East German Influence on Urban Vietnam — A Review of “Building Socialism”

Schwenkel, Christina. Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Katherine Zubovich

By 1973, a decade of repeated U. S. air strikes had left the northern Vietnamese city of Vinh in ruins. In the coming years, Vinh would be rebuilt with the help of East German standardized design. The first GDR specialists to arrive in Vinh watched as teams of female Vietnamese workers moved through the war-torn cityscape clearing the rubble, sealing crevices, and grading the land in preparation for rebuilding. Freedom from colonialism, the overthrow of capitalism, and the leveling of the city opened the door to new possibilities for the future. 

In Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam anthropologist Christina Schwenkel examines efforts by Vietnamese and East German planners to transform Vinh into a model socialist city. Schwenkel charts the design and construction of Vietnam’s first planned city while also exploring the afterlife of modernist planning. The book is concerned not just with Vinh’s modernist reconstruction, but also with “what happened to it after the experts left.”

Schwenkel’s book rests on a truly impressive base of historical ethnographic research. Across the book’s ten chapters, the author draws on archival sources from both Vietnam and Germany, as well as interviews with planners and residents, surveys of residents, and participant observation conducted in Vinh’s Quang Trung housing estate. Quang Trung stood at the heart of Vinh’s modernist reconstruction and it serves as the focal point of Building Socialism. In 2010 Schwenkel spent nine months living in a forty-square-meter apartment on the fourth floor of one of Quang Trung’s nineteen housing blocks. At the time, the housing estate, home to over 4,000 residents, was undergoing privatization.

As Schwenkel shows, Quang Trung was a key site in which political and social relations between state and society were recast. When constructed in the mid-1970s, the buildings of the estate were intended to transform the city and its residents both materially and ideologically. Modernist socialist architecture was also meant to propel Vietnam forward in time. Schwenkel writes, “Vietnamese aspirations to socialist modernity were tinged with temporal anxieties about lagging behind.” Vietnamese women—rural female migrants in particular—found themselves the targets of new regulations aimed at encouraging more “forward-looking” behaviors. Women feature as central actors in Building Socialism. Schwenkel foregrounds their voices throughout the book, including in later chapters about the premature decay of Quang Trung housing blocks and what Schwenkel calls “unplanned obsolescence.” Once a symbol of the modern future, the Quang Trung estate has today lost its utopian sheen and is seen instead as an example of urban blight. Schwenkel shows, however, that in disrepair lay new possibilities for resident solidarity and collective action.

 A residential block in East Berlin, 1986. “Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg: Wohngebiet Ernst-Thälmann-Park,” Jörg Blobelt (1986), Wikimedia Commons.

Building Socialism contributes to a growing literature in architecture and urban studies that traces networks forged during the Cold War between specialists working in the socialist and the decolonizing worlds. Schwenkel emphasizes the multidirectional nature of these exchanges in planning knowledge, while also highlighting the hierarchies, debates, and discord that arose between Vietnamese and East German planners and between different generations of experts on both sides. For example, when GDR planners proposed a monumental city center for socialist Vinh with wide boulevards for military parades, both Vietnamese planners and a younger generation of East German architects disagreed with this socialist realist vision that harkened back to Soviet planning of the Stalin era.

The urban experts in Building Socialism were members of a socialist planning network that bypassed the Soviet Union. East Germany, as Schwenkel notes, was one of a number of non-Soviet socialist countries that gained geopolitical legitimacy by sending its citizens abroad to train Vietnamese experts and to support building and infrastructure projects in the decolonizing world. Vietnamese urban planners, for their part, stood to gain from the GDR’s pursuit of international prestige, but Vinh’s planners were not passive recipients of foreign expertise. Rather, as Schwenkel shows, modernist plans and socialist visions for Vinh were created through international collaboration. A model of transnational urban research, Building Socialism uncovers the history of Vinh’s role as a global planning hub, while also attending to the afterlife of socialist modernism for those residing in the city today.

Katherine Zubovich is an Assistant Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She is author of Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital, published by Princeton University Press.

Featured image (at top): Vinh, capital of Nghệ An province, Vietnam. Prince Roy, “Nghệ An Scene,” (2016), Flickr.

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