In 1928 in Moscow, when, giving the opening speech of the conference for the Organization of Contemporary Architects (OSA) of which he was a founder, Moisei Ginzburg stated that the objective of the group was to define the ‘social condenser’ of the age. He believed architects should strive to become organizers of life rather than merely the decorators of it, and the idea of the social condenser was to be the type of organization of life that they were going to pursue.
But what did he mean by social condenser? What is to be achieved by condensing society, as opposed to say, separating it, or striving for an atomised society of disparate elements that do not seek to necessarily interact with each other more than in any other society that preceded or followed the Soviet one? Ginzburg was referring to architecture and urbanism, and it is through these two lenses that he addressed these questions.
Is architecture a socially passive palimpsest for daily life, to be judged by the classical Vitruvian criteria of firmness, commodity and delight, or does it also have the power of re-shaping daily life itself and therefore society at large? Ginzburg’s premise is that architecture has the power to influence daily life, and he strove towards making it encourage a more egalitarian society. The aim of the social condenser was to reduce and disarm social, gender and class hierarchies which would lead to both an unequal society while decreasing mutual aid and collaboration. The idea is that if the more disparate elements of society can be made to interact which each other more actively through their daily life, the more cohesive and equitable the resultant society would become. As Alexei Shchusev, President of the Moscow Architectural Society (MAO) had stated in 1923: ‘We must participate in the creation of life and not be passive contemplators of it’. The Constructivists sought to achieve this in the arena of architecture and urbanism, more precisely in public spaces, in the common spaces of more private buildings, and in the spaces of circulation of both buildings and cities.
In the arena of domestic life, certain practices that were previously exclusive to the private realm became more public, through providing housing with ancillary spaces for communal kitchens, nurseries, laundry rooms and reading rooms, a famous example being Ginzburg’s Narkomfin housing building of 1928, which had all the above and in turn inspired Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. The opening up of the household tasks to the social realm had the desired effect of liberating women who then looked after the household in what was still a traditional family nucleus into a more flexible family structure. Another example was that the common areas were to be regularly cleaned by the inhabitants of the housing blocks, rather than left to cleaning ladies; this is a socially cohesive practice that is also encouraged in Japanese schools to this very day. The spaces of circulation of housing buildings were intended to be made larger than required strictly for functional reasons, and were to be welcoming enough to allow for chance encounters and interactions on corridors, stairs and landings. Nikolai Kuzmin took these ideas even further, and in 1929 proposed a communal housing project in which he did away altogether with the family flat. He designed instead accommodation units based on the age of the inhabitants, which were exclusively reserved for sleeping. The rest of the time outside work hours was to be spent in a cultural centre included in the premises.
In general, the goal for workplace buildings was to always include facilities for resting, eating and social interactions. At the same time common areas were to be used for exhibitions and places for the interaction of workers and visitors. The Workers and Village Clubs, also known as ‘Houses of the People’, were other centres of leisure and creativity outside of the workplace but never too far from it. These typically included theatres, cinemas, assembly halls, museums, libraries, sports halls and club rooms. Palaces of Labour were larger public buildings in urban settings that typically included facilities such as halls intended for meetings, lectures, concerts, performances and films. They could also include library reading rooms, offices and suites, museums of social sciences and dining halls. Observatories and radio stations at times occupied the higher floors.
At a strictly cultural level, the urban planner Leonid Sabsovich proposed a New City in which each building would include reading rooms, halls and art galleries. The larger urban centres built Palaces of Culture, and every workplace and factory would include experimental studios and laboratories. The Palaces of Culture were social condensers in their own right, mixing theatres, gallery spaces, childcare facilities and other uses within the same building, and of course were open to all. The Vesnin brothers’ Palace of Culture in the Proletarian district of Moscow for example included a library, theatre, cafe, observatory and also a winter garden and a gym, to show how these categories were always considered by the architects as being ready to be infiltrated by other programmes of use.
The OSA’s Urbanists had embraced the city of the future as a social condenser, and Roman Khiger exclaimed that the architect, planner and urbanist’s goal would be to “alter radically the structure of human life — productive, social, and personal.” The key planning instruments to achieve the city as social condenser were the concentration of activities in close proximity to each other and increasing the density of buildings. In 1928 Ivan Leonidov proposed the ‘Club of a New Social Type’ which included a winter garden, lecture hall, cinema, meeting rooms, planetarium, library, laboratory, sports hall, play room and swimming pool. The various uses were organised within a park, which in itself would act as the social condenser. As private parks became public in Soviet Russia and the wider Soviet Union, their new role as an outdoor social condenser consolidated itself in urban centres and beyond. Clubs, sports complexes, eating areas and children’s areas started to occupy park spaces, turning them into the new typology of Parks of Culture and Leisure. In travel, the social condenser was achieved by making transport infrastructure such as the Metro stations more as places in their own right rather than simply as transitional spaces to pass through on the way to another destination. Every moment of the day was good enough for social interaction, the commute to work was not intended to be a bland functional and unproductive requirement, but a source of cohesion in society in its own right, a social ritual that architects would ennoble as they did with the Palaces of Labour and Culture. This was certainly achieved in the Moscow Metro which was opened in 1935.
Drawing inspiration from the examples above dating from 1920’s Russia, and revising them for today’s Western society, is it not time to consider the discipline of architecture beyond the classical Vitruvian triad of Firmness, Commodity and Delight, beyond the Kantian notions of the Beautiful and the Sublime, beyond the Picturesque or its re-emergence as Townscape, or the Postmodern, and once and for all consolidate in architecture schools and planning departments the further parameter of judgment of how buildings may work as social condenser? Or do we want our cities to be taken over by glass castles in the sky that are judged on principles now reduced only to questionable criteria of visual merit and private profit?