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.)

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