Expert opinion

What do we get wrong about the soviet-era mass housing?

Heghine Pilosyan
"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care…"

Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Housing has invariably been an overarching issue associated with urbanisation. The Industrial Revolution ushered in urban problems calling for stricter regulations that would contain frequent disease outbreaks, fires, and overcrowding.
Already at this stage, in growing European cities, a handful of large manufacturers provided housing for their workers – thus serving as another driver of rural-urban migration. Yet it would take another global war and millions of city-dwellers left homeless, with some cities almost completely destroyed, for governments the world over to begin to lead efforts in building adequate housing for the working classes.

The history of modern Armenian urbanisation is one ingrained in the seventy years of Soviet industrialisation, underpinned by mass housing. Yet, the almost exclusively dismissive perceptions around the latter – both within the architectural community and city-dwellers, – belie its essential role in the country's development. The underlying ideology, which was deeply modernistic (interrupted by Stalin's era of neoclassicism), was the steppingstone for the Armenian society to now be able to create a market demand for better quality dwellings.
Setting the foundations: state of urbanisation in Eastern Armenia
On the verge of the 19th and 20th centuries, the settlements that would later constitute the first Republic of Armenia, were ravaged by battles, earthquakes, and poverty. Hundreds of thousands of genocide survivors fled here between 1914 and 1916 (in addition to the 100,000, between 1870 and 1910), with no adequate infrastructure and resources to sustain such a swift demographic explosion. In some districts, as many as half of the refugees did not survive the first winter – perishing to starvation, disease, and exposure. Contemporaries, travelling throughout the region, recounted harrowing stories of deprivation and underdevelopment.

Bloxham, D. (2005). The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-927356-1
Ter-Minasyan, T. (2019). Ереван: Конструирование столицы в советскую эпоху [Yerevan: Konstruirovaniye stolitsy v sovetskuyu epokhu]. ISBN:978-9939-76-183
Hovannisian, R. G. (1971). The Republic of Armenia: The First Year, 1918–1919. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 128. ISBN 978-0520019843
The Grigor Lusavorich church and its surroundings, 1896
(The current area between Mashtots and Khorenatsi Avenues and Amiryan Street).
In their efforts to counter the sovietisation of the yet unstable Armenian Republic, the West (predominantly represented by the United States) rendered millions of dollars in aid ("surplus grain and other supplies valued at $11 million"), which, however, would not be sufficient to invest in building substantial urban infrastructure. By 1920, any prospects for spatial development (to retain the plummeting population) would be hindered by the advancing Ankara Government's army, coupled with territorial disputes with Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the recent Bolshevik revolt.

Upon its incorporation into the Soviet Union, Armenia was a state of only 720,000, socio-economically regressed to its agrarian state. Several cities (Yerevan, Alexandrapol, Vagharshapat, Goris) had inherited partial urban infrastructure developed during the short-lived capitalist era led by Tsarist Russia, from the 1830s on. Such interventions were particularly apparent in the geographically crucial cities (Alexandrapol and Goris) where a comprehensive, regular urban fabric boasted small tenement- and private houses, belonging to the urban population from different walks of life. Dozens of these structures stand to this day and make up a hefty portion of listed architectural heritage.
Hewsen, Robert H.; Salvatico, Christopher C. (2001). Armenia: A Historical Atlas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-33228-4
Suny, R.G. (1993). Looking toward Ararat: Armenia in modern history. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Ashtarak, Veri Tagh․
Source: L. A. Mamikonyan, Current problems of Ashtarak town's urban development
and preservation of its architectural heritage. 2017
Overall, urban housing predominantly consisted of 1-2 floor detached structures constructed of clay and bricks. Architecturally elaborate houses belonged to the prominent economic and political figures (often represented by the same family clans, such as the Afrikyan family) – the "bourgeois" class of merchants and industrialists repatriated from Tbilisi and Baku during the 19th century. For most of the population, subsistence agriculture was a key source of livelihood, with housing needs being met through an incremental approach, wherein families expanded their residences according to personal changing needs and availability of resources.
First wave of urbanisation and early Modernism
During the first stage of sovietisation, the transformation towards a more urbanised society was relatively slow. Tamanyan's master plan for Yerevan defined the route that many other Armenian cities would follow later. First attempts at standardised housing produced 2-3 floor buildings containing several apartments.

In Europe, World War I, followed by the Spanish flu, challenged the entrenched concepts around urban planning and architecture. Questions around dwelling safety, availability and urban livability were front and centre in Modernist manifestos.

Residential complex for the synthetic rubber factory in Shengavit, Yerevan. General Plan։ the project reflected the modernistic ideas of its time (1933թ., architects: G. Kochar, M. Mazmanyan, H. Margaryan, S. Safaryan)․
Source: Grigoryan, A. H., Tovmasyan, M. L. (1986)
Similarly, across all Soviet states, housing was still in short supply, with many multigenerational families cramped in subpar living conditions. In their search for new housing models, Soviet architects (organized into research groups) looked towards Modernism, with its innovative and technology-heavy solutions. Two clashing schools of thought of urbanists and desurbanists emerged from this pursuit – both of whom concurred on communal living being at the core of the future social structure.

Multiapartment blocks were seen as the typology that would strike a balance between economically viable production and meeting the various needs of multiple urban families. Several experimental projects based on these principles were constructed throughout the 1920s, mostly in Moscow and its vicinity.
Residential complex for the synthetic rubber factory in Shengavit, Yerevan. (1933, architects: G. Kochar, M. Mazmanyan, H. Margaryan, S. Safaryan)․ Source: Grigoryan, A. H., Tovmasyan, M. L. (1986)
The smaller dwelling units were achieved by reducing or altogether eliminating spaces for cooking and laundry (previously contributing to increased humidity and mold). By extracting these activities and grouping them into "third places", not only would fellow citizens be encouraged to engage with one another, but women would be liberated from tedious household obligations, thus becoming equal participants in the workforce. This was a markedly progressive idea in the interwar period.

A generation of early Armenian modernists (most notably: K. Halabyan, M. Mazmanyan, G. Kochar) – many of whom trained at VKhUTEMAS – received a window of opportunity to have their own say within this worldwide movement.
Lunacharsky, A. V. (1927). О быте [O byte]
Stalin's era: industrialisation-led urbanisation
A shift in the pace of urbanisation, reaching other Armenian cities and settlements (Leninakan, Kirovakan, Vagharshapat, Dilijan), would only occur in the second half of the 1930s – upon claiming a status of a full Soviet republic.

Rapid industrialisation, centred around industrial cities and towns, became the cornerstone of the new urban agenda. The social ideals, based on collective dwelling, envisioned by the urbanists of the preceding decade, were deemed unrealistic and not contributing to the advancement of the Soviet economy.

Domestic kitchen was once again elevated in importance – a pet project of Anastas Mikoyan, which culminated in producing millions of copies of a home cookbook about healthy eating. Mazmanyan and Kochar – two architects who pioneered local Modernism – were summoned for the now-banned, "formalist" movement, and exiled to the northernmost city Norilsk, to lead the construction of the neoclassical industrial city.
French, R. (1995). Plans, pragmatism and people: The legacy of Soviet planning for today's cities. London: UCL Press.
Kirovakan: city layout developed around industrial and residential functions․ The plan reflects Tamanyan's influence, with patterns used in planning the centre of Yerevan (1934-1937, architect: M. Mazmanyan)․ Source: Grigoryan, A. H., Tovmasyan, M. L. (1986)
To accelerate the urbanisation of Armenian cities, the Soviet leadership initiated the repatriation of families from the diaspora, predominantly Europe (with a subsequent wave in 1947-1948 from the Near East). Despite considerable progress, territorially and developmentally, the country was not yet prepared to fully absorb the arriving urbanites – including in Yerevan.

Many households (repatriates among them) in solving their housing needs, were left to their own devices, turning to the sites-and-services scheme. This, too, was an incremental approach: a household was given a plot of land, with basic infrastructure, to build on.

In many ways, this era of Soviet industrialization resembled the initial stages of the European industrial revolution, with minimal consideration for urban quality of life.
Post-war return to Modernism։ the true mass-production of housing
As World War II drew to an end, the housing crisis was exacerbated both in the Soviet states and most European cities. Once again, architects turned to Modernism. Its simple shapes – consequently, streamlined mode of production – and egalitarian agenda, fitted the goals around housing of both capitalist and socialist leaderships. Paradoxically, the war set the fundamental building block for an undertaking this large. The factories, rolling for the military-industrial complex, and the labour force, mobilized to operate the machinery, were retooled and retrained for peacetime production.

In 1954, Khrushchev spelt out his intent to make housing production an industrial priority (backed up by a decree about developing prefabricated concrete structures). It was reported, a year earlier, that the average floor area of housing per capita, across all Soviet states, stood at just five square meters (still unaccounted for the true extent of overcrowding and temporary shelters). In his speech, Khrushchev admonished architects who produced wasteful designs with lavish, ornamented facades, under the guise of anti-Constructivism, and proclaimed them to be the true formalists. A year later, his open criticism of Stalinist architecture culminated in a reformation decree against "excesses in design and construction".
Khrushchev, N. S. "On Wide-Scale Introduction of Industrial Methods, Improving the Quality and Reducing the Cost of Construction" speech delivered December 7, 1954. at the all-union conference of builders, architects and workers in the building materials industry.
Prefabricated housing construction technology of Raymond Camus used in post-war Le Havre, France․ This technology was later imported into the USSR (serving as a basis for the most reproduced typology), as well as Austria, Belgium, West Germany, Spain, Algeria. Source.
The concept of prefabricated mass housing was developing in full swing across post-war European cities. Even before replacing Stalin as party leader, Khrushchev was exploring the possibilities offered by prefabrication methods. Several delegations of Soviet architects and engineers made trips to Western countries experimenting with the technology (even as far as the U.S.). In France (city of Le Havre), the group drew inspiration from new urban districts with prefabricated panel houses; in Finland – sparsely built-up bedroom communities immersed in greenery. In 1959, French technology was officially imported through a license purchase. The layout was further simplified, requiring more compact, standardized furniture, which became another branch of Soviet design.
Residential district in Avan-Arinj, Yerevan. This new district built up with lightweight panels was one of the more successful examples of standard construction, which further highlighted the shortcomings of other similar projects lacking individual solutions (1978, architects: Ya. Isahakyan, G. Rashidyan, A․ Mkrtchyan) Source: Grigoryan, A. H., Tovmasyan, M. L. (1986)
Armenia, in this period, went through its most transforming stage of industrialized urbanisation. In 1960, the first resettlement schedule, encompassing the whole of the country, activated the development of new urban centres (Abovyan, Hrazdan, Metsamor, Ijevan, Kirovakan, Jermuk, and many more). Advancements in housing assembly methods, coupled with the far-reaching tradition of building in stone (and its vast availability), spearheaded the process. Frame-and-panel structures were introduced later, in the early 1970s, mostly through the high-rise variety (nine-storey and taller). To further ramp up the supply and meet the plans, housing provision strategies permitted construction through cooperative membership and private (or loaned) financial resources.
Frame-and-panel high-rise residential building, an infill within an existing urban fabric, Yerevan, Baghramyan and Proshyan streets. (1975, architect: A. Aleksanyan, construction engineer: I.Manucharyan). Source: Grigoryan, A. H., Tovmasyan, M. L. (1986)
By 1986, it became obvious that the optimistic projections of "one apartment to every family" would have to be postponed by 20 years, with the year 2000 becoming the new target. Nevertheless, universally, the Soviet system of housing provision remains unmatched to this day.

In 1985, Armenian house-building plants were churning 3,300 square meters of housing a day (an equivalent of over 100 apartments). By 1983, the average urban dweller enjoyed 12 square meters of residential floor area. The significance of these indicators was not lost on the Soviet researchers, who compared them against the performance of the policies in capitalist countries – producing unaffordable markets with mass evictions, poverty, and homelessness.

Khrushchev, N. S. Report of the Central Committee of the CPSU delivered October 17, 1961, and Khrushchev's concluding speech to the 22nd Congress, October 27, 1961
Gharakhanyan, G. (1985). Բնակարանի հարցը ՍՍՀՄ-ում և կապիտալիստական երկրներում․ «Բանբեր Երևանի համալսարանի» 2 (56), 131-138. [Bnakarani harts'y SSHM-um yev kapitalistakan yerkrnerum].
Independence: an era of misunderstanding and unaffordability
Local circumstances, surrounding the disintegration of the USSR, threw previous achievements in urbanisation years behind. Disruptions to all aspects of life (energy, transportation, resource streams) took a toll on urban resilience. Many city dwellers were driven to rural areas, to once again, support themselves through subsistence agriculture.

Unauthorized alterations made to the now-privatized apartments (a practice stretching back to as early as the 1970s) took new, more predatory shapes. Although in need of a closer investigation, this phenomenon does beg the question if, perhaps, the interrupted urbanisation, accompanied by previous incremental practices of self-help housing, are the underlying causes.
A densely built-up urban area of Yerevan of today: an eclectic combination of prefabricated Soviet highrises, informal housing and detached homes
Widespread urban-rural exodus and out-migration skewed the per capita housing area in cities: in 1990 this number stood at 12,9 square meters, while in 2000 it grew to 16,0 square meters. Investments in electricity and other sectors, and the introduction of mortgage loans in the early 2000s, reversed the direction of migration. By 2021, the same indicator reached a whopping 29,5 square meters per urban capita (with Yerevan being the lowest) – putting Armenia on par with other Eastern European and Baltic states. The increase, however, was not due to the rate of housing supply (75% of urban housing was, after all, built between 1950 and 1990), but rather, decreased urban population and proliferation of construction of large single-family houses were the culprit.

The transition to a market-based housing supply created dwelling unaffordability, in line with other developing and developed countries. Now, it is hard to imagine a time spanning half a century, where housing was provided virtually for free, with rent at just 3% of income. The housing unaffordability crisis in developed cities (London, Stockholm, Barcelona, Berlin, Shanghai), today, draws urbanites to unite their efforts and resources around co-living initiatives – a typology that Soviet Constructivists saw as the model of the future.
Multi-Apartment Housing in Armenia: Issues Note, 2006. "Housing and communal services in the South Caucasus". Infrastructure Department, Europe and Central Asia Region, The World Bank, p. 7.
Armstat, ՀՀ բնակարանային ֆոնդը և կոմունալ տնտեսությունը 2021թ. [HH bnakaranayin fondy yev komunal tntesut'yuny 2021t'].
Cooperative housing project Vertical Village in Villeurbanne, Greater Lyon, 2011-2013. The prospective residents organized into an association and acquired a land plot (with assistance from the municipality). They worked closely with architects and legal consultants to build a housing unit that meets their collective needs and to properly handle the maintenance of private and communal spaces. Source.
The communal models of the 1920s, and the mid-century standardisation, were both a response to the desire for decent standards of living for all. In the oversimplified narrative of these projects manifesting Khrushchev's personal dislike for ornament, the more complex nuances are left unexplored. His denouncement of wastefulness and ornamentation in architecture within the same speech as Stalin's crimes is (although not directly) reminiscent of Loos equating architectural ornaments to crime in 1908. In his famous manifesto, Loos framed ornament as criminal wastefulness – as in being an unnecessarily laborious effort inflicted upon the workers and increasing production times.

Remarkably, the brutally imposed neoclassical architecture became the aesthetic that is now favoured and seen as inherently Armenian. Whereas the modernist mass housing was almost immediately denounced as "faceless", run-of-the-mill architecture – which invariably goes hand in hand with the connotation of lower social standing. In the years ensuing 1991, little to no attempts have been made to objectively evaluate the true worth of our prevailing stock of standardised housing. The low quality of these structures was a known drawback early on, just as the architects of the late Soviet period were already conscious of the faults of how these were being used in building up new districts and as infills within existing urban fabric. These are crucial issues but are not ones that should refuse the primary goals and long-lasting outcomes of Soviet-era housing.

Scrutinising mass housing through today's standards of construction and the demands of the new middle class denies its significance as a necessary transitional stage between the pre-Soviet agrarian society and modern-day Armenia and its citizenry.
Grigoryan, A. H., Tovmasyan, M. L. (1986). Архитектура Советской Армении / Architecture of the Soviet Armenia. Moscow: Stroyizdat