Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2020)
Perhaps it’s because I live in an architectural-academic bubble, but since the publication of Łukasz Stanek’s Architecture in Global Socialism I feel the book has been on everyone’s reading stand, generating nothing but enthusiasm. It will likely first reach an audience interested in post-war architecture and current debates about planetary urbanization and globalization. However, despite the fact that the book is anything but another coffee table publication on Cold War buildings, I hope everyone will hear about it sooner or later. Firstly, Architecture in Global Socialism examines architectural phenomena virtually absent in historiography, ones that are crucial not only for the urbanization of the Global South, but also reverberate globally until today. Secondly, embedded in current debates about globalization and postcolonialism, the book brings into practice notions that so far have seemed to be mainly proposals. As a result, Stanek’s book is not only an informative way of rewriting architectural history, but also an important, successful attempt at perceiving, understanding, and describing the world in its complexity.
Architecture in Global Socialism is the result of an almost decade-long research project on Eastern European architectural engagements in the Global South during the Cold War. Initiated as a documentation of architectural transfers from socialist Poland to postcolonial countries, and presented at the exhibition PRLTM at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in 2009, the project underwent several substantial changes, including broadening its scope in order to describe and explain the more general processes beyond a national framework. Although the timespan remained unaltered, embracing the period from 1947 until the fall of the Soviet Union, Stanek decided with the book to analyze how architects, planners, and construction companies from different socialist countries contributed to the modernization of the Global South. The main shift can clearly be seen in the table of contents, as each chapter is dedicated to a different city: Accra, Lagos, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, and Kuwait City. Placing these locations in the center of interest allows the author to move beyond comparative studies’ investment in the European or Western point of view. The chapters cover subsequent (but sometimes overlapping) periods, which helps to chart the changing logic and dynamic of the examined processes of modernization, and the involvement of actors from socialist countries. These include, for instance, the reception (sometimes very skeptical) of the “socialist path of development” in Ghana in the 1960s; conscious efforts to benefit from antagonized foreign influences in 1970s Nigeria; and strategies adapted by architects and companies to gain commissions in the growing market of oil-producing countries.
What one might find surprising is that buildings and architects are not the main protagonists of the book. Unlike traditional architectural history, which focuses on edifices, their designers, and sometimes patrons, Stanek’s approach moves toward a broader understanding of architecture as a collective enterprise situated in a multi-dimensional global network. Tracing broadly understood architecture-related or construction-related labor becomes a principle, enabling the recognition of various types of actors, their agency, and the connections between them. This results in the acknowledgment not only of the wide scope of architects’ activities beyond designing (e.g. management, teaching, administration, and research), but also the related efforts of numerous planners, contractors, managers, educators, foremen, and laborers. Likewise, Stanek does not omit the engagement of what he calls “aggregate actors,” such as state design offices, design institutes, or state contractors, as well as non-human actors, such as books, designs, construction materials, technologies, images, and building standards.
The author smoothly leads readers through the very dense matter of architecture. Making this fabric of networks visible was possible due to his impressive, extensive research. The Note on Sources at the end of the book highlights methods of surveying and confronting sources from Eastern Europe (including Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Romania), as well as Western (Great Britain, France, Canada, USA), West African (Ghana, Nigeria), and Middle Eastern countries (Iraq, UAE). As West African and Middle Eastern sources are rather scarce (mostly due to numerous military conflicts), they are complemented by interviews and surveys from professional journals and publications such as local daily newspapers. The latter include, for example, Ghanaian and Nigerian newspapers, which introduce local points of view and thoughts on the reception of the architecture-related activities of socialist states.
Vast research and a labor-oriented approach were both necessary in order to reconstruct complex architectural trajectories and trace forgotten networks. The task wasn’t just to complement existing architectural history narratives with new, “exotic” additions, but also to reject popular frameworks in order to reveal what Stanek describes as the “fundamental entanglement of postwar architectural culture” (p. 29). This meant, for example, challenging narrations focused only on the Cold War division, with their clear demarcation and confrontational discourse.
The case of the International Trade Fair in Accra, depicted on the book’s cover, may provide a useful illustration of this point, as its construction site was much more than a meeting place for professionals from the East and West. The whole enterprise – including its symbolic meaning for nation-building processes – was dependent on a masterplan drawn up by the Ghanaian Town and Country Planning Division and executed by the Ghana National Construction Corporation (GNCC). Due to the shortage of Ghanaian professionals – a common problem in postcolonial countries – these institutions were not able to hire solely local professionals, and so (reflecting national policies) they actively recruited foreigners, with the aim of building a diverse architectural environment. The intention was to gradually undermine the positions of British-dependent architects, before Ghanaian ones, educated abroad or – later – within the country, would take over. As a result, in the mid-1960s the GNCC structures became a site of cooperation between specialists from Ghana, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Germany, the United States, the Philippines, and India. Of course, the GNCC was one of many actors among international and local organizations, administrations, and individuals that created frameworks for cooperation and competition. Yet this internationalization of Ghanaian architecture, although attempted as a controlled process that took advantage of existing, competing global networks, didn’t occur without difficulties and paradoxes. For instance, Polish architects, who were sometimes described (or even advertised) as professionals from a country without colonies, when responsible for designing pavilions for the Trade Fair or other buildings, appropriated the know-how or rule-set of tropical architecture – for designing in tropical climates – which emerged and was developed in colonial centers.
Indeed, Architecture in Global Socialism proves the complexity not only of these cross-cultural communications, but also of numerous other factors influencing the production of architecture, such as global and local politics and economies. In the introduction, Stanek compares the Cold War to “a clockwork mechanism, in which cogs of antagonistic […] projects sometimes gnashed and ground, and sometimes complemented each other to mutually productive effect” (p. 33). No wonder that the outcomes didn’t always match the intentions, as the reader can see in the chapter dedicated to Baghdad, where the activities of actors from socialist countries are presented against the backdrop of the world socialist system project. This global economic system, based on the claim of mutual advantage in foreign trade, constituted an Eastern European alternative to globalizing capitalism (or Westernization). In the context of the division of labor inherited from the colonial period, the project assumed the equality-driven regulation of international transactions, and the distribution of goods and resources between participating countries, centrally coordinated and secured, as in the case of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), founded in 1949. Indeed, contracts within the world socialist system made use of foreign trade instruments practiced within COMECON, such as barter transactions based on the exchange of goods and services. This system also affected architectural production, subordinating it to the logic of economic exchange. In addition to traditional design commissions, bigger infrastructural contracts emerged, as well as design-and-build projects willingly undertaken by large state construction companies. The architectural engagement of socialist countries thus followed the paths of international trade and was structured by its practices, resulting, for example, in the mediation of contracts by foreign trade organizations (emerging as a consequence of state monopolies on foreign trade in state socialism), which were very likely to sign group contracts (preferring them to individual ones) with designers. However, in Stanek’s analyses of Iraqi projects, it becomes clear that the initially assumed specificity of national design institutes and contractors – for example, Polish planning methodologies or East German experience in advanced construction technologies – were modified to adapt to local conditions. Such adjustments, stemming from work conditions, the demands of local decision-makers, or gained experience, were often out of tune with inter-socialist regulations such as COMECON’s directions. As a result, some contractors from socialist countries began competing against each other. Furthermore, the collaboration of Eastern European companies in Iraq didn’t run smoothly; ultimately, their practices were shaped by different architectural cultures, technical capacities, and – not least of all – different economic principles.
For these and many other reasons, the world socialist system is often considered a failed project or is reduced to an ideological smokescreen. But after reading Architecture in Global Socialism it appears more productive to acknowledge it as an important structure, “an existing reality” (p. 171) that brought about specific economic procedures (such as barter transactions) which impacted the mobilities of architecture. Recognizing its agency provides deeper understanding of how differences in political economies impacted development and amplified architecture’s mobility. Additionally, on a more general scale, it provides another argument against the prevailing practice of explaining complex worldwide urbanization processes as being merely the results of the globalization of capitalism.
Readers less interested in architecture may be engaged by the ways in which Stanek explains and puts into practice his chosen conceptual tools and current methodologies, in order to construct a narrative for his research materials. Briefly, but with solid reference to theoretical texts, Stanek introduces concepts that significantly expand the book’s comparative profile. Some of these appear very useful in relation to the postcolonial context, as they seek to overcome limitations arising from studies of architectural transfers. Although the transfer of knowledge (and competences) is no longer understood as the mere application of expertise in a different place, and both directions of the process are usually examined,1 this model is still not flexible enough to embrace the abovementioned significance of context, circumstance, and on-the-spot experience. To explain some of the expert practices from socialist countries adapted to the Global South, Stanek refers to two concepts applied in contemporary global urban studies: “thinking cities through elsewhere” and “worlding.”
The first term was introduced by geographer Jennifer Robinson in her postcolonial critique of urban studies, which rejected the field’s “quasi-scientific” formal comparative methods.2 In order to review comparative urbanism, Robinson calls for moving beyond the actor-network theory-inspired focus on the agency of tools, materials, building laws, associations, and institutions, instead advocating for more experimental approaches. In her article “Thinking cities through elsewhere,” Robinson proposes the juxtaposition of urban phenomena in different scales and categories that may seem repetitive or related, to explain their genealogies (“genetic comparisons”), as well as examining even unconnected ones in order to develop debate-embedded conceptual insights (“generative comparisons”). She urges scholars to get creative, and mentions, for instance, “a wider context, existing theoretical imaginations derived from other contexts, connections to other places.”3 Drawing on poststructuralism, Robinson emphasizes that the “urban” emerges from a wide range of dynamics. It is therefore necessary to look beyond overarching processes (such as globalization) and to trace how specific urban outcomes emerge and are represented in various areas (“material-social-imaginative-institutional”).4
This theoretical proposal may seem somewhat elusive, as Robinson cites very few examples, but it gains clarity when brought together with the notion of “worlding.” This concept was initially introduced by the Indian literary theorist and feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, to describe practices of othering carried out through colonial discourse in order to naturalize and legitimate Western dominance.5 Since then, the concept has been adapted or redefined by various authors. In the field of urban studies, the term refers to heterogeneous practices of constantly reimagining and reshaping contemporary cities,6 or to the complex processes of negotiating the status of African cities and their residents with regard to “global” centers.7 In both cases, “worlding” describes ways of constituting meaning, building visions of the world-in-formation by combining and fusing elements from various sources. These visions, although often remaining at the stage of project or idea, are not deprived of agency. Staying close to the postcolonial context, Stanek proposes his own definition:
I understand the worlding of Eastern Europe as a practice of small groups and individuals from the region who found themselves in […] Nigerian cities and tried to make sense of these unfamiliar locations by forging alliances and developing sensibilities that connected these places and people with where they came from. In so doing, they extrapolated the validity of Eastern European architectural culture toward the entire (“Third”) world, often in a speculative and experimental manner (p. 101).
This term is adapted by Stanek to describe, among others, the ways in which Hungarian architects interpreted the West African postcolonial situation as analogous to the nineteenth-century experiences of Central European territories occupied by neighboring empires. Recognizing that both regions – parts of Central Europe and Africa – struggled with economic “backwardness,”8 cultural dependency, and peripherality, helped Eastern Bloc architects prepare bespoke responses to the tasks at hand. These responses were not just a transfer of methodologies or extensions of Eastern European practices toward Africa, but they also varied between themselves. In this case, the practice of “worlding” can be defined as an experimental, personal, creative process informed by an almost unlimited scope of resources. Similarly, the adaptation by architecture historian Zbigniew Dmochowski of Polish inter-war vernacular architecture survey methodologies (especially drawings) to traditional Nigerian constructions, stemmed from the recognition of such affinities as the desire to establish a strong national identity in both postcolonial Nigeria and newly independent Poland. Adopting the notion of “worlding” challenges prevalent ways of conceptualizing modernization processes in postcolonial countries by introducing surprising comparisons beyond empire and colony (or center and periphery) and including numerous singular trajectories. As Stanek describes the limits of worlding practices, highlighting their incomprehensibilities and ambiguities, he also indicates their significant critical potential. This allows him to introduce an African perspective on Eastern Europe (albeit to a limited extent).
Similarly, practices described by Stanek as “thinking cities through elsewhere” were also speculative and experimental, but more disciplined and limited to urban situations. “Thinking Baghdad through Warsaw,” as one of the book’s subheadings reads, depicted the process of the continuation, adaptation, and development of particular Polish experiences in the Iraqi situation. Among them were, for example, the issue of urban standards and norms (regarding, say, housing or density), as well as the struggles faced during post-war reconstruction, including the question of how to recreate or preserve the city’s historical atmosphere and identity, but at the same time modernize the urban space.
Adapting poststructuralist methodologies for describing phenomena not just determined by global process, but rather emerging from entangled networks, allows Stanek to erase problematic oppositions such as global/local and culture/technology. Discussing design competitions for municipality buildings in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, he briefly recalls debates that positioned new architecture in the Gulf between demands for reflecting Islamic cultural specificity and for advanced technology. The task of foreign architects was often described as mediation between these seeming contradictions. But an analysis of the winning competition entries by employees of state design firm Bulgarproject leads to other conclusions. Most design elements, such as large corridors and courtyards, repetitive arches, or even the white color of concrete, “lent themselves to being read” as cultural references, but they didn’t merely stem from earlier experiences of the Bulgarian company in Arab countries. Taking advantage of his architectural training, Stanek explains that they were cleverly chosen pretexts to design the building as an expandable, efficient system created with cutting-edge technology. New construction materials and technologies (including Computer Aided Design [CAD], which helped to speed up the design and construction of ornamental details) created new possibilities for expressing local culture, hence facilitating the recontextualization of Kuwaiti architecture.9
Although Stanek draws attention to the uses of CAD software, he does not seem fully committed to thinking through the agency of technology, a topic explored within the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). Stanek agrees that construction sites and architectural offices in the Gulf might be described as “technological zones,” or, in other words, “space[s] within which differences between technical practices, procedures and forms have been reduced, or common standards have been established,”10 but mentions only that the term is often used by scholars to justify and deepen global/local division instead of overcoming it. Although the author doesn’t address such issues, it would be very interesting to imagine politically and/or culturally specific uses of technology, especially software. The last chapter of Architecture in Global Socialism, in which the reader follows architects and companies from socialist countries negotiating their practices and positions in the globalizing market, examines modes of deterritorializing technologies, know-how, practices, and many others from previous conditions of implementation, and their reterritorialization in new contexts. Within this recontextualisation, it was not only technology that allowed for the accommodation of cultural specificity: Bulgarproject, for example, took advantage of both socialist internationalism and “capitalist” internationalism, thanks to its integration into the globalizing construction market.
It is high time to address one of the most important questions that the book poses, about the relation of architecture to the political project of socialism. It is obvious nowadays that the answer cannot be reduced to the relation of architects to socialism, although their attitudes varied widely and changed over time. As the book’s case studies show, the politics of architecture cannot be limited to designers’ or even investors’ intentions, but are part of a complex network of processes with long-term and intractable effects. For instance, discussing the Baloush Bus Terminal in Kuwait City, designed in the 1980s by a team of Polish architects, Stanek notes that this attempt to create public space for low-income workers failed. The building remains empty, while immigrants and non-citizens gather in front of representative public and administrative buildings near expressways in order to catch a minibus. He comments on this as follows:
[…] Polish architects, when interviewed today, often emphasize that they saw their work in the Gulf as apolitical. By this, they mean not only their lack of belief in the socialist system, which they were representing […], but also their refusal to attribute any type of political instrumentality to their designs. However, […] the neighborhoods, commercial spaces, and office buildings that they designed in Kuwait contributed to the redistribution of places and times in the city-state according to categories of class, occupation, gender, and nationality. In this way, their work was part of the negotiations and conflicts that, since the late 1970s, revolved around questions of citizenship, societal modernization, political representation, welfare entitlement, and national identity in the Gulf (p. 291).
Even if Stanek gives a very concise answer, that, admittedly, “Eastern European architectural labor in West Africa and the Middle East was both postcolonial and socialist,” it is certain that neither term determines it nor explains it exclusively. If one rejects the universal explanations offered by colonialism and globalization, then how can one write history in a way that would highlight not only singular narratives, but also broader, more general processes? In Architecture in Global Socialism, Stanek proposes the concept of “worldmaking” as a principle of organizing content.
Although difficult to explain concisely, “worldmaking” is quite easy for the reader to grasp, thanks to on-the-ground examples of how it refers to a wide range of practices. It was devised on the basis of the concepts of mondialité, coined by the Martinican writer, poet, and theorist Édouard Glissant, and mondialisation, by the French urban theorist Henri Lefebvre. As Stanek explains: “
Following both writers’ theorizing of the world as a historically specific dimension of practice, imagination, and experience, I understand worldmaking as the production of the world from within its many, often antagonistic, possibilities” (p. 30). Although both thinkers can be labeled as Marxists, and often refer critically to the process now described as globalization, Lefebvre’s ideas are enjoying a particular revival in current debates about planetary urbanization. For instance, the thesis of the complete urbanization of society, especially the idea that the urban should no longer be defined territorially, informed some of Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid’s proposals on rethinking what we call “the urban” in the twenty-first century.11 Stanek (albeit well-acquainted with Lefebvre’s thought)12 refers to their work in order to reinforce his argument on expanding the history of architecture toward the history of urbanism.13 But what puts Lefebvre in a central position here are his ideas of “complete urbanization” as a forthcoming phase of transformative, planetary urbanism and mondialisation (also translated as “world forming”). These concepts are now often viewed as opening paths for a new theory of and new political possibilities for an urban planet, different to the neoliberal political economy of globalization. As sociologist David Madden puts it:
The English word globalization thus names precisely a process where the distinctiveness of the world is drowned by something becoming ubiquitous. Whereas mondialisation suggests something else: the emergence of a world that is open-ended and creative, a way of social existence that is necessarily shared and inherently unique.14
Unlike these scholars, Stanek develops the concept of worldmaking to structure the results of his research and build multiple narratives, rendering globalization “just one among many possibilities of worldmaking” (p. 30). Global socialism encompasses multiple, sometimes contradictory worldmaking projects practiced by actors from socialist countries. Each of them is the focus of separate chapters, as the author details:
the claim to the worldwide applicability of the socialist path of development; the worlding of Eastern Europe, or the sharing with the developing countries of the Eastern European experience of overcoming underdevelopment, colonialism, and peripherality; and collaboration within the world socialist system (p. 305).
And, although state-socialist political economy regulated the working conditions of architects from Eastern Europe, they practiced worldmaking both within and across official frameworks, networks, and discourses provided by state-socialist institutions. Furthermore, regardless of whether writing about networks, urban planning practices, or labor conditions, the author clearly delineates dominating patterns (prevailing practices) in a way that allows him to also outline other (marginal, less widespread) practices, how they interact with each other, and how they have changed over time.
Architecture in Global Socialism provides important lessons on many levels. It is not only groundbreaking in terms of filling an enormous “blind spot” in historiography, or through its development of a methodology that is not simply postulated but works in practice – it also proves to be relevant in discussions about the current urban condition. As one of its last sentences states: “Differences that resulted from socialist worldmaking continue to be reproduced beyond their original association with socialism, and often in unexpected ways” (p. 306). Indeed, it is not possible to understand the spaces we are living in now, more urban and more global than ever, without proper recognition of the heterogeneous and antagonistic processes that shaped them.
1For example, Third World Modernism: Architecture, Development and Identity, ed. Duanfang Lu (London: Routledge, 2011); Colonial Frames, Nationalist Histories: Imperial Legacies, Architecture, and Modernity, eds. Mrinalini Rajagopalan and Madhuri Desai (Burlington: Ashgate, 2012); Hannah Le Roux, “The networks of tropical architecture,” Journal of Architecture vol. 8 (Autumn 2003), 337–354. A comprehensive history and critical overview of research on postcolonial architecture can be found in: Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “Beyond Postcolonialism: New Directions for the History of Nonwestern Architecture,” Frontiers of Architectural Research 3, no. 1 (2014), 1–9.
2Jennifer Robinson, “Thinking cities through elsewhere: Comparative tactics for a more global urban studies,” Progress in Human Geography 40, no. 1 (2016), 3–29.
5Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
6Aihwa Ong, “Worlding Cities, or the Art of Being Global,” in: Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, eds. Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 1–26.
7AbdouMaliq Simone, “On the Worlding of African Cities,” African Studies Review 44, no. 2 (2001), 15–41.
8Later translated as “underdevelopment”; the term is indicative of the attitudes of the time.
9The recontextualization of architecture here refers to a number of tactics for constructing relationships between local architectural traditions and contemporary methods of designing and building.
10Andrew Barry, “Technological Zones,” European Journal of Social Theory 9, no. 2 (2006), 239–253.
11Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban?” City 19, nos. 2–3 (2015), 151–182.
12Łukasz Stanek, Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
13Similarly, the term “worlding” is rooted in a Lefebvrian understanding of the emerging dimensions and dynamics of relations, as well as in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s interest in exploring the ways in which concepts are generated; cf. Robinson, “Thinking cities through elsewhere,” 20.
14David J. Madden, “City Becoming World: Nancy, Lefebvre, and the Global-Urban Imagination,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30, no. 5 (2012), 772–787.
Barry, Andrew. “Technological Zones.” European Journal of Social Theory 9, no. 2 (2006).
Brenner, Neil, Christian Schmid. “Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban?” City 19, nos. 2–3 (2015).
James-Chakraborty, Kathleen. “Beyond Postcolonialism: New Directions for the History of Nonwestern Architecture.” Frontiers of Architectural Research 3, no. 1 (2014).
Le Roux, Hannah. “The networks of tropical architecture.” Journal of Architecture vol. 8 (Autumn 2003).
Lu, Duanfang, ed. Third World Modernism: Architecture, Development and Identity. London: Routledge, 2011.
Madden, David J. “City Becoming World: Nancy, Lefebvre, and the Global-Urban Imagination.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30, no. 5 (2012).
Ong, Aihwa. “Worlding Cities, or the Art of Being Global.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. Edited by Ananya Roy, Aihwa Ong. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Rajagopalan, Mrinalini, Madhuri Desai, eds. Colonial Frames, Nationalist Histories: Imperial Legacies, Architecture, and Modernity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012.
Robinson, Jennifer. “Thinking cities through elsewhere: Comparative tactics for a more global urban studies.” Progress in Human Geography 40, no. 1 (2016).
Simone, AbdouMaliq, “On the Worlding of African Cities.” African Studies Review 44, no. 2 (2001).
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Stanek, Łukasz. Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research and the Production of Theory. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.