Architecture in Global Socialism by Łukasz Stanek review – a book that rewrites the cold war

From eastern Europe to west Africa to the Middle East … how cities in the developing world were built by the Soviet bloc

If you rummage through boxes of postcards in Polish secondhand shops, they reveal an unexpected geography – places few Poles would now go. They’re not just from Soviet cities such as Tashkent or Novosibirsk, but Baghdad, Havana, Tripoli. The UK-based Polish architectural historian Łukasz Stanek’s book explains why this is so. A generation of eastern Europeans travelled across the “non-aligned” countries between the 1950s and the 80s – and they were there to build. In the process, the urbanisation of what was then called the “third world” was carried out by architects, planners, engineers and workers from the “second world” of eastern Europe. While they were there, they promised to do things differently. “I remember well these eastern European architects,” recalls a Ghanaian at the start of this book, “because it was the first and the last time that a white man had an African boss in Ghana.”

This is one of those books that turns a discipline upside down – the cold war, state socialism, eastern Europe and 20th-century architecture all look different in the light of its findings. Based on multilingual research, it concentrates on how the development of several postcolonial cities – mainly, but not exclusively, Accra, Lagos, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City – were in large part the product of architects and planners from the USSR, Yugoslavia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. It sketches in a strange geography, where an architect couldn’t legally go from one end of Berlin to the other, but could travel across the world and reconstruct it. Each state’s foreign trade organisation kept a close eye on travelling architects – and took as much as a third of salaries in hard cash – but the notion of state socialist insularity and autarchy is blown to pieces. So too is the idea of total Soviet control, both over its satellites and its postcolonial “proxies”. Each of the countries discussed here was in the Non-Aligned Movement set up in the 50s by India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia; they ranged from the statist developmentalism of Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana and Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr’s Iraq to the rentier capitalism of 70s Nigeria, ending in the oil monarchies of the Gulf. Most of these governments harshly repressed their local communists, but welcomed foreign ones to plan and build their towns and industries – in the age of Sputnik, they gambled that the Soviet path to modernity would be faster and fairer.

Continue reading...