Dezeen Magazine

"Belarus is a place that badly needs shaking up"

With widespread protest taking place across Belarus, the design of public spaces and social legacies has become a critical project for the nation's architects, says Owen Hatherley in his latest Opinion column.

For one of the least-visited capital cities in Europe, the Belarusian capital Minsk is a city very concerned with its surfaces. In a country often described as Europe's last dictatorship – a definition I suspect will have to be updated in the next few years – it is a city of resplendent facades.

Minsk was destroyed in the second world war and re-planned as an axial, neoclassical showpiece. Its government has retained state ownership of much of its industry and a Soviet approach to much urban development. In the centre, at any rate, buildings are freshly painted, pavements are freshly paved and there is an almost German level of cleanliness. And, by post-Soviet standards, the infrastructure – roads, metros, buses – is fast and straightforward.

This neo-Soviet governance extends to the city's new architecture, although it's the late USSR with all the enthusiasm and futurism gone. In the centre, a reconstruction that began in the 80s proceeds apace. New public buildings are domineering, symmetrical and vaguely classical.

The Belarusian capital Minsk is a city very concerned with its surfaces

In the suburbs, you can see large concrete panels being raised into place to form housing complexes as if it's still the 1970s, but then in the real 70s there was a rich culture of architectural debate within mass housing – and much criticism. Western-style hotels and malls have been built, bland and empty.

Belarus may have missed some of the chaos, war and extreme poverty of its neighbours, but it is a place that badly needs shaking up.

I don't want to put words into their mouths, but this seemed to be part of the project of the sixth Minsk Architectural Forum, an annual workshop for young architects organised by the Belarusian Association of Student Architects. Organisers Stefania Soich and Arzu Mirzalizade had – as is usual for the forum – little financial assistance from the official Union of Architects or Minsk's architecture schools. What money there was came from the sponsorship of a paper manufacturer.

The format is that four groups of architects each work on a project on a chosen theme. This year's theme was defining Minskness, and its expression in the city's many, often large and formal, public squares. I was one of the tutors for one of these four groups, but I wasn't expecting the scene when I arrived at the Forum's venue: the Zair Azgur Museum, dedicated to a Stalinist-era sculptor.

On steel shelves reaching all up to the ceiling of a triple-height space, in a tiny red-brick building in a housing estate, were dozens of busts and statues of notables, writers, revolutionaries and dictators. Mao, Churchill, Thomas Mann, Immanuel Kant, Khrushchev, Kim il Sung, Stalin, and around 20 different Lenins. This was an ingenious place to choose for the young students – most of whom have lived all their lives under Belarus' president Aleksandr Lukashenko – to confront the question of Minskness.

Soviet culture's apparent persistence in Belarus represents more an efficient inertia than a still-extant tradition

Sad as it may be, Soviet culture's apparent persistence in Belarus represents more an efficient inertia than a still-extant tradition. Conservation has served the Stalinist classical centre well.

By contrast, a modernist riverside promenade built between the 1960s and 80s has been disfigured by speculative development. The worst example is a crass, ziggurat-like apartment block that destroys many of the city's meticulously planned vistas, but which rather oddly plays home to Nobel Prize winner and post-Soviet conscience Svetlana Alexievich.

There is propaganda on the streets, showcasing sylvan scenes with "I love Belarus" signs, airbrushed families going to the opera (amazingly cheap, in a city where the cost of living is high) and anti-abortion posters (Lukashenko wants the birth rate up).

The fortnight I was there coincided with the anniversary of the start of the Russian Revolution, when women's day protests spiralled into a strike wave that brought down the Tsar. Minsk's response? A poster campaign celebrating 100 years of the Belarusian police.

Public plazas, such as the preposterously huge October Square, are often empty and chilling, yet a protest wave – against a tax on the unemployed, in a country whose much-publicised employment policies have collapsed under the weight of the financial crisis – was spreading, quietly, around the country.

It is these squares, so obviously a showcase of power and planning, that the students were supposed to focus on. Ukrainian sociologist Natalia Ostrichenko's students developed a series of metrics and graphs to find out how well these spaces were used (don't be disabled in Minsk was one obvious lesson). Belarusian architect and author Dimitrij Zadorin's group proposed turning the shabby, ignored courtyards behind the grand Stalinist facades into community spaces.

Soviet public spaces and social legacies are going to be crucial

My students researched two squares of different eras: Station Square, whose grandiose, crenellated twin towers are a cousin of Berlin's famous Karl-Marx-Allee, and Freedom Square, the centre of the reconstruction project that has tried to graft an 18th-century small town into this totally 20th-century metropolis. One is very post-Soviet, with cramped underpasses full of people selling flowers, pies and lottery tickets. The other has become the city's main hipster district, with craft beer and homemade blinis under the ersatz heritage facades. But both of them, they found, were state projects. In fact, Freedom Square's start-ups and small cafes are carefully managed by a city-run, profit-making Minsk Heritage Company. The students produced a critical brochure for the two squares, where the enticing gateways open out to show a much more complex reality of state capitalism and constantly manipulated heritage.

Satire has to be subtle here. Cynical comments about the authorities are normal, but nobody ever mentions the president. Anthroplogist Michal Murawski's group chose to put all the things they don't like about the city – anti-social interactions, ubiquitous kitsch, surveillance and policing – and throw them into a gigantic bowl of borscht, with the grandiose Dynamo stadium as the bowl. When they unveiled the project to the public at the end of the forum, the students – all dressed in matching borscht-coloured outfits – were keen to distinguish between the Sovok, the remnants of Soviet attitudes, especially to authority, and the Soviet, which they thought could still mean something different to the deeply conservative policies of Minsk's contemporary rulers.

As this most apparently stable of societies faces the most widespread protests in decades, those Soviet public spaces and social legacies are going to be crucial. To see them being approached with such humour and nuance suggests that Belarusian architects are going to have an interesting role to play.