Socialist realist architecture was often received with a lack of appreciation. This perspective was mainly due to the fact that the initiation of the first socialist realist projects in the 1930s was meant to give an alternative to the Russian constructivist architecture. Therefore socialist realist architecture was perceived first of all as an anti-modern(ist) architecture; it was an architecture that was reiterating – through an abundance of ornamental elements – times that were already left behind by the architects eager to build a modern world.
During the 1970s the surprising attempt to (re)evaluate the socialist realist thinking in architecture emerged in several debates published by different architectural magazines (see Architese, Architecture d’Aujour’hui1). This found the very strong position of Anatole Kopp2 and Claude Schnaidt who emphasised the falseness of socialist realist architecture and the actual disjunction between its aesthetic aspect and the true reality behind the political system that was behind socialist realism. In his book The Future of Architecture (2012), Jean Louis Cohen includes manifestations such as socialist realist architecture in a more general ‘spectrum of classicisms and traditionalisms’ of the late interwar period; pointing to the idea that socialist realist architecture might represent ‘the most theoretically complex form of classicism3’. Meanwhile, the post-war period is seen within its conflict with the ‘diffusion of modernism4’.
In fact, after the Second World War, the theory of socialist realism was adjusted in order to cover the ‘newly conquered’ territories. In the 1930s the socialist realist theory meant the selection (politically referenced) of the most relevant universal architectural tradition, while, around the 1950s5 the socialist realist architecture was intended to be a language (instrument) of the political regime, easier to be understood by the masses and directly reflected in the territorial (local / national) characteristics6. That meant the inclusion of much more explicit symbolic elements in the ornamental display, a reduction of the expressive details and a reference to the local tradition.
Artificial, or perhaps sometimes genuine, debates over the proper traditional sources of the ‘national form’ of (socialist realist) architecture replaced the liberal discourse over the modernity in the Eastern Europe. Elements of the local renaissance were reiterated in the architecture of the administrative buildings of the new industrial town of Nowa Huta (Poland), details of local baroque adorned the block of flats in the industrial town of Câmpia Turzii (Romania) and so on. These architectural productions were (and are still) generally seen as direct results of a politically conceived and controlled theory/mechanism7. In support of this perspective it must be noted that sometimes deviations from the political directions were harshly criticized8; since works considered certified were abundantly published and became symbols and the exemplary models to be followed9.
There is still an important amount of examples that were not entirely considered fitted for bearing the political message and not entirely deviant; they are sometimes illustrating a thinking that remained in between the traditional approaches of the late interwar period and the new requirements for the ‘national form’. Some arbitrary examples for the Romanian case: the residential areas of low rise block of flats in Hunedoara or Năvodari, different projects for train stations or specific examples as the Workers’ Palace in Reșița.
Such a perspective could (partially) offer an alternative to the idea of the intimate relation between the political thinking and the architectural form (that eliminates any possible consideration for the formal aspect) by rethinking the formal aspect as a link to the previous architectural practice. On the other hand a (re)evaluation of socialist realist architecture should consider a perspective that accepts the existence of an inconvenient past, without denying it.
1. Reference to the subject in: Jean Louis Cohen, ”Le détour par l’Italie” in Esprit, nr. 109, 1985; Michael Hays ed., Architecture Theory since 1968, the MIT University Press, 1998.
2. During the 70s Anatole Kopp published three of the crucial books on the architecture and urban thinking of the 20s in Russia and on the Stalinist architecture.
3. Jean Louis Cohen, The Future of Architecture. Since 1889, Ed. Phaidon, 2012, p. 212, 214; chapter 17 of the book is entitled „The spectrum of classicisms and traditionalisms” and the author points out the resistance to the modernist movement indicating the diversity of approaches of the classicism and of the local tradition.
4. Ibidem, p. 358.
5. It is a common knowledge that after the second World War, the Socialist Realism was imposed to the Eastern European countries that where under the influence of the Stalinist regime; having in most of the cases, as climax the year 1952 and as coda, the years that followed the notorious discourse of Nikita Khrushchev (1954).
6. The slogan „socialist in content, national in form” was used to synthetically explain and spread the notion of Socialist Realism.
7. Specifically Socialis Realism was explain as being a „method” not an act of creation in order to explain the conjunction between the politics and the formal expression of any kind of art.
8. In the Romanian context at least two cases can be emphasized: the case of modernist architect Henrietta Delavrancea Gibory who explained in an article of Arhitectura magazine, in a self critical manner, her misunderstanding of the socialist realist ideas or the case of the National Opera House (architect Octav Doicescu) that was the subject of an acid critique in the party’s main journal and that suffered a transformation of the façade immediately after.
9. The dissemination of the exemplary model was a made through a complex system of propaganda through exhibitions, publications, visual materials and journal articles.