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Panel Discussion

A new exhibition at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute examines concrete construction, Soviet style.

By Fred A. Bernstein
February 22, 2013
Photo © Peter Tannenbaum
Installation view of Cold War Cool Digital on view at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn through March 20.

Most people don’t think of Nikita Khrushchev, the former Soviet premier, as having changed architectural history. But those people haven’t been to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for the fascinating new show, Cold War Cool Digital. The exhibition, which runs through March 20th (in a building undamaged by last week’s destructive fire), traces the relationship between Soviet imperialism and the panelized building systems that were a hallmark of the Iron Curtain years.

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In a 1954 speech to the National Conference of Builders, Architects, and Workers, Khrushchev called for the elimination of “ornamental excesses” from Soviet architecture and the use of pre-fab concrete panels to create of massive new housing blocks throughout the Soviet-influenced world. Under his plan, “construction was transferred from the building site to the factory, and manual labor was exchanged for the automated mass production of large standardized pieces,” write Pedro Alonso and Hugo Palmarola in an introduction to the exhibition. In Russia, the resulting apartment blocks, called Khrushchovkas, were celebrated in propaganda films, and also widely parodied. The exhibition includes more than a dozen cartoons from the satiric magazine Krokodil, including one in which a husband removes an entire wall of his apartment in an attempt to open a window.

The show was curated by Catherine Ingraham, a longtime Pratt professor, who during a trip to Chile for in 2011 learned of Alonso and Palmarola’s research into the panelized apartment buildings—and their social and political significance. With the support of Pratt, Ingraham expanded on their project; eventually, curatorial assistants in Chile and New York, using 3-D printers, created 1:75 scale models of the buildings that Alonso and Palmarola were studying. That work, which involved the painstaking recreation of tens of thousands of individual panels, is the heart of the show: a relentless city of all-white apartment blocks that would have horrified even the most committed Modernists. And yet each model reveals subtle differences. “It’s interesting to see how the systems vary according to cultures and political systems,” says Ingraham, pointing to photos of pink and blue Cuban buildings.

The West is also represented. Indeed, the first modern panelization system was patented by French engineer Raymond Camus in 1948. Camus’s work—which was adapted by the Soviets—is included in the show, as is a panelized dormitory building by the British architect James Stirling.

Ingraham explained the title of the show (and a related symposium on February 28) as describing the evolution of mass-produced Modernism from a charmless tool of Cold War imperialism into a "cool" lifestyle choice, as well as the path of panelization from the poured concrete of the middle of the 20th century to today's far more sophisticated digital production. The show will fascinate anyone who ever played with a Girder and Panel set as a child, or thought of architecture as a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Steven Holl’s Higgins Hall, a 2005 addition to the Pratt campus with a puzzle-piece-like facade, is the perfect setting for the exhibition.

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