Petrov on Stanek, 'Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War'

Łukasz Stanek
Victor Petrov

Łukasz Stanek. Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. Illustrations. 368 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-16870-8

Reviewed by Victor Petrov (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) Published on H-Socialisms (May, 2021) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

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Socialist Architecture

Recent years have seen plenty of challenges to the narrative of globalization as “Americanization” or “Westernization,” not least from scholars of the communist bloc who talk of a “red globalization.” But those, too, often focus on the USSR, a powerful imperial center, and the issue of development models, applied to the Global South to demonstrate the primacy of the particular approach to modernization. Łukasz Stanek shifts the lens to the so-called weak actors of Eastern European socialist states, as well as to professional groups that “built” modernity—architects, but also contractors, building supervisors, and foreign trade representatives. This excellent study thus shows, convincingly, that global processes—in this case urbanization—were not monolithic and one cannot talk of exceptions to an existing rule of “globalization.” Even today, Stanek argues, urbanization and construction processes in Africa and Asia are influenced by their Cold War history when Eastern Europeans helped set new norms and terms.

The book positions itself in debates about “nomadic expertise” and the mobility of architectural labor, which often skips over Eastern European experiences. The Cold War intersected with the decolonization process to create a powerful field in which actors from various countries could work, as well as independent states that sought both their own roads to modernity and practical help in achieving them. Stanek moves the debate away from that about competing globalizations in a fruitful manner, talking instead of world-making efforts on the part of the architects; globalization appears as just one of many possible ways to imagine the world. Even though the socialist project might have failed, and its commonwealth did not materialize, it produced very real frameworks of interaction and exchange. The book’s choice of actors and projects masterfully shows this: while the architects and designers are obviously key subjects of this world-making, we also see those who had to adapt them once on site, as well as the logics of the foreign trade organizations that juggled the needs of the domestic economy and the clients in the Global South. All these actors, Stanek shows, were “vessels of architectural mobilities, that is to say, conveyors of architectural resources from socialist Europe” (p. 27). The reader is treated to a dazzling array of plans, details, construction techniques, and academic debates and discourse as they circulate between East and South. Architects, planners, managers, foremen, workers, and educators carry them and triangulate them, but they also deal with more than construction; they learn tax codes, argue about remuneration, divide labor, and compete and cooperate with Western and local architects. The book manages to keep these disparate elements in a coherent narrative, thanks to both the author’s voice and the methodological choice of focusing on architectural labor rather than purely form in telling this story.

Each chapter uses a case study of a city (or two cities, in the last chapter) to showcase the variety of issues that this architectural mobility highlighted, as well as the worlds that were made. Chapter 2, on Accra, deals with the one state under question that comes closest to being on a socialist development path—newly independent Ghana. Focusing on such developments as the International Trade Fair and the planned but unbuilt residential districts of the city, Stanek shows why Kwame Nkrumah’s government turned toward the East for expertise. Importantly, he points out, the experience of “uplifting” Soviet Central Asia was important for the Ghanians, who saw in the Soviets a state capable of addressing their problems. The new state sought in architecture a way, also, to overcome ethnic and class divisions, thereby helping to forge a new nation. The main actor of this chapter is in many ways the Ghana National Construction Corporation (GNCC), which, despite the efforts of Soviet, Polish, British, and other architects, set the tasks and controlled execution. In effect, the GNCC becomes a crucible to see both what Ghana wanted to do through architecture—civilize, create a new society, collapse boundaries—and how socialist development was transferable, if indeed it was. The chapter shows how the “tropicalization” of socialist construction and planning techniques was achieved and was a venerable school for Eastern European architects, while for Ghana architecture and the construction industry were “catalysts that were to trigger a fundamental transformation of the Ghanaian economy toward the socialist development path” (p. 85).

Chapter 3 focuses on Lagos, and a state that was not on a self-avowed socialist path. Here, Eastern European experts used their own states’ experience of “overcoming backwardness” to advertise themselves as uniquely placed to help Nigeria tackle its own modernization challenge. They extended their experience of reconstruction or planning in Hungary and Poland to west Africa in an exercise of “worlding Eastern Europe,” addressing issues of colonization, underdevelopment, and peripherality. Central to this chapter are the figures of Charles Polonyi and Zbigniew Dmochowski, who Stanek shows as engaged in “internal colonization” in their own countries already before coming to Nigeria; uplifting Hungarian villages and Polish peasants was not too different, in their eyes, to what they had to do in west Africa. Ultimately, Eastern European experts in this chapter were colonizers at home and decolonizers abroad, as in education reform, helping Nigerian students design projects based on vernacular architecture, as opposed to the previous British-dominated curriculum. The chapter ultimately shows how global conditions of underdevelopment allowed the Eastern Europeans to make sense of Nigeria and find common languages with the local planners, singling out the right architectural tools for the task at hand. Stanek also convincingly shows the fragmented nature of modernization, a situated response to tasks at hand, which contrasts with the more unified package that was presented to Ghana.

The author then whisks us off to Baghdad between the coup of 1958 and the first Gulf War, which is also a prism for a new look at the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and the socialist division of labor. Much of the chapter revolves around the Polish master plan for the city, replacing a frankly inadequate British one, with its transparent process and multiple models and solutions offered to the Iraqis. More so, they also created a General Housing Plan for the country, addressing questions of spatial justice—land ownership, rural-urban divides, and shortages. However, the crux of the argument about how the world socialist system functioned is centered not on the usual prestige projects but on a slaughterhouse, where the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) and Romania partnered. Through a discussion of contracts, the barter system, exchange rates, and labor agreements of this project, Stanek shows in some detail how East German, Romanian, and Polish building design materials and procedures were changed. The “world socialist system” of a division of labor where everyone mutually benefited allowed Eastern Europeans to offer much lower prices or interest rates. But its increasing economic problems and the rising debt of Eastern bloc states also led to new ways to deal with Iraq; the petrobarter economy meant that construction services were offered in exchange for oil.

The final chapter, looking at Abu Dhabi and Kuwait in the 1980s, moves us far away from the socialist modernization path to conservative monarchies that were part of the emergent Western-dominated market of design and construction. Here Stanek shows most clearly how East-South exchanges must not be seen purely through the prism of a “red globalization.” What mattered most here was portable knowledge—the ability of Eastern Europeans to offer modern solutions rather than projects based on overcoming backwardness or socialist solidarity as in earlier chapters. Another issue that crystallizes is how architects participated in domestic arguments as the emirates wanted to incorporate “vernacular” and traditional aspects into their projects. Using earlier experiences in the area, for example, the Bulgarians won important projects by paying attention to such demands; the earlier experience of the Global South comes home to roost. Importantly, this chapter shows how the socialist architects became true global labourers; marketing downplayed allegiance to socialism and emphasized “integration into the globalizing construction market” (p. 259). Importantly, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi were also trading zones for expertise, where Eastern Europeans learned how to use CAD systems and operate within British law. The chapter ties together the narrative of these architects as weak actors, but precisely because of “weakness” they managed to be instrumental to local planning visions, and thus break down the rigid distinction in scholarship between “global” and “local” in technological and architectural development.

A multitude of historians and scholars can find something useful in this book. Historians of the Cold War can see how Eastern European states were no pawns, and no Global South state was a mere proxy. Historians of architecture but also the global twentieth century are confronted with the socialist world-making on display; there is no triumphant march of Western designs across the world, as every local actor engaged in complex negotiations over their path and visions. While no historian of architecture, I can also see how Stanek’s argument broadens debate about architectural labor as opposed to form; design traveled with attendant developments in industrial planning, construction of local factories, education reform in Global South architecture, professional codes, standards, and labor disputes. Discussion of how, for example, prefabricated pieces were modified for tropical conditions in Ghana, or Eastern Europeans using Middle Eastern vernacular design in their projects, show how technique is culture; mastery of particular specifics and forms had wide implications for the political economy of the whole endeavor. More so, the very physicality and design of the book make it a primary document. Stanek and the publishers have included over 270 color photos, designs, and schematics, which are extremely detailed. Not only do they make the book an almost unique reading experience in the world of the academic monograph, but they also have created a reference work for specialists who might want to delve further into Baghdad’s city plan or Accra’s residential expansion. The source base is impressive—ranging from the aforementioned designs in official repositories to professional journals to illuminating interviews—and is discussed in a separate essay. There, too, the author uses visualizations of his sources to advance further arguments, such as how some of these design bureaus negotiated the post-1989 world. For example, we learn, Romanian designers survived mostly on the post-Soviet market in Russia and elsewhere; socialism might have failed, but it had definitely made a world.

Writing this review within walking distance of one of the buildings in this book (the city of Varna’s Sports Palace, which became the model for Lagos’s National Theatre) is a singular pleasure, as it is also a demonstration of the main arguments that Stanek advances. Socialist world-making existed, and it was always in negotiation; the Nigerians wanted a much bigger building, with its own specifications and artistic elements. Architects negotiated entry into new markets and took things back with them too; Stanek’s last pages show how many of these actors negotiated the post-1989 world through their earlier experiences and skills acquired. The relationship between architecture and the world was one of constant negotiation and reconfiguration within local needs, and thus we also glimpse the differentiated urbanization of the cities in question: how problems emerged, how they were solved, how reality diverged from plans. Sometimes the actors accelerate development, sometimes they impede it, but they always participate in it. Ultimately, the book is thus a colossal addition not just to the history of architectural labor and practice but to the histories of expertise, the global Cold War, and decolonization too. I hope it reaches as wide an audience as possible.

Citation: Victor Petrov. Review of Stanek, Łukasz, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

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