Industrial labyrinths
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Text: Polina Zaslavskaya
Photo: Sergei Zaslavsky, Svetlana Bandurka
Video: Liisi Mӧlder, Polina Zaslavskaya

A former plant, a former factory, an area that was once used for… What happens there now? If you look at the satellite pictures of former industrial zones of Irkutsk, you can make out the main pedestrian and traffic axes of those places. We decided to take a stroll there and realized that in reality these axes look very different from the view from above: endless fences creating labyrinths and dead ends prevent free passage. The way is closed, although its function changed long ago.

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Research Questions

How do the territories of former industrial facilities interact with the town nowadays? Do they influence the quality of town life and its spatial layout?

About 70 industrial facilities (about 30 of which are large ones) can be found in the city’s master plan of 1987. These facilities dwindled or closed down in the 1990s, privatization disrupted the industrial lines and cycles in the remaining facilities. All that time the sites were divided up more and more among new owners that started to use them for their own purposes.

In the end the industrial zones that had been fenced in and isolated from random passersby by a single pass system in Soviet times gradually started to be included in the town’s life and get new meaning. But development of these areas is hindered by the former layout and abundance of successive tenants who are not eager to spend their own money on site improvements. Area development is a long term investment, and renting is limited by a number of factors, so it is easier to use and just slightly renovate what already exists. For example, to install new facades on the old walls of a factory.

World-wide the practice is to reorganize such sites of a fading industrial world into residential quarters, office blocks, trade complexes, or arts clusters. Good examples of such renovations are HafenCity quarter in Hamburg, the residential quarter «Sadovye kvartaly» on the site of the «Kauchuk» plant in Moscow, and trade and exhibition centres like ArtplayFlacon and others.

In Irkutsk you can trace three main patterns – the transformation of industrial sites into shopping malls, conversion into business centres or their preservation for an indefinite period. All these usage patterns can be seen in the three site examples we have chosen for our stroll. These are the former plant named after V.V. Kuibyshev, the former radio manufacturing factory and the site that used to belong to the Combined heat and power plant-2 and tea packing factory.

Location of studied territory in the city structure

Irkutsk plant of radioreceiver

The site of the former plant is about 40ha. Now it is a zone of trade, entertainment, social and business sectors consisting of several groups of entities.

The commercial (Jammoll, SilverMall, furniture centre, construction materials and auto parts market “Sergeevsky” and others), entertainment (KinoJam, Billiard Academy, Jam Park, Ice People, Laser People) and social sector (regional offices of the retirement fund, Siberian Institute of Law, Economics and Management (SILEM)). There is a boiler facility, warehouses and office buildings on the site as well.

The retirement fund offices, SILEM and a few manufacturing facilities are fenced, but the area occupied by the trade and entertainment centres is open for visitors. One would think that this was all one interconnected space but the borders of the sections take the form of junctions of various types of paving and surfacing, differences in level and retaining walls, and storm water drains. Here and there an abrupt change from developed areas to open ground draws a clear line between the “new world” and the reality of the surreal decay of old plant buildings.

But despite the borderlines between the worlds there is a commonality preserved from the past: proximity to several transport corridors. The former plant is located at the merging of two main town roads to form Federal route Р-258, moreover the area (and this is true for industrial zones in other Russian cities too) is adjacent to the Transsib (Kaya is one of three railway stations in Irkutsk). It is the location at the crossing of several roads that determines the domination of the service function over the residential one.

Walking through that area we tried to figure out how it lived and what relation it has to the town.

There are not many generally known facts on the life of the plant: the major part of the classified plant produced goods for military needs, among other goods they produced jammers and for everyday use – radio receiving sets. Lastly, the Radio Plant actively created the infrastructure of the district Sinushina Gora: residential quarters and dormitories, kindergartens and cultural amenities were built.

The role of a district-forming nucleus used to belong to the plant but nowadays it belongs to the postindustrial world that has appeared in the area, trade and entertainment give people jobs, cover the requirements of the residents of three nearby districts (Universitetsky, Pervomaisky, Sinushina Gora) and of Shelekhov, a satellite town. But what are the qualities of that changed environment? Who forms it and how? Who uses it?

The environment is created by the new owners and tenants but they do it only within their boundaries. The large shopping mall with cinema and supermarkets, indoor ice rink, SILEM, the retirement fund, various markets concentrated in the area of the former plant have turned it into a powerful centre of attraction for locals that live in that part of the town. Business owners realize that and that is why around the monotonous buildings there are only enormous parking lots. Of course visitors can sit on a bench under a street lamp while their family members are busy shopping or keep an eye on their child playing on a trampoline in the outdoor playground, but the inner space of the shopping mall is much more comfortable than the space outside.

The area is divided between customers and workers. Its function is service; there are no residential buildings here, so in the evening and at night life comes to a stop.

The function has changed and while the factory had night shifts, now life goes on full swing only during the day.

Wandering among the workshops, we saw an element of urban improvement of a modern kind, if not in form, at least in time of appearance.  It was a flower bed out of tires (a popular type of “humanization” of the town’s public spaces), created by the workers of one of the companies. While we were taking a picture of it, one of them got annoyed by this and headed towards us, it was clear that he wanted to stop us from taking any more pictures. But when he learned that we were architects he became more sympathetic and eagerly told us the story of the D.I.Y. flower bed. The workers usually have lunch at the shopping malls and relax there after lunch, but during short breaks throughout the day they go out to smoke and sit on a concrete block next to the flower bed that pleases the eye.

We were interested in walking routes. It turned out that they only connect the bus stops with the shopping malls. The area is organized more for cars than for people: there is not only an entrance to the parking lot, but also outlets for avoiding traffic jams that form on the only road leading out of the town.  You can trace the remains of the industrial past in that domination of the machine over humans.

The rest of the area adjacent to the trade and public amenities is occupied by warehouses and workshops where constant deliveries are made by rail or road. The entry for outsiders (except for the ones who want to rent a place) is prohibited: it is not safe.

Walking through the former plant we paid attention to a doorway in the brick wall of an old deserted workshop. It seemed to hold a secret and invited us to enter. A magic place, enormous empty floor, windows broken here and there, some red glass panels remained, and in the middle there was a gigantic hole in the ceiling. And light! The light pierced the space. In comparison with that the atriums of the modern shopping malls fade and disappoint.

Just a week later passing by the radio plant, I saw that the workshop had been dismantled:  probably, somebody had decided to rent the area. The remains of the roofing had been put in the area in front of the building, a bare skeleton-frame could be seen at the top, and the glass panels that I had managed to take a picture of had been dismantled or destroyed. The building didn’t look so mysterious anymore: the esthetics of the industrial world had disappeared for ever.

The dilapidated buildings left from the time of the radio factory are half-ruined, moss grows over them, windows and leaded panels are broken, the roofing caving in, but they are for rent, waiting for a second birth. Occasionally you can see how the frame of the old building gets a new siding that hides the past. In some European cities you can see sometimes how old and new buildings “become friends” and interact, how they penetrate into each other.

On the site of the former radio factory, you can clearly see that there is no interaction at all, each section is developed separately and the development stops at the borderline with another section.

Commercial outdoor playground in front of the shopping centre

An element of urban improvement at the Silver Mall.

You can walk along the half-empty halls of the shopping malls

The atrium of a new shopping mall

The borders of the “new world” and industrial past are easily distinguished

Closed sports facility at a school and SILEM

A flower bed out of tires is a popular type of “humanization” of the town’s public spaces

A doorway in the wall of an old abandoned workshop

The frame of an old building gets new siding. The past disappears without trace behind it

The destruction of the industrial past

Interactive route

Irkutsk heavy engineering plant (IHEP) named after V.V.Kuibyshev

The site that used to be occupied by the plant is about 55 ha. On the internet you can read that the plant is on the rise now but we had no idea about this when we decided to have a walk there. The purpose of the walk was to see if the various parts of that large area are connected by a path or not.

By function the site of the former plant can be divided into four parts and that division has been kept since the nineties. The first part is the area of the “Fortuna” markets where building materials, car parts and other goods are sold. The second is a block of shops and business centres along Oktyabrskaya Revolutsia Street. The third part is the working IHEP that is behind the bus station. The fourth is an open air parking lot of the automobile market and unused lots where you can see separate workshops and warehouses that are falling to pieces under the elements. This part makes up about half the whole area of the former plant.

The first part of the site (the “Fortuna” markets) is a massive trade zone. The owners try to attract customers and make their way from one market building to another easier: there are organized pedestrian zones with benches and trees; a pedestrian bridge from the bus stop over a dangerous part of the road has been built.

In comparison with the trade zone of the radio plant the level of urban improvement is much higher. Perhaps it is because of its proximity to the town centre and closeness to its central street (Karl Marx St.) that serves as a natural division line for offices and trade.

The second part of the former plant site is a block along Oktyabrskaya Revolutsia Street, formed mainly by business centres and furniture and home decoration shops pressed one to another. The dialogue with the urban environment is not clear. The shops are aimed at wealthy people and are decorated by expensive items of home decoration; their interaction with the street is limited by show-cases and sign boards. The contribution of the gallery “Revolutsia” to the street’s beautification is more visible:  it owns a long yellow outdoor bench that goes right to Karl Marx Street and a summer outdoor performance stage for public events. In summer Harat’s pub has something of a dialogue with the town with the help of a couple outdoor tables. But the main part of the open space between the buildings can hardly be called open as it is occupied by parking lots that are full of cars on week days. It is not easy to walk here. There is no “natural” soil or green plants here except for the new square “Irkutsk-City” that is located quite deep inside the quarter, behind the business centre “Terra”.

It was the edge of the town at the beginning of the 20th century, and then the first workshops were built there. The plant was built in the 1930s. That was the beginning of heavy industry in Irkutsk. In the last years of the Soviet economics the plant consisted of multiple workshops and had a developed social infrastructure including one of the most famous Houses of Culture in the town (Karl Marx St., 53), that now hosts an entertainment centre and restaurants. In the 1990s the workshops started to close down one by one because of disruption of production ties, and new owners began to move in.

We come out onto a square formed as a cozy corner but there was no sense of coziness there. Located not far from the bus station, art galleries, and museums it is frequently empty: we met only two people there. Why? While we were trying to understand this, we bumped into a fence that turned out to be the answer to our question. The square is surrounded by fences of various owners, it is impossible to walk through it: the entrance and the exit are in one and the same place. Behind the square on the site of the plant you can see an old building, most likely a boiler house. An interesting and intricate object out of pipes is adjacent to one of its walls, reminding one of a gigantic wind instrument. Coming back to the street we noticed an unobtrusive sculpture depicting workers of an Oil Company. After the gloss of the facades and sterile grass of the square, we returned to the dusty concrete fence along Oktyabrskaya Revolutsia Street, back to the foot-worn patch of grass and cracked pavement.

Next day we continued our walk over the remainder of the former IHEP site. The starting point was the bus station.

There used to be the Quartermaster’s garden on the site of the former plant and present square “Irkutsk-City”. At the beginning of 1930s the garden area was made over for the construction of the Kuibyshev plant.

We were met by a tourist pavilion with  stylized depictions of Irkutsk’s attractions – colorful and hectic like in old computer games,  like that of  Tetris,  it seemed to form the mood for our further walk. The borders of the station were fenced and it surprised us. There was a notice on the fence, informing people that it protected against terrorism.

In an effort to find a way round we bumped into a new fence that hides one of the town attractions – the house of Speransky. You can see it on the map but it is not so easy to find it in reality. The house is taken care of but it stands alone, there are no roads leading there, and not everyone will figure out how to get there through the bushes and be brave enough to do it.

Mikhail Speransky was a Russian public and state official, reformist, governor general of Irkutsk Province from 1819 to 1821.

Let’s continue on our way. Suddenly we come to a comfortable corner by the building of a printing shop.  Old “Press-Media” pavilions are scattered around in random order, one of the pavilions had boxes on the shelves nailed to it. There are flowers and onions in the boxes. Some onion sprouts have been cut: it seems the workers of the print shop come out to eat some fresh green onion during their lunch breaks.  It is a heartwarming corner; you can feel the presence of people there.

Wandering through the narrow labyrinths of fences we found ourselves at the factory entrance with a sign from Soviet times. We couldn’t but ask the security man if the plant still operated and where the main entrance was. It turned out that it still operated and we were right at the main entrance. The security man looked at us as if we were aliens and we looked at him as at a person from a bygone era. Aliens are not allowed in, so we walked around the area hoping to have a glimpse of its inner life through another fence.

The way led us along the tram lines and the River Ushakovka. Our leisurely walking mood changed, we started to feel uncomfortable: on the other bank there was a prison, across the road there was the “Chinese” market with its distinctive adherents, and in front of us the overgrown bank of the river. Any minute someone could jump out, knock us over the head and take our camera. We were almost ready to fight back when we approached a couple dreamily drinking vodka from plastic cups. They were sitting on a concrete block that was blocking the way for cars; they were friendly and even showed us where we could climb carefully over another fence.

One of the paths led to the bank of the river and urged us to study it. The slope turned out to be a rocky one but good to relax on; it is clearly used as a place for picnics. And on the opposite side by the car service station, the section of the bank was developed, with new paving, benches and rubbish bins.

We walked around the fence along the river Ushakovka hoping to find the passage to Oktyabrskaya Revolutsia St. and to the square “Irkutsk-City” but, all the same, we were stuck in the labyrinth of fences.

Our last find was a dump site of concrete constructions and metal canopies for shopping stalls. Local workers gave us a cue that there was a secret door in the fence that led to the building of the “Sobranie” business centre. It means that at least for those who know a pedestrian route does exist, the thread is not torn! But when we walked through the secret door we bumped into another fence. It had another door but you cannot open it without a key. We turned around and walked back along the fence to Karl Marx Street.

It took us two days to walk around the area that had seemed to be open to everyone (we did manage to go through it), but it turned out to be segmented into many parts, fenced partially by transparent netting and partially by blind three meter metal sheets. The main feeling is that of a dead end.

A person that has come here is destined to bump into fences and turn back. And if you decide to walk to the river bank you will get to an untended depressive site just next to the town centre. The place is bleak, you want to leave it.

If these places do not belong to the townspeople all in all, then who do they belong to? As there are no residential buildings here, the area is shared by office workers and shoppers. The bus station – the world of out-of-towners – borders it. In the evening and at night the whole enormous space becomes deserted, and at weekends only the trading part and bus station are alive.

The industrial zone that used to be here shrank.

The parts that are occupied by trade are known to the locals, the other ones have become totally invisible. The legacy of the industrial world and modern architecture do not interact here, just as in the area of the radio plant. But the area has a chance to be developed: the city masterplan includes a project for the development of the river bank, for construction of sports facilities and residential areas; all these can change the rhythm and quality of this quarter.

The main entrance to the Kuibyshev IHEP

A corner with onions

Contrasting architecture. Boundaries and dead ends

“Irkutsk-City” a modern square near the “Terra” business centre. In the background – the Heavy Engineering building

Deserted square “Irkutsk-City”

Transport containers of the service department at the car repair shop

Rocky slope of the river Ushakovka

The “Terra” Business centre is an example of modern architecture

A dump site of concrete constructions and metal canopies for trading stalls belonging to the “Chinese” market at “Fortuna”

Yellow bench

House Speransky.

Interactive route

CHP-2 and Tea packing factory

The area of this former industrial zone is less than 7 ha but it is one of the most visible in Irkutsk – it is located in the historical centre and very close to the administrative centre.  Everyone who walks along the Lower Esplanade, is sure to notice the vivid building of the CHP and its 85 meter chimney – one of the town’s visual centerpieces.  If you walk towards these places you will soon have to look for a way round: the granite pavement of the esplanade that was laid in Soviet times suddenly switches into riverside top soil, and the passage is blocked by the fence of the plant.

The CHP station hasn’t functioned for a long time, but nothing has been built on its site – it is closed and impenetrable. The site of the former tea packing factory adjacent to the grounds of the CHP has many functions now: there is a university (SILEM) in one of the buildings, a car service in another one, a great part of the area is occupied by the frames of buildings, waste ground that has turned into a landfill and an undeveloped river bank that can be called an accidental recreation area popular among fishermen. Despite the fact that the plant has been out of operation for a long time the line of the esplanade is still interrupted by the former industrial zone. The site itself is fenced in, the longest fence going along Surikov Street.  A feeling of emptiness extends to the surrounding area.

CHP-2 was the first electric power station in Irkutsk and one of the first-born of Russian power-engineering. It was put into operation in 1910 on the bank of the river Angara – the river that in half a century became a potent energy resource due to the building of hydro- electric power stations along it.

The Irkutsk tea packing factory (the original name was tea pressing factory) was established in 1932 and was the only tea producing factory in RSFSR from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

We looked into two small squares, both across the road from the industrial zone. The first one – with flowers and benches – was built on private donation. One of the benches – “human limbs” – repels and clashes with the name of the square («Feel our love»). It is not known if it is because of the controversial work of art, but despite being developed the square is usually empty.

The second square turned out to be abandoned. We were there for the first time and expected to find something unusual in its scrub. And we did. There was a man lying in the bushes; he resembled that unattended square, they formed one whole. Despite the presence of the university across the road the place is not popular at all and neglected.

SILEM* that occupies a warehouse at the tea packing factory isn’t inclined to interact with the surrounding area at all.  During the reconstruction of the old frame of the former workshop it was decided to do siding on only three walls and not to waste money on the fourth side facing the yard. The only effort to improve the area was to install an enormous number of ugly black garbage bins next to the main entrance.

Behind SILEM there is a residential house facing the river Angara and adjacent to the grounds of the former factory. It was built on the site of a destroyed church with the obvious thought that the esplanade would be constructed there but the river bank is still unattended and it doesn’t look as if anybody has tried to renovate it at all. The side of the house is adjacent to a half-ruined brick wall of the former tea packing factory; a two-storey shop is squeezed in there too. The yard of the house reminds one of the wells of Saint-Petersburg courtyards – dark and chamber-like.

There used to be a local attraction in the grounds of the factory –a square with a composition – a tea pot (more than human size), a packet of tea, and a cup and saucer. Both the square and composition have been destroyed.

Chudotvorskaya church

There is a traffic-control barrier in front of the entrance to the yard and it put us off.  But we were looking for a swing at the demand of our child and we found one right in that yard. The yard turned out to be gloomy but inhabited, alive: two girls were playing in the outdoor playground, and their dads were sitting and chatting at the side. There was life on the opposite side of the yard too: two men were sitting on a bench in the bushes, eating sandwiches and conversing amicably. Local people had installed boxes for cars by the wall of the factory against the backdrop of the skeleton of its main building.

There is another residential house across the street from that house. The atmosphere here is also confined, but the yard is cozy and welcoming. The yards are separated from each other by a road and a pathway – about twenty meters only, but the sulky impression of the giant that fell asleep forever disappears in the second yard.

Having explored the surroundings we got back to the factory all the same and saw fishermen through the closed gates. Why could they be there while we couldn’t? Stealthily we wormed our way in through an opening in the fence.

The remains of the industrial past can be found in the surrounding details: one fence is with anchors, another one with stars, by the car service – old Soviet mosaic tile. A rusty barge is moored to the shore – this place is frequently visited: the plastic windows have been broken recently; there is an old armchair on the deck, and fishermen are fishing from the barge. From a blue house a guard keeps an eye on the fishing. He lives with his family there. The impression is weird:  a big section of the river bank is under the domain of a guard who lives in the centre of Irkutsk with a view onto the Angara.

That space is closed for those who wish to walk along the river bank but the locals know secret tracks. An amiable worker of the car service station told us about a door in the fence that gives access to the esplanade. He himself uses this way every day – and fishes after work. He feeds small fish to a cat and numerous dogs that guard the car service. Local fishermen, dwellers of the nearby houses, young couples and groups of friends make their way there along the rocky bank to fish or sit in the seclusion of the bushes and watch the river. The attraction of the river is stronger than any fences.

General view of CHP-2 from the Lower Esplanade

Young people make their way to the closed shore to sit in the secluded thicket and talk

The building of the Combined Heat and Power Plant

The area has preserved the past. A fence next to the car service

The car service is one of the scarce centres of life in the industrial zone

The remains of the industrial past. The environment degrades and it creates a depressive mood

During the war the significance of the power station was enormous as it was the only large generator of electricity in Irkutsk oblast

An old rusty barge retains its attraction and esthetics

The fences are not an obstacle for people wishing to fish in the area of the industrial zone

Valuable old housing development of the Soviet period, Chudotvorskaya Str., 1. Post-constructivism, about 1936-38

Contemporary bench

Interactive route

Future of the past

Industrial centerpieces – factories and plants – collapsed together with the Soviet economy. The buildings remaining can be compared with whales thrown up on a deserted shore – their grounds are so empty! Feeling sorrow for the end of the giants we see how new non-industrial life feeds on the decaying bodies. But we are eager to understand how the former industrial space is becoming transformed, how it interacts with the town, what stereotypical or original scenarios are unfolding on that closed stage. And what awaits it in the future – will it be transformed, will it become open for people, will it be integrated with the urban environment or not.

Walking around the labyrinths of fences put up by the new owners of the sites is disquieting; the interaction with the town is not clear and occasional. The feeling of openness that you may have at first turns out to be false, and public spaces formed on the sites or nearby, designed to create seclusion and coziness, are actually isolated giving a sense of detachment from the environment. They support a state of tension: nearby are neglected areas that can become a source of threat. At the same time, industrial esthetics is destroyed or is hidden behind new constructions. The monuments of the industrial world are ignored as a source of architectural diversity in the town or for the creation of the individuality of new non-industrial buildings and spaces. The urban environment created by an industrial world is deteriorating. At the same time the qualities of the former semi-industrial environment are being recreated – enclosure, lack of evening life, dehumanization.

At the same time we can see some shifts. Recently an open contest of CHP renovation projects finished. It is expected that a concert hall, a residential quarter and affiliated services will be built on the site. There is hope that the “pedestrian plug” will disappear and the esplanades will be connected. The area that was once occupied by the Kuibyshev plant is undergoing renovation too: a number of housing projects were presented that have pedestrian routes and interesting architectural ideas. The site of the former radio manufacturing plant is constantly changing resembling a testing site where many functions coexist and develop, interchanging and giving hope for a new quality.

Finally, new creative exhibition centres have started to appear: the creative workshop “Pertsel”, gallery “Revolutsiya”, Bronschtein gallery. They exist on their own, apart from each other.  There is no interaction between them or it is too weak. But thanks to the appearance of these places a merging of creative people, who care about the town and who with time can have an influence on its spaces, is taking place.