NATÁLIA KVÍTKOVÁ A STUDY OF THE OBSOLESCENCE OF MEMORY THROUGH DEMOLITION
The post-1989 treatment of the socialist urban landscape vividly illustrates persistent redevelopment and eradication by those in power, whether by political or economic circumstances. Urban researcher Natália Kvítková retraces the lost heritage of forsaken architecture in the form of reimagined therapeutic obituaries.
I. MEMORY AND DEMOLITION
Strolling through a city of the Visegrad Four, only a keen eye will perceive that the socialist modernist urban landscape is greatly diminished. Many buildings which are the later symbols of the socialist regime have been neatly cleared away to make space for the aspirations of the post-socialist governments to join the modern, international, and capitalist ‘‘European” place identities from which the East had been left out for 40 years. The city slips into a globalised homogeneity. Its people begin to forget what once was.
Socialist modernism has struggled to be accepted as anything other than a tool of repressive regimes. These places of collective memory and identity have lingered on the periphery of (acknowledged) heritage, overlooked as much for their lack of age value as for their ideological context. As the buildings disappear, so do the memories vested into them, and are reassembled according to current interpretations of the past. The demolition of socialist architecture has been met with a choir of protests emanating from concerned communities. Increasingly, this includes the voices of younger generations whose only experiences of socialism are anecdotal. However, the proportion of people who are untroubled and often relieved by the loss of the buildings continues to exceed those who are perturbed.
(A.) Supersam (Supermarket) Warsaw, PL
Architects Ewa and Maciej Krasiński and Jerzy Hryniewiecki
✞ R.I.P. 1962—2007
The phenomenon of demolition remains a mysterious topic; there is a lack of theoretical knowledge of demolition and only a fragmented understanding of its underlying motives that are often shrouded in the secrecy of handshake deals between property owners and local governments. In particular, looking into the demolition of the socialist landscapes of Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary points to a tangled web of undesirable aspects and causes. When looking at the persistent redevelopment and eradication of socialist architecture in these countries by political or economic powers, is demolition an attempt to purge, to detoxify cities of the contamination of difficult epochs?
Many of the buildings have proven their innovative design through their ongoing use and commemorative value but, regardless, have been erased. These places remain at the heart of memories, culture, and identity, as a witness to forty years of socialist rule but likewise the tremendous efforts of architects whose designs were not exclusively tied up into the political demands of the regime. These buildings provide an important source of context as tangible intermediaries, or connectors, which will link living memories to history and heritage. Their presence likewise allowed us to criticise the recent past in a contemporary milieu. Acts of commemoration and oblivion are formed through the landscape. As such, does demolition become a denial of history?
It is widely accepted that a building should be demolished and replaced when it becomes obsolete, but what are the conditions of obsolescence of a socialist building? Is it their physical decay or the lingering rot of ideology and bad memories?
II. BUILDINGS AS (POLITICAL) ARTEFACTS
(B.) Transgas, Prague, CZ
Architects Jindřich Malátek, Jiří Eisenreich, Ivo Loos, Václav Aulický
✞ R.I.P. 1972—2019
As the sole authority with the ability to commission buildings, the socialist regime used architecture as a testament of the absolute power of the socialist state over the individual, the endurance of their society, their superior culture and strength as a nation. Even functionally mundane buildings with no monumental capacities could not escape political contamination. The post-1989 transitional processes could be acutely observed through changes which occurred in the built landscape. Opportunists with any socioeconomic status, often leveraging friendly connections to the former perpetrators of socialism, became entrepreneurs. They were quick to snap up deals on state-owned enterprises and swallowed buildings into private ownership. This led to the repositioning of the highly ideological socialist landscape, no longer dictated by a centralised system, but by the power dynamics of economic interests.
A transliteration of the post-socialist landscape unfolded as the stability of political and economic conditions began to draw in foreign investment whose interests lay in redeveloping the lucrative central city core. The socialist buildings which occupied these plots were still publicly perceived as corrupted by their ideological context, ordained as political artefacts that elicited a volatile and provocative symbolic persistence of an ominous moment of history. Outside of architectural specialists, their demolition was seldom contested and generated a sense of redemption.
III. DEMOLITION AS THERAPY
(C.) The demolition of the Obchodní dům Ještěd, Liberec, CZ
Architects Karel Hubáček and Miroslav Masák
✞ R.I.P. 1968—2009
The significance of the act of demolition surpasses the mere physical loss of valuable or interesting works of architecture. The unintended consequences of demolition “may trigger events far removed from it in time and space, whether or not those consequences were intended by the perpetrator of the original action.” Demolition disassembles the symbolic persistence of the building and the memories triggered by its form. The interaction between space and memory points to a host of phenomena which emerge in demolition.
Understanding memory as a process is integral to the concept of architecture as a mnemonic device. If memory forms without a mnemonic object, it weakens the strength of the memory as “non-material remembering consists of a very short and thus very unstable network.” The interplay of memory and object is amplified by the relationship between memory and architecture. Aldo Rossi, in his seminal work The Architecture of The City, argues that we remember through the city and that its preservation is tied to our ability to recollect, otherwise “the city erases our memories as it changes.” Removing the artefact is effectively deconstructing the framework which supports memory, resulting in feelings of vindication.
Some believe that vestiges of repressive powers “should not be kept for posterity, but rather destroyed by a direct, collective action; a public celebration to bring down the hated symbols, and against the repression that was systematically imposed by the regime.” Often preserving the remains of totalitarian regimes has been described as sharing in their complicity. On the other hand, we must consider that buildings “through their design and association with memories provide an important reminder of the nature of the system and the historical period from which they derive. Such structures of places serve as a safeguard against forgetting, and thus as a form of warning against the possibility of repetition.”
The varying modalities of socialist modernist architecture have not presented a strong case for its survival.
IV. REASONS FOR DEMOLITION
(D.) Interior of Kino Skarpa, Warsaw, PL
Architect Zygmunt Stępiński
✞ R.I.P. 1960—2008
Before demolition occurs, it begins with a complex process of assessing a building’s value, triggered by a desire to distance ourselves from the object for political, economic, or aesthetic reasons. The impulse to destroy architecture can be “motivated by nostalgia, desire for prestige or for legitimacy, or even economics.” Reflecting on the value of architecture is difficult as it cannot be hidden away; we are constantly confronted by its durability and the imposition of its scale.
Demolition is a hugely physical act and rarely passes unnoticed, nor can it be disconnected from the symbolism of the building. Demolition is an expression of power, authority and control for the destroyer. Furthermore, the ability to revise the existing urban fabric warns of a power over the means of cultural and social production of the city, and the ability to constrain and guide the symbolic narrative. Demolition allows current politics to curate a landscape consonant with their values and aspirations. The erasure of the socialist urban landscape elucidates how in the post-socialist context, the historical narratives of the recent past have been cast aside when they do not fit with the current political agenda.
Both the conceptual or physical obsolescence of architecture is not clearly understood but the demolition of socialist architecture is an opportunity to examine its theoretical framework. Obsolescence occurs when buildings are unable to adapt to changing or contemporary dynamics. Obsolescence does not always lead to demolition, nor is demolition always preceded by obsolescence.
As a PHYSICAL PHENOMENON, obsolescence is a function of human action, often an ongoing disregard for the building. There is the inevitable waste of goods, particularly when the building retained functionality. As the onslaught of the free market charged into the former socialist states, buildings which were the most daring and avant-garde examples of socialist architecture became disfigured and obscured, their forms reduced, under the weight of advertising and billboard chaos. This contributed to the process of their banalisation. As the buildings were adorned with a proliferation of advertisements, it disturbed the contemporary impact of their most characteristic features. Furthermore, many of these most vital socialist modernist features were not sufficiently maintained under private ownership. A building left to dilapidate is continually questioned and judged, its presence a reminder of our own decay and mortality. The disintegration of a building over time can drastically affect perceptions and attitudes towards the architecture.
As an IDEOLOGICAL PHENOMENON, obsolescence occurs when the theoretical or symbolic context of a building is shunned during the process of political transformation which favours contemporary interpretations of the past. Obsolescence is often cited as the basis for treating demolition, but in the case of the former socialist east, as the cloak of socialism was shed, new representations of the former ideology lead to the ideological obsolescence of the post-war landscape.
Demolition remains a rather mysterious topic. The plurality of agency in an undesired building sees aspects of its materiality and infrastructure compelling other entities into taking action against it. The conflicting and interrelated interests of the different parties are difficult to access and data about demolition is often not included in statistics, nor is it available from other resources. Due to the myriad of hidden profit-driven motives for demolition such as land values, deals with the municipality and prejudices about the cost of renewal, we should question how often decay is permitted by property owners who are keen to reap the economic gains which accompany demolition. Policy often favours demolition by offering owners and developers tax breaks for new construction while, in contrast, taxing refurbishment. Bringing a building, particularly a historic building whose design ethos must be respected, up to modern code and functionality is expensive.
There is a symbolic element in the destruction of architecture of former national institutions by lustful entrepreneurs. It’s part of a larger global crisis of construction in the interest of the commissioners rather than the public as an “expression of the forces which limit action and agency through an effective privatisation of urban space.”
The causes for demolition can rarely be explained in simple terms but rather are an amalgamation of physical, social, and economic conditions.
V. CULTURAL AND SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF DEMOLITION
(E.) Hotel Praha, Prague, CZ
Architects Jaroslav Paroubek, Arnošt Navrátil, Radek Černý, Jan Sedláček and Věkoslav Pardyl
✞ R.I.P. 1981—2014
The impact of demolitions surpasses the physical and symbolic qualities of the buildings to echo throughout the social life of cities. In the post-socialist redevelopment of the central city core, the loss of mundane, everyday buildings such as grocery and department stores, withdrew services from city centres. This impacted the quality of life, pushing long-term residents out of the centre and into the peripheral neighbourhoods. These buildings are often replaced with luxury housing, unaffordable for the vast majority of city residents and showcasing the post-socialist transition from political to economic power.
The social effects of demolition will continue to reverberate as memories and historical narratives are reassembled through the severe and sudden alterations to the landscape. Our cities are an archive of memories on both an individual and collective scale. As we move through them, architecture acts as a mnemonic device, forcing us to face memories which are anchored in the city. It is often noted that “memories often cleave to the physical setting of events. That is why buildings and places have so many stories to tell.” The ability to share memories from one’s past and integrate them into the future discourse of the city’s inhabitants is diminished once the building disappears.
We operate our memory process through architecture; as a mnemonic device, memories cling to its spatial boundaries which constitute layers in our individual and collective identities and, thus, our heritage and history. Object-based memory sees an exchange of present meaning and use with the past through a stable operational network in the memory process.
There is an aspect of the process of remembering and forgetting in the creation and destruction of material forms, particularly so with architecture. Architecture is a connector; a material manifestation of the passing of time between epochs, allowing the city to illustrate its evolution and the progression of society. As urban space is a receptacle of collective memory which is socially constructed around this space, there is an important network connection between a group and a space. Architecture is a “space for the formation of identities,” as it is highly visible and deteriorates slowly, outlasting the length of a natural human life. When that connection is damaged by the destruction of the building, the group feels the effects of their collective memory losing the spatial framework which holds it together.
Sites of memory, including those of the recent past, demonstrate “how people use public space to create a sense of oneself and of nation in a modern era often described as alienating and fragmented.” Places remain the heart of our identity and our culture. The stability of a culture is inherently attached to the belief that “its monumental buildings testify to the immortality of its culture,” and, as such, “a demolished structure is an image of horror, revealing not only the weaknesses of our constructions, but also symbolising the deficiencies of both mind and body.”
The progressive destruction of socialist modernism is matched by losses to the ageing generation for whom socialism was the dominant political memory of their time. These gaps in the urban landscape present a (cerebral) blank space open to the manipulations of those in power. Memory, as affected by the loss of many socialist modernist buildings, becomes a political or, often, economic resource.
VI. REVISING THE LANDSCAPE, REVISING THE HISTORY
(F.) Bar Extra, Szczecin, PL
Architects Zbigniew Grudziński, Ludwik Kołodziejczyk and Bohdan Skłodowski
✞ R.I.P. 1961—2011
“The question is not whether we should discard or keep the Soviet legacy—it is impossible to discard one’s own history, after all—but how we will finally reassemble it all.”
The capacity to affect architecture is wielded by political powers, particularly during the socialist epoch of central Europe. Since the fall of socialism, the political power that controlled the landscape—and therefore what is remembered and what is forgotten—has been alarmingly joined with economic power. The financial gains from the construction and redevelopment of the city has permitted economic development to control how the past is recounted in the present.
By effectively removing traces of the architecture from this period, demolition could be described as a manipulation of memory and a revision of history. With demolition comes a high potential for alarming “falsifications of history through a forceful erasing of the collective memory,” and “a provincial and distorted understanding of national culture, and as a result—a cultural decline.” If we destroy permanent phenomena, we are erasing the link to this epoch, as collective memories will not be embedded into the historical discourse of the nation and transcend from collective memory into history. The recent past is at risk in the displacement of forms of the city which could potentially become problematic sites should their heritage falter. As such, we must remain fiercely critical of attempts to demolish socialist modernist buildings at the risk of losing the sites of struggle against the socialist regime and our ability to criticise its crimes.
The single greatest threat socialist architecture faces is global capitalism; likewise, it is a menace to the preservation of all architectural vernacular, as capitalism advances in the creation of spaces which serve economic interests, rather than the public. Entrepreneurs who have acquired the buildings strive towards rapid profit. Presently, the ideological undesirability of socialist architecture is used as mere justification for economically driven reconstruction, demolition, and refurbishment. Likewise, the undesirable and often misunderstood aesthetics of socialist modernism in particular excuses action against the buildings, as does any negligent physical appearance.
Furthermore, the ongoing system of friendships and favours between politicians and entrepreneurs is stalling appeals for wider conservation of socialist architecture as the central locations of many socialist buildings garner a much higher commercial value.
VII. IN THE END
The post-1989 treatment of the socialist urban landscape vividly illustrates persistent redevelopment and eradication by those in power, whether by political or economic circumstances. The changing relationship to the socialist past during the process of political transformation has affected the conditions of obsolescence. The ideological obsolescence of the city landscape has justified demolitions.
Memory, as it is recounted in the present, is subjective and fluid. Architecture roots memories and creates a cause to remember. With demolition, memories become political or are absorbed into economic interests.
In the end, the broader lack of recognition of cultural and historical value of socialist modernism demands a critique of the curators of the city landscape and their role in altering the narrative of its history.
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A. Photo from Wiki Commons. Source: Spotkania z Warszawą, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa 1975
B. Photo from the National Gallery Prague by Kamil Wartha
C. Photo from Wiki Commons. Source: Matěj Baťha
D. Photo from NAC
E. Photo from Wiki Commons. Source: Praha Dejvice, Hotel Praha
F. Photo from Fotopolska.eu
Natália Kvítková (b.1986) was born in Piešťany, SK and fled with her parents to Canada as political refugees shortly before the Velvet Revolution. She is now based in Berlin as an independent researcher and writer, working at the intersection of urban sociology, cultural history and post-war architecture in the former Socialist east. She graduated with an MSc in Design Research from the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in 2018. Her thesis, which illustrated the socialist modernist Prior department stores in Slovakia were transformative spaces that created the necessary conditions for the 1989 Velvet Revolution, was inspired by the pervasive memories of childhood visits for sweets and stationary to the Prior department store located just behind her grandparents’ panelák.