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Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War

review of the book by Łukasz Stanek

Although it was published just a few months ago, reviewers already agree; this is one of those books that allow you to see the post-war reality from a completely different perspective. Some are enthusiastic enough to even claim that it turns a discipline upside down. Fortunately, it is also a solid and engaging work about very interesting phenomena. And don’t be misled by the title or by the number of illustrations included in the book – it is not really about buildings!

by Alicja Gzowska

The work of specialists from Eastern-bloc countries for the benefit of the Global South countries during the Cold War, which was an almost mass phenomenon in the 1980s, became the starting point for a research project by Łukasz Stanek almost a decade ago. It is strange that until now the topic has been treated so marginally by historiography. Of course, nowadays researchers are again interested in the subject, as evidenced for instance in Poland by recent books on the so-called “Polish school of development”. But very often such publications take into consideration only one of the many aspects of mentioned phenomena as well as complex global issues. Furthermore, in broadly understood Western sources and studies one will not really find any references for the considerable amount of work done by specialists from socialist countries. However, if they are not taken into account, the history of the cities of Ghana, Nigeria, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates remains incomplete and incomprehensible.

Author: Łukasz Stanek
Title: „Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War
Publisher: Princeton UP
ISBN: 9780691168708

A very serious consequence of not acknowledging this work , as Stanek indicates, is the practice of reducing historical (and architectural) phenomena to schemes based on a Western point of view, such as post-colonialism, westernization and the globalization of capitalism. And although on the publisher’s website we can read that Architecture in Global Socialism is the story of “how socialist architects, planners, and contractors worked collectively to urbanize and develop the Global South during the Soviet era”, it is obvious that Stanek was more ambitious than simply introducing this “missing” narrative into mainstream historiography.

This comparison of the recent history of five cities: Abu Dhabi, Accra, Baghdad, Kuwait and Lagos has become a pretext for presenting a fascinating image of the confusing and changing interconnections of postwar architecture over time. Architecture is understood here not only as a design or a final construction, but rather as the culmination of a range of endeavors and processes. From this perspective, it becomes possible to trace how this labour (and in consequence, architecture itself) was positioned in the complex global network and show it as part of a system operating at various scales. Thanks to this, Stanek not only analyzes the economic and political context that drives architecture, but also important issues such as housing, industrial buildings, infrastructure, education, transfer of documents , building materials, technologies, standards and images.

In the chapter on Accra during the reign of Kwame Nkrumah (1957-66), a clear emphasis is placed on the presentation of the so-called “socialist path of development”, that is, a proposal building a modern economy based on Soviet experience and models – a significant alternative to the Western capitalist model. Its architectural element, discussed as one of the key examples, is the (unrealized) Soviet program for building housing in Ghana with prefabricated concrete elements. This “gift” to the government of Ghana was to be another Soviet (global) building standard that had already been successfully adapted to the local conditions in Central Asian cities. However, it had long-term consequences – it not only changed the norms of everyday life as a result of  the new architectural framework, but also a new economic model grew out of the implementation of new technology and its controlled distribution. It should be emphasized, however, that Ghana was by no means a passive observer of competing networks. For instance the history of design and construction of the International Fair in Accra is in the book presented through a local point of view. Thus, it emphasizes the conscious policy of the Ghanaian government and the companies it founded – active players efficiently negotiating and using existing antagonisms to own advantage.

And although at first Stanek writes about the bifurcation of networks, while describing consequently, in chronological sequences, subsequent cities, he gradually presents a more and more complex picture. Among other things, he describes cooperation between seemingly hostile systems as well as frictions within the socialist networks. Culmination of the latter is skillfully presented in the example of the close collaboration of the East German and Romanian enterprises that aimed to construct industrial slaughterhouse in Iraq. Just a brief analysis of their structure and functioning clearly shows they came from completely different realities: a complex structure based on highly specialized subcontractors had no chance of successfully investing in cooperation with a large Romanian combine focused on achieving the politically enforced goal of maximizing profit. This is one of the many examples of processes cited in the book that researchers view as illogical, pointless and – thus – difficult to grasp and rationally explain. Łukasz Stanek summarizes them with an apt metaphor: “In this book, the Cold War appears as a clockwork mechanism in which the cogs of antagonistic world-making projects sometimes gnashed and ground, and sometimes complemented each other to a mutually productive effect”.

This is one of the many issues raised in the book, including how to adapt European architectural paradigms to the postcolonial situation, the role of architecture in the project of the global socialist economic system or the gradual introduction of socialist countries in the global market of design and construction services dominated by the Western world. An insightful description of the multidimensional and complex phenomena was only possible thanks to an impressive query. Its scale is evidenced by, for example, the list of abbreviations on the first pages of the book, where we can find a list of 25 archives from three continents and titles of over 15 magazines, mainly African and Middle Eastern ones. Add to this a number of carefully researched sources mentioned in the footnotes and interviews carried out in different parts of the world, and it becomes clear why the amount of facts gathered in the over 360 pages of the book is overwhelming.

Fortunately, the book was written in a very careful and synthetic way. It is designed for the reader who is completely unfamiliar with the topic, as Stanek explains the context, methods and concepts in a simple and short way. There are no complicated methodological arguments or overly sophisticated vocabulary, subsequent theses develop logically. And although some thoughts are repeated in the following paragraphs and chapters, and some anecdotes could be told in a more juicy way, it allows the reader to follow and remember well the argument. This is important because, Stanek distances himself from the key dichotomies, imposed by the perception of the post-war period from the perspective of the Cold War division, but also concerning e.g. the center-periphery relationship or the global-local one. Basing on critically researched sources, and thus following the described networks and practices specific to given decades, Stanek reconfigures the way of ordering facts by presenting an open, multidirectional system susceptible to subsequent complicated narratives.

Architecture in Global Socialism is not only a book that successfully lifts the curtain on the importance of the “forgotten” socialist network with its backdrop and real effects on the life and environment of millions of people. It is also a refreshing point of view that allows you to look with valid optimism at the complex reality that surrounds us and the possibilities of understanding and describing it.


Author: Alicja Gzowska an art historian collaborating with the Polish National Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning and the University of Warsaw, specializing in post-war Polish architecture. She is the co-author of several books on Polish postmodern architecture: Postmodernizm polski. Architektura i urbanistyka. Rozmowy z architektami (2013), and Postmodernism is almost all right: Polish architecture after socialist globalization (2012). As an enthusiast of thin-shell concrete structures and railway architecture, she wrote Szesnaście żelbetowych kwiatów. Nowy dworzec kolejowy w Katowicach (2012), a monograph on the recently demolished railway station in Katowice, Poland. She has collaborated as a researcher in international projects including South of East West ( focusing on the transfer of architecture, urbanism, and building technology from European socialist countries to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East during the Cold War. In 2016-2017, she lead an NCN research grant: Piotr Zaremba (1910-1993): The oeuvre and impact of an urbanist and scholar in the age of globalized competence.
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin