Across the Plaza: the Public Voids of the Post-Soviet City, Owen Hatherley
Owen Hatherley

Across the Plaza: the Public Voids of the Post-Soviet City

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Owen Hatherley is a freelance writer on political aesthetics, based in south-east London. He is the author of four books, Militant Modernism (Zero, 2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010), Uncommon, an essay on the British pop group Pulp (Zero 2011) and A New Kind of Bleak (Verso, 2012). He received his PhD for a thesis on Americanism in the Weimar Republic and the early USSR in 2011.
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its current single line. A long shed, enclosed by a low, green corrugated metal fence, with a shipping container next to it, somehow escaping the vogue for container chic. When the likes of the Palace of Culture and Science and the MDM district were condemned in the second half of the 1950s as a Stalinist perversion of the norms of socialism — skyscraping fol-de-rol surmounting vast and unusable ceremonial space — the counter-proposal was largely centred on the prefabrication of mass housing. Prefabricated units of varying quality were built across the expanse of the Warsaw Pact states and Warsaw itself. Though concrete frames with vaguely irregular cladding are now the norm for office and housing blocks here (much as everywhere else), prefab survives, as does repetition and order, but as another improvisation, something that is not to be looked at, something that is emphatically not architecture. Move along now, nothing to see here.
Except there is here a fragment of what was supposed to replace this hyperactively authoritarian form of urbanism — unpretentious, cheap, technologically enabled housing for the workers, which was then built en masse, for good or for ill. It doesn’t get built anymore. What does get built is things like the other temporary building next to it. This is also lightweight and prefabricated, but it is architecture, for sure — it constantly reminds you of that fact, so you can tell. A pavilion in aid of Poland’s turn as EU President, it is a piece of attenuated deconstructivism, folded planes no doubt inspired by an attentive reading of Gilles Deleuze: wilful form-making, designed to catch the eye moving past at speed. This is what modernist architecture is today, far too often — with neither the social aim of mass housing, nor the tortured melodrama of massive eclectic stone-clad edifices. Little works of self-proclaimed art, placed in the corner of chaotic spaces of accumulation and speculation.
Rather than being anything so prosaic, it is the partial realisation of a dream, of the notion that the Soviet Union could become a socialist America, a dream of abundance, of a conception of space which entailed streets criss-crossing above the pedestrian’s head, a conception of the city that meant Manhattan skylines emerging in a matter of months, and a conception of modernism that entailed a vertiginous collision between archaic longings and futurist imaginings. It is a constructivist folly, and as a folly it carries perhaps better than any other structure the vertiginous hopes that state once brought into being.
. It’s as if the steppe outside this city had to be recreated at its core.
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