Yet Another Soviet Atlantis

Newly reissued, The Ideal Communist City presents an abstract dreamworld whose contemporary relevance is questionable, to say the least.

Courtesy Weiss Press

While it existed, the Soviet Union was generally understood in Western European and North American design circles through its “paper architecture.” This was the case both in its early years—the utopia-to-dystopia sequence, beginning with the Monument to the Third International and ending with the Palace of the Soviets—and at its end, with the perverse and bleak dream projects of Brodsky and Utkin during the 1980s. In between, it seems, architecture was too actual to interest many people west of the Elbe, but there was one major exception—a book titled The Ideal Communist City, written by a team of authors at Moscow State University headed by the architect Alexei Gutnov, first published outside the USSR in Italy, in 1968. In its open-ended speculation, the work showcased here can be seen hazily as a kind of nonsatirical Soviet Superstudio, its mystique aided by its scarcity (its 1971 English translation will set you back $200-plus on eBay).

But now, a new edition from the German publisher Weiss makes The Ideal Communist City accessible once again. Its English edition originally formed part of Braziller’s i Press Series on the Human Environment, alongside promised titles by Charles Correa, Kisho Kurokawa, and Alexander Tzonis (though few of these seem to have been published). The editors tied the book to a specific late sixties moment, a Soviet analogue to Archigram or Archizoom, fellow imagineers of an exploded, self-organized high-tech city of the future; hostile reviewers, such as an extremely unimpressed Kenneth Frampton, correctly guessed the book was around a decade older.

In his introduction to the English translation, Giancarlo De Carlo roots the book in “the rich heritage left by Soviet architecture and urbanism in the twenties,” which he calls a “revolutionary tradition” capable of serving “as an example for future-oriented planning.” The connection with the twenties can be seen in the authors’ biomechanical metaphors and belief in an “esthetics of technology,” in their interest in Taylorism and time-and-motion study, in their stated aim of eliminating the nuclear family, and in their favoring of multifunctional cultural centers as the heart of the socialist city. In the Soviet context, however, it’s remarkable that a book written in the 1960s—when the last Stalinist Beaux-Arts buildings were still being completed—has completely jettisoned any obvious reference to what was in very recent memory a mandatory classicism and traditionalism in urbanism and architecture—though the close reader can find hints, as in the loving descriptions of Greek temples and medieval castles and in a passage where the authors feel it necessary to justify their lack of interest in ornament.

While they leave the authoritarian aesthetics of Stalinism behind, the authors’ Marxism is firmly in a rigid Comintern mold, though in a relatively benign fashion. “The economic system,” they tell us, “determines the urban form of a given society,” and in the present day, “the creative relationship with its spectrum of sociological elements is the dominant feature of a society, and it determines classless communist group structure.” That structure they describe as the New Unit of Settlement, or NUS. This is a key idea for the group—they were officially known as the NUS (NER, in Russian) collective. “NUS,” the authors admit, is a stand-in deployed in part to avoid having to use the term city—perhaps, as De Carlo suggests, this was a residue of the Broadacre City–style “disurbanism” proposed and shelved thirty years earlier during the first Five Year Plan. The allocation of space in the NUS for “communities of mobile homes” certainly evokes the work of the purged theorist of disurbanism Mikhail Okhitovich.

The interest in “machine memory” and the megastructural advocacy of a “city of the future taking on the character of a single gigantic edifice” saw the book received as a “1968” product rather than one of an earlier era.

But this version of disurbanism is based on an affluent society’s shift from production to leisure. At the heart of the NUS is culture, taking the form of a great cultural building in the center of the new noncity. “No previous proposal has suggested that the cultural center, rather than industrial growth, should be the principal factor determining the size of a residential area,” the authors write, although “industry … has no inherent significance that need determine the size of residential communities.” This outline evokes some of the more radical buildings of the seventies, such as the Kulturhuset in Stockholm, and it is one of the only building types to be fleshed out in any detail. It has a ground floor containing “only the courtyard with its public access”; above that, “an open space, the sides designed as two narrow bands containing a variety of facilities,” such as “studios, seminar rooms and classrooms … reading rooms, archives, small individual studios, and labs”; and between these two “bands” are “larger units, assembly halls, two theaters, a planetarium, a large gymnasium, and a swimming pool.” Late in the book, we are shown a model of one such cultural building, and it is distinctly less radical than the text implies: an International Style world of symmetrical modular facades and immense plazas, a little bit Brasília, a little bit Superstudio, and a lot of the late Soviet modernism of architects such as Leonid Pavlov. One image looks forward to Brezhnev-era funereal architecture for the Lenin cult, like Pavlov’s Lenin Museum in Gorki or the Lenin Memorial Museum in Ulyanovsk, on the Volga—both buildings that are epically, classically, inflexible.

The image might have been unimportant. The authors were also Marxian in their deliberate imprecision about their utopia. No “cookbook” here; instead, they are keen to point out that “it is very likely that the city of tomorrow will hardly recall the NUS,” though they expect that “it will share certain features in common.” They are occasionally specific about technology, however—they expect great things from the semiautomated large panel concrete construction of housing (though elsewhere caution against grid-like, repetitious housing complexes for their “depressing uniformity”), and they are equally enthusiastic about the covering of large areas of cities by plastic bubbles and domes. It is doubtless the latter, as well as the interest in “machine memory” and the megastructural advocacy of a “city of the future taking on the character of a single gigantic edifice,” that saw the book received as a “1968” product rather than one of an earlier era.

The English of Renée Neu Watkins’s translation—from the Italian—is wooden and occasionally, inexplicably, ungrammatical, but the material she had to work with seems likely to have been vague, stiff, and technocratic in the original. Alexei Gutnov sent De Carlo a version of the text in 1966, along with a sheaf of images—the Italian architect, unable to read Russian, was apparently impressed enough by the visuals to commission a translation. It is a strange collection, seldom captioned or explained by the authors, and combines quintessentially Soviet mass-heroic imagery with that of typical advanced technology circa 1960. Close-ups of molecules; maps of urban settlements and new towns in southeast and northwest England; the deep escalators of the Moscow Metro; prancing modern dancers in leotards; International Style skyscrapers; diagrams showing the urban patterns of slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and communism; a photograph of a galaxy; a cotton plantation in Central Asia; large panel concrete buildings being assembled by crane; Young Pioneers saluting; two blonde girls picking flowers; a cartoon of a traffic-choked Düsseldorf; the Monument to Cosmonautics at the VDNKh exhibition center in Moscow; young women playing volleyball in front of the Stalinist wedding cake skyscraper of Moscow State University, where the book was written. This montage is fascinating and by now exceptionally nostalgia-inducing—especially alongside the authors’ many schematic diagrams and city plans, it could easily be assembled into a charming, sub-Eames slideshow—but it explains little.

I doubt that many of those who snap it up will find much more here than a utopian Pinterest board. The Ideal Communist City is so totally rooted in its own moment—the Khrushchevian promise of Communism By 1980—that it is at times almost incomprehensible.

In the afterword to this new edition, Mary Otis Stevens, the editor of the 1971 i Press volume (and coauthor of World of Variation from the same series, also recently published in facsimile by Weiss), notes that “so far, the Russian original of The Ideal Communist City has not been found” and claims that, like Doctor Zhivago, the text was “smuggled out of the Soviet Union.” This would seem odd, as The Ideal Communist City is in no way a dissident text, unless you see it as a form of the half-ironic state-identification called in Russian stiob. Many of its most radical propositions are direct citations from the 1960 program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and occasionally from the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia.

Ana Miljački’s much more useful postface blows away all these Cold War clichés. She informs the reader that the first version of The Ideal Communist City, a diploma project by the authors in which they outlined the NUS, was published in 1960 in Komsomolskaya Pravda—a publication that had a mass circulation and should feature in any Soviet studies library—and later expanded upon this in a book, Novyi Element Rasseleniya, published in 1966. Its title, back-translated into English from Italian, is of course New Unit of Settlement. It sold well and was merely one of many books on the borders of popular science and science fiction that were published in the USSR during this period. Upon publication, Gutnov intended to expound the book’s ideas at a Team 10 meeting in Urbino, but unable to travel, he sent the book to De Carlo instead. Stevens claims that the book was “smuggled” into the West, but Miljački reveals that its translation into Italian was officially approved by the Soviet authorities, and in the year of publication, the authors traveled to the Milan Triennale to present their ideas, which is where Stevens encountered the book.

It would appear that Stevens did not read Miljački’s text before writing her own, which is at the very least an oversight on the part of the publisher. In their introduction, the editors at Weiss suggest that the book’s unabashed utopianism and anticapitalism has something to say to the present moment of political blockage and capitalist failure. Perhaps. It may well find its way into the libraries of young adherents to Fully Automated Luxury Communism—indeed, that could serve as an alternate title for the NUS. But I doubt that many of those who snap it up will find much more here than a utopian Pinterest board. The Ideal Communist City is so totally rooted in its own moment—the Khrushchevian promise of Communism By 1980—that it is at times almost incomprehensible. The best work on Soviet building over the last decade has not been about paper architecture. Post-Soviet scholars like Marija Dremaite, Ievgeniia Gubkina, Boris Chukhovich, Dimitrij Zadorin, and Anna Bronovitskaya have all written eye-opening accounts of what actually got built and its entanglement in the Soviet state’s promises of socialist abundance and the friendship of peoples. These dreams are currently being crushed anew by a hypercapitalist Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, and in that context, The Ideal Communist City’s abstract dreamworld is either poignant or pointless, depending on your taste.

Owen Hatherley would prefer not to write about the Soviet Union for a long while.