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The public square just off 60th Anniversary of October Street in the Moscow suburb of Novye Cheryomushki (“New Cherry Town”) is a very ordinary, if unusually placid, place. Trees, playgrounds, benches, mothers pushing prams and the odd middle-aged boozer circle around a small statue of Lenin. Beyond them, the four-storey apartment blocks look a little worn.
The sense of quiet torpor here is fitting given that Russians call their suburbs “sleeping districts” – not much more than cubicles to come home to at the end of a day’s work. Yet Novye Cheryomushki is certainly one of the more attractive places to sleep, and live, with low-rise buildings, lots of social facilities, and a metro station nearby. It is also the common ancestor of every mikrorayon (“micro-district”) in Moscow; the forefather of nearly every suburb in the capital and far beyond.
For the centre of Novye Cheryomushki bears witness to an extraordinary architectural competition between seven blocks of flats. Each of these seven blocks, built in 1958 at record speed, employs a different prefabricated construction system, usually of concrete panels slotted into place like toy building blocks. Each was assessed on expense and speed of construction, and then one lucky block of flats, codenamed “K7”, was chosen as the winner.
K7’s reward was to be replicated in the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, all across the Soviet Union. Thus began the largest experiment in industrialised housing in history, where homes would become mass-produced commodities like cars, fridges and TVs. Industrialised housing comprised 75% of all Soviet housing stock by 1991 – this is where the overwhelming majority of Muscovites live; not in the Tsarist-Stalinist oligarchgrad within the inner city, nor the hipster enclaves of Chistye Prudy or Gorky Park. These suburbs may look monolithic, but the stories they tell are not. […]