By Kuba Snopek, Tomasz Świetlik, Petro Vladimirov and Nicholas W. Moore
Year 201X. Somewhere in Eastern Europe in a dark theatre. A conference, devoted to the designof public spaces.
Speaker after speaker, yet the hundreds of slides show the same images: soothing designs of pleasant spaces. Consensus! The images form into a uniform vision of “perfect” urban public space. Aesthetically compelling, convenient for everyday use, compact in scale, and furnished with colourful, durable, comfortable equipment for living. By design, this public space distributes people uniformly throughout the streets and plazas of the city, stimulating commercial circulation while providing zones of leisure.
Outside of the theatre, on television, online, and in cities.
Thousands of people surge together in vast and barren squares. People gather against government in the main plazas of Yerevan, Tbilisi, Kyiv, and Moscow. 150,000 women dressed in black protest the outlawing of abortion in the streets of Warsaw. (1) Similar numbers occupy the streets of Bratislava to decry the Prime Minister’s collusion with the mafia. Thousands take to squares in Russia to denounce the ongoing censorship of the internet. Each of these crowds use humour, music, colour, or artifacts to draw a national and international eye. State and corporate TV channels compete with smartphone live streams and social media posts to shape the narrative as it spills beyond the theatre of the street.
We observe a disparate tendency between what architects design and the use of urban spaces. Public spaces aspire toward everyday convenience and comfort. After the release of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History,” dramatic political agitation seemed to have become an outdated use of urban public space, irrelevant in new times. (2) However, since the early 1990s, forms of urban political activity have been evolving. The rapid development of digital technologies has led to a new manifestation of urban life: the synthesis of grassroots, nonviolent, mass-political action and organized spectacle. In light of this new spatial phenomenon, it is not enough to design urban space for convenient consumerism, sprinkled with the panacea of greenery. This new kind of protest is new program and architects should respond with a new kind of architecture.
Since the fall of Communism, Eastern European cities have experienced hundreds of mass political actions. Large protests, demonstrations, and happenings were constant features in the landscape of post-Communist transformation. Incongruously, the majority of these grassroots protests took place in areas designed specifically for state-sponsored political spectacles of previous regimes—spaces we call Spectacle Squares.
Just after the October Revolution of 1917, Russian public space was aggressively redesigned by the Soviet State for political activation. Bolshevik leaders set themselves a paradoxical task: to cultivate the general spirit of revolution, yet maintain a firm grasp on all political agency. With material and media, political activity was embedded into public space, converting the squares and streets of bourgeois capitalism into the stages for mass-political agitation. With the events of the October Revolution fresh in their minds, Soviet leadership, under Vladimir Lenin, created a generic urbanism of continuous and controlled political spectacle. Design of these new, socialist urban plazas consisted of strategic elements.
First, the Bolsheviks merged urban space with media. City squares around Russia were equipped with loudspeakers transmitting oral newspapers. Every evening, these squares drew thousands of people with the voices of newspapers. Around the squares, the walls of buildings were covered with posters by the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA). These posters, referred to as “Okna ROSTA,” or literally, windows of ROSTA, created the effect of a political comic book and served as a billboard for the official ideals of Soviet citizenship.
Second, streets and squares were converted into stages of “mass street theatre.” Upon the third anniversary of the October Revolution, director Nikolai Evreinov staged 100,000 people in The Storming of the Winter Palace, as a re-enactment in Petrograd’s Palace Square. Using radio technology, Evreinov coordinated the crowd of actors, including several hundred soldiers and sailors, as they stormed the Tsar’s residence. (3)
Third, development of cinematography strongly influenced the design of public spaces. Soviet movie directors, such as Sergei Eisenstein, developed dramaturgical techniques to capture the animation of Soviet public spaces. (4) Plazas were transformed into urban stages, surrounded by scenographic façades, giving emptiness a backdrop of columns, apertures, and arcades. The very same cinematographic combinations spread to the designs of new city squares. Freedom Square in Kharkiv—the largest square built as a tabula rasa in the USSR during the 1920s—has a unique form that is designed to emphasize the drama of urban theatre. Participants in the agitprop split into two lines, proceeded to march through two gates formed by the buildings themselves, then around the circular plaza to rejoin in a single line, and finally marched through the plaza in the main stage of the spectacle.
Through these strategic elements, Soviet architects invented a new urban typology designed specifically for the new media regime. By treating the city as stage for mass theatre and embedding the use of new media technologies into urban form, a hybrid of architecture and media was created and used throughout the Soviet period. Its primary physical characteristics were defined by capacity (how many people could assemble in the square), flow-rate (how quickly people could appear), and cinematographic quality (to enhance the dramaturgy and composition within a camera’s frame). Superimposed on the stone and brick buildings, were the loudspeakers, posters, radio antennae, and electric lights that activated the squares and mobilized the masses. The outcome was not only the resultant effort of architects, but also a “Gesamtkunstwerk” composed of architecture, theatre, and media.
Spectacle Squares were designed to exalt the Soviet state; yet in fact this intention has systematically backfired, providing instead stages for democratization and the rejection of totalitarianism. (5) In the years surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, these squares were sites of numerous protests and popular demonstrations. From 1987 to 1991, after Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization of media (the so-called glasnost policy), millions went out to these Spectacle Squares in the capitals of Soviet republics and catalyzed the dissolution of the USSR. The spaces designed for state spectacles ironically enabled acts that annihilated the very political powers that formed them. This radical inversion became possible as the State lost its monopoly on communication technologies, allowing citizens to take control of the mediated public spaces in the city.
A century ago, the Spectacle Square was shaped by a series of new technologies. Radio allowed the coordination of mass movements—first in the mass theatre, later in military parades and gymnastic displays. The movie camera developed cinematography and a new sense of dramaturgy. Mass-media photography, newspapers, and posters projected architectural space into a new global context. These technologies were controlled by Soviet leaders and served in the dissemination of the Communist state.
Over the last hundred years, these technologies have also developed far beyond their original forms. The production of information has been radically democratized and has evolved from a state monopoly to the multiplicity of voices. The singular mass audience became a conglomerate of fragmented and diverse audiences. Cheap access to the internet, social networks, streaming services, and drone photography have distributed power over the spectacle, once strictly in the hands of the State, into the hands of its many actors.
With the demise of Communist ideology, the very existence of Spectacle Squares has been rendered pointless. What relevance do they have without recurrent state celebrations, socialist holidays, or commemorations of Soviet heroes? Post-Communist Spectacle Squares are instantly filled with the chaos of commercial pavilions, advertisements, car traffic, and parking. These spaces waited to be reinvented to serve their citizens in new political and economic circumstances. The end of Communism in Eastern Europe marked the need for a rebirth of the Spectacle Square.
In the decades that followed, Spectacle Squares have evolved along two parallel trajectories. First, they were redesigned to meet the new capitalist reality. In the 1990s, Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square was transformed into a partially underground shopping mall. Densification was planned for East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and Warsaw’s Parade Square (though neither happened). In Tbilisi’s Republic Square, a geometrical podium designed for state ceremonies (and dubbed “Andropov’s Ears” by Tbilisi’s citizens) was torn down to make place for new commercial structures. With time, the process of commercialization became more subtle: the brutal volumes of twentieth century shopping malls morphed into Jan Gehl-inspired zones of smooth commercial circulation by the twenty-first century.
Second, Spectacle Squares hosted political actions of historic significance: spontaneous meetings, grassroots demonstrations, and revolutions. The political function emerging in these spaces endured the end of Communist rule and started to gain an entirely new form. Sometimes these two trajectories—consumerism and activism—cross in urban space. The most explicit example is Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Ukrainian for Independence Square). After Ukraine’s independence, the vast plaza was converted into an underground shopping mall, analogous to Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square. This did not stop the citizens of Kyiv from leading two political protests of such historical gravity that the Ukrainian word maidan, meaning an urban plaza, in many languages has become a synonym for “revolution.”
Оrganization of mass political actions in Spectacle Squares was the creative development of an existing spatial practice. All the components of the top-down Spectacle Square from the times of Lenin—urban voids filled with crowds, theatre, and new media—were reborn in a distorting mirror. Just as with commercial forms of activity, the forms of political actions were subject to an evolution and outside influence. The demonstrating crowds learned from one another’s experience and made use of new technologies and media. The phenomenon of Eastern European mass urban political action continues to evolve. Although this process is still ongoing, one can already trace specific common features, which reveal possible futures of Spectacle Squares.
One of the foundations in establishing a new typology of spectacle in Eastern European popular protest is the non-violent movement. The philosophy of a peaceful protest spread throughout the Communist Eastern Bloc in the late 1990s and the idea of respecting human rights was one of the foundations of the biggest opposition movements. After the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the peaceful protest became the main resistance strategy of the country’s citizens. The support for human rights was also the basic idea standing behind the 1968 Red Square Demonstration, which broke out in parallel against the invasion. Peaceful protest was the method of the Polish “Solidarity” movement, as well as of political rallies, which accompanied the dissolution of the USSR between 1987 and 1991. (6) The rising power of nonviolent protests was bound on many levels with globalization. The significance of human rights in the international legal system, the rising speed of media narratives, and the increasing economic interdependence of states evolved peaceful mass protests into an extremely efficient tool, through which the crowds of citizens are able to pressurize their governments.
The decentralization and self-governance of mass political action is a direct consequence of the development in new media technologies. The faster and more distributed digital communication is, the more precise and timely it may be in the coordination of the crowd. The more fragmented and decentralized the media, the lower the threshold to become an organizer of such a political event. In 1991, Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square saw the largest political rally of Perestroika. (7) This was mainly possible due to Gorbachev’s policy to free media from state control, which led to the creation of independent newspapers and radio stations. Over two decades later, the participants of mass protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square had one television channel and one internet-streaming station at their disposal fed by live content from thousands of people. If in 1991, the independent but still centralized media were able to facilitate the assembly of people on the streets, in 2014, new media were agile enough to coordinate real-time political action happening in different areas of the main square.
Political actions are becoming increasingly more aestheticized and theatrical. Hundreds of Maidan protesters posted photos in headwear prepared specifically for the protest. In contesting new state regulation that prohibited covering faces in public, Kyiv protesters ostentatiously covered their heads with anything from pots and strainers, to hockey helmets and Darth Vader masks. Their highly stylized photos circulated throughout world media, ridiculing new state policy. During the Polish “Black Protest” in 2016, all participating women were dressed in black and carried umbrellas. The umbrella became a symbol of the protest. Photographs of rainy Warsaw squares, filled with thousands of black umbrellas, spread across mass media. Even more successful was another political spectacle, the so-called Independence March directed by the Polish far right in November 2017. A photo of hundreds of nationalists, drowning in red smoke from flares, made it to the cover pages of mainstream Western media. (8) More recently in Georgia, young political activists adopted a different strategy. In May 2018, thousands protested in Tbilisi against police interference in the city’s nightlife. The result: a techno rave held in front of the parliament building. Videos of dancing bodies spread across the internet and provoked similar spectacles across other Eastern European capitals. The proliferation of digital photography and video, through cheap cameras and drones, created an inevitable aestheticization and theatricalization of political action.
The form of such grassroots mass-political action will continue to evolve along these described trajectories. Further development of communication technology and coordination techniques will make such actions more autonomous and self-governed. The crowd will become increasingly conscious of the theatrical nature of such political spectacles. Images and broadcast will become, to a greater extent, coherent and the dynamics of the spectacle, more fluidly directed. Due to its nonviolent approach, such political action will aim to negotiate specific political postulates rather than ignite restless and dangerous revolutions. Protests against unconstitutional judiciary bills, which broke out in Poland in July 2017, may be seen as a prototype of how mass political action in the future might look. (9) In Poznań, tens of thousands of young political activists took to one of the city’s main squares to form so-called “chains of light” (Polish: Łańcuch Światła). Protestors coordinated to form the word “veto” from phone flashlights and to convert the plaza into a collective teleprompter. This precise message, photographed from drone, was then transferred via television and the internet to millions of people. This included Poland’s president, the main addressee, who eventually vetoed two of three controversial bills. (10) The Poznań demonstration comes the closest to perfecting a new form of urban political action: a perfect synthesis of a grassroots, nonviolent, mass political protest. A theatre and urban spectacle, consciously directed and broadcast via new media.
The appearance of this new manifestation of urban life will have consequences in the design of public spaces. In a capitalist city, architects typically view the character of an urban square as a product of its surrounding architecture. In consequence, they carefully program these buildings to create a specific atmosphere within the central void. Both the quality of services in the ground floors and the objects within the square itself—like street furniture, urban greenery, and verandas— have a fundamental importance in determining how people move through the public space of the urban square. However, in the case of contemporary autonomous urban spectacles, the self-governing coordinated crowd is independent from its surrounding architecture and the character of such an urban square is no longer a product of its surrounding tissue. The square instead, is formed by the collective. There exist countless analogies in the field of architecture, terms like: theatre, church, or philharmonic, refer both to architectural typologies, as well as the groups of people using it. “Theatre” is equally an edifice as well as a troupe. Can dualistic descriptions of urban plazas exist? Spectacle Square: both the performing and politicized-crowd as well as the architectural form optimized to host and empower it.
Such a claim provokes questions, predominantly in the domain of architectural design. First, how to design such a space in order to both empower the crowds and provide public safety? How can architectural form help articulate the urban performance in the new media? What happens in the void of Spectacle Squares, when there is no political action? How will the role of the designer of such a space change? What political body should be governing and maintaining such a place? At the moment, such questions about Spectacle Squares lack answers. However, they have the potential to open discussions in the community of architects and designers of public spaces. These, in turn, may result with the creation of an entirely new typology of urban public space.
(1) Marc Santora and Joanna Berendt, “Polish Women Protest Proposed Abortion Ban (Again),” New York Times, March 23, 2018, accessed August 9, 2018,
(2) Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3–18,
(3) Igor Chubarov, “Teatralizaciya zhizni kak strategiya politizacii iskusstva,” in Sovietskaia vlast i media, ed. Hans Günther and Sabine Hänsgen (Saint Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2006), 285.
(4) October: Ten Days That Shook the World, directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei Eisenstein, (1927; Soviet Union: Sovkino, 1928), film.
(5) This observation was first made by Owen Hatherley in: Owen Hatherley, Across the Plaza: The Public Voids of the Post-Soviet City (London: Strelka Press, 2014), Introduction, Kindle.
(6) Boris Buden, Zone des Übergangs: Vom Ende des Postkommunismus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009), 42.
(7) Leonid Parfyonov, “Dvoevlastie v Rossii,” Namedni, Nasha Ehra, accessed July 17, 2018, https://namednibook.ru/dvoevlastie-v-rossii.html
(8) Matthew Taylor and agencies, “White Europe: 60,000 nationalists march on Poland’s independence day,” The Guardian, November 12, 2017, accessed August 06, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/12/white-europe-60000-nationalists-march-on-polands-independence-day
(9) Łańcuch światła pod siedzibą Sądu Najwyższego. Tłum Polaków ze świecami,” Polityka, July 16, 2017, accessed July 17, 2018, https://www.polityka.pl/tygodnikpolityka/kraj/1712584,1,lancuch-swiatla-pod-siedziba-sadu-najwyzszego-tlum-polakow-ze-swiecami.read
(10) Tomasz Nyczka, “Ustawa o Sądzie Najwyższym. Jest weto prezydenta Andrzeja Dudy. Co dalej z protestami w Poznaniu?,” Wyborcza, July 24, 2017, accessed July 17, 2018, http://poznan.wyborcza.pl/poznan/7,36001,22140660,ustawa-o-sadzie-najwyzszym-jest-weto-prezydenta-andrzeja.html
Kuba Snopek is an architecture theorist and educator. He is education program curator at the Kharkiv School of Architecture and former tutor and faculty member at the Strelka Institute. He is the author of Belyayevo Forever, about the preservation of intangible heritage and co-author of Architecture of the VII Day, a comprehensive study of the Polish churches built during the Communist era. Kuba initiated and co-authored Stage, a crowdsourced public space built in Dnipro.
Tomasz Świetlik is an architect and researcher of architecture. He graduated from the Faculty of Architecture of Warsaw University of Technology. He has worked on projects in Poland, Switzerland, Austria, India, and Ukraine. He is the main architect of “Stage”—an experimental pavilion built in Dnipro (Ukraine), and the first fully crowdsourced building. He is interested in anthropology, philosophy of science, and economics.
Petro Vladimirov is a researcher of architecture, and currently a student at the Faculty of Architecture at the Wrocław University of Science and Technology. He has participated in exhibitions and research projects in Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.
Nicholas Moore is an architect, historian, educator, and builder. He was a researcher and research coordinator at the Strelka Institute in Moscow, where his work focused on questions of Soviet and post-Soviet urban land use. He holds a Master of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design and a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature and Architectural History from Brown University.