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"The more utopian thinkers foresaw that in the future, there would be no need for labour and people would have increasingly more free time. Freedom from labour encourages communal activities, travel and other similar activities, which also require new spatial solutions to run smoothly." – Aleksander Zahharov, "Paper architecture and planned economy" (1/2023)


Paper architecture and planned economy

Aleksander Zahharov (1/2023)

Aleksander Zahharov visited the major exhibition "Forecast and Fantasy: Architecture Without Borders, 1960s–1980s" at the Estonian Museum of Architecture.

20. I–30. IV 2023
Estonian Museum of Architecture, 2nd floor exhibition hall
Architects, artists and groups: Archizoom, Yuri Avvakumov, Alexander Brodsky & Ilya Utkin, Igor Dřevíkovský & David Vávra, Dvizhenie, Stano Filko, István B. Gellér, Jozef Jankovič, NER, Tiit Kaljundi, Jevgeni Klimov, Mari Kurismaa, Kai Koppel, Vilen Künnapu, Leonhard Lapin, Hardijs Lediņš, Avo-Himm Looveer, Kirmo Mikkola, Stefan Müller, Jüri Okas, OHO, Ain Padrik, Alessandro Poli, László Rajk, Toomas Rein, Sirje Runge, Superstudio, Tõnis Vint et al.
Curators: Andres Kurg, Mari Laanemets

The exhibition covers the years between 1960 and 1980, and falls somewhere between architecture and art. Most of the participants are or have been architects, but the exhibited designs were never created with the assumption that they would ever become real structures. The reasons for this are diverse, but the result is a multifaceted reflection of the collective inner world of Eastern European architecture at the time.


A socialist odyssey

The exhibition is divided into five major chapters introducing the reasons for creating such surreal architecture. Although most of the individuals represented are from the former Soviet Union and other socialist countries, a few works from the capitalist Western Bloc are also included.

The first chapter, "The City as a Stage", recalls the observations of art and architecture groups of Eastern Europe about the modernist culture of construction in new cities and districts that arose under the socialist planned economy after the Second World War. The works express the mixed response by creative people to the modernist architecture of that time, which was progressive and forward-looking but also the only possible and monotonous fact of everyday life. The many photographs and drawings include fantastic and impossible structures, which express the desire for "something else" but also highlight the existing reality of concrete boxes.

The second chapter, "The End of Work", explores thoughts about the introduction of new technologies into people's lives. The more utopian thinkers foresaw that in the future, there would be no need for labour and people would have increasingly more free time. Freedom from labour encourages communal activities, travel and other similar activities, which also require new spatial solutions to run smoothly.

The third chapter, "Romantic Beginnings", highlights the architects' desire to explore the historical layers hidden beneath Soviet life and ideology. In retrospect, these layers seem romantically primitive. They wanted to relate to the totality of the world and find their place among a whole host of other phenomena. However, old ideas were used to invent something new and interesting.

The fourth chapter, "Entropy", is the opposite of the previous one. The concept of entropy, used in cybernetics to define information loss, proved that everything is transient. Architects and artists applied the new knowledge again in their own ways. They mapped contemporary and often temporary phenomena (ruins, unfinished buildings, rubbish, etc.). They also devised ways to prevent entropy and create formless and decentralised objects that could always have a new application without having a specific function.

The fifth chapter, "Replies from Outer Space", is driven by the Space Race that began in the late 1950s. The superpowers of the bipolar world conquered space primarily to gain a military advantage over their rival. As usual, it was accompanied by technical advancements and culture that soon reached the masses. The displayed works interpret the way Earthly political arguments and interests have been brought into space. Paradoxically, people do not lose their Earthly perspective even when they leave the Earth.

Concerning form, the further into the exhibition hall you go, the further you get from everyday problems. The first two chapters describe (albeit in a playful way) social problems and actual proposed solutions. Then come the works that reach the level of esotericism. The following chapter looks to science for solutions. Finally, there is the completely different and distant outer space, which melts all the previous chapters into one and shines in a whole new light.

Considering the period observed by the curators of the exhibition, it can be said that the exhibition is a kind of a paraphrase of Ilya Kabakov's well-known installation "The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment" (Человек, улетевший в космос из своей комнаты, 1982–1984). Leaving the hall on the second floor of the Museum of Architecture, you will again pass by all the works, which this time lead you back to everyday life. A journey to the stars – without leaving your hometown.




Exhibition views at the Estonian Museum of Architecture
Photo by Evert Palmets





Planned economy and construction

This time, the architects' ideas that became the works of art that criticised or interpreted the built environments of socialist countries are in focus. Global trends and popular thoughts in culture that were reflected in the nonconformist circles of Eastern Europe are highlighted. But the reason why architects were engaged in art instead of planning is mostly not explained. I will elaborate on this further.

The year 1957 is known as when the first satellite was launched into space but that was also a time that saw the implementation of another reform of the national economy of the Soviet Union. The De-Stalinist head of state Nikita Khrushchev softened the political regime. He stood for liberalisation and, to consolidate his bureaucratic power at the top of the communist party, reduced the dependence of the country's different regions on the centre. On paper, the Soviet Union was divided into many mostly self-sufficient economic regions, while the policy of fixed prices and the national salary payment system were maintained. National economies had to work hard to meet the quotas. But without the Stalinist reign of terror, this expectation was utopian.

It quickly became clear that when there were no options to make a profit, resources were instead directed to the comrades. Regionally, the share of local production increased because of the reluctance to send it to the neighbours. The already annoying deficit became endemic. The reform, which was cancelled already in 1965, was one of the main reasons why Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power by his party's colleagues in 1964.

According to the Hungarian economist János Kornai, the Stalinist economic model was much more complete (though not more humane, considering the power politics that did not allow for disintegration) than the later reformed socialist economies. Instead of a rigid central plan, decision-making was left largely in the hands of regional comrades, which meant that the economy as a whole had to find a new guiding regulator. The deficit became the regulator.

In a chronic shortage, the buyer always has a shortage of goods. Fixed prices didn't allow demand to be regulated with price increases as in a market economy. This resulted in a situation where the producers could endlessly push their production because demand was always high. The producers spent all the resources at their disposal to produce their goods, which often meant that pointless things were overproduced and resources were not used where they were needed. The producers stop innovating because all their goods are bought anyway. In other words, leveraging the deficit was the most convenient way for producers to manage their businesses under the conditions of the reformed planned economy.

For construction and architecture, this meant that any time spent thinking would mean the company would never get around to building anything. Since there were few construction materials, and both the central government and regional construction offices of collective farms were competing for them, taking the existing plan (i.e. concrete or brick) and moulding all the materials into buildings at once was the most beneficial option. However, due to the deficit, these projects were often not completed, and thus half-built buildings "decorated" the settlements of all the Warsaw Pact countries.

The architect's role was reduced to almost nothing in this kind of project management. Creative impulses had to be released elsewhere.


Escape into fantasy

The exhibition as a whole focuses on the "paper architecture" of Eastern Europe, but architects from Finland, Italy, Germany and other countries are also represented. This better highlights the ideas and influences that dominated the culture at the time. The proposed utopian projects and the attitudes towards the world's problems were quite similar everywhere. But we should also remember that a similar end result does not mean the same starting position.

The architects and artists of Western countries lived in civil societies. Their utopias were impossible but still important because they represented the first steps towards future innovations. An ironic mockery of contemporary social phenomena was a healthy critique that functioned within the framework of public discussion.

The irony of the artists from the socialist countries was also certainly healthy. In a closed society, however, its function was different. They aimed to identify fellow critics and demonstrate that even omnipotent bodies and bureaucrats are not everlasting. The fantasy demonstrated that change is possible and inevitable in the future.


Aleksander Zahharov is pursuing a master's degree at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

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