Communism on Tomorrow Street–Some additional thoughts

Before heading up to Boston tomorrow for this year’s ASEEES conference, I wanted to add a few more thoughts on the conversation regarding Communism on Tomorrow Street. First, Karl Qualls raises an excellent point in his post about the motivations architects had in pursuing the ever-smaller dimensions of the single-family separate apartment. My own explanation centers on their goal of maintaining the integrity of the apartment as separate in the face of pressures to communalize large apartments. Qualls suggests that architects were likely also seeking to uphold the integrity of their profession and their craft. In short, since they designed an apartment to be separate, they expected it to be used in this way; its communalization represented the rejection of their authority. Here I would have to agree that this was a part of architects’ motivation in seeking a solution to the apartment’s communalization, especially in the Stalin years. And in the Khrushchev years, this question of professional authority continued to bother architects, perhaps even more so. Although I don’t cover this issue in great detail in my book, an episode that appears toward the end of chapter 2 illustrates the question Qualls  raises. In this episode from 1960, which took place in the pages of Izvestiia, architects and housing engineers debated whether or not the methods of keeping apartments small and inexpensive had produced irrational outcomes. What appeared especially at stake in this episode was the cultural authority of those architects who felt that the main goal had been attained (single-family occupancy) and that to suggest apartments were irrationally designed was an insult to their work. In any event, figuring out how architects developed and sought to maintain their sense of professional authority–not only before the state but amongst each other–is a topic worthy of more attention.

To switch to another topic altogether–Dana Simmons reflects in her post on the relationship between “living” and “auxiliary” spaces in Soviet mass housing. I like Simmons’s suggestion that we think of “auxiliary” spaces (kitchens, corridors, bathrooms, toilets, and whatever goes into them) as “surplus space” in which “surplus life” took place, with all of the Marxist connotations that its extraction or inclusion had for people living under Stalin and Khrushchev. Simmons concludes, “The history of the krushchevka is one of containing an expansive surplus, extra, auxiliary life.” That is certainly true in an era in which people were able to acquire more consumer goods but had less space in which to store them. And Simmons’s observation about the separate apartment as a “space of absence” also raises an important point. It is not just that the khrushchevka had no room for large furniture or too many consumer goods (if that was actually a problem). Rather, for all of Khrushchev’s claims to egalitarianism, the separate apartment was indeed a space that by design (and distribution) was still part of the Soviet politics of exclusion of undesirable social groups.

Finally, in regards to the question of the social contract: I agree with Mark Smith in his post that there is much evidence in the mass housing campaign that points to the blurring of the lines between state and society. And I also agree that the traditional model of the social contract with “state” on side and “society” on the other doesn’t really help explain what we are observing. What I was trying to suggest instead is that we think more about the social aspects of the social contract–i.e., whether and how the decisions ordinary citizens made in pursuing better living arrangements had anything to do with a larger sense of social justice and social obligations. Perhaps this could be a way of making the concept of a social contract useful again.

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