People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
November 11, 2007
HOUSING AND URBAN PLANNING IN THE WAKE OF OCTOBER REVOLUTION
The Creative Renaissance
ONLY once, in the history of the modern Europe has there been an attempt made to create a new society by combining the social, political, economical and creative forces to establish a new world order.
It is difficult to imagine for us, here in booming India, that real social change can only come about when the creative energies of the artistic community combine with the social, political and economical forces of change to bring about a new way of seeing society. Just as the commitment for social change in India has become just a slogan and as the benefits of economic prosperity accumulate in fewer hands, so it is with the creative force in this country. Artists, architects and engineers, by and large are happy to bask in the money pouring in from the auctioning of art and the booming of real estate.
It is difficult to imagine because so many artists, poets, architects, actors and designers have become entirely isolated from the mainstream of currents that work for social change. Theirs is not an isolation that has been entirely self imposed. It is an isolation caused by the ignorance of the process of social transformation in the minds of the representatives of the people who have less and less use for the intelligentsia.
The Bolshevik party was different. It was the key to the formulation of a new social order that removed poverty and provided a house and a job to everyone. But such a transformation could not have been done by the Bolshevik party alone. Such a transformation needed the combined efforts not only of the entire work force but also the efforts of the creative artists whose role in propaganda, education and communication was crucial to the consolidation of social change. During the period 1917 to 1929 in just 12 years, the Soviet Revolution unleashed such enormous creative ideas that they changed the trajectory of global art and architecture and set it on a path of discovery that was unique in the history of the modern world. Even to-day in the 21st century one may ask the same question John Berger asked 50 years ago “why do certain works and ideas created in Russia between 1917 and 1923, still seem to refer to the future now?” The reason was that the Bolshevik party during those 12 years was able to galvanise the intelligentsia in the task of rebuilding the entire socio-political infrastructure of the new Soviet State from the bottom to the top. During this period the artists, actors, theatre directors, poets, architects and writers and journalists found themselves in a unique atmosphere where they were given enormous freedom and responsibility to contribute to the social cause of the Revolution. It is this combination of freedom and social purpose that produced the ideas that form the foundations of the modern movement.
PROCESS OF CHANGE
This process of change had begun before the Bolshevik party came to power since 1905, Europe had been sporadically experiencing a sense of radical change in the field of the arts. Italy had experienced the ideas of the Futurists, there was the De stijl group in Holland and the Vorticists in England, the Der Blaue Reiter in Germany. These were introspective groups moving towards exploring abstraction and away from bourgeois taste in pictorial realism. Then came the First World War which radically altered the power frame work of Europe. The effects of the war were devastating on the population and intelligentsia of Europe. Workers, intellectuals and artists who had fought in the trenches of the killing field battle grounds and were lucky enough to survive sought social change to prevent the repetition of such a terrible war. Such was the environment into which the 1917 Revolution opened a door of hope. Those avant garde intellectuals who, prior to the war, had joined introverted radical groups now could join hands with the Russian avant garde of the newly formed Soviet State and experience a State patronage that had never been seen in Europe. The European avant garde had, hither to, regarded itself as a critic of the bourgeoisie values of their own country. They had perceived themselves in opposition to the ruling elite of Europe and hence the relative introverted nature of their groups concerned more with abstraction and technology than with social change.
The Bolshevik Revolution suddenly put before them the central issue of social change and the artistic endeavour. The Bolshevik party placed before them the possibility of creating a liberated future that was beyond class and individual wealth. The artistic endeavour began to merge with social instruments of change. “Their works were like hinged doors, connecting activity with activity, art with engineering, music with painting, poetry with design, fine art with propaganda, photography with typography, diagrams with action, the studio with the street” wrote John Berger. There was no artistic censorship and Lenin was very tolerant of “the chaotic ferment, the feverish search for new solutions and new watch words”. The work of the Russian avant garde was published in Europe and considerably influenced the European avant garde. For instance UNOVIS, an artistic group that banded together Ermolaeva, Malevich and Lissitzky, in 1919, published its work in Holland the following year and considerably influenced the De Stijl group. The Soviet State gave generous patronage to any of these groups that visited Russia. In 1922-23 the first significant building of the modern era funded by the State was built as the Palace of the People. It was designed by Alexander and Leonid Vesnin two prominent avant garde architects of Russia.
In 1921 Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) and this seeded new initiatives linking Europe with Russia. In the realm of the arts, Kandinsky, Gabo, Pevsner, Chagall, Malevich, Lissitzky were among those who came and interacted with the European avant garde. European intellectuals were able to experience for the first time, the sense of social commitment amongst the Russians and the presentations made by the Russian avant garde revealed to their European counterparts, the vibrancy of social and political consequences of an art that had a social purpose.
THE NEED FOR NEW CITIES
The immense patronage that the new Soviet State gave to new ideas about art and music also spilt over into architecture and town planning. Hitherto, town planning theories in the west had been concerned with creating ideal settlements that were insulated from the effects of rapid industrialisation. European planners such as Ebenezer Howard advocated “Garden cities” (the effects of his ideas can be seen in the planning of New Delhi by Sir Edwin Lutyens) Fournier and Andre all of whom advocated dispersed industrial complexes set in the countryside where workers were housed in apartments. Naturally not many capitalists favoured these romantic theories of town planning. They preferred to locate their factories in the heart of urban centres where the rural migration of labour was providing a pool of unemployed.
The turmoil and upsurge in the social hierarchies of Russia caused by the “ten days that shook the world” prompted architects and planners to fundamentally alter their thoughts about city planning. Soviet planners could not afford to think like the romantic ‘Garden City’ theorists of Europe. The Revolution had raised the expectations of the populace to expect housing and employment even though there was an acute shortage of funds. In response to these challenges wide discussions took place amongst the architects in Russia. Efforts were made to draft slogans about new settlements. However eventually Soviet town planning theories were primarily developed by Nikolai Miliutin (1889-1942) and elaborated in his book “Sotsgorod-The Problem of Building Socialist Cities”.
It is hard to imagine for us today, after decades of failed town planning in India, how such a simple vibrant work could express the problems that Soviet cities were facing. Our own city planners who have auctioned off our future cities to the private developer are being motivated purely by land speculation, land sharks and commission agents. The entire future of our cities has been sacrificed for private gain. In this hostile environment, there is no great vision for our cities and that is why Miliutin’s ideas have so much to teach us.
Miliutin proposed a unique linear plan for an industrial city. It was so new and fresh that its impact on European architects was almost immediate. Le Corbusier proposed his “linear Industrial city” based on Miliutin’s ideas, The CIAM Charter of 1932 too was influenced by him.
N Meshcheriokov, the editor of the Soviet Encyclopedia wrote the foreword to Miliutin’s book “Scotsgorod” when it came out in 1930 raising issues which seem to us so relevant today.
“The unprecedented rapidity with which our country is being industrialised presents us with the question of creating new large-scale manufacturing centers, as well as the necessity for intensified construction in those industrial cities that already exist. Each year these problems become sharper and more pressing in direct proportion to the accelerated tempo of our industrialisation.
“However, in order to solve these questions of construction, we cannot travel along the old, well-worn paths of pre-Revolutionary Russia — paths which are still being followed in capitalist countries. We cannot build according to those archaic methods which are inescapable where there is no single planned social economy, where every owner of a factory or apartment house can build wherever he fancies and however he chooses. Our socialist building cannot and must not repeat all the mistakes and absurdities of the past. A more rational construction of industrial enterprises and their contiguous residential areas is possible: that is the problem that faces us and for which, in solving, the outmoded methods and old plans are almost completely futile.
“But there is another factor that makes the old model unacceptable for us. In a capitalist society apartment houses are produced either in the interests of those wealthy persons who, having put up a building exclusively for themselves, then live there luxuriously, taking up gigantic spaces with their small families and arranging the house to their own capricious taste – or else it is built in the interests of those landlords who break it up into apartments and cruelly exploit the tenants. In such houses all the interests of tenants and all questions of their comfort are sacrificed to the greed of the landlord-exploiters. Our constructions must be carried out only in the interests of the working people who are to live in them.
“Finally, the ever-increasing drive toward collectivisation of life impels us to build houses in an entirely different way than they have been up to this time and as they still constructed in capitalist countries, where the basic economic unit is the family, each with its individual economy.”
QUESTIONS STILL RELEVANT
Miliutin dealt with three important theoretical questions, and these are questions that still haunt Indian cities. First was the question about how to plan for growth. His solution was to propose linear urban settlements that could connect towns. These ribbon urban developments were to consist of six parallel zones a few hundred meters in width but of indefinite length: a railway zone, a zone for factories, workshops, stores, research and technical institutes, a green-way with the main highway, housing zones, children’s homes, nursery schools, sports zones and parks with rivers and lakes.
The second theoretical question dealt with by Miliutin was on the issue of the relationship between urban and rural areas. This was not a new question. Marx and Engels had raised this in their 1846 publication The German Ideology which had elaborated on the antagonism between town and country. Capitalist city formation actually aggravated this antagonism and there was a need to form a solution to this historic problem. This problem too was addressed by the Miliutin proposal to have linear ribbon towns that snaked through the countryside providing a rural-urban environment clearly distinct from the romantic garden city dispersal theorists.
The third theoretical question raised by Miliutin concerned the new social relationships that socialist ideology proposed. This meant that communal living and working was to be the starting point of the seed of the new cities. In the proposal put forward by Miliutin, the basic house was to be a “living cell” for sleeping and safekeeping of possessions. This cell was to be supported by services that were collectivised such as laundries, restaurants, nurseries, clubs, sports facilities etc. The provision of such services was seen to liberate women from menial domestic chores. Such was the intellectual climate of the early Soviet period, where the content of social concerns far outweighed the normal bourgeoisie concerns of art, abstraction form and introverted self enlightenment. Of course the intense pace of the creative renaissance that began in 1917 could not be sustained in perpetuity. It lasted just more than a decade after which it was overcome by the restraints of social, political and internal contradictions that changed the trajectory of the initial Soviet identity of an open society to a relative introverted closed one. Notwithstanding these changes, the coinciding of the political perspectives of the early Bolshevik party and the creative ideas of the intelligentsia in Russia produced a most extraordinary treasure chest of innovative ideas that the much of the world still dips into for inspiration and guidance.
In India, Chandigarh, perhaps, was the last of the planned cities that the State sponsored. It was founded to improve the lives of deprived people who had migrated from Pakistan and to compensate them for the loss of Lahore. Since then the history of architecture and town planning has been the history of planning and constructing individual buildings or group of buildings in the interests of the builders and industrialists. In India the State has abdicated its role in the formulation of new settlements. As the countryside surrenders its fields to the land brokers, old cities get inundated with slums and brand new suburbs rise up with shopping malls and apartments. Nowhere is the tragedy of the State’s indifference to creating a new just society more apparent than in the realm of our urban settlements.