Siberia long served Russian Tsars only as a brutal wasteland to which to exile their enemies. But after the Revolution, the desolate steppes' abundant coal and iron became crucial in the Communist plan to finance a new utopia. Suddenly, huge cities had to be built to house hundreds of thousands of workers.
Contemporary Soviet architects could not design such cities: the old guard was politically suspect while young designers fantasized about flying cities. So, in the late 1920s and early 30s, well-known Western European architects were invited to create the workers' paradises. Leaving their good names in the West, the pioneers enthusiastically boarded trains bound for an uncertain future.
SOTSGOROD tells their stories in the architects' own words. Some of the last survivors are interviewed: Jan Rutgers (of the Autonomous International Colony Kuzbass), Magarete Schutte-Lihotzky (of the Ernst May group, famous for the "Frankfurter Kuche" or super efficient kitchen), and Phillipp Tolziner ("Bauhaus Brigade"). Those who have passed away speak through their letters, articles and lectures, including Hannes Meyer, Hans Schmidt and Ernst May. Some believed they were making an essential contribution to the workers' struggle; others were seizing an unheard of opportunity to apply their design philosophies and spatial theories to entire cities.
But in 1932, the Party decided it trusted no one, and certainly not foreign professionals. A cloak and dagger atmosphere dominated the next five years, as blueprints were stolen and the architects came under surveillance. In 1937 the Westerners were presented with a choice: become citizens or leave the Soviet Union. For the first time, this film reveals the fate of the architects who stayed, as well as those who left and kept silent for six decades.
SOTSGOROD also visits four of the cities that were built: Magnitogorsk, Orsk, Novokuznetsk and Kemerov. The success of these Sotsgorods ("Socialist Cities") is examined by following a resident in each city as he goes to work, shops, eats dinner. Nothing spectacular, but by looking at the quality of day-to-day lives, the film trys to measure the success of the once robust ideals of the architects.
SOTSGOROD: CITIES FOR UTOPIA investigates the interactions between East and West, idealism and reality.
"Fascinating! A valuable historical document [and] probing, eye opener of a documentary." - Archis
1995 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam
1996 Festival International du Film sur l'Art (Montreal)
"The reminiscences [of the architects] are interwoven to good effect with archival footage from the 1920s and early 1930s that both provides a visual context and helps to convey something of the chaotic, and sometime even inspirational, spirit of time and place. ...this comes across very vividly in Abraham's documentary. [SOTSGOROD] will be of interest to historians of cities in general and of the Soviet socialist city in particular... social historians of the former Soviet Union and to students of architecture and design." - Slavic Review