Haruna Honcoop’s film Built to Last depicts Eastern Bloc socialist architecture in various states of repair. She argues it should all be preserved.
The Czech-Japanese director Haruna Honcoop visited over 200 examples of socialist architecture around the former Eastern Bloc for Built to Last, a stimulating documentary that draws on archive footage but mainly shows these structures in their present conditions, which range from immaculate to dilapidated.
Honcoop told me she conceived of Built to Last after being amazed by Nicolae Ceausescu’s enormous palace on a visit to Bucharest, so I asked her why she thought the communists had created such imposing buildings.
“One of the reasons was to show their power, obviously. They always said they were doing it for the people, but of course it was mostly for their personal use.
“Like any other palace that you ever build, it’s made for the leaders, not for the people as such.
“I can give another example: the Buzludzha monument in Bulgaria, which is the second craziest architectural structure that I’ve seen in my life, maybe.
“It’s a Communist headquarters in the Bulgarian mountains, two hours drive from Sofia.
“It’s a UFO-like building made of concrete with huge frescoes and various motifs and a big red star made of mosaics, little red stones.
“Demolishing those buildings means we are demolishing our past – and this is not right.”
“You’re standing there in the middle of beautiful mountains, pure nature, and then there’s this mass of concrete.”
You can see in the film that that building in Bulgaria is in quite bad condition. Typically what is the state of these communist buildings that you feature in the film?
“They are in various states. It depends. In each country the attitude to the preservation of such buildings is quite different.
“Sometimes they just don’t have money to preserve them, or to reconstruct them. Or they just want to get rid of them.
“Because they think now, 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, that communism was a bad thing.
“But the buildings built at that time were not only purely communist-style architecture as I mentioned, like the Ceausescu palace.
“There were also very Modernist buildings, and then we have the whole period of Brutalist and hi-tech architecture.
“Such structures were built within the communist regime but sort of against the communist regime.
“They were sort of bringing Western ideas to locked countries.
“So we need to really distinguish between those different styles.”
But still, if I understand it right, you are essentially in favour of preserving all of these buildings?
“I’m absolutely in favour of preserving them, because I think that demolishing those buildings means we are demolishing our past – and this is not right.
“Of course we are not saying by preserving them that we love the communist regime, which we of course don’t like, but through the architecture we can reflect on the times.”
Some people would say that many of these buildings are simply ugly. For instance, out the window here we can see the Transgas building on Vinohradská, which is slated for demolition. Many people support it staying, but others will see it and say, That is an eyesore – if somebody wants to remove it, that’s great.
“Yes. But then we have to ask the question, What would be built there as a new building?
“That’s the biggest issue these days, because we can say, OK, Transgas is an ugly building.
“Personally I don’t think so. I think it’s one of the most original 20th century structures standing in Prague and the only problematic thing is that it lost its purpose.
“Take the New Stage at Národní třída – it’s a totally Modernist building and these days no-one would ever build something so original.”
“So we should think of ways how to give it a new purpose, to find a new function for this building or to somehow very carefully reconstruct it. To keep its features but find new ways how to use the space.
“I’m definitely in favour of preserving these buildings, because no-one today would ever build such buildings, in such quality, using these sorts of materials.
“You can imagine the New Stage at Národní třída – it’s a totally Modernist building and these days no-one would ever build something so original.
“And if you look at buildings today, what’s there? All these very monotonous shopping centres or office centres. It’s all the same.
“In 20 years those buildings will have no value whatsoever, in my opinion, because they have no value even nowadays.
“Because they are built just for their function, which is selling stuff.
“But those buildings built back then, in the communist regime, have huge architectural value.”
There are many interesting buildings in the film. For me some of the most fascinating were those with a kind of space-age theme, like the Gagarin monument in Russia. Did you have a favourite building that you covered in the film?
“I would also say other monuments built in the Balkan region. The concrete monuments that are standing all over the region are very unique.
“Then one very crazy feature that I saw was Enver Hoxha’s bunkers in Albania.
“They are something which is very difficult to demolish, because there are something like 400,000 bunkers built all over the country.
“This is something totally sick which this communist leader built in Albania back then.
“It would make sense to maybe demolish some of those, because when you are walking on the beach and seeing those bunkers, they don’t make sense these days, of course.
“But then there is the headquarters bunker in Tirana where you go down and it’s like an underground city.
“During the Cold War Enver Hoxha was ready; he thought enemies would attack Tirana so he built this underground city.
“It’s scary. When you walk there you feel kind of sick.
“And these spaces underground were designed so that people would eventually live there.
“I think there is maybe a fascination among the younger generation, who didn’t live through the communist regime.”
“He built cinema halls, he built dining rooms, sleeping rooms, living rooms, various spaces for people to actually live in underground, which I think is completely unimaginable these days.”
It struck me watching that film that it probably has a large potential audience because many people I know – and I’m sure many people who follow Radio Prague – are really interested in this Eastern Bloc architecture, and when they travel they go looking for these examples of it. Why do you think there’s such fascination with this whole period of architecture?
“I think there is maybe a fascination among the younger generation, who didn’t live through the communist regime.
“They don’t have this kind of stigma of that time. For example, I was six years old when the communist regime fell in Czechoslovakia.
“And then there is the whole, let’s say, Western audience, who didn’t have communism at all and they are curious about it.
“For those kinds of people I also created a website, built-to-last-project.com, where I created an interactive online map that includes all of the buildings in the movie so you can easily see the locations and pictures.
“Sometimes I had to do some serious research in order to find those places so I want the audience to have easier access to those places.
“In each city I was talking to local architects, local guides, who took me to some places that weren’t even written about in Lonely Planet or other guidebooks.
“So I would like the audience to have access, as I did when I was going there.”