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  • Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union by Christina E. Crawford
  • Iva Glisic (bio)
Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union By Christina E. Crawford. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022. Pp. xv + 385.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet Union sought to catch up with (and overtake) its economic rivals by undergoing a process of accelerated industrialization—an ambitious venture that quickly transformed the entire country into a mega construction site. With Spatial Revolution, Christina E. Crawford examines the relationship between this "hyperindustrialization drive" and the emergence of a distinctly socialist approach to architecture and urban design (p. 1). Focusing on major projects in "geographically peripheral" but economically significant Soviet [End Page 589] industrial centers (p. 2), Crawford positions these sites as critical "experimental enclaves" and argues that on-the-ground experience at these remote locations—rather than directives from above—were critical in articulating the socialist spatial practice (p. 9).

At the heart of Spatial Revolution is a key question faced by early Soviet architects, planners, and administrators: How should the spatial relationship between an industry and its workers be optimized? To both foreground the centrality of this question and demonstrate the myriad ways in which it was answered, Spatial Revolution is organized around a series of case studies. The book opens with a compelling narrative on Soviet Azerbaijan's oil-rich capital, Baku, and the development of its general plan between 1924 and 1927, through which Soviet officials sought to reshape the city into a modern petro-hub. Subsequent chapters trace a pair of critical episodes in early Soviet planning: the 1929 design competition for the city of Magnitogorsk—planned as the centerpiece of the steel industry—and the simultaneous construction of a tractor factory and housing for its workers in Kharkiv between 1930 and 1932. Crawford makes good use of these case studies, which provide the foundation for an analysis that rhythmically shifts between large-scale urban developments, architectural solutions for industrial buildings, and individual housing units.

Throughout these episodes, Crawford introduces contemporary debates on socialist versus capitalist urban layouts and explores various design solutions that have sought to reflect a collectivist ethos. This approach provides valuable insight into the evolution of Soviet spatial models, including the famous garden settlements and urban superblocks. Crawford is also interested in socialist modes of production, and her analysis offers a new understanding of Soviet approaches to improvement, innovation, and architectural standardization. Readers interested in industrial and cultural diplomacy will also find a wealth of engaging material concerning the influence of English garden cities, Weimar housing projects, and technologies developed for American oilfields on Soviet projects.

Spatial Revolution intervenes in current academic debates in two important ways. First, it challenges the tendency to frame spatial projects from the early Soviet era as merely theoretical—perhaps innovative, yet often unrealized—which has in turn led to their persistent characterization as failures. By foregrounding a series of completed projects and recognizing the scope of what was accomplished amid the challenging economic circumstances of this period, Crawford complements recent efforts to correct the misperception of early Soviet creative ventures as having been largely unsuccessful. Second, by demonstrating the influence of Soviet avant-gardists on the development of these construction sites—from workers' housing projects in Baku to factory buildings and social infrastructure in Kharkiv—the study offers further evidence that the impact of avant-garde practices in the Soviet Union was broader and longer lasting than has traditionally been assumed. [End Page 590]

Where Crawford departs from recent literature (including Kachurin's Making Modernism Soviet, 2013, and Utopian Reality, edited by Lodder, Kokkori, and Mileeva, 2013) is in treating ideology and pragmatism as mutually exclusive. The lack of systematic engagement with the notion of ideology lends a sense of tension to Crawford's discussion, especially in instances when the absence of an explicit mention of ideology is taken as evidence of its secondary or marginal place within these projects. Crawford's insistence on drawing a hard line of separation between theory and practice in her analysis is also problematic. Statements to the effect that "it was no longer the time for theories, manifestoes...