The socialist city was never quite as ‘grey’ as we imagine, Georgia Wells explains.
In 2000, the municipal government of Tirana launched its ‘Return to Identity’ initiative under Edi Rama – Tirana’s then artist-turned-mayor, now Albania’s Prime Minister. Under Rama’s direction a series of brightly-coloured murals were commissioned to be painted across the fronts of former state-residential complexes. In place of the grey expanse which is so commonly associated with (post-)socialist cities, a visitor to Tirana today might instead expect to encounter a dizzying array of blues, pinks, yellows and greens arranged in zigzags, swirls and stripes across it’s building-fronts.
The painting and adornment of socialist-era housing blocks has been a phenomenon witnessed throughout Central and Eastern Europe – from the striking geometric patterns of Tirana to the multi-coloured murals of beaches, fields and mountains found in the much-photographed Ramenskoje apartment district, near Moscow. Elsewhere, the relaxation of planning controls has permitted, or led to, the emergence of increasingly eclectic architectural styles – bringing to an end the aesthetic uniformity that was so often cited as a distinctive feature of socialist urbanism. Moving toward the increasingly commercialised city-centre, advertisements, window displays, street-markets and kiosks – which have sprung up in droves since 1989 – lend an intensity of colour and visual variety to the urban landscape.
The ‘return to colour’ has formed the framing motif of the post-socialist transition. To Karl Schlögel, Moscow, once ‘the world’s greyest capital city’ has been transformed into ‘a Babylon, iridescent with colour’. In Warsaw too, the ‘alchemy of the market’ has peppered the streets with new ‘attention-grabbing landmarks’ whose ‘neon brightness and synthetic colour seem to render the socialist city, already fading, all the more grey and shabby’.
During the Cold War years, Western and Eastern commentators alike had evoked the ‘greyness’ of the socialist city as a ready metaphor for social, cultural as well as commercial repression – the monotony, uniformity and bleakness of the political landscape made physical. In 1954, the Warsaw diarist, Leopold Tyrmand, for example, would write of the ‘monotonous, identical, gigantic, flat boxes with columns, turrets and allegorical figures’ then being built across the city. ‘These buildings will provide apartments, offices and hotels. Yet it is impossible to imagine them bearing neon signs, advertisements or any individual accent… Desperate post-war antagonisms have produced this ridiculous and ugly place. When every chemists, boutique and confectioners share the same, uniform appearance’.
Even the city’s inhabitants, according to Czesław Miłość – the Polish poet and later Nobel laureate – were rendered ‘uniformly grey and uniformly indigent’ by the chronic lack of consumer goods and fear which ‘paralyzes individuality and makes people adjust themselves as much as possible to the average type in their clothing, gestures and facial expressions’.
The explosion of colour into the post-socialist cityscape has come, in turn, to neatly symbolise the (re)- emergence of individuality and plurality, freedom and the free-market in the post-1989 era. Beginning with the Georgian ‘rose’ revolution of 2003, a ‘Benetton-like’ franchise of brightly-hued ‘colour’ revolutions has sprung up across the region – the ‘orange’ revolution in the Ukraine in 2004 or the pink, lemon, or tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Indeed, Manning notes, critically, that for a time ‘virtually every political gesture vaguely associated with democracy in the Middle East was also rebranded as a kind of colour (or flower) revolution… an easily memorable soundbite-sized color-coding, a revolutionary brand… wending [it’s] inevitable way through the grey, benighted parts of the world, dictatorships falling like so many dominoes’.
As intuitive as the narrative of the transition from ‘grey’ (uniformity, bleakness and totalitarianism) to ‘colour’ (plurality, spontaneity, freedom and commercialization) now appears, it is highly problematic. Colour, in both its literal and metaphorical forms was not absent from the socialist city, and the multi-coloured present – despite its cheery appearance – is not without conflict or contestation.
In the former case, and in Poland at least, many of the visual features of commercialization – advertisements, neon signs, enticing window displays – were adopted into the cityscape by the late 1950s. Perhaps most famous among these elements were the iconic Warsaw neon to which a museum and documentary-film has more recently been dedicated. The neon museum is one of a number of such museums or pop-up exhibitions – such as the ‘Grey in Colour, 1956-1970. Culture from the Gomułka era’ (Szare w kolorze, 1956-1970. Kultura okresu gomułkowskiego) exhibit held in 2000 at Warsaw’s Zachęta Gallery, or the ‘Colour for the Republic’ (Farbe Für Die Republik) exhibit held last year at the Deutches Historisches Museum – which present the more ‘colourful’, more playful and everyday aspects of socialist life. Farbe Für Die Republik, for example, showcased re-coloured contemporary photography, whilst the Szare w kolorze exhibition reconstructed a variety of everyday places from the 1950s and 1960s; the interiors of apartment blocks; student jazz and night clubs; those small private galleries which first showed abstract paintings after the abandonment of Socialist Realism in the mid-1950s and the interior of a ‘milk bar’ (bar mleczny), the traditional canteens frequented by workers and students.
In the present, ‘colour’ – in it’s now multiple hues – serves to frame a series of fraught debates on the social, cultural and economic changes which have taken place in these countries over the past quarter century. Perhaps the most striking example of this contestation of the ‘multi-coloured present’ is Warsaw’s now controversial rainbow (tęcza) installation, designed by artist Julita Wójcik in 2012. Whilst the installation had initially been intended to spontaneously evoke feelings of joy, peace and love, it has been interpreted – by far-right activists and more conservation members of the Catholic church – as an allusion to the colours of the LGBT flag, and has been subsequently burnt down and rebuilt on a number of occasions.
Elsewhere, the advertisements, window displays, markets and kiosks – which Tyrmand, Miłość and others had long demanded as an antidote to the supposed uniformity and bleakness of the socialist city – have become a source of some debate. In the years immediately following 1989, advertising, street-markets and kiosks burgeoned – often unregulated – across the urban landscape. Make-shift stalls became ubiquitous street-furniture and in some areas it still not uncommon to see great banners covering the entire fronts of buildings, windows notwithstanding. The chaotic and uncoordinated nature of such developments have drawn criticism from many quarters, with numerous expressions of nostalgia for the cleaner and more controlled aesthetic of the socialist period; unease which in Moscow has led to a ban on all advertisements covering building fronts from 2011 onward.
About the author: Georgia Wells is a PhD candidate at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.