Brașov, Romania

By now, it should be no secret that I love brutalist architecture in general, and apartment blocks in particular. Hands down, I think it is the architectural style that best represents the hopes and failure of a political regime. On the other way around, I think apartment blocks are the most evocative and concrete (literally!) legacy of the communist period (as it is the most used term in articles looking at comparison and continuity, communism will be synonym to socialism for the purpose of this post). As frustrations about the post-communist situation emerge, a communist nostalgia seems to spread, where the job security and other perks are remembered fondly, and the lack of personal freedom and other problems are forgotten. The memory of people seems to be changing and shaped by the present context. Where memorials about communism are scarce, which could explain the apparent amnesia over the bad sides, blocks are the acting commemorative sites.

Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Apart from the dangers of decaying and not maintained buildings, this rather big reminder might be a reason why so many want to see them gone. Because they are not just buildings, they are the home to which large rural families were assigned, the coveted space in a context where demand was way higher than supply, a place that was a rupture with traditions, a symbol of forced urbanization, of corruption, of the hypocrisy of erasing social classes while fostering segregation. In other words, they make what was wrong with communism still firmly standing. And this inheritance can’t be escaped: blocks can’t all be whipped out from the landscape, and the financial situation and corruption force many citizens to keep living in the too-small family apartment. This is especially true in the case of the elderly, that grew up with the communist motto that the state was taking care of people. Now, the situation seems to have worsened; there is no longer a safety net (which ties with the legitimacy of a nostalgia), and most people don’t have the means to move out of their apartment. So, these blocks are stuck between a hate for what they represent, and an inescapable life in them. A communist way of life in a post-communist context.

Stara Zagora, Bulgaria

An easy excuse to advocate for their destruction is their ugliness. As I have said earlier, the questionable choice of form and color doesn’t find fans effortlessly – although I hope I was able to convince some readers that their beauty is in their sinister look, mesmerizing patterns and occasional dash of colors on balconies! But the debate on both sides (weird people like me that love them, for their look and what they represent, and others who want them down for various reasons) goes beyond the blocks’ appearance. It is intertwined with the communist legacies in a Balkans post-communist world that struggles with finances, memories, housing, and many other aspects of the transition. And that is why I argue that they should be preserved (when safe, of course). The brutalist blocks are still telling a political story, in the bigger picture of all the past and present personal narratives of the tenants.

Belgrade, Serbia

8 commentaires »

  1. Hi Morgane, this was a really interesting take on these types of buildings that I have never really thought about before. Kind of off topic, but I went to St. Petersburg in 2018 and something that I noticed while I was there is that the city itself is beautiful, but as soon as you get to the outskirts the city is riddled with these buildings that serve as a reminder of its communist past. The idea of soviet nostalgia is something that has become so common nowadays that it’s even seeped into politics, so I think that your analysis of nostalgia being a factor in the lingering existence of these buildings was spot on. Do you think that they will ever be torn down? Additionally, do you think that the removal of these buildings would come as soviet nostalgia fades away with the emergence of new generations? Merci beaucoup!

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    • Hi, thank you for your comment! Personally, I don’t think that these blocks could all disappear. Some of them will get demolished, because they are becoming a hazard or because companies will want to replace them with other buildings for example. But there are so many of them, that just because it would be extremely time consuming and costly, I don’t think they will ever all be torn down. Also, there are organizations that are advocating for the preservation of these blocks, and even succeeded to deem some of them as a national heritage (thus, protecting them from destruction). Right now, the historical legacy is mentioned a lot in talks about the future of these buildings, especially since most of the population has lived in them at the time they were being built, and associate them with their experience under communism. But I would think that as time passes, the personal ties with them will fade… which might make blocks all the more important in preserving memories of communism… at least, that’s what I would hope, but that’s only a brutalist fan’s opinion!

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  2. Hi Morgane!
    This is definitely a unique take on structures which have a profound place in history. As you mentioned earlier, while the viewpoint of « ugly » and « beauty » will differ from person to person, what cannot be debated is what they represent, from when they were constructed, right through to the modern era. The symbolism associated with their physical presence alone brings many emotions and memories to many people. While not necessarily my favourite architecture (I am a sucker for more Hispanic inspired structures), I am delighted to read your opinion that you feel that these buildings will not be torn down at least anytime soon. Of course, father time will remain undefeated, and as you say, as the people and emotions fade away, the buildings themselves will lose those attachments to the past and eventually be moved on. Finally, is there a better metaphor for the communist past than these buildings? Simple, cold, yet solidly efficient and organised during their peak.

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  3. Great post! I’m wondering your thoughts on the connection between aesthetics, real estate, and political economy. Specifically, do you think people find these ugly because their aesthetics are informed by capitalism, which privileges « curb appeal » as part of a a broader construct of marketable individualism and « surface-ism »? Or is the « ugliness » due not so much to the inability to enter a different political-economic imaginary, and just related to a neglect of human nature, or basic human need, etc.? Also can you theorize why *you* as a westerner find them beautiful? You find them mesmerizing, but why is mesmerizing=beautiful? Is this some unspoken need repressed within a capitalist / individualist aesthetic for repetition over difference? Great work!!!!

    Aimé par 1 personne

    • Hi, thank you so much for your comment, it means a lot that you took the time to read me! And it gave me ideas for subjects for future blog posts!
      To answer your questions:
      My opinion on blocks was emotional at first, having had my first apartment in one of them. And I think that beyond the aesthetic side of it, there is an emotional component that triggers Eastern people. They might find them ugly, only because of bad memories. When I questionned them, they were saying that it was ugly because it was so different from village houses, because they were forced to live in them, etc. The physical appearance was not a main reason.
      Your point about capitalism was very interesting to me, because it made me realize the difference of opinion of westerners. From the ones I asked, their first reaction was towards the aesthetics, how boring, ugly, decaying it looked. And I do think that it has to do with the stress put on how clean and pleasant houses must look. Once the historical context of the blocks is known, it is easier to understand, and, to a certain extent, appreciate the look. But I think that a capitalist mindset make people unconfortable with the sameness that is projected.
      Coming from a ballet background, I am used to look for uniformity and patterns that make a whole beautiful. So to me, this is why I find their facade pleasant to look at. And I like the fact that despite the apparent repetition, the inside will be different. I like how the individuality is concealed by monotone concrete. And overall, I find it beautiful how a simple grey block can trigger so many emotions and reations, and can carry individual memories as well as a common legacy. So I guess that when I describe them as beautiful, it encompasses the ugliness of it, and refers more to the symbol. But this calls for a deeper analysis that I would love to discuss in future posts!

      J’aime

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