Frank Herfort, a noted German photographer who currently works in Berlin and Moscow, recently published the photo album Imperial Pomp: Post-Soviet High Rise. It contains pictures taken in post-Soviet countries: weird structures, chimerical high rises, gold towers, residential developments built on a strikingly large scale and weirdly decorated. And all this against the backdrop of post-Soviet realities: ramshackle buildings, small birch public gardens, poorly dressed people, broken roads, garage cooperatives dating from Soviet times, Soviet cars, the so-called small architectural forms. Looking at these photos, you find yourself wondering where these pictures were taken: in Moscow, Kyiv, Astana, Khanty-Mansiysk, Baku, maybe in Minsk? Moreover, things in Herfort’s pictures that look surreal, inappropriate and unrealistically contrasting exist in our daily life and we accept them as a matter of course. Few residents of Kyiv are shocked to watch a high rise being erected in the historic part of the city, amidst historic structures.
Herfort’s photo album is about modern architecture struggling to keep pace with trends in the West while longing for the Soviet past, reads Dmytro Khmelnytsky’s foreword “Architecture of a Nonexistent Society” [for the Ukrainian publication]. All this is very true of our Ukrainian architecture: “Architecture in any country and epoch reflects the social structure and social relations of that country and epoch. This is an axiom and starting point in studying the history of architecture. It remains true and topical.
“A society that looks as a chimerical and exotic structure to an outsider more often than not expresses itself in architecture. And vice versa, what looks to an outsider as chimerical architecture almost invariably conceals forms of life and polity that are unusual to an outsider… There is a viewer and architecture regarded by that viewer as something unnatural, something that viewer has never seen. And there is that society which begot this architecture — rather a number of societies that emerged in place of the Soviet empire destined to fall in the early 1990s.
“Most of Herfort’s photos show high rises, homes of wealthy people and main offices of large government-run and private companies. All of these have been built over the past couple of decades in post-Soviet countries. Many of these countries are best — and accurately — described as dictatorships, including Russia (whose dictatorial regime does not seem to be questioned by anyone these days).
“Dictatorship is a regime under which democratic laws and human rights are absent or ineffective. It is a polity in which social programs are reduced to a minimum and the ruling stratum, as a rule, manifests its grandeur, hierarchical position, and wealth using visual means. Architecture, especially in terms of high-rise designs, is an ideal means. In these conditions homes, offices, and government agencies turn into symbols of social, financial, and political success — and invariably lose the characteristics of genuinely good architecture.
“In these circumstances, the functionality of the building becomes unimportant. The problems of spatial organization do not determine the shape of the building, they are secondary and of no interest to the designer. The main task is to have the exterior produce the desired effect, impress the viewer by the might, grandeur, wealth, and exclusiveness of the building and the people who are inside. That was the predominant approach in the Soviet Union. In this sense architecture in many post-Soviet countries completely relies on the Soviet tradition.”
Dmytro Khmelnytsky notes that the high-rise construction projects in Herfort’s photos by no means imply economy of space, that “skyscrapers stand alone in a space which is free enough. None of these construction projects makes you feel that the height of the building is explained by an economy of land, as is the case with the big cities in the First and Third World. Rather, an empty or low-rise environment is necessary for the proper perception of this architecture, for the realization of its wealth, grandeur and exclusivity.” He points out the rich decoration and chimerical design: “columns with hypertrophied cornices, capitals, triumphal arches, stepped or geometric pyramids, or variously decorated figurines resembling pedestals of nonexistent monuments. Sometimes they are styled to remind one of some historic events and look vaguely familiar. Especially recognizable are clones of Moscow Stalinist skyscrapers and houses of the 1940s-1950s, or of US skyscrapers of the early 20th century. Where there is no direct historical styling, there are obvious compositional cliches reminiscent of the Soviet architectural tradition of grandeur: symmetric, benched shapes crowned by spires or decorated rotundas.
“Modern Western ‘high-tech’ architectural imitations also look subtly Soviet. In such cases the shape of the building is not due to any internal spatial solution or design. In full conformity with the Soviet tradition, they create a certain self-sufficient image that exists by itself, trying to impress the viewer using that same set of Soviet barbarian sentiments.”
Dmytro Khmelnytsky lists the features of post-Soviet housing projects that bring them so close to typically Soviet designs: isolation from the outer world, absence of balconies, banal and uninteresting apartment layout, and blatantly luxurious outdoor decor.
KYIV ARCHITECTURE IS EXPERIENCING WHAT HAPPENED IN THE U.S., IN THE LATE 1920s
During a meeting with students of Den’s Summer School of Journalism, Dmytro Malakov, a noted ethnographer, expert on Kyiv,
author of many guidebooks and ethnographic monographs, noted that “today’s Kyiv architecture is experiencing almost precisely what happened in the US, in the late 1920s…” (The Day will soon carry an article on that meeting, on architectural absurdities in Kyiv, Stalinist baroque, and a manifestation of the imperial policy in architecture.)
He went on to say that the “socioeconomic foundations of society have changed, as has the state structure; a new epoch has begun while this society remains unprepared for it. Modern practicing architects are individuals who grew up under the Soviet regime, who received an education under the socialist system, in conditions of the so-called people’s economy, when everything happened following strict regulations. Ukraine, now an independent state, has found itself in a situation where everything has to be started from scratch — and this is also true of construction.
“After the Soviet planned economy was destroyed, followed by grabbadization, all industrial enterprises were privatized by their managers [directors]. Urban architects could now design construction projects the way they pleased, as commissioned by private owners. However, they had received their training under the old regime and they couldn’t immediately switch to the new system. This helplessness, being unprepared to make one’s own designs, determine one’s own taste, show one’s own abilities had bad consequences as high rises — homes and offices — started being built on a mass scale without having basic knowledge that had never been taught. Now, to quote from [the first President of Independent Ukraine] Leonid Kravchuk, ‘We have what we have.’ I visited the US three times, each time staying for a month and a half, so I have my own impressions from their skyscrapers. Previously, it was traditionally believed that skyscrapers were wrong, that it wasn’t what we needed, yet each such structure is a case study in good architecture, without decoration frills.”
Malakov remembered Leonid Utiosov [a legendary Soviet pop singer from Odesa in the mid-20th century] who said that the saxophone and skyscraper are symbols of capitalism. “After they started erecting such buildings in Moscow, in the late 1940s, they called them high rises because the word ‘skyscraper’ was taboo. The fact remains that those high rises in Moscow at the turn of the 1950s were modeled on Chicago skyscrapers in the early 1920s. That was a step back because they had built them 20 years back and then stopped decorating them, because they realized that what makes a skyscraper beautiful is proportionality, correct correlation between height, width, depth, color, texture, and facade. All these structures are different, yet each remains a model of taste and aesthetics, something our practicing architects can only dream about, at least in Kyiv,” said Malakov.