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Social Realist Architecture

Florence railway station Florence railway station- interior The Brandenburger Tor (Gate), East Berlin and the Siegesallee (Avenue of Victory) as inspiration for the communist Karl-Marx Allee, Frankfurter Tor, Karl-Marx-Allee
Sztálinváros (competition entries, the Stalin Avenue, the House of the Communist Party) University of Miskolc (before 1990: Technical University of Heavy Industry), Northern Hungary. The metro network in Budapest
Social Realism

With special thanks to

Social Realism

Social Realism, the first ideologically based refutation of Modernism

I am going to speak about a very specific period of 20th century architectural history, the Fascist, the Nazi and the so-called social realism, the official style of communistic countries. Contrary to its name, this style was neither properly social, nor entirely realistic. It was more a fiction, than reality. It utilised the realist cultural paradigm of 19th century Western Europe, as the early Soviet Union was in a similar period of modernisation. (Gründerzeit) But in very many respects social realism was still a genuinely 20th century movement. This duality contributed to its post-modernist character. No wonder, the West discovered it during the early post-modernist period. Aldo Rossi was probably the first, who praised Stalinist architecture of East Berlin.

Before devoting our attention to social realism I would like to give you a broader framework of the architecture of this period.

For quite a long time, students have been taught of modernism as the only option, as the only relevant architecture of the period between the two world wars. Nothing is so far from the truth: early modernism made up a tiny section of the overall building activities of the period. Tel Aviv and Israel in general are rare exceptions, due to the special relation of the Jews towards architectural modernism.

Why was modernism so poorly received in Europe? Modernism was too avant-garde, too liberal for the majority of political establishments of that time and also later. No wonder, that after World War Two, when modernism became the official style of the welfare states, it already lost partly its charm, leftist fervour and creative impetus, becoming a routine.

States, democratic and totalitarian alike, preferred more hierarchic and traditional expressions, ranging from French déco up to Fascist (probably the best totalitarian style), Stalinist and Nazi architecture.

In this lecture I am dealing mostly with social realism, because it was the first and the longest totalitarian architecture and probably theoretically better founded than its competitors, having the most specific social background.

Movements between World War One and Two — Modernism proper and conservative paradigms:

§ French déco style

§ Neo-Baroque

§ Neo-Classicism

§ National endeavours (Czech Cubism, Hungarian post-Lechnerian national expression and neo-vernacular, late Gaudí, etc.)

§ Fascist architecture

§ Nazi architecture

§ Social Realism of communist states

Now, I shall give you a brief survey of the main non-modern architectural movements in the period between World War One and Two.

Overhead projection:

The six traditions of modern architecture: logical, idealist, self-conscious, intuitive, activist, unselfconscious;
(from Charles Jencks' development tree, in Modern Movements in Architecture).

l Fascist architecture:

§ Examples of the modernist branch:

Giuseppe Terrani, Novocomum, Como, 1928-29

Giuseppe Terrani, Casa del Fascio, Como, 1933-36

§ Examples of the conservative branch:

Marcello Piacentini, Monument to Victory, Bolzano, 1925-28

"La Burberra" Group, Monumental Centre" for Rome

l French Déco and 20th century neo-classicism:

August Perret: Palais de Chaillot, 1937

August Perret: Palais de Tokyo, 1937

l Nazi architecture

Albert Speer, Great Avenue with the large dome and triumphal arch;

Albert Speer, The Office of the Reichsmarschall

Albert Speer, The Headquarters of the Wermacht

H. Stich, Headquaters of the SS

l Russian Avant-garde:

Simbirchev un the Vkhutemas atelier of N. Ladovskij, Project of the suspended restaurant, 1922

Vladimir Tatlin, Monument of the Third Interational, 1920

Vesnin brothers, Project for the Palace of Labour, 1923;

Vesnin brothers, Project for the Pravda Building, Leningrad;

Vesnin brothers, Department Store Mostorg, Moscow, 1927;

Konstantin Melnikov, The Soviet Pavillion of the Paris Expo, 1925.


Socialist Realism was a guideline of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for literature, fine arts, music and film, issued on 23.4.1932, as part of the statute of the association of soviet writers. It aimed at founding the arts on the realist paradigm of the 19th century, but subjected to ideology and aims delineated by the communist party. Thus, it did not depict the real world, but a utopia by means of realist representation. Social realism ended with Stalin's death theoretically, in practice it lasted much longer. Even in the 1960s arts and architecture in the former eastern block had a special flavour.

Although Socialist Realism is usually associated with Stalin (Iossif [Josef] Wissarionowitch Dshugashwili, 1879-1953), his predecessor, Lenin (Wladimir Iljitch Uljanow, 1870-1924) strongly opposed the Russian avant-garde after 1920 and thus paved the way towards socialist realism. Artists like W. Kandinsky, M. Chagall, Mihail Larionoff [*1881, †1964], Natalija Sergejewna Gontcharowa [*1881, †1962], K. S. Malewitch, Wladimir Jewgrafowitch Tatlin (*1885, †1953), A. S. Rodtchenko, El Lissitzky became persona non grata, because — as it was commented — they disregarded the taste and expectations of the proletariat.

As a broader phenomenon, however, social realism is not confined to the Soviet despotism. It is a phenomenon accompanying societies in fast change, societies in their early phase of development, like the Australian or in a certain extent early Israeli society as well. It is an attempt to move people, to mobilise their forces — the broad masses — by art, literature, painting, and sculpture; in some case architecture also. Social Realism is often politically coloured, fundamentalist in its expression and sometimes populist.

The reason that I am dealing with it is not a longing for the lost Soviet Paradise, but to show you a special connection between architecture and the state, public and architecture. Social Realism in architecture is also important, because it has been a constitutive part of 20th century architectural history and in terms of formal language, a precursor of Postmodernism. I shall speak only about social realism proper, i.e. about the communistic type.

In formal terms social realism is not an unprecedented phenomenon in 20th century architecture, but an important ring in the chain of anti-modern, anti-avant-garde, neo-classical movements.

Social realism in the context of 20th century architecture

1900 WW 1 WW 2 1968 1989 2000

l’art nouveau early modernism late modernism neo-avant-guarde

pre-modern Classicism social realism postmodern classicism

According this scheme — that is a simplification, of course, — twentieth century architecture might be conceived basically as a two channel development having periods an regions in which classical-historical forms dominated and some others in which modernist, avant-garde expressions took the leading role. In reality, however, the situation was much more complex. There were numerous nuances even between the two basic types, as for instance, the Italian Rationalismo that was modern and classicist in the same time — perhaps a bit more classicist than modern. Furthermore, there have been other streams out of the modern-classical opposition, as for instance all organic movements starting with Frank Lloyd Wright and ending with contemporary organic attempts; techno-centric movements as Russian Constructivism, high tech from the 1970s up to now; etc.

Nevertheless, by and large the dual scheme helps to understand the problem of classical and modern in twentieth century architecture. By the end of the 19th century late eclecticism represented the classical, l’art nouveau the avant-garde, proto-modern classicism again the classical, early modern the avant-garde, social realism the classical, post-modern again the classical, and finally Deconstruction the avant-garde.

The Socialist Realism in Architecture

Social realism in architecture was a very specific style. I am labelling it as a style, as it has had its specific architectural language — a kind of neo-classicism —, and very often a certain space conception of its own. Both were deeply rooted in the Communistic ideology.

Social Realism in art and architecture meant a certain reference to the realistic paradigm, as a contrary of the Modern. The aim was to develop an expression in arts that would be easily understandable for the broad masses — or as they put it — for the society of peasants and workers. The latter were more precious to the communist party than the former, as the workers were supposedly more enlightened, being free from the old patriarchal relations and thinking. In fact, the workers class was a bit more dependent on the establishment in the lack of any kind of private property and the possibility to earn money besides official channels. However, after the introduction of communism, peasants were also loosing their property in many communistic countries, due to the collectivisation of agriculture becoming also fully dependent on the state.

Nevertheless, social realism is not simply a return to the pre-modern, pre-industrial paradigm. Social realism was a curious mixture of feudalism and industrialism. In its ideology it was closer to feudalism — the limitation of individual freedom (freedom of movement: people were denied to travel abroad, in the Soviet Union there was even a ‘passport’ needed to leave one’s residence; freedom of possession of real estate, etc.), curbing the market — sometimes destroying market economy entirely, introducing an absurd guild system. In its practice — the way of production of goods, however, the social realistic society, or the society of real socialism, was more modern, i.e. industrial, although on a very low technological level.

The aforementioned split between ideology and practice is particularly visible in architecture. Namely, while arts, literature is less related to technology, architecture is a direct expression of industrial production and craftsmanship, of the level of technology in thinking and everyday practice.

Although social realism was officially in power in the whole East-European block — the military alliance called the Warsaw Pact —, it differed from country to country. These differences were due to the different historical circumstances. For instance, Russia was a backward country in terms of industrial development, East Germany, the so-called Deutsche Demokratische Republic was before World War Two part of a highly developed industrial country. The differences in expression were also ideologically coloured: a fully-fledged internationalism was not allowed. It would have meant cosmopolitanism, an element of the modern paradigm that was completely refused. Thus, social realistic art was a bit national, in order to suit national particularities of Bulgaria, Estonia, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, but it was, nonetheless, also slightly international — or better to say, supra-national —, as it expressed the same ‘socialist’ values. According to the slogan, social realism is in its content social, in its form national.

In architecture, form meant architectural language, of course. Content was the function, both the material one and the metaphysical one. According to this scheme space conception, bearing structure was mainly common, architectural language differed from country to country, but always in a classicist framework.

Thus, in the eastern block different expressions evolved; each of them was a bit rooted in the national heritage:

Soviet social realism was grounded in Russian folkish or narodniki tradition, in the Russian penchant for decoration and predilection for monumental Classicism, which resulted in the so-called Stalinist Baroque.

� The Hungarian social realism was related to the Hungarian late Baroque and early neo-classicism that was equally understandable for the common countrymen, nobleman and citizens alike.

� In Eastern Germany social realism embodied a bit the stern Prussian architectural heritage of Berlin, the Schinkelesque tradition of the Museuminsel. In urban terms the Siegesallee-spirit was reflected in the Karl-Marx-Allee, etc.

In terms of time it is not easy to locate social realism in the countries of the Warsaw Pact. It started with the onset of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, got into Eastern and Central Europe after World War Two, in some countries as early as 1945, in some others after 1948, following the instalment of Russian Style Communism. In practice it started there in the early 1950s. Its end is also uncertain. Officially after the death of Stalin in 1953 social realism came to an end, in practice, however, it lasted until the mid-1950s. Namely, although Chrushtiov in his famous speech in 1954 condemned Stalin’s ideology and practices, announcing a new turn in soviet policy that was expected to result in a take-over of the United States by the communist countries, many buildings were already in construction at that time, numerous projects were approved and on the way to realisation. In some countries, like for instance in Romania, where Stalinist spirit survived until the 1980s, some kind a social realism also endured. President Ciacescu's governmental buildings represent a strange mixture of 'Stalinist Baroque', French grandeur, Byzantine Christian Orthodox and Balkan heritage as well as modernism.

Social realism was the first reintroduction of the Classical language after Modernism, if we disregard Italian Rationalism and German Nazi architecture, that were not really classical — at least compared with social realism. Thus, social realism was probably the first real simulacra in 20th century architecture, much before Postmodernism. The parallel between postmodernism and social realism excites many researchers, including me. After the slides I expect your discussion.

Social Realistic Architecture in Hungary

Inner contradictions characterised Hungarian architecture during the years 1945-1956. Following the defeat of World War II and under increasing Soviet influence, Hungary moved gradually towards a one-party dictatorship, in which political, economical and cultural matters came under the total control of the Communist Party.

New building programs as opposed to restoration became the catch cry of architects working towards the rebuilding of war-torn Hungary until communist dictatorship was established in 1948. Between 1944-48 Hungary had the opportunity to cultivate modernism freely, as before World War Two the conservative government opposed it, and modernism was restricted to the private initiative. The profession was relived from the restrictions of historic stylistic conventions, which had been responsible for shaping the face of many buildings constructed between the wars. Even more so, for the majority of architects, this meant the embracing of the principles of Modern architecture, namely the unity of structure, function and form as conceived by the Bauhaus tradition. Several architects had been closely involved with these principles in the inter-war period, but only in the defiance of the official Neo-Baroque style that expressed the views and values of the rightist government in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, after 1945 architects were finally free of state patronage in their choice of architectural style. However, this freedom did not last long.

After the relief from the rightist regime, Hungary soon had to experience the other extreme, communism determined by the presence of the Red Army, that facilitated the leftist political take over.

According to the Hungarian Communist Party the essential features of Socialist development in the Soviet Union represented universal tenets. As such, there was no possibility of a „national" road to Socialism, consequently Socialist-Realist Art followed the example of a universal typology. Essentially, Socialist Realism as a technique existed to validate and legitimise a system which functioned in a Messianistic and Teleological way.

This is not to say that within these boundaries original and inventive responses were excluded.

As a concept, Socialist Realism first appeared in Hungary within the field of literature, principally in the figure of György Lukács. As early as 1946 there were references to the danger of a pact between a Marxist ideological monopoly on the arts and a dictatorship in politics. This danger became evident at a later stage within the field of architecture. Primarily its appearance can be tied to the dissolution of private planning offices and their subsequent replacement by large state-controlled planning institutes. A demand for a turn in architecture away from those cosmopolitan (read modern) principles which served „Imperialism" did not occur until 1951 and was the product of numerous disputes and conferences. It is important to remember here that it was only in 1948 that the Hungarian Workers Party achieved full control of the country.

Those architects wishing to build found it necessary to follow the prescribed route. Vulgarised Marxism provided architecture with a theoretical framework. Dichotomies of content and form, base and superstructure, reality and reflection (Stalin: Letters of Language, 1950) became the catchwords of architects. This spirituality brought about the already mentioned slogan of architecture as socialist in content and national in form. The latter should be understood as the free adaptation of forms from l9th century international Neo-classicism, which was not without some national characteristics. This expression was then repeated/echoed with varying degrees of sincerity and authenticity within that relatively short period (a little more than five years).

Curiously the best buildings of this period were the ones which deviated from the above conventions, exemplified in the building E of the Technical University in Budapest.

Some of the more major programs embarked upon and partially realised during this period include:

· the rebuilding of Budapest, intended as the centre of power, the „citadel of the victorious proletariat”. (Communist regimes always favoured the capital cities, that became showcases, while provincial towns and villages were grossly neglected.)

· Sztálinváros (Stalin Town): the paradigm of socialist town-planning in Hungary. Analogous with the earthy version of „The Heavenly City” applying the principle of Representation.

· The Underground Railway Network in Budapest. Closer examination of the above-ground stations (of which only one was completed) reveal that applied decorative nature of Socialist Realist architectural style. The form of the underground stations stems primarily from the fact that these stations also performed a secondary role as air raid shelters, capable of withstanding 500 kiloton bombs.

The buildings of this epoch remain standing today, some, of them degraded. Observing their semiotic character in the light of history, it is clear that these buildings were called into being as legitimisers of Absolutist Power. In a way this is related to the Baroque time absolutism.


Dunaújváros (Between 1951–1961 was named as Sztálinváros which means Stalin City) is a city in Central Hungary, along the Danube (Hungarian name: Duna) river. It is in the county of Fejér.

"... the new Socialist ideology is expressed in every urban-form (in Sztálinváros). "

Tibor Weiner, 1951

Sztálinváros was described by its chief architect, Tibor Weiner, as follows:

„ ... the greatest creation of our five year plan... and at the same time the first attempt to build a new socialist town on virgin soil".

Based on Soviet experience and in particular on Comrade Stalin's directives for urban-planning in Moscow, Weiner summarised the basic principles of town-planning in three points:

� There are no „inner" and „outer" quarters... The democratic nature of the socialist system is manifested in the fact that all parts of the town are of equal quality. [This sharply contradicted to the reality, the neglect of peripheral regions in cities and in the country as a whole. Curiously this ‘isotropicity’ of urban space got realised in the hatred capitalistic world, in Los Angeles, for instance.]

� 2 The „Town" and the „Industrial estate" are two poles of an organic unity: the

„ Town-centre and the main entrance to the Factory should stand in an immediate relationship to one another."

[With that Weiner established a kind of via sacra between the industrial zone and residential area. This axis contradicted the previously mentioned isotropic nature of space, that had to express social equality. The function of this via sacra was similar to the Cardo of Heavenly Jerusalem — the main difference is that in this town not Christ communicated but the celebrated (in fact: oppressed) ‘workers class’, exemplified in May Day Processions, October Processions — the remembrance of the victorious October Revolution in Russia —, the visits of high ranking party officials and other political events.]

� The structure and architectural solution of the city should be suitable for all aspects of public life, ranging from the individual and family spheres through to the largest celebrations, which draw together the entire community. From this principles mainly the celebrations got real expression in space ad architectural language.

Planning and construction documentation from Sztálinváros gives a insight into characteristic contradictions between declared principles and practice, which often saw original ideals undergo significant modifications „while at the same time maintaining their integrity". During the planning and construction process there was an attempt to embrace and define developments ideologically as well as a parallel attempt to explain the improvisations and corrections, which occurred during the construction and accommodate these discrepancies with the original ideals. Everything had to be planned but behind this stood the lack of planning and organisation.

Connected to the construction of Sztálinváros the Danube Steel-works (Dunai Vasmű), was required to be in production by the end of 1953. Although initially consisting of only a housing estate, the urbanisation of Sztálinváros, according to Weiner, began through satisfying „the needs of the populace". In deciding upon the site of the steel-works, a process in which no architects were involved, relations with Yugoslavia were a crucial factor.

At the beginning of the construction in 1950, a primary objective was the reduction of the cost of production beyond the national average, since, for the first time, clusters of identical housing types were to be constructed in one location. Buildings completed in the first construction cycle exhibited reminiscences of „Modernism". It should be mentioned that this standardisation has had no technological background, no prefabricated elements were used.

On the 7th of November 1951, on a local initiative the town took the name of Stalin. Beyond the fact that a „Sztálinváros" already existed in most of the peoples' republics, the political leadership maintained that it was with the „personal contribution and support of Comrade Stalin that the town has come into existence". Naming the Steel-works after Stalin was motivated also by the totally irrational consideration that this would morally commit the Soviet economic authorities to maintaining planning (the steel-works plans) and delivery deadlines.

The Party Headquarters (Pártház), which represented the first element of the Main Square (Főtér), was already standing in 1951, although the master town-plan was only completed in the Autumn of 1952. This followed a resolution of the Council of Ministers in April 1951 concerning the development of Sztálinváros as a town. In relation to the expectations of Social Realism and the propaganda, the Pártház itself was rather insignificant. Yet it also illustrated architecturally a clear shift in a direction, opposed to earlier modernist conventions. These expectations were realised at a conceptual level:

„ ... the Minor Programme did not allow for design of an enormous building which would express the power of the party in its physical dimensions. Thus, the designer had to heighten his inner socialist enthusiasm to solve this modest building... The intimate, inner courtyard and the on-looking corridor provided brightly lit spaces for the workers and at the same time ensured the feeling of secure bonds, thus symbolising the strength of the Party.”

In December 1952, the Director of the National Planning Office (Országos Tervhivatal) outlined the master town-plan to the Committee of State Finance (Államgazdasági Bizottság) and, in revised form, to the Politburo (Politikai Bizottság). At this time the construction of Stalin Avenue (Sztálin út), the major avenue connecting the main square and the factory entrance, was at an advanced stage. This was despite the fact that the Architectural Council (Építészeti Tanács) only evaluated the plans in the middle of 1953.

Planning Office (Tervhivatal) reported summarising that the construction of the first socialist city in Hungary should reflect the

„superiority of the socialist economic system and the power and goals of the working class. For these reasons, the external appearance and internal structure of the city should express the happy life of the liberated working class and demonstrate how the Party and the State, through the city and its institutions, satisfies in every respect the physical and cultural needs of the workers."

Gradually the town's structure and centre evolved. The structural basis of Sztálinvaros was the intersection of three axes which formed the „natural location of the town centre”. The three axes were:

1. The route from Budapest (the main transport axis of the town).

2. The avenue ending at the entrance to the steelworks (Sztálin út) (The route for the May Day march.)

3. The route from the railway station.

This intersection should „form the most important quarter" of the town and develop a „square-like" character. It would contain the most important political, administrative and cultural institutions, and in addition „the statue of Comrade Stalin, leader of the People fighting for Peace (Béketábor) must be erected" here.

The Planning Office report dealt in detail with the most problematic aspect of the design, the development of a vegetation-free main square. It pointed out that the completed three-storey Party Headquarters determined the architectural context of the square to such an extent that even a competition organised by the Ministry of Construction (Építésügyi Minisztérium) in May 1952 was unable to produce a successful resolution. According to the program of the competition, the six-storey apartment buildings under construction on Sztálin út had to be stepped down to a two-storey height approaching the square, so as not to harm the proportions of the Party Headquarters. Consequently, a decision was made not to respect the height of the existing Party Headquarters. Weiner had also taken this problem into consideration in an earlier emphasis of the importance of the 70 meters high spire of the Town Hall (Tanácsháza) within the Sztálinváros „skyline". He explained that although the Party Headquarters opposite was considerably smaller, the ideological content of the headquarters could not be expressed in form or physical size. In contrast with L-shaped forms of the Town Hall and the Palace of Culture, the Party Headquarters sought to express its status as a central free-standing mass, in the manner of Greek Temples. Even so, Weiner produced an alternative design in 1952 which integrated the building within a larger unit.

The general plan and the critical reception of the time gave architectural emphasis to the importance of the closure of the western side of the town with a pseudo city wall - also: „ the bastion-like articulation of the perimeter residential blocks gave a feeling of strength and security".

The design of the main square reached its peak in 1953-54. In May 1953 a „Moscow Style" became apparent. In connection with this, the Politburo stated their

„agreement with a solution which emphasises the tower, however it should be proved that this should be a truly artistic creation crowning the square, rather than something box-like". (A ‘box-like’ structure would have meant a Bauhaus expression.)

From a functional and aesthetic point of view the massing of the elements for the public buildings in the main square (Party Headquarters, Town Hall, Palace of Culture, Museum etc.) was merely a „variation" game. Following Stalin's death (5th March 1953), the conviction of Berija (July 1953) and the election of Khrushchev as first secretary (September), plans drawn up in late 1953 - early 1954 indicated the place previously earmarked for Stalin's statue as occupied by the Palace of Culture.

It is worthwhile referring to the explanation, which accompanied the plans of May 1953:

„ The main square is the centre of community life in Sztálinváros... it should reflect the background of the town's development and should be characteristic of the atmosphere of the town as well... The statue of Comrade Stalin, worthy of this immortal figure... should be the central element for the composition of the entire town... The strongest structural-axis is represented by the route connecting the town-centre and the factory... which appears as an 85 m wide avenue and 35 m wide landscaped pedestrian strip complete with a row of Stakhanovists (Heroes of the Productivity Competitions) statues... The „ high-rise " (i. e. approx. 10 storey) Town Hall ... is at the same time a memorial... it carries the ideas of our Socialist architecture and in its symbolism expresses the state-order of our people's democracy. In this sense the gigantic corner columns of the tower raise an emblem depicting allegorical figures of the worker and the peasant defending our national coat of arms above the dynamic main-cornice to a height of over fifty meters... The Main-square... the architectural composition of the enclosure, adopting and developing late Baroque prototypes and forms of Hungarian folk-art... the use of segmented arches - all form parts of an experiment. The traditional towers of church architecture or towers of historic cities were inappropriate as sources... because the size of the tower in Sztálinváros does not guarantee the qualitative development which the Soviet towers give witness to (referring to the Soviet 'skyscrapers' or 'Stalin Towers'). The giant order of corner columns which binds together the entire tower is a purer intellectual expression of the tower".

The opinion of the main Hungarian theoretician of architecture, Máte Major is as follows:

„Society invests in architectural art („ superstructure" in Marxist ideology), the task of propagating the ideology and protecting its foundation and in accordance with the principles of monumental propaganda, the architecture of the present should transcend previous ages in the positive representation of society".
The basic design and structure of Sztálinváros bears the stamp of both „ideal" and „authoritarian" urban planning. The city should have been able to legitimise the political system that defined itself as a novelty in history through its institutions and through its architecture. Weiner expressed the basic expectations and criteria in respect of Sztálinváros as follows:
„... the socialist town, the socialist people and PEACE are being established with the wise leadership and direction of our party - and of course with the help of the Great Soviet Union".
From an iconological point of view the Socialist City manifested or would manifest itself through the founding of a new city which expressed the socio-ideological goal of a „world representative of happy, liberated, human dignity". The socialist urban vision in 1950's Hungary would have had the „Socialist City" appear on the bank of the Danube as if it were the earthly equivalent of St. Augustine's „Heavenly City". Social realistic architecture in Hungary, a period of only five years, bears witness of a culture that took architecture deadly seriously.


� Florence railway station

� The new avenue leading to San Pietro in Rome

� The Brandenburger Tor (Gate), East Berlin and the Siegesallee (Avenue of Victory) as inspiration for the communist Karl-Marx-Allee, Frankfurter Tor, Karl-Marx-Allee

� Sztálinváros (competition entries, the Stalin Avenue, the House of the Communist Party)

� University of Miskolc

� The metro network in Budapest

� Technical University in Budapest (Building "E")

� The project of Hungarian Pantheon versus Leon Krier's projects in the early 1980s and Robert Stern's buildings.


The significance of Social Realism

The socialist realism in architecture exceeds the significance of the communist regime or even any other totalitarianism. It raises the basic questions, addresses the most profound dilemmas of architectural modernism and modernisation in general.

l The question of communication with the public

The institution of the avant-garde in modernism legitimised the split between the mainstream society and the 'smart minority' — artists, architects and a narrow circle of sophisticated intellectuals. Bringing back the realist paradigm social realism wanted to re-establish the lost unity. What happened, was just the opposite to the avant-garde: The broad masses were satisfied — at least in terms of architecture — but the former avant-garde, the elite got alienated from art, general stagnation took over in the arts and architecture.

The 'nurtured primitivism' for the sake of social homogenisation forced the elite into exile or annihilated the intellectual elite entirely. Of course, the communist society was not without an elite, but this elite was basically uneducated or not properly educated. Actually, the communist leadership was not entirely without intellectuals. A small fraction of ultra leftist intelligentsia joined the communists and actually they performed an intellectual "self-castration". Georg Lukács, the brilliant Hungarian Jewish philosopher, who wrote sparkling essays on l'art nouveau, after World War One, became on orthodox Marxist. (Very often Jews were the most orthodox communists due to some analogies between the Messianism of communism and Judaism.)

In numerous cases splits occurred among the communist leadership between the 'real proletarians' and the 'pseudo-proletarians, or even inside these groups.

Speaking technically about the arts, it should be stressed that the basic difference between modernism and social realism is the process of signification and in meaning.

ll The process of signification

Modernism deconstructed the connection between literal meaning and the concrete architectural element: the wall or post stopped signifying any meaning (no connection between the Doric column and the human body any more). As Jean-François Lyotard wrote about Malelewitch's squares, they present the fact that the unpresentable exists. They make visible that there is something, which can be conceived, and which can neither be seen nor made visible: this is at stake in modern painting. This is the establishment of an uncompromising monotheism of Jewish type. (A similar phenomenon occurred in the arts connected to Zen Buddhism, that baffled the meaning.)

Social Realism is a regression in this respect. It cannot leave things abstract, cannot simply hint, it should teach explicitly. Actually it indoctrinates. For this sake it resorts to the 'carved image' — classical language. Thus, it reconstructs the semiotic triangle, the firm relation between signifier, referent and signified.

lll The meaning: certainty

Probably the most interesting achievement of social realism is not that much the language of the arts or architecture, i.e. the signifiers, as the signified, the meaning itself. Social realism brought back the positive utopia, the common goal for all mankind: peace and harmony. While modernisation undermined gradually all social ties, religious, cultural and ethnic belonging with its constant change, differentiation and atomisation, social realism — as many other ultra-conservative systems — not only stopped these changes, but seemingly brought back the certainty of the 'good old times'. Of course, social realism was not a sincere system. Rooted in the despotic tradition of Russian orthodoxy, the groups that supposed to fight alienation were forced — party cells in factories and large offices, house-communities in multi-storey tenement houses. These groups exerted control over the individuals, particularly the 'suspicious' ones. Though open alienation was averted and certainty restored, the society was turned into a big, all-encompassing jail. It is important to stress that this jail existed mainly for the intellectual upper classes, which felt deprived of intellectual freedom, the freedom of thought, the freedom to travel abroad, etc. The real worker's class and peasants were satisfied after the terrible days of early Stalinism. No wonder, that after the collapse of communist regime, millions of people found themselves threatened or completely lost with the restoration of real democracy.
In spite of the aforementioned problematic relations, these societies still established a specific spatial milieu and architecture serving and expressing them. (By the fall of Stalinism and the eventual fall of communism, in particular, big changes occurred in architecture too, the previous relative homogeneity gave place to the jungle.) One of the most important ideas of this world was certainty.

Certainty in architecture is represented on several levels:

a) Defined, closed space

b) Symmetry

c) Re-establishing firm centres and routes

d) Massive walls

e) Historically well codified architectural elements — classicism and local or vernacular in a reasonable mixture

n Parallels to Social Realism:

1. Postmodernism

2. The "city beautiful" movement in the US (New York Municipal building)

3. American governmental architecture in the 1950s and 1960s

4. Joseph Plecnik
Social Realism was an attempt — apart from the dictatorial appetites of the Communist Party — to reconstruct the lost unity between architecture and public, to bring architecture back to its previous glory when it was the universal discourse — a scripture — like in the times of Gothic cathedrals. Of course, social realism was destined to a failure — after the Enlightenment and the 19th century in particular — Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris —, architecture could never recover from its defeat by the book.

Social realism unintentionally ridicules not only Stalinism, but any other dictatorship. After having studied Social Realism we are sensibilised to any false monumentalism and intention for manipulation.

Quotations taken from:

Endre Prakfalvi

In: ÉPÍTÉSZET ÉS TERVEZÉS MAGYARORSZÁGON 1945-1959. Országos Mûemlékvédelmi Hivatal, Magyar Építészeti Múzeum, Budapest, 1996.
With special thanks to