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.

Frank Herfort’s photograph of the ministry building in Astana, Kazakhstan

Frank Herfort, “Administrative of the Polizei GIBDD RT Kazan” 2006 /2011)

Frank Herfort, Chess Center in Moscow

A post-Soviet skyscraper, photographed by Frank Herfort

Frank Herfort, “Zakhstan Central Concert Hall,” Astana (2009 / 2012)

Frank Herfort, “Northern Lights Towers,” Astana (2008 / 2012)

Frank Herfort, “Lazurny Kvartal,” Astana (2011 / 2012)

Frank Herfort, “Living House Complex,” Moscow, (2008 / 2010)

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

The Latest

Stories That Need to Be Told

Stories That Need to Be Told

Artist Minouk Lim wants to offer a very different perspective on how one might deal with a grim history whose effects continue to be felt in the present.

Required Reading

Required Reading

This week: Should Washington have a national memorial for gun violence? Have cats used us to take over the world? What is Cluttercore? And more.

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “The Retrofuture Shock of Post-Soviet Architecture”

Comments are closed.