Architectural Specters of the Eastern Bloc
CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed
Frédéric Chaubin argues that the fantastical late-Soviet architecture in his monograph CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed is reflective of an aesthetic freedom that came as a result of the Soviet Union’s waning power. The strikingly angular, blocky concrete forms that characterize Soviet architecture from the 1960s to 1980s are enigmatic paragons of a particular unfulfilled ideological future, while these buildings recall fantasies of life in an outer space explored by cosmonauts. To Western viewers, they evoke a peculiar nostalgia for sci-fi film depictions of spacecrafts, stations, and futuristic architecture of the same period—those of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Blade Runner. Boasting a modernistic and monumental tendency, these constructions reveal a mysterious risk taken in realizing architectural forms that appear more aesthetically driven than functionally concerned, more precariously engineered than prudently designed.
Chaubin, also the editor-in-chief of the French magazine Citizen K, writes in the monograph’s introduction that his photographic expedition began in 2003 in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he was on assignment to interview President Shevardnadze. The sheer scale of a building he saw in a second-hand book and his desire to take a “photographic souvenir of something exotic and unusual” inspired Chaubin to visit one of the buildings in Tbilisi. Like similar work by Edward Burtynsky and Andrew Moore, Chaubin’s photographs are not so much about conceptual rigor or pictorial invention as the stamina of straightforward, painstakingly obsessive documentation. The atmospheric and winter weather conditions add ambiance and emotional depth to otherwise austere facades. Many buildings are in remote areas, which heighten their enigmatic aura, leaving them ungrounded to any particular present that could be signified with people, cars, or signage.
These disused buildings represent both a dour, dystopic execution of Bolshevik ideals and a grand utopian vision through their peculiar, sculptural forms. Having traveled to Tbilisi to photograph decaying Soviet industrial architecture as source materials for paintings, I feel a special kinship with Chaubin’s documentary efforts. However, the line between documentation and exploitive “destructoporn” spin becomes uneasily hazy when the documentation resembles the cultural imperialism that often follows economic development. That Chaubin’s photographs detach the buildings from their cultural context and canonize them in a monograph problematically echoes the universalizing effects of globalization on these developing economies and their cultural tourism industries. Chaubin’s monograph depicts buildings from former Soviet countries mostly in the Baltic states, the Caucus region, and Central Asia—all countries that are now, to varying degrees, adapted to market economies.
In these structures, forms often conceal function: buildings designed for recreation or vacationing give the impression of being institutional and are mistaken by outsiders for purposes in which their forms appear. A memorable example Chaubin makes of this is a conical, elevated health resort in Ukraine (built in 1985) that has been mistakenly identified by Turkey and the Pentagon as a rocket launching pad. There is no hierarchical or aesthetic division across functions: from Chaubin’s chapters—entertainment and culture, science and technology, sports and youth, health and resorts, and rites and symbols—no material, ornamentation, or formal characteristics explicitly indicate a building’s purpose.
This detached vocabularly transforms the architecture into a murky kind of Soviet Disney World, an emblem of absurdly over-stylized fantasy, a non-Western non-reality. The structural specters of the Robert Moses’s utopian 1964 New York World’s Fair in Queens are similarly function-detached-from-form buildings that represent a futuristic promise failed by financial mismanagement. The buildings also at times appear as if designed by American Minimalist sculptors. In a Lithuanian church in Klaipeda, a series of stacked concrete slabs evokes a sharp-cornered Donald Judd recasting of classic Gothic curves and slender detail. A lattice of interlocking squares in the openwork façade of the Uzbekistan Hotel uncannily resembles Sol LeWitt’s 1970s wall structures.
These associations suggest that the aesthetic zeitgeists of Soviet and American imaginations weren’t as isolated during these cultural moments as they have been thought to have been. In the United States during this time, Heizer and Smithson’s privately funded Earthworks were perhaps the closest corresponding radical consideration of form, scale, and space (while Earthworks clearly didn’t consider an architectural usefulness, Chaubin argues that the Soviets didn’t always either). It’s unbelievable that the Soviet government funded these radical designs. And when they were rejected, Chaubin writes, they were done for lack of materials or resources rather than censorship. Chaubin puts forth two conflicting theories about the Soviet’s position: that, in the deterioration of the Soviet Union, these projects either slipped through its bureaucratic control, or that the regime actively encouraged these projects to elude its gloomy demise and seek an individualistic identity. These opposing possibilities make the structures’ sociopolitical identity difficult to characterize.
Judging from the conversations I have had with Georgians, the attitudes toward these structures in the former Soviet countries similarly are complex, incompatible, and divided amongst generations. Older generations, having lived through Communism, are trying to forget what a younger generation yearns to grasp, explore, and reclaim. The youth admires the buildings for an inert beauty and sense of forbidden history. In Chaubin’s captions, there is little mention of what these buildings are used for now, how they have been incorporated in the present culture or excluded from it. This tends to eschew historical context, and it also fuels the otherworldly fantasies of the Eastern Bloc.
This photographic collection represents a personal constellation of Chaubin’s outsider journeys and is only the beginning of the texts that will be produced about the unfolding of this architecture’s historization. CCCP also represents the aesthetic that sensibilities have been absorbed by the mainstream print world (it is published by the German company Taschen). For example, the Republic of Georgia, the Soviet Union’s industrial center of production, is a country of thousands of decommissioned steel and concrete factories. When conducting visual research online, I came across Georgian artists’ blogs, such as Tbilisi’s “URL” (Urban Research Lab) Collective organized by artist Gio Sumbadze, with whom I later collaborated. Exploring and documenting the industrial center of Rustavi, collectives like Tbilisi’s “URL” expand and level the historical narrative, decentralizing the power of the print and empowering the populist appeal of the Internet. These collectives, raw and refreshingly unpolished, are calling attention to the thousands of buildings from the Soviet era that lay ready to be canonized by the cultural institution of the Western world. Chaubin’s CCCP is a substantial primer, exposing new frontiers of architectural history, but one should hope that they are not exploited.