On 25 February 2014, Joseph Rykwert, this year’s Royal Gold Medallist, was joined by Stephen Hodder (RIBA President), David Gloster (RIBA Director of Education), and Alexandra Stara (Kingston University and Chair of the RIBA President’s Dissertation Medal judging panel) to form the panel of the 2014 RIBA Royal Gold Medal Student Crit. The audience comprised esteemed academics and architects, and many of Rykwert’s peers eager to hear the presentations from the three President’s Medals winners.
The first one to present was Tamsin Hanke, from the Bartlett School of Architecture, who received the President’s Dissertation Medal for her work Magnitogorsk: Utopian Vision of Spatial Socialism. Tamsin started by outlining how the city of Magnitogorsk was founded on the extreme south of the eastern face of the Ural mountain during Stalin’s Five year plans. Originally a small settlement with a military base to the north, Magnitogorsk underwent significant development once it was discovered (when compasses failed to work correctly in the military base) that it was rich in iron ore. As part of his plans on industrialisation, Stalin planned to build mono-industry cities, and Magnitogorsk was to be an exemplar of this approach by becoming the heart of steel manufacturing. Designed by Ernst May, the city was constructed following a linear layout running along the Ural River as a model of efficiency, productivity and manufacturing. The idea was that Magnitogorsk would produce not only a new type of city, but also a new type of people, who would be the ‘real proletariat’ rather than peasants. Following in the footsteps of Detroit as a model for how space could be used instinctively in an efficient way, engineers were flown in from the US to provide guidance on how to develop the fabric of the city.
Intensive construction in the first few years of the history of Magnitogorsk meant that the population swiftly rose from 500 to 500,000. The initial workforce was recruited partly through forced labour, partly through recruitment, and partly through migration, with subsequent population growth coming exclusively from migration. Anecdotal stories told how the lights on construction site made the city seem really exciting as people arrived at night, and it was only in morning that they realised it was all still under construction. In the end, the authorities locked the city down in order to stop the migration.
The first architectural problem with Magnitogorsk became apparent when it emerged that a large building (whose construction efforts were well-intentioned but unsuccessful) had been built on the wrong side of the river, in a location that made the direction of wind blow pollution into city. Furthermore, it soon became clear that walking between blocks was very difficult, and people had to rely heavily on public transport. Interestingly, Magnitogorsk was designed so that every street ended with a view of the factory to ensure that inhabitants were always aware of the relationship between the city and its industry. Due to this socialist relationship, in 1997, a team of psychologists were employed to report on the impact that capitalism would have on the city.
Magnitogorsk is now one of the 30 most polluted cities in world where only 1% of children of its population of 400,000 people are born healthy. New areas are constructed to adhere to the grid rather that repopulating disused blocks, and buildings become more modern the further South one travels. Privately owned by an oligarch, the city can currently be considered a micro dictatorship. In spite of containing reserves of iron ore that would last for five years, the mineral is imported, in case Russia goes into war. In her summary, Tamsin reported that there are 400 other mono cities in Russia, all in a similar state, a situation which (in her view) poses a threat to the future of Russia.
When asked by Stephen Hodder to comment, Joseph Rykwert told the audience how he had previously been involved in a similar project, and city farmers thought they could solve the problem by building an internal transport system and expensive hotels. He wondered what the city farmers of Magnitogorsk thought the future would be now?
Tamsin explained how the city is successful for the private oligarch, although reliant on the fact that people don’t leave. When looking into the future for the city, it was important to remember that Russia is now looking eastwards (namely, to China) for trade and that the city had not been built in a way that contemplated the possibility of retrofitting.
Alexandra Stara reflected on the wider pool of dissertations submitted for the awards and on the diverse thematic variety. She added that the judging panel had naturally veered towards relevance of subjects rather than self-indulgent theoretical exercises, emphasising the importance that work be culturally aware, poetic and ambitious with implications for the world. She praised Tamsin’s dissertation for being a ‘fascinating, original piece of research’ before querying her thoughts on the idea of ‘utopia’ which had been used in the presentation. When originally conceived, Alexandra explained that Utopia had been about ultimate efficiency.
Tamsin answered that she had used the word utopia as a way of weighing things up, and felt that the intention for the city wasn’t always realised. She believed it was more about looking to the future, and into considerations of a practical utopia where people felt it would be possible to achieve something. It therefore could become a practical end goal rather than unrealisable dream.
Joseph asked if Tamsin had considered European models of linear cities as well as linear development. Tamsin responded that she has looked at Corbusier, but that Magnitogorsk differed in that it had been proposed with a different intention behind it.
David Gloster described the work as ‘gripping’ with ‘clarity of vision second to none’. He explained how he personally disagreed with the wider Western critique of the socialist city, and praised the potent iconography, the synergy between building and landscape and construction with a functional and social agenda. He wondered whether Tamsin felt the next 50 to 100 years would have something that has this type of clarity and bravery attached to it. She replied by saying that she felt architects constantly worked with optimism and hope.
An audience member questioned what conclusions Tamsin had drawn from the work and how she wanted to progress with these. She stated that it was important to look at Magnitogorsk and the ways in which its spaces were used with a potential to be socialist, regardless of whether that intent was achieved or not. She did caution, however, that a city built from political ideology has a limited time frame, which in itself has wider implications for the livelihood of its inhabitants.
Written by Hayley Russell. Don’t miss the next blog posts on the 2014 RGM Crit, covering the presentations by the Bronze and Silver Medallists.