The Master Plan and the Socialist City

In the course of exploring the planning and architecture of any given city, scholars are often eager to reproduce an image of its Master Plan, if one is available. Such a document immediately offers the scholar’s audience a snapshot, bird’s-eye abstraction of the city with which to orient themselves. And it also suggests from the outset the inevitable tensions between planners’ visions and the realities soon to be examined by the scholar. Particularly useful in the study of socialist cities–especially entirely new cities such as Nowa Huta and Magnitogorsk–Master Plans offer visual representation of what the socialist city ought to have been according to its creators. And while the ultimate outcome usually fell far short of their intensions, the Master Plan reveals the totalizing scope of the socialist project’s aspirations to rethink the city as the main site of the new society and to transform the lives of its ordinary residents.

For scholars uninitiated in the art and science of urban planning, such broader meanings of the Master Plan are easily understood, even if their more specific features remain inscrutable, not to mention the political and professional processes that informed their creation in the first place. For non-specialists, a textual explanation–offered by the plan’s creators or by the scholar examining it–is a much preferred option for decoding its visual elements. But if a non-specialist were to spend more time with the image of the Master Plan, what should he or she look for in attempting to make sense of it? In addition, what additional sources can a researcher use to better understand the history of any given Master Plan, how it evolved over time, and the role it played in the professional and political contexts from which it emerged? Finally, what obstacles do we face in tracing the origins of a Master Plan and how do we go about overcoming them to provide a meaningful account of its importance?

These are the questions we would like to pose in this research discussion on Master Plans in the Socialist City. To answer them, we have invited Christina E. Crawford (Harvard University) and Heather D. Dehaan (Binghampton University) to share insights on their own research into Masters Plans of Soviet cities. Readers are invited to contribute questions and comments to this discussion.

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