Ł. Stanek: Architecture in Global Socialism

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

Stanek, Łukasz
Anzahl Seiten
X, 358 S.
£ 50.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Johan Lagae, Architecture and Urban Planning, Ghent University

Stanek takes us on a trip that leads us from Accra and Lagos to Baghdad, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City. Deliberately focusing on specific points on the “triangular trajectory” between Eastern Europe, West Africa and the Middle East, the author maps intense, and, at times, unexpected, interactions and flows of architectural and planning expertise across multiple and often antagonistic networks.

This long-awaited book sets new ground for the study of architectural mobilities in an era of great geopolitical shifts, when a new world order was being established in the course of decolonization and the Cold War. Focusing on architectural, infrastructural, and urban planning projects in five specific locations in West Africa and the Middle East, which have largely remained overlooked in current architectural historiography, Łukasz Stanek presents an ambitious conceptual framework built around notions of “worldmaking” and “architectural labor” to investigate “global socialism”. Stanek uses this term to refer to “projects of global cooperation that were practiced by institutions and individuals from socialist countries, including architects, planners and construction companies working abroad” (p. 30). His meticulously researched study helps us gain a better understanding of the complex dynamics underlying the role played by a myriad of individual and “aggregate” actors from the Eastern Bloc in global urbanization. As such, the book holds relevance far beyond the strict disciplinary field of architectural history.

Stanek takes us on a trip that leads us from Accra and Lagos to Baghdad, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City. Deliberately focusing on specific points on the “triangular trajectory” between Eastern Europe, West Africa and the Middle East, he maps intense, and, at times, unexpected, interactions and flows of expertise across multiple and often antagonistic networks. In line with recent Cold War scholarship,1 his lucid selection of cases challenges both the common discourse on African and Asian leaders as “proxies” of “superpowers” (p. 8), while simultaneously questioning the idea of a homogeneous “Soviet Bloc” by demonstrating distinct political constraints, economic interests, technological profiles, industrial capacities and architectural traditions of the Eastern European countries involved (p. 4).

As such, Stanek’s discussion of “global socialism” is an attempt, and a convincing one, to show how “globalization” – understood roughly as the U.S. backed, global spread of economic and political phenomena – was “just one among many possibilities of worldmaking” (p. 30). While Stanek has made this argument previously in a much acclaimed article by drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s concept of mondialisation,2 he develops it further in this book by presenting the notion of “worldmaking” for which he also borrows from recent discussions on the “worlding” of African and Asian, in particular when discussing the way in which Eastern European architects mobilized their experiences in rural areas of their home countries for their activities in Nigeria (chapter 3).3 Resonating throughout the book is a plea for developing a perspective from the South. This is less to be understood in the sense of the “worlding from below” pervading current discussions on urban theory from the South, that put a users’ perspective of cities and built environment in its center.4 Being aware of his own positionality – and while having made laudable efforts of actually visiting all sites discussed in the book –, Stanek instead put the key focus on actors from the Eastern Bloc and the way they interacted with stakeholders on the ground. Rather than writing a narrative that takes its cue from the metropolitan model of dissemination of architectural expertise, his analysis is in line with what Nasr and Volait already argued for in the early 2000s, namely to take into account “native aspirations” when studying foreign plans.5 The International Trade Fair in Accra (Ghana), discussed at length in chapter 2, for example is not depicted as something imported from the Eastern Bloc, but as a project “coproduced by Ghanaians and foreigners who tapped into resources circulating in competing networks of global cooperation that intersected in the country” (p. 30).

Stanek pays particular attention to “aggregate actors” which he sees as “vessels” of architectural resources and mobilities. Foreign trade organizations, which were instrumental in granting access to competitive construction markets in the “Global South” are one type of such actor; design institutes and state contractors, which constituted crucial players in national architectural and construction scenes and were responsible for the realization of projects, from drawing to execution, another. Through in-depth investigations of investments conducted in Lagos by Energoprojekt from Yugoslavia (chapter 3) or those of Technoexportstroy from Bulgaria in the United Arab Emirates (chapter 5), we also learn about the gatekeeping procedures underlying the access to large-scale commissions. In this respect, Stanek focuses less on the “politics of design” and issues of representation, that remain quite dominant in architecture history scholarship, and puts an economic perspective at the heart of his analysis. Through specific case-studies, he provides detailed discussions of the logics behind the “gift economy” or “hard-currency plans” of architects and state companies and gives insight in the strategies underlying tender submissions from the Comecon countries or barter agreements. It is exactly this attention to the political economy of “global socialism”, and the investigation of the seemingly favorable terms on which socialist countries offered their technology, goods and services, that allows Stanek to sketch out a vivid narrative of how actors from the Eastern Bloc tried to carve out a space for themselves in a rapidly evolving global construction market.

The focus on “architectural labor” and its modalities of specialization, renumeration and taxation proves crucial in this respect. Stanek’s intricate discussion of the contracts offered by the Foreign Trade Organization Polservice to Polish planners working on the urban masterplan for Baghdad from 1959 onwards, for instance, makes clear the blurred distinctions between aid and trade (pp. 179-182). His unpacking of the complex division of labor underlying the projects discussed leads to a welcome attention for more mundane and often overlooked, yet crucial aspects of architectural practice. Eastern European architects, for instance, got acquainted with design software and cutting-edge construction technologies in Kuwait City in the 1980s, and consequently brought back that expertise to their home countries, triggering the emergence of postmodern architecture in the process (see chapter 5). On a more general level, Stanek points out that, in the context of barter agreements, professional training often was a key component of the package deal, turning the role of architects, planners and engineers also into that of educators, whose impact on the emergence of a local scene of professionals was substantial.

With its emphasis on “architectural labor”, Stanek’s book offers a novel and convincing model of how to write a more global architectural history, that might also appeal to a non-architectural readership. Presenting the work abroad of Eastern European architects, planners, and designers, it significantly expands recent historical scholarship in which the “expert culture” of architects and their role as “brokers of modernity” within countries like Poland has been discussed.6 Regarding the analysis of the division of labor, the book could have benefitted though from a more focused attention to the particular modes of construction, including not only the agency of contractors but also of foremen and workers, and on material ecologies underlying these projects, as such entry points of analysis might further nuance the variety of local perspectives. At the end of the book, the reader will find a short but noteworthy section entitled “A Note on Sources”, in which the author actually provides insights on some of the methods and software used for database-research and urban mapping. Nevertheless, given the importance of the economic dimension in the presented investigation of “global socialism”, one can regret that the author remains rather silent here on the specific steps taken to gain a sound understanding of the complex workings of barter agreements and economic gatekeeping procedures.

There should, however, be no doubt that this is an important book and major scholarly achievement, based on an impressive research that brings together a wealth of source material on little researched projects, including architects’ archives, policy documents, economic data, popular media, fieldwork observations and, in many instances, oral accounts of key witnesses, in particular Eastern European architects and planners. It is dense in information and ambitious in its conceptual framing, making it at times a though read, especially for those readers less familiar with the history of the Eastern Bloc. Yet, there is much to take from this study, not only for architectural historians but surely also for those interested in the historical processes of global urbanization and “worldmaking”.

1 A key reference used by Stanek is Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, Cambridge 2005, while he is also drawing on the work on “Red Globalization” by Oscar Sanchez-Sibony.
2 See Łukasz Stanek, Architects from Socialist Countries in Ghana (1957-67). Modern Architecture and Mondialisation, in: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 74/4 (2015), pp. 416-442.
3 Stanek draws here on ideas from scholars AbdouMaliq Simone, Jennifer Robinson, Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong.
4 Garth Myers, African Cities. Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice, London 2011.
5 Joe Nasr / Mercedes Volait (eds.), Urbanism. Imported or Exported? Native Aspirations and Foreign Plans, Chichester 2003.
6 Martin Kohlrausch, Brokers of Modernity. East Cental Europe and the Rise of Modernist Architects, 1910–1950, Leuven 2019.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch
Mehr zum Buch
Inhalte und Rezensionen
Weitere Informationen
Sprache der Publikation
Sprache der Rezension