A History Through Buildings
Email this review


An erudite and surprising study of what Soviet-era buildings said about the beliefs and hopes of the citizens.

British author and journalist Hatherley (A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, 2010, etc.) debunks much of what the West categorizes as “Soviet architecture”—i.e., monumental, monolithic, totalitarian, and repetitive, such as massive rows of housing blocks. In this fresh look at many former communist cities in the Soviet camp, including Warsaw, Vilnius, Kiev, Belgrade, and Berlin, as well as Moscow and Leningrad, Hatherley plots a “zigzag” journey through the Communist architectural mindset. The author explores the period of 1917 until about 1930, when modernism was dominant in social democratic capitals like Berlin, Prague, and Vienna and when the experiment in high-density, inner-urban “superblocks” became the Soviet model. Hatherley also chronicles the early 1930s to the 1950s, when modernism was discarded as “inhuman, technocratic, tedious, repetitious, constricting,” replaced by appeals “to tradition, history, ornament, hierarchy, beauty—the city as a composition, not as repetition.” Above all, Hatherley seizes the sense of utopian vision the communists sought. The Soviet model drew on the grand urban planning of Baron Haussmann, favoring compositions that were “strongly centralized,” and top-down. The author, whose love affair with a Polish woman propelled him to visit these sights and buildings himself, organizes his fascinating travels thematically, around the kinds of structures the communists built reflecting their uses: the magistrale, the series of grand boulevards needed for the military parade route; the “microrayon,” or system of housing units that the author considers a valiant attempt at providing housing for everyone; high buildings, TV towers, and so on; the marvelous metros (about which Hatherley writes eloquently); memorials such as the Lenin Mausoleum; and the improvised sites prompted by the people themselves.

A wonderfully accessible, compelling guide to these Eastern European cities.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-62097-188-8
Page count: 624pp
Publisher: New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2015


NonfictionTHE ARCHITECTURE OF HAPPINESS by Alain de Botton
by Alain de Botton
NonfictionWHY WE BUILD by Rowan  Moore
by Rowan Moore
NonfictionHOW ARCHITECTURE WORKS by Witold Rybczysnki
by Witold Rybczysnki