Current Book Project
Spatial Revolution: Planning and building the early Soviet state, 1917-32
In late 1929, Detroit News journalist Philip Adler traveled through the “Soviet hinterlands” to investigate the conditions brought about by the first Five-Year Plan, Stalin’s hyper-industrialization drive. “The country’s landscape is changing,” Adler reported to his American readers. “Traveling in Russia by train or boat you see yellow smoke stacks of new factories rising among the golden cupolas of churches in every town and belching clouds of black smoke against the blue sky. You see everywhere new three-four-and-five-story apartment houses, workmen’s dwellings—not blocks, but complete city sections—rising among the dilapidated ramshackles of yore. In the midst of thick forests, or on river banks you run into completely new cities of 5,000, 10,000 of 20,000 inhabitants, with some new factory as a nucleus.”
Adler’s reportage captured the Soviet Union in the midst of a seismic shift from a rural landscape of thick forests and quiet riverbanks to a manmade industrial territory. Constructing these cities during the early years of the Soviet period was hard work that required massive mobilization of materials and labor. Soviet administrators frantic to meet the goals of the plan had also to contend with a rapidly evolving conceptual framework for socialist space making. If capitalist cities are dense, hierarchical, and exploitative, Soviet economic and physical planners asked at the time, how might socialist space be differently organized to maximize not only productivity, but also equality and collectivity? These theoretical discussions were important—the future of a new kind of urban form rested on the correct formulations—but the timeline of the plan was set. As the spatial debates raged on, concrete foundations were being poured. It was simultaneously a time of crisis and possibility.
Spatial Revolution investigates the origins and evolution of the Soviet spatial project from land nationalization to the end of the first Five-Year Plan (1917-1932). Constructing socialism under conditions of economic austerity and technological inadequacy was a near impossible task. Exactly how administrative clients, architects, economists, foreign experts, physical planners, spatial theoreticians, and the labor force came together to build a distinctly socialist built environment, despite the many constraints, is the story that this book tells. It asserts that socialist urban practices and forms emerged not through utopian dreaming nor by ideological edict from above, but through on-the-ground experimentation by practitioners in collaboration with local administrators—via praxis, by doing.
Questions about the proper distribution of people and industry under socialism were posed and ultimately answered through construction of brick and mortar, steel and concrete projects like those Alder saw through his train window. This book focuses on three of these first generation “socialist settlements” located in three Soviet republics: Baku, Azerbaijan; Magnitogorsk, Russia; and Kharkiv, Ukraine. Through interweaved narratives of these critical industrial sites, Spatial Revolution explores how Soviet architects and physical planners addressed new socioeconomic requirements. Provisions like affordable housing near the workplace, robust municipal transportation, and evenly distributed social services emerged from these experiments to affect far-flung sites in the Soviet sphere for decades to follow.
This book draws the Soviet case into dialogue with scholarship on industry, urbanization, and social modernization in Europe and the United States, and highlights the contributions of Soviet designers to devise viable alternatives to the capitalist city. It also asserts that design agency emerges in transitional periods, when trial and error is the only reasonable approach to deal with instability. The construction of “actually existing socialism” was an experimental, messy, and yet ultimately revolutionary effort.
For a taste of the research for the book, please read my article, “From Tractors to Territory: Socialist Urbanization through Standardization.” Journal of Urban History, “Second World Urbanity” special issue, Vol. 44(1), 54-77. Doi: 10.1177/0096144217710233. Winner of the 2017 Emerging Scholar Prize, Society of Historians of East European, Eurasian, and Russian Art and Architecture (SHERA).
 Philip Adler, The Detroit News, 22 December 1929. Part three of “a series telling the real story of Soviet Russia.”