Soviet Buildings Crumble Even Without Quakes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN city architects in the mid-1970s were mapping out a 25-story hotel in the capital of Soviet-ruled Kazakhstan, local legend goes, a seismological chart of the city showed a fault line running through the center of the envisioned building.

Not willing to be inconvenienced by such an obstacle, urban planners drew a new map -- with the fault line neatly repositioned several kilometers away.

Today, architects, scared of lawsuits, try to ensure that buildings can withstand the test of time. But countless shoddy buildings in the former Soviet Union still threaten those living or working in them.

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The Sakhalin Island town of Neftegorsk, destroyed by a quake Sunday that killed at least 620 people and left 2,000 missing, consisted of 17 such khrushchoby, a word stemming from the name of former leader Nikita Khrushchev and trushchoby, meaning slums. They collapsed like a house of cards during the quake.

Prosecutors on Sakhalin Island are now opening a criminal case to see if poor construction contributed to the massive damage in Sunday's earthquake.

Only now are cities throughout the former Soviet Union learning to cope with the legacy of mass-produced Soviet architecture -- ugly, dysfunctional buildings, especially apartment blocks that were produced mainly during a housing boom in the era of Krushchev in the 1950s and early 1960s. In some areas they are visibly disintegrating -- without an earthquake to accelerate the process.

''The main concept of the 1950s was to get people out of communal apartments and basements by building cheap series of five-story apartment buildings that had no metal or concrete frames to support them,'' says architect Yuri Alexandrov of the Institute of Architectural History and Theory.

''Soon, every city in the Soviet Union had regions filled with identical buildings, not taking differing climactic conditions into account.''

From the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad to the far Eastern peninsula of Kamchatka, khrushchoby are the norm in many cities, although better-built nine-story and 17-story monstrosities also dot the landscape.

The rows of prefab slabs, with their crumbling entryways and rickety balconies, in worse cases appear as if they may collapse any minute.

Inside, kitchens are as small as closets -- partly because communist ideology presumed that all women should work outside the home and should spend as little time in the kitchen as possible.

As money to rebuild anything is scarce in most former Soviet republics, devastated Neftegorsk will not be rebuilt.

But in Moscow, where 18th-century buildings are often in better shape than ones built 40 years ago, municipal authorities have earmarked funds to start a major overhaul.

''Reconstruction of houses built during the Khrushchev era, mainly five-story apartment blocks, are our first priority,'' says Leonid Bibin, who oversees renovation of old buildings in Moscow.

The new buildings will be structurally more sound than their predecessors, says Nina Kitayeva of the city construction department. But they will not be ''high-class'' flats, she warns.

''This is municipal housing. If a person wants to live better, he should make more money,'' she adds.

Three million square meters of municipal housing are constructed in the Russian capital per year, compared with 5 million several years ago, Ms. Kitayeva says. As a result, citizens who got on a housing waiting list in 1988 are only now receiving flats.

The good news, however, is that construction materials these days are easily available -- at a price. In the past, workers used questionable supplies -- often diluting scarce concrete with sand, for example -- in the rush to finish buildings on deadline.

''Today we look at projects more seriously,'' says Anatoly Vornonin, who heads Mosexpertise, the agency that monitors all building in the city. ''We make use of blueprints and hire people with real expertise, we know where the dangerous places are in Moscow, and we use maps that predict land erosion.''

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