Looking Elsewhere: Weak Actors and Architecture on the Move in Global Socialism

Part 1 of a two-part interview with Łukasz Stanek by Zoltán Ginelli. Transcribed and edited by Zoltán Ginelli. Part 2 can be read HERE.

Łukasz Stanek is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at the Manchester School of Architecture, The University of Manchester, UK. Stanek authored Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory (2011) and edited Lefebvre’s book Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment (2014). His latest book, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War was published by Princeton University Press in 2020. Currently Stanek studies the Africanisation of Ghanaian Architecture, as part of the Centring Africa Program at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Stanek taught at the ETH Zurich, Harvard University GSD, and the University of Michigan. Some of the materials from Stanek’s book will be presented at an exhibition curated by Eszter Szakács and Zoltán Ginelli entitled Transperiphery Movement: Global Eastern Europe and Global South, which will be part of the “Breathe!” OFF-Biennale Budapest art festival in 2021.

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Part 1:
Mobilities of Architectural Labour and Socialist Worldmaking

ZG: Your book just came out by Princeton University Press, carrying the title Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War. Could you describe the concept of your book and what led you to writing it?

ŁS: The book stems from 10 years of research, which – as most large research projects do – had many starting points. Some of them are more anecdotal, other are more conceptual.

An anecdotal one was my work on the city of Nowa Huta in socialist Poland, which was built between the late 1940s and the 1950s. When I was researching it, I realised that the next big projects of its designer, the state design institute Miastoprojekt from Kraków, were the master plans of Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s. This made me realise that there was a history of Polish architecture and urban planning that I was totally unaware of. Curiously, when I studied architecture at the Kraków University of Technology in the late 1990s, I had teachers who had been directly involved in some of these projects before 1989, but they never talked about them. These architects and planners were in charge of major projects in Iraq, which took up to 4 years or more, including the General Housing Program for Iraq in the late 1970s. This silence about what must have been one of the most exciting professional experiences of these architects and planners speaks volumes about the anxieties that inform postsocialist memory. These anxieties came very forcefully to the fore when I worked on two exhibitions on this topic, on show in Warsaw in 2010 and 2011.

PRL™ Export Architecture and Urbanism from Socialist Poland, October 15–November 15, 2010. Warsaw Museum of Modern Art / Warsaw Museum of Technology. Curated by Łukasz Stanek. Exhibition poster by metahaven.

Among other starting points of Architecture in Global Socialism were the discussions about a different type of architectural history of the 20th century and beyond.

Such a different history could start with thinking about architecture as always-already on the move. Architecture has traditionally been related to the soil, roots, and place-making “between the earth and the sky”. But studying the various interactions and intersections of architecture in the Global South made me realise that such conceptualisations are parochial at best, if not entirely problematic.

In this sense, my book is in dialogue with the work of scholars who studied various global networks and connections in post-war architecture. A lot of research has been done on late colonial networks, in particular after World War II, when the colonies were allocated more resources for economic and social modernisation. In that period architectural transfers from the colonial centres accelerated, and this included architectural planning, construction industries, and, for the first time, architectural education. This was the case with Britain and France, but there is also excellent work on the Belgian Congo, the Dutch East Indies, and on Spanish and Italian colonies. Furthermore, there is work on other worldwide networks which mobilised architecture, including international organisations such as the UN or the World Bank, Western architects and corporate firms with a global reach, and on the impact of globalisation on architecture and urban processes around the world. My book adds to these discussions, but also challenges some of their premises.

ZG: Could you give us some specific examples of whom you’ve read, of the literature that you’ve been reading at that time, which had an influence on your research?

ŁS: There are too many to mention. I am thinking about the work of Zeynep Çelik and Gwendolyn Wright on architecture and urban planning in the French colonies, Mark Crinson on architecture and the end of the British Empire, Itohan Osayimwese on German colonialism and modernism, Johan Lagae on the Congo, Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait on architects and planners circulating in the Arab countries in the mid-20th century, and many others. There is also growing literature on tropical architecture, which was a self-assigned term by a group of mainly British and Commonwealth architects who aimed at adapting the principles of modern architecture to non-European conditions. I have in mind the work of Rachel Lee and Jiat-Hwee Chang. In terms of the postcolonial period, I reference the recent work of Kim de Raedt on the architectures of development aid, and the research by Cole Roskam and Charlie Xue on China. These studies make it clear that the story of modern architecture becoming global is not really one about the dissemination of the work of five gentlemen in bow ties from Western Europe and the United States. 

When I was working on the exhibitions in Warsaw and then on the book, I was also reading the research in the former socialist countries, both the mainly journalistic material published during socialism, and research that started to be published in the last few years. This includes the work of Dubravka Sekulić and others on Yugoslav architecture abroad, Andreas Butter on the GDR, Joanna Klimowicz on Polish architects in Syria, or Márta Branczik’s work on the Hungarian Design Institute for Public Buildings (Közti), which worked extensively in North Africa and the Middle East. Some of my collaborators on this project continue working on similar topics, including Alicja Gzowska in Poland and Nikolay Erofeev in Russia.

I should also mention that I was reading studies of architectural historians from countries where the protagonists of my book worked. The professionals and architects in West Africa and the Middle East are usually much more aware of the exchanges with Eastern Europe than architectural historians in the West. For example, I am thinking about the writings of Nigerian scholar Ekundayo Adeyinka Adeyemi, who recalled the work of Eastern Europeans in Nigeria and their role in architectural education in that country. Also, the book by Akeel Nuri Huwaish on Iraqi architecture discusses the work of Eastern Europeans in Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s. The latter were published in Arabic, and so only the specialists in Iraqi architecture are aware of them.

Charles Polónyi’s autobiographical book – left: English edition (1992), right: Hungarian edition (2000).

ZG: In the places where these architectural projects were developed, there is a collective memory of them, which is very different from what there is in Eastern Europe and the West. Is this history much more processed in the Global South, than in Eastern Europe?

ŁS: When I give a talk in Accra, Lagos, or Beirut about the work of Eastern Europeans in these cities, there is always somebody in the audience who had a Czech, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish, or Yugoslav colleague, teacher, or collaborator. It is very different when I lecture about this research in Western Europe or in North America, where this history is seen as entirely new.

In Eastern Europe, the histories of these relationships are present in different ways. Only now are they beginning to enter histories of architecture, including the work just mentioned about Yugoslavia, East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Interesting sources include autobiographies and memoirs, for example that of Charles (Károly) Polónyi in Hungary, Bohdan Wyporek in Poland, and Ljiljana Bakić in Serbia, but most of these books have minimal circulation. They typically inscribe the projects abroad into the individual oeuvre of an architect, often seen through professional debates in Eastern Europe.

This was exactly the type of perspective I chose not to take in my book. What was more interesting for me was to see the meaning and consequences of this work in the Global South. Accordingly, my book focuses on five cities in West Africa and the Middle East in specific periods of time. These cities are: Accra under Kwame Nkrumah (1957–66), Lagos in Nigeria in the 1970s, Baghdad between the coup of Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1958 and the first Gulf War, and Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City in the Gulf in the last decade of the Cold War. It was a tough choice, as I had other candidates, including Algiers, Tripoli in Libya, and Aleppo.

Selection of images for Łukasz Stanek’s Architecture in Global Socialism.

ZG: I can see here, sitting in your room, you have folders of Poland, Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Iraq, Nigeria, there is Polónyi, and Ghana. You also have this amazing collection of images of these projects on your wall. How difficult was it to collect these? You said this was altogether a 10-year process. What was the logic behind your selection process?

ŁS: The visual material is crucial: in architectural history images are essential, primary sources. I am quite excited about the heterogeneity of the images on this wall, which shows the final selection of the 277 images for my book. First, they include many original planning documents, technical drawings used to construct particular buildings: plans, section, elevations, engineering details. Among them are, for example, Soviet plans for housing districts and social facilities in Ghana. Second, photographs from the construction site and flowcharts document the building processes, and so they allow discussing not only designs and technologies, but also construction labour, which is unusual for architectural history. The third type of images show constructed buildings, both after completion and today. For example, I included my own photograph of the International Trade Fair in Accra which shows how this architecture responded to the climate: the gutters that dispose of water after a torrential rain, the shades that protect against the sun and glare, the open brickwork that allows for ventilation. This is almost like a manual of how to design a tropical building.

International Trade Fair, Accra, pavilion A, 1967, detail. GNCC, Vic Adegbite (chief architect), Jacek Chyrosz, Stanisław Rymaszewski (project architects). Photo by Ł. Stanek, 2012. First published in Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism.

I complemented this image by a photograph taken by one of the architects himself after the building’s completion in 1967, which rhetorically exaggerates the building and shows it as a monument. I also included a number of images from professional magazines and daily newspapers. The latter were crucial for me, because I believe that architecture can only be understood as at the same time material, represented, and lived. Accordingly, debates in mass media, however controlled by often authoritarian states, were among the few sources that convey local voices – mostly governmental and professional, but sometimes more ordinary voices.

“The great architect of Ghana Comrade Kwame Nkrumah seen admiring the new National Headquarters of the Convention People’s Party.” Evening News (Ghana), March 7, 1960, 1.

ZG: The approach of your book was to focus not only on plans, but also the people who were involved in planning: how they interacted, how the spaces and networks where they worked and collaborated had evolved, and the role of education and teaching.

ŁS: Among the first decisions I took when working on this book was to restrict it to architecture as mobilised by state-socialist institutions. In other words, it is not about émigrés, including such major Eastern European architects as Maciej Nowicki or Alexis Josic. This decision directed me towards a particular understanding of architecture.

This book is about architectural labour and how it was made mobile in state-socialist networks. Rather than starting with any particular definition of architecture, the book instead studies the historically and geographically specific deployments of architectural labour.

This perspective showed that design work, the most prestigious activity of architects, was a very small part of what architects were hired to do abroad. Besides design, their labour included the supervision of building sites and research in architecture, planning, and construction. They were involved in various types of regulatory work, administrative duties on municipal and local levels, and education in newly established architecture, planning, and engineering schools in Africa and Asia. 

ZG: Why is this approach of focusing on architectural labour important to you compared to others?

ŁS: This approach belongs to my ambition to think about architecture as part of wider urbanisation processes. This is at odds with most of the tradition in architectural history, according to which a lot of what I write about does not even qualify as architecture. In my book I discuss some outstanding buildings, but many buildings I describe are not remarkable in aesthetic or technological terms. Half of my chapter on Baghdad, for example, is focused on an unlikely protagonist for an architectural historian: a slaughterhouse located in the southern suburbs of the Iraqi capital. 

This slaughterhouse in Baghdad was designed by East Germans, but it was constructed by Romanians. By studying the design and construction of this building on the basis of archival material from Berlin, Bucharest, and Baghdad, I could address questions about the divisions of labour and political economy in the Comecon, which facilitated specific types of architectural mobilities.

Had I focused on questions of architectural form, this type of case study would not have been available. This does not mean that form is irrelevant: you cannot understand the performance of these buildings without taking seriously their appearance, spaces, rhythms, details, and the different ways they were seen and discussed, or their connections to the city. But this doesn’t mean that the focus on form should exclude others.

ZG: Your perspective was perhaps inspired by your work on Henri Lefebvre. Is your focus on architectural labour connected to Marxist understandings of approaching form: the production of space and how form is produced by the labour it conceals?

ŁS: Yes! My thinking about architecture as part of urbanisation is very much inspired by Lefebvre and the debates that have followed in urban studies and geography. The entrance point is the conceptualisation of urbanisation as the production of space by highly heterogeneous and sometimes antagonistic practices. They include material transformations of the territory, representations of space, regulations, and practices of everyday life, whether adaptive or disruptive.

Architects from socialist countries were hired to work on all these aspects of urbanisation processes, but they were never the only ones and rarely had an upper hand. They contributed to the design and construction of buildings, from monumental to most mundane infrastructures, but they also worked in legislation, regulation, and representation. The urban norms, construction standards, and master plans which Eastern Europeans co-produced had often a bigger impact on urbanisation than any building they designed.Certainly this was the case in the already mentioned master plan of Baghdad. But even drawings, including designs and survey drawings, which circulated as images, had an impact on urbanisation processes. I show this in the chapter on Nigeria where, besides the work of Charles Polónyi, I discuss the Polish architectural historian Zbigniew Dmochowski. He started his career in the 1930s at the Warsaw University of Technology, where he surveyed wooden architecture in the then-eastern territories of Poland, today’s Belarus. This area was under the “internal colonisation” of the Polish state, where the indigenous population was Polonised, often in violent ways.

A picture containing object, clock

Description automatically generated
Page from: Dmochowski, Z. (1933): Sprawozdanie z pomiaru inwentaryzacyjnego na terenie pow. Stolińskiego, 17.VIII–12.IX.1933. Biuletyn historji sztuki i kultury, II:2 (December): 93–98.

ZG: This is an interesting moment when all these different colonialities converge: how this kind of wooden buildings and their context of internal colonisation transfer into this African postcolonial context, and bear a new life.

LS: Exactly! Dmochowski fled to the UK during the Second World War, he taught at the Polish School of Architecture in Liverpool, and in the late 1950s he became a colonial official in Lagos. At the Department of Antiquities in Lagos he began to document vernacular architecture in Nigeria, very much based on the survey methods he had developed in the 1930s in Poland. After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, he and his Nigerian collaborators drew very elaborate axonometries based on surveys of vernacular architecture. They documented spaces, functional arrangements, construction materials, technical details, and they had an impact on the decolonisation of Nigerian architectural education, which I study by looking at the curricula of the Zaria School of Architecture, the first in Nigeria.

ZG: Let’s return to the title of your book: it’s not “architecture on the move”, and not “architectural labour”, but Architecture in Global Socialism. Why was it important for you to focus on socialism and this particular historical period, and why is it global socialism? In your book, you also use the term “socialist worldmaking”.

ŁS: Socialist worldmaking is a key concept in the book, and it is inspired by both Marxist and postcolonial writers. By socialist worldmaking, I mean visions of global co-operation and solidarity, sometimes competing ones, which were practiced by state-socialist actors and institutions. 

Socialist worldmaking is a way to conceptualise the positions of socialist actors within competing practices of worldwide collaboration during the Cold War and in the wake of decolonisation. My choice of the five cities in the book stemmed from their role as points of intersection between differentiated and antagonistic practices of global co-operation. 

Neither Ghana, nor Nigeria, Iraq, or the Gulf states were Soviet satellites in any sense. Yet for multiple reasons, which I explain in the book, these countries were open to state-socialist construction companies and architects. In these locations, actors from Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union, and from other socialist countries were interacting not only with local professionals and decision-makers, but also with British, American, French, and West German actors. They were also competing – and sometimes collaborating – with actors circulating in regional networks, including West African and Pan-Arab ones, and, since the 1970s, even with South Asian and Southeast Asian contractors.

Housing project delivered in the framework of the General Housing Programme for Iraq, 1976–80. Miastoprojekt-Kraków. Private archive, Kraków (Poland).

ZG: In 1957, Ghana was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to become independent, and many people saw in it the biggest developmental potential and had attracted a lot of attention. For socialist countries, Ghana was also an entrance point to penetrate into Western imperialist networks of architectural planning and knowledge production. Why do you think it was Ghana?

ŁS: There were many reasons. The country’s fast-track decolonisation, its relative wealth, its relatively well-educated population, and, of course, the socialist sympathies of the prime minister, then president, Kwame Nkrumah, were decisive. Accordingly, Ghana was among the first places in Africa for the Soviets to test and demonstrate the possibility of adapting the socialist model of development to a tropical country. Architecture, planning, and engineering were crucial in this respect, both for the implementation of the program of industrial development and for the distribution of welfare, including schooling, health, and housing.

The Soviets, when transferring these experiences to Ghana and West Africa, pointed at many parallels with Central Asia, which they claimed to have liberated from the tsarist colonial regime. Africans were invited to visit Tashkent, Dushanbe, or Bishkek to experience first-hand the economic, social, and cultural modernisation and development of these cities. Some prefabricated elements designed by the Soviets for housing neighbourhoods in Ghana were taken directly from Tashkent. Yet the West African wet-hot climate did not exist in the Soviet Union, and this resulted in additional challenges for the Soviet engineers. But it also prepared the argument about their ability to adapt Soviet typologies and technologies to any climatic condition.

ZG: The common, stereotypical understanding of Soviet and communist planning is that it pursued geographical nihilism: communist planners did not care about nature, they were only trying to control and completely alter the environment. Was Ghana embedded in this wider discourse of controlling nature, or how communism (or socialism) is superior to Western imperialists in better adapting globally anywhere through architectural design?

ŁS: It is clear from the archives that the Soviets were very concerned about the adaptation of their construction technologies and architectural typologies to the climate in Ghana. I am not talking about a territorial scale, which you hinted at, but about designs of housing projects and social facilities in Accra and Tema. When working on these projects, Soviet engineers redesigned the prefabricated elements in order to make sure that the roofs and walls withstood tropical rains and offered protection from sun and glare. They were particularly concerned about cross-ventilation, both on the urban scale, and on the scale of the building and the apartment. For example, a block of flats in Tema, a new town eastwards of Accra, was designed with a variant of the most widespread Soviet prefabrication system at the time, called I-464. Yet the plan designed for Ghana based on this prefabrication system is rather unique. Unlike in Soviet practice, a staircase serves only two apartments on each floor, rather than four. Of course, to construct a building twice as thick so that one staircase would connect four apartments would be much more economical. Why did they do this? Because they were worried about ventilation, and wanted to make sure that every single room was cross-ventilated. They were concerned about climatic conditions even at the expense of economy.

But the documentation of this design also challenges yet another common prejudice about Soviet planners: that they imposed their solutions on their counterparts in African countries. Minutes of discussions between Ghanaian decision-makers and Soviet architects show very clearly that the Ghanaians had the last word. In the housing project I just discussed, Ghanaian officials made the Soviet designers change not only specific construction materials, but also the layout of the apartments. When presented with a typical Soviet layout, they insisted on moving the bathroom in order to make space for a cooking porch close to the kitchen. That modification to the apartment plan accommodated the customs of local inhabitants, at least as government officials imagined them.

The Olympic Stadium in Algiers (Algeria) designed and built (1965–1972) by the Hungarian firm Közti based on the Peoples’ Stadium in Budapest. It lies 7 kilometers from the city in an olympic village also planned by Hungarian experts. Design: Sándor Azbej. North Africa was the most important export region of Hungarian planners and technical expertise.

ZG: You show in your book through these examples how socialist planning was actually a negotiated process, which is very different from our basic understandings of how imposed and controlled it was. You reveal many of the interconnections and interactions between the clients and the planners, and the various actors involved in the production of the plans and the buildings.

LS: That’s true, but we need to keep in mind that West Africa and the Middle East were very different from Eastern Europe, or non-European Comecon members such as Vietnam or Mongolia. None of the countries I studied were Soviet satellites, and so the Soviets had to persuade the local governments, who constantly compared Soviet and Eastern European offers to those by others, including the West. Crucially, the biggest impact on Accra were Eastern European architects directly employed by Ghanaian design institutes, rather than those sending grand plans from Moscow or Sofia. 

ZG: Your book title is Architecture in Global Socialism, but it contains West Africa and the Middle East, and not the contexts you would expect: socialist countries like Cuba, Vietnam, or China. Could you explain more about these relationships between Eastern Europeans and West Africans or Middle Easterners?

ŁS: The term “global socialism” in the book’s title refers to various instances of collaboration by actors from socialist and decolonised countries during the Cold War, and the worlds which they imagined to share, both within and against official frameworks of socialist internationalism. In other words, global socialism does not mean an overarching, unitary process or project. Only one chapter of the book, which focuses on Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, discusses an attempt to implement socialist development in tropical conditions. By contrast, the chapter about Iraq shows how Eastern Europeans collaborated with Iraqis without expecting them to implement a particular model of socialism. Finally, the book evidences that the geopolitics and geoeconomy of the Cold War facilitated the work of Eastern European architects and construction companies in countries with governments generally hostile to socialism, such as Nigeria or some of the Gulf states.

For example, in the chapter about Nigeria in the 1970s, I focus less on intergovernmental economic agreements, and more on how individuals who had no or very little experience of the region made sense of what they were doing there. I argue that they looked at longer traditions in Eastern European architectural and planning cultures that responded to the challenges that Eastern Europeans shared with Africans since the “long 19th century”: overcoming underdevelopment, in particular rural underdevelopment, contesting the political hegemony of the West, and transcending cultural peripherality.

The Hungarian, Polish, and Serbian professionals arrived to Nigeria within networks of socialist internationalism. But in their work they instrumentalised experiences from their wider Eastern European histories, sometimes in experimental ways.

A planning project directed by Charles Polónyi to construct the new capital city of Calabar for the Nigerian secessionist state of Biafra (1967–70). Left: Structure Plan of Calabar, 1969. Közti (Hungary). “Survey and Development Plan for Calabar” (Calabar: Tesco-Közti Consulting Engineers [NIG], 1969), 5.4. Right: Calabar, model of the city centre, Government Hill and the Residential Sector (TESCO-KÖZTI: Survey and Development Plan for Calabar, Budapest, 1970).

ZG: So then the ‘periphery’ became a special place and concept in-the-making, a place of creative design, where influences from very different places could converge and be re-assembled, planning practices you couldn’t do elsewhere – at home, in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, Eastern Europeans argued for their specific role and position compared to Westerners, which might be beneficial for the Africans too.

ŁS: And that also meant that several protagonists in this chapter arrived not only at an Eastern European view of Africa, but also at an African view on Eastern Europe. For example, they started to reflect upon the colonial fantasies promoted by the Colonial and Maritime League, an organisation which demanded colonies in interwar Poland, and the Polish “internal colonisation” in the East.

Dmochowski’s architectural work is striking in this respect. In the 1930s, when he was discussing the vernacular buildings in the territory of today’s Belarus, at one point he claimed that it is not possible that its builders had any sense of aesthetics. This is a statement by somebody fully convinced of his cultural superiority. And there is such a contrast between this statement and his later writings on Nigerian vernacular architecture thirty years later, where he emphatically describes Nigerian builders as architects. So what happened during the thirty years in between? Well, for example, the Generalplan Ost happened, the colonisation of Poland by the Nazis.

ZG: But I think in Poland the ambitions of colonisation were perhaps stronger than in some other parts of Eastern or Central Europe. The Maritime and Colonial League had 1 million members by the end of the 1930s; there was also the ‘internal colonisation’ of the Polish East, which you mentioned. Much wider traditions of colonialism existed in Eastern Europe than is commonly accepted, which offered specific ways of integrating to and applying their ideas to these postcolonial ‘peripheries.’

But what can we say about the co-operation and competition between Eastern Bloc states in their engagement with these postcolonial places?

ŁS: This question is at the centre of my chapter on Baghdad, titled “Architecture and the World Socialist System.” The world socialist system was a vision of global co-operation, which was not based on a shared socialist model of development in the Global South, as promoted under Khrushchev. Rather, it was an attempt to look for other types of economic complementarities, or “mutual advantages,” between the socialist countries and the developing countries in the Global South. The proponents of the world socialist system explicitly stated that the system might include countries of differing social and economic formations, in other words, not only socialist countries. The core of the system was the Comecon, and several economic procedures and instruments implemented in the Comecon were later used within the world socialist system. For example, Iraq was an affiliated member of the Comecon since 1975, and while the Baath party promoted ideas of Arab socialism, the government clearly distinguished its economy and society from that of the Soviet Union.

In this chapter, I study how the political economy of the world socialist system shaped architectural mobilities. In particular, I look at the ways in which the differences between the world socialist system and an emerging globalised market of design and construction services dominated by the West created opportunities and constraints for architects, construction companies, and decision-makers from Eastern Europe and Iraq.

For example, by studying the negotiations around the contract for the Baghdad master plan, I argue that the inconvertibility of Eastern European currencies provided competitive advantages for state-socialist companies operating in Iraq.

Master Plan of Baghdad. Zoning and Land Use, 1967. Miastoprojekt-Kraków.
Private archive of Kazimierz Bajer, Kraków (Poland).

In the second part of the chapter I address the question of division of labour, collaboration and sometimes competition between Eastern European actors in the Global South. The case study is the Baghdad slaughterhouse project, which, as mentioned before, was designed by East Germans and built by Romanians. This case study also allowed me to look at how economic instruments such as barter became central for the mobility of architecture, in particular petrobarter, or the exchange of goods and services for crude oil. I realised that petrobarter deeply impacted the programs of the buildings exchanged, their materiality, designs, technologies, and ways of construction. In the case of the slaughterhouse project, the East Germans designed a sophisticated, prefabricated building, but the Romanians redrew it as a monolithic structure, so that it could be constructed by means of Romanian materials and labour.

While the Comecon made several attempts at coordinating the division of labour among the member states, including in the construction industry, these states were often opposed to such attempts within the bloc, let alone in third countries. 

In the 1970s, in the wake of the debt crisis in many Eastern European countries, state companies in Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany and Hungary competed with each other in the Middle East and Africa. When I asked former managers of Romanian or Bulgarian firms, “Did you collaborate with the Poles or the Czechs?” they often laughed and replied, “No, these guys were our main competitors!”

Dimitar Bogdanov (third man standing from the left) discusses the model of the Hamma Center, Algiers (Algeria). Private archive of Borislav Bogdanov, Sofia (Bulgaria).

ZG: And this was reproduced by the clients themselves, who encouraged competition to get the best offers. This setting also shows the level of autonomy of Eastern European states and the various actors behind state-socialist regimes. An autonomy which is often underestimated because of the common view of authoritarian state-socialist governments, the Comecon, and the wider socialist world being globally isolated. Your account of architecture in global socialism shows not only how the socialist world system actually worked and integrated globally, but also the diverging interests beneath.

ŁS: Absolutely, and there was competition not only between actors from different countries, but also between contractors from the same country, because all of them were pressured to fulfil “hard currency plans.” The socialist states needed hard currency for repayment of their debts to Western financial institutions, while raw materials, such as oil from the Gulf, allowed these states to offset their dependence on the Soviets, and as additional sources for convertible currency.

ZG: Eastern Europeans exploited the socialist world system as a network where they could gather experience and expertise, but then they followed different trajectories rather independently, regardless of being part of a socialist world system, which was not something well coordinated in the end.

ŁS: This can be seen very well in the last chapter of the book. It focuses on the Gulf, specifically on Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City, and shows how by the 1980s state-socialist enterprises managed to adapt to the Western-dominated market of design and construction services. For example, the City Hall in Abu Dhabi was designed by the Bulgarian company Technoexportstroy and its design branch, Bulgarproject. They were able to do so because they had 20 years of experience in working within the networks of socialist internationalism in North and East Africa and the Middle East.

Municipality and Town Planning Department, Abu Dhabi, 1979–85. Bulgarproject (Bulgaria), Dimitar Bogdanov. Photo by Ł. Stanek, 2015.
First published in Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism.

I argue that these earlier experiences resulted in two lessons. First, state-socialist actors acquired technological expertise, related to Western standards, machinery, legal and financial systems, and so on. Technoexportstroy, for example, was re-organised according to the British legal system, so that they could easily work in the countries of the Commonwealth. Secondly, these architects and design institutes also learned about the aesthetic proclivities of Arab clients. By the 1980s the educated elites in Arab countries had become disenchanted with modernism. Instead of diluted versions of international modern architecture, they requested buildings that reflected Arab-Islamic heritage. The City Hall in Abu Dhabi is a case in point: its head designer, Dimitar Bogdanov, knew how to respond to this request because by then he had been working with Arab clients for many years.

ZG: Your account reveals that there were specific contexts, places and moments in history which could gather all these experts in one place. But was there any deliberate specialisation on particular contexts by Eastern Europeans? Did some specialise on certain regional or place-based contexts of planning, or were there any deliberate motivations for modes of specialisation?

ŁS: There were certainly claims to specialisation. To give an example: Polish planners of Baghdad were very critical about the British plan which had been in place. According to that plan, much of Baghdad’s historical urban fabric was to be razed to the ground, with only a few historical buildings left. That was not acceptable to the Poles, who saw heritage preservation and building conservation as their key professional competence, based on the experience of the reconstruction of Warsaw after World War II.

In a similar manner, Bulgarian architects showcased tourist development around the Black Sea coast, and architects from the GDR were proud of their integrated construction industry. However, these claims to a specific competence were hardly exclusive. For example, the Czechoslovak school of building preservation was as acclaimed as the Polish one, and the Yugoslavs had also a thing or two to show in terms of tourist architecture. While these experiences were important, they were rarely decisive for obtaining commissions in the Global South. What was decisive, by contrast, were economies of scale that, for example, Romanian companies could tap into when constructing their long series of social facilities and housing neighbourhoods around the Mediterranean.

Housing project for Libya, 1980s. Romproiect (Romania), Arhivele Naţionale ale României, Bucharest (Romania).

This is why a comparative perspective on Eastern Europe from the South is so useful: because it questions some of the self-perceptions widespread in particular countries. It also allows us to revaluate the hegemonic focus of historians of architecture on Central Europe, meaning Germany and the post-Habsburg space. When you start looking at the region from the South, you realise that some countries, which were given very little attention in architectural history, such as Bulgaria and Romania, were major actors. In many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Bulgarian and Romanian construction companies were more present and more active than those from more advanced socialist states, such as Czechoslovakia or East Germany. The look from the South at Eastern Europe gives you a new perspective on that region.

Zoltán Ginelli is a critical geographer and historian of science from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. He is an assistant researcher at the Institute for Regional Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and an assistant for the Leverhulme Trust-funded research project 1989 After 1989: Rethinking the Fall of State Socialism in Global Perspective based at Exeter University (2014–2018). His research focuses on the historical geographies of scientific knowledge, transnational and global history, world-systems analysis, and postcolonial and decolonial theory. His dissertation studies the transnational history of the “quantitative revolution” in Cold War geography and spatial planning. His main work is on the history of Hungarian geography, and his current research focuses on socialist globalization and the changing relations between Eastern Europe and the “Third World,” specifically Hungary and Africa.


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