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The Soviet brutalist heritage: how we should deal with concrete giants left behind

The brutalist buildings or “concrete giants” are now facing the wrecking ball in many countries around the world.
 

Being controversial in nature, they are still widely criticized for their “cold” appearance, complete disregard for the townscape harmony, and an atmosphere of urban decay. On top of that, the buildings are almost half-century old and expose problems that are considered difficult to mitigate.

 

The idea of demolishing brutalist landmarks is especially relevant among the countries of the former Soviet Union which are eager to tear down symbols of their communist past.

 

What do we know about brutalism?

 

Brutalist buildings are hard to define yet easy to recognize. Gray, crumbling concrete structures with a “soulless” look, that usually have really bizarre forms. They can remind you of an alien ship, an ancient helmet, wings of a bird, or a silent ghost floating in the mist (depending on how far your fantasy can go). It seems these “icons” cannot add anything to the modern city’s landscape, nor take anything away. They just levitate in the air, stuck between epochs, like silent reminders of the long-gone times.

 

Historical context
 

Brutalism appeared in the post-war United Kingdom as a low-cost building solution that somehow turned into a cornerstone (literally and figuratively), which formed an angle for the next generation of architectural philosophy.

 

The architectural style thrived from the 1950s to the early 1980s in European countries and spread widely across the world.

 

The influence of brutalism reached Soviet architecture only in the 1970s after de-Stalinization reforms when the low-cost and function-oriented architecture became relevant once again. Soviet post-Stalinist architecture embedded the most prominent features of the brutalism movement: massiveness, block-like shapes, simple textures & homogenous color, adding elements that reflected Soviet achievements in technology and science.

 

One of the main features of Soviet brutalism was the use of other raw materials, mainly stone slabs, and steel. In terms of size, “mixed” brutalist objects fully met global style concepts. Striking examples of this particular style can be found among Soviet buildings in Ukraine in the 1970s and early 1980s.

 

 

Soviet brutalist architecture

 

A typical Soviet brutalist design is a mixture of avant-garde artistic vision and a complicated technical process.

 

The most remarkable examples of the Soviet brutalist architecture can be found in Kyiv, Ukraine: National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War (1975—1981), The house of furniture (1971), Hotel "Salute" (1976-1984), Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine (1975—1989), and so forth.

 

Download now for free: Top-7 Must-See brutalist landmarks in Kyiv

 

It is impossible to imagine how long these giants are going to stay there. Today, most east European republics tend to deny any connection with the Soviet Union, and thus tear down the Soviet symbols. Besides, concrete facades are blackening over time, becoming streaked with water or rust stains, and require regular maintenance, for which nobody wants to take responsibility.

 

 

Movements to preserve brutalist heritage

 

Like any other art, the brutalist style has its defenders. It is a young generation of architects, artists & enthusiasts who believe such relics are as unique and valuable as any other historical buildings.

 

The main purpose of all preservation campaigns is to provoke a shift in attitude towards brutalist architecture: from the eyesore to the objects of newfound regard. Activists believe that an unchanged landscape is a powerful reminder of our past: it tells us about what happened then and what is still happening to us today.

 

A deeper look

 

In Ukraine, the heritage protection movement seems to be something really ambitious. Different projects and campaigns like this one show how many Ukrainian architects, historians, artists & just enthusiasts developed a deep interest in Soviet modernism architecture and decided to do their part in protecting our modernist heritage. In their publications and interviews, they outline buildings that require immediate repair and explain the importance of saving their original appearance.

 

Among them are Alex Bykov and Ievgeniia Gubkina, the authors of a book Soviet Modernism, Brutalism, Postmodernism – Buildings and Structures in Ukraine 1956-1991. Their collaboration produced an extremely valuable observation of Soviet-Era architecture, bringing fresh ideas to wider society on what to do with “eyesore” Soviet heritage.

 

The authors believe that all architectural styles are a part of global history, and thus, possess a cultural value that should be appreciated. “Modernism and brutalism carried a very strong ideological component. Now we see a lot of commercial projects with no message to society”, comments Serhiy Pilipenko, General Manager of the Kovalska Industrial-Construction Group, who supported the book publishing.

 

Such works present a deeper approach to the problem of destroying historical buildings and reveal the real motives behind demolition initiatives in post-Soviet countries.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Historical buildings surely hold the taste of their times, which is not always light and sweet. However, denying or ignoring our past means lying to ourselves or hiding from who we really are.

 

Furthermore, such landmarks represent an aesthetic and cultural value. Ugly or beautiful — is not a valid argument for discussions, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 

Brutalism is a notable, outstanding art that thoroughly transmits the spirit of its time. No other architectural style elicits so many controversial emotions. How can a building be so imaginative while consisting of pure concrete? Brutalism continues to raise so many questions.

 

For only that the style represents a valuable ground for research in architectural & artistic fields. Besides, many young people find brutalism inspiring — maybe because they don’t put so many labels on it?

 

Photos — Alex Bykov

 

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