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  • Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union by Christina E. Crawford
  • Heather DeHaan (bio)
Christina E. Crawford, Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022). 385 pp., ill. Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-1-5017-5919-2.

Henri Lefebvre once argued that socialism failed to produce a space for itself, and with this as his measure of revolutionary success, he asserted that the Soviet experiment had failed:

A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed, it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses. A social transformation, to be truly revolutionary in character, must manifest a creative capacity in its effects on daily life, on language and on space.1

Christina Crawford's new book challenges this claim. She points to the urban superblock, to new collective forms of social organization, and also to the Soviet Union's broad and diffuse pattern of development as evidence that the Soviet revolution wrought fundamental change in the organization of space. [End Page 294]

To tell this story, Crawford takes us to the edge of empire – to Baku, Magnitogorsk, and Kharkiv, to sites that were economically central but geographically peripheral. Unlike the 1920s' avant-garde experimentation whose demise resulted in Lefebvre's declaration, the making of these cities involved significant material transformation in the built landscape.2 Crawford deploys Yves Cohen's concept of "circulatory localities" to highlight how new ideas for social and spatial organization flowed through Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union, ultimately finding application at each of these locations.3 The result was a revolution in Soviet space, one born not of socialist ideas, but rather of praxis – that is, of the implementation of socialist and planning theory in concrete places with an eye to solving specific challenges. In the Soviet Union, she notes, the context for such application encompassed weak administrative capacity, mercurial decision making, unreliable supply systems, and the absence of private property.

Crawford structures her work in a loosely chronological fashion, opening with a discussion of the planning of Baku, Azerbaijan, a city whose oil industry made the provision of working-class housing a strategic priority.4 As Craw-ford notes, the efforts of both the Azerbaijani State Oil Company (Azneft) and the Baku municipal authority (Baksoviet) to address this need were stymied by incomplete geological surveys, a poor grasp of the nature and extent of existing housing, and a lack of integrated vision for the provision of municipal infrastructure and communication systems. Finally, in 1924, they hired a Soviet engineer and pioneer of gradostroitel'stvo (city planning), Alexander Platonovich Ivanitskii, to produce designs for four workers' settlements for Azneft as well as an urban plan for Baku.

Though many a scholar might have focused entirely on Ivanitskii at this point, Crawford makes it clear that Ivanitskii was just one of many vectors for the transmission of foreign ideas and technologies. In 1924, the Azneft director Aleksandr Serebrovskii traveled at the behest of the Supreme Council of [End Page 295] the Economy (VSNKh) to gather information on the US oil industry. While there, he negotiated John D. Rockefeller's personal authorization of Standard Oil credit for Azneft purchases of US equipment at the industry discount prices that Standard Oil itself received. Americans soon dubbed him the "Soviet Rockefeller" (Pp. 42–43). Perhaps inspired by Ivanitskii, Baksoviet members invested in foreign planning literature. They also arranged – likely with Ivanitskii's assistance – their own European tour of the places whose models Ivanitskii discussed. Ivanitskii's own work showed the strong influence of Raymond Unwin, the architect-planner of Letchworth Garden City, in that Baku's new green spaces were designed, like Unwin's, to facilitate collective life. Similarly, Azneft's new "garden settlements," as designed by Ivanitskii, were hybrids combining elements of the garden city and a workers' settlement. Crawford's emphasis here contributes to a growing body of scholarship exploring such horizontal exchange, both within the Soviet Union and transnationally.5

But Crawford is a trained architect whose interest lies in how such concepts...