Conference reports 1991-2021: Thirty Years After Urban Space in Transition after the Collapse of the USSR

The roundtable offered perspectives on the approaches to architectural heritage, and the ways memory is made and remade in urban spaces after the dissolution of the USSR, in four examples from both Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Published on balticworlds.com on October 29, 2021

No Comments on Urban Space in Transition after the Collapse of the USSR Share
  • Facebook
  • del.icio.us
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

The roundtable ”Urban Space in Transition after the Collapse of the USSR” arranged at CBEES September 21, 2021 by Irina Seits, offered perspectives on the approaches to architectural heritage, and the ways memory is made and remade in urban spaces after the dissolution of the USSR, in four examples from both Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Vadim Bass addressed the recent competition for the new Museum of the Siege of Leningrad. Introducing his case, Bass made a reference to early attempts to commemorate the Siege, already short after WWII: These included triumphal arches, cemeteries and an exhibition which failed to gain a permanent character. Following, the Khrushchev era saw a relative freedom in debating and dealing with commemoration. From there, a dichotomy surfaced between the heroic and tragic aspects of the Siege, and the question of how to depict these elements in space appeared. Several memorial projects and contests during the 1960s brought forward a state-of-the-art vocabulary, which was typical of international modernism. These attempts to construct a narrative culminated in the Memorial to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad (1975), an impressive composition which set the standards for similar monuments.

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad. St. Petersburg, 2012. Photo V. Kitsos

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad. St. Petersburg, 2012. Photo V. Kitsos

Further Bass introduced the 2017 international architectural competition for the new memorial, emphasizing the lack of transparency and the underrepresentation of architecture professionals in the jury. He made a short analysis of the nine proposals that participated in the second round, as well as Studio 44’s winning proposal. From there, he drew attention to the public perception and the media discourse which, without good reason, as he emphasized, switched to debate the “Sovietness” of the winning proposal.

In the rest of his presentation, Bass addressed this “Sovietness”: First, he demonstrated that there weren’t any Soviet elements in the architectural designs: All submitted projects used spatial metaphors which are typically post-modern or contemporary (the symbolism in the Finnish proposal, the numerological design by Mamoshin, or the Libeskind-styled proposal by A. Len bureau). Equally, absent were Soviet commemorative attributes that are typically viewed as negative today (such as the lack of the notion of suffering, the obsession with promoting heroism and the generic designs): the winning proposal clearly carries the signature of the architect; it also does integrate the element of suffering, making direct reference to concepts such as the peoples’ endurance. All these are concepts typical of contemporary museums and memorials. Why then, wondered the speaker, do architects and critics still speak of a Soviet structure?

This paradox lies at the core of the presentation: These views, Bass argued, say more about the audience rather the design itself. He proposed two reasons that might explain this. First, the public discourse was about the processes and publicity surrounding the competition: When people spoke of a Soviet competition, they referred not to the building but to things such as the non-transparent procedure of the competition, and the over-representation of governmental officials in the jury. Secondly, the scale of the published drawings made it appear too big and scared off parts of the public, who saw in it a disproportionately big structure that contradicted the scale of the city.

Irina Seits presented the history of industrial plants St. Petersburg through their names and addressed the practice of renaming as a means to appropriate the heritage in this city.

The city itself has undergone name changes during its turbulent history, Seits emphasized in the beginning. By the second half of the 19th century, with St. Petersburg turning into a large industrial center in international level, many foreign companies settled there. Since the industrial architecture of the time was universal in its design, it was common for industrialists to be attentive to the name of the plant. This usually carried the owner’s surname, and this was a way for them to gain both market visibility and to become visible in St. Petersburg’s social circles (such as the telephone plant of Ericsson or the Nobel plant). These labels became brands, that spoke of and guaranteed the quality of production, which was often associated with the country of origin of the plant owners and managers.

After the Bolshevik revolution, all plants were nationalized and gradually renamed, usually after revolutionary figures. The references to any international and capitalist background were removed. All of a sudden, several pre-existing factories appeared as achievements of the Soviet industrialization. Similarly, the Soviet government sought to develop a socialist version of a brand, by renaming factories or adding them a “red” suffix: The Ericsson plant for example became Red Dawn and the Kersten textile factory turned into the Red Banner. One more illustrative example of the semantics of names has been the renaming of the city’s confectionary plants, in particular, after female revolutionaries: a candy factory renamed after a feminist writer and editor (Samoilova) and another named after Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife.

After 1991 many of the city’s industrial plants ceased operation. Although their buildings were now in central city locations and attracted some private interest, the city was long indecisive or uninterested in dealing with these territories. Seits mentioned four incidents of destruction, partial or total, of historic plants due to this long neglect: The Lessner plant (burned down in 2009), the Red Triangle Factory (Красный Треугольник, burned in 2017), the Red Thread plant (Красная Нить, burned in 2019) and Nevskaya Manufaktura (Невская Мануфактура, almost totally burned down in 2021). On the other hand, developing some of these areas has also happened, as in the “Lessner” premium residential project (built after the 2009 fire). Successful examples of heritage appropriation include the recent New Holland complex, restored into a public space with exhibition halls and events, or the Siemens electrical plan, which also hosts contemporary art functions.

New Holland island. Restoration of the main arch. St. Petersburg, 2017. Photo V. Kitsos

New Holland island. Restoration of the main arch. St. Petersburg, 2017. Photo V. Kitsos

Closing her talk, Seits returned to the abandoned Nobel factory, and contrasted it to the big “Nobel” office building nearby which, somehow, has reappropriated the memory of the area. Her conclusion was that despite the growing official recognition of heritage and the several ways to deal with it, many historical objects are still not given attention.

 

Olga Kazakova addressed the Soviet modernist project of cinemas in the periphery of Moscow, and the current state of these buildings.

These cinemas were built as a cultural amenity in new urban districts. They were part of the state-guaranteed social infrastructure that sought to minimize the gap in cultural provisions, between the city center and the periphery. Architecturally, these cinemas were based on the 1961 design for “Rossia” cinema, in which Yuri Severdyaev more or less copied a design originally proposed by Leonid Pavlov (1958).

Unlike other social infrastructure, cinemas were favored by architects, who envisioned them functioning as “glowing icebergs in the cold grey sea of panel houses”. In many cases, architects sought to ignore the state policy of standardization and to produce original designs, experiment with construction materials and decorative elements: Ashgabat, Sofia and Zvezdnyi (Звёздный) cinemas were for example based on individual projects. Many of these cinemas have been recognized as architectural monuments among professionals, but not by the state.

Kazakova drew attention to an additional aspect of the cinemas, which was their sociopolitical and spatial function. Under the Soviet censorship, whenever program directors managed to scrape rare or censored films, they played them in such peripheral cinemas. As a result, these cinemas acquired an important cultural function indeed. People would come from different parts of Moscow to watch specific films in specific cinemas; gradually, this helped these peripheral neighborhoods acquire unique identities.

However, after 1991 the interest in cinemas and the viewership among people fell dramatically. Many cinemas were abandoned, others were turned into markets or nightclubs. Their outer appearance also changed into an “aggressive tastelessness” (as Venturi and D. S. Brown would argue).

A line was drawn in 2014, after the private company ADG Group bought 39 cinemas from the city and promised to revive and turn them into new neighborhood centers. But what happened instead was a ruthless demolition that had nothing to do with these promises. This triggered local protests that sought to defend cinemas such as Ulan Bator, Vityaz (Витязь) or Pervomaiskyi (Первомайский).

 

Cinema Rossyia, transformed into a playful pop object. Moscow, 2016. Photo V. Kitsos

Cinema Rossyia, transformed into a playful pop object. Moscow, 2016. Photo V. Kitsos

Kazakova argued that these protests clearly prove that those cinemas still formed part of a local identity, despite their prolonged abandonment. Nonetheless, by now most of these 39 cinemas have been or are about to be demolished. Only their names survive in the neighborhood community centers that are replacing them. To make things worse, these so-called community centers are practically nothing more than shopping malls. Their appearance, which consists of dull, identical design solutions is gradually displacing and forever destroying some of the best Soviet cinemas with their elegant mosaics, interior design and architectural details.

Kazakova closed by observing that this loss of tangible heritage has been accompanied by the loss of an intangible one: That is, with the destruction of neighborhood cinemas, the periphery of Moscow is gradually losing a very direct link to culture. In exchange, it is getting shopping mall-style consumption and fast-food chains, which were not missing from these neighborhoods to begin with.

Jan Levchenko gave a presentation of characteristics cinematic visions of Moscow in the beginning of the 21st century. As he first argued, the views to a capital city, especially of a totalitarian state, demonstrate the dominant conception of lifestyle. Films located in Moscow constitute a certain “street of showcases” (as W.Benjamin would argue).

Levchenko then went to show a number of such examples, found in five films shot in the post-Soviet period, starting with the certain 1990s nostalgia, and its late merging with the new Russia, i.e. Putin’s Russia. The first is Sorokin’s Moscow (2000): In a film fragment, shot in a boat floating in the river, the viewer sees a Moscow emptied of life, where symbolic sites appear one after another, in a slow ceremonial motion along the embankment. In a similarly alienated atmosphere, Loban’s Dust (Пыль, 2005) follows a Dostoyevsky-an “little man” who is wandering in a depressed, exhausted Moscow. The chosen fragment follows the protagonist as he encounters an impoverished war veteran and an obnoxious person who brags about being successful. All this takes place in the memorial complex on Poklonaya Hill (Поклонная гора), which imprints the feeling of emptiness rather than of a lively public space, adding to the existential dread of the film.

 The waterfront of Moskva river turning into a tourist-friendly place. Moscow, 2016. Photo V. Kitsos

The waterfront of Moskva river turning into a tourist-friendly place. Moscow, 2016. Photo V. Kitsos

While Moscow and Dust catered to more “intellectual” audiences, mass productions of the 2000s portrayed Moscow as a city of opportunities, positivity and endless growth. This was the case of Popsa (Попса, 2005): A fairy-tale about a girl migrating from the province to live the big city life. Apart from the widespread practice of completely dismissing life in the province and urging everybody to find their place in Moscow, these kinds of films start revealing a cultivated Soviet nostalgia: Although shot at fast pace, The Heat (Жара, 2006) is full of nostalgic images and Soviet leitmotifs, such as that of the young marine going on a date with a girl, in settings that show the renaissance of the Russian state, all eloquent images of the conservative turn in Russia. Finally and in later productions, a more touristic image of Moscow has been promoted in order to increase the city’s international appeal. Characteristic is the international production The Darkest Hour (2011), which makes use of mainstream rap music and internationalized cultural artefacts, following some excited American students who couldn’t care less about politics or history – they are in Moscow just to spend their money and have fun.

These examples, Levchenko argued, depict a dumbed, narrow range of motives and images: A cynical, glossy city where the past has been frozen by state power and is carelessly following a present which is only concerned with money and vanity. He described this as the coexistence of “the frozen and the overcooked” in portraying Moscow; which by the way is practically the only Russian city that has attracted interest by 21st century Russian cinematographers. Central to these depictions, Levchenko concluded, is the conservative resurgence in Russia, that continues to grow in our days.

 

The ensuing discussion was centered around (a) the usefulness of the term “Soviet”, (b) specific civic activism towards heritage, and (c) possible generalizations for theoretical purposes when addressing urban heritage or the past in general.

The discussion about “Sovietness” started with Vadim Bass observing that all presentations essentially discussed modernist or industrial heritage and processes of appropriation, loss or preservation thereof: universal processes that one perhaps could address without referring to something “Soviet”. Olga Kazakova disagreed, arguing that the post-war cinema building program was drawn on a unique Soviet idea for equal access to culture. Thus, by avoiding the “Soviet”, one would miss this specific component.

Commenting on forms of civic activism, Irina Seits clarified that there has been no organized or systematic protest in the case of the industrial heritage in St. Petersburg. Kazakova then went into more detail on the several ways of protesting the demolition of cinemas: people mobilizing in neighborhood level, in local politics and on the internet, being innovative and staging acts, but also through appeals to city authorities and even seeking to sue the developer.

In the end, the question of a common thread that could link the presentations was brought up. To Jan Levchenko the fact that the former USSR was multisided and heterogeneous implied that there was no need for something like that, and that adopting different ways to speak about the past and heritage was inevitable and natural.