Prefabricated housing was a global and cross-cultural phenomenon that defined the architecture of the twentieth century. No other architectural endeavour has had a greater influence on people's daily lives or their sense of freedom within their own four walls. It is still too early to assess whether this struggle for affordable homes – and for social equality – was a failure or success. When the reconstruction of Europe's war-torn cities began in the 1950s, planning and construction quickly became part of a political agenda that promised hope, happiness, and progress. Wide government support, both in the East and the West, enabled mass housing to flourish, providing many families with an affordable home in a short period of time. The ideological conflict during the Cold War inspired a flurry of capitalist and socialist strategies for solving the housing problem.
The success story of standardised mass housing in the Soviet Union begins in the mid-1950s. Until his death in 1953, Joseph Stalin had promoted an extravagant, neo-classical form of architecture, characterised by diverse and costly decorative elements. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, introduced a radical change in planning and construction. Millions of prisoners, released from labour camps by decree of Khrushchev, were flocking to the cities and searching for a home, which placed even greater pressure on the already strained housing market. Large new four- to five-storey housing blocks with very similar building forms soon emerged across the Soviet Union. This form of standardised mass housing, bearing the name Khrushchyovka, changed the face of Soviet cities. These new buildings introduced an urban – albeit monotonous – quality to many settlements in Siberia, the Eurasian Steppe, and the Far East for the first time.
Prefabricated housing accounted for up to 75 per cent of all homes in the Soviet Union by the time of its dissolution in 19911. The rest of the homes primarily comprised conventional brick buildings, though these had been largely built to standard designs. These numbers characterised the housing stock of almost all municipalities in the Soviet republics. In Tashkent, the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), the share of prefabricated housing rose to 75 per cent by the early 1990s, with a total floor area of between 3.1 and 3.5 million square metres. These numbers also typified other socialist states such as the GDR, where prefabricated buildings made up 75 per cent of all housing. The construction of new homes dropped by almost 50 per cent in terms of floor area between 1991 and 1995.
All housing construction was completely centralised in the Soviet Union. The state's project institutes developed the standardised designs; its housing combines constructed the buildings. The housing series were designed to be universal and were adapted with small modifications for different regions – with extreme climates, risk of earthquakes, and permafrost for example. As such, the panelised building could be exported internationally to countries across the socialist world, from Cuba to Chile, from North Korea to Vietnam. State project institutes in Central and Eastern Europe also developed their own housing series based on the Soviet system. Series I-464 was an especially popular export product to allied socialist states.
Throughout this process, Soviet architects were drawing on ideas that had already been developed at the Bauhaus in Dessau in the 1920s. Hundreds of architects and engineers emigrated from Germany to the Soviet Union around 1930, partly to escape the financial crisis in their home country and partly out of a wish to help establish a new social model. Ernst May, Frankfurt's city planner from 1925 to 1930, was a key figure in modernist housing. He and his task force, the so-called May Brigade, experimented with prefabricated construction methods for two years and would have a lasting influence on industrial mass housing in the USSR. However, Stalin's purges of the 1930s and the outbreak of the Second World War put a halt to the further development of prefabrication methods. The crucial turning point for Soviet mass housing came twenty years later, when the state purchased a licence for the Camus System. This French panel technology became the basis for prefabricated construction across the Soviet Union, promising the mass production of homes at a scale otherwise only found in the automotive industry.