What can we learn from how the Soviet bloc tackled its housing crisis?

The 16th Microdistrict of Zelenograd, Russia. Image: Baykonur/Flickr/creative commons.

Editor's note: This article draws heavily on the work of the architecture writer Owen Hatherley, particularly his book Landscapes of Communism and this article in the Architectural Review. We are happy to make this clear.

Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis – but we are not the first country to face a desperate shortage of housing. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union and its satellite states faced a crisis on a much larger scale. The urban destruction caused by the war, and the relocation of vast numbers of people to the cities due to rapid industrialisation, had led to overcrowding and housing conditions similar to those experienced in Victorian England.

In the second half of the 1950s, the Communist party set about solving the problem by producing vast quantities of housing, mostly made of prefabricated parts that could be easily mass produced. The huge program of post-war housing construction is both one of the Soviet bloc’s greatest successes and most iconic failures.

These new housing estates were called “microrayons” (literally micro-regions), and many had a population equivalent to entire cities in the West. Through these microrayons, governments in the Communist countries succeeded in providing nearly-free housing for all workers. Rents were set at 5 per cent of income (in the UK today we spend 52 per cent of our income on rent, and 72 per cent in London). Citizens were provided with brand new dwellings with central heating, hot water and electricity, which was unusual for the USSR at that time.

Some microrayons sum up everything that was lifeless, grey and oppressive about life under Communism: identical flats, on identical floors, in identical blocks, arranged around identical quads that stretched as far as the eye could see, crushed any sense of individualism. These new housing districts lacked identity, history, pride and place; everything that makes a collection of housing units located near each other into a community.

Despite being mass produced by a centrally-planned economy, there were substantial differences between microrayons. The Thousandth Anniversary Estate in Katowice, Poland, has visually distinct blocks, grass and wooded areas. Its most iconic building is the Corns, so named because its cylindrical structure resembles cobs of corn.

This microrayon is beautiful by contemporary standards of urban planning – partly because its green areas have grown up as the community grew, but also because EU funding has been used to restore the estate. Another example is Seskine in Vilnius, Lithuania, where variations in the prefabricated modernist architecture and locating the blocks around a central shopping square breaks up the uniformity of the microrayon.

But for every microrayon that expressed some individuality, there were others that were the epitome of how Communism was indifferent to the individual. These were designed from the top down and looked magnificent from above – but on the ground they were impractical for living. Usachevka in Moscow was made from almost-identical three-to-five story square blocks. Built under Joseph Stalin, it is the epitome of a totalitarian housing development.

Lazdynai, Vilnius, Lithuania. Image: Umnik/Wikimedia Commons.

Lazdynai in Vilnius houses over thirty thousand people, but is entirely uniformly designed and consists of low cost concrete-panel blocks of flats, known as Khrushchyovkas as they were the building choice of Nikita Khrushchev’s regime.

Estates like Lazdynai, design in the International Style of modernist architecture, dominated the Warsaw Pact countries during the 1950s and 60s. Stalin largely suppressed modernist architecture, as he did not want workers’ housing to be oppressive, uniform dwellings. The International Style was uniquely suited to the mass production of prefabricated parts, and this was the best way for Khrushchev’s centrally-planned economy to produce enough housing to meet demand.

This quote from Czech writer Václav Havel sums up their approach:

“It would be to the greatest advantage of a centrally-directed system of production if only one type of prefabricated panel were constructed, from which one type of apartment building would be constructed … and together this would create a single type of housing development constructed according to one standardized urban development plan, with minor adjustments for landscape, given the regrettable irregularity of the earth’s surface.”

The housing crisis that we face in the UK is very different to that of the post-war Soviet bloc. The Communist governments of Eastern Europe had an abundance of land to build on, which made housing developments on the scale of the microrayons possible. These countries were able to provide cheap housing for millions of people using centralised planning and mass production, but some microrayons were uniform to the point of being oppressive. Our capitalist system’s strength is in using different combinations of mass-produced goods to express our individualism, which does not lend itself to the construction of microrayons.

The microrayons show what can be achieved if a government has the will to tackle a housing crisis. We can learn from the mistakes of an over-reliance on mass production and prefabrication to create estates that are varied, pleasanter and more likely to foster vibrant communities.

To read more on this topic, check out Owen Hatherley's book Landscapes of Communism, which you can buy online here

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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.