H-Ukraine "Spotlight" Interview with Christina Crawford

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H-Ukraine “Spotlight” Interview with Christina Crawford

Dr. Christina E. Crawford is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Architecture in the Art History Department at Emory University and faculty of Emory’s Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program. 


H-UkraineNot only are you a historian of architecture, but you are also a licensed architect and urban designer. You have produced designs and plans for a number of buildings and municipalities both domestically and internationally. What drew you to architecture as a profession, and what made you decide to teach architectural history?


CC: I have always loved buildings and dreamed about becoming an architect from a pretty young age. I grew up in Maine in a house built in 1825 that provided countless spooky corners to explore and that sparked my imagination about who and what inhabited it before me. In college, I double majored in Architecture and Russian & Eastern European Studies (I’ll explain that below). I crafted a senior project that worked for both majors: a written thesis about the construction of the first line of the Moscow Metro in 1935, and a design for a contemporary Moscow Metro station. The project won a big prize at graduation—validation to pursue these disparate interests in tandem—but it took me a long time to figure out how to make a career of it. After serving as a Vice Consul in the US Consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia for a year (interviewing for and adjudicating US visas, a truly awful job), I went to architecture school at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and then practiced as a licensed architect in Boston for nearly a decade while also teaching architectural history as an adjunct at Northeastern University—really, just for fun. In the end, I enjoyed being in the classroom more than I enjoyed fighting with contractors on job sites. I returned to Harvard for a PhD in architectural history with a focus on early Soviet architecture and planning. There is no question that my time as a working architect influences the questions I ask as an architectural historian.


H-UkraineI remember first coming across your work when doing some research on the Kharkiv Tractor Plant (KhTZ), and you graciously replied to an email of mine asking for more information about the factory newspaper Tempo. It was so wonderful to meet someone else who was as passionate about tractors and the sotsgorod as me! When did you become interested in Soviet history, and what made you decide to study Soviet architecture and planning?


CC: I’ve been interested in these ideas and visiting sites built during the early Soviet period for a long time. I was an exchange student in Krasnodar with a Russian family in the final year of the USSR—a totally life-changing experience. I learned the language and culture from my Russian family, trial by fire, and am still close with them. Of course, 1990-91 was a tumultuous year. Quite a few of my exchange cohort, who experienced the Soviet Union collapsing in real-time, ended up studying Soviet history in college. And as for my focus on Soviet architecture and planning: well, I know from experience that English-language literature on Soviet architecture and planning is truly sparse. At the Harvard GSD (the top-ranked architecture school internationally, taken as just one notable example), the only projects from the socialist world taught (if any are at all) are so-called paper projects: visionary avant-garde designs, never built. Why don’t we know more about the material spaces that contained the lives of Soviet citizens for so much of the 20th century? Because of my background in practice, I am particularly interested in those built projects. Environments constructed in Soviet times reveal viable alternatives to the architecture and cities built under capitalism. 


H-UkraineYour forthcoming book with Cornell University Press, Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union (out in February 2022 from Cornell University Press), is a comparative study of Soviet architecture in three major industrial areas in the Soviet Union. Can you tell us a little more about this project and where Ukraine (specifically Kharkiv) fits into your larger focus on space, revolution, and socialist design? 


CCSpatial Revolution is the first comparative parallel study of Soviet architecture and planning to create a narrative arc across the whole Soviet Union. My narrative binds together three critical industrial- residential projects in Baku, Magnitogorsk, and Kharkiv, built during the first fifteen years of the Soviet era and followed attentively worldwide, particularly following the collapse of capitalist markets in 1929. I originally planned to write my whole dissertation (on which the book is based) on the architecture and planning of the Ukrainian Soviet capital of Kharkiv from 1919-34 but ended up wanting to tell a broader story about construction during Soviet industrialization. The Kharkiv Tractor Factory is the last of my three sites—it is the culminating success story of architectural standardization.

The early Soviet Union was an incredibly exciting context for architects and planners. The world was being remade, and there was a strong belief at all levels of Soviet power that space was a critical tool to enact societal transformation. I wanted to better understand the tasks posed to designers both by the Soviet state and from within the discipline, and to immerse myself in that time. To do that, I had to utilize my whole toolkit—design background, academic preparation, and language skills—to suss out the origin story of Soviet space, and specifically, to dig deeply in the archives. What I found— and this didn’t surprise me, as a former practitioner—was that on sites far from Moscow local designers and clients had a great deal of freedom to experiment, but that they also suffered from the extreme pressures of schedule (timelines arbitrarily assigned), labor shortages, and material inadequacies. Despite these difficulties, industrial-residential sites were built in the 1920s and ‘30s, and they established practices like architectural standardization and centralized planning that persisted throughout the Soviet period. 


H-UkraineAn important aspect of your work, including your new book, is the role of outside experts in the construction of Soviet industrial sites. Architects, engineers, and construction specialists from places such as the United States, Canada, and Germany, among other locales, were integral in constructing many of the industrial sites you write about. For those who might not know about the role of these outside experts, can you tell us more about the kinds of roles they had in the Soviet Union? Why did these people leave their home countries to go to the Soviet Union and help build socialism? In what ways does this exchange of intellectual and architectural knowledge help us see beyond the ideological divides of the time? 


CC: Each site investigated for Spatial Revolution was a node in a global network developed at the beginning of the 20th century that freely shared experts, technologies, and materials. Ideas, both spatial and social in nature, circulated even more readily between these sites and the capitalist West, definitively upsetting common Cold War assumptions about Soviet isolationism. The Kharkiv Tractor Factory, for example, was built on a modified design from Stalingrad that was drafted in Detroit by American architects and engineers. 


Some of these stories also ended up in Detroit-Moscow-Detroit: Soviet-American Architectural Exchanges, 1917-1945, a book that I’m co-editing with colleagues Claire Zimmerman (University of Michigan) and Jean-Louis Cohen (NYU) (forthcoming 2023). The essays in that book propose that capitalist and communist built environments in the twentieth century were not diametrically opposed but were, on certain sites, co-produced in a period of intense technical exchange between the two world wars, and particularly during the first Five-Year Plan. US-based architecture and engineering firms, struggling during the Great Depression, were hired by the Soviet government to jump-start heavy industrialization in the largely agricultural country. Detroit architecture firm Albert Kahn, Inc. alone set in motion over 500 Soviet industrial construction projects and trained over 300 Soviet designers, technicians, and draftsmen in American methods of design and implementation in their collaboration with the Soviets between 1929 and 1932. By the end of 1932, most American construction experts had returned to the US, just in time to assist in the United States’ New Deal capital construction boom. Many technicians, engineers, and architects who made the trek to the USSR and back were the subjects of national journalistic coverage; many wrote tell-all memoirs of their own, chronicling their Soviet adventures and imparting lessons learned. My chapter for the book is a close reading of a selection of those “Red Memoirs”—they are amazing. 


H-UkraineYou are currently working on a new project that examines interwar exchanges of housing expertise between the US and Europe. Can you tell us more about this new project and the way that transnational exchanges of architectural and urban ideas functioned in the interwar period? 


CC: My new project, Atlanta Housing Interplay, shares conceptual framing and method with Spatial Revolution andDetroit-Moscow-Detroit. I call it “nodal history,” insofar as it engages in oscillation between deeply investigated single sites and the larger territories in which those sites become allied and materially connected. I developed the method mentally, and then graphically, by plotting my research sites onto a single global map to see interdependencies otherwise obscured. An offhand question by a colleague at Emory—is Atlanta plottable on your interwar housing map?—led me to expand my research to include the first federally funded housing projects in the US: Atlanta’s Techwood Homes (1936, for white families), and University Homes (1937, for Black families). These projects, composed of low-slung brick apartment buildings set in footpath-crossed open spaces, became models for American public housing in the years following ratification of the National Housing Acts of 1934 and 1937. The project seeks to expand the interwar architectural map to establish Atlanta’s role as a clearinghouse for European social housing ideas, and as the site of the earliest home-grown housing precedents. 

Of particular interest for this research are the two fact-finding missions—Housing Grand Tours— that Charles F. Palmer, Atlanta commercial real-estate mogul turned housing crusader, took to Europe in 1934 and 1936 to document housing sites he deemed worthy of possible replication in Atlanta. Palmer reactivated nodes plotted on my earlier research map through his visits to the recently constructed case populari (people’s houses) in Fascist Naples and Rome, gemeindbauten (municipal housing blocks) in Red Vienna, and newly built doma-kommuny (communal houses) in Moscow. The questions asked by Soviet protagonists in Spatial Revolution were the same asked by Palmer for Atlanta. Who is responsible to provide housing and social services for the working class? What are the constituent elements of the “good city”? What is role of standardization and mass-production in architectural design? How should the modern housing unit be spatially configured? These questions were posed in an international context, and the development of individual nodes evolved the debates. As built, the Atlanta housing projects were superblocks of free-standing mid- rise housing bars set in shared green space with integrated kindergartens and play areas, shared laundry and community meeting rooms, and dedicated shops for the residents. Palmer deflected accusations of socialism at Techwood and University for years after the housing projects’ completion—due to the generous state funding and amenities built into them—and it’s true that the integrated social programming does indicate allegiance to housing projects Palmer visited in socialist European sites. 


H-UkraineI know your work on Soviet architecture spans more than just Ukraine, but we always ask our interviewees about their favorite place to visit when they travel to Ukraine. Where is your favorite place to go and why?


During architecture school, in 2003, I was a Fulbright student in Ukraine and travelled widely to photograph buildings (new and old) throughout the country. There are so many remarkable sites it’s hard to choose, but I offer three of my architectural favorites. First, for the romantic: Kam'yanets'- Podil's'kyi Castle. The approach over the bridge, with the castle rising above the surrounding countryside, is unforgettable. Second, for the early Soviet aesthete: Kharkiv, and the neighborhoods around the Derzhprom Building, which are packed with incredible Constructivist architecture constructed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Third, for the cultural crossroads historian (and I know this is contested geography, but it’s Ukraine to me): Bakhchisarai Palace in Crimea. There are remarkable, resilient buildings throughout Ukraine that have been repurposed for myriad people and uses over time—the Tatar compound in Bakhchisarai is undoubtedly one of the best.