4 October 2010

Industrialized building speech

Believe it or not, Nikita Khrushchev, one year before becoming the next USSR president after Stalin, delivered a long speech about prefabricated housing and its challenges. It was back in 1954.

The speech title was: 'On the extensive introduction of industrial methods, improving the quality and reducing the cost of construction'. The speech was given at the National Conference of Builders, Architects, and Workers in the Construction Materials on December 7, 1954.

What is this post about? A Google search took me by pure chance to the highly recommendable Dutch quarterly Volume, dedicated to architecture and design. The speech text is a free access article appearing on a recent issue (2009-3), named 'The block' and dedicated to mass housing. From the editorial:

Housing the billions: never before were those involved in architecture and construction confronted with such a challenge. World-wide there will be housing needed for some three billion people in the coming forty years. In the Netherlands, after the post-War ‘reconstruction period’ during which dealing with ‘the big number’ was the central issue, attention shifted entirely to the individualization of design.

Here and in much of Europe we have indeed bid farewell to blueprints, repetition and uniformity, but is that farewell as definitive as we think? Is this extreme individualization sustainable? Is there not something to be learned from mass construction and the industrial production of housing such as, for example, from that which houses and provides an urban environment for 70% of Russia’s population?

Another accessible article is 'Standards, classes, formats', by Bart Goldhoorn, one of the main contributors to the Volume issue. This is a glimpse to its content:

In architecture, to use the word “standard” seems to be a taboo. ...The experiences of the 1960s and 1970s in mass-produced architecture have apparently been so traumatic, that this has led to the creation of a dogma in architecture and urbanism that translates as diversity = good, uniformity = bad.

...The dogma of architectural individuality excludes from discussion a field of knowledge and experience which is essential to the development of any contemporary form of manufacturing. ...In processes of design, production and marketing the use of standards actually enables innovation and diversification. True, the nature of these standards is very different from the way they manifested themselves in the mass housing project of the 1960s. ...It is time to break the taboo and consider the application of this experience in the field of architectural design – not as an aim in itself, but as a key to make good design available to more people.

I also think this is a very important problem, one that should concern us as architects, and one we will have to deal with in the coming years. Now, what can we learn about the Russian race to mass housing construction of the 50s, 60s and 70s? If the Volume issue is right, we should take lessons from the mistakes of those days, and try not to repeat them.

Under this light, Khrushchev's speech from 1954, delivered right at the start of the Soviet mass pre-fab housing process, is a pivotal document because it contains the key to what was going to fail later. My first impression at reading the speech has been of surprise: I could have never imagined a high rank politician of any country (not even Castro in Cuba) dealing with a technical issue with such level of detail, knowledge and, yes, passion. Later in the text Khrushchev declares himself a traded plumber in his youth, and then you start understanding what was going on there.

A visit to Wikipedia brings more interesting data: yes, young Nikita was welding pipes in Ukranian mines back in 1914. As a skilled metal worker he was  exempt from conscription in the Great War. Between 1934-35 we find Khrushchev as superintendent of construction of the Moscow Metro. Faced with an already-announced opening date of November 7, 1934, Khrushchev took considerable risks in the construction and spent much of his time down in the tunnels. When the inevitable accidents did occur, they were depicted as heroic sacrifices in a great cause. The Metro did not open until May 1, 1935, but Khrushchev received the Order of Lenin for his role in its construction.

In 1950, as head of the Communist Party in the Moscow region, Khrushchev began a large-scale housing programme for Moscow. A large part of the housing was in the form of five- or six-story apartment buildings, which later became ubiquitous throughout the Soviet Union. Khrushchev had favoured the use of prefab reinforced concrete panels, greatly speeding up construction. These structures were completed at triple the construction rate of Moscow housing from 1946–50, lacked elevators and in some cases balconies. The blocks were nicknamed Khrushyovkas by the public. Almost 60 million residents of the former Soviet republics still live in these buildings today!

But in 1954, at the time of the speech, the construction of Khrushyovkas was just starting. The decision of using pre-fab instead of monolithic concrete construction had just been taken, not without pain for those who favoured the latter. Quoting from the speech:

Our builders know that until recently there was debate over which of two paths we should take in construction – use of prefabricated structures or monolithic concrete. We shall not name names or reproach those workers who tried to direct our construction industry towards use of monolithic concrete. I believe these comrades now realise themselves that the position they adopted was wrong. Now, though, it’s clear to everyone, it seems, that we must proceed along the more progressive path – the path of using prefabricated reinforced-concrete structures and parts. (Applause.)

Further in the text Khrushchev goes against architects. He complains that standardized construction can't succeed if architects keep insisting on non-standard design. Design offices were of course a collective activity by then in the USSR, but interestingly architects had somehow managed until then (after Stalin's death, that is!) to remain loyal to their design individuality. The boss is not happy with this:

They [architects] all agree that use of standard designs will significantly simplify and improve the quality of construction, but in practice many architects and engineers too aspire to create only their own one-off designs.
Why does this happen? One of the reasons, evidently, is that there are flaws in the way we train our architects. Led on by the example of the great masters, many young architects hardly wait to cross the threshold of their architecture institutes before wanting to design nothing but unique buildings and hurrying to erect a monument to themselves. If Pushkin created for himself a monument ‘not made by human hand’, many architects feel they simply must create a ‘handmade’ monument to themselves in the form of a building constructed in accordance with a unique design. (Laughter, applause.)

Now Khrushchev goes more personal. In a purely Stalinesque style, he attacks a such comrade Mordvinov, president of the Academy of Architecture and also present at the speech (I imagine not with a very lively face at this part):

If an architect wants to be in step with life, he must know and be able to employ not only architectural forms, ornaments, and various decorative elements, but also new progressive materials, reinforced-concrete structures and parts, and, above all, must be an expert in cost-saving in construction. And this is what comrade Mordvinov and many of his colleagues have been criticised for at the conference – for forgetting about the main thing, i.e. the cost of a square metre of floor area, when designing a building and for, in their fascination with unnecessary embellishment of facades, allowing a great number of superfluities.

It's difficult not to agree to a certain extent with the basis of this critique, if we realise that the issue under discussion was building houses by the thousands for a population that were living almost in barracks after the war end. More ammo was thrown to the audience:

Certain architects have a passion for adding spires to the tops of buildings, which gives this architecture an ecclesiastical appearance. Do you like the silhouette of churches? I don’t want to argue about tastes, but for residential buildings such an appearance is unnecessary. It’s wrong to use architectural decoration to turn a modern residential building into something resembling a church or museum. This produces no extra convenience for residents and merely makes exploitation of the building more expensive and puts up its cost. And yet there are architects who fail to take this into account.

Khrushchev, once convinced he had made a clear point here - several other examples are served in the conference, with numbers, unit cost comparisons and quotations - changes subject to another hot topic: improving quality of construction. It was already evident to this generation that quality would be the main issue of the housing programme in the future, one which would probably never be solved but against which a dialectic fight had to be launched from day one. Here goes our Quixote:

Recently comrades Bulganin, Mikoyan and myself had to visit many cities in the Far East, Siberia, and the Urals. We were looked after well. Which is understandable – given that we’re demanding guests and that we have the power to criticise – and in fact do even more than just criticise. So naturally they tried to ensure the best conditions for us. (Laughter, applause.) In the city of Sverdlovsk we lived in a hotel. It has to be supposed that we were given by no means the worst rooms. (Laughter.) And in this hotel we saw that the bathroom and toilet blocks were very badly built and that the quality of decorative work was poor. We asked for the hotel director and the city leaders and said to them: ‘Look how poor this work is!’
The quality of the tiling was poor and it had been carelessly laid. The pipes in the toilets and bathrooms were covered in rust and had been hurriedly painted with some sort of grey paint before our arrival, with more paint being splashed onto the walls at the same time. The way that these pipes had been joined together was very bad and I, as an ex-plumber, was very indignant: even in pre-Revolutionary times pipe joints down the mine were done better and more cleanly than in this hotel in Sverdlovsk.

The actual Khrushyovkas designed and built after 1954, up to and during the Brezhnev era, were not precisely a model of high quality, but they were an example of pure standardization. The leader was to be followed in this point, if not in quality. In 1954-1961, engineer Vitaly Lagutenko, chief planner of Moscow, designed and tested the mass-scale, industrialized construction process, relying on concrete panel plants and a fast-track assembly schedule. In 1961, Lagutenko’s institute released the K-7 design of a prefab 5-storey that symbolised the Khrushchyovka. 64,000 units of this type were built only in Moscow from 1961 to 1968, but it was just a beginning. In Moscow, space limitations forced a switch to 9 or 12-story buildings (these with lifts) at the end of the 60s. The last 5-story Khrushyovka was completed there in 1971. The rest of USSR continued building Khrushyovkas until the fall of communism; millions of such units are now still inhabited and well past their design lifetime.

The facade units, serving both as structural and cladding panels, were made at concrete plants and trucked to the site just-in-time. Lifts were considered too costly and time consuming, and according to Soviet standards, five stories was the maximum height of a building without an elevator. Thus, almost all Khrushyovkas have five stories.

Khrushchyovkas featured combined bathrooms. Lagutenko refined the space-saving idea, replacing regular-sized bathtubs with 120 centimeter long "sitting baths". Some theorists even considered combining toilet bowl functions with the shower's sink, but the idea was discarded. Kitchens were also small, usually 6 square meters.

Typical apartments of the K-7 series have a total area of 30 m2 (1-room), 44 m2 (2-room) and 60 m2 (3-room). Not big really, but that was not their greatest defect. Construction was really bad: issues of water penetration, excessive air permeability and low acoustic insulation between apartments (due to thin internal non structural partitions) have been constant complaints among its users. The main problem though was to be the incredibly low thermal insulation, both at the concrete walls and at the metal windows. Users had to install double windows, and close balconies at those models who had that privilege. Harsh living conditions in the Russian long winters and the anonimity of the blocks, all five stories high and impossible to differenciate even between cities, gave Khrushchyovkas a bad reputation almost since day one.

This long post should be finished in a positive way. First, citing some lessons learnt for future mass housing projects. We should care less for absolute equal repetition of the model: that is not standardization, that is Social realism in its whole crudeness. Camper shoes, Ikea furniture and Zara garments tell a different story: they are recognizable products, mass fabricated, affordable, but we want to have them. Houses could be made as well designed, mass consuming products and we would love them as well. We should care more about performance when designing and building affordable houses. In fact, because of their high compacity and relatively low % of glazed openings, housing blocks are easy to insulate and to protect from wind, air and water infiltrations. We now know how to do it, in an interesting way and within budget.

There is more good news coming for the old Khrushchyovkas. They can be renovated and brought back to an appealing consumer state. An article at The St. Petersburg Times in 2001 brings us the story: the lowly krushchyovka may be given a new lease of life, at least if the Danish Foundation for the Construction of Attic Apartments in Russia has its way. The foundation presented its pilot project for the reconstruction of some of St. Petersburg's most unappealing housing. The Danish foundation, aided by six Scandinavian commercial companies, has carried out a pilot reconstruction project at a block in St. Petersburg. The project, which took only nine months to complete, added a mansard for nine apartments, insulated the facades from the outside to improve heat retention, changed windows, closed balconies and renovated the building's heat plant.

Now the gleaming six-story building with glassed-in balconies and fresh white paint is the envy of the neighborhood, surrounded by its decaying former twins. This project is one way of prolonging the life of these buildings for another 50 years, according to Lev Khikhlukha, who directed the program for the Russian branch of the Danish company Velux. Not bad, don't you think? And the old ex-plumber would have probably been happy with the quality - at last.

An interesting book on pre-fab housing during the 20th century (not just Soviet blocks, obviously) is 'Home delivery: fabricating the modern dwelling' written by Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen and edited by the NY Museum of Modern Art. The Google book link is quite complete.


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