Vernacularization for Comfort and the Politics of Housing Occupancy. Romania 1968-1989
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Vernacularization for Comfort and the Politics of Housing Occupancy. Romania 1968-1989


In the wake of the 1989 historical turn, the Second World’s new societies entered a new globalized world amid complex economic advancements. Within the remarkable transformation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the communist experience emerged as a question of the modern and modernity. According to its many critics, communism, which this study perceives as one form of modernity among other modernities, sets itself apart by its purported failure. This dissertation departs from the early post-socialist years’ failure mantra and attempts to reveal a more nuanced understanding of the communist world. To do so, this dissertation looks into the very ambitious project of urban development within which the housing program played a fundamental part. For the students of the Second World, it is almost common knowledge to think of Eastern Europe’s housing development as a fundamental part of spatial and societal transformation. As is the case with most former Soviet Bloc countries, housing development played a crucial role in shaping a new society envisioned by the communist ambition for economic and social advancement. From a low economic starting point, the Romanian post-war experience embarked on a fast-paced industrialization project that asked for a transformation of architectural design that accommodates standardization and prefabrication. What became a rigid design and construction system by way of heavy industry and the primacy of the economic efficiency was disrupted by a humanizing wave of spatial and “informal” transformations. Disrupting the spatial standardization of the socialist housing units was just one aspect of what I call the politics of housing occupancy. Within the workings of the housing project, the inhabitants’ capacity for adaptability, transformation, negotiation, and interventionist participation led to a work of what was called ‘system optimization,’ as the technocratic state bureaucracy appropriated the inhabitants’ spatial interventions. In this study, I explore the ways problematic forms of standardization and the lack of variety in spatial planning contributed substantially to the trend of housing “personalization.” Within the emerging project of housing development, carried at the scale of the entire country, I propose here that the socialist housing project allowed for a relational interconnection between the population living in standardized apartments, architects, and the state. This relationality was only possible through the interdisciplinarity of state design institutions. The collaborative expertise of people brought together from different disciplines was inclusive of residents’ transformative spatial practices in ways that contributed to improvements in the quality of housing units towards the end of the socialist period. My research builds upon and challenges several general assumptions that govern the Romanian and international body of literature concerning the Communist state. On the one hand, during the socialist period, the Romanian authoritarian state-controlled its citizens at every level of their everyday lives. The main criticism of communism is concerned with the fact that the state exercised a totalizing control over the population through the state police as its sole means of maintaining power. Further, many accounts assert that the Communist state denied citizens privacy by confining them to spaces denying their rights. Additionally, the well-established post-socialist criticism assimilated every spatial transgression to resistance and dissent discourse. I argue here that residents’ different ways of dwelling, domestic practices, and their spatial appropriations, needs, and aspirations, revealed in their ways of living in the conventionally designed state apartments, were recovered by sociological research and re-inscribed in the practice of architecture. Architects and sociologists alike problematized residents’ actions and reactions, as recounted in retrospect years later, and inscribed them within arenas of technocratic expertise. Sociological considerations about residents’ spatial agency became embedded in architectural design, which was only possible through the interdisciplinary character of the state architecture and construction institutions in charge of housing design and construction. In recent years, many scholarly works have explored everyday life during the socialist years in the former Soviet bloc countries. According to this scholarly interest, this dissertation explores the socialist housing project through archival documents of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, archived interdisciplinary research projects produced within state design and construction institutions, discussions with residents, and analysis of projects from the only architecture magazine published at the time. In conclusion, the ‘socialist modern’ of the 60s and 70s aspired to comfort as a fundamental part of the communist vision of tomorrow. Wrapped within the ambivalent and all-encompassing notion of comfort, the theoretical articulation for housing betterment was frequently used to justify and support decisions on the different trajectories of the socialist housing project. The notion of comfort, albeit useful and malleable in its higher purpose, was, at times, just a propagandistic expression of the traditional/modern dichotomy built upon ambitions of a much-awaited and prosperous communist future.

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