What makes the cities of the former Socialist countries of Central Europe so attractive? For me it is that they reflect two kinds of optimism. On the one hand, there is the optimism of the efforts and achievements of recent generations to bring about change. Nearly 25 years after the transition process began in Central and Eastern Europe, many new buildings, fashionable restaurants, nice shops and galleries bear witness to an adventurous optimism in the face of the persisting economic, social, political and cultural challenges. Such optimism is much harder to find in most rich, and admittedly often more complacent, societies.
Aside from this enviable optimism, there is another, older optimism that is still very much visible in the Central European urban landscape and that is likely to remain as long as the economic circumstances are as challenging as they currently are. This is the optimism that is embodied in the architectural legacy of Socialism. For many people who had to endure the Socialist era, this built legacy does not necessarily evoke happy memories. In retrospect the optimism about a new egalitarian society turned out to be rather misplaced, yet for me the optimism inherent in this architecture, no matter how flawed, is able to arouse a deep melancholy.
A similar misplaced optimism, albeit without the same strong ideological rhetoric, existed in capitalist Western Europe during the 1950s and ’60s. (My birthplace, Rotterdam, was deeply optimistic about its future when I was growing up there.) In Western Europe the material evidence of the optimism that once existed has mostly been obliterated in the name of the very same progress it had romanticized, but this is much less the case in Central and Eastern Europe. (For architecture, and for architectural historians, economic hardship is not purely negative if a lack of financial means leads to the salvaging of buildings that would otherwise have been torn down and replaced by something else.)
When it was built, Socialist architecture hinted at what society could become, instead of what it actually was. Now it offers glimpses of what might have been but never will be. In looking at this architecture I am not only looking at another place and time, but also at a different future from the one we got, a future partially materialized in built fabric, but otherwise elusive and ethereal.