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Reviewed by:
  • Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union by Christina E. Crawford
  • Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman
Crawford, Christina E. Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY and London, 2022. xx + 385 pp. Maps. Illustrations. Glossary. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $35.00: £29.00.

Histories of Soviet urbanism have often focused their work on two key questions: 1) did the Soviet experiment create its own distinctly socialist relationship to urban space? and 2) if it did, what did that relationship look like? Christina E. Crawford’s rich and engaging new monograph, Spatial Revolution, is part of a growing historiographical trend that (thankfully) takes the former as a given, in order to focus on the latter. Her deep examination of the internal dynamics of Soviet urbanism — in particular, the way plans were framed, cultivated and put into practice — makes the existence of uniquely Soviet spatial politics clear. Through three illuminating case studies, Crawford draws our attention to the more important (and interesting) question: how — and why — the Soviet version of socialist space took the forms that it did.

The first case study explores housing experimentation in Baku in the final years of the New Economic Policy. Central to the success of the Soviet state’s rise to power had been its promises of a new future, and now that new future had to be built. While the Soviet state focused on Baku because of an urgent need to get its oil fields up and running, it did so with an eye towards broader ideological and humanitarian goals as well. Crawford argues that experimentation played a key role in initial forays towards this dual purpose, as it offered planners and officials a means to test how to ‘bridge that gap between a local past and a common socialist future’ (p. 63). After initial ad hoc approaches proved to be insufficient, planners began to experiment with more systematic solutions. In the process, they dealt with supply issues through practices like volumetric dynamism (the skilful placement and use of necessary design elements) and through the amplification of natural elements like ventilation. The design form that eventually emerged ascendant, the superblock, would become one of the most recognizable elements of Soviet architecture.

Baku was an early example of how state capital could be used to produce social shifts, but in the era of the First Five Year Plan, the slow pace of experimentation in pre-existing cities no longer met state priorities. Instead, planners were asked to create a design for a newly constructed socialist city (sotsgorod) and a housing combine (zhilkombinat), with Magnitogorsk selected as a site to put the winning plans into practice. Debates raged about what the new approaches could be, with particular emphasis put on questions of population density, familial dynamics and the role of public space. Although planners disagreed (often fiercely) on the specifics of their respective plans, there were also significant convergences within the emerging field, with [End Page 387] planners paying particular attention to how the lack of profit competition led to more productive collaborations.

Even as ideas began to solidify about what a new Soviet urbanism could be, the question of putting it into practice — and of actually shifting hegemony — was a much bigger question. The remoteness of Magnitogorsk added complications to the construction process, so even veteran architects and planners (including Ernst May from Germany) were unable to overcome the difficulties. Crawford’s final section explores how the concepts delved in Magnitogorsk were put into practice in the New Kharkiv sotsgorod. Even as the production focus in this city turned towards an increasingly centralized and standardized norm, adding in tweaks and other ‘architectural adjustments’ (priviazka, p. 221) was common, and built heterogeneity into the process. This combination of standardization mixed with priviazka would become the baseline of Soviet urban practice.

Together, the three examples that this monograph delves into create a clear narrative of early Soviet urbanism, with each example acting as the proving ground for the following. As a structure (called ‘nodal history’, p. 4), this works extremely well, as it encourages the reader to dive into the particularities of each individual city (and...