Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A cartoon from a romcom uses humor to criticize formulaic apartment construction under Brezhnev.
It’s an architect’s worst nightmare: submitting an elaborate rendering to government officials for review, only to have it picked apart through various layers of bureaucracy on the way to final approval and mass production. A once-ambitious vision is now an austere reality that everyone resents.
It’s also the cartoon introduction to one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated romcoms.
A ubiquitous sea of mid-century housing blocks across the Moscow region serves as the backdrop in Eldar Ryazanov’s 1975 made-for-TV film, The Irony of Fate. In its three-minute animation, humor diffuses poignant criticism of the state’s painfully formulaic approach to housing construction. The cartoon architect’s first drawing is chipped away at until it becomes a tower block, which is then given life, cloned, and marched across the country regardless of climate or scale.
As explained by Philipp Meuser and Dimitrij Zadorin’s recent book, Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing, Soviet constraints on housing construction “were so abstract that it borders on a miracle that something resembling a mass housing typology with a national and regional identity could be developed in the first place.” In fact, they add, “never before in the history of construction had the architect been placed under such tight constraints owing to mathematical formulae.”
After the cartoon intro, the film’s narrator explains over a tour of the monotonous suburban villages of Moscow:
In bygone days when someone found himself in a strange city, he felt lost and lonely. Everything around him was strange: houses, streets, and life itself. But it’s all different now. A person comes to a strange city but feels at home there. To think what lengths of absurdity our ancestors went to when they designed different architectural projects!
The architectural sameness in The Irony of Fate ends up being the element that unifies its main characters. To this day, the film remains a New Year’s eve television staple in post-Soviet Russia.