Wilm Stein’s “Experiment: ‘Socialist Cities’: Realization of Communes too Expensive — Therefore Postponed” (1931)
Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch. From El Lissitzky, Russia:
An Architecture for World Revolution. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970).
• • •
Moscow, April 30th, 1931
In its annual budget for 1931, the Soviet Union has appropriated the huge sum of 1.1 billion rubles for residential construction, twice as much as in 1930, and it is hoped that in the year 1931 new dwelling space will be more than doubled compared to the previous year, particularly since a decree of March 1 has ordered a decrease in building costs from a prevailing average of 170 rubles per square meter (and sometimes even more) to 104 rubles per square meter.
The ‘third decisive year’ of the Five-Year Plan — as 1931 is usually referred to in all proclamations — is among other things supposed to represent a turning point in the solution of Russia’s acute housing shortage. With the exception of Leningrad, which was changed from national capital to provincial city after the Revolution, the housing shortage in the Soviet Union is very acute indeed. The influx of people into cities and workers’ settlements is so great that, regardless of the yearly increase of appropriations for housing, the average living area per capita has steadily decreased during the 14 years since the Revolution. In Moscow the figure is presently approximately 4 square meters per person, while in the Don district it is 4.2 meters per person. It should be noted that in the cities the actual average is somewhat higher for favored factory workers. In previous years, and according to plan, this segment of the population was settled by the government almost exclusively in new dwellings, while others were moved into the apartments of the former ‘bourgeoisie’ which had been liberated by the authorities by force or otherwise. Even today some workers in Moscow occupy as little as 3 square meters per head, excluding favored groups and discounting the barracks for migrant labor.
Present conditions in the Soviet Union are so bad that even a budget of more than a billion rubles will not be enough to guarantee the solution of the housing shortage, though this will certainly ease the situation. Due to rapid industrialization, the need for housing in the industrial areas increases at a rate faster than that of even the most vigorous construction activity. For example, in the Don district the population has increased by 38 percent in the past 3 years, while living space has increased  by only 25 percent. However, worse than the obvious lag between housing construction and population increase is the shortage of building materials, which has become increasingly acute as a consequence of expanded total building activity. In a session of the Council of the People’s Commissars of April 13 it was reported that the fulfillment of the quota of building-materials industry in the first quarter of 1931 has been ‘completely unsatisfactory.’ Figures quoted for individual plants varied form 60 to 25 percent short of the target quota. From the Don district the Moscow press reported as follows: ‘A threatening shortage of building materials imperils the implementation of this directive [i.e., the government’s directive to build housing to the extent of 94 million rubles in this district in 1931] to its full extent and on time…’ And further: ‘…a great number of unfinished houses often lacking roofs, floors, ceilings, doors, etc., have been carried over from the previous year into 1931 due to lumber shortages…Some of the dwellings built remained without heating or plumbing fixtures…These are equipped with temporary stoves only, and often lack sewage or water supply.’ During recent years even the best and most lavish projects in Moscow have been beset by similar obstacles. These are cases where the installation of plumbing often does not keep up with new construction, and others where the overworked railroads deliver only 1,680 carloads of building materials instead of 6,500 as ordered (their March quota); or where the new project cannot be delivered because no sewer, water, or heating pipes can be procured. In general it must be stated that because of shortages of material and labor, the housing program for 1930 has not been fulfilled. In order to carry out the much bigger program of 1931, unprecedented efforts will be required, especially since prospects for the production of some of the most important building materials (such as bricks, steel, cement, etc.) are not very favorable. During a recent session of the All-Russian Economic Council, the deputy of the Workers’ Commissariat for Inspection said: ‘This year industry is even less prepared for the implementation of the building-materials production program than last year.’
The above represents a sober assessment of the whole situation, the housing shortages, and the many other obstacles that defy solution, and also explains why, contrary to call theoretical and tactical considerations, the Communist Party and the Soviet government has had to abandon under pressure the experiment of ‘Socialist architecture’ and ‘Socialist cities,’ at least for the foreseeable future.
The idea of ‘Socialist cities’ has aroused interest not only in Russia and in Moscow, but all over the world. A whole new extensive literature  has been devoted to the subject, and the whole concept has been explored in heated arguments, model exhibits, plans, and proposals by eminent specialists, both native and foreign. All the world was waiting for the great ‘new thing’ that Communism would contribute to architecture. In the laboratories — meaning in the brains of artists and architects — and even in the construction offices, work goes on; but as far as practical results are concerned, we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the ‘Socialist city’ is still far removed from reality and that, as far as the foreseeable future is concerned, we shall have to be satisfied with a few model projects of so-called ‘collective dwellings,’ a few functional modernistic clubs, and some communal apartment buildings that are really nothing but demeaned hotels, devoid of luxury, and modified to fit the workers’ daily routine, being ‘Socialist collective’ dwellings only in name: viz., single-bedroom apartments, common living rooms, dining halls, recreation rooms complemented by nurseries, laundries, and electric superkitchens.
Even though the idea of ‘Socialist cities’ has not been completely renounced, any attempt to realize this concept at all in the foreseeable future has been abandoned after some long arguments among Communist thinkers, and was, in fact, formalized right in the middle of the controversy byt eh ukase issued on March 25 by the Central Committee of the Party. The ukase asks for ‘light’ dwelling construction, and recommends so-called ‘standard construction’ wherever possible for typical two- and three-family dwellings in wood, cinderblock, or other suitable material that may be available in the locality or that may be in supply at the moment. After the publication of this ukase, the Soviet press indignantly attacked all ‘right-wing opportunists’ who for reasons of economy and expediency, and as a temporary solution, had recommended the construction of housing barracks, but castigated even more violently the ‘leftists’ and ‘ultraradicals,’ whom they accused of espousing ‘gigantism’ in the form of costly and enormous projects, and even though it may sound unbelievable, the party organ Pravda then suddenly decided to separate itself with a mighty heave from all the ‘wild dreamers’ who dared ask for their visionary cities at once, and who advocated the ‘full socialization of the entire life style, the separation of children from their parents, and similar things connected with fancy project-making.’
All the noise is now in the direction of ‘standard conventional construction.’ The retreat from the gospel truth of ‘Socialist cities’ to small and primitive wooden houses for which design offices supply plans  and drawing in great quantities is made more palatable by daily new discoveries of the advantages of wood construction: ‘Standard houses do not require scarce materials such as steel and cement… Compared to a cost of 170 rubles per square meter of masonry construction, standard house construction costs only 80 rubles per square meter.’ Additional advantages of traditional wood construction are quoted as follows: labor savings, savings in terms of engineers and technicians, short construction time, alleviation of railroad-transport loas, and so on. It is therefore not surprising that a resolution has already been drafted calling for a switch to wood construction in the Moscow region, in Stalingrad and, above all, in the Don district — and yes even in the newly planned industrial city of Magnitogorsk (being planned under the supervision of the Frankfurt architect May) which had been selected from its very beginning as an example of a ‘Socialist model city’ (in spite of the fact that even according to previous plans only 25 percent of the city was to be constructed on the basis of the so-called ‘collective style’). The changeover from Socialist collective cities as a symphony of steel, concrete, glass, skyscrapers, and giant clubs, to modest, small-scale residences in wood is quite a blow to Communist theory. However, it is also an indicator of a return to healthier and more sober attitudes on the part of the Soviet government, a fact which has lately been noticeable in other areas as well and which leads one to accept that a way has been found out of the utopian obsession, with its wild dreams, toward more reasonable policies of economic recovery and stability. It is obvious that the party and the government were guided in their decision to retreat from ‘Socialist-collective’ to traditional single dwellings primarily by the idea that wood construction was much faster and considerably cheaper and that it had more chance for quick success in terms of alleviating the housing shortage. Apart from this, it should not be overlooked that the mood of the population — particularly the working population — strongly resisted collectivization; this indicates that aside from the aforementioned reasons, the retreat of the party was obviously a political device designed to reduce tensions. This was a wise move, since the failure to do so would have added another explosive item to an already explosive situation. It is no secret that the great majority of the Russian working class rejects the collective dwelling. True, the student and the young worker seem to tolerate the hotel-like regimentation, but as soon as they marry they want a ‘home,’ something ‘individual.’ Be it ever so small, it is at least their own, where they can live for themselves and their family, firmly closing the door to the outside world.
[From Bauwelt, 1931, No. XXI, pgs. 703-704]
~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.
Posted in architecture, modernism, Russian avant-garde
Tags: architecture, city planning, collectivism, funding, housing, Russia, socialist cities, Soviet Union, town planning, translation, Wilm Stein