The Urban Landscape of Soviet Monotowns
Found worldwide and revolving around various activities, from resource extraction to manufacturing, monotowns are urban settlements created around a single industry that employs the majority of the inhabitants. In the former Eastern Bloc, where monotowns are the remnants of the totalitarian regimes of the last half of the 20th century, the sudden transition from centralized economies to capitalism came as a profound shock to these settlements, generating processes of de-urbanization and internal migration. The following explores the architecture of the Russian Soviet-era monotowns, highlighting the failures, successes and current state of these particular urban environments.
The centralized economy of the Eastern Bloc operated on five-year plans and dictated the areas of activity and production quotas at the state level. Moreover, the regime had control over people’s employment and relocation options; therefore, the state found no difficulties sustaining monotowns. The closed economic and political environment translated into countries producing most goods locally, with exchanges happening almost exclusively within the strictly controlled totalitarian bloc. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the transition to capitalist models and the increase in imports had crucial effects on mono-industrial cities, as many industries were privatized, some areas of activity became obsolete, and others could no longer compete in an open market. In the 21st century, this industrial landscape became one of urban decline and extensive migration.
In their most recent publication titled Monotowns. Soviet Landscapes of Post-Industrial Russia Zupagraphika creates a photographic exploration of Soviet-era monotowns, casting a new light on this relatively unexplored type of urban environment. From formerly thriving settlements to derelict landscapes that dot the Russian landscape from the Arctic Circle to the Far East, the book paints a comprehensive picture of the architecture, development and current state of this urban and economic legacy of the USSR. A follow-up to the design studio’s photobooks Concrete Siberia and Eastern Blocks, the new publication showcases the cities of Vorkuta, Mirny, Norilsk, Kirovsk, Tolyatti, Cherepovets, Magnitogorsk, Monchegorsk and Nikel through the lens of Russian photographer Alexander Veryovkin, highlighting the post-industrial landscape of these monotowns.
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Russian monofunctional cities are concentrated in Siberia and the Urals region, with their urban planning a juxtaposition of industrial and residential areas. The residential architecture of Soviet-era monotowns is that of prefabricated blocks of flats arranged in microrayons and accompanied by various amenities such as schools, kindergartens and sports facilities. Here as well, there was an imperative to express the ethos of Soviet ideology through public buildings such as worker “palaces”. Today, the lack of diversity, the insufficiently developed social, health and education infrastructure further accentuate the decline of these environments. As some monotowns are on the brink of extinction, others have managed to stay afloat and even start a process of re-invention.
Despite being one of the coldest settlements on the planet, the coal-mining town of Vorkuta used to be home to 250.000 people in the 1980s, representing the Soviet Union’s statement to the world of its ingenuity and strong presence in the Arctic. Forty years later, the town is one of the fastest shrinking cities in Russia, with less than 60.000 inhabitants. After the fall of the Soviet Union, coal mines started to close, and many people left the isolated region and its brutal climate conditions, where temperatures frequently drop below -35 degrees Celsius. The town’s 13 satellite settlements shaping the “Vorkuta Ring” now lie abandoned as the remaining residents moved to the city centre. The numerous derelict structures decorated with communist slogans and the Soviet monuments paint a stark contrast between the former vision of prosperity and today’s reality.
On the other hand, in the town of Mirny, home to the second-largest manmade pit in the world, diamond extraction has continued in the 21st century, and the company exploiting the resources has made various investments in infrastructure, education and public amenities to ensure the attractivity of the place. In recent years, however, diamond reserves have started to dwindle, and the end of economically viable mining in the area is expected in 20-30 years. The town could follow the example of Cherepovets, a former steel manufacturing centre where various factories and businesses have set up shop in the last five years, paving the way for economic redevelopment.
In Russia and elsewhere, mono-industrial cities are struggling to survive, some employing various techniques to mitigate migration and urban decline. In 2014, the Russian government set in motion a plan to develop monotowns through economic diversification. As the future of these urban environments remains uncertain, they represent a statement of an industrial ethos, its aspirations and shortcomings.
Zupagrafika is a Poland-based independent publishing house and design studio founded by David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka, whose work centres around European post-war modernist and brutalist architecture, most notably that of the former Eastern Bloc. Founded in 2012, Zupagrafika documented this architectural heritage through an extensive body of work, which includes Brutal Britain, Eastern Blocks, Brutal Poland, Concrete Siberia, or Panel.
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