Henri Lefebvre’s work spans a variety of disciplines and fields, ranging from philosophy and sociology to architecture and urbanism. Obviously, this relates to a number of the themes discussed on this blog. A past entry featured Alfred Schmidt’s laudatory essaydedicated to Lefebvre, which I urge everyone to read. Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, defended his contemporary against “criticism blind and dumb” in the press: “You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You have no desire to understand that play by the Marxist Lefebvre, but you can be sure that the Marxist Lefebvre understands your incomprehension perfectly, and above all that he understands (for I myself suspect you to be more subtle than stupid) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it.”
Lefebvre blazed a path, moreover, in the theoretical inquiry into “everyday life,” taking up a thread from the early Soviet discourse on the transformation of “everyday life” [быт] and Marx’s musings on “practical everyday life” [praktischen Werkeltagslebens]. Trotsky had authored a book on the subject in the 1920s, under the title Problems of Everyday Life, and the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life by Lefebvre, released over the course of four decades (1946, 1961, and 1981), can be seen as an elaboration of its themes. Eventually, inspired by this series, the Situationist upstar Raoul Vaneigem would publish The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), while the Catholic theorist Michel de Certeau released two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (1976, 1980).
Russell Jacoby passingly remarked in his excellent Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981) that “Lefebvre’s career in France recapitulates the general development of Western Marxism.” He continued: “Lefebvre left the French Communist party only after 1956, but his earlier activities and writings betrayed a commitment to unorthodox Marxism. He belonged to a group called ‘Philosophies,’ which briefly (1925-1926) formed an alliance with the surrealists. With Norbert Guterman he translated Hegel, Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, and early Marx. He also wrote with Guterman a book that represented a high point of French Western Marxism in this earlier period, La Conscience mystifiée. Published in 1936, the title itself hints of History and Class Consciousness… rewritten in the context of the struggle against fascism.”
George Lichtheim in his survey of Marxism in Modern France (1966) likewise heaped praise upon Lefebvre, describing him as follows:
The Marxian concepts of “alienation” and “total man” were already central to Lefebvre’s interwar reflections, from the time he came across Marx’s early philosophical writings. The “Paris Manuscripts” of 1844 had been a revelation for Marxists of Lefebvre’s generation; and the echo of this discovery resounds throughout the concluding chapter of Le Matérialisme dialectique: first published in 1939, when — as the author remarked in 1957 — communists still tended to express disdain for the topic. Though politically orthodox, Lefebvre in 1939 was already going against the official line, which in those years was based on the Leninist interpretation of Marxism as a doctrine centered on the analysis of capitalism’s political and economic contradictions. In fairness it has to be remembered that this was itself a reaction to the academic habit of treating Marx as the author of a heretical philosophy of history. Under the impulsion of the Russian Revolution and Leninism, this approach gave way after 1917 to the realization that Marxism was meant to be a theory of the proletarian revolution. As usually happens in such cases, the discovery was accompanied by an impatient rejection of all nonpolitical interests, and in particular of long-range philosophical speculation centered on Marx’s youthful writings. When Lefebvre in 1957 recalled that between 1925 and 1935 French Marxists like himself had discovered the immediate political relevance of their own doctrine, he went on to note that the great economic crisis of 1929-1933, and the practical problems facing the USSR , reinforced the stress on the politico-economic theme: not indeed “economics” in the conventional academic sense, but the political economy of capitalism and socialism. A writer concerned with topics such as alienation and l’homme total could not in the circumstances expect a sympathetic hearing even from political friends.
Others point out that Lefebvre by no means rejected the teachings of Lenin when it came to Marx and Marxism, however. Daniel Bensaïd also recalled that in 1947, “Lefebvre had published a book (unjustly forgotten) on Lenin’s thought.” Kevin Anderson, the Marxist-Humanist scholar, has also praised Lefebvre as one of the few Western Marxists to engage extensively and explicitly with Lenin’s prewar notebooks on Hegel and philosophy. “It was in France on the eve of World War II that Lenin’s Hegel notebooks first began to get some serious public discussion by Western Marxists,” writes Anderson in Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism. “Henri Lefebvre and Norbert Guterman, two unorthodox members of the French Communist party, wrote a 130-page introduction to a French edition of Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, which appeared in 1938 under the title Cahiers sur la dialectique de Hegel, published by the prestigious Paris publishing house Gallimard.”
Guterman and Lefebvre begin their introduction by contending that in Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, “the reader finds himself in the presence of ideas which, taken in all their significance, in the totality of their aims and interests, support the comparison with the greatest philosophical works.” At the same time, they write that “Lenin was not one of those men for whom action is opposed to thought,” calling attention to the date of composition of the Hegel Notebooks, in the midst of World War I: “Lenin reads Hegel at the moment when the unity of the industrial world tears itself apart, when the fragments of this unity, which was thought to have been realized, violently collide with one another: when all of the contradictions unchain themselves. The Hegelian theory of contradiction shows him that the moment when the solution, a higher unity, seems to move further away, is sometimes that [moment] when it is approaching.” They write that the virulent nationalism Lenin faced in 1914 “already anticipates fascist ideology,” linking the Hegel notebooks to the concrete problems of the 1 930s. For Lenin in 1914 and after, “his vision” drawn from the Hegel notebooks “prepares his action.”
Lenin, they claim, neither accepted Hegel uncritically nor rejected him. For Lenin, they write: “The critical reading [of Hegel] is also a creative act Lenin judges Hegel with a severity that one could not have except toward oneself — towards one’s past, at the moment one surmounts it.” In this sense Lenin is critically appropriating classical German philosophy for the working class, as Marx and Engels had urged. Furthermore, the Hegel notebooks shed new light on the problem of how Marxism is to appropriate Hegel. For most Marxists, dialectical method is the only valuable legacy of Hegel, and for them, “the content of Hegelianism needs to be rejected.” For some, Hegel’s method is the point of departure for a materialist dialectic. For others, Hegel’s dialectic becomes materialist through Marxism, which is “a theory of real forces, their equilibrium and the rupture of this mechanical equilibrium.” Guterman and Lefebvre contend that for Lenin in the Hegel Notebooks, these issues are “posed in a much more profound and concrete manner.” They give as an example Lenin’s discussion of the final chapter of Hegel’s Science of Logic, “The Absolute Idea”: “Hegelian idealism has an objective aspect His theory of religion and the state is unacceptable. However, as Lenin remarks, the most idealistic chapter of Hegel’s Logic, that on the Absolute Idea, is at the same time the most materialist.” Therefore, any “inversion” of Hegel by Marxists “cannot be a simple operation.”
Systemic Edges as Spaces of Conceptual Invisibility By Saskia Sassen
“The language of more – more inequality, more poverty, more imprisonment, more dead land and dead water, and so on—is insufficient to mark the proliferation of extreme versions of familiar conditions.’ In the talk Sassen will argue that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges which, once crossed, render these extreme conditions invisible. She will focus on this interplay between extreme moment and the shift from visible to invisible – the capacity of a complex system to generate invisibilities no matter how material the condition.’ The talk is based on her latest publication: Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity (Harvard University Press 2014).”
Saskia Sassen Abstract The point of inquiry in this book is the systemic edge. The key dynamic at this edge is expulsion from the diverse systems in play—economic, social, biospheric. The systemic edge is the point where a condition takes on a format so extreme that it cannot be easily captured by the standard measures of governments and experts and becomes invisible, ungraspable. In this regard, that edge also becomes invisible to standard ways of seeing and making meaning. Each major domain has its own distinctive systemic edge—thus this edge is constituted differently for the economy than it is for the biosphere or the social realm. This edge is foundationally different from the geographic border in the interstate system. The core hypothesis is that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges originating partly in the decaying western-style political economy of the 20th century, the escalation of environmental destruction, and the rise of complex forms of knowledge that far too often produce elementary brutalities. It is in the spaces of the expelled where we find the sharper version of what might be happening inside the system in far milder modes and hence easily overlooked as signaling systemic decay. In this regard, I conceive of the systemic edge as signaling the existence of conceptually subterranean trends—trends we cannot easily make visible through our current categories of meaning. From there, the importance of positioning my inquiry at the systemic edge, where a condition takes on its extreme form and in that process also escapes our conventional measures and representations. At The Systemic Edge
Saskia Sassen was interviewed for New Politicsby editors Riad Azar and Saulo Colón about her new book, Expulsions: When Complexity Produces Elementary Brutalities (Harvard University Press, 2014).
New Politics: In your new book Expulsions, you talk about a “new logic of expulsions.” You claim “expulsion” is a new logic, yet state that the relationship between this advanced form of capitalism and traditional capitalism is similar to the one between capitalism and feudalism. Does “expulsion” operate the same way that “enclosures” did in the development of capitalism? Or in the way “extractivism” works currently in Latin America? What is the significance behind the spatial connotation of the term “to expel”?
Saskia Sassen: The point of inquiry in this book is the systemic edge. The key dynamic at this edge is expulsion from the diverse systems in play—economic, social, biospheric. This edge is foundationally different from the geographic border in the interstate system. The focus on the edge comes from one of the core hypotheses organizing this book: that the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatizations, deregulation, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in to dynamics that push people out. Whether such a switch from incorporation to expulsion might also be emerging in China and India requires expertise I lack; China, especially, has seen a massive incorporation of people into monetized economies, but now many of these are among the growing masses of “monetized” poor! China is also experiencing sharpening inequality and new forms of economic concentration at the top, not to mention corporate bullying.
Each major domain has its own distinctive systemic edge—this edge is constituted differently for the economy than it is for the biosphere. One of the organizing assumptions in this book is that the systemic edge is the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because it is the site for expulsion. Further, the extreme character of conditions at the edge helps us detect more encompassing trends that are less extreme and hence more difficult to capture. I conceive of these larger trends as conceptually subterranean because we cannot easily make them visible through our current categories of meaning—thus, from there also the importance of positioning my inquiry at the systemic edge.
Today, I see new systemic logics arising from the decaying political economy of the twentieth century … and these include expulsion logics to a far larger and more extreme extent than the preceding Keynesian period, which also had some of this but not as widespread. This decay began in the 1980s. By then the strong welfare states and workers’ syndicates established in much of the West, including in several Latin American countries, had either been devastated or were under severe pressure. To some extent state projects with people-oriented welfare programs had also been strong features in other parts of the world, including, in their own ways, communist countries and those with varieties of socialist nationalism, as illustrated by Nasser’s welfare-state policies in Egypt, systems developed in several post-independence African countries, and in India’s brand of state socialism. In these countries too, decay began in the 1980s and 1990s.
To talk of this decay is not to romanticize the twentieth century, a period marked by devastating wars, genocides, and starvation, and by extreme ideologies of both left and right.
On the traditional capitalism bit, I mean above all the era dominated by mass consumption, when this is the sector that is the key organizer of capitalism and hence the higher the consumption capacity of individuals, households, governments, and firms, the better for the system overall. It brought a vast expansion of those who were incorporated into the system. This was an economic phase where the broad middle—from the working class to the modest middle class—expanded rapidly. The construction of suburban housing and infrastructure meant a sharp increase in the demand for an enormous range of goods. The expansion of the demand for automobiles meant the vast expansion of road, tunnel, and bridge building. The U.S. is the most extreme case certainly, partly given the very physical fact of its vast territory, but we see this dynamic also in Europe and Latin America and in parts of Africa, as well as in Communist Russia.
Mass consumption continues to be a major economic factor, but it is not the sector organizing capitalist logic. That moved to finance. Thus, from my perspective, the decline of the prosperous working classes and the modest middle classes is linked to this systemic shift, much more so than to the outsourcing of jobs, where the financializing of our economy functions as a kind of extractive sector. I love this image: finance is an extractive sector (unlike traditional banking).
The issue of enclosures is just one vector here, and these enclosures from my perspective take the form of a massive set of grabs—of rural land and now increasingly of urban land. This in turn renders the displaced somewhat invisible. … They go to the margins. The dominant visual order in the rural and in the urban setting is one of grand projects and advanced technologies, all of it easily read as progress, technical advancement. It is that too. But it makes those who are not part of these advanced sectors and luxury consumption increasingly invisible. And insofar as even their consumption capacity matters less if it is not high-end luxury consumption, they are doubly invisible.
As you can tell, I am intrigued by the fact that the material can become invisible, so brutally invisible. When I speak of “expulsions” I am alluding also to this fact, that at a certain point the familiar can become so extreme that it crosses a systemic edge and becomes difficult to capture with our standard categories and measures.
NP: How would you compare your notion of expulsion to David Harvey’s concept of “accumulation by dispossession”? Or your thinking of “crises as systemic logic” to Naomi Klein’s concept of “shock doctrine”?
SS: I think we are all detecting something that cannot quite be captured by our standard categories, including critical categories. And we want to name that. What is actually good is that we have diverse starting points, and diverse points of engagement with the extreme moment of our system. I am particularly keen on including a fairly broad range of conditions, including the fact of the expanding amount of what I call dead land and dead water. I find the language of climate change almost pretty; we need to describe what has been brutalized in brutal terms.
Harvey is focused on a specific feature of the logic of capitalism that has been present since the start of capitalism. I am interested in capturing the specifics of this current period; this does not negate Harvey—not at all. I think he is spot-on in so many of his arguments. It does mean, however, the need to develop a range of new analytic tools and data sets that concern the current period. Similarly, with Naomi Klein: She captures a specific feature of the new phase of capitalism. And I agree with her identifying the destructiveness of capitalism. My interest, like hers, is also in a broad array of consequences: documenting them in order to make them visible to all of us. One difference, perhaps, is that I am keen on getting at that which is not self-evident.
More generally vis-à-vis both Harvey and Klein, I would say the social scientist in me also wants to detect at what point we need to de-theorize, go back to ground level, in order to re-theorize. This angle into what it means to gather knowledge organizes the research and interpretation in Expulsions.
Further, I have developed a logic that emphasizes the importance of cutting across the domains through which we have specialized our knowledge and organized our analyses about the world out there, … the ways we position ourselves and our categories in order to study our world.
That leads me to make some unusual moves. One of these is the need to exit the silos through which we have pursued our research and within which we have placed our data. For instance, I want to explore what I can discover if I place the long-term imprisonment in the U.S. in conversation with the internally displaced in war zones. This is not to provoke but to give ourselves a chance of learning, of seeing something that we do not see if experts of each prisons and displaced camps only focus on their respective domain. I do this with the environmental question, too.
NP: Your writings engage in a number of contrasts between the material and nonmaterial economy. How do you see the relationship between Capital and Knowledge? Between Inequality and Expertise? Between Destruction, (economic, environmental, and so on) and notions of Progress?
SS: Knowledge with a capital K is not a useful category in my research practice. It is an abstract concept that functions a bit as an invitation not to think: “Ahh, ‘Knowledge’! Well, of course ….”
This mode generates no need to interrogate or interpellate the term. We somehow “all know what it means.”
Those are not the tools that serve my purposes. On the contrary, I am keen on understanding, for example, the type of knowledge embedded in the neighborhood and its people, knowledge that might be of great use to “urban experts” in the government and in the academy. From there arises one of my projects: the need to open-source the neighborhoods, to bring that knowledge into the government and the realm of experts. I could go on and on, on this, but I will spare the reader!
As for Capital and Knowledge, both in caps, that is a deep but utilitarian project. Rarely is knowledge inspirational in capitalist circuits—it is a tool, an enabler.
One basic aspect I seek to capture in Expulsions is the fact that types of knowledge we admire for their complexity are today often leading to very elementary brutalities. One simple example is outsourcing jobs: It takes enormously complicated logistics, brilliant engineers, and all of that, for what?! To pay low wages so that the stock market valuations of these companies go up—it is not even to avoid paying minimum wage. … It is about what investors want.
NP: There has been a lot of recent writing on globalization and capitalism, much of it inspired by a re-engagement with Marx. What role does Marxism play in your current thinking?
SS: Well, I grew up on Marxism in Buenos Aires. … It has shaped me, but I cannot simply deploy the old Marxist categories. … I need to develop new categories. Harvey is the master at this. I am less of a European Marxist than Harvey, and more of a Latin American, mixed up with my own set of categories that come out of the Latin American condition.
NP: Some recent Marxists have focused on integrating ecology into Marxism. As you suggest that workers are playing a diminishing role in capitalist accumulation, is your current work also a challenge to, or an expansion of, Marxist thinking?
SS: I do think that if Marx were alive he would be developing some new categories to get at the current extreme financializing of our economies, at the environmental question, and more! In Expulsions I really went sprinting with the environmental question, developed new modes of thinking of it. I like that chapter a lot: “Dead Land Dead Water.”
NP: You offer many comparisons of categories of people around the world that we might not have paid as much attention to in the past, for example, the relationship between the poor of sub-Saharan Africa and the poor of the United States. Can you explain what the “emerging systemic logic” is here that is transcending borders? What can two groups with assumedly no contact with each other have in common in the twenty-first century? And also can you reflect on the relationship not solely between the poor of two countries, but the growing rich of one country with the poor of another. Is there a relationship?
SS: One example is my comparison of Norilsk, the highly destructive nickel-producing complex in Northern Russia, and the gold mines of Montana, also very destructive. Each has a distinctive history: one deeply communist, the other deeply capitalist. I describe the specifics in the book. I ask what matters more, these distinctive histories that belong to the geopolitical world we live in, or that both have enormous capacities for destroying the environment. In this way I interpellate the older categories.
NP: Those who are faced with expulsion do not simply disappear, they often are forced to migrate as we are seeing now with the refugee crisis in Europe. Can you comment on the relationship between expulsion and migration?
SS: The immigrant has long been a familiar figure in our Western history: someone in search of a better life. She or he has also long been the most familiar instance of people on the move. Refugees and the displaced are typically seen as a very different lot—victims of larger forces, defeated souls at the mercy, or lack of it, of governments, often sequestered for many years in dedicated camps. And then there were the “exiled” of European history: mostly distinguished and once powerful figures, well received, and at home in the great European cities. They came to fight to get back to their home countries.
The reality at ground level is often fuzzier than these clearly delineated personas. But one feature stands out across this diversity of people on the move: The generic subject in times of peace in our Western history was and is the immigrant, the one ready to work, to start her own little business, to send money back “home,” often imagining herself going back home for visits or for good.
Today there is a whole new set of migrations: Their epicenters are the Mediterranean, the Andaman Sea, and Central America. It is not Russia, Germany, or Italy that are sending the migrants.
And, most importantly from my perspective, the causes are not so much the search for a better life, but the push of murderous conflicts, wars, massive land grabs for plantations, the destruction of their habitats through toxicity of land and water, droughts, desertification, an explosion in mining for the metals that we need for our electronic revolution. Whole families and communities are being pushed out of their home territory. There is increasingly no more home to go back to.
These flows of desperate people are an indication of emergent processes that are more likely to grow rather than diminish. These flows may well be the merest beginnings of new histories and geographies made by men, women, and children in desperate escape from unsustainable conditions. For them, there is no home to go back to: Home is now a plantation, a warzone, a private city, a desert, a flooded plain.
One encompassing way of capturing this emergent condition is an extreme loss of habitat.
NP: You don’t refer to this global inequality and austerity by its popular term, neoliberalism. Instead you call it the “current systemic deepening of capitalist relations, … a new phase of a certain type of global capitalism.” Can you explain what you mean? Why don’t you call it neoliberalism? How does your beginning “with the facts at the ground level” lead you to these new ideas?
For one, neoliberalism covers specific aspects, and leaves out others that I care about. Neoliberalism captures today’s logic of corporate economies and how governments enable this. It leaves out other logics at work including massive environmental destruction, abuse of law and of power.
My entry point into this subject is a bit transversal. The core fact for Western-style economies, which nowadays are most, is the move from an economy where mass consumption was the key sector, and hence, as I said earlier, the spending capacity of each person and household mattered, to an economy where the financializing of everything becomes the key sector, the one that can make new orderings, … not change everything, but make new orderings.
Finance is very different from traditional banking. We all need such banking. Finance is a sort of economy of extraction: Complex instruments are developed that allow financial firms to extract value from even modest assets or capitals. Once extraction has happened, it does not matter what happens to that from where extraction was executed. This is the opposite of mass consumption, where the system needs to ensure ongoing consumption by more and more individuals and households.
In the financialized global economy many extreme situations are invisible. The financialized economy can be extremely brutal because it uses whatever it can use to build up a financial instrument, a source of profits. Nor is it like making cars and baby strollers—highly visible products where an imperfect part will get a vast amount of attention and put the full burden on the originating manufacturer. Financial instruments have a capacity to make their effects and products quite invisible because they use familiar elements (mortgage on a home, student loans, investment pools) to build up a new instrument that can maximize profits for finance but at high risks to that homeowner, student, or investor. In so doing, the original mortgage or student loan itself becomes invisible and often irrelevant to the larger financial project—though not to the holder of that loan. The destructions it can produce (for instance, all those millions of households thrown out of their homes) become invisible because what is destroyed often becomes invisible, and key financial actors (though not modest intermediaries) will have extracted their profits. One contrast I am interested in is this tension between the materiality of the resources used to construct a financial instrument and the potential of the material to become invisible.
But it is not only the economy that is in play, and that is why I do not use the term neoliberalism in this book. I also am focused on how we have destroyed land and water. … My last and longest chapter is called “Dead Land Dead Water.” No commas!
NP: Since the publication of Thomas Piketty’s work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there has been a groundswell of interest in the discourse of economic inequality. Of course, much of this discourse focuses on symptoms rather than causes. What do you believe is missing from the current discussion?
SS: What is missing? A focus on how “we” made this, directly or through multiple intermediations.
Inequality is a distribution and we have always had it. No complex differentiated system is going to do without inequality. So we need more than inequality to capture what is wrong in our current epoch. Or we need to interpellate inequality: at what point does it become profoundly unjust, and that is then perhaps also the point where we need a new term. So I went for a term that captures the extreme moment—expulsions.
In fact, in Expulsions my point of inquiry is not the distribution we call “inequality,” but the systemic edge. The core hypothesis is that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges originating partly in the decaying Western-style political economy of the twentieth century, the escalation of environmental destruction, and the rise of complex forms of knowledge that far too often produce elementary brutalities. The expulsion logics I focus on are just a few of the many that might exist; they are, generally, more extreme than whatever expulsion logics existed, for instance, in the preceding Keynesian period. Further, these expulsion logics are also evident beyond the West.
NP: What’s next after expulsion? Can we begin to think about reintegration? Progressive change? Revolution? How do you envision a progressive response?
SS: The places where people are expelled could be an interesting laboratory for new ways of organizing an economy or other forms of living together. I see it as a set of very diverse spaces that we need to understand, we need to study, we need to engage the expelled. Localities, and the work of re-localizing what has now been hijacked by major corporate logics, is one (partial!) component of such spaces. This is a first step in a process that can generate elements for change, because it will horizontalize what is now verticalized, and hence require cooperation to replace at least some of what we now simply depend on from large corporations, which always take part of the consumption capacity of a community out of the community.
Neil Brenner, “Debating planetary urbanization: for an engaged pluralism,” Working Paper, Urban Theory Lab, Harvard GSD, Summer 2017.
This essay reflects on recent debates around planetary urbanization, many of which have been articulated through strikingly dismissive caricatures of the core epistemological orientations, conceptual proposals, methodological tactics and substantive arguments that underpin this emergent approach to the urban question. Following brief consideration of some of the most prevalent misrepresentations of this work, I build upon Trevor Barnes and Eric Sheppard’s (2010) concept of “engaged pluralism” to suggest more productive possibilities for dialogue among critical urban researchers whose agendas are too often viewed as incommensurable or antagonistic rather than as interconnected and, potentially, allied. The essay concludes by outlining nine research questions whose more sustained exploration could more productively connect studies of planetary urbanization to several fruitful lines of inquiry associated with postcolonial, feminist and queer-theoretical strands of urban studies. While questions of positionality necessarily lie at the heart of any critical approach to urban theory and research, so too does the search for intellectual and political common ground that might help orient, animate and advance the shared, if constitutively heterodox, project(s) of critical urban studies.
The book documents a municipality-led initiative to place graphic banners over active (and idle) construction sites in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
For more information on urban transformation in Baku, check out Mehelle, an AjamMC project capturing the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly changing neighborhoods in the Caucasus.
1) AjamMC: Your book takes a detailed look at urban transformation and idealized visions of public space through the lens of banners covering Baku’s construction sites. Could you give us some background on the political and economic processes that fuel this development?
The title of the book is called “We Apologize for the Temporary Inconvenience,” but in reality this inconvenience is permanent. Since the second oil boom of the 1990s, there has been a constant string of new construction projects, often without any forethought. It is common practice for companies to break ground on a project before they have acquired the necessary funds to complete the building.
Due to limited financial resources, they rely on selling individual units to fund the later stages, and if they do not reach their goal, they will just freeze construction. This dilemma was exacerbated during 2015-16 manat crisis, so a good number of building sites remain idle. There are many people involved who do not have much experience in the industry, and they see it as a way to make a quick buck without considering the risks involved.
In order to mask the unsightly building process, Baku City Hall has placed banners on the fences and barriers that run along the construction sites. With this book, I want give a sense of the imposed artificiality that is slowly displacing the actual cityscape.
2) AjamMC: What did you notice as you were documenting these walls and barriers? What stood out to you about them? Can you speak about some tropes or themes that were used by the municipality?
IH: There’s nothing unique about using billboards or banners to cover construction sites. In most cities the images depict the final plans of the projects being built in that particular location. In our case, however, the banners are rarely related to the spatial context, and instead consist of a wide variety of images that present ideas of the “utopian” city, notions of “beauty,” as well as Baku’s pre-modern and modern history. The people in charge want residents and tourists alike to see a particular vision of the city, without all of this construction.
Aesthetically, the photos themselves are not that impressive. They are pixelated, repetitive, and sometimes even placed upside down. Originally, I was more drawn to how they are affected by the environment and vandalism– how they have endured the aggressive elements here.
3) AjamMC: Who is responsible for the images that go up? Can you explain the decision-making process? How long has this been going on?
IM: It is a relatively new phenomenon, no older than a decade or so. It coincided with the construction boom of the mid 2000s, as well as the innovations in printing technologies. In Azerbaijan, it only costs ten or fifteen manat ($6-$10) to print five square meters.
As for the process, it is clear that there is not much thought or logic in the selection of images. I envision a group of district-level officials are told by higher-ups to choose from a certain number of categories. However, they are not provided with anything specific, which has resulted in them resorting to Google searches. In some cases, you can even see the watermark or copyright of the original photographer.
I’ve only seen one photograph that was taken by a relatively well known photographer; he had gone around shooting all the fountains of the city and was featured in an exhibition. The rest of them have been chosen randomly, coming from the tastes of personnel who use their imaginations to adhere to a vague set of criteria and directions. As you can imagine, this results in a very chaotic beautification initiative.
4) AjamMC: Regarding vandalism and environmental stresses, it’s clear that a lot of the banners are in bad shape. My favorite examples are of those photographs composed of different layers of banners.
IH: Interestingly, construction often remains static but the banners are updated frequently. For example, before every event like Formula 1 (annually), Eurovision (1202), or the European Games (2015), they will put up new banners right over the older ones.
The layering of the images sometimes reflects the process of capital accumulation fueling the construction boom— you can see photos from the oil industries, like rigging platforms and pipelines, with the iconic Flame Towers and other contemporary landmarks plastered over them.
I wanted to capture how the banners were able to inadvertently create a natural collage without any real artistic involvement through this layering process, so I designed the pages of the book to have different lengths and dimensions.
5) AjamMC: Yes, we see that oil features prominently on the barriers, even though It seems like an odd choice for beautification. Why do the banners stress oil imagery? Is it an homage to the economic and political history of the city?
IH: Oil is the national pride of Azerbaijan, and it has been stressed as part of the state narrative for more than a century. Of course, Baku wouldn’t be the city and major port it is today without the infrastructure, transport lines, and migration brought about by petroleum.
Oil is part of the city’s economic transformation, so I understand why it features so prominently in the images. I hear such sentiments quite often when I take photographs. People say, “Why are you shooting negative things? Don’t you see how things have changed? Look far we’ve come.”
6) AjamMC: Why did you choose this topic? What interests you about urban change in Baku?
IH: To be honest, I never thought I would ever be interested in urban change, architecture, or this kind of photography. My previous work mostly focused on social issues and people-centered stories, so I never imagined I would start a project that didn’t prominently feature people. My first book, Mühit, was very much about things that are hidden in plain sight. Whenever I would attempt to photograph objects, people, or places that were intentionally hidden for socio-political reasons, people would always ask me, “Why are you interested in that? Go and shoot something beautiful.”
After I returned from a trip to Spain, I was inspired by a new movement called post-photography, which documents found images that have been distorted and manipulated through photoshop and digital editing. As I scanned the city, I was struck by the artificiality of some temporary beautification material, as well as the various ideological narratives they were propagating.
I took people’s advice and shot what the authorities intended for me to see, but from a different perspective. Rather than going out and searching for what was hidden, I became interested in how things were hidden.
7) AjamMC: How did you undertake this project? How long have you been working on it?
IH: As you can imagine, there are hundreds if not thousands of construction sites across the city, and there’s not much information about where to find them. Often, I would just drive around, jot down the location of the banners, and return on foot.
Two months after launching the project, I participated in a group exhibition at Yarat! Contemporary Art Space. I had just started the project, and it would take me eight more months to fully realize it. I was still experimenting with how I would present this material, and I chose to highlight their wear and tear. I thought that these small details represented a disruption, and by shifting our attention, we can prevent the banners from rendering themselves neutral in our everyday life.
I keep returning to the idea of how things are hidden, so I want to continue the project by documented other forms of facades, especially the new cladding used to cover the walls of old housing blocks.
8) AjamMC: Regarding the composition of the book, your photographs only feature the barriers/walls, and we are left with no context or visual information about our surroundings. Is this intentional? Does it reflect something about the municipalities curatorial decisions for these barriers?
IH: I designed the book so the images do not reference their surrounding environment. In the first draft of the book, I included images where people, animals, cars, etc. were passing by. I wanted to show some semblance of the lived reality there, but I ultimately took out. Instead, I want readers to question what they are looking at and to ask whether it was an actual location or just an image of a place. There is this surrealistic feeling where you do not know where the photo ends and the environment begins.
As I have already mentioned, the banners provide little to no geographic context to the construction sites they are covering. This is pretty unusual. Take the example of Istanbul, the images seem to be carefully chosen and the projects are well-executed.
9) AjamMC: Sure, I see what you mean about Istanbul. The Galataport development project in the Karaköy neighborhood is an example of this. They are completely transforming the area and erasing traditional architecture, but at least the banners are propagating a narrative of historical continuity related to physical geography. So you are saying this context is not stressed in the case of Baku?
IH: Exactly, only in the Old City (İçərişəhər) do you see banners related specifically to the neighborhood. For example, in the book, there’s a few examples of banners covering the fortifications featuring the ancient walls and historical structures of the Citadel.
10) AjamMC: After publishing your book, do you think people have a different impression of these banners?
IH: After the exhibition, people would send me pictures of banners they had seen, and I recall speaking with an individual who told me, “you know, I never really see these banners, yet we pass by them everyday. They have become part of our environment.” The project encourages people to look past the banners’ utopian landscapes displacing the actual image of Baku. But you know, you cannot really conceal anything in this city. Sooner or later, the truth reveals itself.
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.
[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. 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 isa 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 usesincreasing 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:
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.
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?
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.
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.2011. Trotsky. Paris: Perrin.[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.2012. Kommunisticeskoe 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. Paris: Institut 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.1939. Les questions du léninisme. Moscow: State 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.1930. Sotsgorod.Moscow: Central 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.2012. Darstellungen der Gärten und Symbolik der Gartenblumen in russischen Volksliedern vor dem Hintergrund der slavischen Folklore. In Gartenkultur in Russland, ed. A.Ananieva, G. Gröning, and A. Veselova, 25–8. Hannover: Centre 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.2001. Stalin and Kaganovitch: Letters 1931–1936. Moscow: Rospen.[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.1939. Les questions du léninisme. Moscow: State 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.1920. From 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. Katzer, 123–5. Moscow: Progress 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.2013. Stalinist city planning: Professionals, performance, and power. Toronto: University 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.2006. The legacy of the siege of Leningrad, 1941–1945: Myth, memories, and monuments. Cambridge: Cambridge 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.1959. USSR trade unions activities in the field of housing and public services. Moscow: Central 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.1939. Les questions du léninisme. Moscow: State 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.1928. Constructivism in architecture. Sovetskaïa Architektura, no. 5: 12–30.[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.1930. Sotsgorod.Moscow: Central 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.Leonidov. 1988. Ivan Leonidov.London: Academy 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.1997. Magnetic mountain: Stalinism as a civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press.[Google Scholar]). I also focus on some lesser-known aspects of the city’s first years in Bellat (2015Bellat, F.2015. Une ville neuve en URSS, Togliatti. Paris: Parenthèses.[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.1930. Leonidovism and the harm it does. In Art to the masses, ed. K.Alabian and A. Vlassov, 8–16. Moscow: VOPRA.[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.2011b. Nikolay Ladovsky. Moscow: Russian 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.77 Fig. 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.
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.2011a. Ivan Leonidov. Moscow: Russian 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.2011a. Ivan Leonidov. Moscow: Russian 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.1975. Changer la vie, changer la ville. Paris: 10/18 (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.2011a. Ivan Leonidov. Moscow: Russian 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.
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.1939. Les questions du léninisme. Moscow: State 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.1939. Les questions du léninisme. Moscow: State 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.Koluzakov. 2012. Temporary structures in Gorky Park: From Melnikov to Ban. Moscow: Garage.[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.1923. Untitled. Architecture: Monthly Newsletter of the Moscow Architectural Society, no. 1–2: 32–4.[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.1975. Changer la vie, changer la ville. Paris: 10/18 (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.
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. 8–9 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.Koluzakov. 2012. Temporary structures in Gorky Park: From Melnikov to Ban. Moscow: Garage.[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).
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).
These two gardens are perfect examples of the cultural ambiguity of Stalin’s era. According to Stalin (1939Stalin, J.1939. Les questions du léninisme. Moscow: State 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. 14–15). 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.1939. Les questions du léninisme. Moscow: State 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.
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.1983. Idea. Paris: Gallimard.[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.1940. Architecture of parks. Moscow: State 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.1964. Lessons on landscape architecture. Moscow: State 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.2009. Aleksandr Nikolski. Moscow: Tvortsi 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.1934. Parks of culture and rest. Leningrad: Gostroïzdat.[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.2006. The legacy of the siege of Leningrad, 1941–1945: Myth, memories, and monuments. Cambridge: Cambridge 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.2012. Darstellungen der Gärten und Symbolik der Gartenblumen in russischen Volksliedern vor dem Hintergrund der slavischen Folklore. In Gartenkultur in Russland, ed. A.Ananieva, G. Gröning, and A. Veselova, 25–8. Hannover: Centre 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.1997. Magnetic mountain: Stalinism as a civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press.[Google Scholar]). I also focus on some lesser-known aspects of the city’s first years in Bellat (2015Bellat, F.2015. Une ville neuve en URSS, Togliatti. Paris: Parenthèses.[Google Scholar]).
6 As fig. 2 shows, the drawing tries to isolate the main lines of the classical garden, creating a kind of abstraction.
7 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.2011a. Ivan Leonidov. Moscow: Russian 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. 8–9 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.2015. Une ville neuve en URSS, Togliatti. Paris: Parenthèses.
Kolosova, V.2012. Darstellungen der Gärten und Symbolik der Gartenblumen in russischen Volksliedern vor dem Hintergrund der slavischen Folklore. In Gartenkultur in Russland, ed. A. Ananieva, G. Gröning, and A. Veselova, 25–8. Hannover: Centre of Garden Art and Landscape Architecture.
Makarenko, A.2012. Kommunisticeskoe 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. Paris: Institut d’Etudes Slaves.
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 Smithsonian.com.”
“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 urbanlab.am, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
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.
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?
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.