Gundarina on Kulić, 'Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society under Late Socialism'

Vladimir Kulić, ed. Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society under Late Socialism. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. Illustrations. xi + 254 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-01444-2

Reviewed by Polina Gundarina (Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO))
Published on H-SHERA (April, 2023)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)

Printable Version:

Was late socialist architecture postmodernist? And if yes, what are the postmodernisms of the second world, and do they have anything in common with the postmodernism of the West? Researchers' interest in architecture and urban design of late socialism (as an aesthetic phenomenon and a specific type of urbanism) has been growing in the last fifteen years; however, the topic has not been thoroughly explored yet. Second World Postmodernisms, an edited volume by architectural historian Vladimir Kulić, seeks to answer these questions by presenting thirteen case studies devoted to urban and architectural production in socialist countries, effectively "drawing a map of late socialist architecture" (p. 3). The volume covers the history of socialist architecture from the 1960s to the early 1990s, focusing on a nuanced understanding of the aesthetics and specificities of this historical period. Second World Postmodernisms offers a detailed view of the transfer of ideas and the influence (or lack thereof) of communist ideology on the architecture and everyday life of architects and urban planners in the socialist world. The plural form of "postmodernisms" in the title emphasizes the existence of multiple histories, modernities, and modes through which socialism produced its own form of postmodern architecture (p. 2). Drawing on Fredric Jameson's statement that "postmodernism is a cultural logic of capitalism" (Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism ([1991]), Kulić suggests that postmodernism can also be understood as a cultural logic of late socialism as expressed in its architecture, thus challenging this generally accepted term (p. 3).

In the introduction, Kulić explains his motivation for working on this volume. First, he describes his dissatisfaction with the universality of the term "postmodernism," as it has been defined in the West. Architecture produced in and the architectural process of late socialism were diverse and unique and often even contradictory to the foundational motivations of postmodernism. Thus, Kulić poses a somewhat rhetorical question: what happens to the term if we include "Estonian collective farms, Polish churches or war memorials" in it? He suggests that bringing up dissonant and unexpected examples from the socialist world may "burst the very bubble of the canon" (p. 3). The author acknowledges the unsatisfactory state of current historiography on postmodernism and aims to contribute to a better understanding of it with cases from the socialist world. Second, the book addresses a gap in research on socialist architecture. In recent years, there has been growing scholarly and public interest in the postwar architecture of socialist countries, often referred to as "socialist modernism." While there is now relatively more knowledge about socialist architecture of this period, architecture from the late 1970s to the 1990s remains under-studied.

Debates surrounding postmodernism endured after the end of World War II. In the USSR, the term and movement were initially received with ambiguity. In the 1970s, Soviet architectural theorists saw postmodernism as a Western phenomenon and replaced the term with "post-contemporary architecture."[1] Architects who attempted to incorporate elements of postmodernism in their designs were met with resistance and accused of unprofessionalism. For example, the Soviet Russian architect Sergei Shmakov (b. 1937) who designed an experimental kindergarten building in Leningrad in 1983 was later described by critics and professionals as postmodernist. He found himself under severe pressure and was accused of "unprofessionalism and illiteracy."[2] The translation of Charles Jencks's The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) into Russian in 1985 marked a shift in the debate. Addressing this shift, Richard Anderson offers a detailed analysis of the adaptation and transformation of the language of postmodernism in Soviet architectural theory in the 1970s and 1980s in his chapter in this edited collection.

To uncover the nature of socialist postmodernisms, the authors of this volume examine discourses, practices, and exchanges in their case studies, drawing on a range of textual and visual sources, such as archival records, architectural plans and drawings, newspapers, and personal correspondence. Through methods of cultural and intellectual history, they track the changes and continuities of architectural production in socialist countries. The overarching question of the book is to what extent late socialist architecture can be considered postmodernist. Moreover, some case studies explore the deconstruction of the term "postmodernism." For example, in her chapter, "Cultural Feedback Loops of Late Socialism," Ana Miljački argues that the term might be seen as a discursive formation rather than a set of features of a specific style.

The chapters provide various responses to the inquiries mentioned above. First, all thirteen essays examine transnational connections between socialist countries and other regions. Although socialist architecture was influenced by Western countries, some essays demonstrate how interactions with the Global South and beyond affected the experience and aesthetics of the socialist world more than previously recognized. For instance, the chapters "Mobilities of Architecture in the Late Cold War," by Łukasz Stanek, and "East-East Architectural Transfers and the Afterlife of Socialist Postmodernism in Japan," by Max Hirsh, describe the two-way nature of architectural exchange, where specialists from socialist and non-socialist countries worked together. These exchanges enabled the circulation of knowledge about postmodernist aesthetics around the globe. As a result, one question that arises is to what extent postmodernism was limited to being a phenomenon exclusively for Western countries.

Second, the book highlights how diverse the landscape of late socialist architecture was. The case studies devoted to Poland (by Lidia Klein and Alicja Gzowska), former Chechoslovakia (by Miljački), and Serbia (by Kulić) illustrate that similarities in artistic and methodological techniques, such as the use of national ornamentation, playful color choices, and historical references, may have developed independently rather than been simply copied or imitated from Western postmodernism. Through the analysis of Serbian architect Bogdan Bogdanović's (1922-2010) biography and work, Kulić argues that it is difficult to categorize his work strictly as postmodernist, because he was an outsider to Western postmodernism. Kulić believes that Bogdanović's legacy is one of the first "original architectural visions [of the second world] relevant beyond its own borders," making it the first one since the rise and fall of constructivism in the 1920s and its worldwide fame and recognition among both professionals and publics (p. 94).

A common theme of the volume is the question of creativity and inventiveness under repressive political regimes. The escape from what art historian Piotr Piotrowski has called "pre-1989 agoraphobia" is exemplified, in particular, by Virág Molnár's chapter on the Tulip debate in Hungary, which sparked a discussion on modernism and alternatives to it.[3] Alla Vronskaya's chapter, "Anti-architectures of Self-incurred Immaturity," explores the methods of a group of young Soviet architects who used paper architecture as a means of liberating their field without overtly challenging the regime. Fredo Rivera's chapter, "Incomplete Postmodernism," examines the hybrid architecture of late socialist Cuba, which was an attempt to adapt the language of postmodernism from North America and Latin America. Through these chapters, the book illuminates how creativity can flourish despite repressive political conditions.

Despite its promises to examine the relationship between architecture and society under late socialism, the book does not fully explore it. Kulić cautions against assuming that postmodernism led to the collapse of the socialist system, as the reality of the time was complex and often paradoxical. He supports the argument of the influential work on the anthropology of late socialism by Alexey Yurchak (Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation [2005]) and comments that collapse of the socialist system, stable and permanent at first sight, was not anticipated, either by the socialist states or by the rest of the world. While the book does not offer a comprehensive bottom-up perspective on the interaction between architectural production and everyday life in late socialist society, some essays touch on this aspect. For example, Ljiljana Blagojević sheds light on the intellectual and social context of architects' work in Yugoslavia. Andres Kurg's chapter examines Estonian architecture during the 1970s and 1980s, considering it within the framework of the country's identity politics and resistance. Kurg analyzes postmodernist buildings created for collective farms and other structures, offering insight into the influence of political and cultural factors on architectural production in late socialist society.

In summary, Second World Postmodernisms is a comprehensive analysis that presents an overview of architectural production during late socialism and evaluates its impact on global postmodernisms. The book's contributions are significant and could serve as a catalyst for future research devoted to art and architectural history under socialism. The case studies challenge the oversimplification of socialist architecture as merely totalitarian and emphasize the diverse agents of architectural production. The authors have successfully achieved the goal of the book to "burst the very bubble of [the postmodernism] canon," as the narratives presented in Second World Postmodernisms challenge the notion of hegemonic capitalist primacy over culture and social life in the late twentieth century as highlighted in the postscript by Reinhold Martin and provide a more nuanced exploration of postmodernism in global architecture (p. 3).


[1]. Alexander Ryabushin, "Tvorcheskiye poiski i tendentsii 70-80-kh godov. Popytka analiza," Arkhitektura SSSR, no. 5 (1984): 31–36.

[2]. Dmitriy Fesenko, "Zapozdalyi Rastsvet. O Postmodernizme v Sovetskoi Arkhitekture," Interlos, 2010,

[3]. Piotr Piotrowski, Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, translated by Anna Brzyski (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 7-8.

Citation: Polina Gundarina. Review of Kulić, Vladimir, ed., Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society under Late Socialism. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. April, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.