Monday, November 15, 2010

Flexibility and design

Soviet architecture is always and everywhere the same. So it seems. In fact, cities like Kiev, Riga and Tbilisi (picture) have Soviet- era neighborhoods that are well- designed, pleasant, green, modernist but not monotonous. In other places, cookie- cutter developments scatter high- risers over gloomy landscapes.

Soviet republics were fighting over resources, all the time. Kiev usually got more than Tashkent. Sometimes, disparities were incorporated in the building codes and norms (SNIP), so the standards fo Siberian apartment were very different from one in the Baltics. Some places were allowed to buildr a more, but got relatively few resources, and the other way around. In some places, resources were used more efficiently than elsewhere.

Then there is the issue of monotony. Some cities, regions, republics, were not especially eager to deviate from the norms, or to improve the norms. As long as the development machine kept running, with some spoils here and there, things were ok. While other areas asserted their individuality, and wanted to adapt the standards to local conditions and tastes, to increase the importance of design. In this game, regions were not always pitted against each other or the center; rather, state organizations faced each other. Large construction firms, kombinats, were pushing for uniformity, easier for them. Some academics were stressing the importance of norms for ‘correct’ building. But other academics, planners, architects, in the regions and in Moscow, asserted that flexibility was important and not necessarily more expensive.

One of the architects we spoke, had a career spanning Kiev, Moscow, Tashkent, and Urgench, and told stories about lively discussions in the 70’s on this topic. He was arguing for flexibility, and found allies and foes in all places. In newspapers and architectural magazines, the discussion raged on. In practice, what recreated the more boring development patterns was not so much pressure from political actors, as habits and routines in a chain of organizations, and with users. Standards became important because they were easy. Sleek architects used scientific arguments to be creative: no, we cannot follow the standards, because of the local climate, the geology, the seismic situation. Science, a force behind standardization, was also a tool to force flexibility.

(My days in Urgench are coming to an end. Wednesday, to Tashkent. I heard they have coffee places.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fish in the desert

Today, I was in Ashirmat, my favorite village on the Turkmen border. Interesting interviews, but also a good, hearty lunch: fried carp with onions, vinegar and bread -eerily close to fish 'n chips.

My friend Erik- Jan, resident fisheries engineer in Norway, already indicated that we're probably dealing with grass carp, introduced to clean up the irrigation canals. And indeed, that is what the Uzbek colleagues confirmed, and what I found in an FAO study: introduced in 1958 for weed control, taking over most native species in the freshwater bodies (in Korezm, 36 species still hanging in there). People here acquired a taste for fish, and the collapse of Aral Sea fisheries meant more pressure on inland waters.

That's why currently every little swamp, each insignificant irrigation canal, minute pond or drainage lake (if not too salty) is used for fishing, for carp, and sometimes catfish -an omnivorous predator of the abundant carp. Even rice fields are used for fishing. I saw people pushing tiny boats through swamps with barely a stretch of open water, kids hauling up nets from ditches, and every now and then a man on a bridge, proudly showing a trophy carp.

For many villages in Khorezm, the lakes and wetlands, especially natural ones, are symbolic places; fishing there is an almost ritualized activity, more important than an extra acre of farmland. In the heyday of Soviet land reclamation, this local attachment was probably as effective a protection as their functionality as drainage reservoir.

And the grass carp? He was a bit too successful, cleaned up the weeds, but apparently didn't appreciate ranunculus species (like buttercups) so one group of weeds replaced another one. Luckily, the locals do appreciate the grass carp.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Local knowledge

Talk about local knowledge mostly implies that local perspectives are somehow dismissed or ignored or simply not observed by decision- makers. High modernist states are assumed to be among the worst here, and the worst of the worst has to be the hyper- planned Soviet Union. That is the standard story, at least. The fact that the U.S.S.R. does not exist anymore, is seen as the proof of the pudding, and also makes sure that very few will come to its defense.

After spending some time in Uzbekistan, and reflecting on my experiences in a few other places, I tend to believe that over- planning was not the problem, and that local knowledge was everywhere. One of the difficulties, I think, was the enormous gap between formal and informal, the difference between the official self- descriptions and the actual functioning of the Soviet state.

That meant that in some places, and for some issues bottom- up initiatives were existing but not acknowledged, while in other cases, the opposite was true, and pseudo- local knowledge figured in fake participation. Kolkhoz workers could convince their chair of a better land use, and he could get it done. Local party leaders could jump directly to Moscow to plea their case. Local actors did their own thing, based on their insights, without even telling. Sometimes, this was simply a way to make the system work, sometimes a way for local players to enrich themselves.

Showing how things really worked was difficult because officially, all Soviet citizens were the same, wanted the same, and the State knew the needs of the collective. Showing how things worked would reveal the limits of central planning, it would reveal local differences and knowledges, and cliques thriving on black markets. But, it would also show where in fact more planning would be useful, where more coordination between interests (once acknowledged) could bring the common good closer.

(The house is empty now. In the summer, I had to wait in line for hours to take a shower, now I have three bathrooms for myself. One has hot water, so the choice is easy)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sovkhoz and chicken

Today and yesterday, I got to visit two other places in the region, Shavat and Amir Timur.

In Shavat, we were hosted by a retired kolkhoz chief in a most sumptuous manner, with pomegranates and other fruits from his garden, sweets, vodka, salads, vodka, bread, vodka, and a rather intriguing chicken dish. The chicken is cut in pieces, browned in a pan, then quince, turnip, onions, coriander seed and garlic are added, and the whole slowly simmers. Our host quoted at length from the Avesta, the book of Zoroaster, who presumably lived in this area ca 1000 BC.

Once I got over my fascination with the chicken and Zarathustra, the conversation went well, and I learnt quite a few things about the relations between kolkhoz, collective farms, and sovkhoz, state farms. The two were much more interwoven than I thought, and some of the stories we heard before, made more sense.

A sovkhoz could be initiated by players at all levels: the military could order their establishment to provide food security for bases in the republics, industrial ministries could push for state farms producing inputs for manufacturing, regional and local leaders could lobby for farms in their areas. And kolkhoz managers could move the idea forwards. If the sovkhoz was dropped from high up, the chances for success were usually lower -people were less motivated to work, more motivated to secretly privatize some assets.

If local party leaders or kolkhoz people wanted them, then they usually were part of an economic development strategy that actually made sense for the locals. Sometimes a kolkhoz director wanted a sovkhoz next door in the hope to take over the state- financed enterprise later, to expand his own business, sometimes he thought it would be important for a next generation of farmers. Local party people were interested in employment opportunities, in infrastructural investment, in synergies with other assets and activities.

These Soviet bottom- up development strategies, I believe, are not so different from what you can find in the U.S. right now: local communities have to lobby continuously with higher levels of government and with businesses for investment, to cover even the most basic needs. In the U.S.S.R., competition was as fierce as anywhere else, it is just that all players were officially under the label 'state'.