Martin Wagner’s “Russia Builds Cities” (1931)
Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch. From El Lissitzky, Russia:
An Architecture for World Revolution. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970).
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Irony of fate! On the very day on which more than 1,000 city planners published an obituary over the corpse of the European city after five days of post mortem examinations, and after concluding the session with a powerless ‘We can’t do it!,’ City Engineer Ernst May (retired) delivered his grand report on Russian city building to a group of enthusiastic young architects and curious builders. The plans shown by May, his verbal commentary, the form of his lecture, and his undaunted and fresh intellect cannot in themselves account for the excitement and inner tension that gripped the whole audience. The young architects must have felt instinctively that a new life was being created in Russia, that opportunities were developing and accomplishments were maturing there, and that the creativity of the urbanist, freed from the shackles of private land ownership, was being given full reign in that country. Anticipation of the future, the feeling of liberation after long, frustrating stagnation, the letting in of sun and fresh air into a dark musty workroom — these explain why May’s lecture became such an extraordinary event for the people of Berlin.
Within the framework of these presentations I cannot make it my task to offer a simple appreciation of the liberating influence of Russian urbanism as such. On the basis of my personal convictions, and also from the viewpoint of the reader, it would be more important to obtain an understanding of the constructive ideas of Russian planning.
In the lexicon of German planners, ‘national planning’ is a very pretentious word. It is much bandied about, even though everybody knows full well that true national planning is impossible without the hotly disputed econo-political ‘planned economy,’ i.e., an economy serving all and satisfying the needs of all. The Russian Five-Year Plan has created, for the first time in the history of city development, the conditions for rational economic planning on a national scale. I admit that I do not really know whether all the conditions for national economic planning are being fully exploited in that country. But I do know that these conditions do not exist in any other European country, and that preparations for national planning have been advanced there  beyond the most daring dreams of our own German planners. During my short study visit to Moscow, the director of the Public Bank (which is responsible for the financing of all the newly planned Russian cities) showed me thick portfolios of planning documents for each new city to be built, complete with economic surveys, tables, soil tests, climatic charts, raw-material inventories, traffic studies, and so on. Even though I was in no position to check the content and the specific accuracy of these documents, I should like to stress the fact that the existence of such studies, and ask the German city planner when and where has he ever been supplied by a central Council of Economic Policies with action directives as part and parcel of a meaningful national plan for his city-expansion programs, together with an approved budget at, in addition, a timetable for the execution of the building schedule? We look at planning as the theory of one generation to be passed on to the next. In Russia, planning has become a task for the present.
Similarly, it is fully within the spirit of broadly based Russian state planning to create only functional cities of limited size (100,000 to a maximum of 200,000 population), designed to support the extraction and treatment of raw materials, or for the production of consumer goods for a region. How grateful we would be if we too had the opportunity to convert the existing system of mutually competing cities, with their near-insane propensities to run idle and to squander wealth, into well-planned components of a major central and a minor regional consumer economy. The Ruhr valley is bleeding to death due to the competition from the Upper Silesian and Central German soft-coal districts. These in turn are so inefficient that even coal imported from England is cheaper, putting the German miner out of work and adding to our problem of unemployment. Our Reichswirtschaftsrat (State Economic Council) knows all these problems but is unable to solve them, simply because its competence stops short of the provincial boundaries, and because it has absolutely no powr to extend its planning to county territory or beyond the various other local boundaries of jurisdiction. National planning in this country will remain an illusion as long as there is no State Economic Council with full jurisdiction over the territory of the whole nation and all its natural resources.
State Planning is the fountainhead of the science of Russian Urban Economic Planning and all economic practice. The knowledge of these matters is still too limited in Western Europe to form any kind of definite value judgment, except in a vague, general way.
Obviously rational, centrally directed state planning has not only positive aspects, but negative ones as well, particularly if it fails to avoid the danger of bureaucratic bungling and ill-considered, hasty investments. Considering the unilateral single-use character of their cities, a miscalculation could very easily lead to investment errors and possibly to a loss of the entire capital input, which for a city of 100,000 population represents a national loss of the sizeable sum of half a billion marks. Even though — in contrast to all other cities in the world — the Russian cities base their cost figures on the complete balance of expenditures over cost, and even though they are being financed out of current income, the national economy has to be charged forthwith with an amount of equal value, for the simple reason that the state — in contrast to private-enterprise capitalism — has the obligation to provide an alternative settlement for 100,000 people in another location. Careful budgetary planning of all these functional cities is therefore the first condition of rational national planning.
The second great advantage of Russian national planning is the fact that the Soviets have the opportunity to develop their relatively new and undeveloped transportation network on the basis of purely economic considerations. Unlike ourselves, they do not have to connect old historic localities, that have lost their economic reason for existence and that only dream about the glories of the past, to the existing railroad network, and thereby unnecessarily overload the over-all system. Russia has the opportunity to develop its transportation system on the basis of schedules of departure, arrival, transfer, and intersection of transport, all related to city function and in accordance with the principles of maximum efficiency and economy of plant and equipment, and avoid the wasted trips so dreaded by transportation experts. For example, some of the iron ore from the new mining and smelting center in Magnitogorsk is sent to the coal and refining city of Kuznetsk 2,000 kilometers away. There, the same wagons are loaded with coal and returned to Magnitogorsk to smelt part of the iron ore on the spot. Thus, the national transportation system is clearly being treated as part of a single, over-all national industrial complex, which in turn is being treated as a large-scale service city, and both transportation and industry are made to fit organically within the general context of the economy. When industry prospers, so do the railroads, and vice versa. This represents the most important advantage of such a system but could also turn into one of the most evident disadvantages of such specialized plant development and of the service cities connected to it.
In the light of the foregoing, one may well ask whether it would not be more advantageous to consider industrially diversified cities instead. Definitely not. The loss of markets for raw materials, semi-finished, and finished goods in their own diversified cities has been matched by a corresponding reduction of rolling stock on the part of the Reichsbahn. Besides, the Russian consumption economy has the means of preventing excessive fluctuations in the economy or at least of achieving speedy adjustment. Should such an adjustment prove impossible, the new Russian system will have to accommodate itself to an occasional, shall we say, ‘locking up of a city’ along with its idle industrial plant. To me the abandonment of one segment of the vast Russian economy still seems more economical than our own compulsion to put whole villages and cities on relief, rendering unemployed all those whose main source of economic life has happened to dry up at the present. Our glass industry is a good example of this.
In Germany, and in other countries as well, a certain hostility persists between the country and the cities which historically developed as fortified market centers during the Middle Ages. This split is evident even in our day and age and has had many political and economic consequences, which in turn prevent the emergence of rational regional planning. New Russian planning should take note and remember that it will be dealing with the creation of cities for a rural rather than urban people.
Within the perimeters of a large-scale consumption economy geared to the supply of all basic needs to the people, it is impossible to imagine that these cities could be planned and built without providing each with its own appropriate agricultural territory for food supply. Even today there are in Germany some planners and professors of city planning who ignore the fact that the suburban fringes that surround our cities in ever widening circles — particularly the larger cities — change the character of the agricultural areas nearby. These become more and more dependent on the cities for their consumer needs and, as a corollary of this, increasingly accept urban values. Those who take the rouble to investigate agricultural operations around the cities in terms of size, production, and prices over a long period of time, ought not to be very surprised to find that the influence of the cities on the agricultural sector is much stronger than is usually assumed.
It took centuries of urban development to overcome the obstacles of tradition, hereditary succession, and special economic interests to arrive at the organic interplay of exchange of goods between city and country. In contrast to this, Russia has had only a few years to create such a relationship for its service cities. Here, city planning becomes synonymous with regional planning and has a direct influence on the agriculturalhinterland — something hardly imaginable in German circumstances. The Russian city has fused agriculture and urbanization into an organic whole.
The question is how to deal with this whole in a planned manner? How much does the city planner know about agriculture and the soil? Who tells him that the daily deliveries of milk, vegetables, and so forth, must be incorporated into the urban transportation system, and that he must furthermore take care of agricultural staples coming from distant production aeas to a different locus in the transportation network? How ill he know what quantities of foodstuffs will be consumed fresh or from the warehouses. All these questions direct our attention to a field of endeavor that up to now has never been elaborated by German planners on a responsible and rational economic basis, and it also shows us to what degree planners will have to adapt themselves to their new role as managers, since the Russian city planner, compared with his German counterpart, is even less in a position to combine in one person all the special knowledge required for all the various branches of regional planning.
Russian regional planning offices have nothing whatever in common with comparable German agencies — if for no other reason than that they produce practical realizations rather than paper solutions. Each Russian planning office is part of the National Economic Council, which has three subdivisions. The first is responsible for working out the economic production program for the new cities, together with a detailed budget prepared in advance. This program is transferred to the second branch, the Planning Division, which deals with the technical design and details fo the city plan. The third, the Executive Division, is responsible for actual construction. Thus, the Russian planner cannot avoid being a manager presiding over various specialists and being responsible for a consistent policy in terms of economic performance as well as design quality. What German city builder — or rather city planner, since have never had any real city builders in Germany — would not be enthusiastic at the chance to be the manager under circumstances that would allow him to work out a performance program  for a new city already in the economic planning stage? In Russia an urban community is designed and evaluated on the basis of give and take, debit and credit — something regarded as virtually ipossible in our country. Bold visions of new goals and new standards arouse our imagination.
We have become accustomed to the notion that the so-called ‘organic’ growth of our cities, fed by an inorganic and chaotic economic system [capitalism, obviously], represents a God-given untouchable ‘expediency.’ In this respect, and among other things, city caricatures such as New York should convince us that such developments are anything but economical. Planners mst begin to think about the economic budgeting of cities and must demand that just as in the case of any individual or any other economic enterprise, cities should not drain off our national wealth, but should on the contrary increase it. But how much do we really know about national economic budgeting for our cities even today? Officially only those statistics that do not probe too deeply into the secrets of private companies are applied to production, commerce, and consumption. This makes it impossible to set up any kind of realistic economic budget for the cities.
The German city planner would be surprised to no end if he could watch his Russian colleague at work. What! No twenty regulations, laws, and restrictions obstructing rational planning in a spiderweb of private property lines? Really free land? And no twenty-four hour municipal authorities who must be consulted each time the planner wishes to establish a building line? No jurisdictions, and no hangovers, and what has been planned can really be built? And the results to be really seen and experienced? No building inspectors and by-laws to obstruct free design? Indeed, under such conditions, city planning becomes a joy. And one may ask what happens to all the physical and mental exertions that are usually spent in fighting the hydra of bureaucracy, officialdom, and the law.
This comparison is not a dream, but has become a reality and leads us to the conviction that the work of our German city planners is 90 percent nonproductive and useless. But it would be wrong to regard the work of the Russian city planner, free from all nonessential formalities and the concern for private property, as child’s play. Only by freeing the best creative energies of the city planner from the shackles of private property restrictions can their full flowering in their entire social, technical, and artistic dimension be assured. In our country, city planning is what the word says: mere city planning. In Russia city planning is in fact city building.
The Russian city builder is faced by a task that has not been faced by humanity during the past one thousand years: the creation of entirely new Socialist cities! It is therefore not surprising that in striving to reach such a remote goal opinions will differ and often tend to degenerate into fathomless theories. Yet realistic plans that are both pragmatic and feasible, such as those of my colleague Ernst May, are suddenly criticized by the usually objective editor, Paul F. Schmidt (in Der Abend of June 9th, 1931), as follows: ‘Like a steel straightjacket, the plans of these cities and dwellings force all their inhabitants into a soulless sameness. These are cities for slaves of the state, forbidden to lead their own lives, and their existence has only one purpose: to work like coolies for the state and to bear children.’ When I read these lines, I could not help but think of how very comfortable our own Socialists must feel in the ‘steel straightjacket’ of the Wilhelmian city with its slum apartments and rear-alley catacombs, if they dare to reject the liberating influence of the urban plans and housing concepts of May, an influence that must be clearly evident to anyone who dares remain objective.
Let me concede one thing to Paul Schmidt, albeit on a different level of criticism and unencumbered by partisan and political considerations. I do admit (and so does May) that the formal layout of his new cities has not yet been ‘solved,’ in the sense that they cannot yet be considered free from ingrained design habits and traditional preconceptions. I do not wish to imply by this remark that I subscribe to the view that Socialism must inevitably produce a special art form of its own, i.e., some kind of pure ‘Socialist art.’ Anyone believing such a thing has no real conception either of art or Socialism. Still, the Russian cities will eventually evolve their own form, fit to contain life and at the same time have spiritual significance. The deepest and loftiest aspirations of the Socialist spirit must find their expression here. There is no more powerful message to the people than stone transformed into plastic form. No loudspeaker, and not even the most forceful orator can speak to the nation more consistently and convincingly, crossing generations, educating them and winning their allegiance, than a building or a city. The power of artistic accomplishment was, is, and will forever remain the work of talented great artists, of whom the world has really never produced more than a dozen in a thousand  years. The creation of the Socialist city as an art form, a kind of ‘cathedral’ of the people and Socialism is a task still to be accomplished by the Russians of the future.
The Socialist mode of dwelling is a particularly controversial subject in present-day Russia. I shall refrain from making any kind of judgment as to how many square meters of living space a citizen should be entitled to. This question is the exclusive competence of each nation’s gross national product and not a matter of good or bad intentions on the part of economic planners or budget secretaries. Considering the fact that Russia made the audacious leap from a rural mode of existence to an urban one, any objective evaluation of Russian housing conditions must take into account the fact that it is impossible to increase the per capita living area from 3 square meters to 12 and 24 square meters in a couple of years, while creating a rich industrial base at the same time. What form Russian housing will take, however, is a different question. At this point I should like to state most emphatically that neither the city planner nor a political program can invent the Socialist form of dwelling. On the contrary, I believe that the new form of dwelling can develop only out of a variety of forms. If that is correct, then Russia seems to be on the right path, having allowed the development of the individual single-family dwelling alongside the hotel type of dwelling and the rental apartment, including a rich combination of all, and having left it to the future — say one generation — to write off some of these types and replace them with improved versions. However, it seems to me that one particular type of dwelling has been largely neglected in the new plans. I refer to the traditional native Russian standard wooden house in the form of the single family type of dwelling. A nation that is as close to the soil and the open country as the Russians will always want to return, in one way or another, to the soil, the garden, and the ntural life. Because of the above, I am inclined to believe that the development of this particular Russian housing type will succeed, insofar as material improvements will tend to push expansion in the direction of a natural horizontal building development (gardens, automobiles, etc.), rather than in the direction of vertical building forms, which are the result of high land prices invented by the ‘landlords,’ and which are based on methods of stacking, attaching, and combining units above, below, and along the terrain.
The basic life cell of the Socialist city is the individual dwelling unit. The more the city planner gets involved with the communal functions of the city and the institutions serving mental and physical culture and away from concerns of the individual dwelling, the more insecure will be the spiritual foundations of his efforts. On the other hand it is precisely these communal areas that in essence represent a new contribution to Socialist city planning. As a Socialist I should like to go even further: it is precisely here that we find all that has yet to be expressed and translated into form, for here the relationship between one individual and the next will find its great counterform to all matters material, physical, and unconscious, creating a spirit of the larger community and a higher consciousness that in the past had found its artistic outlet in large religious communities, temple cities, monasteries, and the cathedrals.
Indeed, one may ask, what edifices of specific spiritual and cultural content have been created by capitalist Europe to date? And where can we find an expression or a forum of the community capable of transforming beautiful sights and sounds into deeper inner experience? They simply don’t exist. There are some frragments, such as a kindergarten, a school of gymnastics, a theater, a meeting place, the rhythm of work, a little bit here, and a little bit there, but nowhere in its mature form. What a task for the city builder! For the sake of such a monumental task he should be given time; time to send out his emissaries to collect all the material needed for the construction of this great spiritual edifice. For the sake of this task he should be given the means to plan, to experiment, and to design. For the sake of this task he should be released from the petty annoyances of the work day, to be able to devote all his time and his best talents to accomplishing this great mission.
These communal centers will prove the physical and spiritual superiority of the Socialist cities of Russia over the capitalist cities of Europe.
[From Tagebuch, July 25th, 1931 (Berlin, vol. XXX)]
~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.