Building Blocs

Ian Volner on the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale

Svetlana Kana Radevic, Monument to Fallen Fighters of Ljesanska Nahija, 1980, Barutana Podgorica. Photo: Luka Boskovic.

THE CROWD AT THE SMOLNY INSTITUTE had only just stopped applauding, the minority delegates having reluctantly ceded the floor, when the leader of the revolutionary congress grasped the sides of the podium and spoke the first words of a new era. “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order,” Vladimir Lenin said: In Russian, the verb he used was stroit (строить), literally “to build”; in time, versions of the phrase would become a rhetorical rallying cry throughout the Soviet Union and its allied states, adorning the overpass of a dam on the Volga River, for example, and the side of an apartment block in Moscow. From its very founding, the political project of twentieth-century communism was married to the idea of building things.

Exactly three decades since the collapse of the Soviet experiment, and half a continent away, the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale has become a showcase for design culture’s renewed interest in the buildings of historical socialism, with a handful of installations on related themes opening last month both inside and outside the official exhibition. The Venice cluster represents only the latest development in an ongoing trend. From books (Owen Hatherley’s 2015 Landscapes of Communism, for starters) to museum shows (most memorably MoMA’s 2019 “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Learning from Yugoslavia”) to a palpable influence on architectural practice (the revived interest in Brutalism especially), the discipline has been busily rediscovering the lost landscape of postwar Eastern Europe for some time now. What’s on display at the Biennale proves how pervasive that influence could yet become, as well as how rich—and how fraught—the legacy of socialist-era design truly is.

As is often the case in Venice, some of the best work is being presented by the national delegations. (It should be noted that the central exhibition, curated by architect Hashim Sarkis, gave its lifetime-achievement award to the late Lina Bo Bardi, a designer with a long and complex relationship to communism.) Echoes of the Soviet past are discernible in the Russian pavilion, where an open-ended video game allows visitors to navigate a landscape of decaying Khruschevian housing blocks in a kind of postsocialist, postcapitalist, posthuman dreamscape. The Croatian pavilion features industrial and military detritus—most or all of Yugoslav provenance—culled from the streets of Rijeka, recast as items in an urban jungle gym. Brazil’s contribution includes a gorgeous photographic study of Rio's sprawling Pedregulho Housing Complex, as outstanding a monument to economic planning as can be found anywhere in the world. If none of this quite amounts to an open call to return to the political values and aesthetics of a half century ago, it certainly suggests a rapprochement.

Perhaps the most exciting (definitely the most imaginative) take on communist architecture after Communism comes from Hungary, where a curatorial team led by Dániel Kovács has crafted a show of rare visual and intellectual concision. On one side of the pavilion are photographs and models of largely defunct buildings in Budapest constructed under the so-called Goulash Communism of János Kádár. On the other side, proposals from contemporary Hungarian architects attempt to reimagine the same structures for the twenty-first century, navigating a fraught cultural and legal landscape in the process. Under its current municipal government, explains co-organizer Szabolcs Molnár, the Hungarian capital has made it prohibitively difficult to preserve midcentury buildings, slowly effacing the memory of the socialist period. To counteract this, pavilion contributors imagine playful, inventive proposals to bring life back to a defunct community center and turn a former power station into an indoor garden. The floorplan of the show is especially elegant, maintaining a precise symmetry between the two sections and inviting visitors to bounce back and forth between endangered past and speculative future.

If the Hungarians are looking ahead, a more reflective attitude is being struck over in the Serbian pavilion. Titled “8th Kilometer”, its installation takes a searing look at an urban condition that predated the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but was intimately linked to the economic program of the Tito regime. Bor, a mining community in the country’s mountainous east, was founded in 1903 on the site of major copper deposit. In a process that accelerated after World War II, the town expanded straight south from the minehead, with each new phase of development marked by distinct building types: industrial followed by commercial followed by administrative and so on, in successive layers. The resulting form—a “linear city,” as the curators describe it in one of the many pieces of literature accompanying the show—was a paragon of rational planning, a dream of progressive architectural thinking made real. It was also, as eventually became evident, an incredibly unpleasant and quite dangerous place to live, severely polluted and overdependent on the volatile copper market. The pavilion installation consists of an appropriately linear walkway encased in gleaming copper with a detailed sectional model on one side and a vast informational wall panel on the other. Step by step, kilometer by scale kilometer, the visitor sees the story of Bor unfold in all its promise, its ingenuity, and its tragedy.

But for sheer nostalgic power, nothing at Venice quite matches “Skirting the Center,” a small monographic satellite exhibition at the Palazzo Palumbo Fossati. Its subject, Svetlana Kana Radević, was a woman ahead of her time, conquering a field dominated (then as now) by men, and a designer who embodied the best of her time, turning out resorts and houses and monuments in a Brutalist-inflected idiom alive with vigor and optimism. Born in Montenegro in 1937, Radević succeeded in becoming one of Yugoslavia’s most celebrated architects. Her achievements earned her international recognition, and the show documents her lively correspondence with the likes of Louis Kahn and Kisho Kurokawa; it also reveals her delightful knack for public relations, with archival footage from a 1980 Yugoslav-television profile in which she appears on a beach, chatting and tracing patterns in the sand, a picture of demure artsy femininity. It was, of course, a bit of an act—but what was not was Radevic’s belief in her country’s political mission. “Kana was deeply committed to the social politics of the Yugoslav welfare state,” says Anna Kats, who curated the show alongside Dijana Vucinic. Radević’s masterwork, the Hotel Zlatibor, was built in 1981 as a center not just for tourists, Kats says, but for local community life. Everything about it, from the bracing vertical thrust of its exterior envelope to the elegant ballrooms and bedrooms inside, bespeaks an enduring faith in a singular social vision, the ability of a people to live together in equality and abundance.

Yet all of it—or most of it anyway: the carpeted interiors, the hypermodern roller chairs, the stunning globular ceiling pendants—is now gone. The building itself still stands, but it was recently gutted by new owners; even if they’d preserved what was there before, the cultural context that gave it meaning had disappeared long before, swept away with the whole apparatus of socialist self-management as it existed during Radević’s career. The architect died in 2000, and in the years since her work has fallen into relative obscurity. So what does it mean that her buildings, along with those of many of her contemporaries, are now getting a second look? And in Venice of all places?

No question, it’s a little funny that the Biennale should be the locus of such an intense outpouring of Marxian melancholia. Assuming its present form in the 1990s, the Venice show is practically a high holiday of orthodox neoliberal architecture, when, every two years, design-minded pooh-bahs of assorted descriptions private-plane in from Rotterdam and Baku, conjuring castles in the digital air while gawking at the yachts moored along the Grand Canal. Social responsibility has been in the air at least since the Massimiliano Fuksas–curated edition in 2000, “Less Aesthetics, More Ethics”—but the whole operation has largely been a stage on which elite consensus can strut and fret for a few months then go back to business as usual. That the current participants are looking somewhat harder at alternative modes of political economy (and thus of architectural production) is definitely a good thing, though whether it’s enough to change the overall tenor of the Biennale seems doubtful.

View of “Othernity,” 2021. Hungarian pavilion, Venice. Photo: Dániel Dömölky.

Then again, that’s not necessarily the point. Obviously, this Biennale takes place against the background of an extraordinary resurgence in enthusiasm for leftist politics in the West. But the point of view afforded by the show in Venice is subtler than any endorsement of a particular platform. There’s one moment, in the Hungarian pavilion, that demonstrates the real potential for designers in exploring the vanished built environment of Communism: In a proposal from Ukraine-based MNPL Workshop, a looming 1960s apartment tower would be partially covered in a sort of sky-patterned tablecloth, complete with fluffy white clouds, in a way that that simultaneously masks its bulk and celebrates its soaring ambition. As a form of loving satire, it’s a pitch-perfect idea, skewering the megalomania that drove the socialist builders while defending their contributions from the megalomania of modern capital. Only architecture could manage this kind of critical cannibalism: building a new world within the shell of the old, while finding a place for the old world in the shell of the new.