Space in Socialist and Postsocialist Cities – Divided or Shared?


This short essay was published in Helene Doudova, ed., Shared Cities Atlas. Post-socialist Cities and Active Citizenship in Central Europe published by NAI.

Living Collectively

Dom Chlopa Rechowicz
Dom Chłopa, Warsaw 

The vision of a better life that stimulated the formation of the Soviet Union and the socialist states of the Eastern Bloc after 1945, promised many things. Among its many bold assurances was the motivating idea that space would be shared by all. Private ownership of space – whether in the form of buildings, streets or country estates – would end, and universal rights would be extended under the mindful watch of a benign state intent on its own disappearance (Engels’ notion of the ‘withering of the state’). In the aftermath of the October Revolution, for instance, the ‘bourgeois’ conception of home – understood both socially and spatially – was rejected in a series of decrees nationalising land and abolishing private ownership of property in Russia.[1] Collective forms of housing were not only adopted as a matter of exigency, but also trumpeted as the democratisation of space. Large pre-revolutionary apartments in Moscow, Petrograd and elsewhere, once occupied by the wealthy and their servants, were divided to provide homes for a number of working class and peasant families. Similarly, thirty years later one of the key slogans of the new Soviet-backed authorities in Central and Eastern Europe was that cities would be wrested out of the hands of landlords and capitalists, and given back to the workers. The benefits of the city-life were to be extended to those to whom they had been denied. To materialise this promise of welfare and culture, Warsaw, for instance, acquired a new hotel and cultural centre at its heart, Dom Chłopa (House of the Peasant). First conceived in 1946 but built more than ten years later, Dom Chłopa was created as a place not only of rest but of improvement. The building was designed to contain not only bedrooms and a restaurant for 500 guests, but also a library, a świetlica (political education room) and a cinema/theatre as well as a medical centre, a photographer’s studio and a hairdresser.[2]

The redistribution of space was not simply to be a measure of social justice: space itself was to be organised like a machine for the production of better citizen-comrades. Old habits had to be broken and new ones forged. Just as today we talk about ‘digital natives’ – people too young to remember a time before the Internet – Soviet architects and social reformers in the 1920s imagined that all children born into socialism would be brought up in communal housing where the desire for privacy and private ownership would never be felt, such was the indisputable virtue of an architecture which served collective needs. Writing in 1929, architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis described the new collectivity:

The individual bourgeois apartment is no longer appropriate for new dwelling relations, which are based on principles other than the unified patriarchal family with its petty individualistic conduct. The economic routines of the worker’s family (nutrition, cleaning, washing) as well as the education of children, their care and control and the fulfilment of the cultural and sport needs of workers and children, can and must be collectivized, that is, produced on a collective basis. Therefore all those rooms that for their functional destination and their character must serve entire collectives and not only single individuals, must be reshaped into corresponding highly collectivized premises: the canteen, common resting rooms, reading rooms and libraries, gyms, child care rooms and nurseries, etc.[3]

Their design – the celebrated Narkomfin House in Moscow (1929) – was presented as a prototype of a new type of building, the communal home, that would eventually flourish throughout the Soviet Union.

2817718044_a306c646ec_k.jpgOther instruments for the production of socialist beings included the parks of culture and leisure which were created throughout the Eastern Bloc. Following a Soviet model laid down in Gorky Park in Moscow in 1928, such parks were created in various Central and Eastern European cities after the Second World War including Katowice (Wojewódzki Park Kultury i Wypoczynku / Provincial Park of Culture and Rest, est. 1951) and Bratislava (Park kultúry a oddychu / Park of Culture and Rest, est. 1954). Decorated with open-air theatres, leafy avenues and classical statuary, facilities for studying astronomy, zoos and botanical gardens, they were like microcosms of the communist future announced – but never detailed – by Marx in his writing. When labour was in a harmonic relation with culture and education, alienation would, according to the German political philosopher, be a matter of the past, and ‘factory work … [will be] an activity to which all people devote some time. It [will be] something which everybody, without exception, wants to do’.[4] In Moscow, Katowice or Bratislava, the worker was to be reinvigorated by the experience of visiting the park, ready for everyday challenges in the workplace and, ultimately, the great work of proletarian progress:

Socialist parks of culture should not only compensate for social injustice, but they should also be landscapes created by the invention of artists; humanist landscapes in which man plays the main role; landscapes created with the conviction of the existence of knowable and objective facts about the world, as well as the marvellous possibility that the world can be shaped by humanity for the good of mankind.[5]

Whether or not such parks ever came close to the kind of enlightening effects that were claimed for them is perhaps not important. What is clear is that they provided means of escape from the often claustrophobic and inhibited conditions of life; places for being together and, importantly, apart too.

Late Socialist Spaces

The vision of shared space proclaimed by ideologues withered over years: the project of building communal homes was replaced by the mass production of conventional single family apartments throughout the Bloc (meagre traces survived in the residents’ committees which had oversight of blocks). Similarly, the voluntary urban improvement efforts once loudly promoted by the authorities faded too. With a lineage that can be traced back to the Civil War and to Vladimir Lenin himself,[6] the Soviet tradition of the ‘subbotnik’ – days of unpaid, voluntary labour given over to public works such as rubbish-clearance or tree-planting – was widely trumpeted as a living demonstration of the investment of ordinary citizens in their environment. The enthusiasm of the subbotniki was supposed to be infectious, and the practice was exported to the Eastern Bloc in the 1940s. The tradition had, however, become little more than a late-socialist reflex by the 1980s or perhaps even a cliché. Voluntary labour schemes came to occupy one or perhaps two days a year, typically on May Day or around the anniversary of Lenin’s birthday in late April. And each spring, Hungarian, East German and Soviet newspaper editors reserved a few column inches for a portrait of young, fashionably-dressed girls wielding forks and spades. These images of socialist voluntarism appeared in marked contrast to the unloved state of many late socialist spaces. Unlit hallways in housing blocks, flickering neon advertising signs, broken playground equipment and the dismal waiting rooms in bus and railway stations – testified to the anomie and disconnection often felt by citizens. Far from being shared spaces: these were non-places of a dismal kind. When sharing did emerge in this impoverished environment, it was often, as Polish sociologist Kacper Pobłocki has described, despite rather than because of the activities of the state.[7]

Coerced voluntarism was usually described by critics of Soviet order as one plank in a raft of measures that eroded citizens of their human rights to privacy. Václav Havel, the Czech dissent, wrote:

The bureaucratic regulation of the everyday details of people’s lives is another indirect instrument of nihilization. It is here that public matters infiltrate private life in a way that is very ‘ordinary’, but extremely persistent. The sheer number of small pressures that we are subjected to every day is more important than it may seem at first, because it encloses the space in which we are condemned to breathe. There is very little air in that space. But not so little that we might suffocate, and thus create a story.[8]

Havel’s view was not only that privacy had been eroded but that that publicness – in the sense of openness and civic-mindedness – had been damaged too. Despite an loudly-voiced commitment to equality, the communist authorities had also created zones of privilege for their ‘elites’: special stores where only party-members could shop; entire housing districts where only the powerful lived; and luxury hotels and restaurants which were not only beyond the means of the majority but widely viewed as evidence of venality. Moreover, in the suspicious atmosphere of the most paranoid regimes (above all the USSR and the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia), it was almost impossible to exchange views freely, to gather or to act independently without some kind of license from the state. Much dissenting activity in Central and Eastern Europe under communist rule – whether samizdat publishing, underground theatre and rock concerts, or illicit lectures – took place outside the official zone (or ‘illicitly’ within it). This web of activity has been described as the ‘second public sphere’; ‘a social and cultural field of strategies for alternative action that existed parallel to the official and controlled publicity of late socialism.’[9] As Katalin Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak note – citing Hungarian dissident György Konrád writing in the 1970s – advocates of the second public sphere imagined that it ‘extends the possibilities of a given public system.’[10] In other words, it created an ‘authentic’ publicness in a world circumscribed by the actions of dogmatic and often irrational power. Konrád was himself involved in an unofficial urban design project in the early 1980s in which 72 architects contributed designs for Keszthely, a town at the western-most point of Lake Balaton. An explicit rebuttal of the impersonal and industrial forms of architecture which were constructed across the country in the 1970s, the project also issued an objection to Soviet-style masterplanning. Allocated ‘virtual’ sites in the centre of the town and with no expectation of being commissioned to build, architects made their own, individual propositions, often to rehabilitate existing structures for homes, cafes, bookstores and theatres. Directed to work within the building codes that had operated in Budapest around 1900 by the project’s organisers, the scheme was also a critique of the National Building Codes of the People’s Republic at the time. It was also a living demonstration of the pluralism and potential of second public sphere. Notwithstanding its critical view of official spaces, this scheme was hardly a form of proto-capitalism. In fact, László Rajk, one of the organisers, admitted twenty years later that ‘we did not think about capital, not even for one minute.’[11]

New Forces

The turn of events which led to the collapse of communist rule in the ‘satellite’ states of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and then, in 1991, to the end of the Soviet Union ushered in a new set of forces. Of course, the most spectacular images of the period were of jubilant crowds filling city squares to proclaim their opposition to communist rule and, most dramatically, passing through the checkpoints in the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989. This wholesale reorganisation of space was seen as a kind of triumph of the popular will, and a harbinger of a new kind of publicness (if only for a short, euphoric period). Other instances of spatial revolution included the occupation of communist party buildings: in January 1990 in Warsaw, for instance, protestors from the Solidarity Union called for the nationalisation of the Polish United Workers Party headquarters and other assets, a demand rejected by the communist leadership even though power had already slipped from its hands. With hollow irony, they accused the union of ‘seeking to carry out a “Bolshevist” confiscation’.[12] The sense that this monumental building at the heart of the city was understood to be public property was accentuated by the fact that deductions had been made from the wages of ordinary poles in the 1950s to pay for its construction. In return, they had received ‘share’ certificates inferring part-ownership. When the matter of the future of this building was debated in the early 1990s, Poles sent their shares to Warsaw University, demanding that the building be given the civic function of education. In the event, the building became home to the revived stock exchange – a sign of things to come.

Hotel Praha during its demolition photographed by Okurka (CC license)

Across the former bloc, public hopes and expectation that democratic politics would bring about an equitable and transparent distribution of resources were often at odds with new forces shaping space, namely those of privatisation and consumerism. Spaces and buildings which had once – at least in name – been public property were sold to developers to stimulate investment and dock the economies of these former Eastern Bloc states with the West. The case of the Praha Hotel in the Czechoslovak capital, provides a somewhat typical example even if the building itself was exceptional. Commissioned in 1971, and opened a decade later, the hotel was a powerful sign of the privilege that the communist elite reserved for itself – a near-private space in the public setting of late socialism. With bespoke interiors and fittings, some created by celebrated Czech decorative artists, like glass artist Stanislav Libensky, supporters of the hotel claimed that the artistic merit of this late communist Gesamtkunstwerk outbalanced its dubious past. The story of the hotel’s privatization in the 1990s is indicative of the operations of capital in the Czech Republic after communist rule. Becoming property of Prague City Council in 1992, the hotel’s swimming pool and grounds were welcome additions to the public spaces of the city. However, in 2002, the hotel was sold to Falkon Capital, an investment company established by Georgian and Armenian businessmen in 1996, with close ties to Russian energy interests. Then, in spring 2013, a Cyprus-based investment company Maraflex bought the hotel, before quickly selling it on to Petr Kellner, the richest individual in the Czech Republic. He then announced plans to demolish the hotel to build a private housing and a school. At the same time, petitions to list this late Socialist building were turned down, on the basis that the hotel – completed in 1981 – was too recent to warrant protection. In the end, the structure was destroyed, providing photographers with the opportunity to add to the fashion for Central and Eastern European ‘ruin porn’. Private housing and private school were erected on its former site.

For many critics of the activities of local and international property developers in Central and Eastern Europe, the power of money has corrupted representational politics. Public planning mechanisms which, at least in principle, ought to facilitate discussion of urban development and set checks in place to stop the damaging effects of development on lives, on existing businesses, on historical buildings and on the environment, have often proven to be chronically weak when confronted by powerful developers and ambitious politicians. Describing the grandiose plans for a new waterfront district in Belgrade of towering offices, luxury apartments and an opera house proposed by an Abu Dhabi development firm with the backing of the Serbian state, Forbes in 2016 reported:

… the people of Belgrade were caught off guard. The entire project was reputedly planned in secret, with no public participation. Having been classified as a project of national significance — like an airport or military base — Belgrade Waterfront was fast tracked, which meant that certain bureaucratic hurdles could be sidestepped — such as the otherwise mandatory competition for the project’s architectural design. (The government claimed that there actually was a competition, but it was held in Abu Dhabi and no Serbian architects were apparently invited, and who actually designed the project is still unknown). There was also no open bidding process for the tender, as is standard operating procedure. When it was highlighted that Serbia’s government was violating its own laws, such as the building codes which are outlined in Belgrade’s General Urban Plan, they reputedly just changed the laws.[13]

At the time of writing (Valentine’s Day 2019), the project is underway, with the building permits signed and cranes erected.

In the hands of developers, urban parks which were once integral parts of the socialist city have become commercial opportunities. The addition of shopping centres, offices, hotels and spaces on what were once green sites introduced new forms of gated privacy to settings which once offered open access. The small pavilions and theatres of Bratislava’s Park of Culture and Rest were, for instance, demolished in late 2015 and early 2016 to make way for the River Park (its anglophone ‘brand’ underlining its exceptionalism). In this ‘luxury’ development, overstuffed buildings squat by a tree-lined strip along the Danube which the developer, Cresco, disingenuously calls ‘komunitné záhrady’ (community gardens).[14] Kitsch bronze monuments nearby are offered as unconvincing evidence of a commitment to the city’s ‘vibrating’ cultural life.

Inflatable Ducks and Golden Calves

It is important to note that these developments have not been met with indifference. In fact, one of the striking features of public discussions of urban space in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years is the shared boldness and commitment of those who have protested against the operations of private capital in public space. Curiously, it has often been the threat to communist era architecture – often of the elite kind – which has been a rallying focus for protests by groups which often combine architectural historians, community groups and Occupy Movement activists. In June 2013 protests were mounted outside the Praha hotel with a banner with the words ‘Vekslak Bourá Prahu’ (Racketeer Destroys Prague) draped over the entrance by anti-capitalists. Similar banners appeared outside the headquarters of Kellner’s office in July too. Derived from the German word Wechsel, ‘Vekslak’ (racketeer) is often used to label those who have benefited from the precipitous privatization programmes after 1989, often – though not exclusively – members of the former elite. The term points not to the productivity of capitalism but its interest in accumulation and asset-stripping. This – ultimately unsuccessful – campaign had the paradoxical effect of turning anti-capitalist protesters into the defenders of a luxury hotel. One activist, Dominik Forman, wrote:

Events which promote the preservation of Hotel Praha are important – not only because they are attempts to save a unique building, but mainly because the anger of the people is finally pointed in the right direction. The target of this anger is the richest oligarch, a financial speculator, who wants to demolish the hotel. He represents exactly the class of people responsible for the financial crisis … which falls on the shoulders of the poorest and weakest.[15]

Similar reflexes have been felt in Belgrade and elsewhere. The Abu Dhabi-financed scheme for the city’s waterfront was met in 2016 by protesters carrying giant inflatable ducks. (Duck sounds like the Serbian word for fraud). Angered by what they saw as the complicity of the media in its failure to report the way in which the deal had been struck behind closed doors and the abuse of compulsory purchase orders, they protested in front of city hall and various media outlets. In March 2014 artists Cecylia Malik, Mateusz Okoński and Marta Sala organized a rolling demonstration through the streets of Kraków to the door of the Cracovia, a communist era modernist hotel which was slated for destruction. A shopping centre was planned for the site, much to the distress of historians, activists and community groups. Around 300 people dressed in gold masks and clothes – some carrying banners or playing instruments, others transporting a golden calf in a shopping trolley – took part in a rally that the artists called ‘Chciwość Miasta’(Greedy City). Approaching protest in an emphatically ludic and spectacular manner, Malik and her friends were highly effective at attracting the media and, as a consequence, public attention too.

Youssouf Dara Brodno
Youssouf Dara, Toguna, Bródno, 2009

Much is shared in such protests, not least a darkly sardonic sense of humour. But what does this all this effort to attract public attention achieve? Much of this activism is predicated on the idea that images – whether of inflatable ducks or golden calves – can change attitudes and that developers, local authorities, and architects can be held to account in the ‘court of public opinion’. On that basis the results are mixed (though the Cracovia appears to have been ‘saved’ by being acquired with state funds and is now the property of the National Museum nearby). Other attempts to share space have taken the form of material interventions into the cityscape, many of which are outlined in this book. At Bródno, a working class district in eastern Warsaw, for instance, local officials and artist Paweł Althamer established a sculpture park with the residents of the communist-era housing blocks nearby. Working with local people (particularly children), 10 artists from around the world have made additions to the park since 2009 in the manner of what the scheme’s champions call ‘social sculpture’.[16] Youssouf Dara, an artist from the Dogon tribe in Mali, for instance, created a wooden structure with a thick roof on carved columns. Known as a toguna, this structure serves as a traditional place of gathering in Dogon culture. In Bródno Park, it serves a triple function as an artwork, as a social space and as a bus stop. Tapping the considerable attention that the scheme has drawn, the Park was declared a ‘Biennale’ in June 2018 with more than eighty locations selected by Bródno residents as sites of significance that they wished to share with visitors. The event was a project of re-enchantment for both visitors and residents alike.

Disenchantment with social housing and other shared spaces, and the march of developers are not exclusively Central and Eastern European phenomena. In fact, one of the striking features of this age is precisely the global reach of multinationals channelling Russian, Chinese, Malaysian and Saudi money into international property portfolios. Oliver Wainwright calls them an ‘international development force, supercharged by the untold riches of sovereign wealth funds, national pension funds and the gushing pump of petrodollars’.[17] Writing in The Guardian, he has pointed to the ways in which property development has squeezed Londoners out of their city despite planning controls and social housing targets. At the same time, many cities around the world face a housing crisis as result of the success of AirBnB’s so called ‘community’ model. So what, if anything, distinguishes the post-socialist city? And what are the legacies of the historical experience of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe, whether positive and negative? What can be retrieved from the visions of collective life proposed by the avant-garde of the 1920s or the social networks of dissent? What are the conditions needed to ensure that people feel that they have the right to shape their environment (or equally to contest the actions of others)? What kind of spaces allow us to be together but also apart? What might a ‘second public sphere’ be in an age when the social world is increasingly organised according to the interests of data capitalism? And what tools are required to encourage spaces to be shared in viable and fulfilling ways?

This book – itself a tool – provides many thoughtful reflections on these questions.


[1] See Lynne Attwood, Gender and Housing in Soviet Russia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 34.

[2] See David Crowley, ‘The Peasant in the City’ in PRL – A Country of Folklore, exhibition catalogue. Zachęta National Gallery (Warsaw, 2016) 31.

[3] M. Ginzburg and I. Milinis (1929) cited in ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s constructivist masterpiece: Narkomfin during the 1930s’. Online. (accessed February 2019). See also V. Buchli ‘Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow: Contesting the Social and Material World’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historian, vol. 57, no. 2 (June 1998), 160-181.

[4] K. Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program,’ Selected Writings II (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1951), 23.

[5] I. Dworakowska, ‘O Parku Kultury Na Powiślu‘, Architektura, II, (1953), 278.

[6] V. Lenin, ‘Pervomaisky Subbotnik’, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 123-125.

[7] ‘The Eastern Roots of Sharing. Interview with Kacper Pobłocki’, Magazyn Miasta 2 (2018), 12-15.

[8] V. Havel, ‘Stories and Totalitarianism’ (1987) in: Paul Wilson (ed.), Václav Havel: Open Letters. Selected Prose 1965–1990 (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 331-2.

[9] ‘Interview with Katalin Cseh and Adam Czirak about the second public sphere in the former Eastern Bloc’ by Andrea Bátarová (August 2014) – accessed February 2019.

[10] G. Konrád cited by K. Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak (eds.) Performance Art in the Second Public SphereEvent-based Art in Late Socialist Europe (London: Routledge, 2018).

[11] Rajk in conversation with fellow architects Dezső Ekler, Katalin Gyarmathy, Katalin Pikler, Bálint Nagy, curator Szilágyi Gábor and writer György Konrád (26 September 2001)Beszélgetés a Keszthely-pályázatról’. Online. (accessed February 2019).

[12] S Greenhill, ‘Upheaval in the East: Poland; Protesters Occupy the Communist Party Headquarters in Warsaw’, New York Times (25 January 1990). Online. (accessed February 2019).

[13] W Shepard, ‘A Look At Abu Dhabi’s “Bad Joke”: The Belgrade Waterfront Project’ (8 December 2016). Online. (accessed February 2019).

[14] Cited in M Dugovič, ‘Na mieste PKO vyrastie Riverpark 2, developer na seba privolal hnev kritikov’ (27 July 2017). Online. (accessed February 2019).

[15] D. Forman, ‘Mají argumenty pro bourání hotelu Praha smysl?’ (2013). Online. (accessed November 2016).

[16] See Paweł Althamer and Gosha Macuga, Park Rzeźby na Bródnie Rozdział X. Weneckie Biennale na Bródnie (Warsaw: Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, 2018).

[17] O. Wainwright, ‘The truth about property developers: how they are exploiting planning authorities and ruining our cities’ (17 September 2014). Online. (accessed February 2019)


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