, Essays

Cybernetics & Standardization: Revisiting a Soviet Vision for Better Urbanism

Author: Nikolay Erofeev

Based on modular industry, cybernetics, and automated fabrication, a late-Soviet vision of the housebuilding industry promised a deep departure from the mid-century concept of the mass production of identical housing blocks, revealing a paradigm of diverse, flexible, and decentralized urbanism.

A model of Meshcherkoe ozero district. Source: Neue Wohnkomplexe in Der DDR Und Der UdSSR. Berlin and Moscow: Verl. für Bauwesen and Strojizdat, 1987.

Soviet architectural standardization and prefabrication were promoted as an image of a radiant technological future in the 1960s. The socialist vision of this bright future pictured huge pieces of prefabricated concrete blocks instead of bricks and mortar, and tower cranes instead of hands and shovels. In this way, prefabrication was seen as a form of “high culture” construction intended to replace “lowly nonindustrial methods.” It was not only a way to achieve economic production, but also to deliver housing to distant regions and to introduce architectural diversity by enabling flexible planning solutions suitable for accommodating various types of families. The Soviet Union greatly invested in research and development in industrial construction—so much so that it attained a scale and complexity of fabrication unseen in the West, and simultaneously separated Soviet architecture from Western modernism. However, modern scholarship claims this obsession with standardization resulted in banal, mechanical, and soulless apartments—and by extension, in repetitive, monotonous, dreary, and alienating urban environments which seemed to “abandon concern for design.” The stigma around these socialist standardized residential blocks has turned them into, perhaps, the most vilified building type in architectural history.

Even so, the late-Soviet vision of the housebuilding industry promised a deep departure from the mass production of identical housing blocks, revealing an emergent paradigm with which contemporary architectural culture seems to have many sympathies.

 

Why Standardize?

Standardization offered a way to industrialize and streamline architectural production; architecture’s engagement with this industry has lasted more than two centuries¹. The Soviet Union’s adoption of standardized architectural production occurred roughly at the same time as in Western Europe, and paralleled similar processes in Europe and the rest of the world. Standardization became especially important in the Soviet system because the Soviet national economy was developed according to five-year plans. Planning required sectors of the economy to work collaboratively to achieve common goals, and so the Soviet economy achieved a great level of centralization and coordination of all elements of industrialization, urbanization, and production under centralized administration. Further, standardization translated individual designs into the language of mathematics and made architecture amenable to calculations, becoming an essential tool for the effective integration of architecture with construction industries and facilitated planning². The uniqueness of socialist industrial housing delivery, however, lies in the fact that Soviet authorities went the farthest out of their geopolitical peers, implementing prefabrication not only in urban and governmental construction areas, but in rural sectors as well³.

Types of apartments and designs of house entrances. Source: Neue Wohnkomplexe in Der DDR Und Der UdSSR. Berlin and Moscow: Verl. für Bauwesen and Strojizdat, 1987.

 

Blueprint to Production

The goal of the nationwide standardization of architectural production was introduced during the 1955 reform against “excesses” in Soviet architecture, which hastened a transition from neoclassical trends to modernist, industrialized architecture. The interpretation of “architecture as art” changed to “architecture as science”; this emphasis on the “scientific approach” was expressed in the standardization and typification of Soviet housing. The khrushchyovki—the low-cost prefab mass housing introduced under Nikita Khrushchev—were the epitome of this standardized process and were developed through a multi-stage experimentation process, each stage resulting in the creation of specific parameters of housing that were used in the next stages of development.

The first stage was the creation of a standard apartment layout. In 1956, Gosstroi, the State Construction Committee, issued a state-wide architectural competition for a residential building with standard, small-scale apartments⁴. The competition triggered a tremendous amount of typological research into housing in the USSR; design institutes entered the competition from as far as Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, and a total of 394 projects were submitted⁵. Submissions included floor blueprints, the construction of prototypes, and mocks-ups used as demonstration apartments to examine the benefits and shortcomings of different layouts. Ultimately, these submitted projects formed the basis of scrutiny against minimal public housing, and the discourse surrounding these entries addressed functional organization, tying inhabitants to their needs and constituting a typification of design.

The basic types of prefabricated components of the I-464 system. Source: Susnikov, A. ‘Sovershenstvovanie Proizvodstva Krupnopanelʹnykh Zhilykh Domov Serii I-464,’ Zhilishchnoe stroitel’stvo, no. 1 (1966), p. 7

In the second experimental stage, the development of a standard interior, “aesthetic experts” worked with architects and furniture designers on various features of the submitted models to develop standard sets of wallpaper and books on house planning. This cooperative development addressed technical, social, and aesthetic questions in housing design. Soviet public housing, then, transcended the functionalist imperative as it became the product of a broader cultural shift towards cooperatively designed mass consumption.

The third stage, standardized construction, saw the development of the housebuilding industry in the Soviet Union through a highly experimental process. To master the construction process, the government of Moscow reserved land in the former village of Novye Cheremushki in the southwest of the city to operate as an “experiment in the organization of large-block housing delivery and the use of prefabricated components in the construction of housing.” The design institute SAKB designed a catalogue of 240 standardized and prefabricated components required for the production of a single five-story block. Four Moscow-based factories were assigned to produce these components and each factory began to specialize in creating a range of components from the list. At this stage, not only the apartment, but housing in its entirety was a system that became designed and typified.

K7: scheme of elements delivery from different factories of the DSK-1. Source: Meuser, Phillip, and Dimitrii Zadorin. Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing: Prefabrication in the USSR 1955-1991. Berlin: Dom Publishers, 2015. p. 178

Stage four saw the development and design of entire micro-regions. The “experiment” of the ninth micro-region of Cheremushki, for example, intended to develop a way of delivering an entire micro-region at once, with all the amenities and services for everyday life and infrastructure within a single planning unit⁶. The general layout of this micro-region was designed by SAKB; the institute defined the types and sizes of public and residential buildings. Residential blocks were tweaked to better respond to the requirements of urban infrastructure, logistics and frameworks were developed to coordinate planning and construction materials industries, and micro-regionalism soon became the main product of Soviet urbanism.

The last experimental stage addressed problems of streamlining mass production. By the late 1950s, large-panel fabrication saw the highest level of off-site fabrication. This not only marked the technocratic ambition to assemble whole buildings from factory-produced panels, but also saw lower economic cost as specialized factories produced all the components required to assemble entire building types. Projects that would become the most widespread housing systems were developed at this stage of the development, such as the I-464. These systems were capable of delivering not only entire housing blocks, but also a range of public buildings such as schools and kindergartens; off-site fabrication—an entire industry—enabled this mass production.

Throughout each experimental stage in the 1960s, standardization systems increased in scale and complexity. This began with single apartments, then moved on to the standardization of construction and construction materials industries, and finally to entire standardized territorial units. Microregions with prefabricated residential tower blocks became the standard urban unit of socialist urbanism. By 1965, the amount of prefabricated housing dramatically increased to 56 percent throughout the USSR, and by the end of the century the USSR had approximately 500 housebuilding factories. Western observers reported that “not less than half the industrialized housing construction of the world is carried out in the USSR⁷.”

 

From standardization to modularity

Mersherskoe ozero district under construction, 1987. Source: Boris Shemiakin personal archive

However, housebuilding factories developed in the 1960s were designed to produce prefabricated components that could assemble a particular, limited set of buildings. As housing started to be mass produced, planners started to voice concerns about repetitive urban environments. Critique of Soviet approach to standardization was based not merely on aesthetic grounds. Diversity of conditions for which socialist housing was adapted posed another problem. As the Soviet state had taken a commitment to provide housing not just for the poorest but for all Soviet citizens, it found itself in the unprecedented position of being responsible for the housing of 250 million people spread across an extremely diverse territory⁸. Families eligible to receive an apartment were hugely diverse in terms of their contingency, lifestyle, socioeconomics, and ethnic origins, and these social conditions posed a difficult task that tested the limits of standardization and the lack of diversity in the standardized housing models.

From the mid-1960s, various projects intended to enable variability while still following the principles of mass production and keeping “architectural excesses” to a minimum. An important research and development project in the housing industry involved the development of a new approach to standardization based on “open typification” (tipizatsiia). Early approaches to system building, adopted in such systems as the I-464, saw the production of a certain set of standardized building types out of the factory. The new approach instead intended to introduce a modular industry, in which interchangeable prefabricated components, rather than entire buildings, were produced at factories. Institutes in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities developed various approaches to tipizatsiia, aiming to allow architects to assemble more diverse types of structures from prefabricated components while maintaining the virtues of mass production and cost-efficiency. Architectural design based on standard components would resemble playing with a child’s Lego set or the Tetris computer game⁹. Systems of open typification promised to provide more architectural variability while still adhering to the ethics of mass production.

The most comprehensive approach to developing a system of open typification was the Architectural-Construction-Technological-System (AKTS) developed in 1977. The overall ambition of the project was to establish a single building code at the state-wide level, a modular industry which would synchronize regional factories, creating a uniform “material-technical base” over climatic zones¹⁰. This infrastructure would allow for the production of unique, localized architectural designs of both residential and public buildings based on a uniform catalogue of prefabricated components. The system was designed to facilitate the long-distance production of architectural designs and offer better interdisciplinary and transregional coordination in their implementation—not just within the USSR, but also on a worldwide scale¹¹. AKTS system was projected for mass implementation in the country in 2000. A comprehensive experimental test of the system started in 1976 in Meshcherskoe Ozero district in the city of Gorky (now Nizhnii Novgorod).

A school in Mersherskoe ozero district under construction, 1987. Source: Boris Shemiakin personal archive

TsNIIEP Zhilishcha design institute developed a particular housing typology to be used in Meshcherskoe Ozero based on AKTS principles. It consisted of a large catalogue of prefabricated components designed for maximum flexibility of the resulting buildings—the system was intended to create the most meticulously planned living environment in the history of Soviet housing design. Its application in the Meshcherskoe Ozero was based on demographic and sociological requirements, as well as concrete demographic situations. Sociologists from TsNIIEP organized meetings and surveys of the future residents of the development to identify their “family structures” and perceived needs¹². Based on these findings, architects designed numerous apartment types according to a complex classification of twenty-three family types, constructed based on familial structure, marital status, and number and sex of children¹³. Along with apartments for “complete” families, the catalogue also listed “transitory” dwelling types for single people and newlyweds with communal facilities, and housing for elderly people and the disabled. An entirely separate set of buildings with large flats were designed for “complex” households with members of three generations living together. These parameters had to be computed in order to provide an individualized living environment for the future residents.

The systematic design approach went beyond residential areas and extended to the design of the whole microregion. The district was designed according to a uniform modular system, with full standardization of reinforced concrete, wood, and steel components. While all housing was based on 650 individual industrially prefabricated component types, the whole district required around 1,000 component types in total. The district was envisaged as scientifically organized and rationalized by comprehensive systematic planning.

A model of Meshcherkoe ozero district. Source: Neue Wohnkomplexe in Der DDR Und Der UdSSR. Berlin and Moscow: Verl. für Bauwesen and Strojizdat, 1987.

The residential development of the Meshcherskoe Ozero was quite sophisticated in terms of architectural quality. Structures of different sizes formed united residential areas located on the shore of a lake. Housing for complex families consisted of apartments with terraces and private plots of land. The residents of the first floor had access to their apartments through their own private gardens. Architecturally, this development had clear references to Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road estate in London, yet the fundamental difference of Meshcherskoe Ozero district from Western brutalist residential estates was its systematic design and production linked with industry. The development was designed on the basis of a coherent industrial foundation and perceived as a model that could be replicated elsewhere. Meshcherskoe Ozero in Nizhnii Novgorod was understood not as a single residential development, but as a model for a serial standardized computer-controlled project, meticulously described and supported by a complete list of elements required for its production and guidelines for its assembly.

The architecture of Meshcherskoe Ozero continued to be interpreted as an integrated part of other territorial systems (including the building industry, infrastructure, social services, and green spaces) and as part of social planning. The aim of the project was overall standardization of building procedures, territorial planning, façade articulation, beautification, utilities, technology of housing delivery, and management of the construction process. Based on the results of the experiment, TsNIIEP produced methodological guidelines for the design and planning of the residential areas and the development of the new standards.

A model of Meshcherkoe ozero district. Source: Neue Wohnkomplexe in Der DDR Und Der UdSSR. Berlin and Moscow: Verl. für Bauwesen and Strojizdat, 1987.

The absence of a housing market in the USSR made the equal distribution of apartments for diverse family types a poignant issue. What kind of apartment did each different Soviet household need? And who should provide that answer? Late-Soviet “user-knowledge” suggested that the just and unbiased answer could only be provided by cybernetics. AKTS was envisioned as a universal modular infrastructure which would enable an effective use of computation in residential development.

Housebuilding factories, the standardization of construction material industries, the organization of transportation, and assembly lines were seen as “hard” infrastructure of the AKTS system, while cybernetics had to function as its “soft” infrastructure, unleashing the full potential of the system. The system operated with a huge set of standardized apartments and various ways of assembling them into buildings. In each housing development, demographic and social parameters of the future residents had to be computed to produce a tailored living environment for their specific needs. In their vision, in the near future, computers would be capable of automatically designing residential environments, taking into account multiple parameters of climate, social, and demographic considerations, and developing unique architectural environments based on the AKTS system. Designers thus envisioned cybernetics to enable an increasing automation of the design and productions, and more importantly, would ensure that each Soviet household was provided with a suitable and individualized apartment. Computation would not only enable the production of unique designs but also address social problems more effectively. Cybernetics and automation, free of human biases, thus had to fulfill the socialist promise of a just distribution of apartments on the scale of the whole country.

Late-Soviet economic crises prevented the implementation of the AKTS on a large scale. Even in the late 1970s, housebuilding plants across the USSR continued production of the outdated I-464 system, having no funds or political will to upgrade their manufacturing lines. In spite of significant progress during the thirty years of research and development in industrialized architecture from 1950 to the 1980s, lots of factories were still associated with the technologies developed at the very dawn of the industrialization of the construction industry. The Soviet housing industry ignored many innovations in favor of holding onto previously mastered technologies. Yet, the case suggests that in late Soviet times, the main problem was not the lack of experiments or the inherent inflexibility of industrialized system building.

Mersherskoe Ozero district, 1990. Source: Boris Shemiakin’s personal archive

Meshcherskoe Ozero district represents a totally standardized living environment, which at the same time implies a significant level of architectural flexibility. Yet, it also represents a greater Soviet ambition to establish a universal modular industry for the whole country. This would have facilitated long-distance development and better cooperation with experts at the periphery. The AKTS project was intended to serve as a model for the cybernetic urbanism of the future—even though this future never arrived. The ambitious project of modular industry was unsuitable for the fragmented and atomized post-Soviet urbanism. In this project, standardization was key in achieving coordination and collaboration between the various actors responsible for housing production—including those in charge of designs and engineering, those providing materials on the ground, and those offering various kinds of expertise.

The AKTS project offers a unique vision for the future culture of design and construction. It demonstrates that standardization does not necessarily lead to unification. Moreover, it shows that the diversity of designs could be one of the pillars of a “standardized” residential development. Thus, standardization in the late USSR was seen as a way to translate the humanistic discipline of architecture into the language of cybernetics, making it amenable to calculations.

Cover image: General plan of Meshcherkoe ozero district. Source: Neue Wohnkomplexe in Der DDR Und Der UdSSR. Berlin and Moscow: Verl. für Bauwesen and Strojizdat, 1987.

Nikolay Erofeev

Nikolay Erofeev is a postdoctoral researcher in history of architecture and urbanism at the University of Basel, whose work focuses on socialist architecture and urban planning. Erofeev received his D.Phil (PhD) from the University of Oxford in 2020 and his specialist degree (M.A.) from Moscow State University in 2014. Nikolay had academic appointments at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he taught Master of Architecture dissertations. His current project looks at architecture and urbanization patterns produced by global socialism. Combining in-depth scrutiny of the design of the built environment with an analysis of the everyday processes of subject-making that shaped the socialist project in Mongolia, his project aims to provide a new understanding of the urban and domestic spaces produced in the Global South.

1 – For general overviews, see: Smith and Quale, Short Offsite Architecture: Constructing the Future, E. Blanchet and S. Zhuravlyova, Prefabs: A Social and Architectural History (Swindon, 2018), C. Davies, The Prefabricated Home (London, 2005), K. Lloyd Thomas, T. Amhoff, and N. Beech, Industries of Architecture (London, 2015).

2 – Standard designs allowed for the planning of labour and construction materials requirements. In this respect, technology was seen not as mechanical, but as organisational: Rupnik, 'Designing (in) Space-Time', pp. 101-20.

3 – See: R.T. McCutcheon, 'The Role of Industrialized Building in Soviet-Union Housing Policies', Habitat Int., 13/4 (1989), pp. 43-61.

4 – ‘Kostandi, M., Novye Tipy Kvartir Dlia Massovogo Zhilishchnogo Stroitel'stva. Moscow: Gosstroiizdat, 1959.

5 – 'Itogi Vsesouznogo Konkursa na Tipovye Proekty Zhilikh Domov', Arkhitektura SSSR, 11 (1956), p. 1.

6 – West, Diana. "Cybersovietica: Planning, Design, and the Cybernetics of Soviet Space, 1954-1986. "D.Phil thesis, Princeton University School of Architecture, 2013, p. 120.

7 – There were different types and degrees of prefabrication in housing production; see: McCutcheon, "The Role of Industrialized Building in Soviet-Union Housing Policies." Habitat Int. 13, no. 4 (1989), p. 43-61.

8 – DiMaio, Alfred John. Soviet Urban Housing: Problems and Policies. New York: Praeger, 1974, p. 2.

9 – Meuser, Phillip, and Dimitrii Zadorin. Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing: Prefabrication in the Ussr 1955-1991. Berlin: Dom Publishers, 2015, p. 136.

10 – Arkhitekturno-Konstruktivno-Tekhnologicheskie Sistemy Krupnopanelʹnogo Domostroeniia (AKTS KPD) (Moscow 1984), p. 4. See also: Osnovnye Polozheniia Arkhitekturno-Konstruktivno-Tekhnologicheskikh Sistem (AKTS) Krupnopanelʹnogo Domostroeniia (Moscow, 1983).

11 – Litskevich, V. Zhilishche i Klimat. Moscow: Stroiizdat, 1984, pp. 39-40.

12 – Interview with Kartashova, conducted by Author, Moscow, 26 March 2018.

13 – Neue Wohnkomplexe in Der DDR Und Der UdSSR: Gemeinsame Veröff. Der Projektmaterialien U. Wiss.-Techn. Grundlagen Der Planung U. Projektierung Der Neuen Wohnkomplexe in Magdeburg (Ddr) Und Gorki (UdSSR). Berlin and Moscow: Verl. für Bauwesen and Strojizdat, 1987, pp. 199-200.

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