Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War

Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 358 pp.

An unassuming isometric drawing in the final chapter of Łukasz Stanek’s Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War diagrams a villa planned for the Emirati city of Al Ain. An assemblage of brick and glass, the villa is distinctly postmodern in character: a pergola, tall radius window, skylights, and multiple deck spaces combine to form a structure which both references and eschews historical precedents. Anca Oţoiu, an employee of the Romanian state design firm Romproiect, was unable to travel internationally to conduct site visits yet developed the plans from Bucharest, and recalls the project as a rare “experience of freedom” with architectural form and theory. (pp. 277-279)

Stories like Oţoiu’s color Architecture in Global Socialism, a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship reassessing socialist architecture and urban design within the Cold War’s myriad economic and diplomatic networks. Broad in both geographic and temporal scope, this book scrutinizes the conditions which informed projects designed, constructed, and developed by Eastern European architects, planners, and contractors in Accra, Lagos, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, and Kuwait City between 1956 and 1989. Despite the wide remit Stanek makes clear that the works considered inArchitecture in Global Socialism constitute a collection of studies to which countless engagements between Eastern Europe and the Global South might be added. While such specificity invites increased scrutiny of the other meaningful gaps between Western-centric scholarship and the relationships between Eastern European and the Global South examined here, this book sets an undoubtedly strong precedent for further research on socialist architecture in a global context. In addition to its immediacy as a work which destabilizes Western-centric notions of global development in the later decades of the “short 20th century,” Architecture in Global Socialism compellingly posits that the implications of such practices are felt readily in the present day, and offers the reader rich visual evidence of its many case studies, both realized and unbuilt.

Stanek’s objective is, in the broadest sense, to present a new theorizing of these implications beyond their built manifestations. Stanek develops the concept of the “worldmaking” inherent in socialist architecture’s global reach as the manifold means through which planners and designers capitalized on experiences abroad to renegotiate the conditions of their practices, (p. 30) and describes global socialist architecture as a network of labor, goods, and intellectual production which, considered in aggregate, evidence the enduring influence of the socialist project’s international ambition. “Worldmaking,” defined in relation to Edouard Glissant’s mondialité and Henri Lefèbvre’s mondialisation, was then the means through which such a network created, disseminated, and enabled new modes of design practice. Stanek is careful to position his concept outside of the capitalist mechanisms of late-20th century globalization rather than (as with Glissant and Jean-Luc Nancy) in opposition to them. As worldmaking is an ontological practice, Stanek understands globalization to be “just one among many possibilities of worldmaking.” (p. 30)

While theorizing the “worldmaking” of socialist architecture serves to illustrate the expansive potential of Eastern European design, it is Stanek’s attention to the role of specific actors (or “protagonists,” as they are readily referred) which illuminates the meticulous research at the heart of this work. Such protagonists include the likes of Oţoiu and others such as Polish architect Zbigniew Dmochowski, whose documentation of Nigerian vernacular architecture is still used as a pedagogical tool in schools of design. These stories, considered against the backdrop of the economic and political dimensions of Cold War diplomacy, are illuminated by a veritable paper trail of documentation: plans, maps, newspaper excerpts, promotional material, and archival and contemporary photographs illustrate the projects at hand, and offer the reader a glimpse into the breadth of Stanek’s field work and archival visits.

In his introduction, Stanek outlines his project and describes his multifaceted approach to each of the five cities studied here. From the outset it is made clear that Architecture in Global Socialism is conceived as an intervention, one which reworks previously held conceptions of architecture and planning in the Global South: in describing the influx of Eastern European design professionals into 1960s Ghana, Stanek suggests that new relationships with the Eastern Bloc constituted part of an “extraordinary moment of independence” for African nations which renegotiated power dynamics and placemaking in the immediate postcolonial period. (p.1) As Stanek points out, the past two decades have seen a great volume of architectural scholarship produced which scrutinizes global design through the frame of imperialism, from Zeynep Çelik Alexander’s Empire, Architecture, and the City: French – Ottoman Encounters, 1830 – 1914 (2008) to Itohan Osayimwese’s Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany (2017). Modern architecture’s mobility – the global dissemination of modernist design through the emergence of a European professional who brought their “nomadic expertise” to postcolonial states, along with associated networks of construction, finance, and pedagogy – has been typically studied as a phenomenon which originated in Western Europe, often as a means through which former colonizing states extended their influence into the postcolonial period. (p. 2) By scrutinizing Eastern European engagements with the Global South Stanek looks to reframe the concept of architectural mobility, shifting Western-centric understandings of architecture’s circulation toward a more complicated network of interactions and exchanges.

It is notable that, for a project clearly concerned with illuminating stories left out of conventional histories of architecture, Stanek has chosen to emphasize labor as the primary driver of international exchange. Here labor is a multivalent concept: from Dmochowski’s drawings to complex projects like the Yugoslav firm Energoprojekt’s commission for the construction of a series of high-rise buildings in the Rusafa neighborhood of Baghdad, (p. 210) Stanek frames labor as a “fungible resource” (p. 29) which took many meaningful forms. An important bureaucratic structure which Stanek cites frequently is the foreign trade organization or FTO, which mediated engagements between socialist states and foreign markets. Initially formed to oversee the import of construction equipment in the immediate postwar period in Eastern European states, FTOs became crucial offices for the global export of goods and labor. Unlike privatized contractors from the capitalist West, FTOs often held multifaceted, and sometimes critical roles: architects hoping to work abroad were vetted by such groups, which were also tasked with securing foreign “hard” cash reserves in the 1970s and ‘80s in an effort to offset the economic difficulties posed by the non-convertibility of most Eastern European currencies. FTOs are the principle structures through which Stanek describes “architecture’s mobilities,” (p. 27) though his interest in moving beyond bureaucratic structures is apparent. Eschewing the tired framework of European design expertise as profoundly innovative (and welcome) in the Global South, Stanek shows how Eastern European professionals gained significant experience working with and for architects and planners on overseas contracts, and in some cases directly used knowledge cultivated abroad to adapt their home states’ architectural production in the years following the collapse of socialism.

Following the introduction, the second chapter (“A Global Development Path: Accra 1957 – 1966”) describes the Ghanian capital in the first decade of independence under president Kwame Nkrumah as a case study in the dynamics of the Soviet “gift diplomacy” and the occasionally fraught dynamics of intersecting capitalist and socialist interests in West African development. Here two projects are emphasized: a major Soviet-planned housing development between Accra and the neighboring city of Tema, and the design of the International Trade Fair Complex by Polish architects Jacek Chyrosz and Stanisław Rymaszewski under the supervision of Ghanian Vic Adegbite. Stanek argues that these early engagements, in spite of their varied successes, are two means through which worldmaking took place: while the “antagonistic” (a term Stanek uses frequently) relationship between, most prominently, British and Soviet modes of planning and design is held partly accountable for the demise of the Tema project, Chyrosz and Rymaszewskis’ experience working for the Ghana National Construction Corporation (GNCC) necessitated collaboration with Ghanians like Adegbite as well as British and Dutch professionals. (p. 42)

As Stanek shows, the Soviet practice of “gift diplomacy” constituted an important means through which socialist design, as well as ideology, circulated in the Global South. Positioned in opposition to the exploitative intentions of Western interests in sub-Saharan Africa, such trade agreements appealed to states seeking to lessen their dependence on former colonial powers. (p. 67) A “gifted building” could signal the benevolence of the Soviet Union, though as Stanek notes, the expectation of reciprocation could prove cumbersome for both giving and receiving states. (p. 69) While the USSR also worked overseas on projects funded by credit, the concept of gift diplomacy sheds light on a rarely-discussed facet of Soviet diplomacy: motivated by political and occasionally material incentives, socialist engagements abroad differed significantly in structure and influence from contracts and agreements initiated by Western states, making cities like Accra dynamic sites of intersection for the Cold War’s polarizing design industries.

While Nkrumah’s Ghana perceived the Soviet model of centralized planning as a dynamic decolonial practice, newly independent Nigeria was, as Stanek shows in his third chapter (“Worlding Eastern Europe: Lagos, 1966-1979”), skeptical of Soviet intervention. Nigerian leaders Yakubu Gowon (in power 1966-57), Murtala Muhammed (1975-76) and Olusegun Obasanjo (1976-79) instead sought trade and labor agreements with Eastern Europe as a means to offset the influence of wealthy Western colonizing states. (p. 99) Through an insightful reading of three case-studies, this chapter scrutinizes the role of individuals within the broader project of worldmaking, and further explores the ways in which socialist design professionals used their unique national and political identities to gain experience and foster relationships.

Hugarian Charles Polónyi, Yugoslavian Zoran Bojović, and Zbigniew Dmochowski are described as actors whose experiences indicate a “worlding” of Eastern Europe through the experiences of its design professionals. Drawing on previous studies by Aihwa Ong and AbdouMaliq Simone, Stanek describes worlding as “a practice of small groups and individuals who […] tried to make sense of these unfamiliar locations by forging alliances and developing sensibilities that connected these places and people with where they came from.” (p. 101) Polónyi, tasked with designing a master plan for the Nigerian city of Calabar, used his experience on multiple projects in rural Hungary for developing a compact urban framework. (pp. 108-110) Dmochowski, the first director of the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture in the city of Jos, characterizes what Stanek calls the “mediating” role of Eastern Europeans architects in Nigeria (p. 130) through his documentation projects as well as his tenure at the School of Architecture at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. While Dmochowski’s book Introduction to Traditional Nigerian Architecture was a seminal celebration of architectural forms “devalorized” under colonial rule, (p. 134), his faculty position further developed decolonial pedagogical methods which integrated vernacular architecture with modern technologies. (p. 144)

Zoran Bojović, head designer at the Yugoslav company Energoprojekt, oversaw the design of the International Trade Fair complex in Lagos. Given Yugoslavia’s economic policy of “workers’ self-management” and the eventual shift toward market socialism, Energoprojekt and other Yugoslav firms frequently entered into joint ventures with Western states. (p. 151-52) In the development of Lagos’ International Trade Fair complex, such a venture was met with mixed responses; some Nigerian critics asserted that Yugoslav involvement constituted exploitative practices, while others suggested that the promised transferal of technologies and expertise to the Nigerian workforce remained unfulfilled. (pp. 162-193)

In spite of the differences in context and outcome, Stanek uses these cases to argue that Lagos and other cities in Nigeria were important sites for the “worlding” Faced with occasional scrutiny over their credentials and intentions, Polónyi and others drew on Eastern European history: by positioning their home states as regions previously exploited by imperial Habsburg, Prussian, or Ottoman forces, and relating past experience in rural development to local needs, architects extrapolated regional and national contexts to the Global South. Here Stanek steers clear of much critical scrutiny of these practices, and the degree to which relating Eastern Europe to postcolonial Africa was opportunistic (or at worst appropriative) is not clarified. However, such situations illustrate the personal channels of socialism’s global agenda, and add a fascinating dimension to Brezhnev-era internationalism.

In contrast to the specific actors studied in the previous chapter, Chapter Four (“World Socialist System: Baghdad 1958 – 1990”) attends to the conditions of the global political economy which enabled Eastern European enterprises in Ba’athist Iraq. Under Leonid Brezhnev the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc states pursued a “world socialist system,” a global development model which largely replaced the “gift” tactics of the Khrushchev era. Predicated on mutually beneficial trade agreements, and accessible to developing nations regardless of political structure, the world socialist system informed Eastern European engagements abroad and is studied here as a means of facilitating the circulation of architecture. This analysis is prudent given Iraq’s OPEC membership and the implications of the 1973 oil embargo on Eastern European economies, and suggests the influence of the Council for Mutual Economic Assurance (COMECON) on the global design and construction industry. Stanek looks first at the development of the master plan for Baghdad by the Polish firm Miastoprojekt, then at design-build contracts won by East German and Romanian firms.

Miastoprojekt’s master plan development reveals the degree to which prior experience in the Eastern Bloc (most prominently for the design of the famous planned community of Nowa Huta) could be leveraged to win international contracts, as was the advantageous pricing structure from states with unconvertable currencies. (p. 181) The Baghdad master plan design also reveals the complex nature of work when mediated by an FTO. Poleservice, the FTO charged with negotiating Miastoprojekt’s contract, also drafted contracts for Polish workers looking to travel overseas and managed the plan’s financials. That Miastoprojekt’s workers saw none of the convertible Iraqi dinars paid for the plan was an obvious downside to the routing of trade agreements through complex bureaucratic proceedings, though as Stanek notes, these conditions had implications for the master plan. (p. 182) In the case of design-build projects, Stanek attends to an important dimension of the world socialist system: the emergence of such international projects, roughly contemporaneous with the development of widely replicable “type” designs in many Eastern European states. In what is perhaps the almost banal typology studied in this book, Stanek discusses the construction of an industrial slaughterhouse, designed and overseen by an East German team and subcontracted to the Romanian group Arcom. This project shows how contracts between Eastern Bloc states could take place on a global stage, and also points to the growing desirability of crude oil as a form of payment. (p. 224)

The importance of petro-capital resurfaces in Stanek’s final chapter (“Socialism Within Globalization: Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City, 1979-1990”), as does the relevance of experience cultivated globally by socialist professionals in the 1960s and ‘70s. Here architecture is understood as a manifestation of changing economic and political policy in the final decade of the Cold War. While previous chapters analyze the ways in which diplomatic relations correlated to design contracts, here Stanek discusses the gradual integration of socialist professionals into the Gulf’s Western-dominated design and construction market. Projects by Bulgarian firm Technoexportstroy (TES) in Abu Dhabi, including the main bus terminal (p. 243) and the Municipality Building, (p. 270) are discussed in the chapter’s first section, where Stanek argues that the firm drew on other experiences in the Gulf in order to cater to client needs. In turning to socialist engagements in Kuwait, Stanek emphasizes the work of individual Polish architects, among them Andrzej Bohdanowicz, Wojciech Jarząbek, and Krzysztof Wiśniowski, who came to the gulf as individuals through Polservice arrangements. (p. 272) Stanek describes the 1980s in Kuwait as a period of bidirectional exchange: while contractors were excited at the possibility of investing petrodollars in cutting-edge projects, architects from socialist states relished the opportunity to experience novel technologies like Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) soft ware. (pp. 279; 295) Projects from Kuwait also showcase some of the most visually striking designs included in this book: a neighborhood complex in the Sabah al-Salem district of Kuwait City by Bohdanowicz, Jarząbek, and Wiśniowski clearly realize the programmatic desire for a modern, yet locally-informed plan, with ample courtyards and interior areas designed to be used as a diwaniyya or male-only reception spaces. (p. 282-85)

As Stanek concludes, many architects brought experiences abroad back to their home states in the years following the fall of socialist governments in 1989. (p. 299) Recent scholarship has discussed urban areas in the Gulf as paradigmatic examples of the architecture of globalization; here Stanek adds critical insight to a discourse typically focused on capitalism as the sole beneficiary of petro-capital.(See, for example, Harvey Molotch and Davide Ponzini, eds. The New Arab Urban: Gulf Cities of Wealth, Ambition, and Distress ​(New York: NYU Press, 2019).) Indeed, experiences in the Gulf are shown to be direct examples of Stanek’s “worldmaking,” and this chapter in particular offers important insight into the discursive nature of the concept: whether through a catalog of past experiences in North Africa or a proclivity for addressing client needs, Eastern European architects were central to a pivotal moment in global development.

Stanek moves deftly between local projects (sometimes illustrated in as simple terms as a scrapped building plan or a local newspaper story) and the macro-implications of Cold War-era  development policies, a fact that makes Architecture in Global Socialism a truly compelling study. To an audience unfamiliar with NAM and COMECON policies and prerogatives, some economic and political background reading may be prudent, particularly as Stanek resists comparative studies with Western actors. The specificity with which the author develops his arguments hint at other blindspots in contemporary architectural scholarship: socialist engagements in many other “global” locations are mentioned, such as Romanian Cezar Lăzărescu’s high-profile design for the Parliament of Khartoum in Sudan, (p. 231), or the Hungarin firm Közti’s hospital and stadium designs in Algeria and Syria. (p. 265) The cities studied here are seemingly sporadic nodes in what amounts to the immense presence of Eastern European design professionals during the Cold War. By singling out Accra, Lagos, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, and Kuwait City as case studies, that expanse becomes all the more apparent. Stanek’s focus on the meta-conditions of socialist architecture similarly offers a rare reappraisal of the Cold War global economy. The cities studied are presented as intersections of socialist and capitalist interests, and the role of design professionals operating overseas provides glimpses into the individual actors within a vast geopolitical system. While early Soviet projects in Ghana emphasized socialism as a holistic development model, by the 1980s, designers in the Gulf benefited individually from exposure to a global market. In defining such practices as “worldmaking,” Architecture in Global Socialism posits that Eastern European engagements in West Africa and the Middle East complicate previous conceptions of architecture in an increasingly globalized world, and gesture toward the expansive potential of its microhistories.


Holly Bushman
Holly Bushman is a recent graduate of the Master of Environmental Design program at the Yale School of Architecture, where her research examined changing modes of identity and subjectivity in the architecture and literature of the German Democratic Republic. Her writing on art and architecture has recently appeared in publications such as The Brooklyn Rail and Places Journal.