Magnitogorsk / Kuba Snopek

Back to socialist future

An interview with Dr. Kacper Pobłocki on the current and future condition of post-​socialist cities by Yuliana Guseva

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An interview with Dr. Kacper Poblocki

An interview by Yuliana Guseva

Twenty years ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union became one of the most significant and dramatic events of the late twentieth century. Radical overhaul of the system of ideology, policy, and the economy have profoundly affected lives of the one third of the planet’s urban population who had previously lived under socialism. These transitions have profoundly influenced the spatial adaptation of post-socialist cities. After two decades of intense socio-political modification and reconstruction, it is the high time to re-assess the perspectives post-socialist cities are facing. But in order to speculate about the future, it is necessary to recognize long-term urban processes rooted in the past.

The following interview aims to identify the core elements of urbanization under socialism and to discover whether socialist legacy could provide post- socialist cities with an opportunity to evolve and prosper in the future. The interviewed expert is Dr. Kacper Poblocki, professor of anthropology and urban studies at the University of Poznan, Poland; graduate of University College Utrecht, Central European University and the Center for Place, Culture and Politics (CUNY) headed by David Harvey; was awarded the Prime Minister's prize for his PhD dissertation; one of the leaders of the Congress of Urban Movements, co-author of "Anty-bezradnik przestrzenny [Spatial Anti-Helplessness Guide]."
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They say that in order to look 10 years into the future, you have to look 20 years back to predict any type of future development. So the first question is about the past and is very general: what made a socialist city truly socialist?

One of the 1930s Soviet politicians said that “the socialist city is any city in the Soviet Union.” This was usually interpreted as stupid tautology, but you can also take this seriously. The idea behind this is that the socialist city is not about the urban form but it’s more about the urban experience. It’s not about the built environment as such, but about what you do with it. For me, it is a very powerful idea in many ways. If you think about it from a theoretical point of view, in urban studies the question “what is the relationship between the spatial forms and social relations?” is the most crucial one. And one of the ideas cherished by thinkers like David Harvey, Neil Smith and so on is that this relationship is purely contingent. What that means is that you can have two identical cities, from purely material point of view, but people would live in them very differently. The key motor of urban change is not so much in the built environment but what you can do with it. For instance, for the first ten years of socialism in Poland, there was very little investment into the built environment, so from the physical point of view, most of Polish cities were „capitalist”, but the way people lived in them differed radically and was not capitalist at all.

Which trends in socialist urbanization would you highlight as the most essential ones that we need to appreciate today?

I think class diversity is the biggest aspect of socialist urbanization.

Has it provided contemporary urbanization with a challenge or an opportunity?

It’s definitely an opportunity. The idea of the socialist city was actually to mix people up. For instance, initially the working class would be moved to the inner cities – areas which used to be a privilege of the bourgeoisie. Essentially, what they really managed to do is to generate a very mixed city – class-​wise. You would be surprised, but a lot of this is still visible today.

For example, I’ve been analyzing places where urban movement in Poland is the strongest. And essentially what you get here is the following: the places where urban movement starts in Poland are very local, so in the city you have a few areas which are very active. Now, the questions is why these areas and not the other. And my answer is very simple – this is where you find the socialist middle class, where the socialist man, the person who was somewhere between a worker and an intellectual, used to reside. Socialist urbanization was actually suburbanization if you think about it from a spatial stance. Just to give you another example – the tenants’ movement in Poland. There’s one which I was involved in a year ago. Basically, you have the mafia which enters the housing – you see, gentrification in Poland is generally driven by mafia, very brutal, they use extra-​juridical means to kick people out, because they cannot do that by law, the law is pretty lenient on tenants. There are a lot of tragic stories, intimidation and violence. And there was this one case of a house that resisted this violence – they occupied the building and that was the first time ever that this has happened in Poland. I worked with those people and essentially what brought them together was enormous economic diversity. These guys lived together in the same place for something like thirty-​forty years. There was a university professor, a worker, people from welfare, an artisan, a lady who was a sales assistant and so on. A very big diversity of social classes. So it was the social capital that they used to resist mafia – that was the trigger moment that allowed them to bridge many other gaps to find a common goal and mobilize the idea of the public good among themselves. On a daily basis, they had to live with people who are very different from the class perspective. And of course, in many ways this has been erased in the last twenty years by the gated communities, suburbanization and so on. But still – even the gated communities in Poland are pretty diverse.

Bogotá / Jhonattan Balcazar

So class diversity established under the socialist régime clearly represents an opportunity for the current and upcoming urban developments. But what about challenges? What were the failures of the Soviet urban planners that contemporary planners and architects have to watch out for not to make the same mistakes in the future?

One of the modernist ideas is that there is supposed to be only one relationship between spatial forms and human behavior. But the point is to use the discrepancy between the idea and implementation and go beyond the planned

Look, often communism and modernism are collapsed into one other. There is this idea that the socialist city was basically a city where modernist architects like Le Corbusier come and erase everything to ground and build a new city on a clean slate. And quite a few cities were built like this. For example, Magnitogorsk to a certain extent was a city like this
– it was simply built in the middle of nowhere. But there’s always a difference between the idea and the implementation: what was going on in Magnitogorsk was very different from the architect’s or the urbanist’s intentions. So it was a planned city but it rose in spite of the plan – there was a master plan for Magnitogorsk, but it was never implemented. It shows very well one of the modernist ideas – that there is supposed to be only one relationship between spatial forms and human behavior: you build a block of flats and people will behave like this. But the point is to use this discrepancy between the idea and implementation and go beyond the planned. These plans failed because they never meant to work and because they did not account for the sociality of the city as the essential element that determines urban life. Of course, it depends on the case, but usually a socialist city would be basically planned as a one giant factory, there was not really much ‘cityness’ as such. What is means is that the Soviets thought that once there would be a factory, the city itself would kind of follow naturally. The factory was the key element that represented the backbone of the socialist city. And they actually forgot about the city as such, and what it meant was that it was a very provisional space where people could in many ways improvise, very spontaneous city life emerged, and new ways of social relations appeared.

Have post-​socialist cities learned from this experience and will it help them to overcome future problems?

Essentially we, people in Eastern Europe, have been living in the situation of permanent crisis. For us, the Cold War ended in 1989 or 1990. For the US, for the West, the Cold War ended in 2008. The dream of living in this American sitcom dream of 1950-​60s is no longer sustainable, you can’t have three cars and a big house on the suburbs, a job to the end of your life. Now, the West has the first generation of people who will not be better off than their parents. So the idea of perpetual growth, of always growing more and more, of living better and better, is gone. They are plummeting into a crisis and starting to pay attention to the ways of life in the Global South and Eastern Europe as more sustainable. And I think the best metaphor for the adaptation post-​socialist cities have undergone is street market. In a sense, Eastern Europe is a huge street market, and I will explain why. There’s one really cool scene in the documentary which shows Koolhaas in Lagos: people are trading around the rail trucks, it’s a provisional market going, and at some point a train arrives, and you see them fold up all their stalls and let the train pass. For him, that’s a great example of multi-​use space – one space that has two different functions. And because he is so much used to the American zoning practice where you have only one function for one place, this is why it is so fascinating for him. This is what I was talking about – you have one place and you can have multiple different interpretations and multiple different uses. Eastern Europe has been doing this for a very long time and has a very long tradition of these muti-​uses of urban space. In the 90s, Eastern Europe was all about street market and street trade. And that’s what is still going on now.

It is of course inherently very risky to say something positive about socialism in countries like Russia or Poland. You’re guaranteed that someone will come up and say: “Well, in the 80s, in the department stores all you could buy was vinegar and toilet paper, and the toilet paper in the West was much softer than in the East.” And of course that’s true. We basically know a great deal of failures and what was wrong with that system, but apparently we know very little about its successes. And the successes are quite apparent, in a sense that in the height of its influence, over a third of urban population actually lived under socialist or communist regimes of sorts. So there’s been a great appeal of socialism or communism. You can’t reject that out of hand, that’s something that you need to take into account.

Bogotá / Jhonattan Balcazar

Basing on the ‘good practices’ of the socialist régime, do you think we could maybe introduce something new (which is a well-​forgotten old) in the post-​socialist cities by referring to the socialist legacy? Maybe there is something urban planner could use to make the future of post-​socialist cities better?

Urban social movements have triggered latent social capital, people started to cooperate. And it is massive, it’s really happening. But it’s a process, it’s not about good practices, it’s an evolution

Social capital should be used. And in post-​socialist cities it is still there – you just have to be able to use it. For instance, in Poland half of the population is out of politics and that has been the case since 1989. Once the urban movement started, people became interested because they realized that they have more in common than the things that divide them, so in our movement there are people who officially have left-​wing ideas and right-​wing ideas. The whole system is tailored in such a way that we shouldn’t be working together because officially we are all in different pidgin-​holes, and the working for the city triggered this latent social capital, people started to cooperate. And it is massive, it’s really happening. But it’s a process, it’s not about good practices, it’s an evolution. You can’t do copy-​paste in urbanism, everything will be different in different cities.

Another thing is, actually changing city is not something for architects, urbanists, or urban planners. My favorite example is Mockus and what he did with Bogota. He didn’t build anything. This guy became the mayor of Bogota in 1993, I think, when Bogota was essentially the worst place on earth, one of the most dangerous places. And what he did, he launched a number of campaigns that changed the way people behaved in the city. He had a very unorthodox approach. One of the key problems, for instance, was violence: a lot of people would die from fighting, car accidents and so on. So he sacked police officers and introduced mimes who would teach people how to behave on the streets, both the pedestrians and the car drivers, how to be more respectful. And you think it’s a very crazy idea, but actually it worked. But it doesn’t mean it would work in other places. I really like what Neil Smith did with inverting this slogan with ‘thinking globally acting locally’. What Mockus actually did was that he was thinking locally – he pinpointed the main problems of Bogota and he found a way of solving them. And it doesn’t mean that some other post– socialist city has the same problems – probably not. But it needs to find its own problems and really creative ways of solving them, and Mockus did it with no budget. He is the guy who started the change in Bogota and now supposedly it is a very cool place. He was a philosopher and because he was not strained in drawing, building, and so on, he had to find a different way of changing the city – changing the city without building anything.

Lagos / Stefan Magdalinski

What does the future of post-​socialist cities look like if they stay as they are, and no changes or adaptations we just discussed are introduced?

Changing a city is not something for architects, urbanists, or urban planners. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was not designed by an architect. If we are heading towards something new, it will be about finding a new use to existing institutions and resources

I really do believe there’s a small revolution going on. Cities in ten years will be very different from the way they look now. They will work differently. For instance, now one of the hallmarks of the crisis is that you don’t have that much money for investments. Dubai is a classic example of a speculative investment city, you have a lot of this in China as well – 40 million empty apartments and so on. People say there is going to be another housing bubble from the Chinese market. So we’re dealing with this situation when you don’t have so much money, so you have to make-​do it. And then what you do is you don’t do so much architectural work but rather you change the way use what you got. The major challenge

now is to think out of the box. Not to design a new pretty house because we know how to do this, but actually to change. The transition from feudalism to capitalism did not just happen like this [snaps his fingers], it was not designed by an architect. It was not a revolution, it was an evolution and was essentially about finding a new use to existing structures and institutions. So if we are heading towards something new, it will be about finding a new use to existing institutions and resources. In that sense, thinking about the future is absolutely crucial now.