It is the year 1962. Towering construction cranes stand in the dust of the Central Asian steppe under the scorching midday sun as rows of un-plastered concrete buildings grow floor by floor towards the glacier-covered mountain peaks of the Ala-Too range. Along today’s Isa Akhunbaev Street – named after a Soviet-Kyrgyz surgeon from the village of Tur-Aigir – the first prefabricated residential district in the capital of Soviet Kyrgyzstan is about to be built. Five years have passed since the Procédé Camus – a construction method for large-panel prefab housing invented by the French engineer Raymond Camus – had been first tested far away from the central bureau in Moscow in the capitals of Soviet Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
The new building technology promises to fundamentally and irrevocably alter the face of the Kyrgyz capital Frunze, as the city of Bishkek was known during the Soviet period. The construction activities on Akhunbaev Street mark the beginning of a larger expansion of the city towards the south, and over the decades to come eleven more micro-districts were to be created in the wasteland between the city center and the foothills of the Tian-Shan Mountains. While initially dictated in a top-down manner from the center in Moscow, urban development would gradually shift towards polycentrality with the establishment of local development and planning institutes where native architects and urban planners turn to the region’s vernacular architecture and expertise in an effort to ‘indigenize’ all-Union visions of urbanity in accordance with their own region-specific needs.
Up until the 1960s, Frunze – in the pre-Soviet period merely a peripheralized colonial outpost of the Tsarist Empire with around 700 households – did hardly match the ambitions for the nascent capital of a titular republic. Only few, primarily members of the local intelligentsia, had been fortunate enough to reside in the so called Stalinki scattered around the center of the town – the apartment houses built in the style of neoclassicism during the Stalinist period were known among Soviet residents. In contrast, the majority of the proletarian toilers were housed in simple clay huts around a haphazardly growing city that was in the process of swallowing the surrounding villages of Kyzylasker, Tököldösh, Alamüdün or Kökzhar. Only the radial shaped Workers Town (Rabochiy Gorodok) south of the old railway station – an experimental housing project enunciated by an industrial commune of Esperanto-learning Czechoslovak internationalists in 1928 and abandoned in the 1950s – testified to premature efforts to foster urban housing in pre-war Frunze.
However, things changed radically with Khrushchev’s landmark speech at the All-Union Conference of Builders on 7 December 1954. His battle cry against “excess” (izlishestvo) in architectural construction simultaneously marked the paradigm shift “from the neoclassical superblock to the socialist micro-district”. At the same time, this new age in Soviet “city-building” (gradostroitel’stvo) also meant a return to the intellectual legacy of architectural utopianism buried under decades of Stalinist high modernism:
[T]he Soviet Union in the mid-1950s drew ... from ideas that modernist urban planners such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Hilberseimer … had conceived in the 1920s and early 1930s, but had never been able to implement in their radicality.
Guided by the principles of “simplicity, austerity of forms and the cost-effectiveness of solutions”, methods of prefab construction revolutionized urban housing. From 1955 to 1964, within a period of less than ten years, Soviet urban planners succeeded in factually eradicating the chronic housing shortage which they had inherited from Stalin's regime. At the same time, however, the industrialization of housing also confronted them with a new challenging situation: infinitely reproducible, yet physically identical houses. Just as Henry Ford did with his T-Model, half a century before, Soviet residential housing relied for the first decade on one serial model only: the I-464, better known as Khrushchyovka. The low-cost concrete-panelled or brick apartments usually ranged between three to five floors, offered no customisable block sections (blok-sektsii) and thus could only be varied by joining individual building units together in a row.
While at first glance identical to prefab houses built in Tallinn, Tbilisi or Tobolsk, the building series used in the construction of new microdistricts for Frunze were tailored towards the particular local conditions. Marked with the suffix “s” (indicating seismic optimization) the series was designed in particular for the earthquake-prone cities of Central Asia. And in fact, in 1966, when a devastating earthquake reduced the old town of Tashkent in neighboring Uzbekistan to rubble, the prefab houses in districts like Chilonzor only sustained minor damage. Up until the mid-1970s, this tried-and-true pan-Soviet building series served as the essential “residential house” (turak üy) built, reproduced, stacked as the city expanded southwards. Yet, in spite of their good seismic performance, the building series frustrated urban-planners as it offered little architectural variety and flexibility in the design of districts.
4-floor all-Union 464-I AS prefab building series. 3D Design: Simon Leupold
In contrast to the Khrushchyovki, a new building series developed exclusively by specialists at the local planning institute Kirgizgiprostroi in Frunze promised to offer relief for urban planners. Conceptualized as a five and nine-floor building type, a first high-rise version of the Kirgizskaia 105 building series was built in the year 1976 at the intersection of Ibraimova Street and Bokonbaeva Street. Geared towards the city’s extreme hot and dry climate – classified as “climate zone IV” in Soviet urban planning – the 105 series would offer higher ceilings, larger balconies with customized design elements, a special room for drying clothes on each floor and windows to both sides that would enhance the ventilation of the apartments.
9-floor Soviet-Kyrgyz 105 prefab building series. 3D Design: Simon Leupold
While the previous building series was pretty much a product of over-centralized planning, the new 105 series mirrored a distinct shift in development and planning processes to formerly peripheralized regions. This new paradigm in urban planning manifested itself in a myriad of local design institutes that emerged throughout the union’s titular republics. Coupled with this shift from political center to the formerly marginalized geographies of the Soviet South, this “second wave of indigenization” is marked by serious efforts to learn from the vernacular architecture of Central Asia. From the 1970s onwards, throughout the Soviet Union architects and urban-planners revisited local epistemes of urban design – such as the Shahrestan of Medieval Bukhara – in search of inspiration for contemporary urban development. And in neighboring Soviet Uzbekistan a whole book explored "Questions on the application of the architecture of an Uzbek traditional dwelling house in modern practice".
In turn, Kyrgyz Soviet architects made their own efforts to take up best practices from local architectural traditions in the design of their prefab series. Most illustratively, the staircase windows of the 105 series feature sun visors which are clearly modelled on the mashrabiya, the traditional lattice window that had spread from the Arab and Persian world throughout Central Asia. While the elongated, line-shaped sun visors of the 105 series are relatively inconspicuous, experimental prefab housing complexes such as the “house of commerce” (sooda üyü) on the former Sovetskaya boulevard (now: Abdrakhmanov Street) featured sun visors with intricately designed patterns reminiscent of ornamentations that one would find at the entrance gate of the Qalawun complex of Mamluk Egypt or the Alhambra of Islamic Spain. In addition to this, balcony rows and façade ornamentations also clearly borrow from vernacular motifs of Central Asia.
Front façade of the experimental prefab residential building “house of commerce”
However, the “indigenization” of residential architecture was not confined to ornamental elements only. Soviet-Kyrgyz urban planners had to drew from their local expertise to meet the challenging conditions posed to the city by the natural environment. For instance, local meteorological conditions determined how rows of multi-story buildings would be placed and arranged. Wind corridors were created that would allow the fresh mountain breeze to ventilate the city and help to humidify and cool the dry air during the hot summer months. Moreover, as Frunze was located in immediate proximity of the Issyk-Ata tectonic fault, local construction engineers and architects had to advance the technology of seismic-proof construction beyond the expertise of the political center in Moscow.
In contrast to the idea of an over-centralized Soviet polity, the Bishkek-based construction engineer Aleksei Andrianov recounted how following earthquakes in Asghabat (1948) and Tashkent (1966) Central Asia – not Moscow – became the leader in earthquake-resistant housing construction. As a result, it comes as no surprise that the 105 series was later on exported from Soviet Kyrgyzstan not only to neighboring Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – but even to the easternmost parts of the Russian SFSR: Sakhalin and Magadan.
David Leupold is a research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin and principal investigator of the project Relicts of (Another) Future? Life and Afterlife of the Socialist City in Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus. His research interests comprise contested geographies and the collective imaginations of past, present, and future in the post-Ottoman and post-Soviet space. His first monograph Embattled Dreamlands: At the Nexus of Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish Memory Politics (New York: Routledge, 2020) was awarded the 2021 annual book prize of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS).
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