City Noise

“City Noise”: Sound (Art) and Disaster

By Frans Ari Prasetyo

Published in the  Journal of Sonic Studies


My sonic work “City Noise” proposes both an artistic and a theoretical approach to the city-sound relationship. The default assumption about this relationship is that sounds reflect a one-to-one relationship between soundscape and landscape, both drawing upon and revealing the physical and social landscapes from which they originate. However, the question can be posed regarding whether there actually is a direct relationship between sound and place in our increasingly globalized world. Due to this globalization, the relation between the local and the global has become more fluid, and the relation between sounds and scapes has begun to blur.


Three short remarks about sound need to be made here:

  • Sound is an inherently spatial phenomenon. No matter what its point of origin, sound must navigate space before reaching our ears. Simultaneously, recent innovations in communication and digital technologies have created virtual networks, thus redefining the conception of space and presenting new possibilities for sound studies and sound art.
  • Sound is also a constitutive element in the formation of public life: in virtual spaces, the sharing of sound files are a structuring factor of public life, framed by and revealing shared tastes and ideologies. In “real” spaces, sound contributes to the policing of relative inclusion and exclusion, or constituting citizenship along axes of race, class, gender, and nationality.
  • One of the traditional assumptions about sonic art derived from field recordings is that it should be developed from an “authentic” or local sense of place, identity, community, or way of life. Contradictorily, sometimes the assumption is that the relationship between sound and city is fundamentally arbitrary. This makes clear that recorded sounds enter into a complex relational dynamic with the environment from which they are taken: they may be subjected to a multitude of transformations, e.g. amplification, distortion, reverberation, dissipation, etc.


“City Noise” affirms the need for aesthetic reflection that takes into consideration the profound transformations of city sounds occurring in the wake of a natural disaster; it thus attempts to present sound marks and sound signs that make a city more identifiable and historically grounded. The rationale is that sounds help us to understand specific public situations as lived, imagined, and sensed – “public” understood here as expansive, encompassing feelings, rituals, spaces and spheres, the networked, the transient, and the mediated. As such, “City Noise” joins the already rich discourse on sound and public life while amplifying issues of affect, sense, and materiality.


A further objective of “City Noise” is to underscore the significance of sound on memory recall in the city, how evocations of city spaces are achieved through sound, where memory and sound coalesce in the (recomposed) experience of the city; it emphasizes the capacity and role of sounds in creating, enhancing, complicating, or disintegrating the public sphere.


“City Noise” presents city spaces, in both a physical and social sense, as layers of natural and human-made sounds that together create a sonic network. The structure of the city resonates in the distant reverberations of passing trains, transmitted through the ground, woven with other sources of environmental and ambient sounds and including voices in a chaotic and disrupted urban environment. It presents not only the natural sounds of disasters in general (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and volcanic eruptions) but also the sounds of those affected (especially humans), responding directly and indirectly to and immersed within the atmosphere of a disaster.


Public Space and Informal Mechanisms in Beirut

Life in a Street: How Informal Mechanisms Govern Scarce Public Spaces in Nabaa, Beirut

By Petra Samaha

Published in Jadaliyya

[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]
[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]

The informal mechanisms of organization in everyday public life have been at the core of concerns of many researchers and practitioners (e.g., Rukmana and Hegel in Indonesia, Mehrotra in India, and Nagati in Egypt). While examining these processes in different contexts, the focus was typically on their interplay with “formal” regulations or in relation to the private built environment. Few highlighted the significance of these informal arrangements per se and their importance in governing public shared spaces (Simone 2004 & 2009, Bayat 1998 & 2010). These mechanisms lend some sort of spatial flexibility to the street transforming it into much more than a space for circulation, but rather a holder of mixed uses, leading therefore to an altered definition of public life.

Perhaps the best known of all books addressing the topic of public life is Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities where the author described streets and their sidewalks as the main public places of a city–its most vital organs. Density, walkability, mixed uses and human scale are described as main criteria for livable cities. Even though these concepts are usually used to define well planned cities, they seem to also describe very well the lively streets in areas typically tagged as informal. Such vibrant streets are often the result of unplanned and complex processes that offer us many more interesting lessons when disentangled and understood.

Taking the case of Nabaa (Bourj Hammoud) I look into the ways in which the dwellers share the scarce public spaces of the neighborhood and highlight the importance of their efficient organization/management as mixed-use spaces[1]. There is a lot to learn from the informal mechanisms and practices that govern the space of the street and the sidewalk. Vibrancy in such spaces often stems from widespread economic activities and social life. However, over-crowdedness inevitably leads to conflicts whereby the better connected and the more powerful in the neighborhood’s social structure are able to make stronger claims over space and the more vulnerable (i.e., elderly, children, women, and migrants) learn to navigate their way and adapt through other self-devised alternatives.  These multiple claims might seem chaotic or unorganized. However a detailed investigation revealed they are ruled by a set of codes that aim at anticipating, mitigating, and resolving conflicts. What and how can we learn from these complex informal mechanisms of conflict resolution and space reallocation that street users in dense informal areas deploy in their everyday life?

Nabaa is a dense low-income neighborhood located immediately at the eastern edge of Beirut’s administrative boundary and houses a large percentage of vulnerable population groups including foreign migrant workers and refugees. The area offers a unique blend of religious, national, and ethnic mixity that is vividly reflected on the neighborhood streets through banners, street signs, graffiti and stencils but also storefronts and dress codes. The streets of Nabaa are rife with commercial and economic activities either happening on the ground floors of buildings or using the space of the street/sidewalk itself. Through direct observations, mapping and interviews, I looked into the ways in which the dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood and manage the multiple claims over the scarce shared spaces.

Given the high population density and scarce open spaces, dwellers come up with ad-hoc solutions to fulfill their daily needs and, at the same time, improve the spaces of their neighborhood (i.e., greening, open space appropriation, and waste management). The space of the sidewalk/street acquires different meanings through time since dwellers assign functions to it through their own practices. The space is hence defined by social and economic processes rather than planned top down schemes. It becomes hard to distinguish pre-set boundaries between public and private, sidewalk and street, inside and outside… Hence, conflicts are solved through deploying complex informal mechanisms that rely on the flexibility of both time and space.  While I narrate the stories from the streets of Nabaa, I propose that the efficient, perhaps creative, management of the shared spaces of the city by the street users themselves can mitigate or even evade conflicts. The informal arrangements render the space of the street to be much more than a passage, but rather a holder of mixed uses increasing its effectiveness in responding to conflicting needs and pressing demands.

Dimensions of Space and Time

In order to understand how the multiple use and users coexist in Nabaa through space and time, I mapped the main commercial and social practices on a busy artery in Nabaa (Sis Street) while highlighting the dimensions of time and space. Hence, the patterns of use and meaning of space are in a constant shift over the course of a single day, sometimes hours.

Due to high population density and scarcity of space, the area of the street is constantly rearranged to accommodate a multiplicity of users and needs. Rather than a mere circulation space, it is also a space for socialization, play, and daily economic exchange. As these configurations change, the street transforms, turn in turn, into a parking, a playground, a market, a workshop, a café, a display and/or a terrace. In so doing, narrow streets are constantly negotiated and reorganized to accommodate the changing needs of a wide variety of users: shoppers, dwellers, shopkeepers, street vendors, and children (Table 1).

[Table 1: Main users and practices of Nabaa’s narrow streets can be profiled based on two broad categories. Table by Petra Samaha]
By observing the use of space across time, the street is highlighted as a shared space with a multiplicity of mixed uses. In Nabaa, a typical day starts after shops open in the early morning and storekeepers lay out their products on the sidewalks as trucks deliver goods, blocking the roadway. In the afternoon, the street gets busier with more pedestrians, vendors, and cars, as well as children walking back from schools. In the evening, while commercial activities are still ongoing, the sidewalk transforms into a terrace for afternoon coffee, water pipe, or a round of backgammon. It’s the busiest time of the day. The importance of the time dimension here is paramount. While some practices retract at night, after street vendors clear the streets for example, the flexibility of space is highlighted, showing how the street is eventually defined by a patchwork of practices that works according to an elastic schedule. Ultimately, it is through this flexibility and the constantly shifting delineation of both the uses and boundaries that the street can fulfill the multiplicity of roles that it is ascribed.

Visitible and Inivisible Tactics

While looking at the ways Nabaa dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood, practical arrangements and creative survival innovations were revealed. I present here the tactics used by the dwellers to fix the claims they make. Negotiations over space through bodies, cars, strollers, carts, bicycles, motorcycles, and trucks may well be organized to delineate the duration of each occupation. However, conflict is always only one step away as claims may often overlap.

In addition to the shops that extend their private spaces to use the sidewalk as displays or as working places, street vendors also have multiple arrangements for instance. They make careful choices in selecting trajectories, parking stops, and the location where they leave the cart at night. For them, the street cannot be reduced to a simple geographic trail; it is their survival place. Hence, their arrangements are often defined by day-to-day circumstances, which make them negotiate also with shopkeepers and pedestrians for space.

To better illustrate the different meanings that the space acquires over a day, or even an hour, I zoomed on a street corner and represented the percentage of occupation of the sidewalk/street by different uses along the day between religious, commercial, leisure and parking (Figures 1 & 2). The graph shows how the commercial aspect of a main street in Nabaa is mainly what enlivens it during daytime.

[Figure 1: A day in the life of a street corner. Image by Petra Samaha]

[Figure 2: Percentage of occupation of the street corner by different uses along the day based on the previous mapping.
Image by Petra Samaha]
The analysis of “time charts” was adapted from the methodology of Annette Kim’s work in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. She underlined the significance of mixed use sidewalks and their organization/management, and regulation in order to be shared between various kinds of uses and users transforming hence into more than a space of circulation. Kim argued that the sidewalk can become a cooperative and livable space if planners incorporate ‘time’ into planning its space in order to expand its flexibility. Kim also described the significance of local self-control at the neighborhood levels to define how sidewalks operate and are managed. Hence, the sidewalk embeds a variety of spatial practices that comprise both innovation and conflict. Learning from street users about the conflicts and negotiations that produce the observed spatial arrangement, Kim called for ‘space sharing’, rather than ‘partitioning’ between the large group of legitimate street uses and users ensuring both fairness and urban vitality. Mapping how the sidewalk system in Ho Chi Minh City operated and transformed over time brings about questions of how the different users (vendors, property abutters, and police) negotiated space. This showed a high level of cooperation not only between property owners and vendors, but among vendors themselves, taking turns on the sidewalk or sharing the costs of capital investments such as plastic chairs and tables for their customers. Hence, the flexibility of the sidewalk accorded by the variables of “time, alternative narratives, and local enforcement” seemed vital for resolving conflicts or even anticipating them.

Similarly, changes of use of that street corner in Nabaa do not abide by pre-set boundaries.

The eventful history of the neighborhood from the 1950’s till the civil war (1975-1990) has made it rife with political parties today. Hence, the use and significance of spaces are governed by specific power relations and political structures within the neighborhood that dictate its usage at specific times of the day. On that corner, these hierarchies are represented by Abou Ali, a man in his sixties and affiliated to a powerful political movement in the area. In the memory of someone deceased in the family, Abou Ali has placed on the public space of the sidewalk a sabeel (fountain) that serves water for passersby (Figure 3). It is supplied with a reservoir, planters, a projector and a sound system that plays chants from the Quran. Abou Ali has a schedule to turn it on or off. Located on the street corner, the space becomes a place for gathering in the evening. On this corner, Abou Ali has the ability to dictate what, how and when the space can be used or not (i.e. who can park near his shop, what fees one has to pay, who uses his water sabeel).

[Figure 3: Located on the street corner, the space around the sabeel, which is supposed to be a memorial,
becomes a place for gathering in the evening. Image by Petra Samaha]
Broadly speaking, on every other block there is another Abou Ali belonging to a certain political hierarchy and setting the rules on his part of the territory. For instance, a block away from that street corner, where the main square and the busiest commercial street of Nabaa are, photos are not allowed to be taken on the streets, a rule imposed by another political party for security reasons. During religious ceremonies, streets in that area are completely closed to vehicular traffic and controlled by the personnel of that same party.

So these power structures embodied by multiple ‘Abou Alis’ materialize on the streets of the neighborhood. The spaces do not abide to planned designs and pre-set boundaries but become subject to the circumstances. Pedestrianizing roadways, turning sidewalks into private parking spots or small gardens, and other tactics contest the ‘conceived space’ of the neighborhood and allow a constant reproduction of the street as a ‘lived space’ to accommodate all the users’ needs.

These tactical arrangements of conflict anticipation deployed by users to fix their claims manifest either concretely (through visible tactics), or in abstract more subtle yet powerful ways. Invisible ways can be imposed and taken for granted (i.e., Abou Ali), or spoken, negotiated and defined through one-to-one conversations (i.e. between street vendors and property abutters, be they shop owners or dwellers), where the main justified persuasive negotiation argument is economic livelihood, or rez‘a) (Figure 4).

[Figure 4: Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by: Petra Samaha]


In these negotiations, one’s position in the local socio-political hierarchies is key determinant of the particular configuration on which the street sets temporarily before it is changed again. And even though conflicts always seem in sight, especially with the diversity of nationalities and sects in the neighborhood, cooperation (like the case of Ho Chi Minh City) and tolerance seem to play an important role in negotiations. While this might seem surprising, a similar observation was noted by Jan Nijman (2009) by analyzing the space in Dharavi (a slum that houses about one million inhabitants in Mumbai, India). He described “a milieu that is conductive to intense social organization and economic production”, where boundaries between different space functions, public and private, inside and outside, are blurred and hard to distinguish. The open space of the neighborhood serves as workplace, a playground, a market or a resting place for elderly (Figure 5). Nijman argued that these different claims over space are not only governed by territorial control but also a high level of tolerance ‘in terms of human density and movement’ which mitigates potential conflicts.

[Figure 5: The open spaces in Dharavi (Mumbai) serve as a workplace, a playground, or a terrace. Image by Petra Samaha]
Most common strategies of mitigating conflict over spatial appropriation in Nabaa consist of diverse small gestures of neighborhood improvement, particularly greening, that serves as a strategy to fix a claim over space. In fact, the neighborhood’s streets are rife with pots and planters that are often made from up-cycled material. They serve as greening strategies, but also as a strategy to “reserve” a “spot” (e.g. securing a parking slot). By doing so, dwellers do not stop at fulfilling their personal interests, but also contribute in making the common areas of the neighborhood a better place. The majority being rural migrants, perhaps this is their only way to make Nabaa look a little bit like home. At times, the items used are flags or other sorts of markers that reflect certain identities or beliefs. Other movable and flexible items used are water bottles, chairs, and light bollards (Figure 6).

[Figure 6: Movable and flexible items to appropriate the space for a limited time. Image by Petra Samaha]
The more powerful the claim(-er), the more permanent/immovable the arrangement becomes: fencing, chains, metallic bollards, and other sorts of barriers. While plastic chairs are seen almost on every sidewalk, sofas are spotted at some corners depicting a more permanent claim over the space (Figure 7). Typically, metallic bollards placed around Abou Ali’s shop also reflect the power he has allowing him a long lasting appropriation of the sidewalk (Figure 8). While these practices are common almost everywhere in Beirut, very few streets can compete with the vibrancy and density found in Nabaa.

[Figure 7: More permanent and non-negotiable claims. Image by Petra Samaha]


[Figure 8: The Metallic bollards and heavy planters placed by Abou Ali. Image by Petra Samaha]
Additionally, the neighborhood is rife with shrines.  While the religious values that dwellers hold on to are not to be contested, another raison d’être of such shrines is reportedly to stop street littering, given that people typically refrain from throwing garbage in front of religious spaces. Indeed, I observed numerous corners where shrines had been set up to be green and well-maintained by dwellers, sometimes serving as refuge for children to gather and play (Figure 9).

[Figure 9: Religious shrines as a strategy to stop littering. The corners end up becoming clean and green and, at times,
serve as play areas. Image by Petra Samaha]
Nabaa, as many other places in Beirut and surroundings, represents a mesh of overlapping political, social and sectarian power structures. In addition, the neighborhood casts very well the challenges of security and high percentage of Syrian refugees. Hence, resorting to a negotiated use of space, while avoiding conflicts and violence, becomes a meticulous challenge. Bearing that in mind while analyzing public space organization and management in Nabaa unfolds three main findings:

  1. Nabaa dwellers make and remake the spaces of their neighborhood on a daily basis. In the ways they crowd the street, appropriate and green the sidewalk, mainly satisfy their needs, they acquire their right to the city, or at least part of it, not only in terms of space appropriation but also in shaping and shifting the meaning and use of space. These practices that are deemed temporary and informal can eventually become permanent urban planning and design strategies that cater for the needs of city dwellers instead of fighting against them. After all, formal and informal do not live in dichotomy, especially not in Beirut. They coexist at different levels, and while the pendulum between the two swings at various degrees, there is some sort of a practical balance that can be sought.
  2. The flexibilities allowed by informality bring into question the impracticality of static and rigid policies sometimes deployed to deal with them. The tolerance of low-income communities in Nabaa facing high population densities and scarcity of space, notably within the public realm, reveals a whole set of informal mechanisms of space management and organization that can be eventually deconstructed to also inform urban policies and projects. As, Jane Jacobs wrote (1958): “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
  3. Finally, even though these negotiations allow low-income dwellers to participate in city making, they do not necessarily entail a just sharing of space. Being mainly controlled by political structures that reflect wider sectarian clientelist hierarchies across the country, they most probably reproduce inequalities at yet another level. After all, such structures are somehow at once the cause and effect of the weakness of the State.

So the concluding question becomes: how can we understand these processes that make the most challenging spaces of our cities work? And how can we build on them for better livelihoods and a more inclusive city?


[1] Research on Nabaa was initially conducted for the completion of a thesis for the degree of Master of Urban Design at the American University of Beirut (2015). Other findings are published in “Rethinking Shared Space: The Case of Nabaa Neighborhood, Bourj Hammoud,” working paper co-authored by Petra Samaha and Rouba Dagher, with the support of the Social Justice and the City Program at the Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut. A special thank you goes to Mona Fawaz for her comments on an earlier version of this article.


The Afterlife of Constructivism in Stalinist Gardens

An Uneasy Metamorphosis: The Afterlife of Constructivism in Stalinist Gardens

Pages 16-41 | Published online: 26 Jun 201


If a failed hope could still have an afterlife, then what happened to the people who believed in constructivism? For these architects, professional survival was top priority. Many—like Moisei Ginzburg, Ivan Leonidov, and Mikhaïl Korjev—tried to find a specialized niche wherein they could work according to their artistic convictions and become specialists in designing gardens. The abstract geometry of the Le Nôtre gardening school was for them a source of inspiration between the use of history and the modernization of that legacy. Strangely enough, the absolute Sun King gardener became in the USSR a model, organizing nature like a suprematist abstraction. Imitating Versailles became a way to satisfy the Stalinist USSR’s need for magnificence. Through gardens, the constructivists were still given a chance to experiment, changing the meanings of places. Meanwhile, they invented a daring aesthetic afterlife for constructivism, enabling a singular conceptual and political creation.

Metaphorically speaking, the attitude of the USSR toward its citizens often seemed like Kronos devouring his children. Or, perhaps another mythological image might be even more apt: Daphne’s metamorphosis into the laurel tree illustrates well the transformation of former constructivist architects into designers of Stalinist landscapes. In the 1920s and 30s, a number of architects who had served Soviet modernity were either put aside by the regime or had to envisage a radical adaptation to its new cultural context. Indeed, if a failed hope could still have an afterlife, then what happened to all those people who believed in constructivism?

Metamorphosis is indeed a keyword. Creating Soviet gardens demanded a reordering of nature, both at the level of the landscape itself and at the level of public perception and taste. However, landscape architecture is almost absent from political texts. If a number of essays considered the role of the city in the new socialist world, neither Lenin nor Trotsky nor Bukharin said anything specific about the use of nature in the city center. According to Trotsky, “The man will be incomparably stronger, more intelligent, more subtle. He will have a more harmonious body, more rhythmic movements, a more melodious voice; daily life will assume eminently theatrical forms” (Service 2011Service, R. 2011TrotskyParisPerrin. [Google Scholar]).11 All quotations in the essay were translated by the author.View all notes Yet to achieve such a goal presupposed building both sport and cultural facilities: stadiums, theaters, and gardens would be some of the architectural programs likely to enable this sovietization of habits. Using similar logic but with more practical words than the ostracized Trotsky, Anton Makarenko (2012Makarenko, A. 2012Kommunisticeskoe vospitanie i povedenie. In La fabrique du soviétique dans les arts et la culture: Construire/déconstruire l’homme nouveau, ed. L.Kastler and S.Krylosova, 21. ParisInstitut d’Etudes Slaves. [Google Scholar]), an educator in labor communes, insisted on outside activities being a key ingredient for the education of a “new Soviet man.” These requirements asked for new constructions and landscaping without giving any guidelines regarding the forms that these constructions and landscaping should take. Actually, except for the requirement for fresh air and some public gardens near workers’ homes, architects had a free hand to choose what a Soviet garden should look like. In fact, the frontline was located elsewhere.

For constructivist architects, organizing their professional and artistic survival was indeed top priority. Finding programs where they could still work, in a fragile balance between their convictions and what was expected from them, led them to reconsider more carefully the design of parks. Since landscape architecture was now part of the milieu of the new Soviet citizen, parks of leisure and rest took on new importance as essential places for experimenting with political education and mastering propaganda.

Revolution and Landscaping

“The Russian revolutionary enthusiasm, combined with American efficiency, this is the essence of Leninism”; thus spoke Stalin (1939Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages. [Google Scholar], 87). If such a sentence seems more like a slogan than a true guideline for artists in charge of creating Soviet facilities, the insistence on spirit, undergirded by U.S. efficiency, seemed likely to promote the creation of new forms supposed to embody the revolution. Consequently, the decree “On Reconstruction of the Way of Life,” signed by the Central Committee in May 1930, discussed the best blueprints to build a socialist way of life in conjunction with the Five-Year Plan. First of all, the party organization was supposed to help this movement and to direct it ideologically. Then, blaming hurried attempts to reconstruct a way of life in one leap, the decree urged for new rules guiding the construction of workers’ cities near great industrial centers, collective facilities, schools, and laundries.

Landscape wasn’t forgotten altogether though; the official text also insisted on the urge to have “a green zone large enough between the residential zone and the productive zone” (Milioutine 1930Milioutine, N. 1930Sotsgorod. MoscowCentral Committee of the USSR Communist Party. [Google Scholar]). Apparently, landscape was given the same ideological importance as urbanism and industry. This was an innovation; before the revolution, creating parks was mostly a private matter in Russia.22 The imperial palaces and gardens like Peterhof or Tsarskoie Selo were mostly used by the Romanov family, not open to the public (unlike Versailles, even in the seventeenth century), except for rare special occasions. So these majestic places had only a scarce influence on the creation of public parks in prerevolutionary Russia. Few town parks were created before 1917; an example is the Hermitage Garden in Moscow, opened in 1894. See Kolosova (2012Kolosova, V. 2012Darstellungen der Gärten und Symbolik der Gartenblumen in russischen Volksliedern vor dem Hintergrund der slavischen Folklore. In Gartenkultur in Russland, ed. A.AnanievaG. Gröning, and A. Veselova258HannoverCentre of Garden Art and Landscape Architecture. [Google Scholar], 25–8).View all notes The decree was both mandatory and hesitant: the goals were clearly outlined, but no real conceptual framework was drawn. Indeed, Stalin’s close lieutenant Lazar Kaganovitch appeared skeptical about the hypothesis of a specifically proletarian architecture, denying it a sui generis form and advocating instead for a process of struggle after which an art expressing “the grandeur of socialist construction” would emerge (Khlevniouk 2001Khlevniouk, O. 2001Stalin and Kaganovitch: Letters 19311936MoscowRospen. [Google Scholar], 269). Soviet architecture was indeed an insoluble problem; Soviet parks were even more so. Stalin wasn’t very explicit about how to create Soviet parks; however, several of his comments on ideological goals could be and were interpreted by architects as tacit instructions for their own duties.

According to the general secretary, the mobilization of youth was “of particular importance after the consolidation of the proletarian dictatorship, in the period of extensive work on culture and the education of the proletariat” (Stalin 1939Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages. [Google Scholar]). Stalin repeatedly commented on the need for the education of workers, especially the young generations, which became the favorite target for propaganda efforts that tried to control both their thoughts and their free time. In this logic, campaigns against illiteracy, the construction of new libraries, the building of workers’ clubs, and evening lessons on Marxism were some of the best-known tools used by the regime to create a socialist way of life. Other urban-minded methods such as organizing outdoor readings, initiating open summer theaters in parks, or designing a riverbank for hosting concerts could also join the arsenal of effective propaganda tools.

These ideological stances required new collective habits and new places. The subbotnik or communist “volunteer Saturday,” encouraged by Lenin himself, used the slogan, “Let us build a new society!” But it was more of a political projection than a real description of the tasks that should be accomplished in the subbotnik (Lenin 1920Lenin, V. 1920From the first Subbotnik on the Moscow-Kazan railway to the all-Russia May Day Subbotnik. In vol. 31 of Collected works, by V.Lenin, ed. J. Katzer1235MoscowProgress Publishers. [Google Scholar], 123–5). Several city administrations often used the convenient method of a free labor force as a collective corvée for cleaning the garbage or planting trees (Dehaan 2013Dehaan, H. 2013Stalinist city planning: Professionals, performance, and powerTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press. [Google Scholar]). As the budgets for urban planning were often underestimated, the subbotnik was quite useful for architects in charge of parks. If you couldn’t expect from an average man to be an efficient stonemason, you could at least guide him through simpler tasks of planting trees or flowers. Besides, ideologically speaking, such exercises in collective planting could be used as an easy and not too demanding way to involve citizens in the construction of a socialist society.

The method was extensively used from the 1930s to the 1960s, helping a number of important Soviet cities to build landscaped parks as a counterpart to the extensive industrialization of the country. It was even used in October 1945 in Leningrad for planting trees at the Primorski Victory Park, as a way to involve survivors of the city blockade in the celebration of USSR triumph over Nazi Germany (Kirschenbaum 2006Kirschenbaum, L. 2006The legacy of the siege of Leningrad, 1941–1945: Myth, memories, and monumentsCambridgeCambridge University Press.[CrossRef][Google Scholar]). Specific neighborhoods also organized collective landscaping and gardening works. For instance, a few years after the end of the Stalin Era, the Soviet trade unions claimed that 350,000 union members participated in these outdoor activities (Potachnikov 1959Potachnikov, F. P.1959USSR trade unions activities in the field of housing and public servicesMoscowCentral Council of USSR Trade Unions. [Google Scholar]).

The Architects Involved

At first, modern architects believed that the regime demanded completely new cultural foundations. Stalin (1939Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages. [Google Scholar]) himself claimed that the revolutionary spirit was “an antidote against inertia, routine, conservatism, stagnation of thought, slavish submission to ancient traditions.” Such a speech called for breaking with the past and inventing new prospects. Several Soviet architects could only approve such a postulate, which supported their own ambitions. Trained for the greater part before the revolution by talented academic masters, the future constructivists knew traditional architecture all too well, but their heart and wits pushed them to practice modern theoretical/formal experiments instead.

Constructivism was not a unified movement, being practiced by several distinct architectural associations. But those architects who wanted to invent a new revolutionary society shared initially the same desire for structural openness, presenting technological choices as going hand in hand with ideological clarity, flooding the workers’ lives with light and hope. A symbiotic conception linking art with life was supposed to develop a working method “which would make impossible in principle the dualism between social content and form, and which would guarantee us the creation of an integral, unified and holistic architectural system” (Ginzburg 1928Ginzburg, M. 1928Constructivism in architectureSovetskaïa Architektura, no. 5: 1230. [Google Scholar]). The constructivists thought first that new forms could be achieved by using new materials correctly and through new modes of construction erasing all previous traditions, in a logic supposed to be coherent with the communist reorganization of society. This ideal of “constructive honesty” consequently became the foundational rule enabling the striving to redesign around every human habit. In this great project, architects saw in architecture the most efficient tool for changing the very meaning of cities. The built environment should support the political struggle, gradually transforming land-use in a modern functionalist logic; the revolution was to be accomplished in the daily actions of the inhabitants of collective housings and of the users of industrial facilities. From the point of view of architecture, a large use of concrete and glass was seen as the correct answer for the task of creating new socialist conditions in Russia. However, as the constructivists soon understood to their own dismay, this theoretical idea was not so easy to translate into actual architectural practice in a country where glass production was still barely industrialized.

A competition organized in 1929 for the Magnitogorsk master plan became a battlefield used by different groups of architects to put forward innovative concepts. For instance, the Organization of Contemporary Architects (OSA) proposed a plan—designed by a collective including Mikhaïl Okhitovitch (1896–1937), Ivan Leonidov (1902–59), and Mikhaïl Bartch (1904–76)—which included a green zone that separated the industrial from the living zones.33 So the professionals first discussed the topic well ahead of the Central Committee’s decision the following year, a clue showing that the power structure was following some of the late urban debates.View all notes This method was supposed to prevent the propagation of diseases, to encourage leisure, and to improve air quality. But that separation was not very convincing spatially and functionally, as Nikolai Milioutine (1899–1942) pointed out; therefore he proposed an alternative version that synthesized various competition proposals. This plan was supposed to have a larger green zone, and the residential area should have been “entirely surrounded by greenery” (Milioutine 1930Milioutine, N. 1930Sotsgorod. MoscowCentral Committee of the USSR Communist Party. [Google Scholar]). These good intentions did not do a good job of hiding an extremely naive conception of landscaping. They thought they would plant some trees in a picturesque, modernized English fashion and that it would be both physically sound and creatively contemporary. But behind Leonidov’s fascinating abstract drawings—done in Moscow—there was actually no practical solution regarding what could be done about greenery in Magnitogorsk’s harsh climate.44 As shown in fig. 1, the landscape is treated only as a secondary part of the project.View all notes Even worse, the few trees shown in the documents were, unfortunately, not enough to create a green screen able to protect the inhabitants from pollution of the industrial zone (Gozak and Leonidov 1988Gozak, A., and A.Leonidov1988Ivan Leonidov. LondonAcademy Editions. [Google Scholar]). Despite its revolutionary enthusiasm, the OSA group showed some of its limitations as it failed to adapt its brilliant conceptual framework to the complex reality of building a socialist city.55 For a larger reflection on Magnitogorsk, see Kotkin (1997Kotkin, S. 1997Magnetic mountain: Stalinism as a civilizationBerkeleyUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]). I also focus on some lesser-known aspects of the city’s first years in Bellat (2015Bellat, F. 2015Une ville neuve en URSS, TogliattiParisParenthèses. [Google Scholar]).View all notes Only by ignoring reality could one construct an ideological city.

Fig. 1. Ivan Leonidov, Project for Magnitogorsk, 1929. Private collection.

Their project attracted unfair critics, aimed at sidelining these architects—especially Leonidov, who was seen by Arkadi Mordvinov (1896–1964) as a “wrecker.” As Mordvinov (1930Mordvinov, A. 1930Leonidovism and the harm it does. In Art to the masses, ed. K.Alabian and A. Vlassov816MoscowVOPRA. [Google Scholar]) concluded, in the tone of a great Soviet inquisitor: “An intensified struggle must be conducted on two fronts: both with utopian invention, and with the stagnant utilitarian attitudes and routine, the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois phenomena and directions in architecture.” Trained in constructivist methods, Mordvinov was ambiguously rejecting, on the one hand, the most inventive aspects of the movement and, on the other hand, the ghost of historicism. However, neither he nor any other critic noticed the lack of effective thinking about urban landscape in the OSA and in Leonidov’s projects for Magnitogorsk.

Landscape was probably the weakest link in constructivist general thinking, revealing their unpreparedness to design an alliance between architecture and nature that would not only be able to create a sustainable urban environment but would also revolutionize the role of greenery in lifestyles. However, oversight of landscape’s role in creating Soviet towns was soon to be of major importance for both the disgraced constructivists and the architects of a more traditionalist bent.

Indeed, professors like Alekseï Chtchoussev (1873–1949) or Ivan Zholtovski (1867–1959) envisaged jointly updating their works. As a matter of fact, the young architects of the USSR naturally practiced a dynamic, stylistic coexistence, a complex interpenetration of architectural reflexes. A good illustration of this tendency to mix several aesthetic approaches occurred at the end of the 1920s when the contestation of the constructivist sphere of influence was initiated by students of the modern pioneers themselves. This context allowed for the survival of constructivist conceptions where they were not expected. Some architects adapted successfully to the neo-academic aesthetic of the Stalin Era, like Moisei Ginzburg (1892–1946), Nikolaï Kolli (1894–1966) or Andreï Burov (1900–57), who somehow managed to stay at the forefront of the architectural stage. For all those who did not have such a good reputation, the road to Canossa was even more difficult. These architects tried to find specialized niches where they could work according to their artistic convictions.

This general reflex of professional adaptation pushed some great constructivists to become specialists in designing gardens. The design of gardens did not offer the same rationalist a priori as that of cinemas for instance, which could lead to purely ornamental choices. Yet—and this is the most interesting part of the Soviet approach to the question—the landscape program paradoxically allowed an unexpectedly syncretic approach that adeptly turned historical sources into a crucial foundation of modernist projects.

Actually, the ground was already well prepared. Among the theorists and most modern practitioners, many taught the history of parks to their students. In 1929, Nikolaï Ladowski (1881–1941) made his students work on the remodeling of Gorki Park. In particular, Mikhaïl Mazmanyan’s (1899–1971) general analytical plans of the evolution of gardens were born out of this initiative (see Khan-Magomedov 2011bKhan-Magomedov, S. O. 2011bNikolay LadovskyMoscowRussian Avant-Garde. [Google Scholar]). Visual graphics of this work carry the obvious influence of Leonidov, with its white lines on a black background and its layout confronting a general plan to analytical study and photomontage. This typical constructivist approach, however, was used in order to describe the park of Versailles.66 As fig. 2 shows, the drawing tries to isolate the main lines of the classical garden, creating a kind of abstraction.View all notes Mazmanyan’s project, isolated as it may seem at first sight, indicates that in modern Soviet circles the example of Versailles not only wasn’t rejected as an obsolete heritage but also, and more importantly, was duly studied and used as a theoretical basis for its various Sovietized versions. At the beginning of the 1930s, a particular type of infrastructure program allowed creators working in the constructivist spirit to formulate modern conceptions while meeting burgeoning, neo-academic expectations: stadiums.

Fig. 2. Mikhaïl Mazmanyan, Analytical Study of Versailles Park, 1929. Private collection.

A former student of the Soviet Palladio Ivan Zholtovski and former assistant of Le Corbusier on the Centrosoyouz building, Nikolaï Kolli, became an expert on sport facilities. During the 1930s, he worked on several stadiums for Moscow and was involved notably in the construction of the Stalingrad stadium and its reconstruction after 1945. These projects were quite schizophrenic. Their plan and structure were in the best functionalist logic: the façades were almost baroque; and their general layout was a landscape design clearly drawn from the French formal garden. That model was carefully chosen; it enabled a geometric division of area with large grassed compartments, organized in a hierarchy of spaces, leading to the main stadium in both an effective and majestic relationship with the main stadium. There the abstract geometry of constructivism and modern functionalism were successfully merged with a Stalin-era, neo-academic expression in which the French classical model was updated with subtlety. With these stadium projects, Kolli managed, not without a certain deftness, to remain faithful to his commitment to both modernity and traditional culture. His project offered a modern aesthetic that nonetheless was able to serve the more academic needs of Stalinist propaganda.

Following Kolli’s experiments, another former constructivist, Georgi Vegman (1899–1973), developed in 1939 a prototype for the standard stadium.7Fig. 3 uses a bird’s-eye view to show clearly the organization of the gardened space in this facility.View all notes This project also used the hierarchical spirit of the seventeenth-century, formal garden with its symmetry, while the grassy lawns were repurposed into sports areas easily accessible by wooden walkways and adorned at key points with gazebos. The French influence cleverly distorted by Vegman helped to forge a new typology: the classical geometry was indeed useful for creating an imaginative, standardized, landscaped architecture. Unexpectedly, the recreation grounds of ancien-régime aristocrats turned into a model for proletarian leisure projects in the USSR. This dialogue between monumentality and functionality convinced other constructivists that green spaces could provide them with a creative autonomy they no longer had on other projects.

Fig. 3. Georgi Vegman, Project of Standard Stadium, 1939. Private collection.

Leonidov: Landscaping as Aesthetic Survival

Seen as the prodigal child of constructivism—even by academic masters like Chtchoussev and Zholtovski—Ivan Leonidov surprised many by remaining a visionary with almost no finished projects under his belt. He was a son of a peasant family and an apprentice of an icon painter; the revolution offered him new prospects. Acceding to the Vkhoutemas workshops in 1921, Leonidov turned to architecture by working with an older innovator, Aleksandr Vesnin (1883–1959). His radical diploma project in 1927 on the topic of a Lenin Institute brought him fame among Soviet architects. However, in spite of his perfect social biography according to Soviet criteria, he suffered attacks by rival architectural groups, especially from the more politicized young wolves of the VOPRA.88 The Organization of Proletarian Architects; see Khan-Magomedov (2011aKhan-Magomedov, S. O. 2011aIvan LeonidovMoscowRussian Avant-Garde. [Google Scholar]).View all notes Ideological in their nature, these onslaughts eventually prevented him from teaching. Gradually, he lost all his influence on the Soviet scene, soon turning into a pariah who could create only paper architecture.

Facing this professional ostracism, Leonidov tried to survive, dedicating himself to landscaping projects. In 1932 his proposals for the Hermitage and Tverskoy Boulevard gardens in Moscow used in all appearances a classical vocabulary, albeit significantly reworked.99 As fig. 4 shows, the architect reworked the urban space as an abstract leisure ground.View all notes He transformed the vegetal exedras into shelters for crystalline compositions with hyperboloid vases using neon tubes to complement plants (Khan-Magomedov 2011aKhan-Magomedov, S. O. 2011aIvan LeonidovMoscowRussian Avant-Garde. [Google Scholar]). The whole was supposed to be a “green carpet,” helping workers to find some rest in the heart of the city (Kopp 1975Kopp, A. 1975Changer la vie, changer la villeParis10/18 (Union générale d’éditions, UGE). [Google Scholar]). Unable to accomplish anything in Moscow, in 1934 Leonidov joined the team of his friend Moisei Ginzburg, who was then in charge of building spa facilities in Crimea, under the supervision of the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry (Khan-Magomedov 2011aKhan-Magomedov, S. O. 2011aIvan LeonidovMoscowRussian Avant-Garde. [Google Scholar]). There Leonidov continued his appropriation of classical forms: the Artek project (a children’s camp) explicitly quoted the Caprarola Villa Farnese, with its pentagonal plan and its logic of multiple axes, using the topography to place a stadium in the lower parts of the plot and then modeling a grass-sloped pyramid which would serve as an amphitheater in the Greek spirit, using ramps to lead to the majestic, pentagonal parterre.1010 In fig. 5, the use of a world map in the center of the project insists on the idea of world revolution.View all notes In these palatial plans, the architect incorporated a world map hinted at by plant and rock patterns, envisioned as a geographical exploration tool for young pioneers. Quite naively, Leonidov expected that his project—at least in its decorative parts— could be partially realized by the Komsomol youths. So the children too were supposed to give their labor freely to the state in a subbotnik. This mobilization of youth was aimed at involving future Soviet citizens in the construction of their own leisure places (under the scrutiny of the party). From an ideological point of view, it was a good way to give responsibility to youngsters; from the architect’s standpoint it was a free labor force able to create his socially conscious project step by step. As a result, from a young age, Soviet citizens were prepared to contribute to the building of a new socialist environment.

Fig. 4. Ivan Leonidov, Project for the Hermitage Gardens, Moscow, 1932. Private collection.

Fig. 5. Ivan Leonidov, Project for an Artek in Crimea, 1934. Private collection.

In his attempt to appropriate the legacy of Italian or French gardens from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Leonidov was not merely an emulator. He expressed old models through a modern geometrical language, and by adding a landscaped world map, he retained the pedagogical function so typical of constructivist parks of culture and rest. Actually, the constructivist idea of the educational function of flowerbeds was used without major changes by the Stalinist neo-academic culture; it was only slightly modified through references to Italian and French classical gardens. Here the creative process had a double effect. First of all, constructivist gardens were supposed to involve citizens directly in the shaping of a socialist way of life. Second, the modernization of a classic legacy intended to give a larger intellectual scope to the Soviet people, presenting them as the rightful heirs of a world heritage. Unfortunately, these projects were, for the most part, too ambitious and disconnected from the practical realities of the USSR and probably already out of fashion ideologically, and, as a result, they were confined to private offices and architecture museums as paper models, never to see the light of day.

Leonidov did work on a garden stair in Ginzburg’s sanatorium project in Kislovodsk (Russia’s North Caucasus). Initially Ginzburg had entrusted this secondary element to Viktor Kalinine (1906–?),1111 I did much research between 2010 and 2015 to discover the fate of Kalinine. He was still alive during the 1970s, but I could not discover anything on him after the 1980s. He probably died in the 1990s in a period when many elderly artists died without being noticed—not surprising in these chaotic years for the country—but there is a lack of information about this point.View all notes whose design envisioned a somewhat modernized structure used in art-deco French gardens. Leonidov’s alternative proposal made the most out of the landscape’s qualities; the architectural landscape was conceived in such a way as to take advantage of the slope of the hill. Small amphitheaters were installed where the height difference was most important, and flatter sections were used to create small squares decorated with benches and fountains. Everything was designed in imaginative forms, blending constructivist geometry with classical inspirations with modest equipment enabling sport and cultural outdoor activities. Leonidov’s project at Kislovodsk functioned as an effective tool for outdoor gatherings, like poetry recitals or theatric performances. Indeed, it was meant to overcome the “cultural backwardness” denounced by Stalin (1939Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages. [Google Scholar]), offering an adequate location for “meeting the cultural needs of the workers,” as Stalin advocated. An outcast from Stalinist society, Leonidov at the same time was ultimately and paradoxically useful to the state’s propaganda as a creator of landscapes allowing “an easy and cultured life” (Stalin 1939Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages. [Google Scholar]).

Gorki Park: From Constructivist Projects to the Stalinist Garden

Following Leonidov’s example, other leading moderns envisaged the drawing of parks as a way to keep constructivist conceptions afloat. Such was the case of Moisei Ginzburg and Konstantin Melnikov (1890–1974) in their projects for Gorki Park. This site had a famous history as a place of architectural experimentation (Evstratova and Koluzakov 2012Evstratova, M., and S.Koluzakov2012Temporary structures in Gorky Park: From Melnikov to BanMoscowGarage. [Google Scholar]). Starting in 1922, a competition had been organized to accommodate the All-Russia Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition in the Park. The entries were submitted mostly by prerevolutionary authors.1212 Such as Ivan Fomine (1872–1936), Vladimir Chtchouko (1878–1939), Ivan Zholtovski, and Nikolaï Lanceray (1879–1942), though Ilya Golossov (1883–1945) sent a proposal more marked by the new experimental spirit.View all notes In the end, Zholtovski’s project was selected and put into motion in 1923. The first general layout and the pavilions were the result of Zholtovski’s cooperation with Viktor Kokorin (1886–1959) and Nikolaï Kolli. The project was a version of a classic model with a number of constructivist features; the hierarchy of the classic flowerbed grid was offset by a more inventive formal purism. Zholtovski’s plan created a central axis around which were organized both the pavilions and the plantations, but its architectural approach favored a semi-open court, closing off potential space. As Chtchoussev (1923Chtchoussev, A. 1923UntitledArchitecture: Monthly Newsletter of the Moscow Architectural Society, no. 1–2: 324. [Google Scholar]) pointed out: “The contrived nature of the central part of the parterre constrains, with its cold breakdown, the further development of the exhibition.” The focus on the use of space was thus becoming a major point in Soviet architecture; old devices, more adapted to closed palaces or gardens, were no longer sufficient. More open spatial structures had to be created in order to allow for the effective organization of people’s activities in the park.

The first of its kind, Gorki Park sparked important debates on how to tie new approaches to the classic experience. New projects— the Tobacco Pavilion by Melnikov and the Milk Pavilion by Georgi Goltz (1893–1946)—implemented experimental styles of architecture in a classic landscaped weft. This strange admixture reached its double outcome; it produced a majestic impact on every visitor, designed as it was as an aristocratic French park, while boasting of Soviet economic achievements through the modern dynamism of the pavilions. Far from being an artistic somersault, the Soviet revival of organizational principles used in the French gardening style was useful for highlighting the modernism of the pavilions, with their huge advertisements or slogans that reflected the new life and products of Soviet society.

This synthetic characteristic of the place still guided the later projects in the 1931 competition for the remodeling of the park, but a new social and political context introduced some major differences. The previous competition took place in 1922, when constructivism was rising to its prominence; in 1931, constructivism was already being actively marginalized. The 1931 competition resulted in the considerable change of scale of the park: it was supposed to include now the Krinski bridge to Lenin’s Hills, linking both banks of the Loujniki meander of the Moskva River. Despite the monumental scale of the plan, Ginzburg still envisioned the space with a functionalist logic in mind; following his previous works of the 1920s on dis-urbanism, he emphasized separate zones of sport and leisure activities without a visible, hierarchical organization of the territory (Kopp 1975Kopp, A. 1975Changer la vie, changer la villeParis10/18 (Union générale d’éditions, UGE). [Google Scholar]). The architect remained loyal to the constructivist ideal of a place modeled by abstract geometry, which was seen as the best way to provide new Soviet man with modern spatial constructions for sport, leisure, and outdoor trips.

Other projects by Vitali Dolganov (1901–69)1313 Fig. 6 expresses the search for a geometric way to handle the urban landscape.View all notes or Liubov Zaleskaïa (1906–79) were based on a similar logic, although they shyly tried to insert classic flowerbeds along interrupted axes. These projects showed how constructivists struggled to integrate this syncretic logic; the architects who adapted themselves to the neo-academic standards were the ones who were able to provide such works more easily. Paradoxically, it was Melnikov who offered one of the most ambitious projects.1414 Fig. 7 uses the same method as previously shown in Fig. 6.View all notes Because of his Soviet pavilion built for a 1925 Paris exhibit and his workers’ clubs, Melnikov became one of the great names of constructivism. Yet his proposal for Gorki Park attempted a synthesis, a trend that could be traced in in several of his projects (notably the classicist staircases of the Kaoutchouk Club in 1927 and his project for the Palace of the Soviets Competition). The landscape project allowed him to work out his syncretic approach before his major project for the Narkomtiajprom in 1934. Using the alluvial meander under Lenin’s Hills, Melnikov envisioned a monumental half-circular kneecap, while the outside curve was pinked like a gigantic mechanical wheel, forming what resembled landscaped flutes. In this majestic armature, similar to the Versailles hierarchical organization of space, Melnikov placed a number of landscaped facilities for leisure and rest. Fountains and basins were also conceived according to a synthetic logic; historical forms were expressed in a minimalist, geometrical language. Melnikov’s version of Gorki Park was a syncretic landscape experiment, placed somewhere between an assertion of new Soviet man and an assimilation of classic sources. The legacy of Versailles was helpful for adding some glamor to industrial symbolism. With this bold reference, Melnikov originated a genre in which classical heritage served as a strong framework for Soviet ideology. He created a remarkable precedent, which his ambitious colleagues did not neglect.

Fig. 6. Vitali Dolganov, Project for Gorki Park, Moscow, 1931. Private collection.

Fig. 7. Konstantin Melnikov, Project for Gorki Park, Moscow, 1931. Private collection.

That the ideas proposed by Ginzburg and his fellow constructivists were not adopted and that Melnikov was removed from his post were clear signs of their loss of influence. Finally, in 1934, the onus was on Aleksandr Vlasov (1900–62) to restructure the site.1515 As figs. 89 show, the projects become more ambitious, summoning a world heritage to serve new aspirations for grandeur in the USSR.View all notes Vlasov was awarded a diploma in 1928 at the Moscow Civil Institute of Engineers and had thus started his career with a modern background. His visionary project for the Palace of the Soviets showcased his perfect assimilation of constructivist principles. However, Vlasov was, along with Karo Alabian (1897–1959), Arkadi Mordvinov, and Mikhaïl Mazmanyan, among the “young wolves” who knew how to prove their ideological dedication to the party. At the same time, these young wolves infiltrated little by little professional groups such as the VOPRA and especially specialized publications like Sovetskaïa Arkhitektura. Thanks to his work on Gorki Park, Vlasov managed to reach the first circle of Stalinist builders. On this occasion, he benefited from the support of the venerable Zholtovski, who underlined specifically Vlasov’s interest in the architecture of gardens, thereby helping him obtain the post of the chief architect of Gorki Park (Evstratova and Koluzakov 2012Evstratova, M., and S.Koluzakov2012Temporary structures in Gorky Park: From Melnikov to BanMoscowGarage. [Google Scholar]). Zholtovski saw in Vlasov an architect who was equally influenced by modernity and by a wish to master the classic legacy, and he recommended him for the job, not without afterthoughts, however. In 1935, Vlasov also worked on a large project for the Moskva meander, redesigning it with alleys inspired by Le Nôtre’s work in Versailles and Chantilly. Vlasov intended to create a large artificial harbor with artificial islands forming a huge world map. The constructivist sense of social pedagogy was alive and strong in the project, but it was infused now with a Stalinist purpose; a lesson of geography was blended with a classical sense of greatness. The Second World War interrupted the realization of the project; it was never to be finished in its original grandiose form. After 1945, Vlasov remodeled the site in a less extravagant way, emphasizing the Versailles-like atmosphere in the park, creating in the end a subtle blend of former constructivist elements with Sovietized details of the Tuileries-like garden. With Gorki Park, Vlasov achieved one of the best Soviet landscape syntheses; as a piece of art, the park stands at the crossroads between constructivist experiments and a Sovietized refashioning of Le Nôtre’s Versailles legacy (see fig. 10).

Fig. 8. Aleksandr Vlasov, Project for Gorki Park, Moscow, 1934–7 (MUAR, Moscow).

Fig. 9. Aleksandr Vlasov, Project for Gorki Park, Moscow, 1934–7 (MUAR, Moscow).

Fig. 10. Aleksandr Vlasov, Fountain in Gorki Park, Moscow, 1937. Photo by the author.

Korjev, or, the Double Face of Gardens

Vlasov’s case was far from being isolated. Mikhaïl Korjev (1897–1984) was another architect who succeeded at the same game. Korjev was one of Nikolaï Ladowski’s best students; even his coursework showed that he was a very promising creator-in-the-making. Between 1924 and 1927, he collaborated with Ladowski on the Red Stadium project along the slopes of Lenin’s Hills. During the 1930s, he produced many plans and blueprints; some of them were even partially realized (like the Ismaïlovski and Lefortovo Moscow parks). His early works combined a very constructivist sense of pedagogy with a targeted use of the spatial rigor of classical French gardens. Indeed, like Leonidov or Vlasov, Korjev also designed parterres in the form of world maps (the idea was quite popular in the USSR as it alluded to the global nature of the revolution). Flowerbeds were lined up with banners, posters, and slogans from the arsenal of Marxist-Leninist propaganda.1616 In fig. 11, the architect is attempting a last use of modern landscape ideas.View all notes Korjev’s clever fusion of propaganda with constructivist touches framed as modernized classicism was a useful tool for transforming the garden into an implicitly political place.

Fig. 11. Mikhaïl Korjev, Project for a Garden, circa 1930 (MUAR, Moscow).

After World War II, Korjev entered the competition for the restoration and extension of an eighteenth-century historical park at Kouskovo, near Moscow,1717 The magnificent fig. 12 shows the progress of the architect in his creative adaptation of seventeenth-century design methods.View all notes but his masterpiece was his design for the Moscow State Lomonossov University Garden.1818 In fig. 13, this use of the French formal garden is now perfectly obvious.View all notes At Kouskovo, Korjev’s proposal was certainly more classical, but it did tweak the inherited formal frames, using channels in an imaginative way and playing with lines of force and geometric ornaments which remained subtly influenced by constructivism. Paradoxically, his work for the university garden used even fewer of these modern traits. Instead, as if magnifying this regime’s accomplishments, the design relied mostly on a classical legacy.

Fig. 12. Mikhaïl Korjev, Project for the Restoration of Kouskovo Gardens, Moscow, 1946 (MUAR, Moscow).

Fig. 13. Mikhaïl Korjev, Project for the Gardens of Lomonosov University, Moscow, 1948 (MUAR, Moscow).

These two gardens are perfect examples of the cultural ambiguity of Stalin’s era. According to Stalin (1939Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages. [Google Scholar]), it was “necessary to fight the tendency to be confined in the strictly national framework.” What Korjev had created can be seen as a perfect illustration of this policy: in the context of bloated, post-war chauvinism, the university garden transformed the environment into a peculiar synthesis of American skyscrapers and the Versailles park (see fig. 1415). Korjev gave the USSR a garden that blended the world’s two cultural symbols—for the purpose of the Soviet regime. Given its Versailles feel, Korjev’s garden was a good answer to Stalin’s insistence on the worldly importance of the revolution. As Stalin (1939Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages. [Google Scholar]) put it, “The revolution is a radical shift in the way of life and traditions, in the culture and ideology of the exploited masses worldwide. This is the reason why the October Revolution is a revolution of international and even world order.” Despite its apparent anachronism, Korjev wove together tradition and modernity, the national and the international, giving the garden the global dimension the general secretary requested. Using fragments of a royal past along with modernity, the USSR was inventing itself as a synthesis of the world’s cultures.

Fig. 14. Mikhaïl Korjev, Gardens of Lomonosov University, Moscow, 1948–52. Photo by the author.

Fig. 15. Mikhaïl Korjev, Gardens of Lomonosov University, Moscow, 1948–1952. Photo by the author.

This process was quite similar to the mannerist aesthetic of the Renaissance, where “cultural awareness of the time presents itself as both revolutionary and traditionalist, and it simultaneously works to isolate but to unify existing artistic trends” (Panofsky 1983Panofsky, E. 1983IdeaParisGallimard. [Google Scholar]). If Stalin’s speech was characterized by disjuncture between words and real acts, the work of architects like Korjev managed to implement the targets set by ideology with undeniable subtlety. The Renaissance ideal of synthesis found in the Stalinist regime an unexpected heir, where even landscape was used to educate people in matters of politics. Indeed, gardens are not innocent places, far from it. Versailles in Louis XIV’s France and Lomonosov University in Stalin’s USSR fulfill the same function: shaping nature to further a political agenda. Korjev’s projects provided an excellent instrument for the state’s propaganda, which started paying more attention to the Soviet citizen as a participant in the greatness of Stalin’s state.

Aside from his realized works or unrealized projects, Korjev (1940Korjev, M. 1940Architecture of parksMoscowState Publications for Architecture. [Google Scholar]) had a major role in formalizing the Soviet approach to landscape. In 1940, he published a textbook that oscillated between a reminder of constructivist approaches and an assimilation of processes of the formal garden, while staying carefully descriptive so as to avoid ideological content. After de-Stalinization, Liubov Zaleskaïa, a close colleague of Korjev, had more freedom to write on the topic. Her 1964Zaleskaïa, L. 1964Lessons on landscape architectureMoscowState Publications for Construction. [Google Scholar] book Lessons on Landscape Architecture was a brilliant survey of worldwide landscape practices in which Soviet constructivism was presented as an example of aesthetic movements of the past that contributed to the production of the second Soviet modernity. Constructivism became heritage. Its social theories were then long forgotten, but its inventive forms and shapes continued to project long and vivid shadows.

Leningrad: From Constructivism to Resurrection of Classicism

Relatively distant from Moscow’s debates, Leningrad was not reduced to imitation or to apathy, in part because of its very different urban context. The former capital may have lost to Moscow its best prerevolutionary architects, such as Vladimir Chtchouko and Ivan Fomine, but that only gave the city more latitude for developing its own version of modernity.

New projects for Leningrad preserved some constructivist features over the 1930s. A competition for the Krestovski stadium organized in 1933 was a good example of this trend (Khan-Magomedov 2009Khan-Magomedov, S. O. 2009Aleksandr NikolskiMoscowTvortsi Avangard. [Google Scholar]). Most submissions were still constructivist in spirit, using the Krestovski peninsula as a vast, open space for sport activities (see Luntz 1934Luntz, L. 1934Parks of culture and restLeningradGostroïzdat. [Google Scholar]). For instance, a project by unidentified authors under the signature of TsPKO—probably students of the Leningrad Academy of Architecture—imaginatively used the island form to rebuild the embankments like a fortress of the classic age, with moats and triangular curtain walls in the spirit of the French military engineer Vauban. This project probably tried to create a modern Soviet equivalent of the first general plan of Saint-Petersburg designed in 1717 by Jean-Baptiste Le Blond. In his proposal, Evgueni Katonine (1889–1984) tried to highlight the flatness of the peninsula with a design that would enable wide vistas across the landscape, which in turn afforded sport facilities a view of the Neva’s mouth or of the Gulf of Finland.

None of the projects were considered satisfactory, and the jury finally commissioned Aleksandr Nikolski (1884–1953) to build the stadium. Nikolski’s work on the Krestovski stadium between 1934 and 1941 still showed a large formal influence of constructivism, but spatially it was conceived in a spirit of grandeur that could easily compete with Versailles. The buildings could still be labeled constructivist due to their crystalline volumes, but the general urban composition glorified the central axis, turning the Soviet stadium into what the castle was to the classic, formal garden. The Krestovski stadium excelled in syncretism: the play on the major axis was inherited from the classic age; the picturesque layout of the park had the English flavor; and there were even numerous traces of constructivism in architectural details. Majestic and strange, the project succeeded in giving prominence to this remarkable site.

Unlike Nikolski, who adapted himself to neo-academicism with only mixed results, Nikolaï Baranov (1909–89) had an easier time appropriating the formal landscape model for modern needs. Trained in the pioneer atmosphere of constructivism, Baranov was typical of the 1930s arrivistes who condemned constructivism for promoting an aesthetic foreign to the Soviet mentality. Nevertheless, from 1944 onward, Baranov furthered Nikolski’s vision on landscape as a foundation for his own works (Kirschenbaum 2006Kirschenbaum, L. 2006The legacy of the siege of Leningrad, 1941–1945: Myth, memories, and monumentsCambridgeCambridge University Press.[CrossRef][Google Scholar]). The Park Pobeda (Victory Park) in Leningrad, supervised by Baranov, combined the axial composition of hierarchical, French-style landscape elements with subsections of the picturesque, English-style garden. Baranov also used flowerbeds shaped as geometrical floral crystallizations, which echoed the experiments of French modern gardens of the 1920s and 1930s as well as the constructivist tendency of the 1920s. Celebration of victory was closely linked with the ideas of leisure and rest that were articulated by constructivists two decades earlier. An example of syncretism of sorts, this Soviet variant of landscape style was not a simple resurrection of classicism but an active revision of several aesthetic models—a heterogeneous, architectural construction created to better serve a triumphant Soviet Union.

Gardens of the Second Soviet Modernity

This Soviet variant of the French-style formal garden, planted on the ruins of constructivism and cobbled together by Stalinist neo-academicians, did not end its history during the architectural de-Stalinization of 1954. Trained under the aegis of neo-academicism, architects like Iakov Bielopolski (1916–93), Félix Novikov (1927–), Sergueï Speranski (1914–83), Anatoli Polyanski (1928–93), or Evgueni Rozanov (1925–2006) had the opportunity to design monumental ensembles that preserved traces of classic compositions while simultaneously embodying a new approach to the legacy of constructivism.

With the Memorial to the Battle of Stalingrad, Bielopolski envisioned a gigantic commemorative field: a park based on a main axis, a basin that mixed geometric abstraction and a lingering neo-academic monumentality, along with an antechamber to the sanctuary with the flame and superhuman statue of victory. The ensemble was a synthetic design that finally demonstrated the multiple sources of the second Soviet modernism. Similarly, the Palace of Pioneers in Moscow, coauthored by Novikov and Igor Pokrovski in 1962, used the diagonal axis of access to dynamically introduce a vast esplanade, which skillfully alternated tiled floor with grass strips in a zebra-stripe fashion. The building paid tribute to constructivist forms, but it was also influenced by the latest tendencies in landscape design in the Americas (e.g., as the work of Roberto Burle Marx in Brazil).

In these (and many other) projects, the constructivist legacy was used as an important source. Or, to put it slightly differently, the constructivist landscape experience, or at least the version of it transformed by the pressure of the Stalinist neo-academicism, had a long-lasting posterity, being used as a model for essential parts of parks in the USSR until the collapse of the country itself.


Seemingly limited in scope, the landscape projects described in this essay were a significant tool in shaping the life of new Soviet man; paths, parterres, and fountains became a crucial part of his leisure. In turn, at the time when Stalinist, neo-academicism dominated aesthetic canons and urban policies, designing socialist parks constituted one of the rare realms where marginalized constructivist architects could express their artistic vision and their professional skills. All key representatives of Soviet modernity contributed to the debate or to the landscaped realizations of the Stalinist era. Ginzburg was among the first to propose a large-scale constructivist project for Gorki Park. Melnikov also made proposals in which he tried to invent a Stalinist version of the French classical garden. Melnikov’s approach turned out to be particularly seminal and was duly mulled over by Vlasov, whose own work on Gorki Park was a combination of classical tradition and Soviet modernity. This conjunction of constructivist traces with a classic heritage was carried out to perfection by Korjev, from his projects of the 1930s until his masterful work on the gardens of the Lomonosov University during the 1950s. As for Leonidov, who was ostracized by his colleagues, he found refuge in gardens which guaranteed him a minimal creative presence, albeit temporarily, and allowed him to see at least one of his contributions materialized.

In a way, the landscape program gave constructivists a chance not only for their aesthetic survival but also for their suitable presence in the Soviet architectural debate. Landscape architecture presented an articulation of modern principles with a subtle questioning of traditional forms, linking contemporary creation with a renewal of a historic legacy. The abstract geometry of the Le Nôtre gardening school was seen by constructivist architects as a source of inspiration for bringing together the past and the future. Strangely enough, it was the Sun King’s gardener who became a role model in the USSR. Quoting Versailles was seen then as a way to satisfy the need for magnificence in Stalin’s USSR (see fig. 16). But under this stylistic appearance, the socialist content was not entirely forgotten—places still retained their pedagogical function and could be used for leisure, sports, or political lectures. With their organized greenery, paths, flowerbeds, and fountains, socialist parks and gardens remained distinguished playgrounds for the new Soviet man and a perfect scene for displaying the regime’s accomplishments. Through their gardens, architects were still given a chance to experiment and to change the meaning of places. In doing so, they invented a daring, aesthetic afterlife for constructivism, a historically unique conceptual and political metamorphosis.

Fig. 16. VDNKh, Fountain of the Friendship of People, Moscow, 1953. Photo by the author. Under the direction of Viktor Andreev and Georgi Zakharov.



1 All quotations in the essay were translated by the author.

2 The imperial palaces and gardens like Peterhof or Tsarskoie Selo were mostly used by the Romanov family, not open to the public (unlike Versailles, even in the seventeenth century), except for rare special occasions. So these majestic places had only a scarce influence on the creation of public parks in prerevolutionary Russia. Few town parks were created before 1917; an example is the Hermitage Garden in Moscow, opened in 1894. See Kolosova (2012Kolosova, V. 2012Darstellungen der Gärten und Symbolik der Gartenblumen in russischen Volksliedern vor dem Hintergrund der slavischen Folklore. In Gartenkultur in Russland, ed. A.AnanievaG. Gröning, and A. Veselova258HannoverCentre of Garden Art and Landscape Architecture. [Google Scholar], 25–8).

3 So the professionals first discussed the topic well ahead of the Central Committee’s decision the following year, a clue showing that the power structure was following some of the late urban debates.

4 As shown in fig. 1, the landscape is treated only as a secondary part of the project.

5 For a larger reflection on Magnitogorsk, see Kotkin (1997Kotkin, S. 1997Magnetic mountain: Stalinism as a civilizationBerkeleyUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]). I also focus on some lesser-known aspects of the city’s first years in Bellat (2015Bellat, F. 2015Une ville neuve en URSS, TogliattiParisParenthèses. [Google Scholar]).

6 As fig. 2 shows, the drawing tries to isolate the main lines of the classical garden, creating a kind of abstraction.

Fig. 3 uses a bird’s-eye view to show clearly the organization of the gardened space in this facility.

8 The Organization of Proletarian Architects; see Khan-Magomedov (2011aKhan-Magomedov, S. O. 2011aIvan LeonidovMoscowRussian Avant-Garde. [Google Scholar]).

9 As fig. 4 shows, the architect reworked the urban space as an abstract leisure ground.

10 In fig. 5, the use of a world map in the center of the project insists on the idea of world revolution.

11 I did much research between 2010 and 2015 to discover the fate of Kalinine. He was still alive during the 1970s, but I could not discover anything on him after the 1980s. He probably died in the 1990s in a period when many elderly artists died without being noticed—not surprising in these chaotic years for the country—but there is a lack of information about this point.

12 Such as Ivan Fomine (1872–1936), Vladimir Chtchouko (1878–1939), Ivan Zholtovski, and Nikolaï Lanceray (1879–1942), though Ilya Golossov (1883–1945) sent a proposal more marked by the new experimental spirit.

13 Fig. 6 expresses the search for a geometric way to handle the urban landscape.

14 Fig. 7 uses the same method as previously shown in Fig. 6.

15 As figs. 89 show, the projects become more ambitious, summoning a world heritage to serve new aspirations for grandeur in the USSR.

16 In fig. 11, the architect is attempting a last use of modern landscape ideas.

17 The magnificent fig. 12 shows the progress of the architect in his creative adaptation of seventeenth-century design methods.

18 In fig. 13, this use of the French formal garden is now perfectly obvious.


  • Bellat, F. 2015Une ville neuve en URSS, TogliattiParisParenthèses.
  • Chtchoussev, A. 1923UntitledArchitecture: Monthly Newsletter of the Moscow Architectural Society, no. 1–2: 324.
  • Dehaan, H. 2013Stalinist city planning: Professionals, performance, and powerTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.
  • Evstratova, M., and S. Koluzakov2012Temporary structures in Gorky Park: From Melnikov to BanMoscowGarage.
  • Potachnikov, F. P. 1959USSR trade unions activities in the field of housing and public servicesMoscowCentral Council of USSR Trade Unions.
  • Gozak, A., and A. Leonidov1988Ivan Leonidov. LondonAcademy Editions.
  • Ginzburg, M. 1928Constructivism in architectureSovetskaïa Architektura, no. 5: 1230.
  • Khan-Magomedov, S. O. 2009Aleksandr NikolskiMoscowTvortsi Avangard.
  • Khan-Magomedov, S. O. 2011aIvan LeonidovMoscowRussian Avant-Garde.
  • Khan-Magomedov, S. O. 2011bNikolay LadovskyMoscowRussian Avant-Garde.
  • Khlevniouk, O. 2001Stalin and Kaganovitch: Letters 19311936MoscowRospen.
  • Kirschenbaum, L. 2006The legacy of the siege of Leningrad, 1941–1945: Myth, memories, and monumentsCambridgeCambridge University Press.


  • Kolosova, V. 2012Darstellungen der Gärten und Symbolik der Gartenblumen in russischen Volksliedern vor dem Hintergrund der slavischen Folklore. In Gartenkultur in Russland, ed. A. AnanievaG. Gröning, and A. Veselova258HannoverCentre of Garden Art and Landscape Architecture.
  • Kopp, A. 1975Changer la vie, changer la villeParis10/18 (Union générale d’éditions, UGE).
  • Korjev, M. 1940Architecture of parksMoscowState Publications for Architecture.
  • Kotkin, S. 1997Magnetic mountain: Stalinism as a civilizationBerkeleyUniversity of California Press.
  • Lenin, V. 1920From the first Subbotnik on the Moscow-Kazan railway to the all-Russia May Day Subbotnik. In vol. 31 of Collected works, by V. Lenin, ed. J. Katzer1235MoscowProgress Publishers.
  • Luntz, L. 1934Parks of culture and restLeningradGostroïzdat.
  • Makarenko, A. 2012Kommunisticeskoe vospitanie i povedenie. In La fabrique du soviétique dans les arts et la culture: Construire/déconstruire l’homme nouveau, ed. L. Kastler and S. Krylosova, 21. ParisInstitut d’Etudes Slaves.
  • Milioutine, N. 1930Sotsgorod. MoscowCentral Committee of the USSR Communist Party.
  • Mordvinov, A. 1930Leonidovism and the harm it does. In Art to the masses, ed. K. Alabian and A.Vlassov816MoscowVOPRA.
  • Panofsky, E. 1983IdeaParisGallimard.
  • Service, R. 2011TrotskyParisPerrin.
  • Stalin, J. 1939Les questions du léninismeMoscowState Publications in Foreign Languages.
  • Zaleskaïa, L. 1964Lessons on landscape architectureMoscowState Publications for Construction.

Exploring Yerevan’s Oldest Neighborhood

Exploring Yerevan’s Oldest Neighborhood: History and Ethics of Heritage Preservation in Kond

By Karine Vann, a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. “She received her Master of Studies in Musicology from Jesus College, University of Oxford in 2014, where her dissertation examined the assimilation of jazz music in Soviet Armenia.
She writes about Armenian cultural heritage for”

Published by Ajam Media Collective

“First things first… Kond might look like a ghetto. It’s not,” says Sevada Petrossian as a preface to our walking tour of Yerevan’s oldest neighborhood. Petrossian is an architect at a Yerevan-based firm called, an organization that has spent the last five years working hard to garner attention for Kond. The firm has devoted many weekends to giving walking tours of this district to curious travelers, in hopes of highlighting its significance. According to Petrossian and his colleagues, Kond is uniquely situated in Yerevan’s urban fabric–both geographically and socially.

It isn’t clear how long Kond has been inhabited, says Petrossian, but the current layout has remained almost intact since the seventeenth century, back when Yerevan was a cosmopolitan crossroads at the intersection of different religions and ethnicities. The district’s name in Turkish was Tapabashi, meaning “hill top” and the word ‘Kond’ literally translates to “long” or “round” hill in Armenian. Its location on a hill has created a geographical barrier between the district and the rest of the city for centuries. On a map, Kond’s outline resembles a teardrop. caressing the western exterior of the circular main downtown area.

Map of Yerevan, outlining Kond. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

The deterioration from decades of neglect has taken its toll on the surrounding environment. Streets are crumbling, buildings appear to be sinking from their own weight, and residents’ living conditions are deplorable. It isn’t clear how long Kond has been inhabited, says Petrossian, but the current urban fabric has remained almost intact since the seventeenth century.

Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

Despite the rough exterior, this structural neglect has actually played an important role in preserving the centuries of history in Kond. It is the reason most old buildings have miraculously avoided demolition. In stark contrast to the rest of Yerevan, Kond has not undergone any fundamental or radical architectural modifications in over three hundred years. Today, Kond hosts the most diverse array of architecture in the city.

Donning a patchwork of plaids, Petrossian himself was an appropriate ambassador for Kond. Despite his very frank demeanor, his piercing blue eyes belied a genuine compassion for the neighborhood and its residents. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

Within the confines of its tear-shaped borders, one can find a smorgasbord of styles–anything from eighteenth-century brick houses and former mosques turned into makeshift housing, to luxury Soviet-era hotels and half-finished contemporary apartment complexes.

The area did not develop with the rest of Yerevan for a number of reasons. In the early twentieth century, when the rest of city was being remapped according to Soviet architect Alexander Tamanyan’s master plan, Kond was left relatively untouched. Tamanyan had intended to turn it into a museum district, but because Kond was home to so many residents, before implementing any structural changes, officials would first need to have a plan of relocating the several thousand newly Soviet Armenian citizens. It was an enormous logistical burden, which was never reconciled across the entire Soviet period. State officials always planned to do something, but never did.

Dvin Hotel, in Kond, was the luxury hotel in Yerevan during Soviet times. After the collapse of the USSR, it was privatized. On Armenia’s first Independence Day in 1991, all foreign journalists stayed here. Shortly after, it went bankrupt and was purchased recently by a Canadian developing firm, was totally gutted, and remains in this state today indefinitely. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

The remains of a former mosque, which stopped functioning after the 1915 Genocide when Armenians from Turkey fled to Yerevan for safety. It’s said this mosque housed seventeen refugee families. Today, it houses five. The mosque’s dome was standing until 1930s or 40s. Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

Following the country’s independence in 1991, Armenia’s new government recognized the need to do something about the district. In line with the trends of modernist urban planning that dominated the nineteenth and twentieth century, where older structures all over the world were demolished to pave way for the new and “modern,” those plans involved decimating the whole area.

Fortunately for Kond, finances were insufficient to implement such extraordinary plans, but Petrossian says that each year, one by one, he sees old buildings replaced with new ones adhering to a more ‘modern’ style strangely juxtaposed against the rest of Kond’s deteriorating, yet historic charm.

New buildings go up in Kond, one by one, which typically do not make any attempts to match the aesthetic of the rest of Kond’s architecture, which is often in stark contrast to the dilapidated, yet historic buildings that surround them. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

The last century has seen Kond exist in a state of perpetual inertia. But its frozen state is a double-edged sword, one which has had profound consequences in the lives of its residents. Compared to the rest of the city, the standard of living in Kond is remarkably low and anyone walking through, without knowing its history, might easily mistake it for a slum. Petrossian tells us that many families don’t have access to running water–a standard commodity for other Yerevantsis (locals) living just down the hill. Many bathrooms take the form of outdoor shacks. Much of this one would expect to find in the villages surrounding Armenia’s capital, but certainly not its kentron.

Those seeking to preserve the identity of Kond face a number of obstacles, for the issue of heritage preservation is much more complex here than in, say, the ancient ruins of an Urartian temple where humans have not lived in for millennia. “When you talk about preservation, you usually talk about freezing something the way that it is now,” Petrossian says, “But here, there’s an ethical issue. Look at how the residents of Kond are living today. It’s a living city. You’re dealing with people’s lives.”

Despite their harsh living conditions, the people of Kond are remarkably resourceful. Walking through the city gives glimpses into the patchwork of construction materials residents use to circumnavigate material shortcomings. “It’s the best example of vernacular architecture,” says Petrossian, referring to the way residents transform their surroundings to suit their needs, oftentimes repurposing everyday instruments as building materials. He even recalls one residence constructed a new balcony made out of an old van.

Living conditions in Kond are deplorable, but its residents find ways to create makeshift solutions to structural issues. The owners of this building have plugged a hole in the stone bricks with old kitchenware, steel pots and a ladle. Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

“Public and private spaces of conventional cities don’t apply in Kond,” Petrossian warns us. Getting around the neighborhood requires walking into someone’s backyard, bearing witness to their undergarments hanging to dry within arm’s length, and sometimes even becoming active participants in the lively commotion on the streets. These unclear boundaries between public and private are what give of Kondetsis a reputation for being particularly friendly. As we walked by one residence, admiring its brick facade, a man yelled from up the street, “That’s my house, you can go ahead and go inside if you want! Help yourself!”

Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

Today, little pathways connect the rest of kentron to the veiny streets of Kond and despite the main roads that exist, many locals prefer the hidden foot trails utilized for centuries. The city has changed, Petrossian tells us, but what’s amazing is that people’s instincts have remained the same. While this may be inconvenient for tourists seeking clear directions, it’s a fascinating window into subtle resistances to shifting ideologies expressed through urban planning.

A cobbler’s shop in Kond. The narrow door has the words ‘Shoe Repair’ scribbled in marker. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Moore.

Given that the incredible character of Kond’s residents are a result of both the centuries of regional cultural heritage, as well as the current hardships they face, what is that “authentic element” we’re looking to maintain when we talk about heritage preservation? What do you do when the same reason old buildings have not been demolished is the same reason people are living in poverty?


Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

By Heather D. DeHaan  
In western popular consciousness, Islam is a faith that rigidly patrols its boundaries. In this conception of Islam, the “House of Islam” combats the world of unbelief, religious infidelity is punished by the state, and uncovered women are banned from public space. The only boundary that the West might wish to introduce–a religious/secular divide–is staunchly rejected. Given such an understanding of Islam, the western public cannot quite fathom Islam’s variability or the fact that “flexible” Islam exists.

Living in the secular Shia state of Azerbaijan made me consider anew the question of Islam, for Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet Islam offers a paradox: a distinct “male” gendering of public space, despite the presence of “liberated” women in European cuts of fashion.  Unlike Russia, where the figure of the babushka (the Russian grandmother) dominates public space, public space in Azerbaijan is distinctly male. Here, there is no sign of the male emasculation associated with Soviet-era repression (in which the state usurped the role of father) or with post-Soviet unemployment (which left men unable to provide). Indeed, neither Soviet nor post-Soviet economic struggles appear to have limited the size or cohesion of the Azerbaijani family, and Azerbaijani men remain central to family life. While not unaffected by Soviet life, Azerbaijani traditional culture remains exceptionally strong.

As a westerner, this vitality might not be immediately visible, for Azerbaijani streets tend to be filled with small groups of men who have apparently nothing to do. They gather at the junctions of streets, on the edges of the dvor, and around metro entrances. Shifting restlessly, but not with any sense of haste or impatience, they engage in long conversation marked by few words and multiple drags on a cigaret. Some of them are taxi drivers waiting for a customer to appear. Others appear to be arranging a deal of some sorts–a swap, a trade, or something else. Some are surely pensioners, while others are probably unemployed. High unemployment alone cannot explain this phenomenon, however, for in places such as Russia or Georgia, similar post-Soviet unemployment rates failed to produce this male-dominated street scene. The men on Azerbaijani streets signal something else–namely, that public space is coded male.

This gender coding is unmistakable. For every woman in the metro after dark, there are at least a dozen men. In the heart of Baku, men and women together remain out late, but this does not change the overall gender imbalance on the street after dark. Males dominate the night, and to some extent they even dominate the day, for they are the ones responsible for public errands as opposed to domestic chores. Azerbaijani teahouses are purely male “hang outs,” and even public parks seem to privilege men, who gather there to play chess, dominoes, and backgammon, or perhaps just sit.

Not that women are entirely absent from public space; only, they tend to be busy with activities other than leisurely conversation in the street. When small clusters of 2-5 women appear, they are generally on their way to somewhere, never stopped on a street corner.  Although women do frequent restaurants and cafes, these are crowded and expensive mixed-gender spaces. Bathhouses are gender segregated, but going to the banya is regarded as something that “the boys” do when seeking to relax or bond. Women do occasionally stop and chat together in the dvor, but not as often as men, and they are usually busy supervising children as they talk. In any case, the dvor is something of an extended familial space, being only quasi-public. The hair salon provides a site for female sociability outside the home, but such salons consist of interiors sheltered by curtains from public view.

Despite male dominance over public space, women walk Azerbaijani streets with remarkable freedom from harassment. As a rule, Azerbaijani men do not ogle women. They make no unwelcome advances, and one has the sense that they would be dreadfully embarrassed if some action on their part caused offense to a woman. Moreover, such respect is granted no matter what the woman’s attire–headscarf or revealing “European” cut of clothes. Freedom of dress may be a legacy of the Soviet past–of an imposed secularism in which fashion was a mark of cosmopolitan sensibility, but thankfully it’s a practice that has lingered. This is a world where women have the freedom to choose–to work or not work, to sport a headscarf or not. They can also wander into “male” space and not be harassed.

This spatial arrangement is tied to domesticity, being a city-wide expression of household arrangements that sustain the family. Yes, Azerbaijani women may opt for careers or European dress, but nearly all have families, and the pressure to bear children is very high. To support family, which Azerbaijanis value deeply, men assist in childcare, running errands and taking children outdoors to play. Meanwhile, women cook, clean, and keep the home in order, whether or not they have careers. Despite women’s freedom of career, social roles tend toward the traditional, and the street’s gender code illustrates this. Male-coded streets not only reflect the political and economic dominance of men over women (top posts in Azerbaijan are, of course, dominated by men), but also a deep male-female interconnectedness–that is, a shared strategy for managing all space, both interior and exterior.

Navigating such spaces can be complex, for class and neighborhood also divvy up Baku’s urban terrain. In Baku’s large markets, where low-brow and more transient men appear, a “ruffian” may comment on some woman’s clothing, provoking a fistfight with “her” man.  The offending comment might be relatively innocent by western standards–a mere reference to a logo on a shirt, perhaps; but, such remarks represent a transgression, an impropriety that insults the woman’s honor and thus that of the man. Such conflicts involve manhood–that is, the male defense of honor and territory, as defined by the woman and her relationship to these men. In a typical scenario, a man from a middle- or upper-class neighborhood enters the “lower” world of the market. The man in the market then responds, challenging the newcomer’s social code and place at the same time.  Cultural and economic differentials help provoke the conflict. Class and territorial boundaries–not just gender lines–are at play.

To understand this complicating feature of the gendered landscape, it’s important to remember that Soviet Baku was historically divided into neighborhoods, each with its own codes of dress and comportment. Many were ethnically mixed, turning “territoriality” into an expression of class. Memoirs of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s describe how young men in one neighborhood organized to keep “their” women away from the men of other neighborhoods; in fact, dating a woman from another neighborhood was a sort of “coup.” Women could cross neighborhood boundaries, but the men who accompanied them might be challenged by men from competing neighborhoods. In other words, the male coding of urban space in Baku did not exclude women, but left games of trade, influence, and policing to the men.

Perhaps ironically, Azerbaijan’s male dominance on the street appears to benefit women. In Russia or Georgia, where women “occupy” public space to the same degree as men, women require male accompaniment after dark, for harassment and assault are not uncommon. Yet in Baku, where men rule the street, women are generally safe from verbal or physical harassment, as if virtually veiled and protected from objectification. They are defined, after all, in relationship to men–as wives, mothers, sisters, and neighbors, all in a world where family traditionally extends into the dvor and the dvor into the neighborhood. Far from marking the “bogey men” of unemployment or conservative Islam, then, Baku’s male-dominated street marks the resilience of a complex traditional social code, one that is post-Soviet and yet distinct to Azerbaijan.

All of which highlights the variability in Islamic practice, something all too often forgotten in popular western conceptions of Islam. Thanks to Soviet influence, the strict Islamic segregation of space according to gender has broken down, leaving a milder gender code that nonetheless protects many of the fundamental principles that Islamic practices were designed to uphold, starting with respect for women. In striking contrast to southern Azerbaijan (i.e. northern Iran), Azerbaijani women in post-Soviet space enjoy freedom that defies the boundaries cast both by conservative Islam and by the West’s conception of it. Unlike the state-imposed boundaries of Iran or the imagined Islam of the West, Azerbaijan’s boundaries are complex and evolving, influenced by Iranian and Soviet pasts and a distinctly Azerbaijani present in which the boundaries of class, nation, faith, and gender shift continually.

Street trade in an urban informal economy: A visual and spatial perspective


A Participate Project





4 MAKING SENSE OF MULTIPLE VOICES Messages for Development Marginalisation and Resilience Aspirations and Reality Checks Business in the Community Interest Ambiguities and Choices






Do-it-yourself urbanism: vertical building extensions in the urban landscapes of Skopje and Tbilisi

 Do-it-yourself urbanism: vertical building extensions in the urban landscapes of Skopje and Tbilisi
The architectural and social landscapes of many post-socialist cities have been 
transformed by an emergent urban phenomenon: the construction of vertical building extensions (VBEs) on the balconies and façades of multi-storey residential buildings.
While such structures are often of a makeshift, improvised character, many of them possess reinforced concrete frame constructions that often parallel the ‘host’ building in terms of size and function.
This paper examines the social and spatial underpinnings of such extensions, with the aid of a field study based in Skopje and Tbilisi – the capitals of, respectively, Macedonia and Georgia. We highlight the embeddedness of this phenomenon in a set of policy decisions and economic practices specific to the post-socialist period, as well as their complex implications for the
present and future use of urban space. One of our key arguments is that VBEs ‘spatialize’ coping strategies in post socialism, embodying a kind of ‘DIY urbanism’ that has deeply transformed the conduct of everyday life in the city.

Towards a new vocabulary of urbanization

“Audio from a lecture at the UCL Urban Laboratory on 27 April 2017 by Christian Schmid (Professor of Sociology, Department of Architecture, ETH Zürich).

In the last decades, urbanisation has become a planetary phenomenon. Urban areas expand and interweave, and novel forms of urbanisation emerge. In this process, new urban configurations are constantly evolving. Therefore, an adequate understanding of planetary urbanisation must derive its empirical and theoretical inspirations from the multitude of urban experiences across the various divides that shape our contemporary world. Urbanisation has to be considered an open process, determined as much by existing structures as well as by constant innovation and inventiveness.

However, in evaluating existing instruments for the analysis of urbanisation, we are confronted with many difficulties and shortcomings. New concepts and terms are urgently required that would help us, both analytically and cartographically, to decipher the differentiated and rapidly mutating landscapes of urbanisation that are today being produced across the planet. This talk presents results of a comparative study of urbanisation processes in eight metropolitan territories across the world (Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong / Shenzhen / Dongguan, Kolkata, Istanbul, Lagos, Paris, Mexico City, and Los Angeles). According to the broad sample of cities brought together in this research, a specific methodological design is applied mainly based on qualitative methods and a specifically developed method of mapping. The main goal of this project is to develop new conceptual categories for better understanding the patterns and pathways of planetary urbanisation. The talk will present some of the comparative categories that we developed through this process: popular urbanization, plotting urbanism, bypass urbanization and the incorporation of urban differences.

Christian Schmid is Professor of Sociology at the Department of Architecture at ETH Zürich. He has authored, co-authored, and co-edited numerous publications on theories of the urban and of space, on Henri Lefebvre, on territorial urban development, and on the comparative analysis of urbanisation. Together with architects Roger Diener, Jacques Herzog, Marcel Meili and Pierre de Meuron he co-authored the book Switzerland: an urban portrait, a pioneering analysis of extended urbanisation. He currently works together with Neil Brenner on the theorisation and investigation of emergent formations of planetary urbanisation, and he leads a project on the comparison of urbanisation processes in eight large metropolitan territories, which is based at the ETH Future Cities Laboratory Singapore.”