As Russian scientists and scholars across multiple disciplines worry about the recent reform introduced by president Putin in the distribution of applied research funding—a reform that stipulated the replacement of the so-called outdated “state-targeted” support program by a “Western-inspired” competitive grant system—one can’t help but wonder: What transformations will this “foreign” model bring to the field of architecture and construction? Will it survive on Russian soil? And how transparent will it be?1 Meanwhile, recent changes in the American political landscape have sparked new levels of anxiety and panic across academia. The question being asked now, with more urgency than ever, is: Will there be any funding at all? It is no secret that the well-being of scientific research is political. However, what is at stake when this relationship grows uneven? The century-long competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in the scientific arena reveals certain patterns in the way political ideology shapes architectural research and expectations for when it gets too selective. The historical transference of technological knowledge between these two superpowers during the postwar crisis illustrates the institutionalization of architectural research crucial to the rebuilding of postwar economies, such as the reinforcement of state funding schemes, the top-down organization of experimental research, and the politics of materials.
After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, architecture and urban planning became one of Nikita Khrushchev’s weapons in his attempt to devalue and destabilize previous ideology. Khrushchev accused Stalinist architecture of “mindless” eclecticism and instead proposed policies to capitalize on scientific and technological progress, which in turn led to architectural standardization and a subsequent construction boom. At this point, most of the applied research associated with new building technologies, just like in general science, was subsidized by the state and featured the close involvement of political figures. The absence of a private construction sector and its independent sponsorship of experimental activities (not directly associated with the state economic program) significantly hindered technological innovation. Unlike in the West, most research work in the Soviet Union was produced outside of universities and in a specialized network of research institutes established and controlled by the government.2 Khrushchev multiplied these institutions after Stalin’s death in an attempt to decentralize Soviet science towards more unexplored territories like Siberia. The facilities were charged with a range tasks, from the improvement of living conditions for the entire population to the invention of new building materials, and even to the creation of a new Soviet man—all paid for with the “people’s money,” and not to be squandered on design “overindulgences.”3 This distinct government rhetoric, most laconically expressed in Khrushchev’ new motto “Building Better, Faster, and Cheaper,” justified the ideological process of de-stalinization as beneficial to the Soviet people. The total standardization of the urban environment through “more efficient” methods and systems of prefabrication became a powerful tool in establishing a new hegemonic order.
Ideologically, Khrushchev set up a confrontation between modern technique and Stalinist Neoclassical monumentality. As a reflection of the new political leadership, and despite its official status as an economic measure to aid industrialization, prefabricated large panel construction became highly politicized. It not only symbolized the rejection of the Stalinist regime “plagued by design excesses,” but also provided an ideological tool to “outdo” economic development in the West. The state-subsidized adaptation of this new technology, originally developed by the French engineer Raymond Camus, proved controversial in the Soviet context for a number of reasons. Not only did the Soviet Union lack a private corporate sector, which, as proven in the West, was often responsible for supporting architectural experimentation, but there was also a deep-seated distrust of scientists among Soviet authorities, which led to an increased bureaucratization of scientific research.4 While state funding was allocated evenly among all institutions, individual directors were responsible for distributing it among their departments—thereby acquiring almost absolute control over research funding.5 High-ranking politicians, i.e. non-scientists, were awarded nominal doctoral degrees and infiltrated scientific communities as a form of governmental control. Disinterested in science per se, they stalled academic research with a pseudo-Marxist agenda, and funneled state funding into their own astronomical salaries—a phenomenon well expressed in a popular joke at the time: “You don’t have to be a scientist if you have a PhD.”
The State Academy of Construction and Architecture (ACA), which oversaw the urban construction sector, was established in 1956 after Khrushchev’s abolition of the Academy of Architecture in an attempt to reduce the centrality of architecture. The ACA was responsible for drafting the “Norms and Regulations of Planning and Construction,” which outlined the guidelines for future large-scale urban development over the next twenty-five years. It set an unrealistic range of expectations on a single institution: the ACA was expected to, among other things, improve the living condition of the entire population, establish Soviet architectural theory, invent new building materials, and provide information on Soviet and foreign experience in construction as quickly as possible.6
Funding for the Soviet construction and research industries was centrally organized under the direction of the State Committee of Construction (Gosstroy), which reported directly to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Gosstroy oversaw ACA and the entire subservient network of research institutes and planning offices.7 The specific fusion of economic, cultural, and social agendas, organized in a complex hierarchical system and supplemented with extensive nomenclature, gave the appearance of a highly efficient system capable of sparking innovation within the construction industry. However, in reality, the institutions were disorganized and marked by a centralized system of top-down control, in which each decision had to ultimately be approved by the Communist Party. The efficiency of architectural and construction processes was limited by the government’s demand for new and quick construction—a directive with little regard for the specifics of urban planning. Additionally, due to the absence of a private sector, as well as the government’s ideological rejection of foreign experience in research, deemed “bourgeois,” most state construction and design offices lacked the budget for experimental research and the testing of new materials. Despite the official charge to promote experimental research, during the first ACA meeting in 1956, architect Mikhail Makotinsky underlined the insoluble complexity of implementing experimental design in the existing system. Makotinsky hinted at the academy’s procedural and bureaucratic failure to promote experimentation: “The Ministry of Industry and Building Materials has agreed to perform the first test of a new type of PVC linoleum in different colors. The proposal was submitted to the Mytishchi plant, which despite a long correspondence, still failed to produce this requested experimental series.”8 During the same session, the vice president of the ACA Alexander Vlasov admitted: “Our research organizations cannot provide the complete design recommendations to practicing offices due to the small experimental division within the Academy [ACA].”9 By February 1958, the ACA established the Research Institute of Experimental Design (NIIEP) to address these bureaucratic issues. The institute was assigned to develop “prototypes of the new construction technologies, innovative engineering equipment, and building materials.”10 Within two short years, the NIIEP had successfully created several promising prototypes, however, its scientific experimental work was severely criticized in official professional publications, like Sovetskaya Arkhitektura, which contributed to its eventual demise. These publications, subjected to equally disabling censorship, condemned the “small-scale approach” of the institute, reminding the public of the totalizing task of the socialist urban project: “…the Institute outlined the unnecessarily excessive number of experimental objects and spread its attention thin on too many sites, making it difficult to implement the prototype projects in practice…there was detected a superficial and uncritical use of forms and methods of foreign architecture. Some of the individual projects can be even criticized as ‘promotional’ in their nature.”11 The proposed “excessive” number of design options was described as a “methodological mistake.” Inevitably, ideology stood in the way of technological innovation: the politically-induced interchangeability of notions such as technique, form, materiality, and even aesthetics—all subjects to the bureaucratized process of standardization—revealed a tendency to neglect conceptual shifts of scale from the architectural object to the urban. As a result, many successful experimental prototypes were unable to withstand the bureaucratic contradictions of the Soviet construction sector.
Out of all the experiments to develop new architectural materials, plastics proved to be one of the most promising. Despite widespread censorship, the field saw some small-scale realizations, most likely implemented as a competitive response to the ongoing innovations abroad. The first residential building prototype constructed from experimental materials was designed by the renowned architect Boris Iofan—developed in collaboration with the Moscow State Design Office (Mosproekt) and the State Research Institute of Plastics Engineering—using prefabricated plastic panels instead of concrete. Attaching lightweight plastic panels to a steel structure proved to be twice as efficient in its use of materials and thermal insulation performance. It also allowed for a larger span between bearing walls, introducing more flexibility to the layout of the rigid concrete K-7 model as bearing partition walls could be replaced with mobile lightweight shelf dividers.12
This research was pushed further by the Leningrad branch of the ACA in a 1962 experiment on a new “single house prototype.” The walls of the house were constructed from plastic panels made from two layers of durable glass-reinforced plastic and a layer of insulating Styrofoam.13 According to the engineering report, the insulation performance was equal to a two-meter thick brick wall, while the weight of the panel was only seventy kilograms. That said, the main argument for the future assimilation of the prototype was its cost, which was four times lower than a single apartment in the typical five-story concrete panel housing.14 Ideologically, the model was proposed as a modular unit to build up entire neighborhoods, simulating the “single-story America” that impressed Khrushchev on his trip to the US in 1959. Similarly, the American plastic “House of the Future,” sponsored by the chemical corporation Monsanto, reinforced Khrushchev’s desire “to catch up with and outdo America.”15
An understanding of technological adaptation as a powerful political tool reveals how a particular political system transmutes commonly held notions of success and failure. In the West, despite pioneering its efficiency, the use of the large panel system created multiple technical difficulties within the construction process, from leaking joints and failed external finishes to miscommunication between engineers and architects, as the latter saw the system’s repetitive and aesthetically inflexible nature as a design problem. By the mid-1960s, as the popularity of prefabricated systems, after fulfilling their purely economic function of solving the postwar housing crisis, began to decline in the West, their ideological function allowed them to be increasingly incorporated into the building industries in the East. Thriving on unlimited state funding, the prefabricated panel symbolized the difference in scale between architectural detail and urban environment, and became the key element in the redesigning of cities and eventually of the entire Soviet society. It was precisely this totalizing symbolism that allowed a single technique to directly shape the urban environment.
At the same time, the brief relaxation of censorship that marked Khrushchev’s “Thaw” sparked new unofficial experimental activities under the ideological cover of research institutes. In the absence of tight control over “actual” scientific activities, a younger generation of scientists and architectural practitioners were granted relative freedom to engage in “unrecorded unofficial” research collectives under the umbrella of their official day jobs. These groups were often at the forefront of experimental research and by using allocated state funding for apparently dead-end official research projects, produced more serious work outside of the directives set by their institutes. The unofficial group NER (New Element of Resettlement), formed by students of the Moscow Architectural Institute, engaged in an entirely new methodical approach to urban planning, outlining the importance of parametric urban analysis and urban sociological research, both neglected in official Soviet planning practices. After graduation, NER continued their experimental work in their spare time—spreading their ideas through the network of official state institutions where they worked and extending their influence to wider architectural communities.
Similarly, the unofficial collective “Prometheus,” organized by students at Kazan University, engaged in new experimental aesthetics through the use of video and sound—developing interactive architectural façades and video installations by the mid-1960s. The importance of their experimental work eventually allowed them to grow into a full-fledged research institute. The absorption of unofficial collectives into state organizations was, however, a rare occurrence: when the NER group attempted to make their experimental activities “official,” they were advised against it due to the effects of bureaucratization on their future creative work.
It is paradoxical that given the official Soviet policy that capitalized on scientific and technological progress associated with architectural standardization—coupled with the state’s ambivalence towards experimental and theoretical work—a young generation of architects was inadvertently offered the freedom to fill this particular void. The post-Stalinist ideology that focused exclusively on economic development was unable to form a new spatial paradigm—instead architects developed new scientific bases and research methods unofficially within the official structure of state funding. In other words, it was not the system’s resistance but its very ideological idleness that boosted a young generation’s desire for reevaluating architectural form, language, and, most importantly, discourse itself. On the other hand, the lack of administrative organization and supervision, financial shortcomings and pressing deadlines, and the ideological undermining of theoretical research and design aesthetics as a necessary step to innovation, ultimately prevented experimental design from carving out its own independent space within the Soviet architectural field. Looking at this history, it becomes a bit more clear that decades of systematic governmental control over the process of funding left an irreversible mark on the development of applied research in Russia—not only on the agency of its institutional knowledge, but also on the belief in the autonomy of creative experimentation itself. It is with this uneasy realization that we transition into a new global era of totalizing political narratives that promise to set independent research even farther back in its track.
- 1. The current Russian government hopes that a competitive grant system to fund research will better support young talent and their ability to stimulate the Russian economy. The reform, though supported by the majority of Russian researchers back in the 1990s, has been met with strong resistance by the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), which has historically controlled the distribution of state funds. ^
- 2. For a more comprehensive history of Soviet science, see Loren R. Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993). ^
- 3. The “squandering of people’s money” became one of the most common legal accusations in the trials that took place during de-stalinization, or the period otherwise known as Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” As Stalinist architecture was denounced, many architects lost their positions and the built architectural objects that were nominated for the Stalin Prize in 1954-1955, were removed from consideration. ^
- 4. See Nicholas Bullock, “Developing Prototypes for France’s Mass Housing Programme, 1949-53,” Planning Perspectives (January 2007): 5–28. ^
- 5. Graham, Science in Russia, 188. ^
- 6. RGAE (Russian State Archive of Economics) Fond 339, Opis 3, Delo 181, 1. ^
- 7. Soviet Modernism 1955-1991: Unknown Stories, exhibition at the Vienna Architecture Center, November 8, 2012 to February 25, 2013. ^
- 8. RGAE, F. 293, O. 5, D. 3. ^
- 9. RGAE, F. 293, O. 5, D. 3. ^
- 10. RGAE, F. 293, O. 5, D. 110. ^
- 11. A. Dorokhov and B. Rubanenko, “Osnovnye napravleniya zhilykh i obshchestvennykh zdanij” [Main Directions in The Field of Residential and Public Buildings], Sovetskaya Arkhitektura, no. 13 (1961). ^
- 12. Dmitri Airapetov, Svetozar Zavarikhin, and Mikhail Makotinsky, Plastmassy v arkhitekture [Plastics in Architecture] (Moscow: Stroiizdat, 1981). ^
- 13. The house was designed by architect Aleksei Shcherbenok and engineer Leonid Levinsky. ^
- 14. “House of the near future,” Tekhnika Molodezhi [Technology for Youth], no. 7 (1962): 10. ^
- 15. See Nikita Khrushchev, Vospominaniya [Memoirs] (Moscow, 1997) and Aleksei Adzhubei, Litsom k litsu s Amerikoi [Face to Face with America] (Moscow: Politizdat, 1960). These examples, however, were most likely exceptions than rules in Soviet official urban planning practice and were never implemented on a large scale. ^
Masha Panteleyeva is a PhD candidate in the History and Theory of Architecture Program at Princeton University and a visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute and Cornell University. Her research has been supported by the Graham Foundation, Canadian Centre for Architecture, and Princeton University, and she is currently working on a documentary film on Soviet experimental architecture during the Thaw.