The dawn of the early twenties and thirties in the Soviet Union had aroused a thought-provoking quest in the minds of many contemporary architects from Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. This dream bliss for an architect with a completely blank canvas waiting to be filled with colors of his creativity, to merge with the design of new cities was challenging. These new socialist cities popularized as Sotsgorods, which were to be the abode to future industrialized workers of the Russian hinter-land, needed to be formulated at a high velocity. Obsidian darkness besieged this opportunity, as many years later, most of these architects traveled back to their motherlands, lost in the blues, the spark of the fire burnt to ash, without any stories and experiences of the cities they built. Was it a nightmare or, had they forgotten the tales to the cities?
- Genre: Documentary.
- Director: Anna Abrahams.
- Runtime: 1hr. 32mins. ( 92mins. )
- Colour: Black and White.
- Release Date: 11 December 1995 ( IDFA Festival )
- Cast: Margarete Shutte – Lihotzky, Jan Rutgers, Philipp Tolziner, Andre Breedland, Jan van’t Hoff, Cristian Muller, Rolf Somann, Philipp Ziegler, Marina Konstantinova, Maxim Shaposhnikov.
Post the Russian revolution a humongous task laid itself affront the jurisdiction. An undertaking to help reside the hundreds of worker colonies, who would otherwise be homeless and exploited, as mentioned in the communist plan developed for the union, classless and stateless, implying the end to labor exploitation. Abundant coal, iron ore, and resources had already obliged factory construction, and a new Utopia was going to be born. The film’s journey, which inaugurates on a rail platform, beacons the shortfall of mass design by contemporary Soviet architects, as the grey hairs questioned the politics and the young ones daydreamed of flying cities to spawn an entirely new lifestyle. The film’s conscience focuses on the municipalities of Magnitogorsk, Orsk, Novokuznetsk, and Kemerovo, while Birobidzhan contributes a smaller share.
The movie revolves around historical documents, personal interviews, and conclusions from routined life, providing the viewer with an abutment to anticipation and reality. As architects rushed to embrace this design paradise, to sculpt cities that advertised equality, justice, and communal living amidst the daily chaos, we, as designers, are blessed with rationalized concepts focusing on housing, public baths, sanitation and transportation within the purview of social and cultural assistance. Surpassing obstacles of the scantiness of design instruments, language confusion, and bureaucracy, plans of new cities focused on communal dining, child-rearing, and, laundries which loosened women from domestic chore handcuffs.
Meanwhile, during the early thirties, the Soviet ideology of industrial development focusing on the housing module as givers of employment reached its peak owing to the development of balcony access housing. This reform, during that period, was revolutionized by a German architect group, led by Hans Schmidt, founded by Ar. Ernst May, for a new region in Orsk. As a designer, it is interesting to see the tasks of functioning precede over aesthetics as building elements, the spatial configuration in the cities, and the design of the recreational and sports activities on the river banks. In Orsk, the housing units placed neighboring the workplaces for worker’s comfort, thrived peacefully owing to correct codes used for sanitation, and segregated spatial configurations by park buffers, wide boulevards, and social centers. As the planning was to prevail in an arduous environment, harsh on climate and natural landscapes, burdened by the deficiency of motorized transport and specialists, thousands of people sweated their lungs out to bring the designs to reality. However, they failed miserably, as there were only 12 skilled masons. It was, however, beyond what the German architects practiced in their homelands and, thus the mass apartment standardization system failed here-in.
Kotkin’s Magnitogorsk, devised primitively, to be the ultimate socialist city composed of piers of education and science, public facilities, amenities, far-reaching streets, and balanced light and ventilation, ended up with three-room sections in three-storeyed buildings. This plan, referenced from the Hellerhof development in Frankfurt, did not materialize, owing to the stray from design to gaudy construction by poorly trained bricklayers, conflicting concepts, theft of blueprints, and the continuous lack of government support leading to lack of services.
Favorable geographical conditions added with location and suitable climate founded the development plan of Birobidzhan, providing solutions to hydrogeological and soil conditions. These two-storeyed wooden and clay blocked houses and stations get connected with the brick-lined industrial zones abetted by two main motorways, flanking the city edges. The abundant usage of glazed surfaces and repetitive architectural elements entail usability and daylight for the core based on the Bauhaus mottos of art production, tribulation, simplicity, and convenience.
In a nutshell, the film highlights the massive obstacles faced by foreign architects to translate their visions of accessible, multiplicable, identical housing units, and district modules to realities for the rank and file masses. Though industrialization and employment were huge stakeholders as highlighted by the government, I feel that the complicated and hidden picture of ecology and basic human needs is the frame, which somewhat went unnoticed. The wrath of this was faced later by the cities as they succumbed to disease, HIV, unemployment, and pollution. The film showcases the civilizational and cultural clashes between the masses, the architects, and governance. This situation ultimately resulted in depressed architects, many of them, who backfired from the project in 1938. As too many cooks spoil the broth, the broth to a socialist city, which would have resulted in idealism to architecture, never cooked itself owing to the endless design debates. Even as the architects tried ways to work out their will, to persevere and work fluently, even though restricted, is what we learn from this film, emphasizing on the trying times of life.
Excerpt to the film: