Cities and Cosmonauts 3

Buran on launchpad at Baikonour

Liam Young and Kate Davies, lecturers at the Architectural Association, are leading a study visit to Chernobyl and Baikonour next July, as part of their Unknown Fields nomadic studio.

"This year, on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight, we will pack our Geiger counters and spacesuits as we chart a course from the atomic to the cosmic to investigate the unknown fields between the exclusion zone of the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in the Ukraine and Gagarin’s launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Beginning in the shadows of nuclear disaster we will survey the irradiated wilderness and bear witness to a sobering apocalyptic vision. We will skirt the retreating tide of the Aral Sea and mine the ‘black gold’ in the Caspian oilfields and caviar factories. We will wander through the cotton fields of Kazakhstan and tread the ancient silk road before reaching the shores of the cosmic ocean bathed in the white light of satellites blasting into tomorrow’s sky. In these shifting fields of nature and artifice we will re-examine our preservationist and conservationist attitudes toward the natural world and document a cross-section through a haunting landscape of the ecologically fragile and the technologically obsolete."

I'm glad that others have recognised the spatial and architectonic qualities of Baikonour. There are of course the hauntological aspects, the disused and abandoned launchpads, and the tragedy of the collapse of the hangar in 2002 where the last Buran was stored, crushing with it the dream of resurrecting the Soviet shuttle program that was hinted at by Leonid Gurushkin's announcement of 2001. "We have been dreaming of this time," said Gurushkin.

But it is too easy to regard Baikonour as a monument to failed dreams, and forget that it is still a working spaceport. It is a truly disurbanist settlement, to a much greater degree than the compromised linear city plan for Magnitogorsk or the other Sotsgorod. It is a town whose locus is off-world, the earthly counterpart to a true Kosmograd yet to be built.

Buran on launchpad at Baikonour

If, like me, you maintain that the Soviet Space program enabled the secret continuation of the Constructivist project after the rise of Stalin, then Baikonour is a site of key architectural importance.

This is another in a series of posts on Kosmograd sponsored by Portakabin:

Prefabricated buildings from Portakabin.