Saturday, January 17, 2015

The T22 interior - Back in the USSR!

Tell them Jagger. Having been in an eerie, large, hotel flat-building in Prague, and many more times in Poland where my parents in law live, I developed a fascination for the "Soviet way of living". Not that I would love to swap my comfy home for a grim apartment block situated right next to a smoking factory chimney. No sir! I'm just baffled how people would live there. I’m not really talking about Poland or Prague –which made quite some progress the past twenty years- but about the really remote Russian factory-villages, Soviet repression before the curtain fell, and the spooky remains of that era after the curtain fell.

There is no place like home
When thinking about bad places, some Russian or Eastern Europe flat might not be the first thing that pops up in your mind. Shoot, at least they still had a home! And work, and a kitchen, maybe a car, and Vodka. No, thinking about the poorest places on Earth brings my mind into a south American favela. Or an African village literally made out of junk. Middle east huts drained with bullet holes. Or people who just don't have a home at all.

I can't compare and judge what is worse. But no matter how poor these people are, yet it's somehow different. Not scary in a "horror story" kind of way. Images of sick people (think about HIV or Ebola cases) laying on the streets to die are disturbing. Disturbing because apparently, we as a human race still aren't capable of preventing this to happen. Not even capable to let a human-being spend his last days in dignity. But apart from that, I also associate these places with more happy thoughts. Forgive me if this sounds very ignorant, but when seeing a Favela, I also think about kids playing football, or carnival. A chaotic Indian market on the middle of a railroad track, where babies get dumped between the garbage, also makes me think about spicy foods and a sort of humoristic social interaction. An African slum with sunny weather, beautiful wildlife, and music. A homeless man with freedom.

When I look at images of Pyongyang (North Korea) or Russian communal homes, I get very different feelings. Not necessarily about poverty, war, pain, or hunger. But about extreme depression. The whole picture offers little place for joy. From eating potatoes to general boredom. From being snowed in most of the year, to working in a filthy, stinking factory. From the lack of individual development, to being watched by secret services such as the KGB or Stasi, being afraid to think "wrong". Inhabitants of most communist countries were/are nothing but work-tools for mother-state. And as a "reward", the cherry on the bland communist pie, you could live in a cumbersome claustrophobic apartment.

After a day of hard labour, welcome home!

Pursuit of happiness
We Western people have the luxury of making Life Purposes, and actually getting a chance to realize them. Although most people won't accomplish the villa with a swimming pool, six or let alone one beautiful wife, personal jet, and a job as a game studio CEO - music DJ footballer. But at least we can still look forward to the smaller joys our consumer-society has to offer. Save money for a new-second-hand car, booking our next vacation, decorating the house with a new furniture set, making a living out of your passion. Whether its materials or non-materials, there is always something to look forward to. Something to aspire.

The same can be said more or less for somewhat poorer countries. Replace "new-second-hand car" with "third-hand-used-donkey". Fancy restaurant with "coffee-bar", or aspiring to become a CEO with just finding a job that isn't too hazardous. Being satisfied is a very relative concept, and truly isn't all about the price-tags on your belongings. It's more about the feasibility of it all.

Well, besides getting drunk, there really wasn't much to aspire in the Soviet era. Of course, it would depend a little bit on the location. Playing chess with cigars and rum in communistic Cuba doesn't sound that bad. Then again having to bow for the Great Kim Jung Un 3D every day -a society living on fear-, sounds like a nightmare. If unhealthy factory work, alcohol or the ever present police state won't end your life in an early stage, what has life to offer you? A dream-job? Forget it. The state decides where you are needed. Vacation to an exotic country? Not allowed. Some money to buy nice stuff? No. Not in the first place due the lack of money, but also because there simply is nothing fancy to buy. Joining a Tennis/Yoga/Art/Swimming club to kill time. Unlikely. IF there is anything at all in your remote village, it has to fit in the ideal picture. Think about joining the Stalin-jugend, becoming a hormone injected sports-woman for the Olympic team, or getting drilled to play chess 10 hours a day so the state can show its superior talents. Remember, your function as a tool for the state matters, not your individual needs. Why complain anyway? The state offers you a house, work, and food. Ungrateful dog…

Glory days.

Behind the facades
Before telling more funny “facts", please note I'm not an expert, and my Slavic girl only grew up behind the Iron Curtain for a short period (born in '83, curtain fell in '89) in a not-so-bad out-of-the-city village. Sure they didn't have a Super Nintendo and pizza's back then, but neither did she experience the true horrors of being locked and silenced in a monstrous concrete apartment block, blackened by filthy fumes, decorated with graffiti and horrific paint colours to ”cheer up”. But those buildings are still out there, and the whole Soviet Shellshock is still noticeable. Even in her character.

Whether you were a carpenter or a Rocket scientist. in the end you would come home in the same type of house, with the same type of interior (how stimulating to work harder - not), watching the same TV shows, and eating the same tasteless food in the same dress. Although certainly not everybody lived in a flat, the "Stalinki" (flat block) became "popular" between the thirties and fifties of the previous century.

It's not completely true when saying that everyone in Soviet-county had the very same housing; The Stalinki blocks were meant for the elite -political leaders, high ranked military, secret agents, top scientists, intelligentsia- and came in two versions. "Nomenklatura" for the highest levels, and "Direktorskiye" for the workers within that elite. Main differences with lower-class buildings were, obviously, the square meters per room, more facilities (study rooms, nurseries, dining) and your own toilet to shit on. Also, housing the elite and usually being lined up in city centres, these large structures had to represent superior Soviet strength with stately facades, high ceilings, tall windows, ornaments and decorations.

Don't be fooled though. Elite or not, the building quality and material choices were poor. Certainly the lower worker-class buildings, which were only meant to last 25 years or so. Needless to say, many of them are still "standing"... Notorious are the simpler communal buildings, where about 4 families (say 4x4 = 16 people) had to share the same apartment. You would get your own room, but facilities such as a kitchen or bathroom would be shared. Most Western people can't stand their own mother-in-law, let alone your (drunk) roommates making a mess of the kitchen.

Despite its simplistic looks, poor quality and cramped rooms, a better option were the "Khrushchyovka" buildings, introduced in the late fifties. Stalin's successor Khrushchev ordered to focus more and more on the mass production of apartment blocks. These worker-class buildings didn't even try to use impressive facades to mask its inner ugly. Like stinky mushrooms, not taking the surrounding architecture into account, these apartment blocks sprouted about everywhere. The reason was mainly functional. Most (ex-)Soviet countries are huge, but don't have a dense population. Wherever there was work (read mining, gas, oil, minerals or other industrial benefits to be found), places to live had to be offered, as pending through the stretched (and often extremely cold/snowy) forests or countryside was obviously not an option. These pre-fab buildings were cheap, provided space for many people, and survived the harsh winters thanks to their thick walls. Good enough not to die, but the words "style" and "comfort" were obviously scrapped. But at least you would have your *own* apartment.
Youtube: Khrushchyovka!

Later on improvements came along with the "Brezhnevki" buildings. These high-rise buildings had better construction quality, but possibly made the city skyline even more depressing due their massive size. Doubling the size of a turd doesn't take away the bad smell. The opposite happened in suburbs where one after another concrete monster was lined up, creating that characteristic, depressing “Soviet” look. Hence the number "22" in Tower22. En masse.

Even a nuclear disaster couldn't clean up the skyline-litter.

Home sweet home
Pictures of such living spaces often give a messy, chaotic impression. Not a big surprise. Whether sharing your apartment or not, space was limited in any case. Combined with the lack of financial tools, rooms became super-multi-functional. For example, a bed takes about 2 square meters or even more. Having a sofa that could be unfolded to a bed would give back these lost square meters during daytime. The same room could also contain a kitchen block, so when using in combination with a table, the same sofa could also be used for dining. Livingroom, diningroom, bedroom all in one. And a laundry, and workplace, and storage, and ...

No room to waste space, so people got quite inventive with the simple tools they had. Sofa’s became beds, pieces of rope clothlines, and the central stove would also heat the house, dry socks, burn thrash, and make soup all at once. A cupboard made in the cooler outer-walls could function as a “fridge”. All of this stimulated hoarding behaviour. Since every object could have an useful purpose –if not now, then maybe later-, it became a habit to waste nothing… thus keeping everything in those tiny apartments. No surprise that furniture like a “Yugosla¬vian wall-unit” (closet) were almost necessities of life.

Entering the furniture shop wouldn’t give you a broad collection, varying from IKEA √člmo seats to Corbusier tables. No, same boring assortment all over the place again. We spoiled Westerns buy a new cat if the neighbours have the same breed, but here chances were big you would be looking at the same TV, sitting in the same seat when visiting your friends. Naturally, the urge of having your own place and identity couldn’t get killed by the concept of an unified social super-state. People would find different ways to personalize their 18 square meter living-boxes. Anything divergent, colourful or “funny” would get a place. Pink cups, porcelain figurines (kitsch!), plastic flowers, stickers, puppets, rugs, cans with decorations – just anything so you could say “We may dine on the same kitchen table, but you don’t have this awesome bamboo curtain!”.

Tower Brezhnev 22
Our game doesn’t take place in Russia- or any other place in the world. So we aren’t strictly using Soviet architecture, furniture or equipment. Yet I’ll often google around to find my inspiration here. Making another apartment environment at the moment, it’s not just a matter of making a few box-shaped rooms with randomly cut holes for doors and windows, decorated with another random wallpaper. Sizes of the rooms, height of the ceiling, thickness of walls, lay-out of equipment; it’s all considered carefully. The most difficult part is getting that cheap, messy, sober look – yet at the same time decorated with plastered ornaments and impressive sized structures. Half-life 2 did this well by the way, “City 17” being based on cities such Sofia (maybe not a surprise, as Valve’s art director Viktor Antonov was born there).

What I usually do is gathering a collection of photo’s, and open a third eye for messy kitchens, improvised shelves, and the combinations of wallpapers, fishgrate pattern floors, and bare concrete. But moderation is also needed. Dumping a container of garbage in a single room won’t do the trick, and if you play all your trick-cards in a single apartment, all others (and T22 will have a lot) won’t be interesting anymore. It’s about subtlety. Fortunately, the Soviet era left plenty of “monsters” for my inspiration!

You don't need mushrooms to get dizzy and trip down here.

Soviet architecture
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