Across the Plaza:
the Public Voids
of the Post-Soviet City

Owen Hatherley

There are few things in urbanism today so unfashionable as the ceremonial public square.

The vast, proverbially windswept plazas built under “really existing socialism” from the 1920s to the 1980s are widely considered to be useless spaces, designed to intimidate or at least impress. Yet if they are only of use to those in power, why is it they have been used so successfully in protest? From Petrograd in 1917 to Independence Square in Kiev during the Orange Revolution, these spaces have become focuses for mass protest. Beginning in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, and taking in Warsaw, Ljubljana, Kharkov and Moscow, Owen Hatherley heads in search of revolt, architectural glory and horror. Along the way he encounters the more civic squares that replaced their authoritarian predecessors and finds that, paradoxically, the old centres of power are more conducive to dissent than these new, ostensibly democratic plazas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Owen Hatherley is a freelance writer on political aesthetics, based in South-East London. He is the author of four books: Militant Modernism, 2009; A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, 2010; Uncommon, 2011 (an essay on the British pop group Pulp); A New Kind of Bleak, 2012.

Across the Plaza: The Public Voids of the Post-Soviet City

A wide open space, a big city-centre square. When you stand in the middle of it the wind lashes ruthlessly at your face. Surrounding you are buildings, huge things of granite and concrete on a strict axial plan, governmental offices no doubt. You are probably being watched – your presence registered by a bored CCTV operative nursing a coffee in a nearby office – but you know that just over twenty years ago you might have been watched instead by a secret police force. Which can give you a frisson, if that kind of thing is to your taste. The square itself has some movement in it – people are smoking under some awnings in their lunch break, someone else is begging, the kiosks of ‘informal’ commerce have a bustle around them. If you’re in the former East Germany or the former Soviet Union, there’s also something more inanimate – an exhortative statue of Marx or Lenin may be keeping you company, or gesturing aggressively at you for your sloth. Elsewhere, the punctuation is provided by more traditional monuments – a warlord, a Corinthian column, a bewhiskered general. But the feeling of immense, unused space still endures, and that’s the source of that wind, the biting wind that sooner or later will force you back indoors. Oh the square is interesting, for sure, a three-dimensional survivor from a dead age, a museum piece. But it’s a mistake, nonetheless. You certainly couldn’t learn anything from it.

There are few things in urbanism today so unfashionable as that wide open sense of space. Looking round the subjects of this text – at the likes of Berlin-Alexanderplatz, Warsaw’s Plac Defilad, Katowice’s Rynek – the first response of most contemporary urban planners would be a feeling of disgust, followed by thoughts as to possible amelioration. What are we to do with this disaster? On this, traditionalists and modernists can unite. Whichever form it takes, the square will exemplify that principle at its apparent worst – the classical principle of the axis, the formal composition with everything in its right place, nothing left to chance, or the modernist principle, now usually disavowed (though often deployed in other contexts), of the object in space. In both instances, the function is the same: to frame, to create distance, to conjure cheap games with scale and perception. No planner – whether a New Urbanist, one of those Disney-sponsored enthusiasts for the eighteenth century, or a piazza-fixated urbanist of a more high-tech stripe – would want anything to do with these giant, authoritarian creations. But is this just aesthetics, or does their hostility have any specifically political justification? Could it be the case that the uncanny uselessness of space potentially has certain subversive uses? Could it even be that these empty spaces are in fact more genuinely suited to public action and militancy than the overdetermined, ‘vibrant’ bustle of neoliberalism?

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