Bishkek and Yerevan
Taking advantage of a lack of governmental regulations, many Ukrainians turn to their balconies to compensate for the shortage of space in prefab-Soviet housing, rebuilding them in a variety of shapes and sizes. The short documentary Enter Through The Balcony explores this phenomenon in Ukrainian architecture, revealing a compelling image of post-Soviet history through local everyday life and culture.
In addition to showcasing a unique attitude towards private versus public space, the makeshift balconies phenomenon is also a symptom of the dramatic pendulum swing from mass uniformity and anonymity, to freedom of expression and ownership of private space, which shaped attitudes and architectures across the former Eastern bloc after 1991.
Across Central and Eastern Europe, the socialist political regime manifested itself architecturally through mass standardization, expansive collective housing estates, and a specific architectural expression, defined today as socialist modernism. The informal architecture that sparked around this type of architecture in Ukraine (as well as elsewhere) reflects the complicated relationship of the individuals with this architectural heritage, a symbol of an equally convoluted past. The Ukrainian makeshift balconies phenomenon also highlights the shortages of the housing schemes developed in the period between 1955 and 1991.
Published in FA – Failed Architecture
Georgia’s changing political orientation has been continuously reflected in the dynamics of its capital’s former Republic Square: from military parades, to soviet relics and a vertical refugee camp, to sanitised commercial functions.
In the centre of Tbilisi lies the Rose Revolution Square, named after Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003. The place has changed a lot during the past decades, but still retained its character as an important part of the city. On the sunny 26th of May in 1995, the Georgian air force planes created a spectacle for the crowd that had gathered for Independence Day. Still called Republic Square back then, the square itself was also the setting for a military parade in celebration of the Georgia’s independence, which it gained shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although the air still contained the strange scent of war on that day in 1995 after a severe civil war, the young independent country was rejoicing. Yet, right in front of the audience stood the run-down Hotel Iveria, which was now home to over 800 Abkhazian refugees as a silent reminder of the recent conflicts. In fact, that very place had been a battlefield only a few years earlier.
Republic Square during a Soviet parade in the mid 1980s.
Almost two decades later, the square is mostly home to noisy traffic and vast empty spaces. The hotel has been emptied of the refugee squat, had a modern renovation and now belongs to the Radisson group. While the square is geographically exactly the same, a lot has changed. The place is not only one of Tbilisi’s few public squares, it is also arguably the place where the political and social transformation are most deeply reflected in urban space and architecture. Here, the country’s and the city’s recent past and present are visibly mixing, creating an absurd, mostly unused transitory space in the heart of town.
The story goes back to 1960´s, when Soviet Georgia was one of the top tourist destinations of the USSR. In 1967, the construction of the tallest building in Tbilisi was finished: Hotel Iveria, a 22 storey high structure designed by the Georgian architect Otar Kalandarishvili in the very geographical centre of Tbilisi and well visible from every point of the city. This prestigious Hotel was clearly not accessible to everyone. In order to book a room one had to make a reservation several months in advance through the official travel agency of the Soviet Union “Intourist”. Only the lucky ones would be able to stay in one of the rooms with a great view overlooking the entire town. Along with the hotel Mr. Kalandarishvili also designed the square in front of the hotel, which was finished much later, in 1983. As described by the architect himself at the time: “In the centre of the city, one of Tbilisi’s most important squares will be established by levelling an existing dip. The so created space underneath the square will contain more than 20 thousand square meters of useful space on three levels that will be used to create a social-cultural centre”.
Yerevan offers the spectacle of an ancient city (it was founded as Erebuni in the eighth century BC — some fortress ruins are preserved in the suburbs) where almost everything you can see was built between the 1920s and 1980s. It also offers the spectacle of a Soviet city where the notion of a “national form” was deployed consistently from the very beginning. Some explanation of this can be found in the horrific events that immediately preceded its incorporation into the Soviet Union. In the 19th century, Armenia was divided between the Ottoman and Russian Empires; the assumption that Christian Armenians would sympathise with the Russians was the logic of the first genocide of the 20th century, the extermination in 1915 of over a million western Armenians by the Young Turk government. Refugees streamed into Yerevan — a small city which became briefly the capital of an fragile independent republic in the aftermath of 1917. The Bolsheviks, who had a large proportion of Armenian activists, eventually retook eastern Armenia in 1920, with the Red Army marching in without firing a shot. Within a couple of years, the Bolshevik government of Soviet Armenia commissioned Alexander Tamanyan — an exile from revolutionary Petersburg — to design a town plan for its capital.
The resulting plan is an icon of the city. You can find it on logos, as a relief in cafes, as an object of branding. It is not a 20th-century plan in any way: with its green Ringstrasse, and its radial spokes terminating in a vast opera house, it was more like the Hapsburg Empire reborn in the Soviet Caucasus. And as with a Hapsburg city, the result is exceptionally pleasant, logical and easy to understand. There is a rhetorical aspect to it, too. Many of the main streets lead up to slopes, from where you can get jaw-dropping views of Mount Ararat, the double-peaked mountain where Noah’s Ark ended up, its snowy top roaring up out of the clouds. Mount Ararat is, however, just over the border, in Turkey. The plan seems to have been deliberately executed to create a longing for the lost western parts of Armenia, and for the hundreds of thousands who were massacred there. It’s town planning as either memorial or irredentism, depending on what side of Ararat you’re on.”
Rising from the banks of the Mtkvari River, the structure dominates the landscape like an enormous abstract sculpture. Its ritual function is unmistakable: it is the size of a cathedral and clad in the same warm stone used in Georgia’s medieval churches. It also happens to be exuberantly phallic — a giant cock and balls against Tbilisi’s ancient skyline.The Palace of Rituals, or Wedding Palace as it is universally known, is the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time: a cathedral built in the atheist USSR, a Soviet celebration of Georgian national heritage, a cultural innovation in an era remembered largely for conformity. It is the work of Viktor Jorbenadze — nicknamed Jorbusier for his love of the French-Swiss master — an architect of genius whose daring and provocative buildings defy categorisation. Just like the now-forgotten moment that produced them.
Jorbenadze’s peculiar masterpiece shows the USSR and its modern architecture in a new light. Despite the chasm that separates the Brezhnev years from the modern West in terms of aesthetics, mores, and economics, Soviet architects in the seventies were as concerned with the problem of “placeless” architecture as any globalised city today. Behind the Iron Curtain, a parade of drab, mass-produced towers marched relentlessly from Vilnius to Vladivostok. It took someone like Jorbenadze to subvert this. His work is neither Old City quaint nor tower-and-slab modern. That it is neither of those things is what makes him special. He built big, but with an eye to what surrounded him — a kind of contextual monumentalism. His designs evoked local traditions without fetishising them, creating an alternate route between too precious and too placeless.
In the late seventies Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union
What makes the bold experimentation of the Wedding Palace surprising is not only its design but its dates: commissioned in 1979 and finished in 1984. Across the Soviet Union this was the Era of Stagnation. The time of the gerontocracy, of ageing politburo members catching their deaths watching military parades, of tumbling living standards, drab fashions and stifling censorship. Except, that is, in Georgia. In the late seventies Georgia was rich — as rich as the capitalist countries of southern Europe. Flush with Moscow subsidies, a booming tourism sector and a massive black market, Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union.
Archaeology, Modernity and Post-Soviet Industrial Decay
“Archaeologist Dr. Lori Khatchadourian spoke with EVN Report about her current archaeological and ethnographic research in Armenia that focuses on the afterlife of socialist modernity, focusing on the forces shaping industrial ruination. Khatchadourian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, the co-director of a long-term field project in Armenia called the Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies (Project ArAGATS), co-director of Cornell’s Landscapes and Objects Laboratory and co-founder and co-director of the Aragats Foundation.”
Ideologies and Informality in Urban Infrastructure:
The Case of Housing in Soviet and Post-Soviet Baku
Since the early 2000s, the Azerbaijani state has made enormous efforts to turn its capital Baku into a showcase of modernization in urban infrastructure, housing and architecture. The authoritarian government of the oil-rich country has forged large infrastructural projects, such as renovating the old city, the seaside boulevard, parks and metro stations, as well as constructing luxurious hotels and elite housing estates in the context of Baku hosting international mega events like the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’ (2012), the ‘European Olympic Games’ (2015) or the ‘Formula One Grand Prix of Europe’ (2016). Preparations for these events were accompanied by largescale demolition of pre-Soviet neighbourhoods, which is often legitimized by their deficient infrastructure. Many such neighbourhoods were replaced by new infrastructural model sites such as the Flame Towers1 or park areas in the central districts. In this context, infrastructure constitutes a key concept in public discourse.
Soviet factory towns have turned out to be unworkable under a globalised market economy – but these cities continue to live. I traveled to Georgia’s metal town of Rustavi to find out more.
The annual festival of Delhi’s oldest architecture school is called Utopia. When I ask the students why it is called so and if they know what it means, they look confused. One exclaims, ‘Utopia is what we will create… it’s the perfect place, the perfect city…’ So I ask them, ‘But does it exist? And if it does, where is it?’
Generation after generation of architecture school students are fed on the idea of architects as the creators of perfect houses, cities and townships. They are taught about master plans that will save the world, from itself; they are trained to build townships with glimmering sharp-edged buildings, which no one can clean; they are taught about the deliverance of the world through architecture. This could be a deliverance based on emulating the glass facade high-rises of Dubai, London, Shanghai or the dull concrete corridors of Cold War era buildings across South Asia, Eastern Europe and the erstwhile USSR. Such prototypes reflect a deep and determined utopian imagination that continues to be entrenched in architectural planning and practice. Modernism and brutalism made a promise, a social contract of being architecture for the people, for their needs. Yet they failed in many ways either through buildings that people cannot use or those to which people have to fit themselves.
Is modernist architecture adaptive or normative? Can it accommodate the expansions of desires and the accumulation of years? Does it fabricate buildings for people or people for the buildings? The utopian world delivered by architecture or ‘the city of the future’ as Corbusier called it was believed to have the power to get rid from the world all its social evils. This imagination needed a frame that could avoid the disorder of the real world and yet be perfect in totality. The modernist plan was precisely this frame, which provided relief to architecture’s anxieties about the chaotic world. The axiom of the modernist frame—‘perfect cities make perfect citizens’—allowed architecture to not have to engage with the disorderliness of the social at all and superimpose the idea of a utopian future in blueprints and master plans, which could actually never be implemented in entirety but perfected and completely controlled in their internal form.
Of architectural anxieties
Three main anxieties have continued to haunt architecture: first, the presence of human beings; second, how to control humans and their actions; third, who will be the master controller (planner) of the future. Where are these anxieties coming from?