Khrushchev and British brutalism

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November 15, 2016 by AK

Owen Hatherley writes of British architects active in the first post-WWII decade:

In the first ten years after 1945, the pure white style of Bruno Ahrends’s Berlin had been Anglicised, but not in the direction of the monumental dissonance of Brutalism. Instead, it became a friendly, rather cutesy amalgam of Scandinavian design and the English picturesque tradition…

In the Architectural Review essay, Banham argued – wholly spuriously – that Khrushchev’s public denunciation of Socialist Realist architecture in 1954 left these architects looking bankrupt and without an ideology to uphold.

In that 2010 article, Reyner Banham put it somewhat differently:

The New Humanism meant, in architecture at that time, brickwork, segmental arches, pitched roofs, small windows (or small panes at any rate) – picturesque detailing without picturesque planning. It was, in fact, the so-called ‘William Morris Revival,’ now happily defunct, since Kruschev’s reversal of the Party’s architectural line…

Pace Hatherley, Khrushchev did not denounce or renounce Socialist Realist architecture: Soviet arts and letters were supposed to be Socialist Realist from the early 1930s to the late 1980s. On the other hand, it is unlikely that Khruschev’s speech at the meeting of Soviet architects in December 1954 had much influence on their British counterparts.

Khrushchev plainly wanted dozens of thousands of residential blocks built at the fastest possible pace, which required the mass production of prefabricated units and serious urban planning. The principal problem with the Stalinist approach to residential construction was not the eclectic architectural style but the slow pace and high cost, often due to the elite nature of Stalinist housing projects.

Khrushchev didn’t mind Stalinist aesthetics when he, as the Ukrainian party boss, oversaw project selection for the rebuilding of Kreschatik (Khreschatyk) in Kiev right after WWII. But when he was transferred back to Moscow and made the city’s party chief in 1949, he figured out that prefab concrete blocks were the future of mass construction (although brick was still used for the outer walls at first, so the proto-khruschevkas looked much like stalinkas).

In the West, however, markets would normally take care of all this. Why would UK architects pay attention to Khrushchev’s directives? Can we seriously credit him for ending the “William Morris revival”?


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