There’s that moment near the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy’s house is swept away from the black-and-white world of Kansas and lands with a thud in Oz, a wonderland of blinding Technicolor.
You get a similar sense of amazement when you walk into Comfort Town, a massive housing development that has taken shape in recent years in a drab, Soviet-era residential district of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
Comfort Town looms over the landscape like some giant Lego set in the brightest imaginable hues: screaming yellows, bright lime greens, blues and oranges and deep brick reds — all rising into the sky in the form of dozens of blocky, high-rise buildings. Even the grays seem rich with pigmentation. The whole development covers some 115 acres, about 1 1/2 times the size of Disneyland.
The colors would stand out anywhere, but in Kiev, they explode on the senses like fireworks in a gloomy sky, practically mocking the gray cityscape around it.
That was the whole idea.
We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about Soviet mass housing, because there would be no Comfort Town without it.
On Dec. 7, 1954, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to a national builders’ conference, calling for an overhaul of Soviet architecture. Khrushchev was the Soviet Communist Party leader at the time, and he proposed that architects focus entirely on unadorned, standardized buildings made of prefabricated, reinforced concrete.
It’s a remarkable speech. Khrushchev at times sounds less like the leader of the international communist movement than he does a construction contractor trying to land a large industrial account. No detail is too small to capture his attention.
“Production of linoleum must be expanded,” he insists. “Floors covered in linoleum are no worse than parquet floors; they’re more hygienic and smarter. It is easier to look after such floors than after parquet ones. Everyone knows that parquet floors have to be waxed — which is a complicated business and requires extra expenditure.”
Soon, construction crews all over Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union were erecting tens of thousands of identical five-story apartment houses, largely unadorned, that began to ease a massive housing crisis. They were called khrushchevkas in honor of the man who ordered them built.
To understand their significance, it’s important to recall what they replaced: communal apartments in which multiple families were crammed together, one family to a room, and forced to share bathrooms and kitchens.
From 1955 to 1970, roughly half of all urban residents of the Soviet Union moved into new housing, according to Jane Zavisca, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona and author of “Housing the New Russia.”
Later, under Khrushchev’s successors, the five-story buildings gave way to much taller apartment blocks. Every few years, the design would change, but entire districts of cities such as Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev were populated with rows of colorless high-rise buildings that seemed to stretch to the horizon.
It became something of a national joke. One of the most popular of all Soviet movies, “The Irony of Fate,” is a romantic comedy built entirely around the idea that one could not tell the buildings apart (and a man could stumble into a strange woman’s apartment and insist it was his own). The opening credits use animation to tell the history of Soviet housing, as architectural embellishments are stripped from buildings and armies of high-rise towers march into place.