Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The grim prefab Khrushchyovka helped solve the USSR’s housing crisis after World War II. Now, Moscow plans to demolish 8,000 of them, displacing more than 1.5 million people. Should any be preserved for posterity?
Sergey Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, announced last month that the Russian capital—with the blessing of President Vladimir Putin—will launch an ambitious effort to demolish 8,000 Soviet-era public housing blocks.
Known as Khrushchyovkas—named after the Soviet leader who initiated their mass production in the late 1950s—the distinctly banal architectural type has long outlasted its planned 25-year shelf life. As Khrushchev took power, the USSR’s capital city had twice the population it housing stock could accommodate. Five-story Khrushchyovkas popped up in newly planned microdistricts, designed to house tens of thousands of people in hopes of alleviating the severe housing crisis exacerbated under Joseph Stalin.
Not one for opulence, Khrushchev’s commitment to solving the urban housing shortage was rapid construction with little time (or money) to spend on design. Drab as they were, the final product left rivals impressed. “What the Russians have done” an official from the U.S.’s National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) told the Chicago Tribune in 1967, “is to develop the only technology in the world to produce acceptable, low-cost housing on a large scale.”
Sobyanin’s plan means eliminating 10 percent of the city’s current housing stock and resettling 1.6 million residents. As explained by Maxim Trudolyubov for the Kennan Institute, such a plan could cost $100 billion and take decades to accomplish. Writes Trudolyubov: “It took the Soviet building industry (and it could work fast) about 10 years to build this much.”
CityLab caught up recently with Philipp Meuser, author of Towards a Typology of Soviet Mass Housing: Prefabrication in the USSR 1955-1991 to discuss the history of the Khrushchyovka and what they mean in post-Soviet Moscow.
How would you describe a Khrushchyovka to someone who doesn’t know the difference between social housing designs?
It’s the first prototype of how a residential building could be produced in a very industrialized manner. You can compare with car production—one prototype, optimize it, put it on assembly line, and produce. The philosophy is similar but the reality is different because Khrushchyovkas were assembled on construction sites, not assembly lines. The original Khrushchyovkas had 4 or 5 floors and were divided into 2 to 6 sections. Each section was organized around one staircase and each floor had two, three, or four different apartments connected to one staircase.
The urban design was not flexible. This was the first critique of them dating back to the early ‘60s. Architects said that if these buildings were to keep getting built, the cities would become too monotonous. They decided to separate each section from another so that urban designers could do different shapes. When you see a row of 4- or 5-story buildings or a row of 6-, 8-, 12-story buildings, those are Khrushchyovkas. Under Brezhnev they were called Brezhnevkis, but the only difference was that the new ones under him belonged to a second-generation type so the urban design was different.
They were popular because it was revolutionary for housing politics. Under Stalin there were some signature projects with Neoclassical ornament, but most people were still living in wooden barracks. Under Khrushchev, this was changing. They were building something simple so workers could move into new homes. In the beginning, the total lifespan of these was planned to be 20 to 25 years. Some of them are in bad shape now.
What would you say are their best and worst features?
The biggest problem is that they have not been maintained. No facility management. The construction itself isn’t that bad. What’s in bad condition is the heating, the water, the waste systems. The buildings are not up to today’s energy efficiency standards.
In general there are two different types of construction for these: one has load-bearing walls and the other has facade panels. If you have a building where the panels are inside, it’s easier to change the facade. If load-bearing walls are the facade, you can’t replace them. The first Khrushchyovkas demolished are the ones where the facade panels are load-bearing walls.
A similar thing happened in East Germany. They’ve been demolished because reconstruction would be too expensive. What they’re doing in Moscow is demolishing all of them and not doing any evaluation of the quality of these buildings. They say, “This is a low density neighborhood, so we have to demolish the buildings and replace them with 30-story highrises.” The drive is not “How can we improve quality or improve space,” it’s “How can we modernize the city and make the biggest profit?”
In America, they’re changing the scale of their social housing in the opposite way, like in Chicago with Cabrini-Green. They’re replacing high-density towers with smaller homes. In Moscow, you could never imagine this transformation. And you couldn’t implement what Moscow does in the West because the ownership is different. What we find in Western societies is that even if you’re the owner of your own apartment, there’s still an understanding of community ownership. It wouldn’t be possible just to demolish these buildings and replace them today. The key players in Moscow are huge companies that build housing. They get the rights for one neighborhood to demolish everything and compensate the old residents with replacement units. That’s an attractive offer for most of the residents, but if you don’t want to move you have no choice.
How were Khrushchyovkas viewed when they were first built?
People on an international level were quite impressed by the speed and scale of how the cityscape had changed through all of this construction. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote about it in 1967 in relation to the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. She was writing on the change of Moscow and highlighting skyscrapers from late-Stalin period plus new housing estates which were being erected everywhere at the time. The speed was something quite impressive to Western world. But, of course, if you have a state like the USSR, all factories and politicians could be focused on the transformation from traditional to industrialized construction to serve a huge country with a huge demand of housing.
How did that perception change when the USSR collapsed?
The focus at the time was on whatever was anti-Soviet and whatever was imported from other countries had to be better than what they had. But if I talk to younger generations, people in their 20s and 30s, lots of architects and researchers that age understand even the worst series type from late ‘50s or early ‘60s has some sort of cultural or historical value. Decision-makers today would never allow themselves to identify a Khrushchyovka as a monumental heritage site. To them, whatever is new is better than the old. You’ll often find this view in transforming countries, and Russia is a country in transformation, even 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Does Mayor Sobyanin appear committed to building affordable housing?
It’s a priority for him. Industrial housing is seeing a renaissance. There are new guidelines under Moscow’s chief architect for how to improve the quality of social housing. They’re coming back to this idea of creating and developing a new housing series, to come to an agreement with factories on certain standards and features.
Today you can already see the first results. The architecture now compared with estates that are 5 years old has changed and improved. But they’re still following this idea of new housing estates—especially in the southwest part of the city known as “New Moscow”—as urban patterns. You have 30-floor buildings with a courtyard that are just standing in a landscape with nothing around. The way of producing cities is exactly same as it was in late ‘80s. About 90 percent of real estate market for housing is ownership. People don’t rent. The developers only realize the basic construction and then the occupants do the rest themselves.
Are there any meaningful preservation efforts for these Khrushchyovkas?
I’ve heard only rumors. Like the one that a Khrushchyovka will be preserved as a museum of Khrushchyovkas. I do think that will happen because you could really make money out of it. Maybe a Khrushchyovka hotel in the near future? I think a businessman would like that idea!
What would you say is the most important lesson to share with Moscow officials about the Soviet mass housing that still stands today?
If you have so many housing estates built on philosophy of prefabrication, it’s also worth thinking about how transforming or modernizing these could be its own prototype project. You can do one modernization project for one estate series design. Once you find the best way, you can use it for thousands of other estates.
For the new housing estates in New Moscow and other neighborhoods, it’d be worth discussing not having high density areas with 22-floor-towers and instead trying to find out how to achieve the same density with fewer floors, perhaps closer to a maximum of 9. It’d be realistic to have the same density, but at a more human scale with a more neighborhood-like feeling.
Soviet mass housing was not just machinery to roof people; it was part of culture. Whenever you go to Russia and talk about housing, 90 percent of the people there can tell you their own stories because they’ve lived in them. They understand it’s not just about the technological aspect. There’s culture and a spirit inside these places. The Soviet housing program is one of biggest planning projects of the 20th century; 170 million people are living in these kinds of buildings now. It’s not a small chapter of architectural history.