Architecture in Global Socialism

Łukasz Stanek

Łukasz Stanek talks to Tribune about his book on how architects and planners in Eastern Europe designed and built towns and cities across the world between the 1950s and 1980s.

Unity Hall, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.

Interview by
Owen Hatherley

Łukasz Stanek is a Polish historian of architecture, based for several years at the University of Manchester, and the author of books and curator of exhibitions on a variety of subjects, from the work of the Marxist philosopher and geographer Henri Lefebvre to the utopian possibilities of the seaside resort to Postmodernist architecture in Poland. His new book Architecture in Global Socialism is an epic, revisionist study many years in the making, centring on how Non-Aligned countries in the post-war era employed professionals from Eastern and Central Europe to plan and build their post-colonial urban spaces, taking in an enormous space from Baghdad to Lagos. We spoke to him about the ideas and achievements of this deeply flawed but genuinely existing ‘World Socialist System,’ and whether anything survives of it today.


What was your aim in telling this story of architects and planners from Eastern Europe working abroad between the ’50s and the ’80s? What received ideas did you want to challenge?


The book takes issue with the capitalist triumphalism that, after 1989, retroactively projected its inevitability to the post-war period and led to an understanding of globalisation as Westernisation or Americanisation. This view continues to reverberate in architectural and planning history today. It has been perpetuated by conceptual frameworks and archival repositories in the Global North, but also by funding schemes in Western Europe that celebrate the presumably “shared” colonial architectural heritage. The privileging of the encounter with the West can be seen even in critical scholarship, which explains urbanisation in the Global South by referring to two overarching “events”: the colonial conquest and the globalisation of capital. Similar blind spots haunt the current historiography of cities in Africa and Asia. For example, Baghdad has received a lot of attention of architectural historians who studied the work of Western architects in the Iraqi capital in the 1950s and then in the 1980s. But the two decades in between, characterised by Iraq’s more antagonistic relationship with Western powers, have been largely absent in scholarship. 

By contrast, my book points at the multiplicity of international exchanges of architects, planners, design institutes, construction companies, and decision makers in the Global South during the Cold War, notably with their counterparts from socialist countries in Eastern Europe. In particular, I study the ways in which the collaboration between Eastern Europeans, West Africans, and Middle Easterners reshaped five cities: Accra, Lagos, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, and Kuwait City. In this way, the book makes it clear that the world, as a reality and as a concept, is not owned by the West. At the same time, and in difference to the Western vision of one homogenous “Soviet bloc”, this view from the South shows evolving motivations and sometimes contradictory aims of architectural mobilities from socialist countries, from East Germany to the Soviet Union, from Poland and Hungary to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania. 


It’s very striking how your book takes the idea of the ‘World Socialist System’ of the mid-century seriously as a reality rather than a utopian aspiration or an ideological smokescreen. What did that ‘System’ consist of – and how did it work in relations with these mostly non-socialist African and Asian countries?


The idea of the World Socialist System was contested, both from within and from without the socialist countries. It continues to be a subject of debates by economic and political historians. In my book I introduced it in order to distinguish two approaches that can be seen in Soviet architectural exchanges with the Global South. The first was the claim to the global applicability of the socialist development path, associated with Khrushchev’s opening towards the newly independent countries in Africa and Asia and often supported by preferential trade policies. This was the case with the Soviet support for Ghana under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah (1957-66). At that time, the Ghanaian government pursued state-led industrialisation, collectivisation of agriculture, central planning, mobilisation of the population by means of mass organisations, and a broad distribution of welfare. The second approach became dominant during the Brezhnev period, when the socialist countries began to see the Global South largely as a source of raw materials and mobile labour. Rather than trying to promote socialist development, they collaborated with countries of differing socio-economic systems. This is what Soviet authors called the World Socialist System, accompanied by a rhetoric of a “new international division of labour” that would break with the patterns of global economy inherited from the colonial period. 

The Ministries Complex in Kano, Nigeria.

While this rhetoric has been challenged by historians, I found the concept of the World Socialist System useful when discussing the economic exchanges between the socialist countries and Iraq, including exchanges in architecture, planning, and construction. In the wake of the coup in 1958, which toppled the pro-Western monarchy, the new Iraqi government and those that followed often referred to socialism, but they understood it very differently to the Soviet model and, more often than not, persecuted the Iraqi Communist Party. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites stepped in and offered large-scale military, economic, and technical collaboration.

In this context, some features and instruments of state socialist foreign trade, first introduced in Eastern Europe, became vehicles for the mobility of design, planning, and construction from socialist countries to Iraq. Among them was the state monopoly on foreign trade, the inconvertibility of Eastern European currencies, and barter agreements. The principle of petrobarter – the exchange of crude oil for goods and services – was not restricted to socialist countries, but it was dominating their foreign trade with oil producing countries in the Middle East and North Africa. In the book I argue that this transaction defined the design procedure, program, materiality, and technology of the buildings designed and constructed by state-socialist companies. For example, I describe how Romanian contractors redrew plans by third actors, whether coming from the West or from the East, so that they could be constructed by means of Romanian materials, technology, and labour, and bartered for crude oil. For an architectural historian such transactions allow us to study how actors on the ground exploited opportunities and tried to avoid obstacles that resulted from operating on a threshold between the political economy of state socialism and an emerging, increasingly global and Western-dominated market of design and construction services.


The Soviets were obviously quite keen to hold on to a tarnished ‘anti-imperialist’ image given their annexation of the Baltic states, the invasion of Hungary in 1956, and the later Maoist critique of the USSR as a ‘superpower’, etc. How did they try to prove their anti-colonial credentials in how they acted in Ghana, for instance?


By the early 1960s, when the Soviets were arriving to Ghana, they had lost the monopoly on socialism. In the wake of the Yugoslav-Soviet split in 1948 and later the Sino-Soviet split, Nkrumah and the Ghanaian leadership were presented with several possibilities of what socialism could mean and various ways in which world-wide solidarities outside the West could be imagined. This multiplicity was reinforcing Nkrumah’s belief that it was possible for Ghana to pursue an independent policy while drawing on technical assistance from within and from across Cold War divisions. 

But the Soviets had a lot to show for: rates of growth arguably higher than in the West, technological feats such as the space programme, and the development of Central Asia. The latter was showcased to boost Soviet anti-colonial credentials. The Soviets claimed to have “liberated” Central Asia from Tsarist oppression, followed by a fast-pace economic and social development, the raising of living standards, and access to housing, schooling, health facilities, and culture. This development included also the recognition of Islam as an important component of the “national traditions” of Central Asia. The renovated mosques and madrasas in Samarkand and Bukhara were often displayed in Soviet propaganda materials. The development of the region was also used by the Soviets to distinguish their approach from Chinese technical assistance. Soviet authors writing in the early 1970s contrasted the structural change promoted by the Soviet Union among the developing countries with an incremental change, which they associated with the Chinese approach. Notably, by the end of the decade, with centrifugal tensions in the Soviet Union, the increasingly evident ecological damage caused by the Soviet development policies and, in particular, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Central Asian republics were no longer an attractive example for the developing world. 


One of the most remarkable parts of the book centres on the enormous difference between the British and Polish plans for Baghdad. What were these differences?


The master plan by the British planners Minoprio, Spencely & Macfarlane was delivered in 1956, two years before the coup. Eleven years later, it was followed by a plan by the Polish state design institute Miastoprojekt-Kraków, and its more detailed version was delivered in 1973. This relatively short interval meant that both plans belonged to a broadly understood culture of post-war, modern town planning. Accordingly, they shared such principles as land use zoning, hierarchisation of traffic, and a nested system of social facilities. Furthermore, the Polish planners decided to keep some specific planning decisions of the previous plan, such as the overall shape of the city and elements of its environmental engineering system.

But there were significant differences, too. The most consequential included the Poles’ opposition to large-scale demolition of the Ottoman-era urban fabric, as foreseen by the 1956 plan. While the British planners acknowledged the architectural value of Abbasid monuments and several public buildings from the Ottoman period, they insisted on the clearing of their surroundings. By contrast, the Polish planners pointed at the historical image of the city as part of the nation-building process in Iraq. In so doing, they referred to the experience of rebuilding Warsaw’s Old Town after its planned demolition by the German-Nazi occupants during World War II. 

But perhaps the most striking difference between these two plans was their sizes. When put next to each other, the 23 pages of the Minoprio plan contrast with the four volumes of the Miastoprojekt plan. This large amount of documentation was not a reflection of socialist bureaucracy, as one might suspect. Rather, I argue that it resulted from the complex positionality of the Eastern European planners vis-à-vis their Iraqi counterparts. These planners had enjoyed less prestige and confidence of professional Iraqis in 1960s and 1970s Baghdad, who were typically educated in the West, in the UK and in the US. Iraqi decision makers needed to be convinced and presented with evidence. As a consequence, the master plans documented the process of planning, including the gathering of data, often unreliable and fragmentary, their assessment, their translation into alternative planning variants, and their evaluation and recommendation. In this way, such a transparent and almost pedagogical mode of presentation can be seen as an additional training offered to the Iraqi planners who were supposed to take over.  


It’s interesting how most of these figures seem to have come to agree that Eastern Europe was colonial and ‘backward’ before 1945 and to have approached building in the former British colonies that make up this book in that spirit. How did their clients and bosses in West Africa and West Asia see this claim?


I am not sure if most of the protagonists of this book would agree with this claim. Some Polish and Hungarian architects and planners would have been aware of the research about “backwardness” in the region. It straddled studies carried out in imperial capitals since the late 19th century, in particular Vienna, and those produced in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere during the interwar period. After World War II, economists such as Paul Rosenstein-Rodan or Michał Kalecki translated this research into plans of economic development promoted in the Global South by the United Nations. But architects coming from “Central Europe,” i.e. the post-Habsburg space, were proud of the contribution of the region to modern architecture during the interwar period, whether Czech functionalist architecture, Hungarian pedagogy at the Bauhaus, or Polish town planning. Most of them also identified with the post-war reconstruction of the region, to which they contributed. Some would have been sceptical about the staged contrast between the period before socialism and the post-war modernisation, which was a recurring tone of the state-socialist propaganda machinery.

View on Lagos Island from the roof terrace of the City Hall, Lagos, Nigeria.

I think that rather than arriving with a belief of a shared history of underdevelopment and colonisation, several protagonists of this book discovered such connections from within their daily work in sub-Saharan Africa. When working in Ghanaian and Nigerian cities, they discovered similarities between the concerns of their African counterparts and several topics of Central European architectural culture since the mid-19th century. They included, for instance, studies of vernacular buildings as an inspiration for national architecture, or the development of rural areas, villages and small towns as a specific obligation for socially engaged architects. These topics, in turn, inspired them to apply and appropriate professional techniques from Eastern European architectural culture in their work in Africa, including techniques of drawing, surveying, researching, and planning. 

At the same time, such an “African view” on Eastern Europe resulted sometimes in the defamiliarisation of Eastern European history. For example, when travelling in Africa, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński reflected about Polesie, a region in today’s Belarus and Ukraine, which was subjected to an “internal colonisation” by the Polish governments between the two world wars. Kapuściński grew up in Polesie as a son of a Polish governmental official, and his trips to Africa made him think of Polesie as a “colonised territory,” characterised by poverty, the presence of ghosts, and a local population which refused to identify with any of the nation states in the region. 


Apart from one rather severe, classical Chinese-designed building in Conakry, most of the examples in this book are either Modernist or Postmodernist. Do you think there was much difference in terms of style and construction – rather than in terms of economics and ideology – between Eastern European architecture in these countries and the work being done by American or British firms?


One of the core arguments of this book is not to separate the materiality of the buildings, including their forms and construction, and their political economy. Or, rather, to trace the materiality of a building back to the decisions made in response to the political economy of state socialism and its foreign trade. What I mentioned before about the impact of barter on the design, program, technology, and materiality of the buildings co-produced by Eastern Europeans, was true also about other types of transactions. They included, for example, buildings-gifts, that most visible form of technical assistance of the Khrushchev period. I believe that meaningful differences between architectures do not appear as isolated features but rather in the ways these architectures facilitate the redistribution of times and spaces of everyday life. In this sense, an example of an architecture that made a difference could have been a canteen in Ghana which prepared pre-cooked food so that women would spend less time on domestic chores. It could have been a shop in Accra which was open until late so that office workers did not need to leave their work during business hours to shop. It could have been an architectural office where the desk of the chief architect was given to a Ghanaian who headed a team of Eastern Europeans. All these examples are taken from 1960s Ghana. They were attempts, not always successful, at uniting spaces and times that had been divided during the colonial period, and at redistributing them according to a new societal vision. 


Your book ends with the actions of, mainly, Polish and Bulgarian firms in very capitalist economies in the 1980s in Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, where they adapt with some skill to Postmodernism and to commercial imperatives. Do you think it’s fair to say that these endeavors were ‘already’ capitalist before 1989?


One of the most memorable interviews which I carried out was with a former technical director of a large Bulgarian contractor called Technoexportstroy. When I interviewed him about his work during the Cold War, he told me: “We were like a Western company.” He had a lot to show in substantiation of this claim: Technoexportstroy’s organisation which reflected the British legal system, the Bulgarian firm’s accounts located in West Germany, the Western machinery and technologies they worked with, and the culture of competition and cooperation with Western contractors on foreign markets. Even in Bulgaria Technoexportstroy operated by means of what was called “internal export”, an oxymoron which meant that goods and services were sold within the country in exchange for “hard” (convertible) currency.

Municipality and Town Planning Department, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

It is well known by economic historians that by the end of the Cold War several socialist countries had two competing modes of exchange: a local, inconvertible currency and a hard currency. East Germany was most notorious in this respect. Accordingly, firms such as Technoexportstroy operated across these two modes of exchange and two political economies, both in the country and abroad. The most skilful among their managers were able to exploit these differences. The dependence on this intermediary position makes the claim that Technoexportstroy was “like a Western company” rather questionable. But what puzzled me about this statement was something else: I wondered whether it conveyed my interviewee’s attempt to make sense of his professional life in view of the devalorisation of the socialist period after 1989. It made me think about the limits of an interview as a means of history-writing of socialism, whether in Eastern Europe, Nkrumahist Ghana, or Baathist Iraq. 


How well has this architecture survived in the present day? And have any of these international connections survived – thinking of China here especially, which has been criticised recently for an ‘imperial’ move into Africa?


Much of the architectures co-produced by Eastern Europeans, West Africans, and Middle Easterners during the Cold War continue to impact urbanisation processes in the five cities which I studied. Some buildings have been put to new uses and are well maintained. Among them is the State House complex in Accra: once built for a Pan-African congress, the ensemble is today the Parliament of Ghana. Another prominent example is the National Arts Theatre in Lagos, which was undergoing renovation when I visited it a few years ago. In turn, the International Trade Fair in Accra is an important venue for the city, but its maintenance suffered because of the conflicts around land ownership which stem from the expropriations of the Nkrumah period. Cold-War era planning regulations, urban norms, building codes, teaching curricula, and research methodologies, while often modified and amended, also continue to be in use in many places which I visited. The most evident example is the 1973 master plan of Baghdad, which expired in 2000 but still awaits its replacement.  

By contrast, most institutional connections discussed in this book did not survive the creative destruction of state-socialist institutions after the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, and war operations in Algeria, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. While some Eastern European companies working in the Global South tap into their contacts from the 1970s and 1980s, most of them operate as subcontractors of Western firms. A few days ago Russia announced technical assistance to Syria’s effort to reconstruct Palmyra, and it would be interesting to know whether there is any personal or institutional continuity with the Soviet engagements in Syria during the Cold War. Such continuity is evident in the case of China’s presence in Africa. These engagements go back to the 1960s, and it was in Accra in 1964 that Zhou Enlai, China’s prime minister, announced the “Eight Principles” that would define China’s aid to Africa in the decades to come. By pointing at these continuities, this book aims at a more differentiated and antagonistic view on urbanisation processes in the 20th century and their consequences today. 

Architecture in Global Socialism – Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War is now out from Princeton.

About the Author

Łukasz Stanek is senior lecturer at the Manchester School of Architecture, University of Manchester, UK. He is the author of Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory and the editor of Team 10 East: Revisionist Architecture in Real Existing Modernism.

About the Interviewer

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books on political aesthetics, and the culture editor of Tribune.