Soviet apartment buildings didn’t always win a beauty in architecture award. Often grim and uninspiring, concrete assemblies that spoke more to modernist surrealism than any attempt to capture grace, they appealed to populations in great need of housing and a state apparatus in great need of scripting a brave new world for the new social group. The overwhelming drive to create solid housing trumped any appreciation for ornamentation. Lest we think this is somehow just a soviet problem, an accounting of the urban renewal projects on this side of the ocean can be equally sobering. Going to school in Chicago years ago brought me face to face with a creature from the deep known as the Cabrini-Green Projects. Many a humanities writer – and planner – has used it as a poster child for how to build shoddy construction into housing while at the same time effectively suppressing the human soul in a neighbourhood.
To take the soviet case, on several fronts the great effort offered something more. Housing was always in short supply. The Stalin era certainly saw apartment construction, but the primary goal was industrialization. However, it was only once Nikita Khrushchev came to power that the emphasis changed and consumerism became the new modern destination. Apartment buildings soon became the symbol of a successful social economy and an apartment for the family a sign of upward mobility. Build, they did.
Spring cleaning day in a Krushchev-era apartment building. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014.
If anything, these universal concrete behemoths were durable. Ours here in Baku is an excellent specimen. Baku is oil – but also an earthquake testing ground of sorts. Tremors occur from time to time, some rather powerful. The great monoliths shake off these shakes like a prize fighter instantly recovering from a jab. Already we have had two tremors – the second briefly knocked the power out – yet the solid concrete walls remain without so much as a flake disturbed. While the outside of these buildings now show their age through dirt, discolouration, and holes drilled for various wires and supports that have come and gone, the integrity of the structures remain intact.
Ours is one in a series of about 7 buildings that form a vast rectangular courtyard with mulberry trees, a playground, and parked cars. The height of each building, no more than five stories, allows the sunlight to brighten these interior courtyards, or “dvors” in Russian, providing a cheeriness to the children playing games, the older residents resting on benches deep in conversation, and light for the trees and apartments. Even more, it gives a sense of neighbourhood to the people living in them.
A window on our dvor. Playground, mulberry trees – and cars. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014
Baku is known for its winds. ferocious and seemingly unrelenting at times. Planners designed the apartment buildings in arrangements that blocked these obnoxious blasts, all angled to the wind just right. Often I’m stunned at the difference in wind speeds inside the dvor versus the outside street just beyond the apartment buildings. Gentleness on one side, a rough and tumble scene beyond. Initially fooled by this, I’d assume a pleasant day looking out our window into the dvor, only to be sent scurrying back to the apartment for my Woolx after heading out one of the alleys that leads to busy city streets just beyond. Owning Woolx is knowing when to hold it and when to fold it.
The soviet era, like American urban renewal, is past now, for better or worse. In the case of these aging soviet apartments in Baku, and the Khrushchev-era apartment we live in, their days are numbered. As the oil flows, and with it the money, Baku has catapulted itself into a deliberate new world of private high rise apartments in place of the old concrete state ancestors. They are modern, sleek, and high – 15 stories in most cases. That is all very nice, but they block the sun and not the wind. Furthermore, the dvor is being eliminated as these new symbols of wealth and progress stake out the land on which the soviet dvors stand. Up they go, willy-nilly. They have not been tested by multiple tremors or time, and we wonder.
A window on Baku – from our own window to the mirror apartment building facing us. New 15 story high rise apartments menace beyond. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014.
We are told our apartment complex will be gone within 5 years. This I believe. We live in a world in which all that is solid melts into air. At least for a moment, as I look out on the mulberry trees and children at play, at the unimaginatively designed apartment building across the way, standing in the window of my own, I can say I lived, once upon a time, in a soviet apartment building – and it is not everything I previously thought it to be.