Category Archives: Architectural

A Display of Informal Architecture

A Display of Informal Architecture: New Documentary on the Ukrainian Makeshift Balconies Phenomenon

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.

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Tbilisi’s Rose Revolution Square

Tbilisi’s Rose Revolution Square: a Political Showcase

By TINATIN GURGENIDZE and SEBASTIAN WEBER

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.

Tbilisi’s Rose Revolution Square: a Political Showcase

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”.

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Yerevan’s Architectural Fusion

“Yerevan is unlike any other Soviet city: an intoxicating blend of ancient and modern styles, grandiose planning and small-scale disorder and reminders of a nation’s tragic recent history

The first sights of Yerevan do not suggest a city planned or built with a great deal of care and consideration. Zvartnots Airport, named after a ruined cathedral nearby, is a circus of concrete and aluminium surrounds a derelict central control tower. From this building you can already infer two very important things about Armenian modern architecture: an appeal to the glorious past, combined with a flamboyant futurism and a tendency to neglect. The road from the airport, meanwhile, gives a completely false sense of what sort of a city (central) Yerevan is. Dusty, small houses and dozens of neon-lit improvised kiosks and gas stations, and behind them, the nondescript fortress of what was the largest US embassy in the world outside of Baghdad when it was built in 2005. It’s not here, as it might be in the Baltic, to keep an eye on Russia, but because of Armenia’s position on the borders of Iran and Turkey, and a short distance from Iraq and Syria. And then, quite abruptly, you’re in an absolutely exemplary, planned, and impeccably “European” city.

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.”

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Po-Mo in Soviet Tbilisi

Soviet Po-Mo:
What can we learn from Georgia’s forgotten master architect?

Jorbenadze’s Wedding Palace, Tbilisi, Georgia

Best known for his Wedding Palace, a gloriously phallic edifice which stands erect on a hill above Tbilisi, Viktor Jorbenadze was an outlier among late Soviet architects. Angela Wheeler and William Dunbar celebrate the work of an unsung postmodernist hero

Text by Angela Wheeler and  William Dunbar

 

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.

Archaeology, Modernity and Post-Soviet Industrial Decay

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.”

Podcast

Ideologies and Informality in Urban Infrastructure

Ideologies and Informality in Urban Infrastructure:
The Case of Housing in Soviet and Post-Soviet Baku
Sascha Roth

Introduction
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.

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Yerevan’s Soviet Past and Capitalist Present

Beyond history: How Does Armenia’s Capital City Resolve Its Soviet Past with Its Capitalist Present?

 Text Dina Akhmadeeva

In her film My Pink City, Greek-Armenian film director Aikaterini Gegisian examines Yerevan as a place where the past meets the present. What does it look like when Armenia’s politics have changed but the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission?

How are our impressions of urban space constructed? What happens to a place when its monuments outgrow their function of supporting an ideology that is no longer the official line? Can a city ever really break with its past, or does it take on a life of its own that resists and spills out from beyond the confines of its official representations? My Pink City (2014), Greek-Armenian artist Aikaterini Gegisian’s filmic portrait of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, combines archival photography and film, location footage, voiceover narration and images filmed from a television screen. It interrogates the city as a nexus of memory and amnesia, the official and the personal, Soviet past and Yerevan’s present, visualising its ability to disorient time and resist the official narrative of a smooth transition from past to present.

While the politics of Armenia have changed, the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission

The city is animated by the movement of a female fruit and nut seller, a voice that proclaims: “Her past is an undigested and indigestible meal, which sits upon her stomach.” Could the protagonist be speaking about Yerevan itself as much as about the woman? Like that indigestible meal, the city’s Soviet past presses onto its present, in the form of now-derelict or disused public spaces and recognisable symbols of communist ideology. Only the washing that blows in the wind or the occasional bored woman leaning on her elbow rupture the rhythmic patterns formed by row after row of windows and balconies of Yerevan’s modernist housing blocks.

In 1920, with the founding of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, Yerevan became the site of rapid urban transformation in accordance with the state’s new ideology. Such high-rise building blocks replaced the bazaars, baths, mosques and churches that had made up the fabric of the city. Much like in other post-Soviet states, these blocks remain the predominant source of housing.

A disused and unkempt open-air Soviet-era theatre, complete with an abandoned mattress, is a place without use in present-day Yerevan, but which nonetheless persists and refuses to disappear from the landscape or the memory of the city. The distinctive modernist circular control tower of Zvartnots Airport’s Terminal 1, built in 1971 as part of the Soviet architectural “rebirth” between the 1970s and 90s, no longer functions as part of the city’s infrastructure, having closed in 2011. The building, now an abandoned and unmaintained Soviet ruin, with cracks quickly forming in the concrete, is technically useless. Nonetheless it remains within the fabric of the city, remaining in place, stubbornly recalling the country’s Soviet past and inadvertently acting as a testament to the impossibility of having full control of the topography of the city from above. While the politics of Armenia have changed, the physical remnants of the city’s communist past refuse to be brought into submission.

Yet how different are these two systems? Pink tufa hammer and sickle carvings appear in various locations around the city, one after another, as the still-visible signs of Yerevan’s Soviet past. Contrast this with Yerevan’s present-day landscape — the garish, luminous signage of casinos and supermarkets. In one shot in Gegisian’s film, a supermarket sign sits on an archway framed by two communist symbols. How different are the mechanics of each system that offer up images for consumption, even in the service of two conflicting ideologies? For Gegisian, this became one of the main threads of the film. She comments that, “the idea of the […] transitional narrative is hardly ever a radical break with the past. Maybe the forms of the ideology have changed but the way power is articulated is more or less the same. In the film I wanted to point to such complexities especially through destabilising the idea of the transition and the break with the past.”

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Rustavi, A Mono-Town

Rustavi, Georgia: History of a Mono-Town

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.

Olga Pinchuk
6 June 2019

Inside Rustavi’s metal plant       Source: Author

Rustavi, a town hastily flung up to support one of Soviet Georgia’s largest heavy industrial plants, is typical of these former factory towns and villages. Once an enormous complex with tens of thousands of workers, for the past 25 years, the Rustavi metallurgical plant has lingered in a precarious state.

The fall of a mighty complex

Rustavi is not far from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi – a 20-minute minibus ride and you’re already passing the rows of pastel high-rise blocks that line the road.

Some of their facades are decorated with bright murals. At first sight, Rustavi seems like a pleasant and orderly settlement. The “new town”, with its animated streets and up-to-date infrastructure, is full of multicoloured buildings, shopping centres and outdoor and indoor cafes. But then it suddenly turns into wasteland. An unattractive clearing followed by a bridge over the river Kura makes for a natural border between the “new” and the “old” town. Totally symmetrical straight lines of buildings in monumental Stalinist “Empire” style line the “old” town’s main street, forming a kind of gate into it.

Inside Rustavi local history museum | Source: Author

Here, in the “old town”, built in the Soviet era at the same time as the factory, the streets are lined by low-rise buildings interspersed by narrow lanes. It’s recently been painted in warm colours – orange, light blue, green, pink. The smooth, clean pavements, the relative lack of traffic and the leisurely passers-by produce the impression that the wasteland and bridge have transported you to another town, or possibly another time, 50 years ago.

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Of Anxious Rooms and Modernist Architecture

Et tu, brutalism: of anxious rooms and modernist architecture

Grafting utopias

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?

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