Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society Under Late Socialism

Vladimir Kulić, ed., Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society Under Late Socialism (London: Bloomsbury, 2019). 260 pp.

Scholarship on architectural postmodernism perennially grapples with definitions. Postmodernism itself implies a departure from the epoch-defining decades of modern architecture: a move away from technocentric, functionalist design freighted with the promise of utopia. Certainly the reemergence of ornament and historical references, coupled with a renewed interest in context and occasional attempts at irony, constitutes an architectural movement, one contemporaneous with the onset of neoliberalism and globalization. But beyond these sketchy attributes, historians and theorists have struggled to taxonomize postmodern architecture.

Both informed and challenged by this ambiguity, the edited volume Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society Under Late Socialism by Vladimir Kulić looks to redress the concept of postmodern architecture in the socialist world during the final decades of the Cold War. While questions of semantics undergird the thirteen chapters presented here, Kulić, Associate Professor of architectural history at Iowa State University and cocurator of the acclaimed exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has assembled a book that ultimately complicates conventional understandings of postmodern architecture as a stylistic movement borne out of reactions to unchecked capitalism and the onset of neoliberalism. In addition to its affront on canonical formulations of the movement – and in spite of its occasional inconsistencies – Second World Postmodernisms offers meaningful studies that reject the prescriptive “totalitarian” framework still present in much scholarship on cultural production in socialist states during the Cold War.

While the volume’s thirteen essays focus on postmodern architectural theory, design, and production in Eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union, Fredo Rivera and Cole Roskam’s contributions discuss postmodernism in Cuban and Chinese contexts respectively. Given its wide geographic purview, Kulić’s book can be added to a body of recent works reframing concepts of neoliberalism and transnationality in Cold War-era art and architecture. In keeping with such projects (including Klara Kemp-Welch’s Networking the Bloc and Lukasz Stanek’s Architecture in Global Socialism), the volume draws on a breadth of material in the pursuit of reevaluating a central concept previously understudied within the context of socialism’s global reach. Postmodernism as a theory of production writ large – famously heralded by Fredric Jameson as the “cultural logic of late capitalism (Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).)” – is in a Western context equated with the rise of neoliberal economic policies and the associated spread of deregulation and globalization. For this reason, a book that seeks to consider postmodern architecture in socialist societies, particularly at a moment when the global implications of the neoliberal turn became palpable, presents a series of complexities. Considering that the mechanisms of capitalism provide the normative frame through which postmodern architecture is typically understood, can a “Second World” postmodern rework such antecedents? Does an interest in postmodernism simply point to the increased economic and ideological influence of the West in the final decades of the Cold War, or can its emergence gesture towards other engines of change?

While Second World Postmodernisms offers no easy answers, its studies succeed in suggesting that postmodernism’s purchase in socialist states was far more complex than encroaching Western influence and offer compelling insight into the complicated and often contradictory nature of architectural design in the late-socialist period. Kulić opens his introduction by describing an enticing coincidence: the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale (the first independent architecture biennale in Venice, as prior exhibitions had been incorporated with the visual arts), with its postmodern agenda, opened mere months after the death of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito. The 1980 Biennale is best remembered for the famous Strada Novissima exhibit, which assembled twenty speculative facades designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Hans Hollein, and Rem Koolhaas in a whimsical “new street.” (For more on the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale and the Strada Novissima exhibition, see Léa-Catherine Szacka, Exhibiting the Postmodern: The 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale (Venice: Marsilio, 2016).) While Strada Novissima reified postmodernism’s place in the Western architectural canon, Tito’s death is typically considered the first event of the period of decline that culminated in the dissolution of the Yugoslav state. These two seemingly disparate occurrences were brought together in a 1980 issue of the Zagreb architecture journal Architektura, which opened with a tribute to Tito and went on to survey the Yugoslav discourse on postmodern architecture. (p. 1)

Kulić’s example is echoed in the narrative that emerges across many studies presented in this volume: the advent of momentous social and political change contemporaneous with a shift in architectural discourses, often discussed and disseminated in print or in drawings of unrealized projects (deemed “paper architecture” by Soviet architectural historian Vigdaria Khazanova, as discussed in a chapter by Alla Vronskaya). Those two forms of parallel change – the sociopolitical and the architectural – vary by location and context, as do the elements of design considered here to be postmodernist. Acknowledging these variances, Kulić notes that this volume seeks to destabilize, not redefine: where the term “postmodern” might appear malleable and occasionally slippery, it’s worth scrutinizing within a “Second World” context in order to “pry open a canonical historical formation in order to relativize its definition (however vague it may already be) as a way of destabilizing the established hegemonic narratives.” (p. 3)

The book is divided into three sections: “Discourses” parses the channels through which theories of postmodernism circulated within and between different socialist states; “Practices” describes a number of realized projects and their occasional discontents; and “Exchanges” describes a number of engagements between socialist and capitalist architects and architectural communities. As Kulić suggests these delineations are more or less organizational; most chapters engage with both the theoretical and material manifestations of postmodernism and many also gesture toward the global resonances of the movement.

Postmodernism as understood in the Soviet context constituted an important paradigm that informed multiple projects discussed in this book, and the volume’s first chapter, a discussion of the Soviet reception of Western postmodern theory, provides a fitting point of departure for thinking through the theoretical complexity of the architectural style. Author Richard Anderson describes how debates on the role of reference and ornament led to a “retro problem” in Soviet design, as critics warned that a renewed interest in historicity might lead to a return of the “excess” present in Stalin-era socialist realist architecture. (p. 24) As Anderson shows, theorists Aleksandr Riabushin and Vladimir Khait’s influential writings demonstrate an awareness of such tensions. In their coauthored 1979 essay “Post-Contemporary Architecture – Minuses and Pluses” on the potentials of (conspicuously mistranslated) postmodernism in a socialist society, Riabushin and Khait argue that the underlying tenets of postmodern architecture could be meaningfully adapted to a Soviet context, though its use would need to be “cleansed” of the bourgeois ideology that permeated Western design. (p. 20) Critically, Anderson suggests that while Riabushin and Khait’s integration of Western theory into a Soviet design discourse “catalyzed” a conversation on the necessity of a new style, conversations on historicity and ornament specific to the Soviet context had already been underway. This is illustrated in a 1975 Moscow pharmacy by architects Aleksandr Larin and Eugene Asse, which includes a didactic red cross as a major facade element, as well as the Lenin Museum in Gorki Leninskiye by Leonid Pavlov (1974-87), which features a marble portico replete with ambiguous columns. (pp. 21-22)

Soviet discourse is shown to have informed architectural theory in various other states, although the extent to which each author discusses its influence on design varies considerably. For example, Maroš Krivý’s chapter on theoretical debates at several Czechoslovak institutions between the mid-1960s and late ‘80s hints that architecture walked a tenuous line after the 1968 Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion. The author charts the influence of local actors (such as the important architectural theorist Dalibor Veselý, whose work on phenomenology became influential in the West after his emigration to the UK in 1968), on the development of a theory of design that synthesized the “humanism” of socialist realism with the pragmatism of functionalism. In doing so, Krivý frames the Soviet case as a vague theoretical source and alludes to the Czech employment of phenomenological theory as a means of dissent. (pp. 32 and 37) Andres Kurg’s discussion of postmodernism in Estonian architecture similarly notes the history of Soviet design, although any relationship between Moscow and Tallinn is largely unspecified. While Kurg describes the generation of Estonian designers joining the workforce in the late 1970s and ‘80s as largely critical of Soviet practices (p. 112), noting the translation of Riabushin and Khait’s above mentioned essay into Estonian in 1980 (p. 116), his chapter does not clarify the extent to which a centralized discourse informed practices in the Republics. Likewise, Kurg makes little mention of Estonia’s independence movement, which emerged contemporaneously with several projects by the architect Vilen Künnapu described here. While Soviet influence is noted in both chapters, the formal means through which it informed other discourses could be clarified. For lack of specificity, however, the reader is left to intuit that the late-socialist period afforded designers increasing autonomy.

Each study addresses the book’s central theme differently. Several chapters discuss postmodernism as mediated through the actors who taught and wrote about its tenets. Anderson’s chapter notes how lectures and essays on Charles Jencks, Robert Venturi, and Paul Goldberger became fundamental sources for Soviet designers, but does not rely on a rigorous definition of the term in order to understand its influence on Soviet design. Other authors look to Western theorists, most frequently Venturi and Jameson, in order to develop a working conception of postmodernism within socialist states. Lidia Klein and Alicja Gzowska open their chapter on Polish church and mass-housing design by paraphrasing Venturi’s famous claim that postmodern architecture is defined by complexity and contradiction. (p. 98) The citation is prudent given the attempts at appropriating postmodern design (emphasized here as a means of indicating a subversive sentiment among architects and planners) by the state, which claimed that ornament and historic referencing was part of a broader scheme to update and improve socialist living standards. Still others devise their own conception of a Second World Postmodern. For instance, Ana Miljački’s discussion of postmodern influence on Czech design defines the term as primarily a “historically situated discursive formation,” broadening the definition beyond specific elements (p. 165), while Virág Molnár’s chapter on debates around the decoration of facades in Hungary braids an understanding of postmodernism in a Western context with region-specific conversations on national and regional identity. (p. 48) The varied conceptions of postmodernism create occasional confusion, though this broad scope of definitions can be traced to the semantic contention inherent in scholarship on the movement.

Fredo Rivera’s chapter on the emergence of “transculturation” in late-socialist Cuba stands out as an interrogation of the influence and manifestations of colonialism in the Second World, and a rare look at intersections of socialist and capitalist interests in the Caribbean. Here Rivera, drawing on a framework developed by anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, shows how historical and international trends informed the architecture of Cuba’s Quinquenio Gris (“grey period”) of the 1970s and Special Period of the 1990s. Such projects explicate the polarizing role of architecture in the postmodern period, moving beyond the aesthetic debates that preoccupy most conversations on the movement: while the island nation faced a housing crisis (due in part to the prevalence of residential buildings constructed of prefabricated concrete, a technology borne of Soviet influence and poorly suited for the tropical climate), a boon in luxury resort developments signaled Cuba’s position in an increasingly globalized world. Rather than insist that such polarity was the direct result of Western capital, however, Rivera, following Ortiz, reads the resort as a contemporary inheritor of the plantation, and gestures toward the innate violence in such historically informed spaces. (pp. 133-34) In looking to typologies predating the Cold War, this chapter shows that the ideologies underpinning postmodern architecture must themselves be scrutinized and repositions debates on postmodernism within a postcolonial discourse.

Also notable are discussions of printed media as a means of advancing discourses, experimenting with new forms, and exchanging concepts. Alla Vronskaya’s chapter on the emergence of “paper architecture” among Soviet designers in the 1970s and ‘80s looks at contest submissions to the journal Japan Architect. Such entries, like Aleksandr Brodsky and Il’ia Utkin’s 1983 House of Winnie the Pooh, demonstrate the opportunities for creativity and whimsy afforded by such strictly speculative projects. Embracing the novelty of a single-family dwelling, the octagonal home was accented with gargoyles, secret garrets, and a spiral staircase. (pp. 149-50) While Vronskaya does not mention the debates raised by the likes of Riabushin and Khait, or situate paper projects within a Soviet postmodern discourse, the study does serve to highlight an important opportunity for designers to engage with an international network of peers, and shows how such projects emerged outside of an official conception of design. In a slightly different approach to the potentials of print, Ljiljana Blagojević surveys the volumes that would have likely been found on a Belgrade architect’s bookshelf. Blagojević includes a table detailing the publication dates of translations of prominent Western works of architectural theory, such as Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture (translated in 1977) and Charles Jencks’ The Language of Postmodern Architecture (translated in 1985), alongside texts by Yugoslav architects and theorists. (pp. 65-66) This study offers a different means of understanding how Serbian architects gained access to a range of theoretical writings, and sheds light on rarely discussed modes of international exchange made possible by printed matter.

The book’s final section on architectural exchange in the late-socialist period includes several important surveys of global engagements. While these final chapters vary slightly from the more theoretically oriented studies presented earlier, their inclusion contributes to an understanding of postmodernism in a rapidly globalizing world and offers a counterpoint to those discussions that emphasize the transfer of postmodern theory through translated texts and paper projects. In a study that has since been expanded upon in his recent book Architecture in Global Socialism (2020), Łukasz Stanek describes the experience of Polish architects working on commissions in Kuwait and explicates the changing geopolitical conditions that made such international projects possible.(Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).)  As Stanek shows, Kuwaiti clients had a programmatic desire for the inclusion of Islamic symbolism in new designs, an interest in historicity that provided a new opportunity for Polish architects. (p. 185) Max Hirsh’s chapter considers luxury hotels in Dresden and East Berlin constructed by a Japanese corporation in the mid-1980s. Hirsh describes the collaboration as a means through which East German architects gained exposure to new building and design technologies, while Japanese professionals were exposed to postmodern theory. (p. 198) Like Stanek, Hirsh shows that such interactions were born of shifting relationships between socialist and capitalist states.

Cole Roskam’s chapter on architecture in 1980s China describes the emergence of discussions on postmodernism in parallel with Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations” campaign, a set of priorities put forth following the death of Mao Zedong that sought to revitalize the Chinese economy. (pp. 211-12) Though China’s political and economic conditions in the 1980s differed from those of the other states described in this volume, Roskam’s description of the import of Western theory and subsequent debates on its adaptation in a socialist context echoes Anderson’s earlier discussion of Soviet architectural discourses. As Roskam describes, postmodern architecture in China was bookended by the publication of two essays. The first, a 1980 survey of Western buildings and works of architectural theory by Yang Yun, suggested postmodern design principles might encourage new means of engagement between the public and the built environment. (p. 211) The second, by architect and historian Zou Denong, was published four months after the Tiananmen Square protests and admonished the integration of Western design principles, suggesting a parallel between recent history and the influence of Stalinist design in the 1950s. (p. 222) While these opposing ideological perspectives shed light on the changing reception of Western theory among Chinese designers, Roskam describes the decade between Yang and Zous’ essays as one of critical change: architects returned to historical forms, banned under Mao, as a means of “broadening and popularizing notions of the cultural and political value to be found in architectural design, theory, and history” and ultimately aiding “the re-legitimization of the party itself.” (p. 222)

While the range of studies presented here are broad, the volume’s central objective – to “pry open” Western-centric conceptions of postmodernism – could be strengthened in several ways. While Krivý’s chapter notes interactions between Western and socialist communities (such as Dalibor Veselý’s influence on Western discourse after emigrating to the UK), and Kulić notes the important postmodernist Aldo Rossi’s fascination with Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee, instances where socialist architecture influenced Western design are largely undiscussed. And while an editorial effort was clearly made to include a “global” range of studies, the book’s main focus is on Central Europe and the western Soviet Union. A discussion of postmodernism in the Soviet republics of Central Asia (mentioned only briefly, though enticingly, in Anderson’s chapter), and insight into the Balkans beyond Yugoslavia (Romania and Albania are unmentioned, while Bulgaria is noted briefly in Stanek’s chapter as having overseas contracts in the Gulf), would have offered an even more diverse range of case studies.

It is in Kulić’s own essay on Serbian architect Bogdan Bogdanović, included in the section “Practices,” that the most poignant paradox of a book on socialist postmodernism becomes clear: as a citizen of nonaligned Yugoslavia, Bogdanović enjoyed relatively easy access to Western discourses than architects in the larger (albeit loosely collected) Soviet sphere of influence. Once counted by Western critics as an eminent postmodernist, Bogdanović was himself wary of such a title and theorized architecture and urban space differently from his contemporaries outside of the Eastern Bloc. (p. 81) As Kulić shows, Bogdanović was deeply informed by Surrealism, an interest more akin to the drawings and writings of the Situationist International and Archigram than the realized postmodern projects of Venturi or Charlies Moore. (p. 94) In spite of his critical approach to socialist utopianism and his interest in historical and classical forms, Bogdanović cannot be categorized as a postmodern architect. That his practice sits decidedly outside of a postmodern framework – indeed, outside of any Western framework – suggests a crucial discrepancy between the Western desire to taxonomize and the manifold realities of late-socialist design.

With this discrepancy in mind, Bogdanović’s role as an adjacent, yet indefinite figure informs a reading of the other chapters that constitute Second World Postmodernisms: in order to accept these case studies as augmenting a conventional understanding of postmodern architecture, we must first accept that conventional postmodernism itself provides an insufficient lens through which late socialist architecture can be viewed. While labeling each and every project studied here as implicitly “postmodern” will undoubtedly frustrate those who insist on a rigid definition of the concept, this volume successfully illustrates ruptures that permeate both late capitalism and late socialism and offers a generative means of thinking through this thorny, yet crucial moment in architectural history.

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.