Alexander Sverdlov

50 million apartments were built between 1955 and 1985 in the Soviet Cities

The Heroic Past
This was an unprecedented urban operation. On the level of the country the result was that 50 million families moved from communal flats, basements or barracks into private flats. It is notable that the first articles featuring apartment interior designs were dated from the mid-sixties; before that private space was almost non-existent. At that period the Communist Party supported urbanization with important measures in health care (introduction of compulsory vaccination, for example) and education. During the mid-sixties Soviet Russia’s life expectancy caught up with the developed capitalist countries. Prosperity of the population rose to an unprecedented level.
As much as the civic value of this extraordinary operation could not be overestimated, the measures of normalization undertaken with Communist force and bluntness appeared to be very effective only in the short term. Industrial urbanization did not prove to be sustainable. However, Soviet Russia became an urban country. Homo Sovetucus became an urban dweller and the standard Soviet City was born.
Within 25 years more than 80% of the Soviet cities would be composed of prefabricated housing. Cities would be looking alike from Murmansk to Vladivostok. As no significance to particular location was given, most of the Soviet population would live in more or less the same type of building, sharing more or less same kind of hallway, and having more or less same type of apartment. “My address is not a house and not a street, my address is The Soviet Union!”, the quote from the famous 70’s song describes in the best way the fulfillment of the Soviet city.

The New Times
Recently, about 10 million window grates were installed on standard housing blocks built between 1955 and 1985 in the Soviet Cities.
In the last 15 years a lot of things have changed. Soviet cities and their citizens were introduced to previously unknown concepts of democracy, private property and monetary economy. Naturally, the Spartan set-up of the Soviet City has come under pressure of the newly acquired wealth. The typical Soviet neighborhood, known as micro-rayon, acquired all new paraphernalia to adapt to the new condition. As one needs to park a car somewhere (previously not an issue - not so many cars and no places assigned for them), all available space between the buildings serves as parking.

In order to to protect one’s property, all sorts of metal reinforcements are installed - from steel doors and window grates to ‘rakushka’s or the ‘seashell’, an individual metal condom for the car to defend it against bad weather, vandalism and theft.
Besides that, many citizens can afford more comfort and can express their taste: apartment interiors become stages for individual design.

The illustration shows the web page offering various options for re-designing the typical dwelling in the standard housing blocks. The user first searches the building type (by number), then the dwelling type (1-2-3 room). When the apartment is found, the user can choose the particular design: classic, country style, Jugenstill or modern.
Apartment refurbishment is, actually, where the largest recent transformation of the Soviet city has taken place. The sheer number of upgraded apartments, as well as the endless diversity of the implemented layouts/designs reaches the scale of urban transformation. It is as if a new city was born and grown within the skin of the existing one.

The future of 50 million Soviet flats
What happens if citizens modernize much faster than the city itself? In order to change, cities need healthy economies: No economy = no city.
In wealthier cities such as Moscow, the old prefabricated neighborhoods are scheduled to disappear and to be replaced by better housing. The critical mass of the overall private construction in the city is sufficient to generate resources for that sort of operation (high margins for real estate and program for municipal housing). For the majority of other cities that moment is yet to come. So far, no municipality in their sane mind would invest in re-construction of industrial housing areas as there is not enough public money for funding. To what extent is the experience in treatment of social housing neighborhoods around the world applicable in Russia? Amputation of the obsolete parts of the city, as it happens in the shrinking East German cities, is not possible in Russia due to persistent demand for housing. Refurbishment and reconstruction of the aging blocks is difficult to imagine as only booming cities can afford this. Phased densification of the micro-rayons, where old buildings are replaced by new ones having the capacity to house residents of all ages (Singapore model), is again based on the rapidly growing economy. In addition, social housing outside Russia has never been the largest part of the built environment. In order to generate enough money to re-construct 50 million flats in Post-Soviet space at least a similar amount of new housing should be constructed. Will Russia with its population not growing need that amount of new housing in coming decades? The future of the Soviet city has no immediate resolution, and the change, of course, will not happen within one generation. But accepting this condition does not mean that nothing can be done.

Positive change will only come if the discussion of the Post-Soviet city shifts from extending the catalog of complaints to the recognition of the specific urban model which the Post-Soviet city consists of. This is a model that has both socialist and capitalist components. This is a model fulfilling different relations of public and private, where privatization is yet an ongoing process and both public and private have dynamic spatial definitions. This is a model where repetitive and generic architecture has reached the quality of landscape and could be dealt with as such.

Therefore anonymity but not diversity of individual expression becomes an urban asset. This is a model that presumes an expiry date of the city (everybody knows that it cannot be reproduced and will eventually die out - 50 million temporary apartments?!). Finally, this is a model where aging and dilapidation of the city are programmed to coexist with constant upgrade and modernization.

Alexander Sverdlov is born in Russia. Upon graduating from the Berlage Institute in 2002 Alexander Sverdlov worked as an architect and project architect at Neutelings Riedijk, West 8 and AMO/OMA. In 2007 he established his own independent design and research practice SVESMI in Rotterdam. During the last years he thought in various schools across Europe.