At the Milk Bar

In Archaeologies of the Future, his heavy volume on science fiction and Utopia, Fredric Jameson argues that collective, social eating facilities are an essential part of any socialist Utopia. Why? Mainly because they immediately abolish in their very existence one of the main aspects of domestic drudgery, and of unpaid housework, liberating women to (alternately) ‘govern the state’ (as Lenin once put it) or at least to participate in the labour process.

Let’s pioneer the provision of communal eating facilities!

Bratislava Trade Union Headquarters. Image courtesy of the publisher.

The following is an excerpt from Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism, out this week from the New Press.

In Archaeologies of the Future, his heavy volume on science fiction and Utopia, Fredric Jameson argues that collective, social eating facilities are an essential part of any socialist Utopia. Why? Mainly because they immediately abolish in their very existence one of the main aspects of domestic drudgery, and of unpaid housework, liberating women to (alternately) “govern the state” (as Lenin once put it) or at least to participate in the labor process. It goes without saying that works canteens are not in themselves utopian, so this is an ambiguous process—is cooking (and eating) at home being abolished because this is a precondition of freedom, enabling women to free themselves from what dozens of 1920s propaganda posters called “kitchen slavery,” or is it being abolished so that their alienated labor (now in factories) can be supplemented by the alienated labor of professional cooks? Was this another way of making sure that even the basic functions of consuming and excreting were necessarily part of the public sphere and could be appropriately surveilled? Either way, collective eating was always claimed to be a central plank of urban provision under “real socialism”—cheap, inexpensive, functional food that would be served outside the home, near to the workplace, so that in the rest of your time you could either “fish, hunt, and philosophize” (Marx) or “learn, learn, and once again learn” (Lenin). Like many progressive policies this was often honored more in the breach; but three survivors that we managed to discover suggest that some legacy has been left; in one case, a surprisingly healthy legacy, except perhaps for the food.

The Narva, or Kirov district, in St. Petersburg, the heartland of the revolution and home to the Bolsheviks’ main base of support, the Putilov engineering works, has particularly rich pickings of such structures. The building currently called the Kirovsky Univermag was one of many in Leningrad named after the assassinated local party boss, who had proved to be considerably more popular than Stalin in the elections to the 1934 Party Congress—if he did do it the chutzpah of immortalizing someone you have had killed is impressive. It was designed, however, in 1928, as the Narvskaya Factory Kitchen, by a team of architects from the “psychotechnic” architectural collective ASNOVA, and completed in 1932. The team included Iosif Meerzon, who was one of the four designers (along with Tatlin himself) of the Monument to the Third International. The building is a remarkably dramatic piece of street architecture, divided into several distinct volumes: a series of double-height, all-glazed, cubic bays right on the street, a big glass front pointing toward the Metro station, and a long first floor that, in the manner of many early-Soviet avant-garde buildings, appears to drag the street along with it, animating its dynamism; a curved restaurant wing leads on to a small park.

It has long since ceased to be a factory kitchen as such, though it still contains various peculiar things—a bootleg DVD stall, various cheap clothes emporia, and the like. However, to eat, you have two choices. One is a fairly normal Russian eatery where you can get reasonably priced shashlik in a Euro-Remont environment, but the other is McDonald’s. I was not keen on the idea of visiting, but Agata, pointing out Nikita Khrushchev’s alleged enthusiasm for the unpretentious mass-produced ease of the hamburger, convinced me. We went in and admired the remarkable universalism and egalitarianism of McDonald’s—our Chicken McNuggets tasted exactly the same and were priced nearly the same as any other Chicken McNuggets anywhere on the planet. We can be fairly certain that Moisei Ginzburg would have regarded organic burgers and sourdough bakeries as petit-bourgeois sentimentality of the rankest kind, so on that level we felt no post-socialist guilt. A life of burger-flipping, however, is nobody’s idea of liberated labor.

The Narvskaya Factory Kitchen was a place I went looking for specifically, trying to find a (semi-) famous architectural monument, a social condenser designed by a team which included one of Tatlin’s collaborators, a place of Modernist and socialist pilgrimage. The more interesting places are, as usual, the ones you stumble upon on the way to somewhere else, and so it was with the eating facilities of the Bratislava Trade Union Headquarters, a major building in (what was then) Czechoslovakia. This couldn’t, at least in terms of the amount of historical water under the bridge, be much further from Constructivism, social condensers, and the world-transforming experimental zest of early post-revolutionary Russia; it was one of the largest building projects in the Slovak capital during the period of “normalization,” after the human face the Czechs and Slovaks had tried to give socialism was smashed in. It is a building built for trade unions that had no de facto and very little de jure independence, that did not have the right to strike, but which basically served as a sort of compulsory social infrastructure that was called upon to sort out holidays and sick pay, rather than defend workers at the point of production. All that said, something quite fascinating happens inside here, something that is heavily amplified by the current geopolitical status of Bratislava itself, something that could probably not have been found when this was a working building under “real socialism.” Bratislava is less than an hour’s journey away from Vienna, but feels considerably less “socialist”—public transport, food, and above all taxis are considerably more expensive than in the Austrian capital, there is a lot more in the way of chain stores and (usually giant) adverts, and a hell of a lot less in the way of good, well-kept social housing. As Pyzik points out in Poor but Sexy, it’s the distressing spectacle of how, after winning the cold war, the West even managed to retain more remnants of socialism for itself than were permitted in the East. That’s certainly what the close proximity of Vienna and Bratislava heavily implies. Walking round Bratislava, on the first of our visits there, Agata found the contrast profoundly depressing, and my attempts to cheer her up via the contemplation of its (fairly extensive) socialist Modernism were not greatly appreciated. It is also quite hard to find a cheap place to eat.

The Bratislava Trade Union Headquarters   was completed in 1981 to designs by Ferdinand Konček, Iľja Skoček, and L’ubomír Titl, as a plaque handily informs you; it is a showpiece on a large site just north of the city center. It commands a triangular plaza, defined by steel lamps which open out at the top as interconnected semicircles, another bit of architecture parlante—look at them from a distance, and they look like a crowd of raised, clenched fists. The exterior consists of sharply angled low-rise wings, clad in more of those peculiarly Soviet-1970s bluish white marble panels, which arch around a tall tower, a glass curtain wall fringed at the corners by that strange Marblette. It is quite open—you can wander in, and the green courtyard, with a big abstract sculpture of some sort of exploding sputnik, is also easily accessible to the public, which is pleasantly surprising, as it’s still a functioning office building for the (by now, of course, independent) Slovak Confederation of Trade Unions. It’s probably because of the subdivision of the lower-rise parts of this (always multifunctional) building.

There are a concert hall, a theater, and a restaurant, as there always were, and various odd little commercial concessions doing hard-to-define things—EFL, travel agents, indeterminate stuff. But what we both got very excited about indeed was that restaurant. We’d been wandering around the foyers, just to look at the (specially designed, typically craft-based) furnishings—aluminum-clad columns, one of which has an indentation where it looks like someone’s kicked it, lots of curved and treated wood, an aesthetic somewhere between 1970s airport lounge and spacecraft, all very elegant but completely empty. The restaurant, however, was full of people, all of whom were availing themselves of enormous three-course meals for around three euros, in a city where mostly you would be lucky to buy a bag of chips for that. Nearly every table full, broth from a vat, dark beer. Here was a part of the city which had somehow managed to preserve that sense of filling, slightly stodgy comfort which features so often in the memories of those who remember “real socialism.” It’s a pleasure of its own, and probably more so now that it’s quite beleaguered.

In Poland, there is legislation that actually protects these spaces. Milk bars, an innovation of the 1960s, are still given public subsidy, although governments constantly threaten to withdraw it, and when one goes out of business it is never replaced; a similar experience can be found at the stolovayas of Russia and Ukraine. They’re seldom architectural objects in and of themselves; only a few retain their original furnishings, and most are just in the ground floors of perfectly normal buildings, though sometimes in surprising locations. Agata swears by these places and so has an encyclopedic knowledge of where you can find them, even in the most unlikely spots, from tourist thoroughfares in Kraków to side streets in Łódź. At Bar Familjny, you can get a filling meal for the equivalent of a quid on Nowy Świat, essentially Warsaw’s Regent Street; Bar Bambino on Ulica Krucza is similarly odd and welcome in its provision of fresh budget foodstuffs in a well-heeled part of town. There are a few which were specially designed, usually placed in prominent places in a microrayon. In Warsaw, there is Praga’s Bar Alpejski, with a multicolored mosaic outlining the shape of the Alps; there is a particularly bleak one in Universam Grochów, a department store complex surrounded by high rises; or, conversely, there is Bar Sady, a bright piece of Pop architecture in the once-award-winning Żoliborskie housing estate, a series of neat, almost prim low-rise blocks placed in between the retained trees of what was previously an orchard, an internationally renowned 1959 scheme by the architect Halina Skibniewska. Bar Sady has not obviously changed since the era of the Thaw, and is just a big, column-free cranked-steel roof, enclosing an airy little bar to eat your klopsy in, light, easy, and convenient.

The clientele for these Bar Mleczny is a mix of those who lost out in the “transition”—the elderly, the ill, the homeless—and a lot of students, and sometimes young people enjoying them for their downbeat, slightly kitschy “PRL” vibe and the very 1950s notions of service and convenience. Sometimes people in there are very poor indeed, and the uneasy social mix can get uncomfortable; also there are almost never toilets, something presumably dictated by the fact that these are intended just as places to stop briefly to eat next to your place of work; but it can be a problem if, like the author, you suffer from Crohn’s disease; it can’t be easy on the elderly diners either. The food is good, solid fare—barszcz, pierogi, surówka i inne jedzenie, with “kompot,” a drink made from crushed berries, offered for around tuppence, and extremely cheap even if you take relative cost of living and wages into account.

You queue up (obviously), you ask for what you want (or what is available) on the menu, you’re given a ticket, and then you line up by a niche for the food to be dispensed straight from the kitchen. You eat it, you go home. The entire process is actually, even when there’s a long queue, very fast, and the food is heavy, fresh, and very filling. There are no airs and graces, nobody ever tries to elicit tips (nor could you give one if you wanted to), there is not even any “service” as such, nobody “waits” on your table—you are obliged to leave your plate at another niche. For Agata, and who am I to argue with her, the milk bar is the most convincing remnant in Poland of “real socialism”—you get from here exactly what you need, and you can even enjoy it (not too much, mind!); you could just eat in these every day and nowhere else and have an entirely balanced and healthy diet, something which could not be said of McDonald’s. It’s quick and reliable, and there is no obvious class relation within the space of eating—nobody has to act servilely for the sake of a tip, and if you get a smile out of someone it is because you have made them smile. It’s obviously lacking in luxury, in the cheaper examples lacking even comfort, but there is something here that is completely inaccessible anywhere else under capitalism, something which genuinely seems to be part of an entirely different economic system. It’s this that people are defending when they argue for the preservation of the milk bar; but look around for symbols in the average bar and you’ll find a cross, not a star.

Copyright © 2015 by Owen Hatherley. This excerpt originally appeared in Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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