Owen Hatherley’s grandparents were members of the Communist party of Great Britain who lived in a small semi-detached house in a suburb of Southampton. Framed prints of Salisbury Cathedral and northern rural scenes decorated the living room walls. The couple liked to sit by a large plate-glass window and watch the birds in the garden. Apart from a cabinet displaying a complete bound set of Labour Monthly and a small collection of Marxist and socialist classics, there was nothing about this house, this “entirely private place” shouldered by a Victorian church, that announced it as communist.
What, wonders their grandson, would they have made of other spaces created by communists in countries where they were in power? Would they have wanted to live in the “grey prefabricated towers” on the outskirts of Vilnius, “with balconies at unlikely angles … cantilevered over vast, usually empty public spaces”? Would they have identified with the “immense neo-Renaissance blocks” of Warsaw, “decorated with giant reliefs of musclebound workers”, or would they have felt crushed by such imagery? And what about the Moscow Metro, “with its staggeringly opulent gilded halls”? Would they have approved of or dismissed its grandiosity as “something that was best for a distant, only recently feudal, country”? Might the landscapes of built communism have compared favourably to the places they hailed from – the slums of Portsmouth, or rural Northamptonshire? […]