Soul-Crushing Stalinesque Architecture? Memory Trip, New Hip, & Heritage

by Yule Heibel on June 29, 2007

For anyone who was certain that all those super-ugly”commie blocks,” built in East Berlin during the height of the German Democratic Republic’s most intense enthrallment to Stalin, would get the chop after the Wall came down, here’s an explanation for why they’re staying: Warum “die Kultbauten am Alexanderplatz” nicht abgerissen werden. It’s a short (under 2 1/2 minutes) video by Maxim Leo, editor at the Berliner Zeitung. He observes that his generation (aged around 30 to late 30s) isn’t eager to tear those buildings down because they are part of his generation’s personal history. As he tells it, those buildings were there before his generation was even born (so he and his cohort feel no personal responsibility for them). But the point is that his generation grew up with them: the buildings were there when his generation was cutting its teeth. Since this is also a demographic that’s obsessive about preserving its youth and youthfulness, it wants to preserve these buildings: they remind Leo and his friends of when they were young, expansive, in control. They flock to the businesses — cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels — in these buildings; they are their patrons.

In German; via

This reminds me of a recent symposium I attended here in Victoria. The topic was “Heritage and Tourism: Compatibility or Conflict?” During one Q&A session, the conversation veered dangerously toward validating only quite old buildings as heritage (here in Victoria — in North America, West of the East Coast — that typically means something from the mid- to late-19th century, maybe the early 20th century, too). But one younger woman spoke up to put forward the viewpoint of her husband, who had grown up in one of those oversized, soul-crushing “commie block” apartments. She pointed out that for him, those buildings represented his memories, his “heritage,” and that — therefore — it’s ridiculous to think of heritage as simply a museum piece, or a style that has been vetted & approved. It’s also be about lived-in things that are full of memories and experiences and stories.

Which is kind of what Maxim Leo is saying, I guess.


melanie June 30, 2007 at 12:47 am

Didn’t understand a word, but the Cafe Moskva and the Berliner Zeitung building take me straight back to Hanoi! Also the mural (funny in the more industrialized context). But the rest could be what went up in Australia during the 1960s.

yulelog June 30, 2007 at 8:56 am

Right, I forgot that you had been to Hanoi (you mentioned it somewhere else, too — can’t remember exactly when/where)! Makes sense that Berlin’s “commie blocks” would resemble Hanoi’s. But Australia? Do you have many of these? They’d be apartments, I assume. I didn’t think they’d get built in the West except in really cold climates.

We, too, actually have one like that here, in Victoria (believe it or not — our climate is very mild). It’s called View Towers — if you click on this flickr page, all the images on it (except for 3 tagged with Australia) are of View Tower in Victoria, BC (that’s what the page shows 6/30/07, at any rate). Here’s a single photo that’s very accurate, for one taken in that dreary winter light we get here.

It’s interesting that a number of the photographers call it “crack tower,” b/c it has acquired this reputation as a drug-hole. I’m not sure if that’s really true — it’s just the case that View Tower is relatively “affordable,” as far as rents go, and it’s one of the few big apartment buildings in town that actually is all rental (the other towers in town typically are condos, which can be rented out by the individual owners, however).

So it’s full of less-well-off people, younger ones, too, and has this reputation. Plus it’s ugly.

But when I lived here in the early 70s, my friend Mary-Anne lived there with her parents, and it wasn’t considered a morally bad place to live at all. (Victorians always thought it was ugly and “too tall,” but the moral stigma attached later, I’d say.)

It has become representative of a kind of “density-equals-tenement” thinking, which lurks at the bottom of all anti-densification sentiment here.

It’s also considered a real “Edmonton building,” in the sense that this sort of ugly utilitarian stuff went up like mushrooms in Edmonton, Alberta, and the building was indeed built by an Edmonton developer way back when. Now many people are again scared of Edmontonian “developers” — this time they’re the rich oil sheiks who’ve made enough money to come here, to Victoria, for their 2nd or 3rd homes, and who therefore are allegedly fueling the real estate price rise. They’re supposed to be the folks buying all the condos going up in downtown, but many locals have been buying them, too, and then renting them out.

When I lived in Winnipeg, after emigrating to Canada and before coming to Victoria as a 12-year-old, my family and I also lived in one of these, built by Martin Bergen. Winnipeg had (has) lots of them, too.

melanie July 1, 2007 at 12:44 am

I visit Hanoi once or twice a year because I do research on the Vietnamese economy. There are lots of buildings with that concrete ‘lace’ (a la cafe Moskva). I always thought it was to let the breeze in on account of the tropical weather, but I see now that it’s a ‘socialist’ architectural feature! Fortunately Hanoi still has a lot of French colonial architecture and trees. But the parts of the city that were built in the ’60s and ’70s look like that.

Australian architects have a well known tendency to be derivative of northern hemisphere fashions – whether or not they’re suited to the climate. Nowadays everything seems to have a curved facade! But around the ’60s a lot of featureless concrete blocks were put up – mostly office towers, but some perhaps resembled the ‘stalinist’ style because they were Housing Commission flats. Admittedly they tend not to have the wide, windy boulevards or to comprise huge tracts of urban landscape as in the video of East Berlin, but that doesn’t make them individually more attractive or functional.

yulelog July 1, 2007 at 9:55 am

Yes, that style is definitely of an era — good thing it’s over, too!

Perhaps Australian architects might now look to Asia for inspiration. Highrise construction there is pretty daring. For some really wild (and ecologically-minded) stuff, take a look at Kenneth Yeang’s work. There’s interview here, a page with further links on bioclimatic skyscrapers, and a link to an essay of his, The Ecological Design of Large Buildings and Sites.

Penelope July 4, 2007 at 12:50 am

Maybe this could be classified as “new hip” and maybe eventually it would be “heritage”, but occasionally this architecture/colour would be a welcome change for me. See-

There seems to be such a sameness, so many expanses of the ubiquitous green or blue windows Vancouver, not much imagination or joyousness going on. Seeing a little of Gaudi’s work made me realize that buildings have the capacity to make you want to be happy, dance, and feel joyous, something I hadn’t realized before.

yulelog July 4, 2007 at 8:59 pm

Those are amazing proposals, Penelope — although part of me would probably get sick & tired of all the lollipop styling at some point… But I hear what you’re saying re. ubiquitous sameness. Perhaps it’s not the green & blue glazing that does it, but rather that our buildings aren’t standing out as individuals. They don’t have enough personality…

On the question of colour, take a look at something that Gordon Price just posted on his blog, Pricetags: Colour Commentary, where he posts some photos a friend sent who is travelling in Albania. One after another “commie block” tarted up in the most joyful colours, it’s really quite spectacular! It’s really at least as much about the people — who in turn are inflected by the systems they live under — as the style of the building.

But too much same-old, same-old isn’t good for anyone, and dead colours are …well, dead. Daily Dose of Architecture had this great extract from a 1993 book by Nikos A. Salingaros, A Theory of Architecture:

“[…] we see an infatuation with drab, gray surfaces of raw concrete. Everyone I ask (with the notable exception of some architects) finds such surfaces morbid and depressing; and yet architects keep building them. Even worse, they go to great lengths to prevent their users from painting them with color so as to stop the deadening effect. Where paint is allowed to be used, again it is often restricted to depressing shades of gray. This is in stark contrast to historical and vernacular architectures around the world. The greatest buildings of the past are very colorful (or were before their color faded from weathering). Owner-built dwellings employ all the color they can find to intensify visual response from wall surfaces. Color appears to satisfy a fundamental human need, as shown by children’s art (before they are conditioned to a gray industrial world) and folk art.”

Oh well, imagine if one day we have genetically engineered bacteria that like silicon and can be grown to coat all those glazed structures to change the colours of the glazing: from green & blue glass, to brightly coloured towers. Could be fun…! 😉

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