Part 2: The Power of ‘Weak Actors’ and Decolonizing Socialist Architectural Histories after 1989

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

Read the author’s short introduction on History News Network | Interviews: calvert | guardian | jacobin | architectural histories | morning star | abitare | Reviews: polish history | Podcasts: interstitial | abc radio

ZG: In our previous discussion about your book Architecture in Global Socialism, we talked about why you chose to focus on architectural labour and mobility instead of only architectural form, and how these were conditioned by competing visions and political economies of socialist worldmaking. We also explored why it makes a difference to look at Eastern European history from the Global South: this global history both de-centers and re-centers the histories of socialism by elucidating contexts concealed by hegemonic Western and nationalist views, and may unfold very different histories of our Eastern European past and development.

Perhaps now we could turn towards how the system changes of 1989 affected these histories, and how we may re-evaluate this heritage against our ‘postsocialist amnesia.’ I’m also interested in how these insights may be put to use in practice, because your work revolves around how we can decolonise our histories and develop new alliances and solidarities between Eastern Europe and the Global South.

Could you first speak about the reception of your work, and how do you see the challenges of interpreting your work and presenting it to a wider audience? Your book was published by a very prominent publisher, Princeton University Press. Why was it Princeton?

ŁS: Princeton is an excellent academic press and, among other things, it offers the highest quality of printed images. This was essential for me because, as I’ve explained before, visual materials were crucial sources for the book. The high quality of their reproduction makes them available to other scholars who, for example, can study the specific master plans as their descriptions and legends are legible in the book. 

This book was just published, so there is not yet a reception to speak of. But I could tell you something about the reception of exhibitions and publications leading to this book. It has very much differed from region to region, but I am particularly interested in how my research is received in the cities I write about.

Accra Futurism. 60 Year of Imagining Accra’s Waterfront, exhibition poster at ArchiAfrica Gallery, James Town Café (Accra, Ghana), 2019

For example, in the summer of 2019 we opened a small exhibition in Accra called Accra Futurism. It focused on the waterfront of the city, an area that since the colonial period has been an interface between Accra, its hinterland, and the trans-Atlantic world. Today this coastal strip is being rapidly developed, but many local professionals, activists, and inhabitants have concerns. In our exhibition, we showed some of the Nkrumah-era designs for this area. Our aim was not to come back to any of them, but rather to show the range of visions of urban everyday life that this place could afford.

In Accra, these designs were co-produced by Eastern European and Ghanaian architects, and Ghanaians accept them as their own. They rarely see these designs as foreign transplants, because of the labour relationships behind these projects, typically delivered by a Ghanaian state design institute, which hired Eastern Europeans.

Related to the first decade of Ghana’s independence, these designs elicit nostalgia, longing, and pride, but they also are opportunities for a critical view on post-independence developments and the current urbanisation patterns.

Accra Futurism. 60 Year of Imagining Accra’s Waterfront, 14 – 29 June, 2019, ArchiAfrica Gallery, James Town Café (Accra, Ghana). Curated by Łukasz Stanek. Photo by Ł. Stanek, 2019.

ZG: What can we learn from all this now? What do you think is the message of this book regarding today’s planning in these places and for us in Eastern Europe? 

ŁS: The main argument of this book is that global urbanisation processes cannot be reduced to “Westernisation” or “Americanisation”. These conceptualisations became hegemonic after the end of the Cold War and they were retroactively projected on global architectural production after World War II. By contrast to this narrative, my book documents other modes of collaboration across continents. Because of their scale, they are not exceptions to the rule: they show that what was considered a rule does not hold. Crucially, the consequences of these activities continue to condition urbanisation processes in many places in the Global South, whether in material, regulatory, or institutional terms.

Yet this book is not a heroic story about Eastern European pioneers coming to the Global South and showing how things should be done. It might seem paradoxical, but an important reason for the impact on urbanisation on the ground by practitioners from non-Soviet socialist countries was that they were ‘weak actors.’

Clearly, actors from powerful states, such as the imperial centres in Western Europe, and the United States and the Soviet Union were decisive for the urbanisation in many places in the Global South. But this is not true about the ones I studied during the period in my focus. Sometimes there is explicit archival evidence about the preference in the Global South for non-Soviet socialist countries. For example, at one point an envoy of Kaddafi told Ceaușescu’s envoy that Libyans had a lot of sympathy for the Soviet Union, but they would prefer to work with a smaller country, such as Romania.

ZG: Yes, I’ve found the same preferences expressed in Hungarian materials, and it was also a part of the foreign politics of Eastern Bloc countries. The small countries in Eastern Europe had advantages compared to the position of Moscow as a superpower, they could easier persuade countries in the Global South, and were easier to negotiate with.

ŁS: Yes. However, I think that it also had something to do with the scale of the institutions involved, their abilities to adapt to new contexts, the different types of pressures various countries needed to respond to, and their internal policies. We also have to account for the significance of the ‘weakness’ of state-socialist architectural institutes and contractors vis-à-vis the state and party administrations in their countries. The directive to acquire foreign, convertible currency, in particular since the mid-1970s, put managers and decision-makers from Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe under a lot of pressure. But at the same time this policy incentivised them to be more flexible and accommodating towards their counterparts in the Global South. In this way, they became highly instrumental for the local administrations and private firms, in particular given the acute staff shortage of qualified workforce. 

ZG: On the other hand, work in the Global South also provided a sense of freedom for many planners. In many cases they didn’t have that freedom at home in their professional careers, but they could internationalise their careers through the periphery. Like in Polónyi’s case. Getting involved in international organisations and developing diverse professional networks enabled them to pursue their professional competition with the West. They could prove they were better than the West in the periphery.

ŁS: It is fair to say that Eastern Europeans had more incentives to accept these positions than their Western counterparts. They travelled abroad motivated by professional ambitions which they felt were hindered by the bureaucratic system in Eastern Europe, where architecture was often subsumed under the construction industry. Financial benefits, among them the possibility of earning a salary in convertible currencies, was another reason to go. They were also attracted by the rare opportunity to travel and to see the world. Some among them were very successful professionals, and few people of their position from the West had accepted long sojourns in developing countries.

ZG: This book is about a global history. But perhaps for many of its Eastern European readers it might be tempting to resort to nationalist pride in what ‘we’ achieved nationally: ‘we’ produced all these plans, so let’s now highlight and embrace what Polish or Hungarian planners did as ‘our’ national achievements. However, these stories weren’t really part of our historical memory, and they haven’t been used to showcase the successful ‘Polish model’ of architecture, design, or urban development, neither were they positioned in this way in Hungary, Romania, or Bulgaria.

Instead, your book reveals a lot about the opposite of such an approach: as you’ve explained, the “weaknesses,” the instability, and the hard negotiations Eastern Europeans had struggled with. It isn’t actually a triumph story. In fact these problems are very similar to the dependencies Eastern Europeans face today in a structural sense. Of course, if you look at all these intriguing designs, you could have told a story of how cleverly ‘we’ Eastern Europeans “beat the West” in the periphery. But neither was this story – as anti-communist narratives would usually address – simply about the expansion of communist ideology or Soviet influence via the Eastern Bloc directed from Moscow. It was a story of competition and negotiation, about levering and bartering positions, about struggling against various dependencies, in which Eastern Europe and the Global South had much in common.

How can we tackle these narratives by looking at the positions of your actors carefully in all these difficult relations that unfold in this global history?

LS: If I wanted to convey national pride, the titles of the chapters would not have been “Accra,” “Lagos,” “Baghdad,” “Abu-Dhabi,” “Kuwait City,” but probably something like: “Moscow,” “Warsaw,” “Budapest,” and so on. I have already said that this is not a heroic story. Partly because of the considerable human costs involved. I remember an interview with an architect in Romania, a woman, who told me that she left with her husband, also an architect, for Algiers for two years, and during that period they didn’t see their small children. I have met several architects in Romania who did not want to go abroad, in particular to Libya, because of the very poor conditions of work and life on export contracts. They would be received at an airport in Tripoli, their passport would be taken away, they would be shipped somewhere to the middle of the desert, where they would be working for 6 months without doing anything else, and living in barracks with construction workers. Divorces were acknowledged by Polservice, the Polish Foreign Trade Organisation, as one of the “costs” of the work abroad. 

At the same time, travels abroad came with professional opportunities, including opportunities for women architects, urban planners, and engineers. For example, Gertrud Schille, the lead architect in the architectural branch of the East German state enterprise Carl Zeiss in Jena, architect Ildikó Halmágyi employed by Hungary’s Közti, and Milica Šterić, the head of the architectural section of the Yugoslav design institute and contractor Energoprojekt, designed some of the most visible Eastern European projects in Africa.

ZG: After the system changes between 1989 and 1991, the shift towards neoliberal development and the “return to Europe” provided us a new context to re-evaluate these histories of socialism and the continuities of our socialist heritage. This is similar to postcolonialism: the former colonial world shifted into a postcolonial world, but we still live in a colonial present. The fixity of these built objects, environments, and infrastructures as produced in the various visions of socialist worldmaking in the Global South pose questions of how they sustained and still affect their local environments.

You focused on the history of Eastern European socialism from the perspective of interactions within the Global South, but how did the system change and the “end of socialism” change this story you were telling? What change has 1989 brought in the networks and perceptions of global socialism?

ŁS: Much of the institutional framework that sustained these exchanges collapsed in Eastern Europe after 1989. Most of the state institutions had been dissolved or privatised, including design institutes and contractors. I was interested in their postsocialist trajectories, even if not much of that research entered the book. See, for instance, a graph showing the locations and number of projects of the Romanian firm Romproiect: the red ones are from before 1989, the blue ones are from the postsocialist period.

This diagram shows the geographic distribution of 973 realised and unrealised designs by Romproiect (Romania) between 1979 and 2009. The designs marked in red were drawn during the Cold War, the projects marked in blue were drawn afterwards. Data source: Arhivele Naţionale ale României; software: Tableau. Drawn by Ł. Stanek. First published in Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism.

You can see that in the 1990s Russia was a crucial client for Romproiect, and that was also the case for several Polish and Serbian contractors. Some of these firms try to benefit from their earlier engagements carried out in the networks of socialist internationalism. For example, the Hungarian firm Közti tendered in 2014 for the contract to renovate the National Stadium in Algiers, which they designed in the 1960s. (They did not succeed in obtaining this commission.) I know several Polish planners, who worked in Libya in the 1990s, but the war ended this work, and the same was the case in Syria and Iraq. Some architects from Eastern Europe who arrived to the Gulf in the 1980s continue to work there. 

At the same time, these exchanges had an impact on the urbanisation of Eastern Europe after 1989. For an entire generation of architects and planners who worked during the late 1970s and the 1980s in booming oil-producing countries in the Middle East and North Africa, this was a crucial learning process. They learned about new construction technologies and materials, and building programs such as middle-class housing, shopping malls, sophisticated office buildings, or office parks. 

They also got acquainted with the functioning of an architectural office in the conditions of a competitive market. In architectural terms, they became exposed to new types of aesthetics associated with postmodernism, which was welcomed in Eastern Europe after the end of socialism.  We have addressed this story in a speculative, polemical way in our exhibition Postmodernism is Almost Alright (2011) and the resulting publication. In this exhibition we showed a large number of designs by Polish architects from North Africa and the Middle East during the final decades of the Cold War. We juxtaposed them with the work of these architects after their return to Poland in the 1990s, which were displayed as a fictional perspective of the postsocialist city.

Postmodernism Is Almost All Right, October 1–30, 2011; Warsaw Museum of Modern Art. Curated by Piotr Bujas and Łukasz Stanek. Photo by B. Stawiarski, 2011.

ZG: Your exhibition demonstrated that the meeting of postsocialism and postmodernism in Eastern Europe was not simply the story of Western neoliberal capitalism substituting a bureaucratic state-socialist dictatorships, but postmodernism has already been experienced by Eastern Europeans in the postcolonial mediating spaces of Africa and the Middle East during the 1970s and 1980s.

The perception of these global histories has also changed. We began our discussion with you explaining that these projects were seldom if ever mentioned in Eastern Europe. Can we say that after 1989, or already by the end of the 1980s, we started to forget this global history? If yes, why did this happen?

ŁS: Yes, a selective forgetting had already started long before 1989. In newspapers and professional journals in the 1960s in Eastern Europe the work abroad of architects, planners, and engineers was showcased. These publications conveyed the state discourse about socialist countries helping to fight imperialism and developing Africa and Asia. But also they came with a sense of opening towards parts of the world to which Eastern Europe had been rarely connected before – even if the language and images were often painfully orientalist. 

However, such publications also provoked uncomfortable questions, and in a Polish article, which I quote in my book, one critic asks: why exactly are Polish architects able to design these wonderful buildings in Africa, while the buildings being constructed in Poland are not that great?

Such comparisons became problematic, and in the 1970s and certainly the 1980s, the tone shifted. Industrial facilities, for example Polish sugar factories, continued to be showcased, but high quality housing projects and social facilities less so.

Neither the architects themselves were too eager to showcase these projects. A contract abroad was often an attractive prospect. But because of the procedures required for such contracts, not least the procedure of obtaining the passport, the atmosphere around them was often ambiguous. On top of that, export projects were sometimes considered to be commercial, less ambitious, less fitting with the ethos of an architect. At the same time, in every former socialist country I have found a publication typically titled Our Architects Abroad, even if the selection of the projects was sometimes difficult to follow. In particular, besides presenting drawings and photographs of designs, architectural journals rarely account for the knowledge about urbanisation processes in the Global South, which some architects and planners produced in parallel to their design work.

ZG: They had produced this very valuable and unique knowledge, which was forgotten in the postsocialist era, but we don’t think about these works anymore, don’t approach their memories, don’t feel nostalgia, nor use them functionally or in education.

ŁS: These research studies, dissertations, books, and articles, written by Eastern European scholars and by researchers from the Global South who did their PhD dissertations in Eastern Europe often offer unique insights into cities at that time rarely visited by Western scholars. For example, the documentation of the master plans for Baghdad from the 1960s and 1970s contains detailed demographic, sociological, and urban surveys of Baghdad from these two decades. These surveys are complemented by dissertations and other studies written by Iraqis in Eastern Europe and by Eastern Europeans teaching in Baghdad at that time. This material contrasts with an almost complete gap in Western studies on Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s.

ZG: I’m interested in how you use your research in education today. I’ve just held a lecture for your class called Architecture on the Move, which is the main concept behind your book and your wider research. What are your experiences of using these materials in education, what types of practices and practical projects do you employ, and what are your motivations in doing so?

ŁS: In my work as educator during the last 10 years, I’ve been teaching in very cosmopolitan schools of architecture in Europe and the United States. They are global both in the sense of the diversity of students who come from all continents, and in the sense of preparing students for future work. What I mean here are less fantasies of architectural stardom, where the commissions spill over all time zones, and more the ability to respond to social, political and ecological processes that require planetary consciousness. Therefore, it is worth considering what such global conditions mean for architectural education, including education in the field of architectural history.

In my opinion, conceptual work is necessary: ​​it is not just about extending the canonical history of architecture by adding examples from outside Western Europe and North America. As Édouard Glissant, poet and philosopher from Martinique wrote at the end of the Cold War, the world is no longer defined by the logic of expansion, as in the colonial period, but rather by the possibility of connections and contacts. In my work, I am interested in Glissant’s understanding of the world and the specific forms of emancipation and violence that come with it.

This position is conveyed in my teaching here at the Manchester School of Architecture. Currently I teach two electives directly related to my research interests. Architecture on the Move, which you just visited, discusses history of post-war architecture from the perspective of mobility. The other class is a research studio with Master students, who write biographies of cities based on heterogeneous, fragmented, and incomplete archives, using various digital tools, such as GIS [Geographic Information System] software. I taught classes about Baghdad and about Accra, and now we are continuing with the latter.

Discussion about the historical and future projects of the Marine Drive, James Town Café, Accra, Ghana. Photo by O. Uduku, 2019.

ZG: I see you are reaching back to this past and its heritage in planning by putting this history together with contemporary issues. In Accra, you also used materials available there for building exhibitions. You engage with important local links, which may work against dependency structures and aim at local knowledge production and empowerment through education. What are your experiences of teaching in Accra?

ŁS: This goes both ways. We have quite a sizable number of Ghanaian students in Manchester, but we also collaborate with three Ghanaian universities. They include Kumasi University, which has the oldest school of architecture in Ghana, then Central University in Tema, and the University of Ghana at Legon, which does not have an architectural school, but we have friends there who work in African Studies and Geography departments.

The Accra Futurism exhibition, which I mentioned before, was produced together with students and colleagues from these institutions. In working on it, I tried to address various audiences, starting with the professional audience interested in specific architectural designs but also their techniques of presentation, including 3D-printed models. But we were also trying to reach out to wider audiences, and so the students have drawn imaginary perspectives of the 1960s designs for Accra waterfront, which visualised the urban everyday life that these projects afforded.

Labadi Beach and Labadi Slum Clearence Project, Accra (Ghana). Architectural and urban project from the 1960s, as imagined by students of the Manchester School of Architecture. Drawing by Tobias Corry, Anahita Mohammadkhani, Ethel Ng, Constantina Alambriti, Daria Pavlova. Accra Futurism research studio, tutor: Łukasz Stanek, Winter Semester 2018–19.

ZG: I remember images from the 1960s, where Polish architects and Polónyi instruct Ghanaian students in architecture and design. What you are doing today in some ways seems to me like reliving or continuing this encounter. How can you compare what you were doing in Accra with the previous practice of Eastern Europeans educating and training Ghanaians in the 1960s? Do you see any parallels?

ŁS: Perhaps the similarity is that architects who arrived to Ghana in the 1960s, whether from Eastern or from Western Europe, were very interested in vernacular construction, and so are we. Even if for us the vernacular refers perhaps less to the building traditions passed on by generations, and more to the dynamic, adaptable, and informal construction that takes place in Ghanaian cities outside the purview and remit of the architectural profession.

In any case, a big difference between what the Eastern Europeans were doing in the 1960s and us is that we do not try to “transfer knowledge.” Rather, we work together with Ghanaian academics and students by connecting various, fragmented archives. These archives do not necessarily add up to one coherent story, and instead show a multiplicity of histories, and we embrace that multiplicity.

By bringing together and juxtaposing Ghanaian, British, American, and Eastern European archives we can compare them and construct stories across them. In this way, comparison is no longer a metropolitan privilege, but a practice in which students from Manchester and from Accra can participate together.

Students participating in the course “Structures and Structural Design” taught by Zvonimir Žagar, School of Architecture, Town Planning and Building, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana, 1965 (photo by Zvonimir Žagar; Zvonimir Žagar Archive, Zagreb; courtesy of Zvonimir Žagar)

ZG: How do you think through your book, teaching, and projects we could contest Eurocentrism and Western hegemony? What opportunities do you see now in redeveloping these East–South relations through your projects that engage with this history?

I would like to connect these questions to the issue of self-reflection. By pursuing this research here in Manchester you chose a specific career strategy of knowledge production: you are in the UK, in the global centre, occupying a relatively privileged position, using all these British postcolonial networks and resources, including the connections to West Africa and the Middle East. But you also have the advantage of being an Eastern European directly connected to and sharing these histories you work on. What would you suggest as a viable strategy in terms of knowledge production to contest Eurocentrism and Westcentrism, and how do you see your own position, career trajectory, and academic knowledge production in achieving this? 

ŁS: This might be the first time that I am told that being an Eastern European is an advantage! But you may be right in the sense of what we discussed about ‘weak actors’: I think that it is possible to embrace that weakness as a research position. That is to say to welcome the fact that Eastern Europeans are part of the colonised/coloniser dialectic, but do not fit well into either category. This does not mean that they belong to a third category, but rather it means taking seriously the fact that they are not fully at home on either side of this division. In one situation one may find oneself on one side, but then that changes and one finds oneself elsewhere, or maybe one has been elsewhere from the begin with?

This is explicitly not a position of a detached observer nor somebody who is able to choose sides, since Eastern Europeans have limited control over that choice—whether in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s or in the UK after Brexit. Because of this messy, uncomfortable entanglement, this unstable position comes with a huge cognitive potential. But this means that on should not project oneself on either side of the colonised/coloniser division, or imagine oneself in a third place outside of this division. Some of the most interesting work, which I discuss in my book, was done precisely from within that uncomfortable position, and that may be something to carry on.


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