Utopia & Collapse: Metsamor

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[Image: Observation deck at the pond © Katharina Roters]

In 1966, Soviet authorities decided to situate a nuclear power station in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Armenian architect Martin Mikaelyan, assisted by Karen Tiraturyan and Griman Hovespyan, designed an entire city of Metsamor from scratch to provide residences for power-plant workers. The site was near an ancient settlement and rural villages but was on previously agricultural land. The power station was situated 4 km from the city and 15 km from the Turkish border. Work on the city and power plant began in 1969. Metsamor is an atomograd – an atomic city, developed in a way similar to the other single-function urban centres of science cities, academic cities and military cities in the USSR. The USSR had no restrictions in term of permission or public expectation and could therefore exercise complete control over the location and design of new cities. The design of Metsamor would include different zones of housing and public buildings. The centrally planned organisation of the city was apparent in the decision to use a central boiler for heating, with a communal laundry and bathhouse planned.

The first phase was executed and the power station was made operational in 1974. However, the city was never completed. A severe earthquake in 1988 and the dissolution of the USSR sealed the fate of the project. The political and economic support for the Metsamor had already peaked by 1990. The completed city was intended to house a population of 36,000. The actual population level reached a maximum in 1989 (11,959). Although the station produces 40% of Armenia’s electricity supply, the town population is decreasing, now down to an estimated 8,000 (as of 2016). The small population is living with facilities that it cannot adequately use and which are falling into decay and abandonment. The contrast between, on one hand, the optimism of the plan and the assertiveness of the execution and, on the other hand, the incomplete state and dilapidation of town is poignant.

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Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City publishes the plans, architectural drawings and archive photographs of the city alongside new photographs of the current condition of the city. Chapters cover the types of buildings, setting out specifications and notable features. Expert essays examine Metsamor specifically and discuss the metaphorical aspects of this stalled utopian project. There are essays on Martin Mikaelyan and a testimony from a long-term resident of Metsamor. For anyone with an interest in Brutalism and Soviet architecture and society, Utopia & Collapse will be a rewarding read. Not least, the new photographs form a melancholy and beautiful journalistic essay on the plight of people dealing with the ramifications of grandiose top-down central planning and economic stagnation. The views of abandoned buildings – with their littered corridors, emptied rooms and crumbling concrete – are juxtaposed with images of the current residents living in buildings modified in haphazard fashion.

The post-Socialist era saw the liberation of building restrictions. This led to the building of extensions (some multi-storey) attached to the back of properties. The city was redistricted – a tacit acknowledgement that the full plan would never be fully carried out. The removal of municipal control of maintenance has generated gaps, conflict and uncertainty with regard to common spaces in shared buildings. Property owners sometimes refuse to cooperate to clean and maintain common areas – a particular drawback in a settlement consisting largely of shared buildings. Open spaces have been neglected or appropriated by families.

All this is in stark contrast to the original plans. There was a city centre placed between the main residential area with kindergartens and a smaller residential area with a school. This original centre is site of the House of Culture, Music School and hotel. In the post-Soviet era locals found that this division – especially with the city in its current unpopulated state – was unsuitable and formed an ad hoc centre in the middle of the main residential zone, featuring small shops.

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[Image: View on the city with power plant in the background © Katharina Roters]

The majority of residential buildings were five-storey, five-storey-linked and nine-storey apartment blocks. These were from standardised designs, using prefabricated components including concrete panels and reinforced concrete pillars and beams. This was usual for Soviet-era construction. All had open balconies, most of which have now been covered. Photographs show the mosaic appearance of different panels, blocks, tarpaulins and windows. These blocks were elevated on pillars, allowing free access for pedestrians below the buildings. The ground level was left open until the proliferation of cars and the deterioration of the Soviet system around 1990, which led to open space being used for parking and being partitioned for commercial use. The linked buildings were blocks connected by multi-level walkways. These were arranged around common courtyards, with curved paths and water features, both made from concrete.

The nine-storey buildings had lifts. Soviet typology regulations stipulated provision of two lifts for buildings over nine-storeys, thus the limiting of Metsamor’s tallest structures to nine storeys was a cost-efficiency measure. The balconies of these are closed and incorporate kitchens. The interconnectedness of the courtyards, provision of walking spaces below apartment blocks and the relatively small low-rise accommodation all worked well. Build control is not discussed but this was often low quality in the USSR. Post-Soviet modifications have not been unsuccessful and the incomplete nature of the city has provided residents with a degree of flexibility. It is the absence of funds for maintenance, lack of varied economic activity and low population which are Metsamor’s principle problems.

On the eastern and northern edges of the city were the sports complex and hospital. The large sporting centre (opened in 1980) is now partially overgrown. Its outdoor pool is drained and matted with weeds. The interior basketball court is still used but most of the structures have been proved too costly to maintain. The city has a strange lopsided imbalance due to the absences of important buildings, facilities and people – that ghostly quality of a city hosting fewer than 15% of its envisaged inhabitants. A spectacular tall water tower – elegant in a clean Brutalist fashion – was never built. (A design for it is illustrated.) Construction on a whole residential district was not started.

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The five-storey hotel was designed with guest-room windows orientated to face holy Mount Ararat, tantalisingly just outside Armenia’s borders. Between Metsamor and snow-capped Mount Ararat are the giant cooling towers of the nuclear power plant. (The plant itself is not photographed or described in this book.) The hotel had a capacity for 130 guests but now only the lower floor is used, with the upper floors abandoned. The House of Culture (designed 1975, construction commenced 1979, completed 1986) is one of the few buildings kept in its unmodified original state and in reasonable condition. It is the most important communal building for the populace and well attended for events. The building houses the town library and art school.

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[Image: Interior view of the House of Culture © Katharina Roters]

There are some photographs which are heartening. The shots of the functional schools and kindergartens show fresh paint in pastel shades on re-plastered walls after renovation. The shabby Spartan kitchen displays a form of genteel dignity in making do with restricted means. The Music School and House of Culture are cared for as well as possible. Instead of the proposed Museum of Nuclear Power, a church was built in the 2000s, funded by ex-patriate Armenians. Yet the moribund character of the ghost city with its vacant buildings cannot help but recall for viewers Pripyat, the abandoned atomograd of Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The views of walls peeling paint, swimming pools missing tiles, climbing frames reduced to rusted skeletons and the graffiti has been incised on the plaster walls (the city seems relatively free of spray-paint defacement) make a deep impact. The books of photographs of the collapsing cinemas, decaying ballrooms and overrun townhouses in Detroit speak of the decline of an urban centre due to social and economic decline. Utopia & Collapse speaks of the failure of ideological totalitarianism and also the progressivist ideal of completely designed and controlled system being imposed on people. The project of Modernism – most apparent in the Brutalist architecture and centralised urban planning – offers profound problems for us in that it must work against human nature and the propensity of people to want to adapt, personalise and revise in an improvisatory manner. Both the decline of urban centres due to diminution of heavy industry in Detroit and the vulnerability of Modernist schemes in the face of changing political reality in Metsamor provide us with insights into life.

Metsamor faces seemingly inevitable decline, with its population is dwindling. The 1988 earthquake did not damage the power plant but it prompted concern that future earthquakes could cause serious damage. With obsolescence looming, closure of the nuclear power plant has been suggested for 2026. Although the Soviet experiment may be seen a distant event, its legacy casts a long shadow over the lives and land of today.

 

Katharina Roters, Sarhat Petrosyan (eds.), Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City, Park Books, 2018, 236pp, 229 col./82 mono illus., €48, ISBN 978 3 03860 094 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

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Building the Communist Dream

“In revolutionary climates, literally anything seems possible. Not only can streets, cities and states be renamed, even the calendar can be reorganised. Everything can be engineered towards the goal of reforming and reformulating existence.

“The Bolshevik-led October Revolution ushered in a new era in what would become the USSR. Not only would political and economic systems be abolished and replaced by Communism, there would be a project to create ‘Soviet Man’, which would entail re-education of men and women previously shackled by the bourgeois capitalism that existed under Russia’s monarchical tyranny. The individual was no longer considered a private person with concealed (and potentially suspect) beliefs and selfish interests; Soviet Man would control the means of production and govern the state as part of a collective. But in return he must forgo his private self-interest.

“Architecture was to play a crucial role in the revolutionary intention to create Soviet Man. This is captured by Imagine Moscow, a new exhibition of art, textiles, posters and architectural plans at London’s Design Museum, which examines six Soviet architectural projects for Moscow, dating from the 1920s and 1930s….”

Read the full review at Spiked, 10 April 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/building-the-communist-dream/19638#.WOtgEs8rLIU

Alexander Adams – On Dead Mountain

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On Dead Mountain

Alexander Adams, On Dead Mountain, Golconda Fine Art Books UK, publ. 30 September 2015, English text with translation into Russian by Viktoria Grivina, paperback, 64pp, 11 illus. by the author incl. 2 fold-out pages, size 21 x 15 cm, £10, ISBN: 978-0-9550843-8-6

Cover text: “In 1959 a group of Soviet students went on a skiing expedition in the Ural Mountains. Months later their bodies were discovered in the snow. Their deaths have never been satisfactorily explained. In Alexander Adams’s long poem, the last adventure of the team is considered symbolically as a journey from life to death with universal relevance. Illustrated by the author, the poem evokes the adventurers’ camaraderie, foreshadows their haunting fate and meditates upon the nature of grief.”

В 1959 году группа советских студентов отправилась в экспедицию на лыжах по Уральским горам. Несколькими месяцами спустя их тела были обнаружены в снегах. Обстоятельства их смерти не были выяснены. В поэме Александра Адамса последний поход команды представлен как универсальный символ перехода от жизни к смерти. Поэма, дополненная иллюстрациями автора, показывает товарищеский дух группы, отражает предчувствие неизбежной судьбы и размышления о природе скорби.

This book is intended to be a work of art in itself, with the text, design and images working together to create a powerful impression. It is hoped that the proximity of the Russian text will make English readers feel closer to the language of the Dyatlov party and more immersed in the world. The author had control over every aspect of the design and production of this book.

Technical: Designed by Aquarium Graphic Design and printed in a first British edition of 1,000 PB copies, published by Golconda Fine Art Books UK. No HB or foreign edition currently planned. Signature/section sewn, stiff card covers, squared spine with lettering, Olin off-white paper, 11 illus., 2 fold-outs, marginal line numbering.  Size: 21 x 15 cm. Contents: dedication, introduction, poem (EN original text), poem (RU translated text), glossary/endnotes, translator’s note, bios for author & translator, acknowledgements & colophon. All text in EN and RU.

Order copies: The book is available worldwide via http://www.amazon.com

ODM in public collections: British Library (London), Tate Gallery (London), Goldsmiths College (London), Arizona University Poetry Center (Tucson), Newberry Library (Chicago), Oxford Brookes University (artist’s book collection), Bodleian Library (Oxford), Falmouth University (Cornwall), National Museum of Wales (Cardiff)

Reading tour (to be updated periodically): Launch, Poetry Cafe, London, 15 October 2015

Nov.: Club der polnischen Versager, Ackerstr. 168, 10115 Berlin (U8 Rosenthaler Pl.), 18 November 2015, 19:00-22:00 (reading at 20:00, approx. 40 min), free entry, no tickets, no reservations, early arrival recommended

Urban Coffee, Fargo Village, Far Gosford Street, Coventry, 29 November 2015, 15:00-16:00

April: New York City, USA

Dyatlov Pass Mystery: Solved?

“It starts out like a horror movie. Deep in the mid-winter of 1958/59, a low-ranking army officer in a remote region of the USSR receives a phone call informing him that a group of hikers has failed to return from an expedition. He is asked to lead a search. His team arrives by helicopter on the exposed slopes of Otorten Mountain (Dead Mountain) and eventually discover a tent partially covered in snow. It is empty. Apart from a rip in the side of the tent, nothing looks disturbed or unusual. Most of the group’s clothing and all of its outdoor gear is there. In that barren environment, with the nearest dwelling miles away, what reason could the hikers have had to leave the protection and warmth of their shelter? The searchers discern tracks of nine people going away from the tent and none returning. They follow the tracks and soon find the first bodies.

“The missing group of hikers were university students from Sverdlovsk, central Russia. Hiking and skiing was a popular recreation in mid-century USSR, enjoyed by members of all professions and both sexes on an equal basis. In January 1959, a team of seven men and two women, all aged between 20 and 24, set out on an ambitious trek in the sparsely populated Ural Mountains. They were led by an experienced hiker and skier, Igor Dyatlov. All had experience of climbing, hiking and snow travel. The team members knew each other well and had previously undertaken expeditions together. They were well equipped and planned their route in advance.

“When they arrived in the region, they met an older hiker who asked to tag along. He was an army veteran who had planned to ski in the area and had found he could not coordinate with his own group. The students agreed to let him join them. Just before the final leg of the expedition, Yuri Yudin had to withdraw due to a painful attack of rheumatism. He decided to return and said goodbye to his nine companions. Yudin was the only member of the party to survive…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 10 April 2015 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/dyatlov-pass-a-chilling-mystery-solved/16853#.Vd-RlPldU5k

Smashing Statues: The Chilling Desire to be Free from History

“In the previous week, two examples of iconoclasm have been in the news.

“In the first, one colonial-era statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Townwas removed from campus after protests. What’s more, a statue of Queen Victoria, among others, was defaced with paint in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth. The University of Cape Town authorities had initially suggested the compromise of moving the Rhodes statue to a less prominent position. On 8 April, the statue was removed with no agreed plan to have it relocated. The leading activists who are supporting the destruction and defacement of the monuments are members of South Africa’s black majority.

“In the second case, the Ukrainian government has passed a law ordering the removal of all Soviet-era statues. (In an audacious display of apparent even-handedness, the government also banned public Nazi monuments – there is none.) All public buildings, spaces and streets named after Soviet figures will be renamed. The destruction began on 11 April, with activists destroying three statues in Kharkov. Although the law had not yet been approved by the president, Ukrainian police did not intervene to protect the statues.

“Soviet-era heroes are targets for Ukrainian nationalists. They do not fear a re-imposition of Soviet communism, but do fear Russian nationalism, because of the military strength of Russia and the ethnic mixture of the Ukrainian population. There is a paucity of overt, Russian nationalist public symbols in Ukraine, so Soviet-era statues act as proxies. During the Stalinist era, policies were put in place to suppress Ukrainian nationalism and subjugate the population, and so Soviet symbols are widely considered Russian nationalist in character.

“In both South Africa and Ukraine, the iconoclastic activities were instigated for political reasons and were not spontaneous. They were parts of long-term struggles for political supremacy between ethnic factions….”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 14 April 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/smashing-statues-the-chilling-desire-to-be-free-from-history/16870#.Vd-QCPldU5k

Read the German translation of this article on NOVO-ARGUMENTE here:

http://www.novo-argumente.com/magazin.php/novo_notizen/artikel/0002031

David King: The Commissar Vanishes

“When we think of images of the revolution of October 1917, we often think of the running figures on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd and soldiers lining up to fire on demonstrators outside the Winter Palace. However, although the former is a genuine reportorial photograph, the second was a staged reconstruction. Our most immediate associations and impressions are visual rather than verbal or statistical. Canny propagandists have long known that. Part of the work of totalitarian regimes has been not just the creation of useful lies but the suppression of uncomfortable truths. It is an oft-repeated truism that we so easily overlook the appalling famine in China during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) which claimed the lives of between 18 and 45million people because there is not one verified photograph of the effects.

“Beginning in 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia – in addition to a military campaign – deployed falsehoods in order to win the civil war. The doctoring of published images was one way of ‘correcting’ history as it was being written (and ceaselessly rewritten). By the time of Stalin’s ascent in the early 1920s, it was already common practice to suppress and alter images. What changed under Stalin was the scale and the necessity of such alterations. One by one, Stalin eliminated old opponents and comrades alike. Being faithful to the party line or being close to Stalin was no protection. Stalin’s paranoia struck down the loyal comrade just as his jealousy struck down the popular comrade. Occasionally the disgraced comrade’s entire family would be liquidated for good measure…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 13 June 2014, here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/the-vanished-and-the-defaced/15161#.Vd-AwPldU5k