Since the early days of the Soviet Union, Russian architects were fascinated by technology’s transformative potential. Today, their utopian thinking is fuelling private profits.
Cities are palimpsests, pages from millenary books in constant edition and transformation. Urban scribes cross out, erase and write in margins: their pen is inconspicuous and incremental. In rare exceptions, they attempt to write books from scratch and invent new urban conditions. Sometimes these books are published, as imagined planned towns get built from the ground up. But in most cases, they remain in the domain of paper architecture, disseminating peculiar ideas about the built environment without coming into actual form.
Few historical moments have proved as fertile for social and cultural exploration as the 1920s in the Soviet Union. In a context marked by reconstruction after the Russian Revolution and civil war, mass urbanization and industrialization bolstered by Lenin’s New Economic Policy, Russian cities had to be completely reconceptualized, from transportation to housing. For Soviet urban planners, architects, scientists, engineers, politicians and artists, the urban condition thus became a boiling incubator of ideas. Influenced by modernist principles and driven by the utopian spirit of the Russian Revolution, they fiercely believed in the power of technology to transform cities and their inhabitants by bringing about seamlessness, rationalization and efficiency to seemingly chaotic urban spaces.
By doing so, thinkers formulated programs that in many ways anticipated today’s smart cities and landscapes of automation. The sensors, data centers, and predictive software that make up today’s smart cities are somewhat novel technologies. However, the ideals and values typical of smart city discourses are far from new in urban thought. When wondering about potential future developments, looking at the past is always productive. Taking seriously Soviet urban projects, realistic or not, sheds light on the ever-present conception of technology as a fix for all urban social ill. This has deep implications for future-oriented urban thinkers and makers.
In 1920s urban Soviet Union, living conditions were miserable. “Since the floor boards had been used for firewood we slept, wrapped in old newspapers, across the bare joists […],” the Soviet architect and emigre Berthold Lubetkin recalled. “Water from the taps in the yard was fetched in an up-ended umbrella because there was no bucket.” After the 1917 Revolution followed by a civil war that devastated its nascent widespread empire, the Soviet Union was under tremendous material and economic hardship. Building industries were particularly hard hit.
This chaotic situation provided a fertile terrain for utopian urban thought. First, the advent of communism brought about a new spatial paradigm. In the 1917 Decree on Land, the Soviet government abolished the private ownership of land, without any compensation for previous owners; land ownership was socialized. Breaking with capitalist principles, the socialist city promised total state control over the built environment without the interference of the private sector, thus facilitating the realization of master plans, grand visions and new towns.
Bolshevik millenarianism provided the ideological tools for the urban revolution. Conscious of the historical fracture that represented the demise of a capitalist regime and its replacement by communism, the Soviets understood that their future could be actively shaped and transformed. This is why utopias flourished in the 1920s: if communism, itself a utopia, had materialized, then surely others would follow suit. Architecture, historically prone towards dreamed buildings and cities, saw potential revolutionary projects multiply. As Rem Koolhaas said in a recent public interview, “the history of architecture is also the history of a series of incredibly irresponsible ambitions.” But urban makers of the time, in the middle of a historical breakpoint, thought their ambitions were realistic and rational.
Common in most of these projects was the centrality of technology. Many artistic movements placed the machine at the center of their manifestos. The Futurist movement, which started in Italy in the early 20th century, promoted speed, modernity and a rebuke of history. Many Russian artists were somewhat influenced by the movement, from Vladimir Mayakovsky to Natalia Goncharova. In fact, Lenin echoed the emphasis placed on technology as a transformative social force, by defining communism in 1921 as “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”
Architectural modernism was characterized by the belief according to which the built environment shapes individuals and societies. If, for Le Corbusier, the house was a machine for living in, Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg called for the construction of housing acting as social condensers, illustrating the common understanding of buildings and cities as loci of social engineering. Their role would be key in turning former Soviet citizens with capitalist, imperialist and bourgeois allegiances into the universal homo socialisticus. Factories, dwellings and workers’ clubs would produce healthy, productive, and communist citizens. Konstantin Melnikov went further by proposing to build sleep laboratories, in which sleeping citizens would be immersed in a bath of sounds and smells scientifically chosen for their collectivist qualities.
Electricity, new forms of mobility and of communication would allow two interconnected goals to be reached. They would accelerate the economic and technological development of the backward Soviet Union through the process of leapfrogging, bringing it up to par with the likes of industrially-mature states like Germany and the United States within a few years. They would also allow the redistribution of the concentrated urban population over the entire country, eliminating the differences between urbanity and rurality, an important Marxist ideal since Marx and Engels.
This objective was pursued by the disurbanist faction of Russian urban planning in the 1920s: the ideas formulated by its advocates illustrate the period’s widespread techno-utopian ethos. Mikhail Okhitovich, a sociologist, argued that the complete electrification of the Soviet territory coupled with the widespread introduction of the automobile and the plane would free individuals from pre-established cities and industrial agglomerations. The logical conclusion was that of a linear city made up of a continuum of parallel built lines covering the whole country. The ills of modern cities would be cured by a technologically-assisted return to nature. The rival urbanist faction agreed that existing Soviet cities had to be eradicated, but rather advocated for the construction of a network of smaller agro-industrial areas. Still, both schools of thought were convinced that Russia would be completely electrified and developed industrially within a few years. In retrospect, it was far from the case.
Most urban projects of the 1920s devoted special attention to mobility, in part because of disorganized urban centers and subpar transportation infrastructure across the country. The concept has different connotations: here, social mobility, a key principle of communism, and spatial mobility went together. Urban planners, inspired by recent developments in air and automobile travel, imagined buildings and cities partly removed from the earth’s surface. Liberating Soviet citizens from terrestrial constraints, they would also bring about collectivism, linking social and spatial mobility. The most interesting example is the Flying City conceptualized by Georgy Krutikov.
In a 1928 diploma project at Vkhutein, Russia’s main art and technical school of the 1920s, Krutikov started from the premise that recent innovations in air travel would continue and allow architects to plan cities partially detached from the ground. In his plans, housing was completely removed from the earth’s surface, with the freed land allocated for work, tourism and leisure. Independent cabins were part vehicle, part housing: citizens would travel and live in these communal dwellings, supposed to socially engineer collectivism.
This example is a classic case of a technological fix, whereby technological solutions—already existing or, like here, imagined—are purported to single-handedly be capable of solving complex and puzzling social issues. Despite earning the nickname of the Soviet Jules Verne for his Flying City project, Krutikov wasn’t completely irrational. Dirigibles, automobiles, ocean liners, airplanes and trains were all less than a century old: in particular, the achievement of human flight, caressed by all past civilizations but only just realized, reinforced the idea that the world was going through a particularly spectacular moment of material transformation: why would it stop there? Krutikov was also impressed by “movable dachas” like automobile trailers: for him, like for Gustav Klutsis or Anton Lavinskii, the city of the near future would be mobile and dynamic. The development of light materials like aluminum facilitated this prediction.
Krutikov, following the Constructivist ideal of social condensers, argued that building flying cities would lead to a fundamental transformation of Soviet society and citizenry. Painting his Flying City in the colors of technoscience, he assumed that atomic energy would be used to lift buildings above the earth’s surface, thus anticipating eventual nuclear developments. He portrayed the urban condition as magnified by technology and engineering and called for deeper engagement with scientific ideas on the part of architects. Decisively, he believed that increased mobility and the area freed on the earth’s surface thanks to his flying units would promote the efficiency of activities and circulation. Through his technocratic gaze, he envisioned a perfectly rational and efficient city enfranchised from terrestrial issues by a literal elevation over them. He was followed by many others, from Kazimir Malevich’s and Lazar Khidekel’s cosmic city proposals, showing the deep intertwinement between space and utopia.
Ideals of efficiency and rationalization also guided Ivan Leonidov’s 1927 project for the Lenin Institute in Moscow. Thanks to horizontal and vertical conveyor systems, the Institute’s library would automatically deliver books from stacks to reading rooms. Networked telephones, radios, and televisual equipment would allow disparate Institute workers to collaborate on projects. An immense sphere, hosting an auditorium, could be opened up and serve as a speaking platform. Anticipatory projects like this one placed technoscience at their very center. Nikolai Krasilnikov in his 1928 Vkhutein diploma project argued that architecture needed to be based upon physical, mechanical, chemical, and biological laws of nature, also assigning value to economics. In particular, applying mathematics and the scientific method would promote rationalization and economization of resources. Aeroplane design and engineering more broadly were pushed as models of efficiency for architects to follow: in a 1926 article, the engineer K. Akashev rhetorically asked: “Architect! Are you cutting out every gramme of material that does not actually carry a static loading?”
Why should we care about these outlandish proposals that were never built? For one, the architects that formulated them didn’t stick to paper architecture. In the 1920s and 1930s, more than sixty new towns were built in the Soviet Union, like Magnitogorsk and Dzerzhinsk. For them, architects applied Constructivist, disurbanist and urbanist principles in their plans. Still, utopian visions in early Soviet Union were severely checked by technical difficulties, a lack of economic and material resources, and disorganized state administrations.
We should care because these projects shine a new light on today’s discourses and plans for smart cities. Some continuities and parallels are worth noting. The Moscow Smart City 2030 vision defines the future urban condition as a smart city where digital technology will boost living standards, the performance and provision of services, increase mobility, enhance competitiveness and fulfill the needs of environmental protection. The similarity with Constructivist thinking is clear: technology is portrayed as a transformational social force around which society was organized. Today, according to smart city discourse, the sole introduction of digital technology will solve the lion’s share of urban wicked problems, from governance to traffic. The rhetoric of the technological fix is at play.
Moscow is one of the most congested cities in the world. According to the Moscow Smart City 2030 document, traffic congestion and low speed are the city’s major problems. Here, technological fixes are again put forward: digital technologies will increase transport efficiency, as will car-sharing services, electric, and self-driving vehicles. The disurbanist sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich, in a similar example of wishful thinking, claimed in 1929 that “the revolution in transport represented by automobilization reverses all the old arguments about the inevitability of congestion and the crowding together of activities and buildings. […] Energy transmission and the new communications possibilities have eliminated the need for territorial contiguity.” He, like many others at the time, thought that cars would eliminate congestion altogether. Others, like Krutikov, thought that flying dwellings would increase mobility and rationalize the allocation of space. They were wrong.
We must be wary of technological determinism yesterday, today and tomorrow: urban thinkers that pretend that technology is an independent force that will solve all social ill altogether are misguided. It is not by accident if many of the actors advocating for smart cities are for-profit corporations with skin in the game. Among the companies consulted for the Moscow Smart City 2030 project stand Yandex, Samsung, Huawei, and IBM. They keep on promoting smart cities as panaceas for all urban issues because they have a pecuniary interest in seeing these discourses come to life. They look to pursue self-fulfilling prophecies by portraying the products they sell as the only way to make cities smart and solve all sorts of wicked problems.
The technoscientific gaze of the city planner, masked under purported scientific objectivity, is always political. An important contrast between the Soviet Union in the 1920s and today’s plans for smart cities is that in the former, urban thinkers pursued complete social transformation and the manufacture of a new society through imaginative utopias and productive imaginaries, even if the results were mixed at best. Today, smart cities are mostly synonymous with mere entrepreneurial urbanism and the pursuit of economic growth. Far from being animated by progressive ideals, they pay lip service to the ways in which they will help tackle issues like climate change and social inequalities. They could arguably worsen them. The example of the Soviet Union has shown how new books can be written, and new cities invented. The question for the 21st century is who gets to dream and write the city of tomorrow.