Beautiful Brutalism: Tales from Soviet Asia

The wind was crisp, and cold when it hit our faces. Seated on a wooden table, with my friend Zahra, with some coffee, hot chocolate and a bunch of papers and pens, I pulled my shawl closer around me. The aroma of coffee overpowered my nose, because where there’s Zahra, there’s coffee. We bury ourselves in work, completing a research paper we’re working on, and chat a lot, as usual.

Zahra is an architect and a conservationist. She had the pleasure of working with the Agha Khan Conservation Program in the walled city of Lahore. She was one of the lucky one’s who has the honour of helping restore the beautiful Masjid Wazir Khan.

Between work, our conversations wander off here and there. We begin to talk about the significance of cultural heritage architecture. We talked about how heritage architecture signifies the collective memory of the past, the past which defines us, who we were, and how we have evolved as people, and as a nation. We also discussed how these buildings eventually become landmarks and monuments, and becomes a form of symbolism. Not only is it symbolistic, it also promotes tourism, and in many cases, also promotes religious harmony as is the case of Kartarpur and Nankana Sahib in Pakistan, or the Buddhist temples across the country.

Then we move on to preserving heritage, we can not preserve buildings without considering sentiments of people who live around it. If a building is a reminder of oppression or a hurtful incident, adaptive re-use is a better idea rather than preservation. It is a way to rebuild narratives, without destruction. Romanticising pain and a colonial past, for instance, is not always the ideal option. For example, Haveli Nau Nehal Singh, a house of a known philanthropist who migrated from Pakistan in 1947, was converted into a high school for girls. The building stands, it pays tribute to his memory, but it is no longer a “Haveli” built in the Indo-Saracenic architectural style.

Speaking of architectural styles, we moved on to Brutalism and it’s significance. The Brutalist movement became a phenomenon in the 20th century. However, it has its roots in the industrial revolution. Brutalism was needed because during the post-war period, the world no longer afforded expensive buildings, which took decades to construct like earlier Renaissance, Gothic or Byzantine Style architecture. The term Brutalism comes from the French word “beton brut”-which literally means “raw concrete”. The term was coined by an American architect, and the theory behind the movement was to stay true to the nature of the material of construction. Naturally, the Brutalistic approach to architecture took root quickly, in a relatively poor world.

We talked about the pioneers of Brutalistic architecture in Asia and came across some concrete beauties of what was once Soviet Asia. As we delved into search engines, we found so many Brutalist buildings from Euroasia, Central Asia, and South Asia, which stand tall to date, in all their beauty. I decided to compile a list for you, so here we go.

Kazakhstan

Ascension Cathedral

Located in Almaty, it was opened to parishioners in 1907. The Ascension Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church is one of the eight tallest buildings made of wood. And guess what? It uses virtually no nails! The splendour of this holy place remains unmatched. Luckily, special reconstruction techniques helped it remain as one of the few buildings which survived the massive earthquake which hit the region in 1910.

Ascension Cathedral, Kazakhstan

TV and Radio building

TV and Radio building, constructed in 1983, Almaty.

TV tower:

Kazakhstan TV Tower

The Kot Tobe TV Tower is the second-highest building in Kazakhstan and the 14th highest TV tower in the world! Although it was built for technical purposes, it’s a unique architecture made it a symbol of Almaty’s skyline. The construction methods are indeed a marvel considering that the 372-meter high tower stands on a 45 thousand tons concrete foundation! It also has high seismic stability, which goes up to 10 points on the Richter scale.

State Theatre

Formerly known as the Palace of Culture AHBK, erected in the late 1800’s, designed by A. Petrova, Z. Mustafina, G. Dzhakipova, G. Stulov, G. Nikitin. The artists were Y. Funkorenko, V. Tverdokhlebov, Almaty.

State Academic Russian Theatre for children and young people

Hotel Kazakhstan:

The building with a golden “crown” on its roof, a 25-storey skyscraper, was the tallest building of the city of Almaty for over three decades. Built in the later half of the 20th century, this architectural feat is a result of experiment and ambitious architectural ideas from Soviet Modernism.

Hotel Kazakhstan

Republican Palace

In the centre of Almaty, this seventies structure from influential Almaty architect Ripinsky looks different now a huge video wall is mounted on the front.

Wedding Palace

A typical example of the Soviet penchant for collectivizing family life: wedding palaces, mourning centres, etc. all were built en masse after the war.

Arasan Baths

More beautiful from the inside than the outside, the Arasan baths are nonetheless an interesting combination of traditional Kazakh elements and the concrete moloch style of the ’80s.

Palace of School Children

This one is a mix between an observatory and a mosque at first sight. But no, it’s a cultural centre for children.

Al-Farabi Kazakh National University

This building in Almaty, the former capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, was erected in the 1970s and now houses Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.

Other concrete beauties in Almaty include the KAZGU campus, the Kasteev Museum and the old Parliament Building.

Kyrgyzstan:

The National Library

The Kyrgyz National Library is amongst one of the buildings in Bishkek which radiate a strong aura. Although founded in 1934, it moved into the current building a good fifty years after that! The institution was known as the Lenin Library until the Republic’s independence in 1991.

Kyrgyz National Library

Public Artworks

The former USSR was well known for its use of art and mosaics which coloured its cities. This artwork, on a textile factory in Bishkek says “Our work is for you, Motherland!”

Kyrgyz National Philharmonic:

The 1000-seat concert hall was named after the poet Toktogul Satylganov. The concrete and marble structure proudly stands as a part of a majestic cityscape in Bishkek.

National History Museum:

Formerly known as the Lenin Museum, the structure was not at all welcome when construction began. Local architects and artists resisted putting up a museum commemorating the Bolsheviks. However Moscow eventually won, and the cubic white building was completed in 1984, with a statue of Lenin guarding the entrance. It is home to a large collection of socialist realist art. In 2003, Lenin’s statue was moved to a less visible location, behind the museum.

The Bishkek Circus:

Circuses were nationalized in 1917. Clowns and acrobats no longer performed only for the aristocracy. Built in 1976, the Bishkek Circus is in hues of bright green and yellow, whimsical touch to Soviet concrete structures. Buildings similar to this giant flying saucer soon popped up in many major cities of the USSR.

The Bishkek Wedding Palace

Karl Marx may have been opposed to churches. But weddings, oh well, celebration time! This state-run wedding palace, clad with marble, with its tall windows and sharp angles is a reminder of Bishkek’s Soviet past. And did you know? It still holds ceremonies today!

Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts

This was one of the three cultural institutions established in the 1970’s, along with the Lenin and Frunze Museums, in an attempt to renovate the city. This building of raw slabs of concrete still hosts many sculptures, rugs and paintings.

The Ala-Too Square:

The Old Square was characterized by a statue of Marx and Engels. The Usubaliev government desired something more grandiose. Thus the Ala-Too square came into being, designed to overlook the Tien Shan mountains, the Lenin Museum, and the White House. Soon, it became a center for protests. In 2oo5, flowerbeds, memorials, fountains and fences were all incorporated into the square, making it protest-proof.

The White House:

The White House, or the Presidential Palace, is another landmark. The Neoclassical style, Stalinist inspired building housed the Central Committee of the Communist Party between 1977 and 1984. In 2005 and 2010, this dystopian structure became the site of violent riots against the government.

Sports Palace:

Erected in 1974, the Sports Palace has a huge statue of Baatyr Kaba Uulu Kozhomkul, a known national mythological hero on its entrance. The statue portrays the man carrying a horse on his back.

Residential Buildings

The structure was designed by B. Lebedev, I. Kombarbayev, A. Nezhurin, M. Baybekov, and Y. Grinshtein, and erected in 1985.

Tajikistan:

State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater. S. Aini

Executive office of the President of the Republic of Tatarstan

Houses of Parliament

The former library, Firdavsi which is now the Accounts Chamber.

Puppet Theatre Lukhtak

State theatre’s popped up everywhere, including Dushanbe. This building was designed by the architect Isuf Sangov, and the art is by Alexander Grigorov and Ilya Ilyaev. (If you’re liking the artsy-ness, look up Ilya, she did quite a lot of commendable work!)

The History Museum

The Academy of Sciences

Chaikhana “Rohat”

The Concert Palace of Dushanbe

Completed in 1984, designed by Sergo Sutyagin, it is an absolutely classic example of brutalist Soviet architecture.

Cable Car Top Station

Completed in 1984, designed by Sergo Sutyagin, it is an absolutely classic example of brutalist Soviet architecture. Are you up for a ride?

Mosiac of Avicenna

The Soviets had a thing for public artworks. We find them literally everywhere. Here’s one of the most famous one’s from Dushanbe, created in 1988. It is accredited to lya Rakhnaev, who was the architect of the structure, and to artists Alexander Grigorov and Ilya Ilyaev.

Kulob Bus Station

“V.I. Lenin”

This artwork stands proudly in the city of Kulob, completed in the year 1984, the handiwork of L. Gadjiev and S. Sharipov.

Parks

A park for children and Brutalism? Who would have thought it? Apparently, the Soviets did.

The Dushanbe Circus, the Lomonosov Moscow State University, Monument to the Great Patriotic War and residential complexes, along with the colourful artworks on them are other reminders of Tajikistan’s Soviet Past.

Uzbekistan

Tashkent Puppet Theatre

Designed in 1979 by Valery Kuzlyanov, Tashkent’s Puppet Theatre features a colourful frieze and a front column topped with a metal ‘stage’, from which mechanical figurines appear to announce the next performance.

Tashkent Circus

Not only did clowns and acrobats stop being in business only for the rich, the places they performed at were also a sight to see! The Circus’ grand interiors feature colourful tiled walls, parquet floors and striking circular doorways is postcard picture perfect. Designed in 1976 by Genrikh Aleksandrovich and Gennady Masyagin, the landmark Tashkent Circus was last renovated in the 1990s.

Metro Stations

Big on development? Oh yes! Certainly. Once you have negotiated the uniformed ticket sales team (admission 1,200 soms, around ten British pence), you find ornate white marble columns, a dazzling array of chandeliers, and trains that closely resemble enlarged versions of those boxy tin toys, printed a fraction out of register, that encapsulated the average Soviet childhood. When Tsar Alexander II besieged Tashkent in 1865, looking to outflank the British for control of the approaches to Afghanistan and India, his army took over an Islamic walled city of mudbrick lanes, mosques and bazaars, built on the edge of a desert and depending on canals for its survival. Imperial Russia’s first move was to build a fortress, now demolished, and then to create a new city immediately adjacent to old Tashkent, modelled as closely as possible on Moscow.

The History Museum

Formerly the Lenin Museum, the 1970 Museum of History of Uzbekistan, by Yevgeny Rozanov and Vsevolod Shestopalov, features concrete decorative grilles based on traditional Uzbek pandzhara sun screens

The Peoples’ Friendship Palace

The 1980 Peoples’ Friendship Palace is the country’s main concert hall. Its façade combines oriental decoration with industrial style elements, such as a bolt-shaped roof cornice.

Hotel Uzbekistan

Monotonous? Nah, that’s how the Soviet’s rolled!

Exhibition Hall of the Uzbek Union of Artists

I have lost count of how many building’s the Russians built dedicated to art. By R. Khayrutdinov and F. Tursunov, erected in 1974, this beautiful building is another Brutalist Statement. The photograph is by Stefano Perego.

The Drilling Tool Plant of Samarkand

Residential Buildings

Striking, to say the least.

The Former Lenin Museum

Lenin loved museums I suppose, or he was just narcissistic-I mean no offence, but the chap named museums and libraries after himself everywhere!! Like in Bishkek, this is now the History Museum. The decoration is the traditional pandzara, a decorative railing that has been magnified and reproduced in concrete on many of the Modernist buildings in Central Asia.

Cafe Blue Domes

Blending styles for the win!

Lenin Square

Ah, the love for squares and for Lenin!

Chorsu Bazaar

Central-everything, yes, including city markets were a thing. Very pretty markets, at that.

Cinema Tashkent

This concrete beauty, the former Palace of Arts, now the cinema was built in 1964, by Vladimir Berezin, Sergo Sutyagin, Yury Khaldeyev, Dmitry Shuvayev.

Afghanistan

A six-story Soviet-built mikrorayon in Kabul. These were initially constructed to house Russian officials. However, the Soviets left, and the buildings were left behind. So here we are…

Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge

Although not built with altruistic purposes in mind, the rail and road bridge, which was opened in 1982, is the only fixed transport link across the Afghan-Uzbek border. The bridge was built by the USSR to supply its troops in Afghanistan and is featured in an iconic photograph of the last Soviet troops leaving the country.

The Uzbek authorities shut down the bridge in 1997 when the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan. Reopened in 2001, it is one of landlocked Afghanistan’s main access points to the trade routes of Central Asia.

Salang Tunnel

This tunnel under the Salang Pass on the Hindu Kush Mountains is considered an engineering marvel. It reaches an altitude of 3400 meters above sea level, was opened to the public in 1964. It was the highest road tunnel in the world until 1973, when a slightly higher tunnel was built in the United States. It is the only north-south tunnel in the country that is in use throughout the year and it cut travel time from Kabul to northern Afghanistan by almost 62 hours.

Kabul Polytechnic University

The main building of the university was built in Soviet modernist style and the campus has several Socialist murals. The university came under heavy fire during the Soviet-Afghan war and was forced to shut by the Taliban. It has since been restored and reopened.

Community Swimming Pool

Atop Swimming Pool Hill the pool stands restored, as a symbol of a Soviet Past amidst ruins.

Mural at the House of Science

It’s crumbling, unfortunately, but it’s beautiful. Another classic example of Soviet Art.

The House of Science and Culture

The starkest illustration of thwarted imperial ambition is the Soviet House of Science and Culture, near the Russian Embassy and the Kabul zoo. It is a modern, angular, concrete hulk where Soviets and Afghans gathered for lectures, films and the propagation of modernizing ideas that for a while refashioned Kabul at one point, but it now lies in ruins.

Armenia

The Cascade complex

It was designed by architects Sargis Gurzadyan, Jim Torosyan, and Aslan Mkhitaryan. The works on the complex started in 1971 and nine years later the first part of the Cascade was finished. Further works continued in 2000s.

The Cascade complex consists of a few levels where you can find numerous modern sculptures as well as Armenian folk decorations.

Yerevan Railway Station

Soviet-era transit stations remain strewn throughout Armenia, but one of the country’s finest examples is Yerevan Railway Station, located in the capital city’s Erebuni district, south of downtown. Designed by Armenian architect E. Tigranyan, the now iconic structure opened in 1956 and is still in operation: an architectural blend of Socialist Realism — showcasing the glories of Communism — Neo-classical and traditional Armenian-style constructed in pink tufa stone.

Moscow Cinema, Pandukht

Yerevan’s 5th century St. Peter and Paul Church, which was demolished and replaced by the Moscow Cinema, a 1936 movie palace still in operation today. Originally built in the constructivist-style — a form of modern Soviet architecture which was approaching its tail end — architects Spartak Kndeghtsyan and Telman Gevorgyan added a Functionalist-style open-air hall in the 1960s, using concrete forms to transform a backyard between two buildings into one of the city’s most popular public gathering spaces. In 1983, a facade adorned with scenes from famous Soviet-Armenian movies like Pepo — the theater’s opening film — was also added.

Institute of Communication

Not only the building is pretty amazing, but there is also a beautiful bas relief, reminding me of the famous one from Minsk, Belarus so much. You can also find some folk Armenian ornaments here. It was built in 1976 by the architects Armen Aghalyan, and Grigori Grigoryan.

Cinema Rossiya

It used to be the largest cinema in Armenia that could fit up to 2500 people. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cinema Rossiya was abandoned and now partly serves as a shopping center. It was designed to resemble Mount Ararat with its two peaks in the 1970's.

Komitas Chamber Music Theatre

It was built between 1968–77 and designed by Stepan Kyurkchyan. The hall was built in the shape of the Armenian church with three-nave basilica design. It can fit up to 300 people.

Metro Station Yeritasardakan

This is one of the most iconic buildings when it comes to Soviet architecture in Yerevan. Yeritasardakan metro station was built in 1981 and is well known for the distinctive tube above the entrance to the station.

Tigran Petrosian Chess House

Chess in Armenia is very important. Kids at school have mandatory chess lessons from the age of 6 (this is the only country in the world when chess play such a big role in the education program).

Zvartnots Airport

The majestic abandoned airport of Armenia…

Karen Demirchyan Complex

To get to the complex you need to walk up 184 stairs. The unique design, looking like the bird opening the wings, gave the architects the USSR State Prize in 1987.

Yerevan State Engineering University

This is one of the most beautiful examples of brutalism in Yerevan. The whole university building is covered in concrete shapes looking like clovers. At the entrance you can also see beautifully carved scenes.

Tsitsernakaberd — Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex

Located on the hill above the city, this is a must place for everyone visiting Yerevan. The Genocide Museum explains the complex history of the nation and especially tragic events from 1915.

Neobrutal Resedential Complexes

Yerevan might be the first city where you will find the block of flats built in neobrutalist style. The building was completed in 2013 and is truly impressive, looking like a gate to the city (which reminds me a lot about Belgrade, Serbia).

I hope you enjoyed this tур по Soviet Architecture of the region, or, what’s left of it, after bloody revolutions, and even bloodier wars.

A didactic bird dedicated to the discovery of art around the world.

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