Zhanar will come up with clever text or Karina... Definitely not Darina
ESPECIALLY FOR ÉTAGE ASSEL YESZHANOVA TALKED TO PHILIPP MEUSER, AN ARCHITECT, CURATOR FOR GOETHE INSTITUTES IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION, IN CHARGE OF MASTERCLASSES IN RUSSIA, KAZAKHSTAN AND UZBEKISTAN SINCE 2002, AND THE AUTHOR OF NUMEROUS PUBLICATIONS ON SOVIET ARCHITECTURE ABOUT HIS RESEARCH AND ITS INFLUENCE ON SOCIETY.

— Your latest book Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing. Prefabrication in the USSR 1955-1991 is a result of a research that lasted for many years. How did you come up with this idea?

— I had my first contact with panel housing in the early 1990's. I came to Berlin and realized right away that it was the place to be when it comes to socialist architecture. I was studying design at Berlin Technical University shortly after the German reunification, and was very curious to get to know the eastern part of Berlin. Everything was new for me: urban design, architecture and public spaces were all completely different. Very soon I was given the opportunity to take an internship at a former Party newspaper in East Germany that was transformed into an independent newspaper. The city was founded in 1953 as Stalinstadt and was close to the border of Poland. It was built solely for the workers of a gigantic steel plant, or kombinat. As the city grew during the decades, one could see the various generations of housing estates in socialist Germany. In this way I became quite familiar with housing estates in the socialist world. Step by step I found more and more pieces of information, although I had a feeling that nobody at that time was interested in this topic. Some years later I visited Tashkent. It was fascinating to see all the murals on the facades. I then started to do some research on all the mosaics on the facades. However, I couldn't find anything, and nobody could provide me with information, so I decided to conduct my own research. As a matter of fact, that was the starting point for my latest book on the history of Soviet mass housing.

— What is the most exciting part of the book apart from the fact that you found all those houses exotic?

— I wouldn't say I found them exotic. "Exotic" means something so far away that you cannot reach it. It was more familiar to me. The difference was that it was so colourful – there were so many different designs. That was the reason I grew so curious about it. Also, I have two professions: architect and journalist. As an architect I was familiar with panel housing, and as a journalist I was curious to get to know the stories behind the designs, since no one could tell me anything about them. Uzbekistan did not appreciate that they used to be a part of the Soviet Union – a fact they attempted to ignore since they were trying to form a new identity. I was digging for information.

— Like an archeologist?

— More like a Charles Darwin of architecture. Or better, like a Charles Darwin of large panel housing. I found some "bones" in East Berlin and Tashkent and tried to reconstruct the whole evolution of panel housing. During the last twelve years I have tried to identify an itinerary between the two cities, and the fascinating thing is that the concept behind prefabricated housing covered a distance of 13,000 km between the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. As an architect, I am fascinated by the idea of producing architecture that covers a third of the hemisphere. My initial idea was to discover the one and only panel series. However, very soon I learned that there are 500-600 series in total, and that they are all different. Of course, one can identify some similarities and clusters, but at the end of the day they differ widely from each other. The only thing that brings them together is the idea of prefabricating all the building components in the factory and bringing them to a construction site by track or by train for assembly. For a country like the Soviet Union it was almost perfect, because you could assemble panels in the North, and the hot deserts of the Soviet Orient at the same time. It was possible everywhere. The only things required were raw materials, which are easy to find and, of course, a house-building factory (DSK). As soon as I found out that there were differences – with regards to beautiful murals, national features and local influences – this provided a starting point for my research.

"FOR A COUNTRY LIKE THE SOVIET UNION IT WAS PERFECT, BECAUSE YOU COULD ASSEMBLE PANELS IN THE NORTH, AND THE HOT DESERTS OF THE SOVIET ORIENT AT THE SAME TIME."
"FOR A COUNTRY LIKE THE SOVIET UNION IT WAS PERFECT, BECAUSE YOU COULD ASSEMBLE PANELS IN THE NORTH, AND THE HOT DESERTS OF THE SOVIET ORIENT AT THE SAME TIME."
Concrete cinder block, Judith Auer street, Lichtenberg, Berlin
— A few years ago a friend of mine showed me your book "Aesthetics of Emptiness on post-Soviet architecture in Central Asian cities". That was the very first time I heard about you. I moved back to Kazakhstan after a few years living abroad, and I was pretty skeptical about Kazakhstani architecture. However, your book deeply impressed me, because it was so honest and poetic. Then we met in person, and you have shown me more of your books on Kazakhstan. In your opinion, is there a common thread in all the books you have written?

— It's all about aesthetics. The first book was entitled "Aesthetics of Emptiness" while the latest one is called "Aesthetics of Panel Buildings". The first book was published in 2002. I was fascinated by the empty spaces in Kazakhstan – the emptiness of the steppes. Kazakh cities are located amidst these endless steppes. The cities were empty as well – well, strictly speaking they weren't empty, but I was comparing the low-density Eurasian city with the dense cities in Europe. For this reason I stated that the cities possess an aesthetics of emptiness. One can come across empty landscapes, while the cities have a socialist identity, which is characterised by very empty public spaces. It stems from the fact that a land plot was not a commercial product during the Soviet era. All estates belonged to the State. By contrast, in a capitalist city the use of the land plot is dictated by the market, which means that there are high-density central areas and low-density surrounding areas. However, in socialist cities the centres have a lower density with wide squares for demonstrations of all sorts of official events. The micro-districts, or satellite cities, have a much higher density. That was the reason behind the title of my first book. Over the years I have always followed the idea of aesthetics, and therefore, my latest book is about the aesthetics of prefabricated panel housing. So to answer your question, it's all about aesthetics. Everything I have written thus far is from the point of view of an architect. I observe everything as an architect.

— What is the most interesting and authentic aspect you have noticed in Kazakhstan and other former Soviet Union countries during the last fifteen years?

— If I am referring to Kazakhstan, then I would say that the construction quality has improved greatly. Architecture doesn't just feed demand: it's not only about quantity, but quality. That is the biggest change.

— As an observer, who has visited Kazakhstan for fifteen years, do you sense that cities in Kazakhstan have become more global and that there is a potential risk of identity loss? Or can you still discern a strong national character?

— What is identity? I would paraphrase your question as follows: has Kazakhstan lost its traditions? Identity always changes. What is the identity of Kazakhstan? The Kazakhstani people have always constituted one half of the total population of Kazakhstan, since there have always been many nationalities and ethnic groups that have lived together. The latest architectural projects are very much related to Kazakh culture. I recognised a strong will to strengthen national architecture evidenced in the ornamentation on the buildings, which is more Kazakh and less Kazakhstani. This reflects what is happening in Kazakhstan: people know what they don't want to be. They state that their identity is not Soviet anymore. The Soviet model has thus failed. Only half of the population of Kazakhstan is indigenous Kazakh, whereas the other half comprises a mix of other nationalities. In a more global context, the identity of Kazakhstan is Eurasian. But what will happen with the next generation, the so-called "digital natives"? They have grown up with a smart phone in their hand. Their identity is more closely tied to the question of whether they "speak" Android or Apple.

EXTERNAL CONCRETE PANNELS, WEISSENSEER WEG STREET, BERLIN

— You are one of the most prominent researchers of Soviet architecture with a focus on the heritage of Soviet modernism. Do you see any missed potential from that period of history? Young people feel nostalgic about Soviet times, including its aesthetics. They admire the plasticity and geometry of the Soviet buildings. Others believe that this architecture was created at a time of colonisation, a devaluation of national identity and therefore we should ignore these landmarks.

— I know that in the former non-Russian Soviet republics Soviet modernism is considered the architecture of colonisation. But if you compare colonial architecture with Soviet architecture, you can easily understand that there was a different approach. Colonial architecture was created when the British, French, Dutch and Spanish exported their architecture abroad to overseas countries. The architecture of Soviet modernism produced the most modern architecture of the twentieth century – the strongest modern movement after the 1920's. This architecture covered a third of the hemisphere. The challenging task for the Russians was not how to colonise the Kazakhs, but how to generate a new homo soveticus.

— Architecture was therefore an instrument to create a new political regime.

— Soviet architecture gave a spirit and a new identity to the new generation born in the 1930's and 1940's. Soviet modernism had its peak in the 1960's-1970's, and is a global international style influenced by local identity. It was not just a modernist style, but rather a framework within which different Soviet republics transformed some parts and bestowed them with a local identity. Most of the buildings in the capitals of the former republics had been built by local architects and engineers.


Residential buildings, Series S–158/9, Almaty
— Who were educated in Saint Petersburg and Moscow…

— In the end, they returned to their native soil and implemented their knowledge. Coming back to the question as to why the young generation is so fascinated… The interesting thing about it is that they are not fascinated by architecture from the previous periods, for example Stalinist neoclassicism, yet they are fascinated by Soviet modernism.

— What role did the Stalinist style play?

— Soviet modernism was opposed to Stalinist neoclassicism. That is one of the reasons why it was so successful during the post-war Soviet period. It was very much driven by Khrushchev, since his power was based on doing something in opposition to Stalin. Without Stalin, Khrushchev would have never been so successful. He was the leader for only nine years, and at the very beginning nobody expected him to be so powerful.


"Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership In Culture", Manifesto, Henry Flynt, George Macunias, New York, 1965
Another interesting fact is that Khrushchev never had the same authority as Stalin before him or Brezhnev later on. Rather, Khrushchev remained an intermezzo between these two men. Yet through architecture and through his way of pushing Soviet modernism against Stalin, he empowered himself against the Stalinist regime. His first criticism of Stalin was in connection with architecture: on December 7th, 1954 he held a famous speech in front of architects and constructors during a building conference, in which he claimed that architects under Stalin spent too much money and there was too much ornamentation. At the end he was saying that our path to the future lies in prefabricated and industrialised architecture. The full statement was as follows (PM reads): "Our country is engaged in building industrial enterprises, residential buildings, schools, hospitals, and other structures on a large scale. This construction programme is of vital importance. We have an obligation to significantly speed up, improve the quality of, and reduce the cost of construction. In order to do so, there is only one path – and that is the path of the most extensive industrialisation of construction."
— This is a statement in relation to both architecture and the future.

— Behind all this stood a statement: "We are developing industrialisation." Khrushchev was so successful with his programme that he was able to sway the public mood against Stalin. This was only one and a half years after Stalin's death – for many people Stalin was still a leader. The focus on building and housing politics was the only way in which Khrushchev could break old ideas. Moreover, it convinced people that they needed to look to the future instead of grieving for Stalin. Khrushchev started his anti-Stalin campaign with architecture. This brings me to the conclusion that the starting point of Soviet modernism was architecture initiated in opposition to Stalin. Maybe that is the reason why Soviet modernism inspires young generations even today. The young always try to change the world and bring new ideas to the table. Therefore, they identify themselves with this type of architecture. Soviet modernism was completely different in comparison to Stalinist classicism.

— This leads us to further questions. Architecture has always been the most powerful media, more powerful than literature and the fine arts... Yet today the Internet creates new spaces and surfaces. Do you think that at this stage, when new media have emerged through new technologies, architecture is losing its power? It is arguably not as eloquent, unique and effective as before. Or do you think that it is still just as powerful? Can new generations use architecture as a tool to deliver change?

— Architecture has always been and will remain the most powerful medium of art. Furthermore, with the emergence of new media it has become even more powerful. It is easier to find more pictures of architecture. Architecture has affected all social networks and offers even more avenues for finding information than ever before. Everybody uses architecture as a reference. People don't use it consciously; people use architecture by instinct.

— Do you think that there will be a time when a new generation in Kazakhstan will use architecture to express themselves?

— Kazakhstan is on its way to a post-industrial society, a society of knowledge. China is a country of industry. India is a country of production. Kazakhstan is on its way from being a post-Soviet industrial country to gaining modern Kazakh post-industrial status. Of course, the way is paved with many obstacles. The young generation in the developed world is less interested in politics. Architecture has been an instrument or, better, a vehicle for change in society and politics. For example, Russian constructivism drew a picture of a new country, a new society and a new political system. Stalin switched to Socialist Realism, whereas Khrushchev announced an end to expensive development. Then there was a period of industrial and prefabricated architecture. Power dictated architectural style. Architecture has always been an instrument for political change. Yet today somehow we have lost our political motivation. If I look back to the 1960's and 1970's, architecture was fighting for something. At the end of the Soviet Union people were fighting for independence. What are we fighting for now? In Germany my parents' generation, as well as mine, was fighting for German reunification. Your parents' generation was fighting for independence of Kazakhstan. This means that architecture as a tool is not needed anymore since there are no political goals at the moment. In the time of Marx and Engels there were few very rich people and a great deal of very poor people. Today we are on a path in which the middle class is growing. There are no such political goals anymore as had been imposed upon society with the Communist Manifesto. Architecture has lost its former role of changing society.

Concrete element of the facade, Frankfurt Alley, Berlin
Concrete slag blocks, Mitte, Berlin
Concrete fasteners, Friedrichshain, Berlin
— Is architecture more related to entertainment now?
— Yes, it is more entertaining.

— More like decoration?
— A mirror of society and a mirror of pluralism.

— Therefore, architecture has shifted from a political to marketing instrument.

— I fully agree. In the past, if I wanted to change something I had to change politics. With the Internet I don't need the country anymore if I am looking for another type of society. I can find people with whom I share values over the Internet. I don't need to discuss my political views with neighbours who might have a different opinion from me. I don't need to fight on the street or attend demonstrations. I can discuss these issues with my Internet friends. Political ideas have lost the parameter of space. But in Central and Western Europe these parameters do not apply if foreign states act as aggressors. We cannot compare our "comfort zone" in Europe with places like Eastern Ukraine, Abkhasia or Syria.

— The Internet provides so many opportunities to express ourselves. In the meantime, architecture has been losing its power and status. However, architecture is still on the pages of magazines because it has become a marketing tool.

— It is a marketing tool and a stage design. Architecture has become a hostage.

— We talked about the past and we have touched on the present. Should we try to make any synopsis for the future? Is there any chance that architecture will regain its power? Or will architecture vanish – even disappear – at some point?

— I am not saying that architecture is not powerful anymore. It does not represent the power of the State anymore. It is a power of the people. It is the power of the market and business. Free markets provide bigger variety. Architecture will be always an art of space. The question is what message architecture will express… É

Interview: Assel Yesjanova for Étage Magazine
Date: September 2016