Landscapes of Communism counters myths, but omits some essential truths

Hatherley describes symptoms but not causes; there is plenty of “what” and “where”, some “when”, “how” and “who”, but hardly any “why”.

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Landscapes of Communism: a History Through Buildings
Owen Hatherley
Allen Lane, 624pp, £25

When I was ten, Mum and Dad took us on our annual family holiday – this time, to Yugoslavia. It was, with hindsight, an especially odd place for them to have taken us. Mum and Dad were certainly not communists but, very much unlike their son, Maggie-loving Tories who’d have voted for a pig wearing a blue rosette. Family holidays had hitherto stuck to old favourites, such as Devon or Somerset. And now here we were, nonchalantly skipping across the Iron Curtain as if popping down to Sainsbury’s. Marshal Tito’s kind of communism was softer than most, with its open borders and political neutrality. But it was clear from the disappointing lack of tourist tat in the shops that we weren’t in Lyme Regis any more, Toto. We were in heaven.

Unlike in Moscow or Warsaw, communism here had on its side as propaganda the limpid beauty of the Adriatic coast and long, lazy days of blue skies. And it was so cheap that we could stay in a hotel far beyond our usual means. Its name – Hotel Lav – was straight out of Carry On, Comrade. But, boy, was it swish, its architecture a lavish modernism with go-faster stripes and of a glamour that this little boy from Aylesbury had never experienced before. It was so glamorous that Bo Derek had been tempted to stay – on our floor! If anything might have converted my Tory dad to Lenin, it was Bo Derek in a bikini. Communism wasn’t supposed to be like this.

As Owen Hatherley explains in Landscapes of Communism, we all have our stereo­types of communism, beaten into us from decades of cold war propaganda and inextricably linked to its architecture. Think of communism and we obediently conjure up images of vast, monochrome housing estates, stern and unyielding. The classic Levi’s advert from 1984, about a young renegade smuggling in a pair of jeans, contains all the clichés: granite-faced border guards, looming posters of Lenin, Prokofiev soundtrack and, inevitably, a menacing block of flats. “Nothing,” Hatherley writes, “is seen to discredit the entire project of building a non-capitalist collective society more than those featureless monoliths stretching for miles in every direction” –even if the particular featureless monolith filmed for the Levi’s advert was, in reality, built in Britain.

Hatherley’s grandparents were communists and the book begins beautifully with a sketch of their small semi in Southampton, Grandad tinkering in the shed, Granny watching the birds from their living room. Hatherley’s point is that there is no easy connection between ideology and architectural expression. Communists can live in suburban semis. And featureless concrete monoliths have been built under regimes both left- and right-wing, collectivist and free-market. Hatherley’s book is at its best when he debunks stereotypes and opens our eyes to the diversity and eclecticism of what communism was and the contradictory architecture built in its cause. This was an ideology, after all, that stretched across the world and almost a century. How could it not be as rich, terrible, astonishing, surprising, grim or beautiful as the people who built and lived in it?

He is rightly dismissive of the “mostly disreputable history of those from western Europe going east to see what they want to see and finding it”, not just critics but apologists; and of the current market for “Ostalgie” – coffee-table books glamorising, without context, communism’s often astonishing ruins. He promises a different approach, one that counters stereotypes by revealing the richness of communist architecture, its successes as well as its failures.

Communist architecture, as I ­discovered in Yugoslavia, could be glamorous. It could be kitsch. It could vary wildly over time. Hatherley describes its broad narrative “zigzag”, from modernism after 1917, through eclectic expression, all turrets and marble, under Stalin, back to modernism under Khrushchev and, in the 1980s, a return to often oppressive historicism under dictators such as Ceausescu. It could liberate you, Hatherley suggests, debunking one stereotype. Under the Marxists who ran Vienna from 1918 until 1934, an enormous, architecturally adventurous housing programme, part-funded by a “luxury tax”, gave tenants homes with rents frozen at between 2 and 4 per cent of the average worker’s income. Communist architecture, often dismissed as derivative, could also lead the world. The underground train systems built in communist countries, such as the Moscow Metro, were, Hatherley writes, “vastly superior to [those] of the west”, combining opulence with technological brilliance.

In his last two books on architecture, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak – critiques of British towns under New Labour and the coalition – Hatherley honed a distinctive way of writing. He walks the streets, describes their state and muses, with intelligence and erudition and in a mordant, Eeyorish tone, about how they got to be like that and why they couldn’t be better. It is a kind of writing about architecture perfected by Ian Nairn in the 1960s and today by Jonathan Meades and Will Self, both of whom, judging from their praise on the cover of Landscapes of Communism, have adopted him as one of their own. Hatherley has an impressive critical stance, too, dismissive of the oppressive pragmatism of neoliberal societies, and he is keen – often a little nostalgically – to unearth forgotten-about dreams, astonishing ones as well as failures, that we both imagined and built. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: since 2008, those of us on the left have been scrabbling round for new paths to follow out of neoliberalism. There is a market for trusted guides such as Hatherley.

In Landscapes of Communism, he continues with this method. In exile now from a Britain once again of “no future”, he has lived for years in a flat in Warsaw with his girlfriend, the writer Agata Pyzik, passing the time wandering the once-communist streets from Belgrade to Riga, Moscow to Bucharest. It is a method that buckles somewhat in this book, however, under the weight of the subject matter. Covering a vaster historical and geographical terrain than he has explored before, the “live-feed” eyewitness accounts of what Hatherley sees lose vividness; they become confusing and, as the book progresses, repetitive.

As we zip from one place under a certain regime to another, from 1917 to 1957 to the other week, the reader is bombarded and bewildered by descriptive detail. Hatherley is a tourist too eager to tell you every last detail, down to the “delicious” Caucasian specialities of an Azerbaijani restaurant, without checking if it’s relevant. The book needs more discipline. From those he is guiding through the streets, he assumes too much knowledge of the intricacies of various regimes and architectures. “The effect is similar,” he writes at one point, “to the interspersing of buildings with nature that you can find in Polish or Czech architecture in the 1960s.” Just what I thought!

I don’t want Communist Architecture for Dummies. But given that most readers on this side of the Iron Curtain are, thanks to decades of political division, unlikely to be as au fait with that side as he is, I’d love him to guide us with more empathy.

Hatherley describes phenomena such as mikrorayons – vast housing estates – Magistrales, communism’s gigantic avenues and its “social condensers”, thrilling new forms of public space; but he explains too scantily what they were trying to achieve and their historical context. He describes symptoms but not causes. There is plenty of “what” and “where”, some “when”, “how” and “who”, but hardly any “why”.

The biggest absence is people, something that is becoming a habit in Hatherley’s writing; and ironic, given that one hackneyed criticism of communism and its architecture is their lack of humanity. Where are the voices of those who built these landscapes, who lived in them, who still live in them? What was life like making toast or looking after the baby in a mikrorayon flat? Were people astonished by the Moscow Metro? What was it like to be “socially condensed” in a workers’ club? How I wanted Hatherley to knock on a few doors as he wandered about, have a chat with the neighbours, get drunk with them. You can write about architecture just by observing it, but without talking to the people who live with and around it, day in, day out, you’ll never quite get under its skin.

Tom Dyckhoff’s history of contemporary architecture and cities, “All That Glitters”, will be published in 2016 by Random House

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais