Post-Soviet Phenomena: Transformation of Urban Spaces and Functions of Karl Marx Square in Novosibirsk
Marx Square in Novosibirsk is one of the most curious examples of
late-soviet / post-soviet urbanism in Russia. Its
development has some similarity with what is happening at the moment in
Berlin, where the former
of the city is under large-scale redevelopment. It can as well evoke some
nostalgic feelings. But of course Karl Marx Square has Siberian, even
specific Novosibirian features. All sort of things are extreme, bizarre
here: it is ‘the biggest public square in Russia’, soon ‘the
biggest Russian complex for culture and entertainment behind the Urals’
will be opened here and at the same time we find muddy, primitive stalls
in the centre of this square. Before I finished this article, on the 12th
of August 2004, the authorities closed the market here, although it was
the second most important in Novosibirsk.
The professional perception of this urban space – and the town planners’ and architects’ activities to change it – often contradict the public perception of the process. To illustrate this contradiction, I use the diary of an anonymous young man who was born and grew up in a city block nearby Karl Marx Square. His subjective perceptions during twenty years can illustrate the spatial experience of the public.
Prehistory – the centre of a Socialist town
In 1929 the authorities chose in the steppe between two villages, Perovo
and Bol’shoe Krivoshchekovo, at the river Ob’ opposite Novosibirsk, a
construction place for the Sibcombine-factory of agricultural machines. As
was usual at that time, the factory was designed as ‘the largest in the
World’. It would provide place for 12,000 workers. For this factory a new
town should be constructed for 120,000-150,000 inhabitants. In 1930 the
architects Dmitrii E. Babenkov, Alexander V. Vlasov and Nikolai Kh.
Poliakov designed a layout for this ‘Socialist City’ – Left-Bank
Novosibirsk. (Figure 1) The main idea
of the project was the socio-economical organisation of a new town of the
socialist type. In the layout of the town, with its radial and gridiron
streets, we recognise the influence of the town-planning ideas of Le
Corbusier as layed down in Une Ville Contemporaine (1922) and La
Ville Radieuse (1930).
The plan had a very well elaborated functional zoning system. The authors aimed at the creation of simultaneous cultural and services networks. The town should consist of structural elements – housing combinates for 500-1,000 persons. These combinates would contain several dwelling units with a common public centre. The public buildings would be situated according to the principle of decentralisation: the town would have three district centres, each with a public garden, clubs, a post office, a department store and an administration building plus a ‘Business’-Centre for the whole town. This ‘Business’-Centre was designed at the crossroads of the main streets. It should contain all buildings for administration and supply (shops) at town level. All buildings were designed as freestanding, surrounded by green spaces.
A square for mass meetings and demonstrations was proposed at the east of the ‘Business’ Centre. This square would be directly connected with a park and have a Palace of Culture, a museum and a hotel.
The plan of Left-Bank Novosibirsk was not entirely realised. Nevertheless some of the main streets were laid out and at the end of the 1930’s a group of four levels brick row houses, a hospital, a club and two kindergartens were built in the North-Western part near the factory.
Before World War II no permanent building designed in the plan of Left-Bank Novosibirsk was built at the place of the ‘Business’ Centre. This place later became known as Karl Marx Square. The space and its surroundings remained undeveloped till the middle of the 1950s.
In 1950 the architect A. Ya. Gladshtein from Leningrad made a new urban design for the left bank of the Ob’ opposite Novosibirsk. The urban development would start from the square near the bridgehead and stretch out to the main town square (Karl Marx Square). In his pompous design Gladshtein proposed at the entrance to the Karl Marx Prospect a Stalinistic Moscow type tower flanked by two arches and two smaller towers. The central tower would visually fix the beginning of a Karl Marx Prospect. The tallest tower of the left bank at Karl Marx Square would be the culmination of this neo-classical composition. This design remained on paper completely. But the idea of a panorama of the Left Bank City and of the visual fixation of the square by high-rise buildings would remain in the following urban proposals.
Built and un-built spaces
In 1955 a bridge over the Ob’, which would connect the right and left bank
of Novosibirsk, was completed. Till then there was only a railroad bridge
connection between the two banks. In the same year the first building of
the future Karl Marx Prospect, a hostel for the Novosibirsk
Electro-Technical Institute, was built. Karl Marx Prospect lay
on the axis of the bridge and became the one and half kilometre long
access from Karl Marx Square to the bridge. Another event in the same
year, the beginning of the construction of the big Television Translation
Centre to the west of Karl Marx Square, gave an extra impulse to the
development of this area. The Leningrad-based design institute
Lengorproject made several urban proposals for the town blocks along
Karl Marx Prospect. Local architects of the Institute Novosibgorproject
used the bases of these schemes for the further design of this territory.
The city blocks consisted of housing placed on the perimeter, and several
public services and housing blocks inside. All housing consisted in
standardised four- or five-storied buildings. The town blocks had a
certain symmetry in their layout. The architects A. F. Yakusevich, R. M.
Okuneva built in 1958 two of such blocks of 16 hectares each, at the east
side of Karl Marx Square.
The construction of the bridge and the buildings along the Karl Marx Prospect made this direction to Karl Marx Square so dominant, that town planners decided not to build the Square for mass meetings and demonstrations as designed in the plan of 1930. The functional program of that square was moved to Karl Marx Square. In this way a Palace of Culture took the central place of the administrative tower of the Gladshtein’ design. A hotel building would serve as a vertical accent.
The Hotel 'Tourist'
The construction of the first huge buildings at Karl Marx Square started
as late as the 1970s. The Oblast Council for Tourism began in May 1972 the
construction of the twenty-two floors high Hotel Tourist for 800
guests at the right corner of the square. It should become the vertical
dominant. The ground flour and the first floor extended from the main
vertical volume. In this basement should be placed the administration
offices, tourist firms, a cinema for 450 visitors and hotel services. The
montage of the concrete frame and the prefab panels was completed in July
of 1979, but the building is yet to be finished. This makes it one of the
‘monuments of long standing soviet constructions’, dolgostroi. This
phenomenon is very typical for third-world countries.
In 1974 the construction of the huge department store GUM “Russia” had started at the left corner of the square. The first note relating to Karl Marx Square in the boy’s diary is from the year 1979:
‘My grandparents live at the other side of a field named Karl Marx Square. This square is really enormous. It is a waste ground crossed by several pathways. It is always interesting to go through this grassy or snow covered endless emptiness, because people walk here with dogs. Some of them have beautiful thoroughbred dogs. My dog is a middle-sized mongrel. The square is so gigantic that when I let my dog run, he very quickly reduces to a point in the sea of space. Also when I cross it, as one of a crowd of people transiting from the bus stations to their home, I always think about fireworks. This is a place where at holidays fireworks take place. It is my favourite show! I want that it will be soon’.
Socialism: waiting for the Underground and for the GUM ‘Russia’
It was typical for the command economy to concentrate the financial and material resources in huge complexes and ask consumers to wait till it would be finished. At Karl Marx Square this was presented visually. Here is the next note from the diary:
‘1980. When we crossed a field (Karl Marx Square - I. N.) my mother showed me construction fences and explained me that there will be a huge department store. She said that the building would be completed when I will go to school, also the underground station would be built here and this place would become the real centre of the district. I want to go to school, I want that time passes quickly and this building, huge as a palace, will be ready!’
Nevertheless, in the atmosphere of a temporal construction site several public objects were completed at the edge of the square:
‘1981. At the edge of Karl Marx Square there are several interesting shops. One is a TV sets shop on Blucher Street. It is very long and it is completely of glass. Everywhere there are TV sets. Near by this shop at the corner is a shop of flowers and seeds. The seeds are deficit. And when the new seeds arrive to the shop there will be a queue. My mother often buys seeds here; she wants to buy a dacha. The most exciting shop opened last year. It is the jeweller Crystal at the corner of Titova Street. It is very big, with a marble floor and with long splendorous showcases full with gold and silver. They have one diamond ring, which costs 40.000 roubles (around $ 60.600 – I. N.). My grandfather said that he thinks to buy it. Near the Crystal shop is the Berezka (Birch) shop. It is only for foreigners. I very much would like to look inside’.
The planned economy was not able to realise all it plans. The same boy wrote in September 1982:
‘I went to school. The whole Karl Marx Square is an exorbitant construction place. The department store is still not ready’.
The incompleteness was an important feature of the Soviet urban fabric in the provincial towns during the whole second half of the twentieth century. From the diary of 1985:
‘The unfinished tower of the Hotel dominates the square. It is ominous. The dark holes, instead of windows, made it look like an enormous mouth without teeth. My father said: “It will be never finished”. What a pity! I also want the underground station, but already several years a group of enthusiastic building workers declare from a poster on the construction fence: “We promise to the Fatherland to finish the metro in December’” (“Myi slovo Rodine daiem, chto v dekabre metro sdaem!”). It seems that nobody knows which year they have in mind’.
Last Soviet attempt
In 1985, when the institute Novosibgrazhdanproject started the
design of a new plan for the square as ‘a complex of park and public
buildings’, Karl Marx Square had several buildings at its perimeter
for luxurious consumption, in the middle of it stood the construction of
the huge department store “Russia”; the construction of the underground
station had begun, the enormous empty central space was used as a
playground for dogs and for fireworks during the holidays. A year later
the Sibselmash factory (former Sibcombine) started the
erection of the Palace of Culture at the centre of the square. This
building would finish the perspective of Karl Marx Prospect. In comparison
with the hotel building the volume of the palace is low, but it has the
most important town planning position, on the axis of Karl Marx Prospect.
In the new urban design two principles determined the spatial composition
of the square. Architect Vladimir M. Galiamov looked at the square from
inside and outside.
the ‘outside’ point Galiamov tried to make an impressive silhouette
composition for Left Bank Novosibirsk. He elaborated several variants for
a solution of the accentuation of the low volumes of the Palace of
Culture. In one of the designs a monotonous line of flat façade low
housing buildings should provide a background for the elaborated volume of
the palace. In another design behind the palace several high-rise
buildings would appear and two towers would flank it. These buildings
would create a panorama of the left bank and visually fix the place of the
From the ‘inside’ point Galiamov offered to make the square free from transport. To assure a segregation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, Galiamov decided that two diagonal roads, dividing the square in three nearly triangular lots, should disappear. The square would become a pedestrian zone for recreation and consumption free from noise, fumes, visual intrusion and danger of traffic.
Capitalism: the building boom
The new capitalist era transformed the square into the alternative city centre of whole Novosibirsk. The opening of the underground station in 1991 gave an impulse for dynamic development. The square is now an important hub between the terminal of the underground and other public transport. In 1992 the young man wrote in his diary:
‘I went to study at the University. Last year they finally finished the underground. Every morning I go through a park and cross Karl Marx Square when I run to the metro. It is strange how people use this space. There are official roads, but everybody takes the unofficial pathways. They are shorter, diagonal, but sometimes dangerous. One pathway crosses a tramline circle. Everybody goes short way across the tramline. The pathways have no asphalt of course; they are very often muddy. The favourable saying of my grandfather for superior quantity is: “As much as mud” (“Mnogo kak griazi”). All is determined by the shortest way to the underground. Some times the state places an obstacle on the pathway, for example an iron fence enclosing a schoolyard. Immediately someone made a hole in the fence. Almost two years long everybody went bending through the hole, till someone enlarged it to the human height’.
The Hotel 'Tourist'
Barakholka (Flea market)
Barakholka (Flea market)
The two urbanistically most important buildings of Karl Marx Square are
still not finished; in front of their construction fences, as in a theatre
before the curtain, capitalism started to perform new plays. First of all
primitive trade appeared spontaneously. The central authorities lost the
usual Soviet command economic means of urban control and regulation, and
did not know what to do with the heritage of Socialism here: two huge
unfinished buildings. The Sibselmash factory could not adapt itself to the
market economy, had financial difficulties and stopped the construction of
the palace. The perplexity of the central authorities gave chance for
self-regulating spontaneous transformations, determined by the rising
capitalism. Several construction firms from China, South Korea and
Yugoslavia showed their interest in finishing the hotel, which for twenty
years had been left there as an orphan. But in October 1994 the Russian
open joint-stock company ‘Tursib’ was established to finish the
construction of the hotel. It took around four years to collect the
necessary technical information to be sure that the frame of the building
still could be used. Some changes were visible at the construction site
only from 1998 on.
In 1995 another ‘orphan’ at Karl Marx Square got his ‘stepfather’; the concern SBS-308 bought the construction of the Palace. The concern very quickly realized the problem of the finishing of the palace – the municipality insisted that the building should keep its cultural and recreational profile. In this year the young man wrote:
‘It is funny; on my way to the underground I always meet the same people. I recognize the faces and even occupations (this is a teacher running to a school). The construction of the Hotel did not move at all. There is a sleeping land at the construction territory of the Palace of Culture. Sometimes I see a very slow move of the workers there. But it looks that they also understood the uselessness and hopelessness of their work. Behind the construction fences there is a very huge flea market. You can buy there everything, from clothes and food to house keeping and car details. The traditional Russian bazaar, in the Soviet slang “barakholka”, conquered its place’. (Figure 7)
Barakholka – the motor of trade
At first the flea market near the construction site of the palace was illegal. But when it grew to a larger scale, the direction of SBS-308 found a genial solution. They convinced the city authorities to rent them the construction territory and allow to organise a temporary market on it. All the taxes from the stalls should be directly invested in the finishing of the construction of the palace. The municipality would be the owner of a part of the palace, built of the tax income. This became a great business. The concern SBS-308 had such a huge profit, that it did not have a stimulus to finish the palace. The Karl Marx Square became the second market in Novosibirsk. (Figure 8)
The life behind the construction fences and construction hollows flourished. The most primitive way of trade in open-air stalls generated money for a luxurious palace. In 1998, when the municipality signed a new 6-year contract with the concern, the expensive dome for the atrium was brought from Germany.
Capitalism had a self-regulating effect and easily found the requirements for shopping: convenience, safety, efficiency and good environment. In his diary in 1997 the young student wrote:
‘The shops occupy the underground passages. The subterranean shops sell luxurious goods. It is a labyrinth of glass and shine! It is very convenient in our climate. In the winter there are female sellers, thickly packed in clothes with red faces from the frost. Traditionally a bazaar would be inconvenient (in the open air in the Siberian climate) and very muddy. It came from a special sort of trade mentality. The clients would buy something in a hurry and leave quickly. When a bazaar is convenient, people walk slowly through it, looking for shelter and thinking a lot before buying something.
At the grounds near the underground station they built a very ugly building for food products. It looks as a badly made American fortress. It has a courtyard and several thoroughfares, above them a sort of towers were placed. The façades are absolutely flat, clad with terrible aluminium panels’.
The square not only mirrors the rapid economic development and differentiation in the Russian society, but also shows an effect of globalisation. In 2001 the young man noted:
The Siberian KaDeWe
Karl Marx Square
New clothes for Soviet buildings
‘The square is dominated by trade. All sort of shops, kiosks, cafes
etc. are everywhere. It is very convenient that you can buy everything and
in every price class you want. The goods came from all around the world.
There are several trading worlds on this square, which do not meet each
other. You can have several scenarios of using the space of the square. If
you want pretentious, luxurious goods you go to the department store “Russia”.
It is also a place to make a date for example.
If you want rational, economic shopping, you first go to the department store “Russia”, than to the subterranean shops, than – to the flea market. If you are still not satisfied, you have the opportunity to take a tram and in ten minutes find yourself at the main market of Leninskii district’. (Figure 10)
The square in its spatial fragmentation presents plurality of new experiences of space and social actions. This is clear from the two following notes in the diary:
‘2002. A lot of Soviet things are gone. Instead of my favourable TV shop there is a tourist firm. New-York Pizza took the place of the café of my childhood with delicious penny-loafs and pancakes. (Figure 11)
Karl Marx Square has several faces: the morning face – a rush to public transport, to work; the daily face – a trading fuss; and a night face. The night face is different. You will meet others than the day sellers (black market?) in the underground passages. In contrast with Soviet time the square is illuminated in different colours. Shop windows, advertisements, electronic news-lines, light of restaurants, cafes and terraces attracting ramblers. Capitalism fills the holes; from a window or the back door of the daytime luxurious drugstore you can buy the necessary equipment for the adventure in night’s darkness’.
‘September 2003.‘I have two guests from Holland – two very nice women from the wealthy society of The Hague. I wanted to show them the first Socialist housing built in 1931-1932 and designed by the group of the well-known German town planner Ernst May. I picked them up at their hotel in the centre and we took the underground to Karl Marx Square. Here I made a terrible mistake – we left the underground from the right pavilion, and we were confronted with enormous ample land – a dump at the edge of the construction territory of the Tourist hotel. It was unexpected for me as well that they had taken away part of the construction fences. But I could not imagine how dramatic the effect would be on my dear friends, who were used to the accurate, comfortable, snug environment of The Hague. Their beautiful faces were destroyed by horror. This ampleness associated in their mind with the results of a bombardment. They thought that I had brought them to the terrible outskirts of the town. To disengage their tension I quickly brought them to the luxurious shop of Yakut diamonds across the road. It helped - they recovered in this quiet little shop with pleasant sellers’.
The City of Novosibirsk or Arbat of the city?
In 2000 the municipal town-planning department designed an urban plan for the development of the square. From the previous Galiamov design it inherited the idea of a traffic-free town centre. Even pedestrian bridges appeared in the new plan. Karl Marx Square would be a pedestrian square connected by footpaths with the other parts of Left Bank Novosibirsk. In the discussion of deputies someone even called the square ‘Siberian Arbat’. But the main topic of the deputies’ discussion was the distribution of the lots. Most deputies insisted on the preservation of the cultural and recreation character of the square.
The New Centre of the city?
Already at the end of the 1930s there was a plan to move the centre of Novosibirsk from Lenin square. The attempt of the 1960-1980s to replace the city centre to the October district completely failed. The urban and economic potential of Karl Marx Square raised a discussion about a new town centre again in the 2000s. The free construction territories, where new offices and shops may be built according to the latest standards, make the square very attractive for investors. The good accessibility, the absence of construction restrictions by the preservation committee and buildings for recreation and entertainment, which have already started, assure the commercial success. The urban incompleteness of the square stimulated the boiling expectations. Thus in 2003 more than five big enterprises had ambitious construction plans for the total building area of more than 130.000 m2. The Siberian branch of Sberbank (State Savings bank of Russia) decided to build its filial here. The newspapers wrote about the ‘City on Karl Marx Square’. It should become a meeting place of the town. The commercial efficiency of shops and other business activities would increase by the concentration of all these complexes and buildings. Some analysts say that in three to five years Karl Marx Square will be the centre of Novosibirsk.
Architecture and urban design
The comparison of the new urban proposal for Karl Marx Square with the designs from the Soviet period shows the more intense use of the ground. In the last design of the municipal department for town planning, the authors still follow the Soviet tradition in their attempt to create a unified urban composition – an ensemble. But they also try to reduce the gigantic dimensions of the square, which represents the typical gigantomania of Soviet town planning. It was difficult from the beginning to organize such an enormous open space architecturally. Nowadays it occupies an area of around 25 hectares. Actually, in the new design buildings on three sides will enclose the Karl Marx Square, so that a new little inside square would be formed. The designers pay more attention to the organization of car parking than in Soviet time and try to reduce the surface car parking.
The Palace of Culture
The Public Trade complex 2003
The architects designed four identical high buildings along Novaya Street.
Such simple repetitiveness, from my point of view, has little chance in
the new economic reality. But from the other side, it seems that
architects realize themselves very well how insignificant their influence
is on the real urban development. In post-Soviet reality the investors and
the municipal bureaucrats distribute the lots and make the final decision
on urban matters.
It seems that in 2004 the construction of the palace will be finished. In 2003 the concern SBS-308 already invested 10 millions dollars in its construction. Curiously enough the exterior of the complex, designed in late Soviet Brutalism, underwent only small changes. (Figures 12 and 13) A member of the original architects’ team, Galina N. Nekrasova, chose some new construction materials for the façades and modified the compositions of the window frames. Inside, the palace changed from the Soviet standard design to a complex, meeting high international standards of recreation and entertainment. It has two multifunctional halls (for 1,500 and 200 seats), a cinema, a music hall, restaurants and cafes, casinos, exhibition spaces, a computer centre, a winter garden and a swimming pool. The complex will be ‘the biggest Russian complex for culture and entertainment behind the Urals’.
Also this year the basement of the hotel was finished. It got a Post-Modernist style facing. The old prefab-panels of the main volume of the hotel will be replaced by a modern double-façade. The electric cables, canalisation and water pipes laid in 1986 are removed. Russian, Finnish and German construction firms participate in the completion of the building.
In the latest building designed for Karl Marx Square the Post-Modern architecture gives way to Neo-Modernism and Neo-Functionalism. In one of the designs the long construction fences, so characteristic for the square, inspired the architects. The quality of architecture gradually improves. Nikolai Z. Kazakov, Irina Ju. Smorgovich, A. V. Ogorodnikov, D. V. Kiriukhin designed near the hotel an elegant public-trade complex in High-Tech architecture. (Figure 14)
The latest note in the diary about Karl Marx Square says:
‘2004. The constructions of the Hotel and the former Palace of Culture are activated. It is difficult to imagine that thirty years old construction fences will at some time have disappeared. The square has lost its provincial, unfinished, post-soviet character. The architecture is international. It is too much of globalization. It is the same as everywhere. If you ask for a beer in a café they will offer you Heineken’.