Socialist / Communist / Soviet Architecture: The Blocks of Flats in Central and Eastern Europe
A foray into the causes of and socio-psychological
effects of life in an Eastern European ‘workers’ palace’
David J. Tamm
January 23, 2006
Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland
From Marxist philosophical roots sprang the idea that society should exist for the benefit of the members of those social orders historically doing a disproportionately high volume of the overall labor. The great scheme came to political fruition with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but until this day, communist societies themselves have seemingly existed not for the benefit of the workers and peasants, but for the continued existence of the socialist state itself. In almost every aspect of life within the socialist societies, the command method of politics and economics dictated that it would not be the people themselves who would make decisions, but workers-councils, soviets and other bodies of various names, making up in the end, ‘The Party.’ In many parts of life therefore, the government had an important role to play: that of arbiter. In the fine arts, government was arbiter of taste, quality, successful artistic endeavor, style and form, but it was in architecture that social-realism found its most potent expression. There is a quality of brutalism about the socialist-realist apartment-blocks that epitomizes the contradictions inherent in the realities of the communist world order itself.
Architecture throughout history has been used to demonstrate and reinforce certain ideas and fundamental truths about the societies in which they were created. The pharaohs of Egypt and the priest-kings of Mesopotamia had monolithic structures built to emphasize the authority of the rulers of the state, and their supernatural powers not available to the ordinary person. One can easily imagine an Egyptian fisherman gawk in wonder at the tomb of Khufu and think, “Pharaoh is my master, Pharaoh knows that which is best.” What that Egyptian did not know was that in this regard, Pharaoh was foreshadowing Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Ceausescu, among others, by just a little under five millennia, and that his mindset would be the desired one among the people in the societies they ruled, as ‘human gods.’
The classical Greco-Roman style held sway for a thousand years around the Mediterranean, engendering a sense of unity and solidity, as well as the virtues of citizenship. Medieval European castles and cathedrals show us that feudal authority and faith were the overwhelming values of the age, and we can look to other parts of the world and find mosques and Hindu temples, Buddhist shrines and synagogues impressing the importance of building temples to God or ‘the gods,’ depending. The palaces of the Baroque like Versailles and Schoenbrunn indicate the power of absolutist rule, making Wilanow an interesting case study as the Old Republic was the most democratic in Europe in the 17th Century, yet has an ornamental tribute to kingly authority.
Even the last example, because it proposed that the royal right to rule was a divine one, did not contradict God’s importance in the order of life. The most important buildings of the 19th Century and beyond however, would reflect the new ‘gods’ of modernity in the West: race and nation first, commercialism later, and spawn interesting reactions like the avant-garde. The monumentality of Napoleonic and neo-classic Paris and Washington, as well as that of 2nd and 3rd Reich Berlin again exclaim state power with significant nationalist (or in the case of Washington, ‘citizenist’) components. In the 20th Century, while cathedrals of commerce arose above New York, Chicago, Detroit and others, on other side of the world in the Soviet Bloc, a new kind of anti-commercial reality was being created through residential architecture. For in a system dedicated to ‘the workers and peasants,’ the most important philosophic structures would not be churches, skyscrapers or shopping malls, but hive-like communal residences.
There is a poster from the time depicting Pushkin with his arm around Mickiewicz in the clouds and a Soviet worker with his arm around a Polish worker, as new comrades they were, down below on Earth. They look towards a bright new future together and architecture would be one expression of it.  Being that Poland, especially, lay in ruin, the concept of ‘building New Poland’ had a sense of immediacy to it. Social-Realism in the post-war Eastern Bloc would go through distinct phases, and the first was Stalinist imposition of constraints, lasting essentially from 1949-1956. In this climate, an ideal socialist city as envisioned by Polish architects with approval from Moscow was created at Nowa Huta, East of Krakow. It was laid out in a great arc on some of the best farmland, and populated with everyone from peasants who had never had indoor plumbing or electric heat to city people who had lost everything in the war. Placement here was important, that it might counterbalance 19th Century Krakow, a conservative and academic city, with workers, peasants and a giant steelworks in which they would labor.
It is not to say the reasons for planting the new city there were non-economical in nature. They were in fact anti-economical, as this area of Malopolska bears no coal or ore to power the factories or to smelt into steel. Though today Nowa Huta stands as a monument to pure socialist architecture and planning, it has incorporated into it indications of a Polish national style, including renaissance motifs in the Plac Centralny. The Soviets did not object to the renaissance, for ‘it was progressive then, as communism is now.’ In functionality, in only in functionality, socialist-realist housing was like that of the modernist style, used in such places as interwar Gdynia for shipyard workers’ accommodations or the shoemaking workers’ quarters in Bata’s Zlin. In Gdynia’s modernist workers’ tenements, the classicist style was used, as it was thought that shipyard workers and textile workers would, like modern Japanese corporate psychologists emphasize, perform more efficiently if in some respects community orientation, teamwork and the downgrading of individual enterprise for the good of the whole was made a reality through architecture. It was also less expensive to construct. Bata agreed in principle, legislating that workers needed ‘a harmonious working and residential environment,’ along with recreation zones containing all the social services one may need. Yet in Nowa Huta one gets the wry feeling while looking at the green playgrounds, schools and the comfortable open spaces, that it was planned according to an ideology where neighbors were supposed to watch and report on each other, ‘for the good of the state.’
Did the residents of socialist cities need the state as a parent or overseer? Certainly the state would have them think so, and Nowa Huta is designed as a kind of military fortress, easily sealed off in case of American or NATO invasion. Also, one organic attribute of the socialist-realist philosophy of communal living, though certainly not the architecture, in fact has been the rule for most of human existence, broken only by the comparatively recent mass movement to the cities beginning in the 19th Century. This philosophy is the idea that the community support system is good and necessary for successful normal life. When great numbers of people left the age-old traditional modes of peasant life and moved to industrial cities, they entered a Hobbesian world of ‘every man for himself.’ When they moved, support networks disappeared and they became atomized. The communitarian ethics encouraged by state socialism were a way of replacing the anonymity of the topsy-turvy post-war world with a sense of belonging and a reason for loyalty to the collective, to the neighborhood, and to the state.
Other ideal socialist cities were built around Central Europe, like Dunajuvaros in Hungary and Ostrava in former Czechoslovakia. These cities show that one can find national influences in them as well, as in Nowa Huta. Czech renaissance sculpture and imagery exists in Ostrava in what could be called, ‘Soviet imperialist grandeur with local additives.’ The streets were made just a little too wide in Dunajuvaros, highlighting the reality of ‘things are beyond your control… keep that in mind.’ Hungarian incorporation of the Danube and decent central planning in Dunajuvaros (meaning ‘New Danube Town’ make this city one of the success stories of socialist planning, though gives the impression that one is living in a large kingdom, ruled by the Soviets. A Soviet ‘pure socialist’ city called Magnitogorsk was brought to life in Stalin’s first 5 Year Plan, and was built on a ‘linear model’ for short commutes from flat to work and back, with varying success. Here the cold of winter made a linear pattern ridiculous, turning nature ‘into just another source of hostility.’
As for Nowa Huta, it seems the most unified in design of all these cities. The special features of Nowa Huta even make it a livable place, and by some of today’s standards, a modestly desirable one if the small size of the majority of flats and the economic domination of heavy industry is overlooked. In fact, some long time residents are quite happy where they are. It could be that Nowa Huta suffers from the image damaging imperative of anything connected intimately to the former system, but much worse than ‘ideal cities’ of any type, whether they be socialist (Nowa Huta), modern (Gdynia), renaissance (Zamosc), garden, new-urban (Seaside, FL) or company (Walt Disney’s Lake Buena Vista, FL), are the dismal consequences of the housing shortage behind the Iron Curtain: The prefabricated concrete slabs known as ‘blocks of flats.’
If for no other reason, and there are plenty, East European blocks of flats are uniquely abhorrent because of the sheer volume of their presence upon the modern urban landscape, always appearing as they do in some sharp geometric forms somewhere between a solid cube and a three dimensional rectangle, be it vertically or horizontally oriented. The Berlin based European Academy of the Urban Environment estimates that, “Large estates with prefabricated apartment blocks are the outstanding characteristic of the cities of the former communist countries. In total it is estimated that some 170 million people live in more than 70 million flats, usually in large housing complexes on the outskirts of cities.” Thus, from Szczecin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, and from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, 170 million people wake up looking at what are essentially Le Corbusier’s ‘machines for living in.’
In many cases, the re-building of Poland was simply ‘the building’ or ‘the urbanizing’ of Poland, on an order of magnitude that would make even Le Corbusier blush. In 1945, even the large cities of Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz, Gdansk and Wroclaw were not built up far outside of their 19th Century and modernist interwar limits. In the 30 years after the war, that Poland of Pilsudski and Paderewski was crushed underfoot as blocks arose whose mass and area outstripped the entirety of the old towns they surrounded and impinged. Cities obliterated by war such as Warsaw and East Berlin, St. Petersburg and Budapest were filled with the blocks right up to the center of town. In Warsaw, modernist architects envisioned a rebuilt modernist city, but the paradigm shift was underway to socialist-realist. In Gdansk it was thanks to a Warsaw professor, Zakwatowicz, citing the turn of the century Krakow School of Conservation, that the even the old town was rebuilt as it was. Moscow, which would grow to be the largest city in Europe today, was reworked as the model socialist city, a ‘living organism’ for ‘intensive communal life. It filled and surrounded itself with ‘Microrayons’ a geometrical residential form, and while the government touted these vast complexes as the wave of the future, it wrestled with the irreconcilable need to create cheap buildings but maintain the facade of grandeur.
Most of the infrastructure of the blocks, be they strict microrayon groups, regular patterned groups or in haphazard arrangements depending on local geography, was constructed with generally low quality from water pipes and sewage to insulation and roof. The EAUE notes, “Most of the buildings have defects in the concrete slab construction and often the damage is irreparable. In addition, the areas are suffering from monotonous architecture and a lack of neighborhood contacts.” The first observation is physical in nature, the second psychological.
Physically, the blocks are high density, universally, even monolithically similar, and attempt to integrate open space with varying results. Some in the rayon fashion may be geometrically perfect, with plenty of open space, while others have almost none or so much as to smack desolation. It is ironic that many of the blocks, which are engineered to maximize human contact, foster so little. This is one of the contradictions first seen. The buildings themselves have concrete frames, flats have around 15 cm of concrete with some wood or wool or other insulation in them, mortar to hold it all together or rubber molding, floors are generally around 10 cm of reinforced concrete, flat roof with 10 cm reinforced concrete with 30 cm of pillars with insulation between beams. The roof is usually asphalt. The insides vary radically, but freezers are rare and sometimes the flats don’t have any kitchens, as workers are supposed to eat at work and students at school, de-emphasizing the family by removing them from the togetherness of mealtimes.
The physical problems with the buildings today are numberless: poor insulation on windows and in the buildings in general, the outside scraping off, poor plumbing and heating, disputes over ownership (and responsibility) of the common areas, small size of rooms and distance from amenities. The other imposing physical problem is that they are still occupied by residents as before the changes. Poland and the entire former Warsaw Pact world faces interminable housing shortages, especially in the major cities. Ironically, Warsaw itself actually has more blocks of flats being built on the horizon, this time by capitalist developers, than it has destruction of old ones.
How post-communist societies will come to terms with the grotesqueness of their inherited cityscapes in uncertain. Unlike paintings, poster art, literature, propaganda papers or statuary that can be physically removed and destroyed in any number of ceremonial ways or confined to a museum, buildings by virtue of their physicality must be exploded, covered, renovated or come to terms with and accepted. Today in Poland this question is symbolized by the controversy surrounding what to do with Warsaw’s communist infrastructure. Warszawa Centralny train station is tolerable as functionalist, but literally the biggest example of this problem is the Palace of Culture and Science, one of Europe’s most massive buildings and one dedicated even more to state power than the Sears Tower in Chicago is dedicated to corporate power. It is ‘imperialist architecture’ which was a common style of the German fascist and the Soviet socialist regimes, though they both perpetuated the myth that each was the antithesis of the other. If it could and should be physically destroyed is a topic of great debate. It houses a theater, the former Party Congress Hall, a number of museums, a planetarium, the best view of Warsaw from atop its height, and has been turned into a tourist attraction. It also houses the memory of a nation crushed under its might it for the lion’s share of the lifetimes of many Poles alive today, as it impales the sky of the nation’s capital. Despite this, right now its future in the Warsaw skyline is temporarily secure. The needs of new Poland have thus far trumped the pain of the old.
The other great issue concerning the blocks is psychological. What are the socio-psychological consequences of living in the blocks of flats? Must we view the blocks in a negative light based on what the living conditions do to peoples’ psychology? What does the future hold for the blocks in Poland? To answer, we may look comparatively at other places in Europe and North America where conditions were somewhat replicated, keeping in mind that Le Corbusier’s ‘Contemporary City’ was not dedicated to any society’s ideology, and was ‘applicable anywhere.’
In the United States during the 1960’s and especially the 1970’s, older urban core cities like Detroit and Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis degenerated considerably, as many middle class residents moved to newer suburban areas due primarily to a downturn in the manufacturing sector of the economy, and race riots in the streets. This ‘white flight’ had the negative effect of leaving the cities without a solid tax base and the housing stock fell in some cases to ruin. The government initiated a program to destroy some neighborhoods and build… blocks of flats for the residents in their place. It was hoped that if the most basic physical needs were met, it would alleviate residents’ disenchantment with life in America at the time. Despite the altruism involved, a surprising effect took place in nearly every circumstance: the residents did not like living in the government-subsidized public housing flats. They became centers of violent crime, drug dealing and engendered a new feeling of disillusionment in their occupants.
Ironically, what the government thought was a great idea to help the poorest Americans was taken as an insult by the residents, who felt themselves infantalized and would have preferred their old neighborhoods back. Perhaps community can exist in regular housing, even if in various stages of decrepitude. If East Europeans would have reacted in the same way in a free society is uncertain, but the answer is probably no. In Poland, many of the residents were happy for their first centrally heated flat with running water, and there was no ‘us vs. them’ race-based component active. The circumstances were too different, but it is certain that the blocks would not have been built in the form they were built in, had Poland been a free society. In the early 21st Century, some Polish blocks indeed have become more prone to crime and poverty, especially when containing a critical mass of young men who are unemployed. It follows that actual fear of the police plus stable (if inappropriate or ineffectual) work is a partial remedy to crime in the flats.
On the Isles of Great Britain, the government was confronted with a similar problem as in America. A burgeoning underclass was in need of shelter, pockets in cities were becoming blighted and the crime rate was rising. Though they become streaked with the same stains, dirt and variable plant life as in America and Eastern Europe, the government responded to the charge by building… blocks of flats. Here we meet again the preferred architectural style of a governmental entity representing the public and ready to provide for the public good. Dr. Theodore Dalrymple tells us why they intervened, “The middle class reformers thought of poverty wholly in physical terms: an insufficiency of food and warmth, a lack of space. How, they asked, could people come to the finer things in life if their basic requirements were so inadequately met? Since social problems such as crime and delinquency were attributable to physical deprivation- to the environment rather than the criminal or delinquent, the construction of decent housing would solve all problems at once.” Of course, today we know that in Britain the same result occurred: a population disenchanted with British life and disgusted with living in what in Poland would be considered a ‘normal dwelling.’ Dalrymple continues, “Whoever wants to see for himself the reductio ad absurdum of the materialist and rationalist conception of human life cannot do better than to visit one of these projects. The idea that happiness and well-being consist of a few simple physical needs, and can therefore be planned on behalf of society by benevolent administrators, is here bleakly mocked.” It seems that the social psychology of ‘given things’ in the Anglo-American cases leads flats dwellers to antisocial behavior. Perhaps crime increases occur when a population has rising expectations of what the government should be doing for them, and is left disdainful when it does meet them. As in America, British housing flats are full of anarchy, with Darwinian law applying over civil. In the Polish blocks, order is strengthened by virtue of the diversity of the age of people existing in them. One thing the communists did not do was discriminate against age. Older adults live next to families or next to young couples lucky enough to get a flat, rendering a sense of individual responsibility derived from a known intolerance of disorderly behavior. This factor is non-existent in the housing estates of Britain and America, Western incarnations founded on a different principle.
A third case is the socio-psychology of the flats in France, brought to the headlines by the riots in them, of November 2005. During the last thirty years, the French government welcomed many non-French guests and immigrants to live in France, mostly hailing from Islamic North Africa. To facilitate their transition and assimilation into French society, the government not only passed a resolution in 1975 to encourage promotion of Arab culture (non-assimilation) but kindly built… blocks of flats, for them, located in the same kind of satellite-like formats outside of the major cities (non-transition). Unfortunately for about 9,000 car owners, what factors more in successful assimilation to a law and order based society is not how many flats the government gives for free so much the personal characteristics of the immigrants themselves. As in the other cases, putting together in one place a radically isolationist socio-cultural minority, while theorizing about multiculturalism and its strengths, the French government forgot that when confined to one territory, in this case the French Republic, ‘multi’ meant ‘French’ and ‘other,’ and the ‘other’ was proving itself compatible with the ‘French.’ The architecture of the blocks of flats played into helping isolate and atomize the Muslim African youths rioting in November 2005.
Being that in modern Western societies, the state is supposed to have exclusive control of the use of violence, the fact that British, Dutch, French, Belgian, German, Swedish and Danish authorities all admit to many virtual ‘no go’ areas in their countries, is disturbing. Upon closer analysis, one thing unites these areas: they are all ‘blocks of flats,’ thousands of artless ‘Unites’ inhabited by a maladapted segment of the population, with a high birth rate, unemployment rate, low skill rate and a critical mass of young men from around 15-30 years of age. The reason that former Eastern bloc nations don’t experience the same kind of problems as the West, on an even more massive scale even, is that it seems architecture is not an independent actor, determining in full the conditions for anti-sociality. In the East, the societies are more ethnically homogenized at the same time very heterogeneous in the age and life mode of people who inhabit the blocks. There is much less of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, or a preponderance of troublemaking boys and men. In order to assimilate anyone, the host society must be full of confidence in what kind a society it is, and this, unfortunately, is not the essence of ‘multiculturalism’ or the modern West.
The future of the blocks of flats in Poland and in the formers Eastern Bloc is dubious. As these countries have some of the lowest birthrates in the world, it is possible that outside Warsaw and the other capital cities, some of the flats will simply be taken down with nothing needed to replace them. In other cases, young people may move out and leave for opportunities in other parts of the country and in the West, leaving the elderly and infirm. This is the case in many blocks even today. Still another development will likely see a rolling teardown of the old flats and the construction of new facilities on a more human scale. The growing affluence of the region dictates this as a probability. Finally, if we can take the examples from America, Britain and Western Europe, the CEE countries should recognize that the huge infrastructure of deteriorated satellite housing can, under the right conditions, be turned into the current French model of suburban dysfunction. Where the free market has spoken through de-facto segregation, or where the government has idealistically ignored realistic concerns such as being careful how much they allow housing estates to be populated by only one section of society, blocks of flats have turned into hotbeds of social disorder. This is especially true where they are made up of a poor underclass. Care in not letting xenophobia limit full assimilation and interaction with the growing foreign newcomers arriving to the region, and care in not letting sole use of violence slip away from the police power of the state, are necessary courses of action when dealing with the problem of these communist constructions, which are part of this region’s historical totality. As with the Palace of Culture, one can always hope for their elimination, but it is likely that many of the 70,000,000 flats will see the dawn of the 22nd Century, as they have the 21st. What is not as clear is what kind of society they will see around them.
1. Aulich James and Sylvestrova, Marta, Political Posters in Central and Eastern Europe. Manchester University Press, Manchester, England, 1999.
2. Davies, Norman, God’s Playground Vol. I. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981
3. Ferkai, Andras, Art and Society in the Age of Stalin: Stalinist Architecture. Corvina Press, Budapest, 1994.
4. Jencks, Charles, Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture, Penguin Books, Harmandsworth, England, 1973
5. Slapeta, Vladimir, Architecture and urbanism of the Bata Firm, 1910-1950.
6. Soltysik, Maria, Gdynia: Miasto Dwudziestolecia Miedzywojennego. Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warsaw, 1993.
7. Watkin, David, Morality and Architecture Revisited. Univ of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977.Interview: conducted 27/12/2005 with Dr. Tomasz Jaworski, Nicholas Copernicus University, Torun, Poland.
 Davies, 305.
 Aulich and Sylvestrova, 160
 Visual Arts class field-trip to Nowa Huta, 14/12/2005
 Visual Arts class notes, 21/11/2005
 Soltysik, 417.
 Visual Arts class field-trip to Nowa Huta, 14/12/2005
 Visual Arts class notes, 5/12/2005
 Watkin, 44
 Visual Arts classnotes, 22/11/2005
 Ferkai, 33
 History of 20th Century CEE class notes, 21/12/2005
 Interview with Dr. Tomasz Jaworski, 27/12/2005
 Visual Arts class notes, 22/11/2005
 Ferkai, 27
 Jencks, 71
 Jencks, 144.
 Interview with Dr. Tomasz Jaworski, 27/12/2005
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