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Architecture in Global Socialism:
Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War

Łukasz Stanek
Princeton University Press, 2020

In this study of architects from the Eastern Bloc who worked in West Africa and the Middle East, Łukasz Stanek challenges architectural historians to confront gaps in the historiography of postwar architecture that persist despite the discipline’s recent global turn. A renowned scholar of Henri Lefebvre, Stanek traveled across continents to gather materials and interview dozens of architects whose experiences form the core of this project. The resulting book reframes the history of postwar architecture from the vantage point of those at the periphery, a place that Charles Polónyi, a Hungarian architect and Team 10 member who worked in West Africa, described as “an open field where ideas forged in the centers may be questioned, tested, and modified” (145).

Figure 1. Africa Hall (Women’s Hall 6), Kumasi (Ghana), design 1964–65. Architects Office UST, John Owusu-Addo/Miro Marasović (chief university architect), Niksa Ciko (architect in charge).

Beginning with Lefebvre’s idea of mondialisation or world-forming, Stanek uses the concept of worldmaking to propel the project, defining it as the “production of the world from within its many, often antagonistic, possibilities”” (30). He argues that globalization was only one worldmaking possibility and one that depended on capitalist processes of financial deregulation and global labor distribution that began in the 1970s. As an “alternative,” socialist worldmaking “produced frameworks of interaction and of exchange of very real things, among them architectural resources” in “projects of global cooperation that were practiced by institutions and individuals from socialist countries” as early as the 1950s (30). He shows how Eastern European architectural labor became an increasingly valuable export commodity to barter for goods and access to resources and political power. Eastern Bloc architects also benefited from gaining professional work experience, establishing international contacts, and enjoying a high quality of life while abroad. The opportunity to travel itself was desirable and permanently elevated their professional prospects after they returned home.

The strength of the book’s theoretical scaffolding holds Stanek’s elegantly dense prose together. He establishes the critical role of a global market for architectural expertise from both socialist and capitalist countries in the postwar modernization programs of West African and Middle Eastern states. In captivating detail, he explains how the guiding principles of these professional relationships changed from gestures of solidarity with African socialist experiments in the 1950s and 1960s to primarily financial transactions in the 1970s and 1980s. Professional labor, products, and services were bartered within the Soviet-led COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) system or sold directly to design firms and governments. Countries benefitted from operating inside the Soviet “world socialist system” even when the receiving countries themselves did not embrace socialist principles (170). West African and Middle Eastern states could access expertise and building materials, while the Eastern Bloc countries received payment in hard currency or commodities to pay off foreign debt. An instructive example is the Iraqi Baathist-led state, which began cooperating with COMECON in 1975. Iraq hired Eastern European state enterprises to deliver turnkey buildings, infrastructure projects, and master plans, paying with crude oil that was especially valuable at the time due to the 1973 oil embargo.

Figure 2. Nikita Khrushchev and President Sukarno inspect the model of the National Stadium in Jakarta (Indonesia), 1960. R. I. Semergiev, K. P. Pchel’nikov, U. V. Raninskii, E. G. Shiriaevskaia, A. B. Saukke, N. N. Geidenreikh, I. Y. Yadrov, L. U. Gonchar, I. V. Kosnikova.

Although architectural labor is the primary framework of the book, it is also a beautifully crafted formal exploration of built and unbuilt projects by talented architects whose work rarely receives rigorous scholarly attention. Copiously illustrated in color, the book includes drawings, maps, and photographs from the period of study and from recent research trips. The chapters move between the geopolitical scale and the intimate spaces of buildings and architectural texts. Stanek often uses the word “co-design” to describe the shared work of Eastern Europeans and their African and Middle Eastern colleagues, an important recognition that the stereotypical dynamics that are often assumed in these locations, of colonizer and colonized, or developed world and developing world, are a poor fit for these periphery-to-periphery collaborations. Chapter 3 shows how the Ghanaian work opened West Africa for additional job opportunities. The Hungarian architect Polónyi applied his extensive experiences in the Hungarian countryside to rural development in Ghana and Nigeria. One of the most interesting case studies focuses on Polish architect Zbigniew Dmochowski who began his career documenting vernacular wooden architecture in interwar Poland. After fleeing to England in 1939, he left for Lagos in 1958 where he became the first director of the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture and published a three-volume study of Nigerian vernacular architecture. Dmochowski’s work helped to inform modern architecture in Nigeria by elevating the aesthetic status of the vernacular and “debunk[ing] colonial oppositions that had served to devaluate colonized cultures” (142). New forms of economic collaboration are highlighted by the final case study of the International Trade Fair in Lagos, built by the Yugoslav firm Energoprojekt as a joint venture with the Nigerian government.

Four case-study chapters follow the introduction and focus on five cities: Accra (1957–66), Lagos (1966–79), Baghdad (1958–90), and Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City (1979–90). Chapter 2 is about the Ghanaian city of Accra in the period after independence from Britain in 1957. Stanek looks at projects that capture “both sides of the worldmaking dynamics” in Ghana, including unrealized Soviet housing plans and the project for the International Trade Fair in Accra, a co-design by architects from Ghana and Poland (37).

Figure 3. International Trade Fair, Accra, 1962–67. GNCC, Vic Adegbite (chief architect), Jacek Chyrosz, Stanisław Rymaszewski (project architects).

Figure 4. Ministries Complex, Kano, 1973–78. Energoprojekt (Socialist Republic of Serbia, Yugoslavia), Milica Šterić, Zoran Bojović.

Figure 5. International Trade Fair in Lagos, 1974–77, aerial view of the area. Energoprojekt (Socialist Republic of Serbia, Yugoslavia), Zoran Bojović.

Stanek moves to the Middle East for chapters 4 and 5. Polish architects began working in Iraq in 1959. A few years later, the state-planning office Miastoprojekt was hired to develop the master plan for Baghdad based on a competition entry. The work progressed in three stages from 1965 to 1974, and the plan remains in place today. The book presents the project in stunning maps, diagrams, and models. The chapter concludes with a study of an Iraqi slaughterhouse project from the late 1970s that was the work of East German and Romanian architects and construction companies. This example shows the complications of COMECON policies and how practices of petrobartering (paying with oil) funded numerous projects in Iraq and Libya. The final chapter looks at architectural labor in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City. The case studies include the Municipality Building in Abu Dhabi designed by the Bulgarian architect Dimitar Bogdanov and constructed by the Bulgarian company Technoexportstroj (TES). By the 1980s, the early ideological underpinnings of working in the region had been replaced by purely financial motivations. The governments of the UAE and Kuwait saw Eastern European architects and construction firms as cost-effective alternatives to Western companies. The firms competed on the open market and adopted contextual design styles based on the preferences of their Middle Eastern customers. This approach eventually converged with postmodernism—excellent preparation for postsocialist professional practice when many Eastern Bloc countries wanted buildings in a postmodern style.

Figure 6. Design of a rural settlement al-Zuhairi, 1980. Miastoprojekt-Kraków (Poland), Wojciech Obtułowicz (master plan), Wojciech Obtułowicz, Danuta Olęcka (housing design), in the framework of the General Housing Programme for Iraq.

Stanek places the reader in the middle of these complex geopolitical circumstances with ease, offering only the most necessary political and cultural contextualization for readers unfamiliar with the postwar histories of Ghana, Nigeria, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait. Readers with knowledge of the postwar architecture of these countries will likely take more from Stanek’s nuanced arguments than those coming new to the topic. This choice aligns with the book’s primary arguments that these parts of the world should no longer be on the margins of the discipline of architectural history. In this way, it is possible to say that the book participates in its own extraordinary project of worldmaking.’

Figure 7. Monument of Kwame Nkrumah, Winneba, 1965. Sculpture by Alina Ślesińska.

Kimberly E. Zarecor is professor of Architecture at Iowa State University where she teaches courses in architectural history and design. She holds an MArch (1999) and PhD (2008) from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University. Her historical research considers architecture and urbanism in the former Czechoslovakia. She is the author of Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945–1960 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). She is currently researching and writing about shrinking places, both in the former Soviet Bloc and small rural communities in the American Midwest.

All images used in this review appear courtesy of Princeton University Press.

How to Cite This: Zarecor, Kimberly E. Review of Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War, by Łukasz Stanek, JAE Online, December 18, 2020.