The Many Returns of Socialist Realism

Agata Pyzik

Contexts / 02.05.2012

Milihouse Latakia, Olympic centre in Latakia, Syria, 1987. Designers: Wojciech Zabłocki (architecture, urban planning), in cooperation with Aleksander Haber and Henryk Roller (urban planning), Andrzej Ryba (stadium) and Jacek Kwieciński (swimming pools). Photograph: W. Zabłocki, 1987. Courtesy south of eastwest

Miastoprojekt-Kraków, Mosque in Iraq, late 1970s. Designers: Danuta Mieszkowska & team. Courtesy south of eastwest

Jacek Chyrosz & Stanisław Rymaszewski, International Trade Fair in Accra, Ghana, 1967. Photograph: S. Rymaszewski, 1967. Courtesy south of eastwest

Mieczysław Wróbel, Ministry of Defense in Kabul, Afghanistan, 1964. Photograph: M. Wróbel (1964). Courtesy south of eastwest

Miastoprojekt-Kraków, Master plan of Baghdad, 1967. Reproduced from Łukasz Stanek, PRL™ Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Poland, Piktogram. Talking Pictures Magazine #15/ 2011, design by Metahaven. Courtesy south of eastwest

ARENCO, Leszek Sołonowicz, Conceptual design of hotel for pilgrims in Jeddah, United Arab Emirates, 1983. Courtesy south of eastwest

Tadeusz Różański, Convalescent centre in Oran, Algeria, 1970s. Courtesy south of eastwest

'Postmodernism Is Almost All Right: Architecture After Socialism and the Post-Colonial Experience'. Installation view, Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Courtesy Agata Pyzik and Warsaw Museum of Modern Art

'Postmodernism Is Almost All Right: Architecture After Socialism and the Post-Colonial Experience'. Installation view, Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Courtesy Agata Pyzik and Warsaw Museum of Modern Art

Whatever happened to the architecture of the Eastern Bloc? The economic shock therapy brought in 1989 to install capitalism in Eastern Europe meant a year zero between the past and the present, nearly shattering all the previous networks between countries. The late communist economy, a distant shadow of original socialist ideas, had dragged down every other dimension of life, and after 1989 the urban and social planning of the communist era disappeared for the sake of a so-called ‘freestyle’ in architecture, reflecting the new methods of the free market. Suddenly, many carefully planned cities in the ex-Bloc started to look like cheap Third World versions of North American über-capitalist cities, with crass versions of skyscrapers and financial districts. This so-called ‘style’, characteristic of so many post-Soviet metropolises (most of all Moscow), wasn’t exactly postmodernism, although it was similar to the stylistic mishmash of bombastic forms, pastiche historicism and love of money that typified the roughly contemporaneous style in the West. Far more apt is the term coined by Bart Goldhoorn and Philip Meuser on their book about post-1989 Russian architecture: Capitalist Realism.1

View of Millenium Plaza, former Reform Plaza, 1996-99, project by Vahap Toy and partners, popularly called 'latrine'. Courtesy Agata Pyzik

In the new capitalist architecture of the 1990s and 2000s, the legacy of socialism was still visible, expressed through the most grandiose and then-hated reminder of the old regime, Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism and the buildings we might call Capitalist Realism are often seen as oppositional ideologies, a view which obscures how much they had in common. Traditionalism, nationalism, symmetries and work on a grand scale are all reflected in both architectural styles. The skyscrapers of Moscow and Astana, Kazakhstan built in the 1990s and 2000s were directly modeled after those of the late 1940s and 50s in Moscow and Warsaw, which in turn had been inspired by the buildings of 1910s Chicago. Who was building these new edifices? Did the architects in the previous system disappear? On the contrary, in Poland often the same architects of the pre-1989 urban planning, their practices privatised, embraced the new reality and designed Poland’s new parodies of New York and Chicago. Their ability to work in this idiom didn’t come out of the blue, but instead from the specific, complicated experiences that Polish architects endured in the 1960s and 70s when they were employed en masse by underdeveloped countries, most of all in the Middle East and North Africa, to work on building and city-planning projects.2

Many countries in the former USSR built Modernist, co-operative public housing estates in the 1920s and 30s, but their engagement with Modernism ceased in the early 1930s when the General Plan for rebuilding Moscow demanded a new, Stalinist style termed ‘socialist in content and national in form’.3 This new Socialist Realist style, deployed after World War I, has effects that are still visible in all of the rebuilt Eastern Bloc cities. Those Polish cities, like Warsaw, that had been nearly completely destroyed by the Nazis were reconstructed from scratch by the new Moscow-controlled authorities. The Polish Six Year Plan (1950–1955) saw Warsaw spectacularly brought from the dead. Similarly, a building boom happened in the rest of Poland, with reconstructions of Gdansk, Wrocław, Tychy, and the building of new towns like Nowa Huta – essentially a steelworks colony, built by outrageous effort between 1949 and 1954 in suburban Krakow in a grandiose Socialist Realist style, with boulevards wide enough to be able to host tanks in case of World War III. This was the reality of the Cold War – a constant competitiveness in all fields including technology, which the Soviet Bloc could mostly win only by propaganda. But where did the rest of the postcolonial world fit in this division?

In the ‘thaw’ of 1956 Boleslaw Bierut, the Communist Party leader and prime minister of Poland, died, and was replaced during great turmoil by Władyslaw Gomułka, who criticised the period of Socialist Realism as ‘the era of errors and distortions’4.This event opened a new chapter in Polish planning and architecture. The architecture built during this period – cheap, prefabricated blocks of flats, in keeping not with Modernism as international style, but rather with modernist German Siedlungen, or low-quality housing estates built on a massive scale  – was entirely opposed to the totalitarian opulence of the Stalinist Palaces of Culture. With a housing crisis still pervading society since the War (which continued throughout the span of communist Poland), the quickly built, though initially well-planned estates started to fill the cities in the whole Bloc. Interestingly, this spectacular achievement put Eastern Bloc architects at the frontline of new ideas for housing solutions, as master-planners and city constructors.

Aleksander Markiewicz, Jerzy Staniszkis & Kahtan Awni Architects, Office building on Jamhuriya Street, Baghdad, 1960. Photograph: T. Barucki, 1960s. Courtesy south of eastwest

The success of this attracted ‘developing’ countries from outside the Eastern and Western Blocs to hire the cities’ planners and architects. Large state-owned national architectural practices like Miastoprojekt from Krakow or Energoprojekt from Belgrade started working for Middle Eastern and African countries who were members of the Non-Aligned Movement.5 Miastoprojekt, the designers of Nowa Huta, won a prestigious competition for Baghdad’s master plan in 1967, a general housing programme for Iraq between 1976 and 1980. They continued to work in the Middle East until the 1980s.

The founding of and collaboration with the Non-Aligned Movement was part of the geo-political development of a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. And there was a lot in between: the oil-rich Middle East, Africa and Latin America emerging from colonial rule. They were all underdeveloped and needed new kinds of cities and housing. The fact that socialist Poland assisted in this endeavour was a source of prestige for urbanists, proof of the success of socialism and an expression of the Eastern Bloc’s political and economic support for the newly founded states. Through this, functionalist urbanism became a global idiom in the 1960s at the hands of architects from the ‘socialist countries’. Master plans of Baghdad and Aleppo, administrative buildings in Kabul, museums in Nigeria, the trade fair in Accra and governmental buildings in Ghana were all drawn up by Polish architects, and were collected in the exhibition ‘PRL™ Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Poland’ at the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art in 2010. The exhibition showed conclusively how the USSR and its periphery, which had rapidly gone from being rural to industrial economies, were considered by Non-Aligned countries to be models for their own modernisation. During the 1970s this work abroad was increasingly economically motivated, as Poland had to pay off the loans taken by the new leader Edward Gierek for new investment in the country. As the economic crisis in Poland developed, it sparked a crisis of belief in ‘real socialism’ among its citizens. And Polish architects became especially keen on exporting their work, as their task at home was completely subsumed under the requirements of the state building industry and bureaucratic apparatus.

'Postmodernism Is Almost All Right: Architecture After Socialism and the Post-Colonial Experience'. Installation view, Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Courtesy Agata Pyzik and Warsaw Museum of Modern Art 'Postmodernism is Almost All Right. Architecture After Socialism and the Post-Colonial Experience'. Installation view, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2011. Photograph: Bartosz Stawiarski. Courtesy Agata Pyzik

Until a certain moment Polish skills and techniques were highly desirable. They stopped being so in the late 1970s, when imperialism moved into the Non-Aligned nations, forcibly shifting alignments: Indonesia faced a US-backed coup in the 1960s; Egypt reconciled itself to the US after Sadat became president; and in Iraq Saddam Hussein similarly had the US’s support. From being the forerunners of architectural planning, all of a sudden Poles had to learn and absorb a completely different architectural idiom – a more Americanised form of postmodern architecture and planning. And perhaps now that the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement were no longer neutral, they were no longer so keen to be associated with the Eastern Bloc.

Rather than being modern, from this point former Non-Aligned countries aimed to market themselves as tourist destinations and started to favour more traditional architectural styles, exoticising their otherness. Meanwhile, countries that became wealthy from oil in the 1970s soon had the wealthiest ruling class in the world. Thus they wanted to build aptly representational buildings, focusing less on housing and basic infrastructure and more on display. One can endlessly ask the question of what caused the rise of postmodernism, but it is clear that the reaction happened everywhere. Each country, in the First, Third and Second Worlds, had adopted modern architecture, so in the end an attack was made across the board on a style apparently boring, monolithic and monofunctional.

The replacement was a corporate and parodic aesthetic. Much of the criticism and Postmodernist ideology came from the US, where the new architecture was already incorporating the elements of what was once-considered avant-garde modernism ­– collage, violent juxtapositions – and calling it new. At the same time, postmodernism was socially reactionary, stripping modernism of everything social: welfare state, equality, planning. A symptomatic case is the Iron Gate in Warsaw – a famous, Corbusian council estate in the centre of the city built between 1965 and 1972, with micro-flats of 11-square-metre per inhabitant. It is now overshadowed by tacky Capitalist Realist skyscrapers such as Atrium, built in 2001 by architects Kazimierski & Ryba, previously the designers of a ‘Sports-City’ in Latakia, Syria. The Iron Gate, seen as a ‘good idea gone bad’, was itself the subject of a recent video.6 The film’s interviews with inhabitants showed that for some it is still extremely popular, with residents using the communal spaces provided in the way designers projected. The problem there, now, is the light and space permanently taken by corporate high-rises built onto the parkland originally between the blocks. It’s a telling example of how modernist zoning (the area was zoned solely for housing) was replaced and the area crowded by banks, office blocks and restaurants that all belong not only to another ‘zone’, but to another social class. When the influential American writer Jane Jacobs opposed zoning, she was opposing the tendency of spaces in estates to become bleak and abandoned. But what followed was insistence on making places ‘vibrant’. In the case of the Iron Gate, this meant building around the monolithic, huge and identical Ville Radieuse-style blocks in green space a net of significantly higher flats for speculation, clad with an especially cheap and perishable material –  trespa,  and imposing office/retail developments like Atrium. Kazimierski & Ryba even quote Socialist Realism as a source of inspiration: ‘It is the only contemporary style noticeable and consequently realised in Warsaw. In the arcades and cornices of Atrium we applied a pastiche of Socialist Realism, to which we added signs of our time: atriums, elevators, façades, etc.’7

View of the ever-changing panorama of central Warsaw. The Iron Gate Estate, below, overshadowed by the 1990s and 2000s skyline: from the left, PZU building, Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw Trade Tower, TP S.A Tower, Warsaw Financial Center, Intercontinental, Rondo 1. Courtesy Agata Pyzik

It would be interesting to more closely examine the strange recurrence of Socialist Realism, first as the USSR’s equivalent of the capitalist architecture of the US, drawing at the same time on native tsarist flamboyance, and then later rhyming with the Postmodernist shift worldwide and after 1989, fitting so well within the demands of Capitalist Realism. The future of Socialist Realism is complex. In the West and the newly Westernised EU-members of Osteuropa, it is alternately rejected as a relic of the condemned past or unexpectedly embraced. The grand public spaces of Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin or the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw are now often liked by locals, although certainly no new buildings try and emulate them. In the East, sometimes a very far East indeed, the style unironically adorns undemocratic, turbo-capitalist regimes, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and even extends to oil-garchies Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Mecca’s Abraj al Bait skyscraper closely evokes the Stalinist towers of the 1950s, with its grandiose historicist ornament, axial symmetry and its lofty spire. With a sense of guilt for ‘exploitation’, this kitsch oligarchitecture is occasionally exposed in contemporary design magazines or exhibitions, but is seldom taken seriously. But is there really such a distance between the ‘high architecture’ of, say, the cityscape of Dubai or Norman Foster’s sinister glass Pyramid of Peace for the Kazakh capital, and the ‘kitsch’ simulation of Stalinist styles in the same city’s Triumph Astana?

These recent projects and exhibitions on the many worldwide legacies of socialist architecture ask some pointed questions about where we might position the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’. We find first an authoritarian Socialist Realist style abandoned in the late 1950s which is then evoked, stripped of its direct political associations in the new capitalist architecture of the 1990s; when we try and find out where this evocation of demonised styles comes from, we find the experiences of architects forced to adapt to new trends from the West. Nothing is certain, nothing corresponds to the cliché of hostile rival blocs. More than anything else, we find an era and an architecture that was struggling for alternative scenarios of modernity, rather than limiting itself to a familiar dichotomy between empires East and West.

  1. Bart Goldhoorn and Philipp Meuser, Capitalist Realism: New Architecture in Russia, Berlin: DOM Publishers, 2006. The term was originally coined by an exhibition of a group of West German painters at the Möbelhaus Berges in Dusseldorf in 1963, ‘Living with Pop: Demonstration for Capitalist Realism’. Reacting to the growing consumerism and media-saturation of West German society, this young generation of artists – such as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Wolf Vostell – were partly inspired by Pop art’s attitudes while resisting its ironic affirmation of capitalism.

  2. In recent years, architectural historian Lukasz Stanek and others at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich have been working on a research project on this interaction between the former Second and Third Worlds, telling a surprising story about development and ‘underdevelopment’. See

  3. See Joseph Stalin’s Socialist Realist doctrine (1934), which is addressed in M.B. Mitin, 
M.D. Kammari, 
G.F. Aleksandrov, ‘The Contribution of J.V. Stalin to Marxism-Leninism’ (trans. unknown),

  4. First stated by Nikita Khruschev in his speech at the Communist Party Congress in 1956.

  5. The Non-Aligned Movement, like the similar Group of 77, was founded during a ´thaw´ in Cold War Belgrade in 1961 to unite the ‘Third World’ countries that were neither a part of the capitalist West nor the Eastern communist Bloc.

  6. Heidrun Holzfeind, Za Zelazna Brama (Behind the Iron Gate, 2009). See

  7. Quoted from an exhibition leaflet for ‘Postmodernism Is Almost All Right’ (Warsaw School of Economics, October 2011), which looked at the movement of architectural practice from involvement with the Non-Aligned countries before 1989 towards buildings in Poland that evoked Socialist Realism more than modernism. In 1991 Miastoprojekt Krakow, the socialist firm, for example, transformed itself into a trade company, and has designed, among other flagships, the headquarters for Philip Morris in Krakow.