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Sanctioning Modernism

Sanctioning Modernism
Architecture and the Making of Postwar Identities

With new research on building programs in political, religious, and domestic settings in the United States and Europe, this collection of essays offers a fresh look at postwar modernism and the role that architecture played in constructing modern identities.

Series: Roger Fullington Endowment in Architecture

June 2014
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304 pages | 7 x 10 |

In the decades following World War II, modern architecture spread around the globe alongside increased modernization, urbanization, and postwar reconstruction—and it eventually won widespread acceptance. But as the limitations of conventional conceptions of modernism became apparent, modern architecture has come under increasing criticism. In this collection of essays, experienced and emerging scholars take a fresh look at postwar modern architecture by asking what it meant to be “modern,” what role modern architecture played in constructing modern identities, and who sanctioned (or was sanctioned by) modernism in architecture.

This volume presents focused case studies of modern architecture in three realms—political, religious, and domestic—that address our very essence as human beings. Several essays explore developments in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia and document a modernist design culture that crossed political barriers, such as the Iron Curtain, more readily than previously imagined. Other essays investigate various efforts to reconcile the concerns of modernist architects with the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian institutions. And a final group of essays looks at postwar homebuilding in the United States and demonstrates how malleable and contested the image of the American home was in the mid-twentieth century. These inquiries show the limits of canonical views of modern architecture and reveal instead how civic institutions, ecclesiastical traditions, individual consumers, and others sought to sanction the forms and ideas of modern architecture in the service of their respective claims or desires to be modern.



Frederick Steiner


Vladimir Kulić, Timothy Parker, and Monica Penick


Introduction. Writing History: Reflections on the Story of Midcentury Modern Architecture

Dennis P. Doordan

Part I. Modernism and the State


Vladimir Kulić

1. Bucharest: The City Transfigured

Juliana Maxim

2. The Scope of Socialist Modernism: Architecture and State Representation in Postwar Yugoslavia

Vladimir Kulić

3. Czechoslovakia's Model Housing Developments: Modern Architecture for the Socialist Future

Kimberly Elman Zarecor

4. Sanctioning Modernism and Tradition: Italian Architecture, the Vernacular, and the State

Michelangelo Sabatino

Part II. Making Religion Modern


Timothy Parker

5. Uncertainty and the Modern Church: Two Roman Catholic Cathedrals in Britain

Robert Proctor

6. "Humanly sublime tensions": Luigi Moretti's Chiesa del Concilio (1965–1970)

Timothy Parker

7. Modernism and the Concept of Reform: Liturgy and Liturgical Architecture

Richard Kieckhefer

Part III: Modernism and Domesticity


Monica Penick

8. "Technologically" Modern: The Prefabricated House and the Wartime Experience of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

Hyun-Tae Jung

9. "Modern but not too modern": House Beautiful and the American Style

Monica Penick

10. House and Haunted Garden

Sandy Isenstadt

Further Reading


Vladimir Kulic is Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale. He is the coauthor of Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia and the coeditor of Unfinished Modernizations—Between Utopia and Pragmatism: Architecture and Urban Planning in the Former Yugoslavia and the Successor States.Timothy Parker is Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture and Art at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont.Monica Penick is Assistant Professor in Design Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.



Writing History

Reflections on the Story of Midcentury Modern Architecture

Dennis P. Doordan

In a park-like setting along New York City's East River the United Nations stands proudly as an enduring symbol of . . . what? Today the UN buildings are assailed by some as the sinister architectural symbol of a new world order that threatens to strip nations of sovereign control over their own affairs. For others, the pristine geometry and midcentury palette of materials and artworks serve as a poignant reminder of the naïve hopes and disappointing achievements that trail in the wake of the promise of a new peaceful world order rising phoenix-like from the ashes of World War II. Six decades ago, the aluminum and glass curtain wall of the Secretariat Building and the daring design of the General Assembly Building heralded a new direction in postwar design and declared the triumph of modernism in architecture. Or did it? No one doubted the significance of the United Nations design. Writing in the pages of Architectural Record, Henry Stern Churchill called it "probably the most important architectural work of the century."

But "important" did not necessarily mean good, and critics were quick to take issue with various aspects of the planning and design of the United Nations. After describing the novel features of the building, Churchill finally concluded that it still lacked something essential: emotional resonance. He concluded:

The planning of the UN group is a triumph of clarity and ingenuity. . . . It is a triumph of technical skill, of structural ability, of mechanical engineering. . . . It is, in other words, a very fine example of American architectural skill. It is not, however, much more than that; and perhaps it could not be. . . . The failure is not the fault of the architects, but of the time in which no emotional symbols are possible because there is no deep belief, no emotional content in our lives.

Even ardent champions of the kind of clarity, ingenuity, and technological sophistication to be found in the UN design expressed concerns about the way building activity was developing in the 1950s. A sense of unease, for example, comes through in some of Walter Gropius's writings and speeches of that era:

After the revolution in our own ranks, which has brought clarification, we seem to be set for a new creative effort. So it might be appropriate to investigate how far our professional framework fits the condition of our times. . . . Let's see if the gigantic shift in the means of production has been sufficiently recognized by us. . . . The architect is in a very real danger of losing his grip in competition with the engineer, the scientist and the builders.

Henry Stern Churchill and Walter Gropius were hardly lonely figures trying to hold back the march of progress. They are representative of the professional culture to which they belonged, a culture wrestling with the uneasy feeling that too many of its triumphs bore signs of failure as well as success and too many of their critical assessments betrayed doubts as well as certainty.

The mid–twentieth century marked the emergence of modernist theory and architecture as the dominant force in design practice and education. Alternative design ideologies—traditional building, eclecticism, craft-based work—survived but occupied peripheral or minority positions within architectural culture. This was an international architectural culture dominated by a concern for the following:

  • The rationalization and the modernization of design thinking and architectural education
  • The institutionalization of modernist planning principles (ultimately derived from the work of influential architects like Le Corbusier and organizations like the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne
  • The industrialization of architectural production (to whatever degree the local economic and technological infrastructure could support)
  • The celebration of distinctively modern conceptions of creativity (which privileges novelty and invention over the refinement and extension of traditional formal vocabularies)

But as the remarks by Churchill and Gropius cited above suggest, to speak of an international culture of modernism does not require that we accept the idea that this culture was monolithic or uniform. As readers of this collection will note, at times the modernization campaigns that drove urban planning and social housing efforts were promoted as vital steps toward fostering egalitarianism in modern mass society. But the West held no monopoly on claims regarding the political significance of modern architecture. Juliana Maxim describes how plans for the redevelopment of the Floreasca quarter of Bucharest in the late 1950s and 1960s were interpreted as the vivid demonstration of modern design's ability to serve as the emblem of socialism's commitment to the sweeping transformation of Romania. The temptation to dismiss the official rhetoric surrounding these modernist-inspired planning efforts as the cynical manipulation of artistic ideals to promote different—and contending-.political ideologies must be resisted. The end of World War II brought new opportunities for architects to participate in both the social and physical rebuilding of war-torn cities, but it did not bring a new consensus on fundamental questions concerning the relationship between political and architectural ideologies, the optimal way to integrate technology and design, or the organization of the professional practice. What it meant to be modern remained an open-ended question of tremendous concern to various constituencies and one that, inevitably, generated multiple answers.

It is against this background of promise and frustration that the articles collected in this anthology should be read. This collection grew out of a 2007 symposium, "Sanctioning Modernism," organized by the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. Two goals shaped the effort: presenting new scholarship on a series of specific architects and projects that belong to the mid-twentieth century, and exploring the implications of this new research for the writing of history. In the press release promoting the symposium, the organizers noted that the history of modernism in architecture has now been told many times, but the result, they lamented, consisted of "reductive partisan histories" and "an impoverished canonical view of modernism." In contrast, the material in this collection significantly enriches our understanding of mid.twentieth-century developments in modern architecture. The authors make a collective claim that this material constitutes an important chapter in the history of modernism. Beyond the light these chapters shed on specific design campaigns, this anthology prompts us to reconsider some of the common assumptions that have shaped popular accounts of modern architecture. The traditional grand narrative associated with modernism describes how a version of the International Style triumphs in the United States and Western Europe. This narrative then juxtaposes a triumphant modernism in the West to a regressive Socialist Realism imposed heavy-handedly on the socialist bloc of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In place of this familiar scenario, the contributors to this anthology describe a more complex, nuanced picture of greater diversity within modernist architectural culture. In this effort they are aligned with those architectural historians who call into question the very possibility of writing a canonical history of modern architecture.

Canonical histories of architecture identify sets of paradigmatic examples that distill collective judgments of quality. As such, canonical history represents a definitive summation not just of what constitutes the best work of a period but also the correct way to perceive the design strategies and cultural values embodied in that work. Canonical histories thus constitute an intellectual "point of arrival": study these architects, buildings, and events and you will know the subject. Ideally, the values that shaped the formation of the canon go on to inform future historical scholarship, while fidelity to the paradigms presented is one important criterion employed by architects and critics to validate new designs. As the symposium's organizers recognized, the canonical account of architectural modernism had been under assault for more than three decades from multiple critical perspectives. Historians began to investigate the status of women within the architectural profession, recover their contribution, and decipher the encoding of gender roles and identities within the built environment. Critics of Eurocentrism called for a more nuanced appreciation of the relationship between centers and peripheries of industrial production and cultural consumption, while scholars of colonial and postcolonial experiences explored the role of architecture in the formation and maintenance of ethnic, racial, and national identities. The rise of structuralist and poststructuralist discourses opened up the discussion of the production of design theory and its role in shaping architectural practice. More recently, the revival of interest in classical and traditional architecture and the emergence of environmentally oriented critiques have pointed to vast lacunae in the historical assessment. For their part, the contributors to this anthology focused their investigations on the mid-twentieth century, a period, as they argue persuasively, that is full of opportunities for discovery.

The critique of canon production as the goal of history, though useful and, indeed, necessary, leaves open an important question. If the purpose of compiling a history of modern architecture is not just the validation of a single design orientation (i.e., modernism) through the certification of a canon, then to what end is the endeavor? How else can the historian's task be conceptualized? The answer to this question begins with recognizing that beyond satisfying immediate needs for shelter and service, every building is an argument concerning how the world might be. "Modern but not too modern," the title of Monica Penick's essay, neatly captures this. Her essay explores the role of critics like House Beautiful's Elizabeth Gordon in setting the terms of the debate. Indeed, the contributions by Hyun-Tae Jung and Sandy Isenstadt vividly demonstrate just how malleable and contested the image of the American home was in mid–twentieth-century America.

At any given moment in time, different conceptions coexist of how the world might be. The respective merits of these conceptions are continually debated by architects, their clients and patrons, critics, design educators, and the general public. Rather than anointing some supposed "winners" in an epochal struggle to control the future, architectural history can serve as the thoughtful, probing record of the debate among various constituencies regarding how to conceptualize, fabricate, and evaluate the built environment. Such an approach to history is essentially pluralist in nature, treats diversity in architecture as a sign of vitality rather than confusion, and offers readers an intelligible portrait of complexity in place of a simplistic rendering of the past.

So what debates were recovered for us in this collection? The answer begins with the title of this anthology, Sanctioning Modernism. The symposium organizers employed the term "sanctioning" in its positive meaning as authoritative approval (rather than the more negative use of the term to identify coercive or punitive restrictions). Who indeed sanctioned modernism or, for that matter, withheld its sanction? The roles of the state and various political entities figure prominently in this collection. Several chapters explore developments in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia and document a modernist design culture that crossed political barriers such as the Iron Curtain more readily than perhaps has been previously imagined. But the ability to sanction was not reserved exclusively to organs of the state (indeed it never has been in the modern era). Corporate entities through their patronage, academic institutions through their role in shaping the knowledge base for architecture and planning, industrial concerns through their ability (or, in some cases, inability) to shape the material basis for architectural production, and the professional and popular press that is so instrumental in shaping public perception and understanding and framing cultural debate must all be factored into the study of who sanctions modern architecture.

The inclusion of material treating developments in Eastern Europe warrants an observation about the politics of writing history. The presentation in English of fresh research on national experiences in the former Eastern bloc is a relatively recent development in the historiography of modern architecture and sheds some light on the political context within which the writing of history is embedded. I am thinking here not of the overt ideological censorship of scholarly writing but rather of the limitations on scholarly activity imposed by the Cold War division of Europe into two antagonistic blocs. When, for example, I began my doctoral research at Columbia University in the late 1970s, opportunities for American graduate students to travel and conduct archival research behind the Iron Curtain were so constrained that it simply was not viable to propose dissertation topics in certain areas. Was my generation of graduate students aware that there were missing chapters in the account of modern architecture? Certainly. Could we go to Bucharest or Prague or Moscow and gain ready access to state and municipal archives? At that time, certainly not. The writing of history does not occur in a vacuum, and each generation of historians must contend with what is possible and accessible as well as with what is needed and available.

There is one additional entry to the above list of sanctioning bodies to be acknowledged: religious institutions. Three of the chapters in this collection explore various efforts to reconcile the concerns of modernist architects with the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The sheer volume of church building going on in parts of Europe and America in the third quarter of the twentieth century is noteworthy. Demographic changes left the existing building stock of churches in the traditional urban centers increasingly isolated from the actual communities they were intended to serve. The centro storico of Italian cities like Rome and Milan, for example, are amply provided with church building, but the new neighborhoods that sprang up on the urban periphery created a corresponding demand for new facilities. Demographic change is one of the drivers of architectural production. Efforts to address this need in Italy and elsewhere brought modern architects into contact with a set of questions that went to the core of the debate over what it meant to be modern. Could the emerging rational secular culture of modernism and the enduring faith-based culture of institutional religion reach a fruitful accommodation? Was there a metaphysical dimension to modernism that could be articulated sufficiently to sustain a constructive dialogue with the intellectual traditions of established faith? Could, in the cases examined in this anthology, the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations trust and learn from the modernists to conceptualize institutional reform in terms of innovation rather than as a purifying return to earlier practices?

As the work presented here demonstrates, the past is as complex as the present. We should not be surprised to learn that what "sanctioned" modern architecture, that is, what arguments served to validate design decisions, varied from context to context. Beyond compiling a simple chronicle of who built what when and where, historians seek understanding through reflecting upon what people found persuasive as they struggled, as each generation must, with fundamental questions of how we can shape the built environment to serve human purposes and satisfy human needs.

Part I

Modernism and the State


Vladimir Kulić

During the two decades following World War II, various political entities across the world adopted modernist architecture in its different guises both for representational purposes and as an instrument of modernization. The period thus stood in contrast with the interwar years, when modernists struggled to attract official support, especially after the turbulent alliance between the avant-gardes and the varied central and local governments of the 1920s dissolved under the rising totalitarian forces. It was only in a few places such as Czechoslovakia and Turkey that architectural modernism before World War II was consistently accepted as the "official style" of political representation.

By the late 1950s, however, states worldwide discovered that their own interests aligned with the logic of what historian James C. Scott called "high modernism": "a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress." The most poignant product of such an alignment, according to Scott, was the modern clean-slate city, laid out in accordance with the principles formulated by the gurus of modernism like Le Corbusier. Indeed, from Brasilia to Chandigarh and from New Belgrade to Albany, "high modernism" became the architecture of choice for state representation, as well as a device through which vastly different modernization projects were carried out. There was, however, nothing inherently natural about this alliance, as it was forged through a variety of specific dynamics and for a range of motivations, often dictated more by circumstances and pragmatic concerns than by the ideal principles.

Fragments of this complex history are already known: most notably, recent scholarship has uncovered how modernist architecture and design became enlisted in the "cultural Cold War," especially on the Western side of the confrontation. The story, however, is far from complete even if one limits the perspective to the developed capitalist countries; when the view expands to the so-called second-and third–world countries, the dynamics appear to be almost completely unknown. Of course, modernism was by no means a monolithic phenomenon either, and it acquired a particularly rich repertoire of forms after World War II, making the story of its mobilization for political purposes even more complicated.

The chapters that follow in this section focus on the politically complex region of east-central and southern Europe, which comprised countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain, including one, Yugoslavia, which straddled that divide. These countries shared many historical intersections yet occupied very different positions on the geopolitical map of the Cold War, making them particularly suited for comparison. At the same time, the case studies explored here also highlight the fact that architectural modernism had many facets that cannot be reduced to a single monolithic description. Instead, the modernist paradigm comprised a great variety of expressions, motivations, and connotations, thus defying the stereotype of a universally applicable and politically neutral "International Style." If Italian architects sought to maintain a vital link with vernacular traditions as a way to elude rationalism's prewar association with the Fascist state, in Romania architects severed any connections with the past in order to signify the establishment of a new society. If in Czechoslovakia the state aspired to efficient standardization and typification of architecture, in Yugoslavia it embraced diverse modes of representation to buttress its internal and external legitimacy. The following four essays explore these diverse meanings of architecture as a way to problematize the complex relationships between modernism and the state after World War II.


The City Transfigured

Juliana Maxim 

Between Decay and Reconstruction: The Floreasca Neighborhood 

On an April morning . . . a group of young architects and workers strolled through the [Floreasca district] around Rachmaninoff Street, which had once been deserted. They passed through three large plazas, through wide interior courts, which opened towards perspectives similar to Renaissance architectural visions. Teams of men and women were planting trees and flowers. They stopped in front of the colonnade of a large theater in neoclassical style. They walked along storefronts. In a library window was an art book titled Projects for a Socialist City. . . . They came to the lake, and on its shores, raised miraculously between air and water, was the Palace of Culture that the sun, shining on the hundreds of windows, seemed to cover in diamonds.

I walk along lines of housing blocks, through the courtyards filled with flowers. . . . In the distance other blocks are being built. There are plans for 80 of them. 

. . . Already 15 are inhabited. A small town.

I enter block number 7, by chance.

Fancy that! You need only turn a valve to heat the radiator. You light a match and the gas stove warms up. You light another match, down in the laundry room, and the water heater starts boiling. You turn a faucet, and warm water fills the ceramic tub. You turn another one and hot water reaches the dishwasher in the kitchen. You press a button, and garbage disappears, down to the incinerator. Thus live now the workers leading production lines, along with their families. Or even the functionaries. Or the intellectuals.

Floreasca--where a real town stands by the park which replaced the abject pit of yore.

The capital of the Romanian socialist state was described in the postwar decades as a place of beauty, order, and healthy comforts. The literature of the time abounded with edifying stories about a Bucharest where ordinary people, after long struggles, built contented, wholesome lives. Although highly ideological, these accounts testify nonetheless to the hold that the idea of a modern, clean, and efficient city had on the popular imagination, and to the central role architecture was granted in imagining and defining a socialist reality. The Floreasca district described in the opening quotes was one such place that accrued significant power in the symbolic landscape of postwar Bucharest and helped to shape the discourse about the socialist city in terms of awe-inspiring order, collective well.being, and radical transformation (figure 1.1). 

By contrast, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the West's encounter with the socialist built environment has been characterized by a sense of horror: 

Soviet-style apartment blocks are abundant. . . . They are gray and gloomy, the structural equivalent of a cloudy, motionless sky. We visited one [Bucharest] community where families were living in such apartments. No water. No electricity. Garbage spread out thickly across the courtyards, its stench hovering on the breeze. . . . No one on earth, not a single one of God's children anywhere, should ever have to live in arrangements anywhere close to what I found in this urban slum of Bucharest.

Solutions are sought for fixing, improving, recycling, adapting, and humanizing these drab, gray, uninspiring bedroom communities.

In recent years, Romanian public opinion has come to regard Bucharest's numerous mass housing projects as a powerful metaphor for the disintegration of the system itself. Thus in a recent wave of Romanian movies that received broad international attention, it is the spaces themselves--bleak, ill-lit, deteriorated, Kafkaesque--that function as the primary visual signifiers of socialism. In films like Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu of 2005, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest of 2006, and Christian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days of 2007, to name just a few, the camera uses the ravaged textures and endless concrete surfaces that encased life under socialism as chief expressive devices for gloom.

For the historian, however, the dismay the socialist city now conventionally triggers is but a poignant iteration of the outrage and repulsion that the newly installed Communist regime had expressed toward the laissez-faire capitalist city it inherited in 1948. As Bucharest's socialist housing projects become, in the imagination of the twenty-first century, the stand-in for urban misery and political failure, it is necessary to tell how the socialist urban project arose in the 1950s from an equally forceful criticism of the poverty, filth, overcrowding, and social and material injustice in the capitalist city. The long view on a development such as Floreasca shows how cycles of perceived decay and reconstruction overlap with cycles of political change, complicating the current condemnation of socialist mass housing: the Communist political and architectural project now seen as having brought misery and oppression to its inhabitants originated in an earnest effort to eliminate precisely those same conditions. Despite the West's revulsion at the monotonous landscape of the socialist housing districts, socialist city planning shared most of the modernist ideals, models, metaphors, and attitudes toward tradition. In its rise and fall, the story of the socialist city is also, in many ways, the story of modernism itself.

In the case of Bucharest, the socialist regime that came to power immediately after World War II inherited a dramatically increased urban population and a severe housing shortage that had led, in the 1930s and 1940s, to an explosion of unregulated shack-towns around the historical center. The architectural solutions and the accompanying rhetoric that have come to define the socialist city were in large part responses to the acute economic disparities reflected in the ring of slums surrounding its prosperous core. In particular, the juxtaposition between the extremes of opulence and misery offered a formidable condemnation of the defunct capitalist order: 

To the city's visitors, the center would appear with large boulevards bordered with elegant villas and tall buildings, while the periphery lacked all infrastructure. . . . This characteristic of the built environment in Bucharest perfectly represents the regime of exploitation. Between center and periphery, the bourgeoisie had erected insurmountable barriers.

In the articulate critique of Bucharest's "anarchic development" and in the systematic solutions for its blighted peripheries--which came only in part as directives from finds, recycled and amplified, key principles of modernist planning. The city that the political and professional Communist elites erected on the wastelands of capitalism became, without any acknowledgment, one of the important laboratories for the application of modernist ideas regarding the city. As a result, the aging socialist districts currently dismissed as slums cannot be seen simply as proof of a political system's failure, but need to be examined in the larger historical context of the Modern Movement. 

The socialist development of Floreasca between 1956 and 1963 on the northern edge of Bucharest illustrates with particular poignancy how the negative view of the preexisting city, understood as unjust and class-based, found a natural ally in rationalist urban planning. Before the advent of the socialist regime in 1948, Floreasca had been one the most infamous shantytowns of Bucharest, and G. C\alinescu's resplendent architectural vision quoted at the beginning of this essay began amidst mud and weeds: 

Rachmaninoff Street was, at the extremity that opened on the [Floreasca] lake, a simple country road that ran between an earthen shore and a row of tall chestnut trees, next to which stood the fences of houses built on perpendicular streets as well as the walls of a former race horses' stable. Often, piles of hay and litter filled the air with a hybrid smell of freshly cut grass and acrid putrefaction. The streets that ran toward the lake carried boyars' names. . . . The earthen shore across the row of chestnut trees was, in summertime, covered in weeds grazed by the cattle of the surrounding inhabitants. On top of a hill stood the desolate red ruin of an abandoned house. Both the dirt road and the land next to the shore belonged to a subdivision that had been abandoned because of the [World War II] events. . . . Further down, the street was paved and had sewers, but was almost without any houses, as were the other streets of the subdivision. . . . Weeds came out irrepressibly through the pavement cracks, as if they wished to clean the earth's surface of its crust of stone. . . . An old rooster led its hens throughout this neighborhood that had been abandoned before being born. Some goats and their kids grazed in the summer, and often a herd of muddy sheep led by a shepherd took over this wild place.

This description of presocialist Floreasca, together with the long celebratory quote at the beginning of this essay, frame one of the most popular Romanian novels of the 1960s, C'alinescu's Black Chest. The book relies on Floreasca's wondrous transformation from slum to workers' promised land to guide a vivid aristocracy's demise and the rise of a generation of young, idealist, diligent workers. While C'alinescu gently derides old Floreasca (and, by extension, much of old Bucharest) for its decrepit, rural air unsuited for a capital, other writings of the 1950s and 1960s openly denounce it as filthy and degraded--similarly presenting its degradation as evidence of the shortcomings of a previous political order. Despite being relatively close to the city center, presocialist Floreasca had no water or sewer lines, and its unpaved streets were lined with humid, dark, and poorly ventilated lodgings, often situated below street level. Year-round residents were workers, small artisans, or low-level functionaries who, unable to afford a room of their own, lived in dorm-like rooms where ten to fifteen people slept. Floreasca was bordered to the north by an infamous garbage dump (the "Floreasca pit") that attracted a population of ragpickers and, in wintertime, gypsies, the Romanian ethnic minority often stereotyped as lawless and wild (figure 1.2).

Thus built on the site of a slum, socialist Floreasca not only provided affordable modern housing to a new group of residents but also staged a quasi-alchemical transmutation of garbage into a garden, and of a primitive village into a modern city. As I will try to show, the modernism of the newly planned communities such as Floreasca was intended not only to solve with speed and efficiency the need for housing but also to counteract the irrational, uneven development characteristic of the old capital city under the fickle laws of the market. Images and texts of the time always contrast the newfound sense of order and prosperity with the preceding dejection and neglect. Photos of Floreasca, for instance, were carefully cropped to include hints of the old city, which is meant to appear in all its poverty, inefficiency, and obsolescence, while written sources preface descriptions of socialist architecture with accounts of the city's lamentable past (figure 1.3). Indeed, the conflict between the old order and the new one, and the victory of the second over the first, was one of the principal regulating metaphors of the Communist political sphere, and as such needed to be reflected again and again in aspects of everyday reality. The development of Floreasca between 1956 and 1963 illustrates how this ideological economy of struggle and transformation was progressively articulated in specific (and specifically modernist) architectural and urban terms--many of which came to define the socialist conception of the city. 

Eventually, parts of Floreasca would also come to illustrate the reverse transformation, and today the cycle of decay, reconstruction, and decay is complete. Poorly maintained since the demise of the socialist state, the white towers have begun to peel and rust. The original smooth facades are now poked through with antennas and air conditioners, the orderly rhythm of loggias permanently disrupted by the accretion of screens, curtains, and canopies. The lawns are scrawny and soiled with garbage. Nature itself seemed to have taken its revenge, drowning the geometrical clarity of the towers with overgrown masses of greenery. Like in C\alinescu's presocialist Floreasca, weeds push through the broken pavement.

The example of Floreasca shows the extent to which the socialist city is framed through comparisons that foreground striking differences and ruptures rather than continuities. In the 1960s a place such as Floreasca represented the unquestionable triumph of socialist centralized intervention over laissez-faire dereliction; a generation later, in the 1990s, socialist mass housing was now used to demonstrate the flagrant shortcomings of Soviet-style state control over architecture. The contrasting tropes of renewal and decay, order and disorder, utopia and dystopic failure, and collectivity and anonymity repeatedly pit the urban ambitions of the socialist state against Western capitalist urban forms. I wish to show instead that the socialist city also belongs firmly within industrial capitalist urban models and their corresponding ideology of progress and rational dominion over the environment. Despite the rhetoric of antagonism, many links tie the postwar socialist city to earlier discussions of the modern urban experience that occupied Western European architects and political powers in the first half of the twentieth century. Floreasca, in all its embodiments--before, during, and after socialism--offers the opportunity to reflect on approaches to the city that had been attempted much before and far beyond socialism's rise to power in Romania. 

Socialist Urbanism: Master Plans and Legislation 

Bucharest's transformation into a socialist city in the 1950s and 1960s resulted from the regime's uncompromising recourse to centralized planning, which, in the case of the capital, materialized in a series of master plans for its development. Seen as total and rational, the master plan and the pieces of legislation that accompanied it emerged in a climate of fierce condemnation for spontaneous, unregimented growth, which had produced most of the city's existing residential fabric. The plan also reflected a desire to eradicate old settlements that at times superseded even the more pressing need for housing. 

In search of systems for cheap and rapid housing construction, and needing to clean up and reshape the city, the socialist architects abandoned the problem of giving form to single elements and instead embraced the city as the real unit of production. Methods of design and construction were rigorously standardized, leading to a sweeping transformation of the entire architectural discipline. These measures rapidly replaced a type of urban growth based on the small, individual, and endlessly variable dwellings that characterized most of old Bucharest with large-scale architectural projects commissioned by the state and based on standard types and series, technological efficiency, and economy. 

The newly installed socialist regime in Romania made its first attempt at regulating city form with Resolution 2448 of November 1952, issued by the Party's Central Committee and titled "Concerning the general plan for the socialist reconstruction of the city of Bucharest." The resolution's scope was all-encompassing and established a structure of commissions and committees through which all architectural activity, from construction details to urban form, was to become state-funded and controlled. A State Committee for Architecture and Constructions (CSAC) was formed to vet and control all architectural and urban projects, with the goal to "ensure the application of a unitary line of principles throughout the field of architecture, and the systematization and construction of cities and constructions of all nature." The resolution also regulated both the scope and organization of architects' work: architectural collectives were to first produce a master plan to be approved at the state level and then work within its bounds to redevelop the capital. (The Central Committee approved the master plan for Bucharest in 1958 and passed numerous subsequent revisions.) The system of vast architectural projects funded by the state and carried out by numerous state design agencies overseen by the State Committee for Architecture and Constructions brought to an end all private commissions and private architectural practice. 

More significantly, the 1952 Resolution opened with a heavy-handed rhetorical outburst against the capitalist city: 

Towns and settlements throughout our country's territory have inherited a heavy burden from the bourgeois exploitative regime. Anarchically developed, according to the narrow-minded interests of the bourgeoisie and the landowners, our country's cities offered a striking contrast between the rich districts of the ruling classes and the poor ones, in which the workers lived in misery, in crumbling houses, without water, sewer, or light.

By contrast, the resolution envisioned the socialist capital as a unified territory that was to be scientifically and systematically planned to respond to the needs of the workers and to remedy spatial inequalities. The resolution required that the size of the city be controlled and its perimeter fixed once and for all, which meant that all new development would be achieved through the densification of the existing urban territory. The resolution, along with countless other documents of the time, also insisted on achieving a certain architectural unity within the city to correct its existing contrasts. (One of the earliest applications of that principle was to establish a uniform building height along all of the boulevards crossing the city, unlike the more common model of the city as a pyramid in which buildings grow taller toward the center.) The resolution also called for erasing the contrast between center and periphery not only visually but also in terms of quality of construction, infrastructure, and services. For that purpose, daycare centers, schools, medical facilities, stores, markets, post offices, and other collective programs needed to be distributed "rationally" and equally throughout the city. The regulation, along with the master plan that subsequently emerged from it, also divided the city for the first time into single-function zones, such as the one that situated heavy industry on the city's outskirts. Similarly, extensive attention was given to creating and planning green spaces, resulting in a complex system of parks, from small neighborhood squares to a botanical garden, connected in a continuous green zone that served the "recreation needs of the workers." 

Finally, the resolution contained specific indications about the large-scale planning and construction of housing. To that effect, it introduced the notion of complex, multifunctional residential ensembles generically named cvartal. These small territorial units rapidly became the planning device of choice in developing the socialist city and, as Floreasca well illustrates, the object of intense experimentation, adaptation, and evolution over the next two decades. At the time of the 1952 Resolution, the cvartal was defined as ranging between five and ten hectares in size, with spaces allowed for gardens and small parks. The density and height of the residential buildings were also specified--though in practice these guidelines were applied with significant variation. 

Although never acknowledged as such, the 1952 Resolution was for all practical purposes the first official endorsement of certain modernist principles in an architectural historical line that previously had been colored by antimodernist sentiment. The resolution was indeed radically rewriting a previous master plan for Bucharest, which in 1935 had timidly tried to address disastrous housing conditions by legislating city limits, although that plan had remained largely unimplemented. The 1935 Master Plan had designated the traditional single-family, two-story house, with a common parting wall on one side and a garden at the back, as the most appropriate residential building type for the urban population. In the same stroke, the 1935 plan had declared the apartment building as unfit for Romanian workers, who were deemed still essentially rural in their mentality and habits. The text also warned that apartment living swayed its tenants toward Communism, while ownership of individual lots created a bond between the citizen and the land that counteracted Communist tendencies and was therefore preferable. The important differences regarding the typology of the workers' housing between the 1935 Master Plan and the 1952 Resolution are key in understanding the socialist architectural agenda: while the first insisted on the single-family house with its individual plot of land and the swaying importance of private property, the second advocated groups of industrially produced residential blocks and collective spaces. In both cases, however, housing was seen as having the power to transform the mind-set of its inhabitants and therefore the structure of society as a whole. 

After the 1952 Resolution, the Floreasca district underwent several stages of construction that illustrate the successive answers architects provided during the 1950s to the call for a "scientific and systematic planning of the city." By 1956, eighty-five apartment buildings had already been built (see figure 1.3). This first stage of development represented one of the new regime's first major projects in the capital and provided one of the earliest and most publicized applications of the cvartal. It also demonstrated the socialist state's forceful rewriting of prewar legacies. The project occupied a preexisting street grid initially destined to contain individual villas (as described by C\alinescu) but canceled the original division of land by moving individual residential lots into larger land holdings that could accommodate an environment of apartment buildings and collective open spaces. 

The Cvartal and Modernist Planning 

The cvartal was the principal channel through which principles of the modern movement were progressively activated on a large scale in Romania, even during a period conventionally considered to have been entirely dominated by the Socialist Realist doctrine exported by Moscow. Indeed, the cvartal of the 1950s joined together concerns for monumentality and classical composition with radically rationalist design solutions. 

Writing about Floreasca in 1969, architectural historian G. Ionescu described it as "a little town able to accommodate 11,000 residents; it contains 5 large groups in which most of the housing blocks are placed linearly along the streets of the existing subdivision. Most of these blocks are built from IPB standardized units, have a uniform height of 3 floors plus ground floor, and occupy 30% of the ground surface, resulting in a net density of 450 inhabitants per hectare." The early Floreasca was indeed a small world of neat, similar residential blocks on four levels, rigidly aligned along a street grid. The project successfully transformed what had been destined to become single-family houses into a dense collective dwelling environment boasting exceptional comforts for the time, such as modern kitchens, running hot water, new schools, and a cinema. The planning of the district and the design of the housing blocks were devised on strict scientific principles (such as, for instance, the IPB [Institut Proiect Bucure\\sti] standardized construction modules, or the tightly quantified ratios and densities), but the economy of its construction and design coexisted with a monumental impulse. The composition of the district seems caught between the solution of a homogeneous grid, extendable according to need, and a composition built around an emphatic, Renaissance-like center, in this case marked by the cinema (figure 1.4). 

The buildings are simple rectangular prisms, but their upper edges end in projecting cornices that read like an apology for the lack of a more prominent roof. Windows and doors are framed in relief, also in resistance to the unrelenting flatness of the walls; a concrete molding wraps around each building in order to suggest a plinth, and the treatment of the buildings' surface imitates the joints of stonework (figure 1.5). All these elements signified, albeit in a simplified form, that the classical vocabulary of building parts and urban spaces commonly associated with Socialist Realism existed, at least in the early 1950s, in awkward but nonetheless close conjunction with the modernist language of simplicity and economy and the abstract logic of standardization.

One could argue that the seemingly unresolved architectural identity of Floreasca can be attributed to the reorientation forced upon the architectural profession by Khrushchev's rise to power in the Soviet Union in 1954 and his open condemnation of Stalinist aesthetic culture. But a look at other cvartals designed in Romania between 1948 and 1955, well before the Khrushchev-mandated stylistic austerity, shows that their planning similarly involved both significant attention to the typification and standardization of building units and the industrialization of construction techniques, and extensive concern for ornamentation. For instance, an article explaining the planning of a housing district in the town of Bac.u in 1952 discussed at length the standardized units employed, boasting a rate of 80 percent standardization of design and construction (the standard units--tronson--specified both constructive systems and interior plans, and carried names such as "ISPROR nr 228-1953") while showing an equal fervor for the design and production of the capitals, volutes, and vegetal motifs in ceramic moldings that were to be applied on the facades.

The ambiguity that was built into the cvartal of the 1950s, and the overlap between what appear to be contradictory positions about architectural expression and city form, stem from the cvartal's complicated origin in the Soviet Union. The history of the cvartal is well beyond the scope of this essay, but its arrival on the Bucharest postwar planning scene is a good example of how architectural ideas formulated in the 1920s and early 1930s came to accommodate variable political and cultural contexts in the postwar. Indeed, the notion of cvartal that migrated to Romania in the early 1950s dated back to the 1930s. Exported by Moscow after World War II as the chief recipe for the socialist housing district, the cvartal was the result of early relations between the Soviet Union and the modernist avant-gardes. The theoretical and formal basis of the cvartal had been conceived at a time of close collaboration between European and Soviet architects between 1930 and 1934.

During the first Five-Year Plan (1928–1932) that marked the Soviet Union's grand turn toward industrialization, the government had systematically sought out and invited foreign architects and engineers to assist with the planning and building of new industrial centers and new socialist towns. The list of architects who spent several years in the Soviet Union, working alongside Soviet architects in newly formed central planning institutes, gives a sense of the extent to which the ideas of the early Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) generation, such as standardization and equitable distribution of space and low-cost mass housing, became intertwined with Soviet practices. Working in the Soviet Union in the 1930s were the Dutch J. B. van Loghem, the French André Lurçat, and the Czech Jaromír Krejcar, as well as two German teams, one under the direction of Hannes Meyer and composed of six young architects from the Bauhaus in Dessau, and one under the direction of Ernst May and composed of about twenty engineers and architects from Frankfurt (among them Walter Schwagenscheidt, Werner Hebebrand, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, the Dutch Mart Stam, the Hungarian Fred Forbat, and the Swiss Hans Schmidt). Many of these architects had been active participants in the early CIAM meetings at La Sarraz and Frankfurt, where the problem of "collective and methodical land policy," mass housing, and the conception of residential districts that integrated social and cultural institutions into a functional whole had first become matters of systematic research and debate. Although the spare and functional character of the districts and towns (such as Magnitogorsk) conceived by these planning brigades was strongly criticized during the monumentalist backlash of the late 1930s and 1940s, the Stalinist decades nonetheless retained the cvartal as the basic planning unit, and with it much of the earlier planning principles: the need to decentralize and increase density at the periphery, the need to standardize construction, and the cvartal's multifunctional aspect, with nurseries, shops, schools, and playgrounds arranged at walking distances from all housing. Thus the cvartal migrated to Romania in the early 1950s invested with a double legacy: on the one hand, the ideological and technical positions of the German-speaking avant-garde; on the other, the compositional attitudes of Stalinism.

The Soviet and postwar socialist regimes shared with this early CIAM generation not only concrete solutions for the organization of the city, but philosophical ones as well, such as the condemnation of individual ownership of urban land. Indeed, the CIAM members of the late 1920s and 1930s (and later, as shown, for instance, in Josep Luís Sert's writings of the 1940s) had denounced private property as the main obstacle to urban reconfiguration:19 "The chaotic division of land, resulting from sales, speculations, inheritances, must be abolished by a collective and methodical land policy," read the CIAM's initial declaration of 1928. The transformation of small, privately owned parcels into state-owned large landholdings destined for high-rise and high-density housing, and, equally important, an approach to housing at the scale of the neighborhood are but two principles of socialist planning that correspond closely with those of the early CIAM.

The important professional contributions of foreign architects to Soviet planning in the 1920s and 1930s meant that Romania's socialist urbanism of the 1950s and 1960s, under Moscow's direct influence, was in fact establishing important lines of continuity with interwar European modernist thought. It was under Moscow's impulse that the architectural profession in postwar Romania eventually embraced wholesale the rational urbanism of the avant-garde of the first half of the century, renouncing its own historical skepticism toward collective forms of habitation. Indeed, in Romania, the official architectural culture of the authoritarian socialist regime proved much closer to the interwar European modernist avant-garde than to its own presocialist past, which, as seen in the 1935 Master Plan, had feared modernist planning as a possible instrument of Communism.

Although praised for its capacity to achieve density, the early cvartals such as Floreasca in the 1950s were quickly criticized for the rigidity of their layout, the monotony of their buildings and of their geometrical grid, the failure to address the problem of parking, and ultimately for the failure to fully and rapidly adopt standardized and industrialized construction methods. By consequence, the design principles that had guided the development of Floreasca in the late 1950s were significantly revised. By 1963, six new residential towers signaled the beginning of a second wave of research and experimentation with housing that was to transform Bucharest profoundly throughout that decade (figure 1.6).

Buildings in a Garden: From Cvartal to Microraion

[The architect] dreamed of a miners' town; . . . he saw it like a play of white cubes stretching on a vast and green meadow. Everything would have been very idyllic, and life in green and white, with all the benefits of civilization, would have been, needless to say, a happy one.

In the early 1960s, changes in the planning of housing districts clarify some of the seemingly unresolved aspects of the cvartal. The transformation occurs on the level of the architectural language--all remnants of neoclassical ornamentation and monumentality, now condemned by Moscow, vanish--but also, and more importantly, in the layout of the urban units, which in their new configuration and size come to be designated in Romania as microraion. In the Soviet Union, where both cvartal and microraion originated, the difference between them throughout the 1930s and 1940s is by no means clear and the two seem to have coexisted rather than succeeded each other. Their differentiation is further complicated by the fact that both terms have been translated in English as superblock (or sometimes as neighborhood unit). In Romania, however, cvartal is a term that belongs clearly to the planning practices of the late 1940s and 1950s and which disappears in favor of microraion in the 1960s. This change in denomination illuminates an important shift in the planning of the residential district.

I suggest that the turn from the cvartal to the microraion is not, as an immediate reading would have it, an abandonment, in the wake of Khrushchev's speech, of Socialist Realism in favor of a return to a modernist line; instead, it signals Romania's socialist architectural culture's realignment from one modernist line to another, in a shift that could be usefully compared to the one that distinguished the hard rationalism of the early CIAM to the functionalist and more visually self-conscious proposals of a later CIAM. Bucharest's urban projects of the 1960s, including the six Floreasca towers of 1963, show new concerns that correspond closely to a text such as the Charter of Athens and therefore to CIAM's work of the late 1930s and 1940s--although, again, no acknowledgment of such ties is to be found in the socialist literature of the time. Equally important, the shift from cvartal to microraion was propelled also by the need, frequently expressed in the contemporary literature, to build a new city in striking contradistinction to the old one. To that end, the cvartal was still too closely bound to the structures of the old city to satisfy the search for a fully expressed new urban condition.

In the early 1960s, the planning of the microraion increasingly emphasizes the autonomy of the residential buildings from the street, arranging them instead according to criteria (such as sun exposure, views, and quality of experience inside the microraion) that no longer take the surrounding city into account. Instead of the cvartal's assimilation into an existing street pattern or urban block, it is the provision of green areas in all residential districts that becomes the central issue, as important, perhaps, as technological innovation and the rational disposition of buildings. The idea of large green open spaces, either as greenbelts around the city or as the setting for widely spaced apartment blocks, appears in all writing about the socialist city and seems to have been used to respond to criticisms about the overly controlled and monotonous built environment fostered by the monumental geometry of the cvartal. More importantly, it is the green areas' potential to function as the new collective spaces of the new districts, and to replace the civic centers of the old city with new, alternative ones, that seems to have determined the socialist regime's adherence to the charter's stance on green spaces. In the new socialist microraion, and very much in agreement with the charter's text, housing was removed from a traditional relationship with the street and turned inward, toward interior gardens and parks. As in the charter, collective life was increasingly conceived in relation to recreation. People and cars followed separate paths, and residential buildings often were not reachable by car but were accessed only by pedestrian alleys winding through green spaces (figure 1.7). Much hinged, indeed, on the collective nature of such spaces. In Bucharest even the most modest single-family houses had been traditionally organized around a courtyard and a small garden plot, a relationship to the land that Romanian presocialist urban imagination had considered essential to the well-being of the urban lower and middle classes. The socialist model of the high-rise in the middle of a park tried to restore some of that primordial access to nature, but it also made private claims over open space impossible. And while the apartment units inside mass housing developments were often privately owned and did not directly challenge the model of a family-centered private sphere, it fell upon the use of green spaces to effectively overturn the paradigm of ownership and instill a collective mind-set.

The microraion differed in important ways from the cvartal of the 1950s. Though similar in size (both could contain between 1,500 and 3,000 inhabitants), the cvartals were not conceived to function autonomously. The 1952 Resolution had stipulated only the rational distribution of basic services throughout the city, without linking these services necessarily to the cvartals. In practice, the bar-shaped residential blocks of cvartals of the 1950s, orderly and unidirectionally disposed along streets or around a clear, monumental center, were to function in continuation with the city. In contrast, the microraion was expected to produce new cities within the city: "The [microraion] can be defined as a clearly delimited part of a residential area, which accommodates a tightly knit and relatively autonomous collectivity." The microraion rejected the grid and generated a street pattern that followed its own internal logic. Finally, the microraion completely unhinged the housing from the urban street, a phenomenon that urban theorists like Philippe Panerai and Jean Castex, for instance, called the "death of the urban block" and that, not incidentally, they traced back to Ernst May's plans for Frankfurt in the late 1920s.

The six apartment towers built in 1963 on the edge of the former garbage pit are the last episode in Floreasca's socialist reconstruction (figure 1.8). The project, while on a much smaller scale than the cvartal that preceded it in 1956 or the microraions that were to follow in other parts of Bucharest, nonetheless clearly illustrates the search to overcome the historical characteristics of residential Bucharest, which would ultimately define the microraion. Indeed, the Floreasca towers are still caught in the attempt to mediate the encounter between socialist and presocialist visions of the city, before the microraion cast this encounter in the mode of a complete and unresolvable antinomy. Because the towers were built in relative proximity to the surrounding neighborhood, they plainly exposed the conflicts, physical and symbolic, that the socialist urban idea had triggered within the existing city.

For instance, whereas the later, fully developed microraions offered self-enclosed, functionally autonomous residential environments with their own internal circulation logic, the Floreasca towers still run along an existing street. But unlike the buildings of the 1956 development, the towers also turn their backs to the street, anticipating the principle of green space as the symbolic and physical center of the housing districts. Despite having four almost identical faces, subtle differences express the fact that the towers have been oriented away from the old city that borders them to the south and toward the new park (and former garbage pit) that opens on their northern edge. The facade containing the most windows opens onto the vista of the park and the lake, while the facade with the fewest windows turns toward the street. The entrance to each tower is also removed from the narrow street that borders the complex to the south and is located on the western side, accessible only to pedestrians, pointing to the separation between foot and car traffic that would characterize the microraion.

Representing the City

The socialist state invested unprecedented financial resources in building the socialist city; in return, it enlisted workers' housing in a vast propaganda campaign meant to demonstrate the transformation of life under the new political order. The state, concerned with substantiating the claim that a qualitative leap had occurred from capitalism into socialism, came to rely heavily on architecture as key evidence of this transformation. New neighborhoods such as Floreasca thus had a presence that extended well beyond their physical territory, becoming representational spaces that were showcased relentlessly in photographs and in writing. The Floreasca towers in particular were the object of numerous photographs that circulated in books, magazines, and thousands of postcards. I would argue that the photographs had a dual function. First, they actively countered the memory of the shantytown and garbage pit that many residents of Bucharest still might have associated with the name of Floreasca. To that end, the images established a visual register in stark contrast to the traits of the shantytown: while the informal settlement had followed neither zoning nor plan, photographs emphasized the precise alignment of the towers and the seriality of the construction. Because descriptions of the mahala insisted on the "lowly" nature of its buildings, the vertical organization of socialist housing in general, and the height of the towers in particular, became not just an efficient way of using land but instead a visual symbol of strength and moral rectitude.

The second function of the photographs was to give the Floreasca towers the status of recognizable landmarks (figure 1.9). The choice of angles and viewpoints emphasized their height, and large panoramas showed their silhouette rising above the city in the same way that steeples would have signaled, in other times, the civic heart of a settlement. These views, always taken from the center outward, imply a conception of the city in which the new peripheral neighborhoods have acquired a symbolic predominance equal to that formerly given to the historic core.

New, Old, Modern: Rationalism versus Stylistic Modernism

An extraordinarily striking contrast existed between the old Floreasca pit, with its shanties, and, less than 30 meters away, a luxurious neighborhood where bourgeois owners and the upper classes lived lives of leisure.

In the context of socialism's effort to distinguish itself from life under capitalism, the Floreasca towers were used to demonstrate how state-planned affordable mass housing could not only regenerate a slum but also counter the other extreme of capitalism's inequity: the inefficient, arbitrary, even frivolous formal variations of bourgeois architectural taste, exemplified by the small villas that bordered the towers to the south. The towers' rigorous alignment functioned, on the territorial level, as the seam between the class divisions of the capitalist city: extreme poverty in the form of the former garbage dump and shantytown on the north side, and wealth in the form of the upper-middle-class villas that still line the grid of streets to the south. The towers were meant to prove that socialism could transcend such class divides through architectural means and overcome, more specifically, the shortcomings of the bourgeois house. Instead of private, unique residences, highly individualized according to the specific personality and economic status of the owner, the towers provided efficient, mass-produced, unsentimental and status-free units. Here again, the photographs are explicit: while the towers rise boldly amidst vast open spaces, the bourgeois neighborhood in the background seems cramped and low; the streets of the latter are submerged in greenery that signals its old age--read obsolescence--while the towers appear unburdened by any accretion. More importantly, the towers are identical and abstract while the 1930s neighborhood is an eclectic agglomeration of scales, styles, forms, and materials (figure 1.10).

In their uncompromising repetition and standardization (the construction of Floreasca towers was touted as having used the most advanced technology of sliding casts for reinforced concrete), the towers were to be read as arguments for a kind of architecture that replaced the arbitrary demands of the individual patron and the unbound invention of the architect with spatial and constructive solutions that were instead reached rationally and for the collective good. Instead of the endless trends and variations that had led to Bucharest's urban "chaos," the standardization of architectural form contained the promise of a new political and cultural unity, and of a legible expression of socialist power at the scale of the city. In the words of one commentator,

We are no longer designing luxury villas, tenement housing or other sorts of buildings meant for speculative purposes that benefit an exploitative minority. . . . Architectural work today is no longer the personal problem of a creator, but a collective work supported by the state.

Mass housing projects such as Floreasca spelled also a more general rebuttal of the particular form modernism had assumed in presocialist Romania. It is not incidental that the neighborhood adjacent to the towers contained some of the most representative examples of interwar experiments with modern forms, which in the eclectic architectural scene of 1930s Bucharest had been limited to posh private residences and had amounted mostly to exercises of architectural authorship and formal playfulness. The Floreasca project countered such surroundings with a restrained and repetitive formal solution that elided expression of status and revealed instead the logic of centralized planning, technology, and mass production. This rupture in the history of Romanian architecture not only reflects the shift from a capitalist to a socialist society but also activates two fundamentally different understandings of modernism: on the one hand, architecture as the subjective creation of unique works of art that aimed to achieve symbolic and aesthetic meaning; on the other hand, architecture as the large-scale production of replicable forms conceived for the requirements of society as a whole, which claimed to have eradicated all recourse to the affective and the symbolic.

The development of Floreasca illustrates how, under socialism, prefabrication and standardization led to a general shift in scale from the design of single objects to that of large neighborhoods formed through the repetition of one building type, or from the singular to the collective. Far from being seen as monotonous, series of identical housing blocks were often the object of photographs that celebrated the regularity of their organization. Like products of the assembly line, they were presented not as individual objects, but as identical and interchangeable parts inside a larger order.

Despite having a strongly cultivated visual presence, the towers were not acknowledged as aesthetic objects. This was made quite clear in the only article about the towers that appeared in the magazine Arhitectura in 1963. Written in a matter-of-fact manner, the article concentrated on extensive technical facts and solutions to objective demands:

We reached the following conclusions: [in this project] we have reduced the execution time by 30% compared to other current building systems; we have reduced the use of wood by 35%; . . . we have significantly increased the degree of industrialization, shown by a 25% increase of productivity of labor; . . . we have reduced the cost of construction by 3%.

But it would be a mistake to accept--as the architects ask us to do--the argument that design was determined uniquely by pragmatic concerns for speed and economy. Even at its most pragmatic, the socialist regime's attitude toward architecture was in fact powerfully ideological, supported through many important rhetorical acts; while socialist architecture no longer produced meaning through conventional uses of composition, ornamentation, or rich materials, it still harbored the conviction that built form had the power to express and shape social and political ideals, and still aimed at finding ways to signify and effect progressive social development. An architecture conceived on an urban scale convincingly embodied a collectivist ideal, while standardization and technological process constituted a complementary attack on individualism and subjectivity (both the architect's and the inhabitant's), these aspects being made visible in the way in which the housing blocks are fully submitted, from their constructive process to their situation in space, to the inexorable logic of the series. The ideological underpinnings of architecture as a collective act also extended beyond the realm of political doctrine to reach into the heart of the definition of a work of art. By defining the design process as the organization of production, with its connotations of economy, speed, and repeatability, and with the neighborhood as its module, socialist architecture aimed to undermine what it saw as the bourgeois values of authenticity and uniqueness.

The architecture produced by the authoritarian Communist regimes of the postwar has rarely been discussed as a valuable episode in the history of the Modern Movement. And yet, a development such as Floreasca shows over and over how the effort to build a radically new socialist city forged direct ties with positions familiarly associated with the Modern Movement of the 1920s and, in adapting and amplifying them, revealed much of their tenor. By reconceptualizing architecture into a set of procedures and by making the satisfaction of collective needs its primary mission, socialist architects put in practice ideals such as the destruction of the creator's "aura" and the transformation of the creator into the producer, which had been formulated a generation earlier. In the periodical Arhitectura, the main architectural publication of the time, one finds explicit calls to de-subjectify the design process by replacing it with increasingly precise models of organization:

We need to go from building piece by piece to the serial execution of constructions. . . . In this period during which new forms of construction appear, we need to verify our attitude towards architecture, and to reorganize in an entirely new way the problem of design . . . we need to liquidate the rift between execution and design. . . . Houses are not built to be looked at! . . . Therein lies the essential difference between socialist and bourgeois architecture: while the latter bears the mark of endlessly variable tastes of individual patrons, in our architecture, everything must be established with precision, through objective calculations. When the principles of such calculations will be established, there will be no place left for individual, arbitrary taste, for forever-changing fashions, for ephemeral distractions.33 [Our years] mark the departure from design methods that were based on an archaic and narrow understanding of the relationship between form and content, both in architecture and in urbanism.34

For the historian, the recovery of the radical modernist language that lies at the core of postwar socialist architecture matters in reassessing not only the architectural legacy of Communism, but also the conventional narratives about what constituted the dominant architectural ideas in the postwar decades. At a time when, in the West, the Modern Movement was undergoing extensive revisions, shedding its radical political and scientific tone in favor of technically determined but nonetheless preeminent stylistic pursuits, socialist architecture was structured in reverse, fulfilling the aspirations of the early Modern Movement such as standardization and efficient production methods. Most accounts of the Modern Movement describe its development after the 1930s as the decline of the aspiration toward a fully rationalized city and the triumph of a largely apolitical aestheticism. The history of postwar socialist architecture reverses that verdict.



“An original and significant contribution to the field of architectural/design history. . . . This volume [presents] material that is new to art historical investigation: in particular, studies of eastern European traditions in relation to modernism and to architecture under communism with the Cold War as an important backdrop and context. . . . . The volume questions as well as explores and expands [the more familiar canon of postwar architecture], helps the reader by alluding or directly referencing postmodernism, and allows for an overall reconsideration of assumptions that lead to a fuller and more pluralistic understanding of modern architectural and design history.”
David Raizman, Distinguished University Professor, Westphal College of of Media Arts and Design, Drexel University, and author of History of Modern Design and coeditor of Objects, Audiences, and Literature: Alternative Narratives in the History of Design


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