Sonia Hirt, an alumnus of the University of Michigan MUP and Doctoral program, visited her alma mater last week to give a lecture on a topic that she has not only studied but has also experienced first hand. Titled, “Landscapes of Postmodernity: Changes in the Built Fabric of Central-East European Cities Since the End of Socialism,” Hirt explains how the built environment expresses changes in cultural, social and economic transformations over time. The presentation proceeded primarily as a visual guide illustrating how the former Soviet Bloc’s landscape changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) along three axes of spatial difference: urban scale, urban function, and style.
Under socialist rule, the scale of public space was unmatched. Generous portions of land were dedicated to parks and monumental buildings housed governmental agencies. Romania’s Palace of Culture, the second largest building in the world is a stunning example of scale, and is said to measure just larger and with wider boulevards than in Paris. Since land was nationalized, centralized government could remove people from their homes without compensation to build ceremonial headquarters. This process backed by socialist ideology had significant implications for the urban form and its function. The socialist city exhibited urban functions in different ratios than capitalist cities, as the central district of a Soviet city did not prioritize economizing space. Stylistically, Hirt’s photos captured the large-scale repetition and unimaginative grey tower bloc often associate with the Soviet era.
The collapse of socialism changed the meaning of space. Sweeping parkland was ultimately claimed by the upper classes and protected by heavy gates and security guards. The society became visibly stratified once people could choose where they wanted to live. Residents of the tower blocs left to create private cities without official plans or maps approved by a central planning authority. As people moved out of the tower blocs and into uncontrolled space, they expressed themselves through the built environment. Color, statues, and multiple architectural styles erupted in privately built communities. Smaller scale, detached and brighter structures began to dominate as neighbors waged “an aesthetic war” on one another.
The function of the city also changed. Once a suppressed commercial zone, business and advertisement began to flourish in what was called “ground floor capitalism” as the first floor of old tower blocs converted to private enterprises. In fact, the proportion of retail space per person in Eastern Europe now equals the West. And the agricultural periphery made way to unprecedented investments in industrial infrastructure. Arguably the East surpassed the West’s propensity to privatize as evidenced by photos of fenced off parks and shopping centers off. Interestingly, when the East adopted capitalism, the urban form followed American development patterns. Similar trends ensued. Manufacturing hubs now lay vacant similar to cities in the American Rust Belt, the most obvious example being Detroit. Once on vastly different socioeconomic paths, the two countries now face similar planning issues surroundings brownfields and transitioning workers to a new economy.
Hirt deliberately did not to make a political judgment about this transformation but merely presented her observations. She is a compelling speaker and talented scholar. Her new book “Zoned in the U.S.A: The Origins and Implications of American Land Use Control” continues to explore comparative land use issues.