The Retrofuture Shock of Post-Soviet Architecture

Grand Park, Moscow, 2006 / 2009
Frank Herfort, “Grand Park, Moscow” (2006 / 2009) (all images courtesy the artist and Kerber)

If you think Soviet architecture was strange — with its retrofuture angles and monolithic forms — you should see what came after the USSR’s collapse. German photographer Frank Herfort has spent years traveling all over Russia and the former Soviet territories, from metropolises to remote rural zones, to capture the bizarre architecture of the post-Soviet era.

Herfort’s photographs have now been published in Imperial Pomp: Post Soviet Highrise (2013, Kerber), and all the structures together look more like a speculative vision of a surreal future than reality. From 2009 to 2013 he journeyed to 20 cities to find the most ostentatious and bombastic of the odd mix of architectural forms that peaked in the 1990s and are just now receding. There are remnants of the Stalinist style with its stern classicism meeting Western modernism, and it all seems to be stretching for a more vibrant, and perhaps impossible, future. Time has collided in their designs.

However, what makes the buildings curious is not just their futurism — there’s plenty of that all over the world — but how much they stand out from their often somber surroundings of empty space or low brick residential space. People in the frame are totally miniaturized by the “imperial pomp,” each building seeming to strive for some proud stature in the cityscape, all while leaving its human occupants an afterthought. As Herfort is quoted in a Metropolis article published last week: “Architects, it seems, are encouraged to be as bold as possible. You feel that each building wants to scream out, that ‘I’m the best, the biggest, the richest.’ It is now more a question of prestige, which didn’t play any role in the Soviet times.”

Part of the uncanny nature of the photographs is also Herfort’s technique, which mixes film with digital — emphasizing sharp detail and color — as well as his patience for framing contrasts: an old Soviet car set against a new building that seems like the office park version of the Stalinist Seven Sisters. While the Soviets certainly thought big with their monuments, the idea of architecture being an object of grandiose pride didn’t end with the USSR. However, it would be remiss to not point out that there are these kinds of buildings in all the major cities where contemporary architecture often trumps context, but Herfort has found a unique juxtaposition between an accelerated modernism and a Soviet past.

Ministry building in Astana
Frank Herfort’s photograph of the ministry building in Astana, Kazakhstan
Admininstratives Gebaeude der Polizei GIBDD RT Kazan, 2006 /2011 gebenueber Jahrmarkt, Hockeystadion
Frank Herfort, “Administrative of the Polizei GIBDD RT Kazan” 2006 /2011)
Schach Centre Chanty Mansysk; 5 Uhr morgens traf ich diesen Mann beim Gras mähen; welches er für sein Ziegen auf seiner Datscha benötigt.
Frank Herfort, Chess Center in Moscow
Frank Herfort
A post-Soviet skyscraper, photographed by Frank Herfort
Zakhstan Central Concert Hall, Astana, 2009 / 2012
Frank Herfort, “Zakhstan Central Concert Hall,” Astana (2009 / 2012)
Northern Lights Towers, Astana, 2008 / 2012
Frank Herfort, “Northern Lights Towers,” Astana (2008 / 2012)
Lazurny Kvartal, Astana 2011 / 2012
Frank Herfort, “Lazurny Kvartal,” Astana (2011 / 2012)
Living House Complex, Moscow, 2008 / 2010
Frank Herfort, “Living House Complex,” Moscow, (2008 / 2010)

Imperial Pomp: Post Soviet Highrise by Frank Herfort is available from Kerber.  

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