Documenting Post-Socialist Domesticities (in time of the pandemic)

Dr Iulia Statica, Marie Curie Research Fellow at Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, spent the summer shooting a documentary, ‘My Socialist Home’ and doing fieldwork with women in Bucharest – she explored their everyday experiences of post-socialist housing and how COVID-19 has impacted their way of life in these homes.

Post-socialist domestic spaces are generally evoked as consistently grey, uniform and lacking empathy. Despite the intensely political intention embodied in them, they are intricate spaces. A closer observation discloses nuanced environments that have the ability to shape gendered social and spatial conditions, experiences of labour and generational relations. As Romania began opening up after the lockdown, I was able to travel there and start work on a long-time planned documentary on socialist housing in Bucharest. The documentary’s goal is to portray experiences of post-socialist housing through the lives of primarily women who have lived throughout the communist regime. Although the topic is the legacy of socialist housing and the peculiar forms of domesticity that emerged, what unintentionally happened in the process of documenting these realities was that the city was also captured in the everydayness of the COVID-19 pandemic. The interviews took place primarily inside of my subjects’ apartments, as the domestic interior is central to the project. The whole ritual of wearing masks and keeping apart was surreal, but once the interviews began the narratives of my subjects unfolded in layered and unexpected ways.

In one of the early mornings, the sound of a Sunday Orthodox mass resonated in outdoor speakers through the area of housing blocks. Chairs—commonly absent in an Orthodox mass—organised the space of the garden. People sat two meters apart, facing an improvised altar outside; a setting very different to the soft agitation, standing, and whispering common during a typical mass. A shed covered with metallic panels sheltered the altar. Icons decorated thin, metallic walls, while a blue umbrella anchored on a green chair extended the shadowed area of the new altar. The church was unusually close to the housing blocks. This was one of the many cases in which the plans for systematisation of the city, initiated during the socialist regime, envisioned the ‘cladding’ of the streets with high-rise apartment buildings. This intervention resulted in urban corridors that acted like enormous concrete screens, covering over the remaining historical fabric.

The documentary tackles Nicolae Ceaușescu’s 1974 Law of Urban Systematisation that envisioned a new structure for the city: dense and scientifically organised. The law initiated an unprecedented use of prefabricated systems for housing production, new approaches for efficient land use, and justified the demolition of extensive areas of the historic fabric of the city in order to make room for high-rise housing blocks. The construction of new homes paralleled the growing body of population, which became a political goal through the Decree 770 of 1966. Pointing towards the politics of demography—which aimed to increase the population—the decree instituted the duty of a woman to give birth to at least five children before being allowed an abortion, which was otherwise criminalised. Women’s bodies were appropriated in the social reproduction of socialism, while marking the importance of the home, and thus of the visceral experience of domesticity in forming subjects.

Bucharest’s socialist housing is today prevalent in city’s topography, and more than 85% of the population still lives in one of these buildings. Telling the story of the socialist home, the film captures the lived experience of five different women from apartments built after 1974. The interior of the apartments functions as a clue, opening possibilities for understanding the complexities, turning points and struggles of individual subjects, pointing towards the material affectivity of the home. Clara—one of the women featuring in the film—reveals her story of living in a socialist apartment since 1974. She was nine years old when her parents with her and five other siblings fled Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. They arrived as political refugees in Ceaușescu’s Romania and were given a home in the middle of one of the newly constructed apartment buildings in the Drumul Taberei district. Pictures with Salvador Allende and Che Guevara decorate her colourful, yet outdated apartment. On the other hand, Elena, an 84 year old retired construction engineer, recounts her trauma when she and her family had to move into one the high-rise apartment blocks. Their house “with a large courtyard with trees and flowers”—as she remembers—was demolished in 1977 as part of the urban systematisation. In spite of the notorious greyness and almost identical exterior of these buildings, current domesticities are thus revealed in numerous ways. Focusing on the experience from “within”, the city is reimagined. Similarly to the mass—traditionally embedded in the space of the church which, during exceptional times, has managed to function outside of the normative framework and to be open for negotiation—the space of the socialist apartment has managed to function as a space of literal domestication of the limits politically inscribed.

Stills from My Socialist Home

The documentary, My Socialist Home, which is currently in post-production and forthcoming 2021, is part of the two year project “Gender, Infrastructure and the Production of Domesticity in the (Post)Communist City” funded through a European Commission Marie Curie Fellowship, and developed at UCL’s The Bartlett School for Architecture. The project investigates the relationship between gender, the state and domestic space, and interrogates the role of architecture itself in establishing paradigms of post-socialist domesticity and subjectivity. The documentary is a collaboration with Romanian filmmaker Adrian Câtu. For a trailer of My Socialist Home, click here.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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