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Harris, Steven

Soviet Housing Architects and the Western Media in the Early Cold War

After World War II, countries across the Iron Curtain launched housing programs that became enmeshed in the Cold War as indicators of which system – capitalism or socialism – could provide a better way of life. Professional interactions between Soviet and Western architects created opportunities for exchanging ideas and competing over housing. What role did the Western media play in shaping such interactions and the Cold War context in which they occurred? What impact did the Western media have on the professional lives of Soviet architects and their views of the West? In this paper, I examine these question through two incidents involving the Western media’s (mis)representations of Soviet architects and their interactions with their Western counterparts. In the first in May 1947, three Soviet architects published articles on postwar housing in England’s The Architectural Review. By year’s end, they were subjected to an “Honor Court” of their peers, which found them guilty of subservience to the West and denigrating Soviet achievements. In the wake of this incident and the Zhdanovshchina, developing contacts with Western architects seemed hopelessly dim. Yet only eight years later, Soviet architects were on a goodwill tour of the United States, widely covered in the Western media. When compared to the 1947 Honor Court, the architects’ 1955 tour was a testimony to the passing of Stalinism and the beginning of Khrushchev’s Thaw. From cowboy boots to female wrestling on TV, there was much that perplexed and fascinated the Soviet experts about America. Soviet and American architects, and the Western reporters who covered the tour, realized they all shared much in common from promoting cheap housing to their views on women. Yet the tour was hardly a liberating experience for the Soviet architects, who were subjected to constant surveillance and propaganda – that of the Western mass media – which proved just as adept as the Court of Honor in 1947 at twisting their words and actions in the service of ideology. The tour finally ended on a sour note on the way home when journalists and Russian émigrés in Paris tried to help a member of the delegation defect against his will. A professional exchange that began with the best intentions ended in Cold War recriminations and Khrushchev blowing his top over the botched defection.

This paper contributes to recent scholarship that examines how housing and architecture intersected with the Cold War through international exhibitions and goodwill tours. It is based on original research in Russian archival records on the two incidents in question; other primary sources include The Architectural Review and Soviet, American, and French newspapers.

Thursday 30 Oct, 16.15-18.15 SESSION 6
Panel: Transfering Technology