Revolution and the Social Condenser: How Soviet architects sought a radical new society

What happened to the most powerful architectural concept produced in response to the Russian Revolution and how Rem Koolhaas appropriated it from the Soviet Union.

The Radiating Palace: Nine Rays of Light in the Sky, by Henryk Stazewski(1894–1988), curated by the Museum of Modern Art in the Świętokrzyski Park, November 2009. Photograph by Jan Smaga, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

The concept embodying the Constructivists’ vision for completely new kinds of human communities, an architectural device for electrifying people into a communist way of life, is being revisited by scholars on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Michal Murawski explains how the Social Condenser was applied throughout its history and what makes it relevant in the 21st century.

Michal Murawski is an anthropologist of architecture, whose work focuses on the afterlives of communist architecture and planning. His first book was on the Palace of Culture, a Stalinist skyscraper in Warsaw; and he is currently carrying out research on Moscow during and after the reign of Yuri Luzhkov, with a focus on Zaryadye Park. His PhD is from Cambridge, and he currently teaches at Queen Mary, University of London and the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism in Moscow. 

The idea of the ‘Social Condenser’ – promoted by Soviet Constructivist architects during the late 1920s – is arguably the most powerful architectural concept produced in the Soviet Union in response to the earth-shattering events of October 1917.

‘Having eradicated the fetters of private property ownership, October has opened up new perspectives for Soviet architecture: of grand planning works, of the development of new types of architecture, of new architectural organisms, and of new complexes and ensembles in place of the narrowly-individualistic parameters dictated by pre-revolutionary clients.’

Editorial, Sovremennaia Arkhitektura, 1927

The Social Condenser, then, was the key term coined by the Constructivists to express what the ‘new type’ of post-Revolutionary architecture would consist of, and what its social function would be.

In its various articulations, the Social Condenser was a proposal for a type of architecture that would serve as a tool for the construction of radical new kinds of human communities: communities of collective residence, work, and public culture, in which the alienation and privation of bourgeois or peasant life would be overcome; and communities of equality and empathy, in which the old hierarchies of class and gender would be designed out of existence.

As architect Moisei Ginzburg put it in 1927:

"… the need for a social-collective life, for the emancipation of women from the unnecessary household burdens – this is a manifestation of the will of the architect to take her place in the building of a new life, in the creation of a new organism – the Social Condenser of our time."

Or, in the words of Ivan Leonidov – written in 1928 with reference to workers’ clubs, in particular:

"We need not merely new clubs, but clubs – inventions, insofar as these are not clubs for playing whist and dancing the quadrille, but clubs designed for brand new, previously unheard-of human relations, new “Social Condensers” of our time."

The term ‘condenser’ itself derives from the word for an electrical transformer – a device used to re-deploy and intensify electric currents. In line with the futurist electricity-fetishism typical of early 20th century radical movements – best expressed, as Russian literature scholar Katerina Clark has observed, in the Soviet context by Lenin’s famous proclamation, ‘communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country’ – the idea of the Social Condenser is suffused with vivid connotations pertaining to electricity, radiation, and magnetism.

For the Constructivists, social condensation was about filling architecture with a sort of revolutionary political electricity. As theorized, designed, and built, the Social Condenser was to be an architectural device for electrocuting people into a communist way of life (byt’).

Gustav Klutsis. Design for a poster entitled The Electrification of the Entire Country [Электрификация всей страны], 1920.

In the words of a 1928 Resolution adopted by the main Constructivist association, the Organization of Contemporary Architects (OSA):

A new type of communal housing, workers’ club, palace of labor, administrative building [ispolkom], new factory, etc., are to become the conductors and condensers of socialist culture [provodniki i kondensatory sotsialisticheskoy kul’tury].

Or, as French architect and historian Anatole Kopp later put it:

Like electrical condensers that transform the nature of current, the architects’ proposed ‘Social Condensers’ were to turn the self-centered individual of capitalist society into a whole man, the informed militant of socialist society in which the interests of each merged with the interests of all.


HOW KOOLHAAS APPROPRIATED THE SOCIAL CONDENSER FROM THE SOVIET UNION

The precise meaning of the Social Condenser, however, is difficult to pin down. In the Constructivist texts of the 1920s – published in the main OSA organ, Sovremennaia Arkhitektura during 1927 and 1928, new English translations of which are available here – the term was used in quite a broad way, often as something of an umbrella term for the ‘new type’ of post-October architecture.

Social condensation, then, was that which distinguished truly revolutionary architecture from the architecture of the ancienrégime, and which distinguished Soviet radical modernism from that of the capitalist countries.

"… the creation of the Social Condenser of our epoch, a task distinguishing our constructivism from all other left tendencies and groups in Western Europe and America."

SA Editorial, 1927

As an explicitly-defined concept, the Social Condenser had a short life. After 1928, the term was abandoned by the Constructivists, although many of its postulates, it can be argued, continued to influence the practice of architecture, planning, and social engineering during the Stalin years.

From the late 1950s onwards, the aesthetics and ideologies of early Soviet modernism were being rediscovered in Khrushchev-era Russia, but also on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Thanks to the work of Western and Soviet historians such as Anatole Kopp and Selim Khan-Magomedov, the term ‘Social Condenser’ re-entered the lexicon of architects, artists, and thinkers all over the world. In the process, however, the Social Condenser was appropriated – and depoliticized – by the towering ideologist of late capitalist, turn-of-the-millennium architecture, Rem Koolhaas.

In his Content: Perverted Architecture book (2004), Koolhaas even went so far as to write a patent for the Social Condenser. By claiming the Social Condenser as his own intellectual property, Koolhaas (satirically or not, knowingly or not) carried out a multiple ‘perversion’ (to use his own term) of the Soviet Social Condenser.

Koolhaas’ mock patent for the Social Condenser

Not only did Koolhaas claim ownership of the Social Condenser from Ginzburg and the Constructivists, he also – through this act of patenting – privatized the Social Condenser: a notion whose publicness, as the Constructivists themselves emphasized, constitutes its very kernel.

Koolhaas’ appropriation of the Social Condenser has been extremely successful. The Social Condenser today is referenced in a vast array of projects and dissertations by architects and architecture students all over the world – especially in the US and UK – the majority of whom seem to believe that it was Koolhaas himself who was responsible for coming up with the idea of the Social Condenser in the first place.

On a global level, then, the Social Condenser is one of the best-known, most widely-exported architectural-ideological concepts ever produced in the Soviet Union. Ironically enough, however, it is a term better known in English-speaking than in the Russian-speaking world. Among the people all over the world who are familiar with the idea of the Social Condenser, many, however, are blissfully unaware of the term’s origins in the Soviet Union, and of the radical political associations that the Social Condenser was originally defined to express and to put into practice.

And what happens when they do find out where the Social Condenser came from and what it meant?

“I had no idea the concept of a social condenser originated in the USSR! So now I think they’re all bad”

SOCIAL CONDENSER A.D. 2017

As stated in a 1927 editorial in Sovremennaia Arkhitektura (SA), ‘On the Tenth Anniversary of the October Revolution’, the Social Condenser was in itself an anniversary concept, formulated to mark the completion of the Soviet Union’s first, tumultuous decade in existence. The Constructivists needed a concept that would recoup the ‘constructive’ radical energy of the October Revolution in the face of the myriad ‘negative’ developments in ‘post-October’ culture: whether ‘ingrained inertia and atavism’, ‘unprincipled eclecticism’, ‘naive dilettantism’, or ‘ignorance’ with regards to the ‘social and artistic quality of architecture’.

Today, one hundred years after the October Revolution, and ninety years after the ‘discovery’ of the Social Condenser, this concept has been re-worked to accommodate a plethora of (often contradictory or problematic) meanings and associations.

Re-defining the Social Condenser in a way that is consistent with the spirit and ideology of the Soviet 1920s, but which is not restricted to the aesthetics and realities of that time and place is the aim of the research I have been conducting together with architectural theorist Jane Rendell. We want to consider the Social Condenser as a concept born of the 1917 revolution and the Soviet avant-garde, but at the same time to un-anchor it: to deploy it beyond the narrow confines of its origins in order to make sense of – and imagine – heterodox architectural horizons both within and without the former socialist world.

Contributors to our project have made use of the Social Condenser to theorize the design intentions, long-term social effects, successes and failures, and shifting political-economic foundations of a range of sites: ‘planned Condensers’, which were explicitly designed as Social Condensers, or at least designed according to a comparable set of architectural and social principles; and ‘accidental Condensers’, which became social Condensers due to the unexpected convergence of a set of external social and spatial factors on a specific site.

Among the planned Condensers are:

Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin House – arguably the best-known explicitly-conceived Social Condenser ever built, currently on the brink of a comprehensive renovation led by Moisei’s grandson Alexey (articles: Buchli, Charley); the Workers’ Clubs and Palaces of Culture of 1920s-1930s Moscow, many designed by leading Constructivists, among them the Vesnin brothers and Konstantin Melnikov (Bokov, Hatherley); Warsaw’s Palace of Culture, а multi-functional Stalinist skyscraper ‘gifted’ to Poland by the Soviet Union in 1955, which – thanks to its retention in public ownership – still serves as a Social Condenser for the 21st century, ‘wild capitalist’ city (Murawski); London’s Partisan Coffee House and Kennington Secondary Modern School, short-lived Condensers of the British Marxist New Left during the 1960s and 1970s (Beech); under-decline public arts centers and under-demolition modernist council estates in late capitalist Britain (Phillips, Rendell).

Narkomin, July 2017. Photograph by Michał Murawski
Narkomin, July 2017. Photograph by Michał Murawski
Caption: Rusakov Workers' Club by architect Konstantin Mel'nikov. Photograph by Branson DeCou, 1931. Photograph courtesy of the Branson DeCou collection, UCSC Special Collections & Archives. Reproduced in Anya Bokov’s text.
Zuev Workers' Club by architect Il'ya Golosov. Photograph by Branson DeCou, 1931. Photograph courtesy of the Branson DeCou collection, UCSC Special Collections & Archives. Reproduced in Anya Bokov’s text.
Alexander Deyneka, V rayonnom klube [At the local club], illustration for Bezbozhnik u stanka [Atheist and the machine], No. 3 (Moscow, 1927). Reproduced in Anya Bokov’s text.
A séance with the Glass Lady at the Palace’s Museum of Technology. Photograph by Michał Murawski.
A séance with the Glass Lady at the Palace’s Museum of Technology. Photograph by Michał Murawski.
Douglas Stephen and Partner, Proposed Coffee Bar, 7, Carlisle Street: perspective sketches (17th February, 1958). Reproduced in Nick Beech’s text.
Narkomin, July 2017. Photograph by Michał Murawski

Among the contributions pertaining to accidental Condensation are:

The communal living experiments in the early Soviet Union, which were engaged in re-purposing pre-existing spaces for the purposes of something like Social Condensation, but were not themselves architecture or design-focused (Willimott); French Marxist spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre’s analysis of Social Condensation in the Paris of May 1968 (Lefebvre borrowed this term from his friend, Anatole Kopp), focusing on how students from the newly-completed modernist suburban university campus of Nanterre descended, centripetally and explosively, on the heart of Paris (Stanek); and ‘Arry’s Bar in London’s Millwall Stadium, which temporarily became – according to Jane Rendell – a condenser of another, much larger, still-existing but endangered Social Condenser: South London’s Aylesbury Estate, from which London’s Southwark Council is attempting to evict residents before selling the building to a developer.

A scene from the Aylesbury Estate inquiry at Arry’s Bar, South London, 2015. Drawing by Judit Ferencz.

STEALING BACK THE SOCIAL CONDENSER

So what are the global fates and futures of the Social Condenser in 2017 – the centenary year of the October Revolution? What are the prospects for stealing back the Social Condenser from its appropriators ?

One thing is clear: ‘the fetters of private property ownership’ – whose eradication paved the way for the creation and implementation of the Social Condenser – have been put back into place with a vengeance. In the former Soviet Union, but also across the rapidly-dismantling welfare states all over the world, public spaces, social housing projects, leisure facilities and other sites of Social Condensation are being dismantled, neglected, gentrified, or sold off to the highest bidder. Often – as in the case of the devastating fire that killed at least 80 people in London’s 1970s Grenfell Tower in June 2017 – with murderous consequences.

In Moscow itself, 2017 has seen the launch of a realtor-friendly scheme to demolish over 5,000 Khrushchev-era housing blocks, products of the post-war Soviet mass housing program – a project considered by historians to be one of the most successful egalitarian social projects ever embarked on in the modern world.

So, if the Khrushchevki – for all their flaws – constituted the greatest Social Condenser of all time, what will the Sobyaninki of 21st century Moscow look like? Will they be multi-story rabbit warrens, devoid of social facilities, built to a low standard, and organized not around social facilities or district clubs, but enormous shopping malls and outsized supermarkets?

The ‘Moy Novy Dom’ Showroom at the Moscow Urban Forum, July 2017. Photograph by Michał Murawski
The permanent ‘Moy Novy Dom’ Showroom, opened near the VDNKh Cosmos Pavilion on 8 September 2017. Photograph by Michał Murawski
The permanent ‘Moy Novy Dom’ Showroom, opened near the VDNKh Cosmos Pavilion on 8 September 2017. Photograph by Michał Murawski
The ‘Moy Novy Dom’ Showroom at the Moscow Urban Forum, July 2017. Photograph by Michał Murawski
The ‘Moy Novy Dom’ Showroom at the Moscow Urban Forum, July 2017. Photograph by Michał Murawski

The precise format, extent, and appearance of what will replace the Khrushchevki – the future ‘Sobyaninki’, nicknamed after the current Mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin – will largely depend, in all likelihood, on the whims of the developers themselves. Rumour has it that Rem Koolhaas himself – the most successful appropriator-privatizer of the Social Condenser – has entered the municipality’s (non-binding) concept competition to conjure the design for an experimental pilot Sobyaninka (the results are due in November 2017). His design, however, did not make it onto the shortlist. So will whoever prevails (Zaha Hadid Architects, Erick von Egeraat, Meganom, and a number of other well-known Russian and foreign practices are in play) improve on the Khrushchevka and create the blueprint for a 21st century Social Condenser?

Or is ‘My New Home’ simply a scheme – as local sceptics, activists, and oppositionists suspect – for the expropriation of poorer Muscovites from the central regions of the city and their subsequent deportation into multi-storey alienation factories, built to a low standard and organized not around social facilities or district clubs, but enormous shopping malls and outsized supermarkets?

Land itself, as opposed to residential or commercial property, is still – by and large – state property in Russia. Thus, it is easy for the state to lease land to developers, raising funds and placating its sponsors in the process. As one local architect explained to me, “oil is cheap, the best thing the state has to give away right now to the oligarchs is Moscow land”.

What is interesting about places like post-Soviet Moscow is that, on one hand, the physical legacy of a century of Social Condensation – from Narkomfin to the Khrushchevki – is so tangibly in evidence; while on the other, unfettered capital’s assault on this legacy is so stark and wanton that all of its absurdity and fiendishness is laid bare.

But you do not need to go to Putin’s Moscow to witness 21st century urban capital’s twisted logics, rhetorics, and aesthetics in full swing. You could have gone, for example, to ‘Arry’s Bar in Millwall Stadium, where the public hearing on the fate of the Aylesbury Estate was recently held. Here, as Jane Rendell recounts, Southwark Council’s representatives embarked on an attempt to explain why and how they intended to make use of expropriation mechanisms (Compulsory Purchase Orders) to seize former council properties from leaseholders. An ‘utterly perverse’ logic, in Rendell’s words, was at work in ‘Arry’s Bar, a logic that holds that seizing flats would allow Aylesbury estate to be sold off to a property developer, and that this privatization would be in the ‘public interest’ because it would lead to the raising of property values on the site of the former Aylesbury Estate.

Whither the Social Condenser, then, if coercive expropriation-for-privatization is defined by the state itself as constituting the public interest, while Jeremy Corbyn’s modest call to compulsorily purchase land-banked, empty mansions in Chelsea – in order to acquire lodging for homeless Grenfell Tower survivors – is met with widespread ridicule among commentators and decision-makers, on one hand, but with overwhelming popular support, on the other?

This is what the idea of the Social Condenser – and its actually existing materializations in built form – is able to do today: to estrange and de-familiarize our predicament by providing a body of concrete proof – both conceptual and architectural – that the more or less mainstream aspirations of Soviet architectural ideologues one hundred years ago really were more ‘advanced’, more equitable, more sensitive to the social asymmetries – especially those of class and gender – than those of the late capitalist present, whether of the Putinist, Trumpist, Blairite, or Mayist/Brexitist variety.

It is time, then, to exhume and re-activate the Social Condenser – a century-old, relentlessly misappropriated, but still-electric concept – as a device for making-manifest the extent to which the reigning urban ideology is no less bankrupt and bizarre today than it was one hundred years ago, on the brink of the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy.

This essay is an abridged and updated version of Michał Murawski’s Introductory essay to The Social Condenser: A Century of Revolution Through Architecture, 1917-2017, a special issue of The Journal of Architecture (vol. 22, No. 3), co-edited by Murawski with Jane Rendell, and published in May 2017. An edited fragment of this essay was also published as the “Outrage” column in the October 2017 issue of The Architectural Review.