As Aotearea moves to intensify housing, one architectural designer remembers her childhood in a concrete apartment block.
I was born in the 80s in Khabarovsk, Russia, in my family’s flat where I was raised. This was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, so correctly speaking I was born in the USSR. We lived on the fifth floor (of nine) in the middle block of three buildings arranged diagonally, in a tiny 52sqm apartment which was a typical-sized home for a family of four. We hit the jackpot with both the all-day sun and the river view which was greatly envied.
My mother got to choose the apartment from a few options before our building was finished, so she made the most of the opportunity. She was in a queue for a long time to get our own place, like everybody else, as all apartments were owned by the government and distributed to employees through their places of work, so I guess you can call it social housing in a social state (the only way you could have a home back then).
We were fortunate: the view of the mighty Amur river out of our windows was spectacular in any season, even in winter (when the river froze over and you could walk to the other side on a calm day). The sunsets were breathtaking, different every evening, with their rich and overly dramatic colours, yet the descending sun always brought comfort to the soul. You could hear trains in the distance, but no other polluting noise. So there it stood, on a steep bank of one of the biggest rivers in the country, surrounded by forest, rolling hills and old huts, a mass produced tilt slab monstrosity, a Soviet era landmark. I loved it and hated it in equal measures. I couldn’t wait to grow up and see the world!
As it’s a foreign concept to most New Zealanders, people here sometimes are curious about what it is like living in a dense apartment block. It is a way of life and its description is difficult to condense into writing without applying the context of Russia’s political regime (what they used to refer to as the “practical socialism”) with no class separation between highly educated intelligentsia and working folk, for example. We all lived in the same building.
Growing up I learned about the different kinds of neighbours. There were some my mother socialised with over cups of tea (in my country a cup of tea is an invitation to have a decent-sized meal and a heart to heart conversation about problems of life and political and/ or philosophical points of view. I once had, completely spontaneously, such a cup of tea with the consul at the Russian Embassy in Wellington). Then there was the neighbour my mother would borrow money from (always paying back and borrowing again).
The neighbour that would flood our apartment, hold late parties with loud music, but who surprisingly would offer an empathetic shoulder to cry on in a moment of need (when I ran out of our flat in socks sobbing after a fight with my brother). The neighbour who laughed loudly and somewhat uneasily before, much to my horror, going back to his place and shutting the door after I told him about the source of the burning smell (the kasha turned into liquid tar and filled the kitchen with smoke when I got home from school – Mum left the stove on that morning).
Recently I had a discussion in class while finishing my degree here at Ara. My classmates and I compared an experience living in a multi-storey apartment block with living in a detached house. My argument was that in a multi-storey apartment you don’t see the neighbours when you look out of your windows, you don’t look at their house, what it contains, the soul crushing fence, and so on. Yes, most of the time you would be looking at another apartment block or a commercial building, but generally not at a distance close enough to infringe on someone’s privacy. In a vertically composed building, I argued, if designed right, you are left with more void, more space around it for your eye to appreciate, more space to breathe.
The disadvantage (or for some, an entertaining circumstance) is, of course, that you have other people above, below and to the side of you and, whether you choose to or not, you get to learn about their hobbies (relentlessly practicing playing piano, badly), hygiene habits (running a bath before dinner time every Sunday), relationship ups and downs (passionate verbal declarations and dish breaking), and washing machine malfunction from up above you (when water starts to gush out of your electrical plugs). It may be a relief, perhaps, that you don’t ever have to spend time with your neighbours, except for the polite greeting in the elevator as you travel together for a minute or two as Russians don’t really do small talk.
Our neighbour interaction wasn’t limited to just our block, of course. My best friend lived in the very last apartment, number 108. There were many trips in a day between my place and hers, back and forth, for any reason whatsoever, often with the lifts out of order. We never felt scared or uneasy about moving through the building without our parents, playing outside for hours with no supervision or making friends with other children spontaneously.
I liked to compare our apartments (it never occurred to me as an unusual thing to do for a child): who had a better floor plan, which layout worked best for which family. We had the sun, they could watch who’s coming and going to and from the building. For the lack of natural light their place always appeared more melancholic but it felt cozy in a storm when rain hit their windows. On the contrary, our place had too much sun, and I remember sticking wet newspaper to the glass to limit heat gain in the summer, although the window frames were often left open to catch the breeze and nobody worried about falling out of the fifth floor. There was, of course, another option to get some fresh air. When I was living in the US as an adult, I suddenly reflected on the special word we have for a small openable window sash called “fortochka”, and it fascinates me that as Russians we have a cultural meaning for something like this and, oddly, some Westerners do not!
Thinking about my childhood days, I can see how dreaming allowed me to escape our chaotic life and for a moment it created a world I could understand and thrive in. Growing up a lot of things that were happening didn’t make sense and as a “different” child I felt alone struggling to make connections with people (the uneasy laughter of my neighbour echoed in my mind and it took years to finally decode its meaning). I realise now, looking beyond a child’s perception, life was hard and it brought stress and uncertainty to everyone, not just to my family. Without a mature understanding, I intuitively concluded that if only I could transform the space and how we lived in it, everyone would feel much happier. This naive mantra became the essence of what architecture means to me.
Often I would close my eyes at night and begin re-imagining our apartment. Such mental exercise would range from unrestricted child fantasies to some very practical interior design solutions. Somehow I always had a problem to solve, there was always a purpose behind the ideas, and with my relentless attention to detail, there was no limit of how far I could go. I, of course, learned (at the art school and later at architecture school) how to understand ideas, record them, break them down and build them up again, forever refining and applying a critical eye. But there was no separation for me between ordinary objects, real life situations, and what was taught to me by academics. Children’s minds are mouldable and perceptive, and I believe that a lot of my determination to learn and a strong desire to explore came out of frustration and even conflict that took origin in that very environment, in that society, with the hard life around us.
Nowadays, I tend to view these high rise social houses in a different light – no longer possessed with the urge to reject, I have a need to defend them, to look beyond the ugly facade to show people the positive impacts these buildings had. We are faced with the reality of this housing typology becoming old, unusable stock not just in Russia but all around the world. These are places where generations were raised and where people were making the most of what they had, where memories were created and cherished. These buildings are part of my heritage I wish to preserve, however, without a thoughtful adaptation to modern life and people’s needs today they, sadly, cannot be considered healthy sustainable places to live.
This essay was a finalist in the Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing