Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City by Paul Stronski

City planning often seems to be a new concept: a trend towards community-oriented design features that are usually intended to better a neighborhood or development by particular ordinances. For example, in my area, the housing boom of the 1980s led to massive building without much consideration of long-term community cohesiveness. After that bubble burst, a “new” trend arrived, requiring builders to consider small design enhancements to afford a better feel to a city. Encouraging front porches, open space, altering lot layouts, and keeping garage doors from being seen from the main streets were ideas encouraged to prevent the cookie-cutter home styles that arrived with the Baby Boom of the 1950s (think Hicksville, NY).

However, in the past, city planning was not considered a trend at all. Especially with the expansion West, cities were, at one point, often planned around where the city buildings, parks, and access roads would lie, and then the housing was built around that. One especially fascinating account of city planning that is unlike anything I’ve read before is Paul Stronski’s book Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City. Stronski compiles the details of how this city was planned from both a civil and structural aspect, right down to an artistic vision of the daily life of its residents. This was not small scale planning! A political endeavor from the beginning, it was an ideological effort to demonstrate Soviet superiority and show the Western world the advancement that the Socialists confidently intended to promote.

While the book covers a great deal of the planning stages, I’m going to focus on two areas that were especially interesting to me. First was the concept of engineering and building codes: apparently even in Soviet Russia, builders wanted to cut corners! The area of Central Asia was already determined to be the site of previous deadly earthquakes, but officials felt that since a 7.0 earthquake hadn’t presumably occurred in a hundred years, they could lower the codes to only deal with the ramifications of a 7.0 earthquake instead of an 8.0 quake (as initially considered). This “small” difference in engineering, combined with hurried construction done on the cheap, with inferior materials, and built in ways that were not common to the builders (tilt-up construction was still something new in the region) left the city vulnerable to earthquake damage. Even when devastating earthquakes occurred nearby, officials were still bent on promoting an image rather than safety.

“Tashkent urban planners still concentrated most of their attention on designing monumental structures….building a compact and beautiful public space was a quicker and easier way to impress and ‘show the state’s care for’ its citizens than building apartments or schools for the population.”

No spoilers, but you can imagine how well that went, and what signaled the end of Tashkent.

Another intention in designing Tashkent was to show that Soviet rule had a cultural side, and that it would be open to permitting ethnic and artistic diversity. In detail, one section discusses how the city tried to incorporate cultural forms that would rival Europe. One woman, Tamara Khanum, was one of the “first Uzbek women to perform unveiled in the 1920s” and became a ‘People’s Artist of the USSR’. She performed in various languages and became a spokesperson for the advanced Tashkent culture. She, along with other women, were used to advance the Soviet cause by appearing to be images of female emancipation, at a time when the West had yet to acknowledge women’s rights.

While the book is heavily detailed in discussing the planning and construction stages of Tashkent, it also sheds light on the Soviet mindset towards propaganda and their intentions. A city that few have ever heard of, Tashkent seems an anomaly in the history of Soviet rule, especially given what was going on in Siberia to the North. I think that is what I liked best about it: it exposes another facet of the era that I hadn’t run across in reading other history books.

Special thanks to Maria Sticco of the University of Pittsburgh Press for the Review Copy.

1 comment:

  1. Living in Tashkent, I see what are known as Khruschovki (the 5 floor apartment blocks) marching off into the horizon as far as the eye can see, but after reading Stronski's book I see them in a completely different eye - not just fairly ugly apartments but an attempt at social engineering. I also wonder about earthquakes..the rumour is that after 66 the codes were completely changed. I wonder about building codes since independence.