The Socialist Life of Modern Architecture: Bucharest 1949-1964

Juliana Maxim, The Socialist Life of Modern Architecture: Bucharest 1949-1964 (NY: Routledge, 2019), 188 PP.

Socialist architecture has been the object of a growing subfield of architectural history for more than a decade. The subfield grew at the intersection of anthropology, sociology and political history delving into issues concerning spatiality and everyday life but also conceptions of design, construction and modernity. Socialist architecture’s bad reputation as being non-architectural, which can only be compared to that of Socialist Realist art, has long obstructed scholarly interest in many countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Juliana Maxim’s book is the first monograph in English about essential episodes in the history of architecture and architectural profession in Romania under socialism, as well as an attempt to ground them in larger theoretical discourses about modernity and local tradition.(In Romanian see: Ana Maria Zahariade, Arhitectura în proiectul comunist. România 1944–1989 (Bucharest: Simetria, 2011); Alexandru Panaitescu, De la Casa Scânteii la Casa poporului: Patru decenii de arhitectură în București (Bucharest: Simetria, 2012); Mara Mărginean, Ferestre spre furnalul roșu: urbanism și cotidian în Hunedoara și Călan (1945-1968) (Iași: Polirom, 2015); Miruna Stroe, Locuirea între proiect și decizie politică: România 1954-1966 (Bucharest: Simetria, 2015); and Irina Tulbure, Arhitectură și urbanism în România anilor 1944–1960: constrângere și experiment (Bucharest: Simetria, 2016).) Through her many articles and chapters in collected volumes, Maxim’s research on postwar architecture in Romania was already well-known among architectural historians concerned with socialist architecture, and among other scholars interested into more general issues of socialist modernity. In the book, Maxim’s focus on building design and technologies of apartment blocks and housing districts during the first two decades of the communist regime in Romania joins similar interests in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the USSR.(See Vladimir Kulić, “The Builders of Socialism. Eastern Europe’s Cities in Recent Historiography,” Contemporary European History 3 (2017): pp. 545-560.) Maxim’s book centers to a larger extent on type and typification, well recognized concepts of socialist architecture, with the clear intention to prove that they were not a simple matter of political decision imposed from above, but a wider site of debates and experiments within the architectural profession.

The book comprises three chapters, which are to some degree separate studies connected—on the one hand—by references to specific case studies and, on the other hand, by several strands that are running through the book. Each chapter investigates how Socialist modernity activated different ties with the past (through urban planning, building technologies, or even exhibiting folk architecture) and how these ties infused political discourse and decisions, architectural practice, and the writing of the history of architecture. Another strand—which is also a great strength of the book—pays attention to the role photography gained in transmitting political messages about architecture and socialist values. Photography not only buttressed the visual propaganda of socialist modernity but also brought out what the author calls “a visual poetics of socialist architecture” (p. 6).

book cover with a b&w photo of a man taking a photo of a socialist housing blockThe first chapter “The Rise of the Socialist City” introduces the topic by considering the urban transformation of Bucharest after the rise to power of the communist regime in the context of postwar reconstruction. An extended discussion of the Resolution for the General Plan of Bucharest issued in 1952 puts forth official projects and expectations which were to be fulfilled by architects in order to transform the city into a political artifact in the service of ideology. In spite of being created under Soviet supervision and drawing heavily on Moscow’s General Plan from 1935, the new master plan of the capital city held many themes in common with an earlier plan of Bucharest also elaborated in 1935. While the territorial limits of the city, and the need for green spaces and housing coincided in both Romanian plans, the specific form of modern housing greatly differed, with the interwar single-house-with-a-garden being replaced by the apartment block. The imperative to provide modern housing in connection with the regime’s need to build a powerful and legitimizing image of itself, one that would have been clearly intelligible, oriented most of the architectural planning aimed at creating residential districts of apartment buildings. The chapter allots substantial space to the case studies of two new districts built in Bucharest between 1953-1963 (Vatra Luminoasă, 1953-1954, and Floreasca, 1956-1963) in order to investigate how architects responded to the task of building collective housing. For a decade, these districts were an experimental ground for designing apartment buildings on a large scale (especially Floreasca), use of standard components and prefabricated panels. More importantly, they gave rise to an architecture able to represent and incite collective social experience, a fact that was particularly evident in their urban environments and in the careful design of green spaces. For Maxim, socialist architecture is a notable device of power whose political agency lies not only in discourse (be it propaganda or official regulations) but also in its design.

This important conclusion of the first chapter underlies many aspects discussed in the following ones. Whereas the first part deals, besides case studies, with state regulations and institutions that reshaped architectural profession under socialism, the second chapter focuses more on professional discourse. By doing so, it attempts to challenge steady biases concerning the use of type-design and prefabrication, which have often been considered key features of socialist collective (and not only) dwellings, especially since 1960. Maxim firstly proceeds by disentangling them and tracing their distinct genealogies. Moreover, she shows that, also in the 1950, type-design was a core task for architects and that it did not necessary depend on the building technology. Typification was an unavoidable concern for all architects since building collective dwellings enjoyed the major support of the regime throughout the entire socialist period.  Although this could be retrospectively considered as reducing choices and developments within the profession, it was also (at least in some instances) a way of posing challenges, as the author puts it: “the design of types amounted to a genuine, even idealistic attempt to work out a model for architectural and artistic production that engaged at once technology, modes of life, notions of collectivity, and modern reality” (p. 68). In the second chapter, Maxim engages in an elaborate and precise study of building technologies going back to the case studies from the first chapter. In both Vatra Luminoasă and Floreasca, architects employed prefabricated elements in various degrees, in some cases combining them with bricks that continued to be used through the 1960s. Thus, some designs were conceived to be versatile and adapt to either the brick or the prefab system. When talking about building technologies and their mixed use, the author subtly re-entangles them with type-design on several levels. On the one hand, various prefab technologies slowly changed the architectural design of type-apartment as well as that of type-cluster, an ensemble of apartments that constitutes the actual module of the building. On the other hand, prefabricated elements gave rise to a new esthetics of the facade whose grid-like appearance did not always mirror internal spaces or the building system. Typification and prefabrication were as complex in practice as they were in architectural debates and in official projects and discourses. Together they made type/typification a ‘complex ideological construct’ connected to social values and modernity in socialism.

The last chapter continues the inquiry into the theory of type, switching from urban architecture to folk architecture. The switch might be surprising, but the author argues that type was a way both to advance values of modernity and to trace continuities with the past. In spite of a still deep-rooted belief that communist regimes broke all ties with the past, the wide interest in folk architecture revealed a more complex relation to tradition that was studied, exhibited, and modified in order to correspond to the present. This interest took many shapes from state-sponsored documentary campaigns to scholarly publications and museums, all taking place since 1950s. Within this context, type was an instrument of classifying folk houses and pinning down the specificity of peasant architecture but its use dated back to the interwar period. In order to give a more concrete shape to her argument, Maxim presents the Village Museum in Bucharest as a third case study recounting its history from 1936 to 1970s. The open-air museum founded in 1936 by Dimitrie Gusti, initiator of a vivid sociological school, underwent many changes and additions after the Second World War under the supervision of Gheorghe Focșa, Gusti’s assistant. Despite the changes, the museum seemed to retain, for the author, what its founder had thought for it, to allow a comparison between rural and urban. Thus, materials, components, building systems but also notions of constructive necessity and collective experience of peasant and socialist architecture are considered side by side to prove the very articulation between discourses available during socialism.

Among them, type held a central role, as the author argues: “Although the peasant house and the modern apartment were two very different architectural objects, the attempt to harness the endless variation of folk production into typological principles was fundamentally related to the use of type as a method of architectural modernization.” Although seductive, these claims force and exaggerate relationships when there might be none, or when there might be other explanations for the differences and similarities. Classifying local architecture (be it in wood or stone) in typologies mostly related to spatial syntax was a well-established practice since the interwar period, especially in the writing of art and architectural historians connected to Vienna School of Art History. Likewise, the idea of wooden architecture as a site of local/national specificity that preceded and determined certain forms of stone architecture had the same origin. The reception of the Vienna School as well as of other formalist approaches was wide and surpassed art and architectural history. The many continuities with postwar art and architectural history could be explained, and not only in the cases discussed by Maxim, by the fact that the only expertise available at the beginning of the communist regime belonged to people trained in the interwar period or even before. Moreover, the new context failed to provide them with different tools for writing art and architecture history. Thus, type as a classifying instrument in formalist scholarship and in museum work and type as a way of design for modern socialist architecture were not only of different origin, but also of different uses. Some of the similitudes argued by the author seem to have been themselves established on formalist tenets, which is striking in the illustrations in the chapter.

Overall, Maxim’s book makes, through its consistent theoretical approach, an important contribution to the literature on socialist architecture. Though not intended as such, the first two chapters can be also read as a short history of socialist housing in Romania throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The book brings a welcome re-investment of the architectural profession during socialism with agency and reliable arguments for considering socialist architecture as a multifarious architectural, theoretic, and ideological object. Yet, due to its major focus on publications, it leaves the reader with questions about the situation ‘on site,’ about the relation between claims made by various articles and the way in which the actual buildings were erected. Under the condition of the socialist planned economy, constructions and architecture were subject to deficit, breakdown, and many re-adaptations. How did they influence the mise-en-oeuvre of architectural planning and designs, and how did this change through the different stages of socialism? Were architects constrained to take into consideration shortages of materials or infrastructure in their designs?

Another question concerns the commonalities and differences between architectural planning and design in different countries in East-Central Europe under socialism. Although much expected, such a synthesis remains a highly difficult task because of the time and resources of all kinds necessary, because of the vast geographical space to cover, and finally because of the still insufficient bibliography in English or other international languages. The comparison between architectural models, practices or theories of the socialist countries from East-Central Europe and beyond is an avenue of investigation that Maxim’s book only indicates, but it will surely stand as a significant starting point for future research.

Irina Cărăbaş
Irina Cărăbaş is assistant professor at the Department of Art History and Theory, National University of Arts in Bucharest. She is the author of the book Socialist Realism Facing the Past. Institutions and Artists in Romania 1944-1953 (2017), and of several studies concerning the Romanian avant-garde, Constructivism, avant-garde magazines, applied arts, and Socialist Realism published in periodicals and collective volumes.