architecture

Understanding the messages in these Soviet-era postcards

Updated 29th January 2019
Recreation home of the Ministry of the Interior, 1970s, 
Budapest, Hungarian PR
Credit: FUEL
Understanding the messages in these Soviet-era postcards
Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN
Brutalism isn't renowned for being aesthetically pleasing. The architectural movement, popular from the 1950s to the early 1980s and generally considered an extension of early 20th-century Modernism, was perhaps best expressed through the soulless, gray concrete structures commissioned by Soviet planners for the underclasses.
The style elevated function over form, rigor over litheness, utilitarianism over ornamentation. Yet the images gathered in the book "Brutal Bloc Postcards" depict it as inspiring -- beautiful, almost.
Monument to V. I. Lenin, Jūrmala, Latvian SSR.
Monument to V. I. Lenin, Jūrmala, Latvian SSR. Credit: FUEL
The book's collection of government-sanctioned Soviet-era postcards showcases hotels, boulevards, public housing and institutional buildings surrounded by big blue skies and sun-drenched backdrops.
Families occasionally feature (an elderly man with his grandchildren, a mom with toddlers in tow or athletic couples), as do groups of brightly-dressed citizens and cars scattered across public squares or next to imposing monuments.
The postcards -- as a form of state propaganda -- offer a vision of grandeur, albeit in an unremarkable urban setting designed for the socialist everyman.
"Mundanity is exactly the quality these postcards wanted to give out," said architecture critic and author Owen Hatherley in a phone interview. "The idea of an architectural landscape built for the many was, (while) boring, still very much able to mesmerize."
In other words, the images reveal an everyday celebration of socialist ideals and Soviet city planning.
"These pictures are very much unlike architectural photography," Hatherley continued. "While professional shots focus on specific details or creative angles to display their subject as unusual and unique, these scenes depict the ordinary in an almost artless way -- saturated hues and occasional retouching aside.
"They aren't aimed at design enthusiasts or architects, but at regular individuals. They are all the more convincing in their message because of that."
That message is one of modernity, optimism and faith in the power of architecture to transform society -- the basic premises of Brutalism and of Modernism before it.
"It's a light-hearted, idyllic view of the Soviet world," Hatherley said. "It might look quite surreal and strange today, but it's also an invaluable insight of the economic, social, even technological ambitions of the Eastern Bloc at the time. These are posters of a utopian totalitarianism."

From repulsive to revered

Despite the buildings' austere, brutish appearance, Brutalism derived its name not from its aesthetic but from the French "béton brut" (meaning "raw concrete"). Rooted in socialist ideals, the movement appeared in the middle of the 20th century, with Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier one of its earlier adopters -- his 1952 apartment complex Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, France, is considered an influential example of the style.
Flower of Life Memorial, Vsevolozhsky District, USSR.
Flower of Life Memorial, Vsevolozhsky District, USSR. Credit: FUEL
Imposing monolithic structures were built throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s, from Britain (in particular, residential complexes like the Barbican Estate and late Robin Hood Gardens) to the United States (see New York's Breuer Building or the Geisel Library in La Jolla, California) and Latin America (the Bank of London and South America building in Buenos Aires, for example).
By the early 1980s, the style had fallen out of favor in the West. But in the Eastern Bloc, Brutalism -- or, as many Eastern European historians prefer to call it, Soviet or Socialist Modernism -- flourished until the mid-1990s.
Over the decades, the movement delivered landmarks like the Sevan Writers House on Armenia's Lake Sevan, the Spomenik Memorials erected across Yugoslavia between 1950 and 2000, the State Circus in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, and Kiev's Memory Park, a curved crematorium whose construction lasted from 1968 to 1981.
"The category 'Brutalism' is almost too broad and inaccurate to fit all these different structures," said Ruben Arevshatyan, an art critic, independent curator and director of the Tamanyan Architecture Museum-Institute in Armenia, in a phone interview. "But what is clear is that, in the then-Soviet Union, Soviet Modernism seeped through most of the 20th century urbanism, often taking distinct regional characteristics. The buildings it yielded embodied -- and still do, if they continue to exist -- the collective history and memories of those countries."
Salut Hotel, Kiev, Ukrainian SSR.
Salut Hotel, Kiev, Ukrainian SSR. Credit: FUEL
In the West, Brutalism eventually became a synonym for poverty, urban decay, poor planning and plain ugly architecture. Its functionality had served its purpose during post-war hardship, but it felt too harsh and unmaintainable in times of plenty. Many of its buildings were abandoned, demolished or left to decay.
Until they weren't. Whether due to nostalgia or simply the cyclic nature of taste, Brutalism has experienced an unexpected renaissance in recent years (to the point that some critics now lament its fetishization). It has become the unlikely darling of coffee table books, Tumblr accounts and Instagram, where there are currently some 530,000 posts marked with the hashtag #brutalism. At the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture last May, the Victoria and Albert Museum displayed part of the former Robin Hood Gardens in the British Pavilion.
"The revival has been swifter in Western Europe, but Eastern and Central Europe are now catching up also," Arevshatyan said. "Many buildings are too far gone to be recovered, but others are being listed as landmarks and monuments to be protected. There is a greater awareness (of) the historical importance of these structures."

An idealized future

Amid this renewed attention, "Brutal Bloc Postcards" plays on nostalgia while exploring Brutalism's social ideas and the ambitious scale of Soviet urban planning. The miniature posters in the book are sometimes poignantly -- or ironically -- accompanied by chilling quotes from influential figures of the time, such as Russian military general (and AK-47 inventor) Mikhail Kalashnikov and the artist and architect El Lissitzky.
Memorial to the Marines, Zhdanov, Ukrainian SSR.
Memorial to the Marines, Zhdanov, Ukrainian SSR. Credit: FUEL
"They present cities as untouched by use and history," Hatherley said of the postcards. "The focus is on their potential and nothing else. It's quite an eerie tribute."
What makes them remarkable is that they do this not with dramatic images, but rather with bland, simple scenes. They offer dream-like portraits of an idealized communist future without any of the epics.
"I would be curious to know who sent these postcards," Hatherley mused. "I'd be inclined to say, someone who inhabited the places they depicted, rather than tourists or visitors. To me, they seem to say 'Look at the marvel of our collective buildings! This is progress, and we are part of it.'"
"Brutal Bloc Postcards," published by Fuel, is available now.