Aesthetics of Boredom

by kamilla kuna

PART 3 ︎︎︎ the ideology behind soviet blocks

(6 minute read)
Text is a part of Master Thesis “Aesthetics of Boredom in post-soviet neighbourhoods. Multisensory experience of Laumas microdistrict in Liepaja, Latvia.” (full text available here

Microdistrict planning was focused on but not limited to square meters; simultaneously to urban planning, the life of residents in the neighborhoods was intensely planned. The ideology taught residents that the city would be planned for them top-down, providing an united and equal living situation. The feeling of ownership is often limited to the interior of the apartment. The municipality does not own any property in microdistricts, as the apartments and land between the buildings were privatized after independence. Culture and consumer possibilities were provided and distributed according to each plan. Without a long-term solution, these neighborhoods would survive in a different regime, but the different regime was not even considered at the time. Independence, which was a great success for Baltic countries, also took away the communist dream of standardized life where everything is planned and functions without the continuous initiative of the residents.

Soviet blocks might be a scar on the Baltic and post soviet country history; at the same time, it is one of the most impressive urban plans applied to so many cities that are still standing in the present times.

The utopian lifestyle of the microdistrict is at the core very related to mundane life. These neighborhoods were not made with active street culture in mind. More precisely, they built the Soviet dream of owning an apartment, getting further from the city noise, and raising kids with the comfort of all facilities being close by. The everyday scope of the Soviet utopia has made it challenging to change the lifestyle of these built structures; it had a very particular way of standardizing people's mundane life.

The main inspiration for Baltic microdistricts came first-hand from trips abroad. The first influential trip for Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Leningrad architects was to Finland's suburbs. However, the significant difference between Nordic and Soviet countries was the core of urban planning. Yes, mass housing did serve as an essential political tool where the industrial method stressed building communism fast. In the West, the objective was to build a welfare state and a better future (Drėmaitė, 2010). Dremaite argues that "modernist aesthetics and Western-oriented ambitions of the Baltic architects have been reflected in mass housing as the architects wish to modernize the everyday local environment" (Drėmaitė, 2010). Because Soviet architects were looking up to the Nordic examples, it seems interesting that the discussion in Finland about suburbia is researched from different angles like resident inclusive urban planning and the issue of gendered suburban living.

But outside the Soviet Union, suburban places were also created. The research on Helsinki suburban spaces by Finnish art historian Kirsi Saarikangas showcases the resident opinion on their everyday lives. Research "Sandboxes and Heavenly dwellings: Gender, Agency, and Modernity in Lived Suburban spaces in Helsinki Metropolitan area" in the 1950s and 1960s shows two opposite opinions about these neighborhoods. In the 1960s, the criticism toward suburbs was written by outside experts without taking resident opinion into account. An important aspect of Saarikangas' research is that she explores the suburbs as lived spaces where environment, architecture, and inhabitants are considered. It is multidisciplinary research that serves as an exceptional example. Local newspaper Helsinki Sanomat in 1975 described the dullness of suburban life not in the most flattering way: "Parking places and apartments are empty. The green widow (suburban housewife) goes to the store with curls in her hair and does the same thing the next day, the next week and the next month". No one would feel excited or proud about the neighborhood described using repetitions and outlining the boredom of a never-ending routine while also stigmatizing the primary space user as bored housewives. The suburban living was gendered, making mother-child relationships the foreground. Saarikangas' research stands out as the emphasis on redefining women's and children's spaces became an important area in building the new welfare state. The situation was taken into account, and women's activities within the household were valued in the design of suburbs (Saarikangas, 2014). Without any doubt, microdistricts included some of these practices, for instance, making it easy to supervise kids from the kitchen windows while cooking.

On the other hand, the Soviet neighborhoods did not consider these aspects as that was not a part of communist ideology. This means, there were no problems in soviet neighborhoods, or at least they were not taken into account. It shows that many taboo topics were not discussed nor researched, keeping the utopian idea of building a perfect yet standardized environment for everyone. For example, the Soviet blocks were not supporting people with physical disabilities movement as elevators (in those buildings that have any) were not suitable for wheelchairs and could hardly serve baby prams. Only after the crash of the Soviet Union did people more actively start to question the necessity of urban design inclusivity. A famous saying, "there is (was) no sex in the USSR" (1), portrays the absurdity of taboo topics in the Soviet Union.

Apart from soviet blocks being built for women and kids, the important part of the residents were workers in the local factories. After all, communism was based on workers' society and their contribution. In many cases, the apartments were given free to the workers of the state, creating a robust relationship between workers and the regime. Not long after, the term "sleeping districts" was introduced as a precise explanation of microdistricts – places where to come home after a hard-working day and spend the night. To avoid suburbs becoming like dormitories, each microdistrict was meant to have a factory or institute in the first place (Hatherley, 2015). This fact is vital for understanding how much the local factories or institutes say about the residents. Particularly in Baltic countries, after joining the European Union and closing many local factories, the main aim of neighborhoods was and still is changing. Visaginas, the city near the Ignalina power plant, has very highly educated engineers working in the power plant. Due to the dismantlement of the power plant, the need for one professional work is also changing. Alternatively, as in Laumas microdistrict, the main factory was the sewing factory "Lauma," operating since 1969. At the beginning of the 1980s, the factory was employing 5000 people (Pelcmane, 2006). Of course, during this time, the factory has changed its technical equipment, and fewer people are needed to operate them.

"Well, there were more people going. In the old days, I could hear the heels walking on the pavement every morning, the sound of workers going to Lauma. Now I don't hear them at all. Probably no one is going from this side".

Microdistricts might still be used and seen as mainly sleeping districts, but one can no longer assign a profession to the streets. Work-life has become almost invisible, an increasing number of car-owners and remote working has given new ways of everyday commute to work. Everything has become closer, allowing people to live further from their offices.

Even though mass housing provided much-needed shelter in the most economically feasible manner, nowadays, they need technical and urban upgrades to meet contemporary living and energy standards. Baltic modernism architecture and microdistrict designs were led by the economic situations in the first place. Even though the block buildings were not built according to sustainability standards, their demolition would not solve the issue. In this project, preservation is an act of building the mindset for more sustainable and inclusive neighborhoods by changing the perception about the already existing from the bottom up (through residents) before any changes occur in the built environment.

The discussion about preserving and humanizing the grey corners of the city needs to start within the communities. Moreover, where there are no communities, the residents should be encouraged to share their experiences, creating joint responsibility for the neighborhood in collaboration with local infrastructures. The shift between residents relying on municipalities taking care of all urban planning aspects and taking ownership towards the neighborhoods needs to be encouraged.  

To re-shape the perception of the built aesthetics by shifting what is beautiful and what is boring can go further than we think. Re-using and re-imagining the already existing built environment starts within people's minds, that is the most carbon-free way of building "new neighborhoods".

(1) During the U.S.–Soviet tele-conference in 1986 the Soviet women was asked is there any sex in USSR and she mistakenly replied “No, we don’t have sex” where what she actually meant was “we didn’t do sex, but we made love” (Vatolina, Denisov, Russian Beyond, available at:

  • Drėmaitė, M. (2010, November 15). The (Post) - Soviet built environment: Soviet-Western relations in the industrialised mass housing and its reflections in Soviet Lithuania. Lithuanian historicaL studies 1, pp. 11-26.
  • Hatherly, O. (2015, June 7). The Guardian. Retrieved from Moscow's suburbs may look monolithic, but the stories they tell are not:
  • Pelcmane, S. (2006, 12 17). "Lauma" mainās līdzi laikam. Retrieved from liepajniekiem:
  • Saarikangas, K. (2014). Sandboxes and Heavenly Dwellings: gender, agency, and modernity in lived suburban spaces in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area in the 1950s and 1960s. Home Cultures, pp. 33-64.
kamilla kuna 2022