New book! Christina E. Crawford, Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union (Cornell University Press, 2021).

Ekaterina Heath's picture

What does spatial equity look like? If capitalist cities are dense, hierarchical, and exploitative, how might people be differently organized to maximize not only productivity, but also egalitarianism and collectivity? In the first decade and a half of the Soviet era, newly minted socialist architects and planners debated, wrote about, and sketched environments to address these theoretical questions that confound urban scholars up to the present time. In the early Soviet case, proof of concept was in construction: brick and mortar, steel and concrete projects like those explored in this book were living experiments built to test alternative spatial models.

Spatial Revolution is a story that spans three key industrial sites, and traces the evolution of the Soviet spatial project from land nationalization to the end of the first Five-Year Plan (1917-1932). Baku, Azerbaijan is Oil City: ground zero for the extraction of Soviet fuel. Magnitogorsk, Russia is Steel City: a distant site on the Ural steppe destined to become the Soviet forge. Kharkiv, Ukraine is Machine City: the site of a tractor factory critical in the push to collectivize Soviet agriculture. In each of these locations, bureaucratic clients, architects, economists, foreign experts, spatial planners, and the labor force came together to build distinctly socialist spaces. Through the stories of these sites, Spatial Revolution asserts that socialist urban practices and forms emerged not through utopian dreaming nor by ideological edict from above, but through on-the-ground experimentation by practitioners in collaboration with local administrators—via praxis, by making.

The transformation of Baku, Magnitogorsk, and Kharkiv into socialist cites was followed attentively worldwide following the collapse of capitalist markets in October 1929. In December of that year, Detroit News journalist Philip Adler traveled through the “Soviet hinterlands” to investigate the conditions brought about by Stalin’s hyper-industrialization drive. “Traveling in Russia by train or boat you see yellow smoke stacks of new factories rising among the golden cupolas of churches in every town and belching clouds of black smoke against the blue sky,” Adler reported to his Depression-stricken American readers. “In the midst of thick forests, or on river banks you run into completely new cities of 5,000, 10,000 of 20,000 inhabitants, with some new factory as a nucleus.”[1] Constructing these cities during the early years of the Soviet period was hard work that required massive mobilization of materials and labor. Soviet administrators frantic to meet the goals of the plan had also to contend with a rapidly evolving conceptual framework for socialist space making. Theoretical discussions were important—the future of a new kind of urban form rested on the correct formulations—but the timeline of the plan was set. As the spatial debates raged, concrete foundations were being poured. It was simultaneously a time of crisis and possibility.

Spatial Revolution crafts an interweaved narrative of Baku, Magnitogorsk, and Kharkiv to uncover how provisions like affordable housing near the workplace, robust municipal transportation, and evenly distributed social services emerged from these built experiments to affect far-flung sites in the Soviet sphere—and the capitalist sphere, for that matter—for decades to follow. This book draws the Soviet case into dialogue with scholarship on industry, urbanization, and social modernization in Europe and the United States, and highlights the contributions of Soviet designers to devise viable alternatives to the capitalist city.

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