would need to be built with reinforced concrete able to withstand a dramatic nine-point magnitude earthquake. As with Zira Island, the Khazar Islands claim to be a model sustainable, low-emission development. The proposal includes a tram network, boats, and bicycles for site mobility and limits the number of roads provided for vehicles.

As of October 2016, satellite imagery showed the first project phase underway. Avesta Concern had also finalized some bridges and road infrastructure and started constructing a few of the residential buildings envisaged in the original project proposal (Figure 3). It was initially announced that by 2013 the central boulevard as well as its adjacent restaurants and beaches would be opened to the public (First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014, 2012“First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014.”. 2012Today.AZ. , December 25. Accessed August 13, 2017http://today.az/news/seo/117038.html [Google Scholar]). This was later adjusted and re-announced for May 2014 (First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May 2014“First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May”. 2014Azernews. , April 22. Accessed August 13, 2017https://www.azernews.az/business/66304.html [Google Scholar]). When Ibrahim Ibrahimov was arrested in 2015, skepticism and rumors began to surround the project’s completion. Despite a high degree of controversy regarding Ibrahimov personally, intellectuals interviewed expressed their strong opinion that the project always seemed dubious in nature, particularly on account of Ibrahimov’s overwhelming lack of experience in the construction industry and the sheer size of the proposal. As of February 2018, author site visits confirm that no new work has commenced. Avesta Concern has also suffered mass employee resignations due to non-payment and the project’s frozen development (Çağtürk 2018Çağtürk, Fərhad2018. “Mass Resignation at ‘Avesta’ Concern.” AzEuroNews, February 4. Accessed February 10, 2018.http://azeuronews.com/?p=74865 [Google Scholar]). Unlike the Zira Island Masterplan, the Khazar Islands project does not have a famous architectural affiliation. Instead, its notoriety has come through the overwhelming scale and ostentatiousness of the programming. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the project’s island geography, the housing of a Formula One-grade race track, and the world’s tallest building. These spectacular rumors generate hype around what would otherwise be a somewhat banal yet elite gated residential community.

Figure 3. Image of the frozen construction of the Khazar Islands, taken 20 December 2016. (Image by authors).

The agency of architectural rumors

Both the Kazar Islands and Zira Island projects have brought increased international attention to the city of Baku and to the nation of Azerbaijan solely through the ideas they put forward in their unrealized proposals. Their wide circulation as speculative designs in a diverse range of media outlets – from local newspapers to international design journals and press conferences – has worked to draw attention to this geographically small and under-recognized post-Soviet country. Those interviewed from the local intellectual class described how these projects were being used to improve the image of Azerbaijan internationally. For example, one interviewee who works as a local journalist and a policy analyst stated, “with these projects, the developers are getting money from the state budget, but the architecture is also definitely part of an image-building project to show off Azerbaijan.” Another, an academic specializing in the political economy of local urban development, further stated,

even though the project of the Khazar Islands was not considered serious by knowledgeable locals, Ibrahimov used his political ties and networks to get the largest loan from the International Bank of Azerbaijan by claiming that the project would “make Azerbaijan great.”

Such nationalistic rhetoric coupled with initial signs of foreign investment interest open the doors for official state sponsorship and investment loans for these projects. The strategic circulation of architectural rumors thus has the potential for real-life benefits.In order to better understand the ways in which these two projects have impacted the image of the city and the reputation of its ruling elite, this section breaks down four arenas where architectural rumors circulate and explains how these arenas were used specifically to promote the image of Baku and improve the reputation of powerful Azeris. These arenas can be understood as coexisting and overlapping with one another. They have no clear hierarchy or chronological order. It is acknowledged that there may be any number of additional potential arenas for circulating architectural rumors around the globe. As such, this is not intended to be a definitive list but serves more as an initial identification of the arenas relative to these two specific case studies.

As utopic imaginings of urban space, architectural rumors serve a number of key, and at times inter-connected, objectives:

(1) They promote a city and/or country as an emerging destination rivaling that of its global competitors. This works toward attracting foreign investment dollars and boosting the local economy, whether for the specific rumored project itself or for others that will benefit indirectly from the promises of that project.
(2) They work to engender public complacency by informing local populations that their nation is prosperous and globally competitive. This has the potential to legitimize the government, especially under relatively fraught, authoritarian circumstances – something that is particularly important during periods of nation building. At the same time, such projects can buttress the legitimacy of the ruling elite by depicting them as generous purveyors of philanthropy to the country, however disingenuous are such efforts. Citizens are shown images of Azerbaijan as an emerging global actor, implicitly reminding them that any personal discomfort should be seen as necessary sacrifice for achieving a greater nationalistic cause.
(3) Tied to the first two points, architectural rumors financially and ideologically support specific key individuals behind the country’s growth machine, affording them great personal wealth, notoriety, and power. These projects allow elites to financially speculate on real estate and receive government loans in order to do so. On a personal level, architectural rumors perform akin to bragging and function as a type of proof of group membership for the elite ring of politico-economic actors in Baku’s real estate sector.
(4) For projects that remain as rumors and that are never built, the above three objectives can be accomplished while avoiding many of the costs and uncertainties surrounding the realization of a megaproject. The costs of actual project construction are avoided and technical construction issues associated with the engineering complexity of such proposals are bypassed. There is also no risk of the project prematurely going out of fashion, becoming a poor investment, or failing to live up to customer demands. In sum, the project is incapable of failing in any of the traditional architectural senses because it is never actually built.

Arena one: architectural rumors in media

One of the greatest arenas for the international circulation of architectural rumors is in design-related media. This includes design-specific newspapers, magazines, and journals showcasing architecture and design culture, as well as the news, travel, and design sections of popular media outlets. The announcement of the Zira Island master plan in a number of design magazines exemplifies this phenomenon. The website Inhabitat described the project as such:

Located in the bay of the capital city Baku, Zira Island is a ferry ride away from a growing metropolis and will stand as an example to a region so dependent on oil, that it is possible to live off the wind and the sun. (Meinhold 2009Meinhold, Bridgette2009. “Azerbaijan’s Carbon Neutral Zira Island.” Inhabitat, February 2. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://inhabitat.com/zira-island-by-big-architects/ [Google Scholar]) (emphasis added)

In a two-part feature covering Baku’s futuristic architecture, including both the Zira Island and Khazar Island projects, the personal website of Architectural Digest correspondent Anna Kovalchenko, gushes about how “it looks like Baku, Azerbaijan seriously has taken the route to becoming the most ultra-modern city in the region” (Futuristic Architecture of Baku, Part 2: New Incredible Projects 2013“Futuristic Architecture of Baku, Part 2: New Incredible Projects”. 2013L’essenziale. March 2. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://essenziale-hd.com/2013/03/02/futuristic-architecture-of-baku-part-2-new-incredible-projects/ [Google Scholar]). Similarly, DesignBoom declared, “unlike some of the extravagant development in the Middle East, this new development takes the particular climate of the area into account, hoping to pave the way for future eco-conscious projects” (Archer 2009Archer, Nate2009. “BIG Architects: ZIRA Island Masterplan.” Designboom. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.designboom.com/architecture/big-architects-zira-island-masterplan/ [Google Scholar]). Fast Company states that “compared to the eco-smashing excesses of the equally futuristic artificial islands built and planned in Dubai, the intentions for Zira Island appear to really be clean and green” (Eaton 2009Eaton, Rik2009. “Azerbijan’s Futuristic Eco-Island Plans.” Fast Company. March 2. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.fastcompany.com/1149848/azerbijans-futuristic-eco-island-plans [Google Scholar]). Here, Azerbaijan is framed as surpassing its rival global cities and becoming an even greater paradigm for responsible sustainable and eco-friendly architectural development. Since it is not in keeping with the agendas of such media outlets, there is no mention of the country’s high levels of social inequality, corruption, and human rights violations, painting an entirely uneven impression of the living conditions in Azerbaijan.The overwhelming majority of media outlets, however, simply replicated the text descriptions provided by project press releases, quoting large passages verbatim and offering no critical interpretation.55. For example, such is the case with the posts on ArchDailyhttp://www.archdaily.com/12956/zira-island-carbon-neutral-master-plan-big-architectsArthitecturalhttps://www.arthitectural.com/big-zira-island-masterplan/; and Dezeenhttps://www.dezeen.com/2009/01/30/zira-island-masterplan-by-big/.View all notes Thus, how “constant irrigation and fertilizing of the island supports the lush green condition of a tropical island, with a minimal ecological footprint,” could be found referenced dozens of times (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.ziraisland.com [Google Scholar]). However, none of the editorials questioned how this might work within Azerbaijan’s existing high levels of soil toxicity and water pollution. Similarly, there are no present-day images of the city of Baku in the project announcements. Particularly in the design articles mentioned above, the only images shown are artificial computer renderings, many of them hazily illuminated at night and conveying no sense of reality in the city.

The publication dates of these articles also vary greatly from the initial date of the project announcement. For example, on 24 June 2013, the design website eVolo released the article “Zira Island is Central Asia’s First Carbon Neutral Master Plan in Baku, Azerbaijan,” over four years after the project was first announced (Marija 2013Marija, Bojovic2013. “Zira Island is Central Asia’s First Carbon Neutral Master Plan in Baku, Azerbaijan.” Evolo, June 24. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://www.evolo.us/architecture/zira-island-is-central-asias-first-carbon-neutral-master-plan-in-baku-azerbaijan/ [Google Scholar]). Even later, 88DesignBox, an online magazine of architecture, interiors, and home design, announced the Zira Island project on 27 February 2015, a full six years after its initial announcement and well after it was clear to our interviewed Azeri intellectuals (journalists, academics, architects, and engineers) that the project would not be realized (Zira Island Masterplan 2015Zira Island Masterplan. 201588designbox. February 27. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://88designbox.com/architecture/zira-island-masterplan-235.html [Google Scholar]). The updated recirculation of the project proposal in the media supports the rumor of it continuing to be a genuine development in-the-making, despite the perpetual lack of project commencement. Field research by the authors in June 2016 revealed absolutely no sign of construction related to the BIG Master Plan on Boyuk Nargin (Zira Island). Instead, through information obtained from the operators of freight shipping services that travel past the island, it was revealed that the site continues to be used for industrial-scale natural gas extraction. The confusion surrounding the project’s status – even in the face of determined investigation – underscores how once an architectural rumor begins circulating, it is very difficult to disprove.

The specific project element of the Khazar Islands that has afforded Azerbaijan the most branding support as an architectural rumor is the USD 2 billion, 1050 m Azerbaijan Tower, which Business Insider Magazine boasts as being 27% taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (Taylor 2012Taylor, Adam2012. “Forget the Burj–Azerbaijan is Planning to Build the World’s Next Tallest Building.” Business Insider, January 26. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://www.businessinsider.com/azerbaijan-spyscraper-burj-2012-1 [Google Scholar]). Between the Khazar Islands’ original construction announcement in 2010 and 2018, headlines describing how the world’s tallest building has been planned for Azerbaijan appeared in news outlets as diverse as The Otago Daily TimesThe New York TimesReuters IndiaBusiness InsiderTime, and the International Business Times. Each underscores the currency of architectural rumors in news outlets and shows the diversity of the type of news provider (from business newspapers to international affairs sections) in which they circulate.

One more area where news outlets provide a lot of agency for architectural rumors is through their persistent announcement of false project construction dates. An article in The New York Times stated that construction on Zira Island is expected to begin in 2010 (Brass 2009Brass, Kevin2009. “Design Unveiled for Sprawling Eco-Complex on Island off Azerbaijan.” The New York times, March 18. Accessed February 10, 2017.https://raisingtheroof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/18/design-unveiled-for-sprawling-eco-complex-on-island-off-azerbaijan/ [Google Scholar]). An investment news site also stated that construction would commence in 2010 and that the project would “be built in stages, with completion due in 8 to 12 years” (Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island 2009Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island. 2009The Edge Markets. June 21. Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/zero-carbon-living-zira-island [Google Scholar]). Yet none of these timelines could be verified and none are mentioned on the official project websites. Similarly, local Azeri news expressed great confidence in the project timeline for the Khazar Islands. An article from 25 December 2012 leads with the title “First residents will settle in Khazar Islands in 2014” (2012“First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014.”. 2012Today.AZ. , December 25. Accessed August 13, 2017http://today.az/news/seo/117038.html [Google Scholar]), and only later inside the body of text is it clarified that this is an optimistic statement from the development company’s president. Nine months before this, the state-controlled Azernews carried the confident title, “First phase of Khazar Islands project to be accomplished by May,” another project deadline that was not realized (First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May 2014“First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May”. 2014Azernews. , April 22. Accessed August 13, 2017https://www.azernews.az/business/66304.html [Google Scholar]).

Rumors also circulated in local and international press regarding who would invest in the construction of the Khazar Islands. Over multiple years, investors from countries as disparate as Canada (Orujova 2013Orujova, Nigar2013. “Canada to Lend $4 Bln for Khazar Islands Project.” Azernews, March 4. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/business/50463.html [Google Scholar]), China (Chinese Investors Have Agreed to Invest $12.5 bn in Khazar Islands Construction Project 2015“Chinese Investors Have Agreed to Invest $12.5 bn in Khazar Islands Construction Project.” 2015Abc.AZ. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://abc.az/eng/news/87601.html [Google Scholar]), and The Czech Republic (Orujova 2014aOrujova, Nigar2014a. “Czech Company to Build Artificial Islands in Azerbaijan.” Azernews, October 31. Accessed August 12, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/business/72623.html [Google Scholar]) were named in the media as being stakeholders. Various other news pieces announced a range of “interested” investors from around the globe, including from Turkey (Ahmedov 2012Ahmedov, Ali2012. “One of the Biggest Investors of Turkey is Interested in Khazar Islands Project.” APA.AZ. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://m.apa.az/en/azerbaijan_business/one-of-the-biggest-investors-of-turkey-is-interested-in-khazar-islands-project-photosession [Google Scholar]) and the United States (“Khazar İslands” Project Arouses Great Interest in USA 2014“Khazar İslands” Project Arouses Great Interest in USA”. 2014Azertac. December 17. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://azertag.az/en/xeber/Khazar_Islands_project_arouses_great_interest_in_USA-819209 [Google Scholar]) in order to attract further capital to the project. In one particularly confusing example of an architectural rumor circulating in local Azeri news, a 12 July 2012 article from Today.Az titled “Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project” describes investment interest in the Khazar Islands, but features an adjacent incorrect picture of the Zira Island proposal (Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project 2012Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project. 2012Today.AZ, July 12. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://today.az/news/business/110261.html [Google Scholar]).

Arena two: architectural rumors on project and team websites

Many of the architectural rumors discussed above originate on the websites of the project design teams and developers. They are then copied and presented as new pseudo-news announcements elsewhere. Both Zira Island and the Khazar Islands have their own project websites that provide project information.66.http://www.ziraisland.com/http://khazarislands.com/View all notes The continued operation of these websites alone stands as a form of perpetual rumor circulation, as it attenuates skepticism about possible project cancellations. In line with this, the undated “News” section of the Khazar Island website leads with the statement, “construction of the Khazar Islands, a new city to be built by Avesta on artificial islands, is in full swing” (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.khazarislands.com [Google Scholar]). Features from the news section of Avesta Concern’s website similarly include updates related to prominent visitors to the project site, such as the Iranian Deputy Minister and the Italian Ambassador, while not providing any actual information about the development of the project itself. Revealingly, the photos accompanying these prominent visits show officials overlooking a scale model of the project or sitting in its sales office since there is not much of a project site to visit.

Similarly, visitors to the Zira Island website can navigate through sections providing information on the project’s vision, sustainability approach, and design team. A PDF project book is also available for free download, and there is a three-and-a-half-minute film with flyover footage and animated diagrams explaining how the new buildings have inherited their sustainable mountainous forms. The architect’s and engineer’s websites identically replicate much of this information and visuals about the project (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13.http://www.ramboll.com/projects/group/zirazeroisland [Google Scholar]). All feature the same design narrative and particularly replicate how, “as a young post-Soviet democracy, Azerbaijan is rediscovering its national identity by imagining Zira Island as an architectural landscape based upon the country’s dramatic natural setting” (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.ziraisland.com [Google Scholar]). The resulting message of this architectural rumor is that Azerbaijan is a model nation and a true democracy, one that is rising to become an excellent leader in environmental design. This stands in contrast to the fact that since independence Azerbaijan has possessed one of the worst environmental degradation and human rights records of all the post-Soviet countries (Freedom House 2015Freedom House. 2015. “Azerbaijan Country Report: Freedom of the Press 2015.” Accessed November 11, 2017.https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/azerbaijan [Google Scholar]; Transparency International 2016Transparency International. 2016. “Country Profiles.” Accessed September 9, 2017.https://www.transparency.org/country/AZE# [Google Scholar]; Amnesty International 2017Amnesty International. 2017. “AZERBAIJAN 2016/2017.” Accessed January 10, 2018.https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/azerbaijan/report-azerbaijan/ [Google Scholar]).

The rebranding of Azerbaijan away from its legacy of oil production is also brought to attention on the corporate website of the project’s engineering firm, Ramboll (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13.http://www.ramboll.com/projects/group/zirazeroisland [Google Scholar]). Elsewhere, Ramboll’s Group Director of Buildings & Design, Lars Ostenfeld Riemann is quoted as saying:

Zira Island will be an important step into the future of urban development in the Caucasus and Central Asia. By the help of the wind, the sun and the waste the Island will produce the same amount of energy as it consumes. In a society literately built on oil, this will serve as a showcase for a new way of thinking sustainable planning.(Etherington 2009Etherington, Rose2009. “Zira Island Masterplan by BIG.” Dezeen. January 30. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.dezeen.com/2009/01/30/zira-island-masterplan-by-big/ [Google Scholar]) (emphasis added)

Coming from a professional authority on sustainable design, these comments do much to legitimize the growth machine of Baku while reiterating the engineering firm’s own expertise. Although the Bjarke Ingels Group website identifies the project’s status as “Idea” (Bjarke Ingels Group 2009Bjarke Ingels Group. 2009. “Zira Island Masterplan.” Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.big.dk/#projects-zir [Google Scholar]), Ramboll makes no mention of the project as unrealized. It instead lists only the “Services Provided,” giving the impression that the project may have already been completed (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13.http://www.ramboll.com/projects/group/zirazeroisland [Google Scholar]). In a similar fashion, the Khazar Islands website uses relative timeframes such as “a year ago” and “nowadays” without providing any concrete reference dates (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.khazarislands.com [Google Scholar]). The text on the website also uses slippery language that sometimes makes it sound as though the project is already a reality. Website visitors learn how the “Khazar Islands are the gateway to a new life” and how “In a city like this, the benefits of civilization ally with nature; the harmonious combination of environmental security, esthetics, and cutting-edge technology make this an ideal place for both family and successful business” (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.khazarislands.com [Google Scholar]).

Arena three: architectural rumors in exhibitions

Only a few weeks after the January 2009 Zira Island project announcement, the design was already being featured in an exhibition chronicling the work of its architect, Bjarke Ingels Group. Titled “Yes is More,” the much-celebrated event showcased the work of the firm in their home city of Copenhagen, Denmark at the Danish Architecture Center between 21 February and 31 May 2009. It was the first solo exhibition of the firm’s portfolio and included a large quantity of content, ranging from 30 project models to 19 animated films and a 130 m long portfolio comic strip (Jordana 2010Jordana, Sebastian2010. “YES IS MORE Exhibition: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution.” ArchDaily, June 16. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.archdaily.com/64576/yes-is-more-exhibition-an-archicomic-on-architectural-evolution [Google Scholar]). Featured prominently in the center of the floor space of the exhibition was the large illuminated master plan model of Zira Island with all seven of its mountain-inspired buildings. A year later, the exhibition traveled on to Bordeaux, France, where “Yes is More” was exhibited at the Arc en Rêve between June and November 2010. The content of the exhibition was later compiled into a book published by Taschen under the same “Yes is More” name (Ingels 2010Ingels, Bjarke2010Yes is More: An Archicomic on Architectural EvolutionLondonTaschen. [Google Scholar]).

Just as the original Zira Island proposal had done, news of the “Yes is More” exhibition and images of its content began circulating widely in online design publications (Jordana 2010Jordana, Sebastian2010. “YES IS MORE Exhibition: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution.” ArchDaily, June 16. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.archdaily.com/64576/yes-is-more-exhibition-an-archicomic-on-architectural-evolution [Google Scholar]). The exhibition announcement on DesignBoom featured the image of the Zira Island model but with no caption to identify it as an unrealized design (Kim 2010Kim, Erika2010. “BIG Architects: Yes is More Exhibition.” Designboom, June 30. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.designboom.com/architecture/big-architects-yes-is-more-exhibition/ [Google Scholar]). It is in this fashion that the initial architectural rumor of the Zira Island Masterplan gained greater legitimacy through its repeated circulation. As with the original proposal announcement, there was no contextual information discussing the city’s social, political, or environmental conditions.

If the “Yes is More” exhibition was tailored toward attracting the particular attention of design professionals and members of the public interested in art and architecture, then the simultaneous displaying of the Zira Island project at the Cityscape Abu Dhabi exhibition in April 2009 targeted an alternative audience of international investors. Cityscape is an annual real estate event taking place in Abu Dhabi, UAE that includes real estate exhibitions, seminars, and conferences. It is attended by government representatives, consultants, and architects, as well as international real estate professionals. In 2009, the event attracted over 30,000 attendees from 34 different countries. Beyond an arena for showcasing real estate, Cityscape Abu Dhabi features an awards ceremony with eight categories of project recognition. It assigns awards to both architects and developers. As of 2016, the awards now further distinguish between “built” and “future projects,” but this was not the case in 2009 when the Zira Island Master Plan was shortlisted for an award. The ability for a highly speculative design proposal to receive award attention in a real estate forum speaks to the benefits of producing radically innovative, yet mostly infeasible proposals as a means of improving the branded image of a country. The award performs as a source of exterior validation not only to the quality of the design but also to the host-city and nation.

Arena four: architectural rumors on billboards, in sponsorships, and local advertising

The first three arenas for the circulation of architectural rumors have been mainly focused on online forums and the impact of designs on international audiences. Yet, architectural rumors also circulate throughout the physical spaces of their host cities on billboards, at pubic events, and through word-of-mouth. Local event sponsorships by project developers can serve as an additional opportunity to normalize the rumors of future megaprojects in passing.

For example, the 2014 Miss Globe International Contest was hosted in Azerbaijan by Avesta Concern, and the Khazar Islands are listed as a prime sponsor for the event (Orujova 2014bOrujova, Nigar2014b. “Miss Globe International Contest Comes to Azerbaijan.” Azernews, May 15. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/culture/67033.html [Google Scholar]). Promotional material for the beauty contest even directly featured marketing support for the project. One of the main official slogans for the event was, “Go to Azerbaijan to see the venue for the tallest building in the world!” while another slogan declared more broadly, “Witness the history!!” (Miss Globe International 2014Miss Globe International. 2014. “Results Information.” Miss Globe International. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://www.missglobeinternational.com/results-information/ [Google Scholar]). Physical posters used to promote the event around Baku carried a number of related images complementing these slogans. While a few simply featured an image of the previous year’s winner, Brazilian Jakelyne Oliveira De Silva, others contained a silhouette of the Khazar Islands’ future Azerbaijan Tower. These posters were displayed around Baku for two months and were also shown in Istanbul, Turkey on billboards and metrobus lines . A local news article from 15 May 2014 announcing Azerbaijan’s hosting of the Miss Globe International Contest states, “world-known Khazar Islands is a general sponsor of the project” (Orujova 2014bOrujova, Nigar2014b. “Miss Globe International Contest Comes to Azerbaijan.” Azernews, May 15. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/culture/67033.html [Google Scholar]). Here, the reader is not only reminded of the purported concrete existence of the Khazar Islands, but also informed that the project developer, Ibrahim Ibrahimov, is an active philanthropist.

Two of the local intellectuals interviewed during fieldwork described at length how Ibrahimov worked perpetually to bolster his local image and authority, relying heavily on the ostentatiousness of the Khazar Islands and his role in transforming Baku to afford him local respect. Billboards for the Khazar Islands have likewise been featured across Baku for years. Some are now starting to show signs of physical deterioration. Their poor condition is an early signal of the future collapse of this architectural rumor. In contrast, there was less local advertising of the Zira Island proposal, which only had a few months of video promotion on social media and local television. The reasons why local billboards supporting the Zira Island project were not utilized could not be identified.

An eco-chamber of rumors

In keeping with the broader nature of spoken rumors, architectural rumors gain much of their currency from repeated circulation, elaboration, obfuscation, and combination with other rumors. Amidst the chaos of all the actual real estate development underway in Azerbaijan, it is easy for unrealized proposals to be mistaken as genuinely underway, particularly by an international audience that lacks local exposure. This is supported by the fact that media releases for new projects in Baku have a propensity to mention in passing other megaprojects being built in the city. For example, a local AzerNews article boasting the architectural success of the completed Flame Towers in Baku further describes the Khazar Islands as invariably being one of the city’s next big architectural successes (Dadashova 2013Dadashova, Gulgiz2013. “Architectural Pearl of Baku Named ‘Best Hotel and Tourist Center.” AzerNews, April 30. Accessed November 10, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/nation/53128.html [Google Scholar]). As such, architectural rumors rely on one another to amplify a false sense of hype and real estate prosperity across the city. The long-term development periods associated with megaprojects are a key factor that affords early design-phase rumors power. Megaprojects typically take years to complete and have very few visual clues in the early phases, which are usually focused on excavation and earth mounding.

The compounding of architectural rumors occurs not just within a city, where one project leads the way and provides an investment lure for subsequent others. It can also take place internationally, as projects get grouped thematically or categorized based on their geographic locations. Architectural rumors about the tallest buildings in the world circulate together and support one another, clustering development in cities such as New York, Shanghai, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur with new development in Baku. Likewise, innovative sustainable development master plans are published together and juxtaposed based on their various environmental attributes, leading to the Zira Island master plan being compared to other eco-city projects like Dongtan in China and Masdar in Abu Dhabi (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13.http://www.ramboll.com/projects/group/zirazeroisland [Google Scholar]). The sheer global breadth of locations pandering to megaprojects as a vehicle toward their global legitimization makes it highly unlikely that news readers will ever be in a position to thoroughly verify their degree of final completion, or the amount of deviation they possess from the proposed design.


Through an analysis of the project designs for the Zira Island and Khazar Islands master plans in Baku, Azerbaijan, this paper has described how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of built projects. It further argued that the agency of outlandish design proposals to promote urban boosterism and regime security can be preferable to that of realizing such high-cost, technically complex, and rapidly obsolete projects. Given the fleeting half-life of superlatives in design, where projects can loose their titles of “largest,” “tallest,” and “first” even before their construction is complete, the power of architecture and urban design to legitimize governments and to assert a nation’s role on the international stage is increasingly focusing attention on schematic design phases. Here, the use of dramatic architectural imagery to legitimate and brand a nation is reciprocated by the use of regime money to legitimate and brand the architectural and engineering firms behind their designs.

Each of the four arenas through which architectural rumors circulate were shown to target slightly different audiences. Arena One’s design publications overwhelmingly targeted designers, investors, and the general public. This arena worked to alert design professionals to the types of megaprojects that they might inevitably end up producing in the future, and to draw investors’ attention toward new project opportunities. Arena One further perpetuated a culture of consequence-free design speculation focused on the fashion of esthetics more than architecture’s capacity for social transformation. Local news articles directed toward mass public audiences worked as a source of soft propaganda – both domestically and abroad – conveying Azerbaijan as a thriving modern democracy and global economic player.

For Arena Two, the circulation of architectural rumors on project and team websites targeted a very broad audience. It included everyone from the general public to prospective real estate investors. The content producers of Arena One’s media outlets are also the targets of Arena Two’s project and team websites, since this is where most of their published content is extracted from. Local news releases further perpetuated a sense of development anticipation to be shared among the local population, albeit one that risked turning into fatigue and cynicism when overused. Arena Three specifically targeted developers, investors, and architects, using exhibitions as a space to inflate the rumored reputation of a project while also soliciting investment. Likewise, the final arena of physical billboards, local sponsorships, and advertisings showed how architectural rumors could be normalized though their circulation within the public life of their host cities.

In considering the compounding effects of these four rumor arenas, it was shown how megaprojects and architectural rumors work together to create broader investment fervor, as it becomes a challenge to differentiate between what is actually being constructed and what is not in a city. As long as images are circulating and cranes are erected, the promise of new things to come can live on.

Architectural rumors seek to be economically effective by captivating prospective investors through images of Baku’s bright future of development. If convincing, they turn artificial hype into actual development investment. This leads to the more challenging question of what the actual cost is of circulating architectural rumors. In the face of the many existing failed and under-utilized megaprojects around the world, such as those produced for Olympic games, theme parks, and shopping experiences,77. For example, Athens and Rio have been struggling with underused mega-event related infrastructure (Mangan 2008Mangan, James A.2008. “Prologue: Guarantees of Global Goodwill: Post-Olympic Legacies – Too Many Limping White Elephants?” The International Journal of the History of Sport25: 18691883.10.1080/09523360802496148[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Boukas, Ziakas, and Boustras 2013Boukas, NikolaosVassilios Ziakas, and Georgios Boustras2013. “Olympic Legacy and Cultural Tourism: Exploring the Facets of Athens’ Olympic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 19: 203228.10.1080/13527258.2011.651735[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kaiser 2017Kaiser, Anna Jean2017. “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far is Series of Unkept Promises.” The New York times, February 15. Accessed August 14, 2017.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/15/sports/olympics/rio-stadiums-summer-games.html?_r=0 [Google Scholar]), while Chinese cities are facing the new problem of ghost towns with empty residential complexes or gigantic shopping malls (Banerji and Jackson 2012Banerji, Robin, and Patrick Jackson2012. “China’s Ghost Towns and Phantom Malls.” BBC. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19049254 [Google Scholar]; Wang et al. 2015Wang, Xin-RuiEddie Chi-Man HuiCharlesChoguill, and Sheng-Hua Jia2015. “The New Urbanization Policy in China: Which Way Forward?” Habitat International47: 279284.10.1016/j.habitatint.2015.02.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).View all notes it may not be entirely bad that some proposals advance no further than the rumor stage. Still, large amounts of state capital are consumed producing and circulating architectural rumors, and such projects work to exacerbate already precarious conditions of real estate speculation and government corruption.

Ideologically, architectural rumors also bear costs, as they risk portraying nations as more inclusive and prosperous than they are in reality. Such obfuscation builds up the hopes of local residents for a better, more desirable future – a future that may never come or that has not taken their needs into consideration. Clearly, any approach to attracting investment and building population consent that is founded on falsities will have a limited lifespan. As with all rumors, there exists a particular tension in the ongoing deployment of architectural rumors. In order to compete globally, a city cannot get away with only circulating promises while constructing nothing. There needs to be at least a core of new projects to substantiate rumored claims. But within that flexible and ambiguous space between reality and rumor there exists much room for elaboration and fabrication in a manner that bolsters the city’s branded image without relying upon final construction.

As the initial two sections of this paper have shown, the production of architectural imagery has always been a projective and somewhat utopic endeavor – one relying heavily on esthetic, financial, and programmatic imaginings of a best-case scenario in order to carry forward their designs. Today, despite the overwhelming desire of the Azerbaijani Government to be dissociated from its Soviet past, much of the ideological foundations of state-sponsored utopia communicated through architecture carry forward from these earlier periods. If Azerbaijan is to truly advance past the challenges of its history through new development, there will need to be genuine initiatives undertaken to implement state reforms and to reduce urban boosterism. Paradoxically, only after the country switches its focus from architectural rumors toward more concrete political reforms may the type of utopic futures envisioned actually have a chance at becoming reality.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


The authors would like to thank Bruce Grant and Anar Valiyev, as well as the journal editors and reviewers, for their thoughtful comments and support toward this article.


1. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.

2. For example, see, The Guardian, “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City that Never Was” (Rogers 2017Rogers, Alexandra2017. “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City That Never Was.” The Guardian, March 8. Accessed August 14, 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2017/mar/08/imagine-moscow-city-new-soviets-design-museum-in-pictures?page=with:img-6 [Google Scholar]).

3. Images of the project proposal are available online at www.ziraisland.com/

4. Here, it is particularly the use of images of the world’s tallest building and Formula One race track that serve as rumors on the project.

5. For example, such is the case with the posts on ArchDailyhttp://www.archdaily.com/12956/zira-island-carbon-neutral-master-plan-big-architectsArthitecturalhttps://www.arthitectural.com/big-zira-island-masterplan/; and Dezeenhttps://www.dezeen.com/2009/01/30/zira-island-masterplan-by-big/.

6. http://www.ziraisland.com/http://khazarislands.com/

7. For example, Athens and Rio have been struggling with underused mega-event related infrastructure (Mangan 2008Mangan, James A.2008. “Prologue: Guarantees of Global Goodwill: Post-Olympic Legacies – Too Many Limping White Elephants?” The International Journal of the History of Sport25: 18691883.10.1080/09523360802496148[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Boukas, Ziakas, and Boustras 2013Boukas, NikolaosVassilios Ziakas, and Georgios Boustras2013. “Olympic Legacy and Cultural Tourism: Exploring the Facets of Athens’ Olympic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 19: 203228.10.1080/13527258.2011.651735[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kaiser 2017Kaiser, Anna Jean2017. “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far is Series of Unkept Promises.” The New York times, February 15. Accessed August 14, 2017.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/15/sports/olympics/rio-stadiums-summer-games.html?_r=0 [Google Scholar]), while Chinese cities are facing the new problem of ghost towns with empty residential complexes or gigantic shopping malls (Banerji and Jackson 2012Banerji, Robin, and Patrick Jackson2012. “China’s Ghost Towns and Phantom Malls.” BBC. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19049254 [Google Scholar]; Wang et al. 2015Wang, Xin-RuiEddie Chi-Man HuiCharlesChoguill, and Sheng-Hua Jia2015. “The New Urbanization Policy in China: Which Way Forward?” Habitat International47: 279284.10.1016/j.habitatint.2015.02.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).


Gramsci as geographer


A French version of this interview was originally published at  http://revueperiode.net/gramsci-geographe-entretien-avec-stefan-kipfer/

  • Your research interests include a recurrent focus on space, specifically urban questions as well as the spatial organization of relations of exploitation and domination. Theoretically, you mobilize the works of Henri Lefebvre and Frantz Fanon, but you are also interested in Gramsci’s take on, for example, urbanity and rurality.  How do you see the relevance of Gramsci’s analyses for geographical concerns today?


I started reading Gramsci in 1990 just before turning to urban research and the debates around ‘radical geography’ that were still in full swing then. Broadly speaking, these debates  tackled two problematic treatments of space in social theory: the reduction of space to a strictly passive, ‘empty’ container of history, and, in turn, the elevation of space to  historically invariant determinant of social life. Instead, a key lesson in these debates was to discuss space dialectically, as a product of history and an active historical force. These debates quickly pushed me to return to Gramsci and consider something that a few geographically minded intellectuals had considered here and there but that was then still an unusual topic for the Gramscians amongst my colleagues: the place of space in Gramsci’s particular strand of Marxism.

One of the most important questions in Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis (then and now) is the issue of historicism, which Gramsci affirmed in a peculiar way to describe one crucial aspect of his historical materialist method. A few have pointed out that the conceptions of time and history which informed Gramsci’s historicism are not to be confused with those that shape other forms of historicism, notably Hegel’s and Ranke’s. Among the first to do so in English was Esteve Morera, who wrote a book on the subject in 1990.[1] However, at the time, it was not uncommon (even among Gramscians) to sidestep geographical questions or treat space as the philosophical counterpart of time. I sometimes felt that on this matter, not much had changed since the 1970s when the famous exchange between Immanuel Wallerstein (and his ‘spatial’ conception of capitalism as a world system) and Ernesto Laclau (and his ‘historical’ conception of capitalism as a mode of production) unnecessarily pitted space against time, geography against history.

Even just a cursory reading shows that Gramsci’s writing was characterized by a profound geographical as well as historical sensibility. My sense was and is that both sensibilities are integral to his method. Forging a path a Marx himself had laid out, Gramsci developed his main concepts (from language and folklore to intellectuals and politics) through an intimate reading of historical moments and geographical situations. ‘Space’ for Gramsci was never just contextual backdrop or singular material condition (let alone a symbol of historical stasis). As condition and product of history, geography is an active force of the multiple rhythms that make up historical time. In turn, Gramsci treated space and scale relationally, showing the mutual imbrication and historical co-constitution of world, nation, region, city and country.

Key in this context is the idea that spatial forms are, among other things, subjects of struggle as well as ‘ingredients’ in political projects, as it were. It is well known (as Panagiotis Sotiris has reminded us most recently)[2] that Gramsci treated the national scale not as a given entity (let alone an ethnocultural or historical essence) but an open-ended field of struggle and a strategic construction site. Gramsci insisted that the national-popular aspect of revolutionary politics, which is not to be confused with nationalism, must be developed in constant interaction with equally open-ended internationalist horizons.

Gramsci made similar points about city and country. Observing debates among fascist intellectuals such as Curzio Malaparte, he saw that claims to urbanity and rurality do not simply express given geographical realities. They can help form historic blocs. Compare Gramsci’s insight, which considered politics as an active force, to contemporary debates in electoral geography, which have a tendency to read right populist and neo-fascism passively, as mere reflections of given settlement forms defined by national statistical offices: suburb, periurb, rural space or small to medium sized town. Exemplified in France by the work of Christophe Guilluy, among others, such spatially determinist readings of the Front National actually corroborate Gramsci’s point. In their passive conception of politics, intellectuals like Guilluy naturalize, and thus lend effective support to frontist political claims by treating small towns, agricultural areas and periurban zones as embodiments of the ‘autochtonous’ people of France and their seemingly spontaneous and inevitable xenophobic impulses.[3]

  • What does a Gramscian reading of Lefebvre’s work add to Lefebvre scholarship? In what ways did Lefebvre try to urbanize the question of hegemony[4] ?


Antonio Gramsci was not one of the primary figures in Lefebvre’s intellectual universe. But in various parts of his work, Henri Lefebvre presented us with explicit textual invitations to see his own contributions in a Gramscian light. In the opening pages of the Production of Space, for example, he established the hypothesis that bourgeois hegemony does not leave space untouched, as it were, thus suggesting that spatial organization represents a crucial element in the organization of political rule. This insight systematized the earlier conclusion of The Urban Revolution, where Lefebvre stressed the fact that ‘urbanisme’, and the specialized spatial sciences associated with it have the potential to sustain bourgeois rule by disorganizing opposition and promoting subaltern passivity.

Lefebvre’s urban work represents one among several openings towards Gramsci. Others include his theory of the state and his conception of everyday life. Lefebvre’s life-long critique of everyday life (an explosive mix of routine and aspiration), for example, resonates in crucial ways with Gramsci’s nuanced engagement with popular life, this contradictory complex of common and good sense. The late André Tosel was one of the few who has also emphasized this substantial parallel between Gramsci (who stressed the mystical and popular aspects of fascism in his Prison Notebooks) and Lefebvre (whose contemporaneous critique of mystification represented the key theoretical contribution in his work on fascism and nationalism in the 1930s).[5] Given the importance of fascism and nationalism today, this parallel is worth pursuing further, but with the obligatory critical attention paid to the particular kind of nationalization of political strategy which the Third International (and Lefebvre’s PCF) were promoting at that time.

Both of these examples allow us to see theoretical connections between Lefebvre and Gramsci that go much deeper than the few direct textual references to Gramsci in Lefebvre’s work. Both share an enormously ambitious, integral take on Marxism, one that insists on interpreting the world by treating all aspects of life in non-reductive and relational ways. When I started working on the Lefebvre-Gramsci connection in the mid-1990s, many English-speaking intellectual debates were based on typically mechanical, uncritical distinctions between political economy and considerations of class (code words for Marxism) and cultural studies and the politics of identity (code words for postmodernism). To me, Gramsci and Lefebvre served as reminders that such an intellectual compartmentalization of the world, which is still alive today in some corners, makes absolutely no sense from a serious historical materialist perspective.

This leaves the question of Lefebvre’s urbanization of the problem of hegemony. In the Urban Revolution published in 1970, Lefebvre posited the hypothesis that the world was in the process of being completely urbanized, that the distinction between city and country was no longer adequate to grasp the spatial organization of capitalism even though comparatively specific symbols and claims to urbanity and rurality continued to weigh on social life and politics. By suggesting that in our capitalist world urban life was no longer a matter of towns and cities only, but, through industrialized agriculture and globe-spanning networks of state intervention, transportation, migration and communication, social life as a whole, Lefebvre underscored that ‘urbanisme’ had become even more central to the spatial organization of rule than was the case even in the lifetime of Gramsci (who had already pointed to the importance of the metropole and urban planning in the formation of Fordist capitalism). Lefebvre was also interested in the implications of generalized urbanization for theories of revolution, including the theories of peasant revolution that dominated the radical left when he wrote the Urban Revolution. In 2017, we are still grappling with the complexities of world-wide urbanization and its political implications, also with respect to the United Front strategy so dear to Gramsci.

  • With Michael Ekers, Gillian Hart and Alex Loftus, you edited a collected volume (Gramsci Space, Nature, Politics, 2013) where you return to and develop, among other things, the importance of Gramsci’s work for questions of space. In an extremely important point,[6] you stress the importance of space in considering Gramsci’s strategic thought. You write, for example, that the Turin uprisings in 1919 and 1920 had an important impact on Gramsci’s recognition that the revolutionary left needed to construct alliances between the Northern proletariat and Southern peasants. This is a point Gramsci developed notably in his notes on the Southern question, where he writes that the proletariat needs to create a system of class alliances, which in the Italian case meant acquiring the active support of the peasant and agrarian masses. How is the question of space in Gramsci linked to the question of working class hegemony ?


Given his biography and his political trajectory from Sardegna to the Piemonte, the Southern Question had to impose itself upon Gramsci one way or another. But it is of course true that he elevated this question, which is itself criss-crossed in complex ways by the city-country question, to the highest strategic importance. Some Aspects of the Southern Question(1926) was a response to the reality of Mussolini’s fascism (as well as the maximalism of fellow Communist Amadeo Bordiga, who refused to see a difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy). Mussolini’s hordes managed to impose themselves not the least due to the defeat of the Factory Council movement of 1919-1920 and the latter’s relative isolation from other subaltern spaces in Italy. The rise and temporary consolidation of Italian fascism illustrated to Gramsci how uneven development in Italy was not only a structural limit on bourgeois rule but also a problem with deadly consequences for socialist and communist politics and the capacity of the proletariat to exercise political leadership.

It is worth stressing two noteworthy elements in Gramsci’s attempt to translate (adapt and develop) the Communist International’s United Front strategy for Italian purposes. Gramsci acknowledged that a project of building subaltern political unity is difficult given the qualitative social differences (between factory workers, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers and peasants) and the deep regional cleavages fortified by several layers of variegated historical and linguistic development. Following the famous 1926 text, and after his imprisonment, Gramsci spent much ink tracing uneven development, of which the Southern question is the most salient example, all the way to the high Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance. In this longer view, the Risorgimento and fascism recast and exploited longer historical lineages of uneven development in the context of modern capitalism.

Given the historical depth of social and spatial unevenness in Italy, it is easy to understand why for Gramsci, building alliances could not be a matter of merely aggregating social groups and social spaces in their existing state.  For him, building a United Front meant that the constituent parts of an alliance get transformed socially and intellectually in the very process of alliance formation. In the Italian context, this meant addressing anti-Southern racism among the Northern proletariat as well as tackling the manifold dependencies that made it easier for landlords, industrialists, and fascists to recruit Southerners as soldiers or strike breakers. Gramsci’s recognition that there are no easy shortcuts to building an integral revolutionary organization on the basis of multiple subaltern forces led him to an understanding of politics as a practice of transforming – in a complexly universalizing fashion – the particular, short-term and spontaneous (`economic-corporate¨) character of subaltern interests and passions. In the end, politics as hegemony aims not to simply affirm but to end, dialectically, subalternity as such.

  • With respect to the relation between cities and the countryside, you stress the importance of the struggle against anti-Southern racism within the Northern proletariat for rethinking the problem of alliances and to link country and city in a sort of hegemonic bloc. Could you explain how Southern Italy can be analysed as a type of internal colony and then revisit the influence Gramsci has had on thinkers concerned with colonial and racial questions, for example Stuart Hall and the subaltern studies group ?


Looking at Gramsci’s work as a whole, it is important to point out that the city-country question is not covered neatly by the Southern question, nor is it coterminous with the relationship between industry and agriculture in Italy as a whole. It is true, however, that Gramsci repeatedly analysed the relationship between South (that is, the semi-feudal nexus of landlords, the Church and the peasants) and the North (that is, the Northern industrialists and ruling circles in the newly formed unified Italy) as a semi- or quasi-colonial relationship. Rooted in economic dependency and political domination, it reproduced pre-capitalist modes of life in the South and limited the capacity of the Italian ruling class to build an integral national hegemony. (I would use the term internal colony with great caution to describe the Italy of the interwar period to avoid what Gramsci himself did not do: establish a parallel between Southern Italy and social spaces populated by former slaves or immigrant populations from the former colonies in, say, the U.S.A., France, and the United Kingdom).

Gramsci also established links between the Southern question and Italy’s imperial adventures in North and East Africa. He observed that Italy’s imperial adventures were promoted not only for capital export but also for purposes of colonial settlement and domestic political legitimacy, not the least to build popular support from land-hungry Southerners. Gramsci also noted that modern raciology treated Southern Europeans (and Southern Italians in particular) as an intermediary ‘race’ between Northern and ‘Alpine’ Europeans, on the one hand, and various non-Europeans, on the other. In Italy, the force of this double-sided raciology helped link the Southern to the imperial question. But not unlike racism in other countries like France, raciology in Italy radiated much beyond the aristocratic circles that had produced some of the early versions of modern race theory. For example, Gramsci stressed that racism against Southerners (‘sudici’) had acquired a popular, pseudo-scientific dimension and weighed on both class relations and left politics.

To give proper due to racism and uneven development in Italy, Gramsci spent much time criticizing a broad cross-section of Italian intellectuals who were responsible for articulating a racialized conception of social relations. Among these were important figures in Gramsci’s own Socialist Party such as Achille Loria and Cesare Lombroso (the infamous criminologist whose questionable work fills a whole museum in Turin still today). As Marcus Green has pointed out, Gramsci’s critique of these intellectuals, which cuts across important segments of the Prison Notebooks, brilliantly highlights the philosophical link (positivism) between racism, economic determinism, pseudo-scientific conceptions of progress and political fatalism.[7] Establishing this link helped Gramsci develop the non-reductive historical material method as well as the multidimensional conception of subalternity that define his work.

The fact that Gramsci has been of great interest to intellectuals committed to anti-colonial and anti-imperial strategies is thus related not only to Gramsci’s interest in particular topics: city and country, agriculture, uneven development, colonialism, imperialism, and racism. It is also related to the weight these themes carried as Gramsci developed his conception of Marxist theory and practice. There are thus good reasons why his work has been taken up by generations of intellectuals in Latin America, the Caribbean and South Asia, for example. As you say, the most well-known Gramsci-inspired currents in the English-speaking world are the subaltern studies collective (in India and the Anglo-American academy) and the Birmingham school of cultural studies, of which Stuart Hall is the most well-known exponent. These currents, which underwent numerous transformations themselves, have left many invaluable – direct as well as diffuse – neo-Gramscian traces, notably in historiographies of hegemony, nationalism and subalternity in the non-European world and socio-political analyses of race, class, gender, migration and nationalism in the imperial North.

There is no consensus among anti-colonial and ant-racist thinkers about how to interpret and make use of Gramsci.[8]This state of affairs should not surprise us. There is no such intellectual consensus about Gramsci in the sprawling universe of Gramsci scholarship as a whole (nor is there theoretical unanimity in the even more widespread world of post-colonial theory). I am personally most drawn towards those who have tried to develop Gramsci’s historical materialist method for purposes of analysing racism, colonialism and nationalism: Stuart Hall, who, next to many other things, has produced some of the finest Gramscian methodological statements in his work on racism and authoritarian populism;[9] Himani Bannerji, who has mobilized Gramsci for a pathbreaking Marxist-feminist critique of ideology and the sharpest of analyses of Hindutva, the fascist political nébuleuse governing India today,[10] and Ato Sekyi-Otu, the philosopher who has produced the most ambitious, notably Gramsci-inflected reading of Frantz Fanon.[11]

What these attempts to work with and redirect Gramsci tell us is that Gramsci is not the exclusive property of ‘the West’, or ‘Western Marxism’. Contrary to a conception that was more widespread when I started reading Gramsci seriously a quarter century ago, Gramsci’s conception of East and West is relational and strategic, not ontological. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci treated East and West not as transhistorical essences (ontologies) but historically malleable constructions strongly influenced by the visions and practices of the ‘educated classes.’ (On this point, Gramsci fleetingly anticipated Edward Said’s pathbreaking work on Orientalism). In various comments (on Gandhi and political strategy, and religiosity in tributary societies shaped by Islam, Hinduism or Catholicism, for instance), Gramsci indicated that civilizations are neither unique nor mere variations of the same. They are simply comparable. As evolving and interrelated historical constructs, their features can be ‘translated’: understood across boundaries and adapted in different contexts.

To illustrate: Gramsci’s conception of politics and rule – his analyses of hegemony, coercion and consent, state and civil society – were not meant exclusively to understand Western Europe or Euro-America. Gramsci scholars like Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Domenico Losurdo, Peter Thomas, and Gillian Hart have all stressed this point.[12] Precisely because Gramsci was  both a theorist of the (particular) Italian situation and an intellectual of the Communist International (with its universalizing ambitions), he was committed to translating – transporting and modifying – concepts and strategies across national and continental borders instead of fixating them in culturalist-civilizational terms. For him, historical materialism was about linking the particular and the universal in a dialectical, not relativist or abstractly universalist fashion. In our world which witnesses a return of civilizational angst about the decline of the ‘West’ (something Gramsci criticized in his time) and where many forces work towards making the U.S. American doctrine about the Clash of Civilization a living reality, Gramsci’s approach (which, as Sekyi-Otu has pointed out, echoes the partisan-universal orientation of dialectical anti-colonialists such as Frantz Fanon) is as timely as ever.

  • In what ways can the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2011 be analysed through the prism of what you call Gramsci’s ‘spatial historicism’, that is, his nuanced historico-geographical method ?


At the time, two things struck me most about the Euro-American media coverage of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that kicked out dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak. Giving voice to official U.S. American and French support for the existing regimes and the concomitant hostility towards the rebels, this coverage often had a racist-civilizational undertone. Accordingly, the uprising was seen to reflect the time-less but explosive contradictions of ‘the Arab street’ (fatalistic passivity alternating unpredicatbly with violent fanaticism), which, in this Orientalist view, made authoritarian rule necessary in the Middle East. This representation (as well as basic journalistic convenience) explained the focus of media coverage on the squares and streets that were claimed by mass mobilizations then: Tahrir and Kasbah squares in Cairo and Tunis as well as the Avenue Habib Bourgiba in Tunis.

This central city bias has also been at the heart of many much more enthusiastic academic treatments of the 2011 political revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Some of these (often very good) analyses have allowed us to see these revolts as the first (or perhaps second, following the Iranian mobilizations of 2009) step in a transnational sequence of the revolts of ‘squares and streets’ reaching across the Mediterranean (to Greece and Spain) and the Atlantic (to the U.S.A., Canada and Brazil) and back (to Turkey). To correct these one-sided readings, Gramsci invites us to do two things: (1) replace culturalist readings of the revolutions with conjunctural analyses of historical change and continuity; and (2) broaden narrowly urban (that is, metropolitan, big-city) readings with a multi-scalar analysis of central city revolt, within which the national question remains important. In this way, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings appear as moments within a crisis-ridden historical conjuncture that combines multiple scales and spaces and articulates a range of historical rhythms.

Historically, the Tunisian and Egyptian demands for ‘dignity’ (to speak with Sadri Khiari)[13] expressed the terminal political crisis of structural adjustment regimes (and their imperial supporters). By 2010, the capacity of these regimes to rule had been hollowed out by absurdly personalized forms of corruption as well as the confidence and collective capacities built by rounds of opposition that preceded 2010-2011 (and that were typically neglected by media coverage). Since the 1980s, these regimes had already recast the contradictions of the nationalist era of the 1950s and 1960s that had reached a crisis point in the 1970s. In this longer view, we can see more clearly see the comparatively specific imperial and neo-colonial dimensions that shaped the recent Tunisian and Egyptian revolts.

Geographically, one may say with Gramsci (as well as Lefebvre) that the most visible aspects of the uprisings – the mobilizations in the streets of Tunis and Cairo – were themselves a product of wider geographies of struggle. Protesters claimed ‘the right to the city’ not because they emerged from or wanted to occupy permanently the central spaces of the two capital cities but because they represented claims to political power that expressed a convergence of struggles: strikes and protests in other metropolitan neighbourhoods as well as social spaces in peripheral zones. In Tunisia, the most well-know of these zones were the mining districts and agricultural towns in the geographical centre of this very unevenly urbanized country: the areas in and around Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa where the uprising started before reaching the coastal zones in the East (Sfax) and Northeast (Tunis) of the country.

Writing these lines reminds me of a research project that remains to be pursued: a comparative analysis of Gramsci and Ibn Khaldoun. (In Tunis, Khaldoun’s statue stands in the middle of l’Avenue Habib Bourgiba, right across from the French embassy. Engulfed by the mobilized masses in 2011, the statue has since been fenced off with barbed wire to help secure the embassy in a move that is surely highly symbolic of the developments since 2011). I was first made aware of the plausibility of such an analysis in the early 1990s, in a graduate seminar taught by Robert Cox, the ‘founder’ of a Gramscian approach to international relations. In one of the earliest historical materialist texts, Khaldoun’s Muqadimmah discussed the interplay between town-based Arab-Muslim dynasties and their nomadic-pastoral hinterlands in order to understand the crisis of rule of these dynasties in the 14th century. Written almost six centuries before Gramsci, Khaldoun’s text provides a striking cross-Mediterranean echo to the Sardinian’s analysis of late medieval Italy, and, indeed, a crucial reference in any project to understand urbanization and politics in the Maghreb today from the perspective of the longue durée.


[1] Gramsci’s Historicism. Routledge, London, 1990.

[2] “From the Nation to the People of a Potential New Historic Bloc”, International Gramsci Journal 2.1. (2017) 52-88.

[3] For a critique, see Stefan Kipfer and Mustafa Dikeç, “Peripheries against peripheries? Against spatial reification,” in Massive Suburbanization Eds. Murat Ucoglu, Murat Guney & Roger Keil (forthcoming).

[4] Voir notamment: Stefan Kipfer, « Hegemony, Everyday Life, and Difference: How Lefebvre urbanized Gramsci”, dans: Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom et Christian Schmid (dir.), Space, Difference, and Everyday Life: Henri Lefebvre and Radical Politics, Routledge, New-York/Londres, 2008, pp. 193-2011.

[5] Le Marxisme du 20ème Siècle. Paris: Syllepse, 2009.

[6] Voir : Stefan Kipfer, « City, Country, Hegemony : Antonio Gramsci’s Spatial Historicism », dans : Michael Ekers, Gillian Hart, Stefan Kipfer et Alex Loftus (dir.), Gramsci. Space, Nature, Politics  Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2013.

[7] “Race, class, and religion: Gramsci’s conception of subalternity” in Cosimo Zene dir. The Political Philosophies of Antonio Gramsci and B. R. Ambedkar: Itineraries of Dalits and Subalterns (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[8] See for example Srivastava, Neelam and Baidik Bhattacharya eds. The Postcolonial Gramsci (New York: Routledge, 2012);) Special issue on The Postcolonial Gramsci,Postcolonial Studies 16.1., 2013.

[9] Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” In D. Morley & K.-­‐H. Chen (eds.), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge, London, 1996), pp. 411–440; The Hard Road to Renewal (London: Verso, 1988).

[10]Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2011)

[11] Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996).

[12] Peter Thomas ; The Gramscian Moment (Brill, Leiden, 2009) ; Domenico Losurdo, Der Marxismus Antonio Gramscis(Hamburg : VSA, 2012); Gillian Hart, “Political Society and its Discontents: Translating Passive Revolution in India and South Africa Today” Economic and Political Weekly L: 43 (October 24, 2015); Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Gramsci’s Political Thought(Chicago: Haymarket, 2013).

[13] “The Tunisian Revolution did not come out of nowhere”, interview with Béatrice Hibou http://www.decolonialtranslation.com/english/the-tunisian-revolution-did-not-come-out-of-nowhere.html

Memory Politics in Tbilisi

Published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation  Feb. 2018

Identity Construction and the Politics of Memory

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to the creation of 15 independent states that faced the necessity to construct their new identity – both internally and externally. The latter would pave the way to joining the “international community”. “To some extent, identities create opportunities and constraints for foreign policy-making, and also frame relations between countries.”[1]

The identity construction of a new state is a complex process requiring special instruments. Modern political communities use a collectively shared notion of the past as one of the main tools. Appealing to the past is a convenient instrument and resource for the legitimization of the existing political order. How the shared past is conceptualized and processed constitutes the politics of memory within a society.

In its turn, the politics of memory uses various instruments for the construction of a shared notion of the past. The official historical narrative is the principal of such instruments and is complemented, disseminated, and popularized by others. Among them, nation-wide holidays and commemoration days, school programs, national symbols, the creation of memorial sites and museums are the most efficient tools for the instrumentalization of the past and the construction of the state’s official narrative of history.

Undoubtedly, in this process those who carry out and experience the politics of memory have to deal with the heritage of the previous periods as well. “The history of most post-Soviet countries is characterized by the rise and triumph of nationalism and a radical revision of approaches to the history writing that dominated in the previous periods.”[2]Across the post-Soviet space, these revisions brought an overhaul of not only the official historical narratives but also the entire memory landscapes of the societies. This analysis looks into the post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscape in Tbilisi by re-visiting its memorial sites and monuments.

Georgia: History Revaluation

Caucasus Edition

The area of today’s Rike Park in the Soviet period. Electronic copy of the photograph obtained from the National Archives of Georgia.

Georgia was one of the first countries that gained independence from the Soviet Union. Ever since, the state is seeking to form its identity. Like virtually every former Soviet Union country, Georgia started a revaluation of history as part of this quest. The political elites had to provide a memory project aimed at establishing a new foundation narrative, or a new “story” of beginnings, bringing back the “lost” historical memory[3]. The revaluation of history manifested also in commemoration policies and the memory landscape. Before delving into the examination of memorial sites and monuments in Tbilisi, let’s look at a few milestone events catalyzing this revaluation of history.

From Shevardnadze to Saakashvili

In Georgia, due to the chaotic political processes of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, a new state politics of memory was not systematic or targeted. The ethno-political conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia followed by their independence claims as well as the economic and political crises in the country drew all efforts towards policies aimed at stability. Consequently, in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither attention nor resources were directed towards conceptualizing and implementing a new politics of memory.

The shaky times of the first decade of independence unfolded under the rule of one of the most prominent Soviet politicians Eduard Shevardnadze, who used to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. This period ended with the so-called Rose Revolution highlighted by massive protests against the results of the 2003 parliamentary election, skewed in favor of political parties supporting Shevardnadze. The name of the Rose Revolution derives from the culminating moment of the protests, when demonstrators led by Mikheil Saakashvili stormed the Parliament session with red roses in hands. Shevardnadze resigned in November 2003, and Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential elections.

The Rose Revolution

The Rose Revolution and the developments that followed marked a new direction for the independent Georgian state. The Saakashvili government made an unambiguous choice to prioritize integration with Western institutions and adoption of its system of values. As Saakashvili took the presidential office, the politics of memory emerged as the key instrument for constructing a new, modern, and pro-Western Georgia.

History was the first target of revision. The events of the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were reassessed, reinterpreted, and revised. Even though since 2003 Georgia has changed 3 presidents and even switched from the presidential system to the parliamentary system, the politics of memory of the country remains sufficiently consistent. Perhaps the August 2008 war was the next milestone cementing this politics.

The August 2008 War

The August 2008 war played a crucial role in the formation of the new Georgian identity and became a catalyzer for the revision of history. The August 2008 events were perhaps the junction point where not only the relations between Russia and Georgia split into periods of “before” and “after”, but the entire Georgian politics of memory and identity.

It is true that starting from the early 1990s, Georgia’s major foreign policy objective has been balancing Russian power and influence, which is seen as key to enhancing the country’s national security. Yet this foreign policy was the result of the quest, driven by political elites, for a new national identity rather than pragmatic considerations[4]. Thus, the 5-day war of 2008 was a “logical” extension of the Georgian identity-driven foreign policy struggling to be within Western and Euro-Atlantic spheres of influence, contrary to Russia’s aspirations to keep Georgia in its own zone of influence. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the events of August 2008 reinforced this identity-driven foreign policy. The Georgian politics of identity and memory turned into a radical rejection of the country’s Soviet past and of any Russian influence at large.

One of the consequences of the war was the adoption in May 2011 of the Charter of Freedom with three main tenets: strengthening national security, prohibiting Soviet and Fascist ideologies and eliminating any symbols associated with them, and eventually creating a special commission to maintain a black-list of persons suspected of collusion with foreign special forces.

These events both influenced the emergence of a new politics of memory and were influenced by it. Moreover, their reverberations spread across the physical appearance of Tbilisi. As we view the transformations of the post-Soviet memory landscape, manifested in the memorial sites and monuments of Tbilisi, we have considered both those created in the Soviet period and those constructed in the independence period.

Soviet Memorial Sights of Tbilisi

The 70 years of Soviet rule had a huge impact on the political, economic, and cultural domains of life in all Soviet Republics as well as the countries of the communist bloc. Bolsheviks, coming to power after the fall of the Russian Empire and the emergence of another empire – the Soviet Union, started creating a new cultural heritage that would reflect the communist view on political and social structures, their meanings and functions. The memory landscape and urban environment of the Soviet Union were the direct projections of the prevailing political system and its values. And of course, Tbilisi was not an exception.

As everywhere else in the communist world, in Tbilisi too there sprung up monuments bearing the mark of the Soviet political and social system. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the meaning of those monuments and even their very construction was revised.

“[…] it is not a surprise that during times of political turbulence and change, some of the monuments gain an extra meaning and significance and become objects symbolizing or externalizing societal dynamics and changes.”[5]

The extra meaning and significance of monuments in times of political turbulence can mean both the construction and celebration of new ones as well as the destruction and demise of old ones. The early 1990’s was a period of Georgia’s release from the Soviet past and many monuments embodying the Soviet culture were dismantled from Tbilisi. The Rose Revolution and the August 2008 war brought a new wave of revolutionary changes to the urban environment of Tbilisi.

And yet, despite all the effort of the new Georgian political system to erase the legacy of the Soviet past, rather than to deal with the past, there is still political, social, and cultural memory that persists. And of course, there are still monuments of Tbilisi that date back to the Soviet times. In the new political system, these monuments gain new interpretations, meanings, and significance for the Georgian society.

We have examined two monuments erected during the Soviet times, preserved until now, and – in our opinion – significant for their social and political value. We have looked at how they have been reframed within the modern political system of Georgia and the construction of the new Georgian identity.

The Mother of Georgia Monument on the Sololaki Hill

The monument Mother of Georgia or Kartlis Deda was designed by sculptor Elguja Amashukeli and erected on the top of the Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. The 20-meter-tall aluminum statue, wearing a Georgian national dress and holding a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other, is said to symbolize the Georgian national character; wine stands for hospitality and the sword represents every Georgian’s strive for freedom.

The notion of a “mother of the nation” and embodiment of this notion into a monument of a woman is not unique to Georgia; many states of the former Soviet Union have the very same statue. Moreover, these statues are all in the style of socialist realism hovering over Kiev, Volgograd, Yerevan, and other cities of the post-Soviet space.

Caucasus Edition

The “Mother Armenia” monument in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Tatev Bidzhoyan.

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland Calls” monument in Volgograd, Russia. Photo Credits: Yuliya Drachenko, taken from https://goo.gl/jMVczY.

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland” monument in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo Credits: Maria Karapetyan.

Nevertheless, the modern Georgian society by and large does not perceive Kartlis Deda as a cultural remnant of the Soviet Union but rather as a collective image of the Georgian people. Not manifesting a specific individual, Kartlis Deda was easily integrated into the new national discourse and is supposed to be a figure that every Georgian could identify themselves with. Mother Georgia is “the most important woman in all Georgia: its protector and a standing definition to others of what Georgia is”[6].

Memorial of Glory in Vake Park

Another colossal monument erected during the very last years of the Soviet Rule, more specifically in 1985, is the Memorial of Glory, dedicated to the 300,000 citizens of Georgia that lost their lives during the years of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the victorious triumph of May 9 over Nazi Germany.

The then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze conceived the idea of the monument, aiming to prove his loyalty to the central Soviet government. This was an effective move since “Victory Day has become the quintessential ritual of a Soviet culture and society in which Russia – or rather, the Russian-speaking world – was presented as its epicenter”[7].

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, pursuing de-Sovietization policies, made efforts to change the meaning of the monument and the significance of the victory day itself. For example, in 2005, he celebrated the victory in World War II, and no longer in reference to the Great Patriotic War, with the US President George Bush in Liberty Square, and not in Vake Park. A further attempt to downplay the Soviet meaning of the monument was the multiple depiction of the modern Georgian flag on the lower part of the monument.

In 2011, in another move aimed at re-focusing attention between historical events, Saakashvili’s government initiated a project that would mount a new memorial in Vake Park, dedicated to the 1924 anti-Soviet riots. The site was to commemorate Kote Abkhazi, a well-known leader of the liberal nobility of Georgia, and his division that the Communist regime shot in Vake Park in 1923[8]. The installation of the monument was planned for February 2012. However, the monument was not erected. The Georgian government that came after the defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili’s political party returned the celebration of the victory in World War II to Vake Park. Nevertheless, in both official and public discourses, the celebration is said to commemorate the victory in World War II, and not in the Great Patriotic War.

Memorial Sites of Modern Tbilisi

Caucasus Edition

The cityscape of Tbilisi from Rike Park. Photo Credits: Katie Sartania.

Modern Tbilisi is a dynamic city with a multi-layer architecture. It is an eclectic mix of the medieval, the imperial, the Soviet, and the modern. The most remarkable monuments of the memory landscape in the capital of independent Georgia were constructed after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The then president Mikheil Saakashvili and his government paid a special attention to the politics of memory and symbols.

We have examined three monuments crowning the city-scape of Tbilisi and that – in our opinion – best illustrate the new politics of memory of independent Georgia.

The Statute of Saint George on Freedome Square

The statue of Saint George tops the column in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi. The square itself, or rather its name, deserves a small excursion into its own layers of transformation. Its name unveils the turns in Georgian history. When Georgia was part of the Russian Empire, the square bore the name of Knyaz Ivan Paskevich-Erivanskiy and was called Erivanskiy Square. This name lasted until the Sovietization of Georgia. In the Soviet era, it was initially named after Lavrentiy Beria and later on renamed after Vladimir Lenin, with his statue erected in the square in 1956. Following Georgia’s independence, the place was renamed Freedom Square. This was the name of the square at the time of the first Georgian republic that existed in 1981-1921, between the fall of the Russian Empire and Sovietization. Despite this change that bridges the old and the new, even today, some of the older residents of Tbilisi call the place Lenin’s Square.

In the place of the dismantled statue of Lenin’s, a new one dedicated to Saint George was mounted on November 23 in 2006. Designed by the well-known Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the monument embodies Saint George killing a dragon.

In the new political mythology of Georgia, Saint George is not only the patron saint of Georgia and its protector, it is the symbol of Georgia’s fight for freedom and independence. In this new interpretation, the defeated dragon on the monument symbolizes the imperial legacy – both Russian and the Soviet. Hence the monument not only echoes the distant mythological past but also the recent past. Moreover, as literary scholar Zaal Andronikashvili argues, it promises a future victory as well. The mythological past is projected onto the modern political context and foreshadows the future[9].

Heroes Memorial

One more remarkable example of Mikheil Saakashvili’s sophisticated politics of symbols was the opening of the Heroes Memorial on the Heroes Square in 2009 right after the August 2008 war. The 51-meter memorial is dedicated to Georgians who died in the fight against the Red Army in 1921, the anti-Soviet revolt of 1924, the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993, and the August 2008 war in South Ossetia. Around 4,000 names of soldiers are engraved on the marble tiles of the memorial.

The Heroes Memorial not only fuses together the past events by the mechanism of analogy but also alludes to the future. As former president Saakashvili noted, the memorial is not only for the heroes who have already died for their country but for the heroes who will sacrifice their lives for the country in the future as well. In his speech at the opening ceremony, he made a clear point: “If we want Georgia to exist, we should all be ready to put on this uniform [referring to the military uniform he was wearing]; we should all be ready to take arms in the decisive moment; and we should all be ready to fall on our land and ready to inscribe our names on the empty parts of this monument. That is the genetic code and historic experience of our country and a major guarantee of our future”[10].

Earlier, in 2003, near the same square, another memorial to Georgians fallen in the wars of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was put up again following the initiative of Mikheil Saakashvili who was then the head of the Tbilisi City Council[11].

The opening of both memorials gave two specific messages made by the government of Georgia to its society and the international community. The first message is that Georgia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are absolute values. And the second message was about the government’s perception of who is perceived as a threat to those absolute values. The Russian support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s, as well as the August 2008 war followed by the recognition of their independence, contributed most to the formation of the perception of Russia as the number one foe of Georgia.

The Statue of Ronald Reagan in Rike Park

New memorial sites and monuments appeared in Tbilisi not only to mark the distancing from the Soviet past but also to mark new alliances. The relatively new statue of the 40th US President Ronald Reagan is an example of that element of the new politics of memory and symbols in Georgia. Unveiled in November 2011 near the Mtkvari River in Rike Park, the statute depicts Ronald Reagan, sitting on a bench with crossed legs, smiling, and looking off into the distance towards north, perhaps in the direction of Russia? Inscribed on the bench is one of Reagan’s remarkable phrases: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”.

Following the pattern, Mikheil Saakashvili presented the statue as a symbol of freedom and victory over the biggest evil – the Soviet Union. During his speech on the opening ceremony of the statue he said in reference to the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s words: “the leader of our invader state has announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union – the Soviet Union that was brought down by Ronald Reagan – was the 20th century’s biggest geopolitical catastrophe. […] While they [Russia] have restored the anthem of the Soviet Union, we are unveiling a statue of Ronald Reagan as a sign of the difference between our ideology and theirs”[12]. Referring to the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Mikheil Saakashvili once again associated the Soviet Union with Russia only and made an attempt to distance Georgia from its undesirable past.

Dealing – Away – With the Past

A changing politics of memory is always indicative of a changing political course and is called to justify that course. In this analysis, we looked at a number of memorial sites in Tbilisi both from the soviet and post-Soviet periods, analyzing them from the perspective of the modern Georgian political system, the quest for and construction of a new Georgian identity, and the politics of memory and symbols.

The revaluation of Georgia’s past in the Imperial Russian and Soviet realms, the celebration of freedom and independence, and Georgia’s turn towards a pro-Western path of development are at the core of this politics. Some old monuments that have no hope of surviving in the new system of coordinates are demolished. Others are revised and reinterpreted into the new paradigm. Yet new ones are mounted and unveiled.


[1] Kakachia, Kornely. 2013. “European, Asian, or Eurasian?: Georgian Identity and the struggle for Euro-Atlantic Integration.” In Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security, 41-53.

[2] Kirchanov, Maksim. 2017. “Politics of Memory as Historical Politics in Georgia: From Desovietisation to the Invention of the Sovietness.” Georgia Monitor. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://www.georgiamonitor.org/upload/kyrchanoff_vsu_mgimo_2017_engl.pdf.

[3] Toria, Malkhaz. 2014. “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia in 1921 and the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008. Historical Analogy as a Memory Project.” In The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: The First Georgian Republic and Its Successors, edited by Stephen F. Jones, 316-335. New York: Routledge. Accessed January 6, 2018. https://goo.gl/dHLJw3.

[4] Kakachia, Kornely. 2012. “Georgia’s Identity-Driven Foreign Policy and the Struggle for Its European Destiny.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 4-7. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/pdfs/CAD-37-4-7.pdf.

[5] Javakhishvili, Jana. 2016. “Stones Speaking: Reading Conflicting Discourses in the Urban Environment.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 8-11. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://www.laender-analysen.de/cad/pdf/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest80.pdf.

[6] Constable, David. 2012. “Kartlis Deda: The Importance of Georgia’s Most Famous Woman‏.” Huffington Post. October 29. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/david-j-constable/kartlis-deda-the-importan_b_1776626.html.

[7] Edwards, Maxim. 2016. “Victory Day in Tbilisi.” Open Democracy. May 10. Accessed January 6, 2018. https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/maxim-edwards/victory-day-in-tbilisi.

[8] 2011. “In Vake Park the Memorial to be Installed in Commemoration of 1924 Riot.” GHN News Agency. August 28. Accessed January 7, 2018. http://eng.ghn.ge/news-4309.html.

[9] Andronikashvili, Zaal. 2011. “The Glory of Feebleness. The Martyrological Paradigm in Georgian Political Theology.” In Identity Studies, Volume 3, 92-119. Tbilisi: Ilia State University. Accessed January 7, 2018. http://ojs.iliauni.edu.ge/index.php/identitystudies/article/view/27.

[10] 2010. “Saakashvili Addresses Nation on Independence Day.” Civil.Ge. May 26. Accessed January 7, 2018. http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22340.

[11] 2004. “В Тбилиси у мемориала воинам, погибшим в боях в Абхазии и Южной Осетии, установлен почетный караул.” Ria Novosti. February 26. Accessed January 7, 2018. https://ria.ru/society/20040226/535327.html.

[12] 2011. “Ronald Reagan Statue Unveiled in Tbilisi.” Civil.Ge. November 23. Accessed January 7, 2018. http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24178%E2%80%8F.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** All photos of this story were taken by Katie Sartania and Tatev Bidzhoyan unless credited otherwise.

*** This story is part of a series on post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscapes, memorial sites, and monuments in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku.

Designing the Soviet Union

Soviet architecture had diverse and ambitious ideas for transforming the spaces people live, work, and travel in.

An abandoned Soviet-era bus stop in Chiatura, Georgia. orientalizing / Flickr

For the last few years, the best-selling architectural coffee-table books have all shared the same subject: Soviet buildings. They are part of a strange but popular cult, where the ruins of the Soviet Union are contemplated and documented as an alien landscape.Agata Pyzik, in her 2014 diatribe Poor But Sexy, describes this trend as a form of intra-European Orientalism. Books like this year’s success story — Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops — explore what she calls an “obsolete ecology,” an irradiated yet magical wasteland, an Urbex paradise littered with wonderfully futuristic ruins. It is a seductive approach, and many Western writers (like me) have joined in.

Herwig’s contribution is a gorgeous example: page after page of bus stops, in an elegant, almost pocket-sized hardback volume, with a terrific design by the Anglo Sovietophile publisher FUEL.

But why bus stops? Because Herwig discovered that the long, straight, often potholed highways that run between the former Soviet Union’s big cities are dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands, of architecturally imaginative bus shelters.

There are none in the cities themselves — urban bus shelters are far more likely to be the sort of metal and glass canopies found in any metropolis. But tiny towns, villages, and hamlets commissioned, through processes that the two introductions to the book manage to leave totally unexplored, a series of exceptionally striking and original designs, in a raw style that combines the local vernacular (Baltic, Central Asian, etc.), concrete futurism (all jagged angles and cantilevers), and bright colors.

It’s fabulous stuff, but to paraphrase Brecht, a photograph of a Soviet bus stop tells us almost nothing about the society that brought it into being.

Tellingly, many of these hit books are made by professional photographers who have chanced upon their subjects — something Herwig shares with the French photographer Frederic Chaubin, author of the smash hit CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. This means they don’t share the compulsion that an academic or journalist might have to include editorial condemnations of the Soviet Union.

Until recently the subject has produced little good work in the English language. Prewar Soviet architecture has been well-served with studies by the likes of Catherine Cooke, Selim Khan-Magomedov, and Vladimir Paperny, but post-Stalin design has been oddly obscure. However, several recent publications combine the innovation of Soviet aesthetics with excellent writing. There’s no excuse to just stare at pictures of incredible Soviet ruins when there are books that can tell you what they are and why they’re there.

Theory and Practice

Zurab Tsereteli — one of the designers of Herwig’s totally awesome Soviet bus stops —maintained a successful career well into the post-Soviet period. The Russian-based Georgian sculptor shifted from expressive, mosaic-clad organic modernism to a monstrous form of figurative, neo-imperialist sculpture in bronze, leaving a trail of horrors in his wake.

Moscow’s Peter the Great statue is Tsereteli’s most notorious creation, set on its own artificial island. German scholar Philipp Meuser christened this style — which combines late Tsarist, high Stalinist and Las Vegas aesthetics — capitalist realism in other words.

As editor at Dom Publishers, Meuser has been responsible for an impressive program of Soviet and post-Soviet architecture publications. In just the last year, these have included a series of city guides for the Latvian capital Riga, one of the most western of ex-Soviet cities, and for Slavutych, an extraordinary planned city in northern Ukraine designed to rehouse workers displaced by the Chernobyl disaster.

The small housing estates in Slavutych were “donated” by various Soviet republics. You can find a Tallinn Quarter, a Baku Quarter, a Leningrad Quarter and so forth, each reflecting the styles and spatial ideas of their namesake republics. The guide, from Ukrainian architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina, strikingly demonstrates how diverse Soviet architecture had become on the eve of its collapse.

However, other recent Dom books, such as Hidden Urbanism — on the astonishing underground palaces of the Moscow Metro — reveal a remarkable level of continuity in Soviet design. The subway stations all share a similar, space-age crypt idiom, whether they were built in 1985 or in 2005.

Another recent Dom book, Meuser and Dmitrij Zadorin’s Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR, focuses on the flipside of special projects like the Metro, Slavutych, and the bus stops. Instead, it examines the immense prefabricated house program, the largest experiment in industrialized housing ever attempted. This deadpan, obsessive-compulsive book attempts to catalog each apartment building series, which were rolled out of specialized, assembly-line factories like automobiles.

Towards a Typology of Mass Housing reveals that by the 1970s Soviet architecture had almost entirely eliminated the figure of the individual architect, who traditionally works on a specific design for a specific site. For this massive urban housing initiative, the USSR transformed architects into industrial designers, except when it came to the creation of showcase public buildings.

Some of Dom’s recent publications focus on these prestige designers — like Felix Novikov, a mercurial figure whose career included Stalinist palaces for the nomenklatura in the 1940s, Khrushchev-era mid-century modernism like the Moscow Palace of Pioneers, and neo-Persian bathhouses and bazaars in Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps the saddest of these books, Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Program, focuses on the engineer-architect who designed the ergonomic interiors and streamlined casings for space capsules and stations. Balashova created real, constructed human environments that floated in space or rotated in orbit, but her most recent work consists of watercolors of her family in Tsarist-era military costumes. Whatever else could be said about it, Soviet collectivism made people do things that they wouldn’t have considered possible, before or since.

One of the few books in the Moscow Institute of Modernism’s series of publications on Soviet architecture to be translated into English is Anna Bronovitskaya and Olga Kazakova’s heavy volume on another prestige architect, Leonid Pavlov.

All the facets of Soviet architecture appear on his resume: he began as a Constructivist, passed through the Socialist Realist period of opulent, elite classicism, and then found his metier in the 1960s as an architect for Gosplan, the agency that officially planned the Soviet economy.

As readers of Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty will already know, in the 1960s the Soviet Union made an abortive attempt to computerize its economy in hopes of solving the socialist calculation problem. Pavlov designed several Moscow-based computer centers for Gosplan, using a pure, mathematical, and finely detailed modern idiom of clean lines and precisely calculated grids, sometimes integrated with abstract sculpture — a Soviet cousin to postwar America’s corporate architecture.

However, the construction industry couldn’t keep up with the pace of Pavlov’s ideas, and most of the centers were completed at least a decade after their design. By that time computers had shrunk, and the computer rooms were changed into conference rooms or left unused; an apt metaphor for the gulf between theory and practice in Soviet planning.

Pavlov’s late work, tellingly, was devoted to sacred spaces for the cult of Lenin — like the Lenin Funerary Train Museum in central Moscow or the Lenin Museum at Gorki, where Lenin lived and slowly died in the early 1920s. These designs borrow from ancient religious architecture and Miesian high modernism in an attempt to create an appropriate architectural language for a secular cult.

One historical study and one city guide — both published in the last year — provide the most interesting analyses of what Soviet architecture actually was and what (if anything) sets it apart from ordinary capitalist architecture.

The first is Richard Anderson’s Russia: Modern Architectures in History, which presents a panoramic history of pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet architecture from the late nineteenth century to the present. It starts with Victorian eclecticism, “style modern,” and Constructivism, then turns to the eclectic, anti-modernist Socialist Realism of the Stalin era and the standardized and plural modernisms of the 1960s through the 1980s, and ends with a very mixed picture of contemporary Russian architecture, dominated — especially outside Moscow — by an overbearing, unplanned, and speculative monumentality.

Whereas the book covers profound social changes, Anderson pulls out an unexpected thread of continuity, as institutions such as Mosprojekt — the municipal architecture-construction department of Brezhnev-era Moscow — reinvented themselves in the 1990s by designing horrific mirror-glass and marble edifices for the new rich.

Anderson’s book also adroitly uncovers some of the lesser-known aspects of twentieth-century “socialist architecture.” Beyond the famous icons of the avant-garde, Russia: Modern Architectures in History takes in the garden cities in Lenin’s Moscow, the oddly Finnish low-rise housing in post-Blockade Leningrad, the entirely new territory Brezhnev attempted to create through a series of planned towns strung along the Baikal-Amur Mainline, and the various imperial exports found both within the Soviet Union — in the Soviet “East” of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — and in the imperial baroque style that represented the central power in Eastern European capitals like Warsaw, East Berlin, and Riga.

The most politicized recent book on Soviet and post-Soviet architecture deals precisely with this imperial legacy. The collectively produced The Book of Kyivwas published to mark the city’s biennale last year, largely by affiliates of the Visual Culture Research Centre (VCRC), a leftist non-governmental organization.

The Book of Kyiv works as a guide to the city by presenting a series of carefully chosen buildings, almost all from the Soviet era: a ghost mall known as the House of Clothes; a Metro station left half-finished just outside the city center; the National Museum of Ukraine, done in the Stalinist Roman Empire style; the haunting, organic Crematorium, designed in the 1970s; various emblematic spaces like the former Dzherzhinsky Square, which features a flying-saucer-shaped Institute (featured in no less than Chaubin’s CCCP) and a gigantic monument to the Cheka, only demolished last month; and various soon-to-be de-Communized mosaics and monuments.

Among the spaces that feature in The Book of Kyiv is the dramatically authoritarian, late Stalin-era Independence Square, best known by the Ukrainian word for square: maidan. The VCRC supported the 2013–14 uprising there, and combine this with a sharp critique of the Ukrainian built environment’s de-Communization, now underway through a legally enforced process of renaming and vandalism.

But what makes The Book of Kyiv a real antidote for the likes of Soviet Bus Stopsis its sympathetic account of Soviet architecture and planning, which lets equal stress fall on its failures, continuities, and successes, and trains a ruthless eye on the capitalist city, which has survived by cannibalizing the Soviet legacy, building on its interstices, slathering its public spaces with advertising and cheap commerce, straining its infrastructure, and maintaining a violent divide between rich and poor.

This becomes all the more poignant when it’s enforced on an urbanism that, for all its serious flaws made a serious attempt to create an egalitarian metropolis defined by public space, equality, and planning. It is in that contrast that you can begin to understand what that elusive thing — Soviet architecture — actually was, and what distinguishes it from capitalist architecture. Appropriately, the book is made for the pocket, rather than the coffee table.

What is the post-Soviet?

By   Samuel Goff

Published in The Calvert Journal

What’s the concrete connection between Tallinn and Tashkent, Prague and Pristina, Dubrovnik and Dushanbe? All of these places share a 20th-century history of socialist government. Whether this began in 1917 or 1945, and whether it is viewed now as something to celebrate or something to mourn, this has to be our starting point. This might seem like basic stuff, but it’s important to bear it in mind, because it reminds us that what we call “post-Soviet” was part of a global cultural economy; if anything, lumping all of eastern Europe together is insufficient — we should be talking about Vietnam, Afghanistan, KoreaIran, a whole host of African states too.

Even individual national cultures contain multitudes too often ignored. Take Russia: cultural tastemakers in the West might know to cite Gosha Rubchinskiy’s postmodern streetwear in fashion, or Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere miserablism in film. How many know about the multi-ethnic hybrid threads of Uzbek-Korean designer J.Kim, or the Islamic craft-inspired Asiya Bareeva? Or the breakout work of the twenty-something director Kantemir Balagov, who wowed Cannes last year with Closeness, his dissection of religious tensions in the North Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkiria?

Focusing in on shared details while keeping the broader global picture in mind — that is what lies behind the designation of “post-Soviet” culture. As Anastasiia Fedorova, co-curator of Calvert 22 Foundations forthcoming exhibition Post-Soviet Visions: Image and Identity in the New Eastern Europe puts it here, much of the art on display is imbued with “the feeling that witnessing a historical transition can become a bonding experience.” If we follow this logic, then what makes “post-Soviet” culture vibrant is that it demonstrates how international events interact with local circumstance.


This being said, the question “what is the post-Soviet” remains a teasing and frustrating one. “Soviet” cannot be an objective reference point; it means too many different things to too many different people. Is it a strictly defined political identity? An aesthetic? A brand? Is it synonymous with lost glories, or with national tragedy?

What makes “post-Soviet” culture vibrant is that it demonstrates how international events interact with local circumstance

It’s worth acknowledging that our use of the term “post-Soviet” in this special report — and in Calvert 22 Foundation’s forthcoming exhibition — is problematic. We are not limiting our scope to artists, architects and designers from the 15 (or 16, or 17, depending on who’s counting) successor states to the Soviet Union. We’re using the term to refer to works from Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and more; no doubt some of the very artists whose work we are showcasing would object to the label. Today, 29 years after the tumults of 1989 and 27 years after the dissolution of the USSR, there is justifiable anger that the historically inaccurate designation “Soviet” is still applied to the whole of eastern Europe, a continuation of the old Cold War trope that all life beyond the Iron Curtain was monolithic and dictated by Moscow. And this frustration grows with time as 29 independent states get on with the painful business of nation-building.

So why use the term “post-Soviet” at all? After all, the Calvert 22 Foundation exists to dispel old clichés about eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia — we even began using the phrase “New East” to provide a more neutral and forward-thinking way of describing the region we cover. The answer, perhaps, is precisely because it’s awkward, or provocative. “New East” lacks the relativity of “post-Soviet”, the implication that, even if we resent the fact, there are parallels and links to be drawn between states and peoples that are sometimes bitterly divided. And “post-Soviet” also forces us to think about the position of outside observers, looking in on a region that they may little understand, and the presumptions and prejudices they (we) bring to the table.


We can look to national cinema culture for an example. Both Georgia (which was part of the Soviet Union) and Romania (which decidedly wasn’t) have produced cinematic “New Waves” in the last 15 years; both of these Waves have been responses to the economic and social collapses that followed the Soviet/socialist era, and each has been incubated by the similar-yet-distinct crises that afflicted each country. Georgia had a rich filmmaking tradition and an established industry that was laid low by the civil war that followed independence from the Soviet Union; its directors found their collective voice again precisely by articulating the violence and disorder of the period. (The loss of so many young men in the war has subsequently contributed towards an even Newer New Wave — a raft of films by or about women forced to step into the roles vacated by absent fathers and sons.) Romania, on the other hand, had comparatively little in the way of domestic filmmaking tradition, but has since managed to create a space for itself on the global market with its patented brand of low-budget, naturalist dramas that delve into the social dislocations created by the disasters of the late Ceausescu regime and the hardships of the 90s; a cottage industry that has garnered international acclaim for the likes of Cristian Mungiu and Corneliu Porumboiu. Two examples of “post-Soviet” national cinema, distinct yet related.

To acknowledge the role played here by the fall of socialism is to shine perhaps too bright a light on the role of the West in creating and curating a post-Soviet aesthetic

Of course, if “post-Soviet” is synonymous with “post-socialist” then it also refers to a distinct ideological period. Post-Soviet culture is produced and consumed in the wake of a fearsome political shift, a restructuring of people’s understandings of the world; as Fedorova puts it, this is the culture of “youth caught between two stagnations” whose parents’ life stories sounds like “distant fairytales”. The socialist past is omnipresent in this art; sometimes it looms large, as in the ongoing western fascination with crumbling communist monoliths such as Bulgaria’s Buzludzha Monument. At other times it’s a vague shadow. And often it’s violently disavowed — for instance, in the recent wave of nationalist historical dramas pushed by Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice government. And if this ideological dimension is something which is often elided in conversations about post-Soviet culture in the West, then that is because to acknowledge the role played here by the fall of socialism is to shine perhaps too bright a light on the role of the West in creating and curating a post-Soviet aesthetic.

  • Crowds on Palace Square in Leningrad in 1991. Still from Sergei Loznitsa’s film about the fall of the USSR, The Event (2015)

In a series of essays for openDemocracy Russia, Kirill Kobrin makes an important point about the dismantling of the Soviet Union (and by extension about the collapse of socialism across eastern Europe). What happened to the USSR is generally understood as an ideological collapse: the ideals of state socialism were no longer tenable, and so the political system founded on them crumbled. Post-Soviet culture reflects the postmodern condition of a world where the need for all-encompassing ideology has been superceded. I think this is what undergirds western fascination with the perceived “nihilism” and “gritty poetry” of Rubchinskiy-style Russian streetwear, the brashness of a youth forcibly deprived of “meaning”.

Except, as Kobrin notes, this is a misunderstanding. The Soviet system didn’t collapse when its ideology was exhausted, a casualty of postmodernism — it was taken apart as a result of arguments over old-fashioned (that is, quintessentially “modern”) issues like borders, ethnic divisions and international aggression. The violence that broke out across the post-socialist space in the 90s — from the Yugoslav wars to the Tajik civil war and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — speaks to this. So, incidentally, does Air Force One (1997). Wolfgang Petersen’s slice of pure Yankee triumphalism, about terrorists protecting the honour of a rogue regime in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, understood better than many historians that the brave new world of the 90s was one where nationalism and sovereignty were back on the agenda in a major way.

If anything, it would be more accurate to refer to today’s cultural vanguard as the “post-post-Soviet”

Kobrin’s point is that Soviet ideology didn’t collapse at the end of the 1980s — it had collapsed long before then. Not for nothing was Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year tenure (1964-1982) as General Secretary known as the Era of Stagnation, a painfully slow retreat from idealism into rigor mortis. By the time perestroika came around, there was little meat left on the bones of Soviet ideology anyway. If anything, it would be more accurate to refer to today’s cultural vanguard as the “post-post-Soviet”.

In the USSR and across eastern Europe, artists had reacted to the Stagnation as it unfolded, exploring the decrepitude, hypocrisies and unrealised potentials of their various socialist systems for decades before the West got to fawn over “post-Soviet” ruins. When a designer like Vetements founder Demna Gvasalia puts a hammer and sickle on an oversized hoody and sells it for $700, people are quick to point out that this is post-ideological sleight of hand, the medium becoming the message, political meaning emptied out into aesthetics. But if that is “post-Soviet”, then what do we call the work of Moscow Conceptualist artists like Erik Bulatov, who had spent the 1970s gleefully playing with the visual insignia of an ideology that had already been drained of authenticity?

So, the West was late to the party. No shame in that: those who are at the sharp end of socio-political maladies tend to be better at diagnosing them. But the question of aesthetics and ideology after the fact is still a crucial one, because it colours so much of our consumption of post-Soviet culture. This is something that Owen Hatherley and Jamie Rann have written about for The Calvert Journal. Whether it’s the predilection for “ruin porn” that drives interest in the derelict Buzludzha Monument or the ghosts in the snow of former Soviet military outposts, or the exotic appeal of “concrete clickbait” like the former Yugoslavia’s spomenikwar memorials, a purely aesthetic response to these sites elides their original purpose and retroactively retools them as reminders of the inevitability of socialist collapse. As Rann writes, “the [USSR] has not lost its reputation for strictness and inhuman grandeur, but now this — for better and for worse — is combined with a sense that the Soviet world is, from an aesthetic point of view, ready to be mined for content by the contemporary culture industry.” In the case of the Yugoslav spomeniks — these are monuments to anti-fascist struggle. Are we really in a position to be ignoring these kinds of political lessons?


If nothing else, we cannot let the terms of “post-Soviet” culture be dictated by never-Soviet onlookers. Eastern Europe and Eurasia have always been particularly useful sites of projection for the West: they combine familiarity (eastern Europe is still Europe, after all) with the exoticism provided by past ideological conflict. Rather than a space of imputed otherness, they are a space of imputed ambiguity, a good testing ground for western critics to demonstrate their “nuance” — which oftens amounts to little more than the projection of their own insecurities into a region which is taken as living proof that there is no alternative to the neoliberal world order. But the contradictions of post-war liberalism and the decay of Soviet socialism have both provoked revanchist and regressive forces. Both have excluded people from political process. People like to say — with good reason — that Putin’s Russia is battling to return the lost glories of the Soviet empire; how exactly would we describe Brexit? Or Trump?

Ultimately, the “post-Soviet” is about people. We have to let them populate the frame. Every site that we might look into from outside, from the grandest Stalinist monument to the dingiest collective apartment, is the sum of local and global stories of conservation and neglect and has been lived in for longer than we’ve been paying attention. When we delight in the repurposing of these spaces (how kids are now “skateboarding the ruins of Georgia’s communist past”, for instance), or ask why the “ugly”, “authoritarian” tower block is such a prominent feature of contemporary photography, we reveal the extent to which we’d dehumanised them up to this point. They matter because they were built by and for people who have more to say about them then we do, and have more ways than ever of realising that vision.