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The Ideal Soviet Suburb

Social Change Through Urban Design


by WM. STEPHEN SCOTT

Figure 1. Garden City plan by Boris Sakulin (1918).

Facing rapid industrialization, urbanization and a social revolution, Soviet intellectuals in the early years of the Soviet Union (1917-1930) rushed to work imagining what the ideal communist city would look like. This burst of artistic output from the far left, known as the Constructivist movement, was multidisciplinary. Not only were architects and bureaucrats theorizing about ideal cities, but so, too, were painters, poets, writers, graphic designers, photographers, and product designers. Although the general spirit was to decentralize and move away from the central core city, theorists proposed various methods. This paper will explore four specic variants: the linear city, the Urbanist super-commune, the Disurbanist mobile city, and the postwar new urban settlement. Though few Constructivist proposals were realized, save for some isolated buildings, the movements ideals concerning the city oer a fascinating glimpse at a suburban dream alien to the American perspective. The decentralization of cities and spread of development into the urban periphery is a phenomenon seen across the world. Even earlier than Ebenezer Howards Garden City in 1898, architects, planners, philanthropists, and visionaries felt compelled to reverse urban agglomeration in cities (Batchlor, 1969; Collins, 1959). They wanted to expand urbanity into the countryside, while reducing crowding and congestion within the city. During the late 1920s in Russia, this debate played out between two major schools of thought: the so-called Urbanists and Disurbanists. Both groups advocated suburbanization. The Urbanists, led by theorist L. Sabsovich, argued for self-contained supercommunes located in the countryside. The Disurbanists, led by Mikhail Okhitovich, went further. Using an electrical and communication grid that would cross the entire nation, and mobile homes, they sought to scatter single-family homes across the countryside. Although this debate was lively, both Urbanists and Disurbanists sought to eliminate urban agglomeration in central cities and to create new, self-sucient settlements containing fewer than 50, 20, or even three residents (Kopp 1970, pp. 168-17).

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Four ideological themes drove Constructivist ideas. The rst was a radical form of feminism that sought to revolutionize family patterns. Concerned that women were treated unequally, Soviet idealists wanted to reform the home, reduce womens workloads, remove children from the household, and liberalize marriage into a completely voluntary and open arrangement between individuals. A second theme posited that leisure time socialist citizens would attend cultural institutions, centered on the workers club. These uniquely communist institutions would be the heart of neighborhood plans. A third theme was the idea of the social condenser, which would use architecture to limit private life within the single-family home and instead encourage collective socialization and participation in activities. The last theme was the desire to bring the city to the countryside, spreading work and communist ideology into the hinterland. These tropes can be found in all the plans.

Another plan (Figures 2 & 3) by M. Shirov in 1929 shows a central city divided into three green belts: a cultural and sports belt in the urban core, a pedestrian walkway midway from the city center, and outer agricultural and industrial belts (Kopp, 1970). This plan shows other aspects of the Garden City idea: the desire to reduce density, increase green space, and push development beyond the center city into lowerdensity nodes on the periphery.

Soviet Garden Cities


As with other planners of the period, Soviet Urbanists were enamored with Ebenezer Howards Garden City principles (Miliyutin, 1974; Talfuri, 1987). Howard called for the creation of autonomous new settlements far from the metropolitan area to increase the amount of green space, decrease the distance from home to work, reduce crowding in the inner city, and bring urban amenities to the countryside. The Soviets were particularly interested in Howards idea that the Garden City was to be a small, communal place, where the municipality would collectively own property. The Garden City, an idea that ourished in the capitalist West, could also be interpreted as a starting point for an ideal Soviet suburb. One can see the Garden City concept in early Soviet plans. Boris Sakulins 1918 plan (Figure 1) depicts a system of three concentric radial highways with a string of satellite cities along the arterials. His plan was intended to reduce congestion in Moscow by spreading development to the urban periphery (Khan-Magomedov, 1987).

Figure 3. Shirovs sketch of a Garden City.

In Constructivist literature, writers proposed more radical forms of suburbanization, or rather de-urbanization. In the economist Alexander Chaianovs 1920 novel, Journey of My Brother Alexei to the Land of the Peasant Utopia, he imagined that by 1934 all cities with a population over 20,000 would be demolished. Instead of cities, the city and agricultural functions would intermingle, in a continuous countryside, with the former central city converted into parkland (Beaujour, 1983). The primary idea behind the Garden City movement was the belief that urbanity itself was obsolete. Communist planners believed that urban agglomeration was caused by a capitalist need for producers to be near markets. By abolishing private property, they thought, agglomeration was no longer necessary. Nikolai Miliutin, a Soviet planner of the era, captured this idea when he noted:
The question of restricted land for big cities is inapplicable here since we have destroyed private ownership of land. Any ideas about the necessity for maximum (more rational) use of communally serviceable areas is simply comical, since no such areas exist here. But more important is the tremendous problem of the elimination of the dierences between the city and the country. This is why we must review the meaning of the word city. The modern city is a product of a mercantile society and will die together with it, merging into the socialized countryside.
Miliutin, 1974

The Linear City: An Old Idea Rediscovered


Sixteen years before Ebenezer Howards seminal book To-morrow, Arturo Soria y Mata invented what he called the linear city. His idea was to develop residential and commercial units along tramways, bringing development into the open countryside (Soria Y Mata, 1984). Although

Figure 2. Plan view of a Soviet Garden City deigned by M. Shirov in 1929.

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Sorias idea gained some popularity, it was quickly overshadowed by Howards nodal Garden City proposal. Miliutin revisited Soria y Matas linear city idea near the end of the Constructivist era in 1930 in his book Sotsgorod: The Problem of Building Socialist Cities (Miliutin, 1974). Sotsgorod is peppered with quotes from Lenin and Marx, showing the emergence of Marxist dogmatism under Stalin. By this time, Stalins First Five Year Plan had ramped up industrial production, which created demand for new industrial facilities and towns far removed from the central city. After 1928, many new industrial towns sprouted, including Magnitogorsk, Dzerzhinsk, Berezniki, Khibonogorsk, Komsomolska-na-Amure, and Karagada (Kopp, 1970). Figure 4 shows Miliutins proposal for the Nizhninovgorod auto plant. He improves upon Sorias linear city by including the workplace along with the residential units. Industrial areas are located along a railway, providing access to the factory and creating a linear assembly line. A greenbelt separates the industry from the residential areas, which include the communal dining halls and workers clubs as well as housing. Past the residential zone is a park, with wilderness beyond. The advantage of the linear city concept was that all aspects of daily lifework, transportation, open space, and living areasare all located within

keeping and parenting by having the state communally raise children from a young age. The children would be raised in separate boarding schools located within the overall commune. In these communes, without children the institution of marriage would wither away and be replaced with free-love relationships: in housing units, a sliding partition opened to allow couples to be together, and in cases of divorce, the doors could be shut again (Kopp, 1970). By forcing family life into communal space, new types of structures must be accounted for: workers clubs, dining halls, collective laundromats, and boarding schools. Thus in these immense collective communes, all elements of daily life would be found within the housing unit structure, with the industrial workplace nearby. Self-contained and self-sucient, these super-communes could be placed anywhere, allowing residents to leave the city and colonize the countryside.

Mobile Cities of the Future


If transportation, electricity, and communication are omnipresent, why agglomerate at all? Could not every individual live autonomously? And if a citizen can live autonomously, why stay in one place? With rapid economic change, architects foresaw the need to move the population around the country for economic reasons and freedom of mobility. These were the opinions of the radical Disurbanists, who called for the complete abolition of cities. They suggested replacing them with oating cities, mobile homes, and clusters of glass cubicles, roaming the countryside and forming spontaneous settlements. The key feature of the disurbanist vision is mobility. Quoting Okhitovich, the founder of Disurbanist theory:
No, let us be frank: communal houses, those enormous, heavy, monumental, everlasting colossi, permanently encumbering the landscape, will not solve the problem of socialist resettlement. Prefabricated houses! No matter if the rst ones are not a success. How fortunate that they can be dismantled as easily as they are assembled; no one will object if husband and wife or two close friends or even a group of friends built their individual homes side by side, combine them into a single block; each unit will always remain private, with its own entrance and access to the garden. But if there is a falling out, if a friend quarrels with friend or if one of them marries, there will be no problems with living space since at any time the units can be separated, made bigger or smaller, or even dismantled and rebuilt in a completely dierent spot.
Kopp, 1970

Figure 4. Miliutins auto plant proposal.

walking distance, with adequate buering in between. However, there was a lack of retail services, such as restaurants and clothing shops. This failure to plan for personal consumption pervades Soviet plans. However, Miliutins plan is still one of the more reasonable Soviet plans of the era. In connecting residential units to industrial complexes, his vision of disagglomeration seems viable.

A New Urbanism: The Super-Commune


One way to bring the city into the country is to create self-sucient super-communes. Like a ship, these large communes would contain all the functions necessary to be self-sucient. These communes were the ultimate social condenser. By minimizing personal space and maximizing communal space, Soviet architects forced individuals out of the single-family unit. Units lacked personal kitchens, living rooms, and showers. A units total area was as small as 27 square meters (Kopp, 1970). Like a dormitory, everyone used the space collectively. As architecture compelled collectivization, it deliberately broke down the family unit. Women were liberated from the drudgery of house-

Note also the recurring theme of modularity: the adding and subtracting of components to accommodate uid family situations. Flexible architecture was part and parcel of the Constructivist push to liberalize family relations, making marriage less obligatory and divorce as painless as possible. The accomplished architect Moses Ginzburgs Green City Plan (1930) is essentially a linear city layout that embraced a Disurbanist vision of mobility (Kopp, 1970). The state would grant each homesteader a lightweight, prefabricated house. These homes could be freely arranged and combined: single individuals could live in a unit, or units can be

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combined to form family clusters (Figure 5). They could be strung along highways, clustered around community centers, or wherever there was access by rail, automobile, or airplane.

In this book they rearm many of the prewar principles: collectivized lifestyle, reform of family patterns, and decentralization. They also discuss the role of leisure time and how citizens can use their free time to cultivate themselves and to study (Gutnov et. al., 1968). They continue the Constructivist urban project: creating collectivized institutions and workers clubs in the suburbs to cultivate a new socialist man. Gutnovs plan for the New Urban Settlement is one of the most detailed site plans that represents socialist ideals (Figure 6). On the north and the west sides of the site plan are high-density communal housing blocks. Inside each housing block families live apart, with children in dormitories downstairs and parents upstairs. The northwest corner includes the schools, with the southeast corner holding the workers clubs and dining halls. Within this superblock, pedestrian travel predominates; trains and freeways are conned to the periphery, dening the superblocks boundaries. A circular tramway allows residents to travel between superblocks, connects the settlement to quadrants o the map, and provides a path to mass transit stations and parking lots. The most remarkable aspect of this site plan is that everyone is in walking or tramway distance from school, community centers, residential areas, and transit nodes. It is a residential suburb without auto dependency.

Figure 5. Moses Ginzburgs prefabricated housing units.

The Constructivist poet Velimir Khlebnikov went one step further. He imagined the home as a glass box. The box would have anchor points on it so it could be attached to a train, hoisted into the air by crane or zeppelin, or strung along a cable like beads on a string. People would travel throughout the Soviet Union in their glass boxes, living in clusters wherever they desired. They didnt even need to own clothing it would be provided by the commune in charge of the cluster (Khlebnikov, 1985). In another Disurbanist vision, writer Nicoli Aseev wrote a story called Tomorrow in the main Constructivist Journal LEF in 1923 (Beaujour, 1983). In this story the city itself is mobile, oating across the countryside with the aid of a magnetic levitation. Once again, Moscow is abandoned and converted into a park. Before we write-o the Disurbanist visions as absurd, we must understand the context. Technological progress in the West such as the bi-plane and the Model T coincided with rapid industrialization in the Soviet Union and burgeoning creativity in the Constructivist scene. And we must consider the motor home, the trailer home, private commuter jets, and other innovations that have since come to pass. In a way, their proposals are not so radical. The idea wasnt so much that houses did not agglomerate, but that any agglomerations were uid. As the workforce moved, the home would follow. And with modern transportation, the home could travel, by rail, truck, ship or zeppelin to any destination on the planet.
Figure 6. Alexei Gutnovs New Urban Settlement plan.

The Ideal Soviet Suburb: The New Urban Settlement


All the previous suburban visions took place in the pre-Stalin era. Under Stalin, urban planning entered a dark age with the advent of Socialist Realism, and modernist design was forbidden (Kopp, 1970). After Kruschevs rebuke of Stalin in 1956, there was an intellectual thaw; in the late 1950s, a group of Moscow University intellectuals led by Alexei Gutnov wrote The Ideal Communist City (Gutnov et. al., 1968).

But unlike previous plans, the New Urban Settlement makes no attempt to connect the residential area to industrial worksites. Instead, automation is the new technique that allows workers to work near home, yet control vast industrial complexes beyond the city limits. The suburban vision is modied, less radical than the Constructivist predecessors. Gutnov and his colleagues moved away from thinking of the neighborhood as a completely self-sucient unit, instead considering it a semi-dependent suburb. It contains most daily amenities within

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walking distance, but is dependent upon a central city for employmentmore in line with Western new towns and master-planned communities of the time.

Conclusion
In truth there is not one, but at least two iconic types of twentiethcentury neighborhood: the single-family subdivision and the multifamily superblock. While the former dominated much of the West, the latter are found across the world, in Brazil, Japan, China, France, Britain, former Soviet Bloc countries, and even in the United States. These developments are pedestrian-oriented, often centered on a school or community center, and were designed to create self-contained neighborhood units. They are also big, sometimes housing hundreds to thousands of residents. While not all such modernist superblocks were designed by Soviets, or even communists, these groups were innovators in the modernist movement, and the most committed to advancing social change through urban design. Perhaps the best way, then, to reveal the nature of the ideal Soviet suburb is to contrast it against Western ideals. One point of contrast is the modes of transit. With abundant transportation, urbanists in the East and West believed that housing could be built far from center cities on virgin land. Soviet planners and architects tended to favor rail, like the British and Japanese, rather than the automobile as in the United States, but transportation was what made suburbanization possible. But unlike American planners, who sought to segregate housing from the workplace, many Soviets throughout the Constructivist era sought to locate residents within walking distance of cultural and employment opportunities (although some, like the Disurbanists, called for complete transit dependence). Less like Le Corbusier and more like Ebenezer Howard, the Soviets tried to create self-contained new towns beyond the central city, rather than segregate residential, commercial, industrial, and cultural uses. Another dierence is the home itself. The Western single-family home is a self-contained unit a place to put purchased goods, to cook, to entertain guests, to raise children. Soviet plans deliberately attempted to prevent this bourgeois lifestyle by reducing the amount of personal space and ooading previously private functions into the public realm. Collectivization required new collective entities: dining halls, laundromats, boarding schools, and open space were included in Soviet plans to a greater extent than in the West. Collectivization also implied clustered, high-density residential quarters, while in the West the standalone home was the ideal. Naturally, Soviets planned fewer churches, shopping districts, and private lawns, reecting the fundamental dierence between the ideal Soviet communal lifestyle and Western customs. For all their faults, though, the Soviets collective housing schemes did oer an alternative ideal of suburban living. The Soviet plans all show

strong pedestrian connections between the home and civic institutions such as schools, hospitals and community centers. Additionally, the Soviet suburb is transit-oriented, with each new community designed with rail access. These suburbs were also planned for residential density, concentrating a critical mass of residents in a small area. Interestingly, these three ideas are all experiencing a renaissance in Western planning. Designs featuring pedestrian accessibility, transit connections and higher-density concentrations are now widely sought in the West this time not to ee the city, but rather to improve its integrated systems. While communist ideas are unlikely to gain favor in the West, its future urban development may exhibit more in common with the Soviet Constructionists and their pedestrian- and transit-oriented communes than the traditional Western suburban ideal. While one may think of communism as a political and economic system, it was also a culture. To the Constructivists and their successors, their architecture and city planning designs not only symbolized the Soviet Revolution, but also were a tool to further the communist social agenda of liberalizing the household, collectively sharing goods, and cultivating individuals through cultural institutions, making rapid economic growth possible. Thus the Soviet suburb was designed to change human social structures through architecture and design. But the overriding vision of allowing individuals to escape crowded cities and travel into the hinterland the dream of suburbia is not unique to the Soviets. This is a vision that persisted throughout the modern era as planners across the world strove to transcend the centripetal forces of urban agglomeration.

References

Beaujour, Elizabeth Klosty. Architectural Discourse and Early Soviet Literature. The Journal of the History of Ideas, 44(3) (Jul.-Sep. 1983), pp. 477-495. Batchelor, Peter. The Origin of the Garden City Concept of Urban Form. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 28(3) (Oct. 1969), pp. 184-200. Collins, George R. The Ciudad Lineal of Madrid. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 18(2) (May, 1959), pp. 38-53. Gutnov et. al. The Ideal Communist City. (New York: Brazillier), 1970. Howard, Ebenezer. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. (Cambridge: MIT Press), 1965. Khan-Magomedov, Selim O. Pioneers of Soviet Architecture. (New York: Rizzoli), 1987. Khoehler, KAren. Kandinskys Kleine Welten and Utopian City Plans. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 57(4), (1998), pp. 432-447. Kopp, Anatole. Town and Revolution: Soviet architecture and city planning 1917-1935. Translated by Thomas E. Burton. (New York: Braziller), 1970. Khlebnikov, Velimir. The King of Time: Selected writings of the Russian futurian. Translated by Paul Schmidt. (USA: Harvard University Press), 1990. Miliutin, Nikolai. Sotsgorod: The problem of building socialist cities. Translated by Arthur Sprague. (Cambridge: MIT Press), 1974. Soria Y Mata. La Cit Linaire: Nouvelle Architecture De Villes. Paris: Ecole Nationale Suprieure des Beaux-Arts, 1984. Talfuri, Manfredo. Toward the Socialist City. In The Sphere and the Labrynth (Cambridge: MIT Press) 1987.

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