Lethal Victorian Houses: Re-Evaluating the Soviet Gloom

All my life, until I came to the UK, I have lived in an apartment, built in the 80’s. It’s a Soviet make, which is quite despised in Lithuania. Because it does not look nice. And because it reflects modernism – a style adopted by the Soviets, hence associated highly with the totalitarian regime. I must admit: modernism really serves the regime well.

Soviet architecture was highly inspired by Le Corbusier – the godfather of modern architecture. The architect himself was a peculiar character: he had a strict discipline. He would wake up early in the morning, would swim in a freezing spring, exercise and dedicate the rest of the day to work. He was intrigued by the Vitruvian Man, Fibonacci numbers and in search for a golden ratio – an interest, which resulted in the Modulor.

The Modulor is an anthropometric scale, which was used in Le Corbusier’s projects. It was based on the measurements of a 1.83 m male, because in architect’s opinion, this is an optimal height for a good-looking and simply the best man.

So there you have it. A project for a Gattaca-uesque scenario on a silver platter. A project of a utopian world, the one which is utterly rational, (de)grading and uniform. Although it was created by a very successful individual, who had determination to bring his vision to fruition, once it was applied, it designated a world, where any expression of individualism and freethinking would be banished.

And so the totalitarian regime has built and built and built. Soviet architecture is square, precise and monumental. However it is weirdly inconspicuous. Tall gray buildings look extremely boring. As if the curvy details, inherent in the previous eras, would provoke too much thought. Too much emotion. Too much humanity. After all architecture shapes our mentality, depicts the goals of the society and the character of an era. So there you have it: hundreds of cities of dehumanised buildings where humans must live.

One major thing, which makes my city Vilnius so different from the English (and most Western European) cities, is the space. There is so much space in my land. Although Vilnius is similar to Bristol in regards of population, it is way bigger in size. If English citizens densly cluster around the center, the citizens of Vilnius occupy a much wider area. Apart from its cozy and sweet Old Town, untouched by the Soviets, the new neighborhoods are sprawled across the land. And there you have it: wide paths and green areas for walking. Quite nice. However, there you have the inexorable structures in these leisure areas as well.

Although those paths are quite comfortable, the thought that your movement is being predetermined on this modernist project is ubiquitous. Everything is orderly laid out in straight lines and squares. No space for improvisation. And if there is a green square on your way – your problem. There will be no laid out diagonal pathway, which will make your journey quicker. You will have to either walk around it via a laid out path or cross it via grass. And people will do the latter. As a result, many byroads are present in the country. However, there is one problem here. The byroads ruin the overall quite neat landscape. And if you add up to the damage, what will it make you feel like? Like a person, who lives in a world of a strict order, but does not obey. A person, who tries to follow common sense (by shortening her journey), but falls out of context. This creates a mentality, very familiar to someone who has a severe OCD: you must perform an action, which alleviates the obsessive thought, however it only exacerbates the condition. And the condition is present. The person is not well.

I believe the regime had a similar effect on people. They were living in a country, based on propaganda, promoting unattainable goals and demonstrating the progress. These green squares are a metaphor of the mentality: it is the symbol of perfection, which is not cherished, because its inhumane. People don’t live like this. They don’t think like this. They don’t walk like this. The relationship between the reality and an individual is distorted. The two are utterly incompatible. There is no space in this spacious city for an individual.

So. Back to where I was. The Victorian houses. Since I have come to England, I have been living in these. And what have I realized? That those Soviet apartments are a gift from God compared to these old, stinking, moldy, cramped, rickety Victorian shacks. Since the Soviet buildings were built relatively recently, we have the luxury to enjoy: ventilation, spacious rooms, no old stinky lousy carpets, great insulation, great heating in winter, ability to have new double glazed windows installed with no necessity to preserve the rickety heritage, hot water streaming from a mixer tap straight away as you turn it on (skip the process in England, where the heater somewhere in the kitchen will heat the water for you somewhere in the bathroom, which will take an eternity),etc… etc… Plenty of practical advantages, that I was totally indifferent of, while comfortably sitting in my big light room, contemplating the effects on our minds of the Soviet made landscape.

To add some more fuel to the fire. I have watched this show on BBC “Hidden Killers: The Victorian Home”. It is about how the Victorians have utilized the inventions of the time to their own disadvantage. Wallpaper with arsenic? But it’s green and beautiful! Dangerous gas lighting, which exposes the house to explosion? But it lights up the room and the husband and wife don’t have to sit close to each other leaning towards a candle while trying to read! Toys with lead? But kids like them! Baby bottles and rubber teats that grow colonies of bacteria and eventually poison babies? But mothers are released from nursing!

Pretty poisonous wallpaper by William Morris

It was a shocking show to me. Not that I did not know about the wide use of arsenic. But by the fact, that even when people found out about the lethal effects arsenic or lead had on health, they did nothing about it. The government did nothing. It allowed the manufacturers to continue the business and grow the economy. At the cost of peoples lives.

However, I must admit I do admire that bit, which indicates the pioneering spirit of the Englishmen. They do invent, they do adopt, they do improve and bravely march towards the future. I believe this quality is the cornerstone to one of the strongest economies in the world today. But the unappeasable thirst for money, which must be quenched at any cost is also evident. Especially in the offices of a corporate buildings, where people slave day in, day out for money. For power. Resulting in thousands of unhappy people, who don’t have a drive to rule the world. But need to pay their bills. So they have to endure and succumb to someone else’s ambition.

On the better note: there are so many more options and freedom for those, who are ambitious and have a vision. For the individualists.

(The picture is taken in England. It very much looks like the buildings in my country I am writing of.)



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