Dr Mariusz Czepczynski

Economic Geography Department

University of Gdansk, Poland

Emancipated Landscapes of Post-socialist Europe.

Old and New Icons and their Representations.

Geographical analyses of landscape are among the oldest studies in the earth sciences. Landscape studies can provide tools for holistic and synthetic examinations of the world, employing a wide range of perspectives and methodologies. The term landscape can be interpreted in a number of ways, which, though not mutually exclusive, differ in emphasis. The variety of contemporary used landscape definitions has been grouped into three synthetic categories, according to main feature of landscapes.


  • Form or essentially an artistic imagination, became a model for urbanism, supplants the architectural designs of building and spaces between them; while landscaping is a process of planning green establishments.
  • Function: a physical geographical structure: a territorial complex, region, tract of land; land use; applied in landscape ecology.
  • Communication: in anthropology landscape is a representation and symbol; product of human values, meanings, needs, aspirations, history (Czepczynski 2006 B).

During last 20 years, the concept of cultural landscape has grown in cultural geography and other disciplines to become a meta-word, unifying major approaches towards landscape studies (Meining 1979; Cosgrove, Daniels 2004; Black 2003; Robertson, Richards 2003; Winchester, Kong, Dunn 2003). Cultural landscape, as an interactive mélange of forms, functions and meanings, is a unique palimpsest re-constructing cultures through the system of signs, written on aesthetic, political, ethic, economic, infrastructural, and legal layers. Cultural landscape is always an expression of values, social behaviour and individual actions worked upon particular locations over a span of time. The core impact of cultural landscape is based on visual features facilitated by functions and enhanced by socially constructed significance. Landscape can be considered both as a composer and transmitter of cultures; it is a language of modern society, which signifies the spiritual dimension of the investors, designers and users.

Cultural landscape is one of the main representing languages of modern society, which signify the spiritual dimension of a society; frames and embodies economic, social and cultural processes. Every language, including spatial and visual language of landscape can operate as communicative medium through which thoughts, ideas, feelings, powers are represented. This particular, but very stable and potent system of representation, relays on correlation between objects, features and events with a set of concepts or mental representation people carry in our / their heads. Representations through landscapes are central to the production meaning of space: members of the same culture share the same codes and reveal same or similar systems of communication, based on mutually understood codes and signs. According to Hall (2002), there are two attitudes to representation work: semiotic, focused on how language produces meanings and discursive, relating effects and consequences of representation. Meaning of objects can be represented on one of the levels:


  • Reflective or mimetic; meaning lies in the real objects, and language functions like a mirror to reflect / imitate the true meaning as it already exists (like monuments, names).
  • Intentional; signs and symbols mean what the author intends they should mean. Communication is based on shared conventions; to understand one has to enter into ciphers and practices of the cultural group.
  • Constructivist: things don’t mean anything; people do construct meanings, using system of representation, their concepts and signs and believes.

The urban landscape can be explained as a multi-layered text, and as an iconographical parable; icon and text interact in an amalgamation that relates the built-up forms to the system of thoughts and politics. Textual interpretations were introduced to scientific discourse by Ferdinand de Saussure (2000), and later further developed by Jacques Derrida (2001), while James Duncan (2004) brought and applied the concept in new cultural geography. According to textual interpretation, space / landscape / place can be read as text or book. Place become particular kind of a ‘social document’, based on system of coding & decoding of signs and symbols. Icons in symbolic space were implemented into Anglo-Saxon geographical thoughts by Denis Cosgrove (1998). Cultural landscape was interpreted as visualisation of thoughts and ideas, in forms of symbolic icons or geo-symbols (Gottmann Harper 1990). Forms, functions and meanings were to represent modes of thoughts and conceptualisation of the world. Iconographical interpretations, enriched by de-textualisation of landscapes, can be especially useful in explanation of totalitarian landscapes.

Each social, political, and cultural formation creates its own cultural landscape. Landscapes reveal, represent and symbolise the relationship of power and control out of which they have emerged (Zukin 1993). Landscape is a product of human hierarchy of values, meanings and codes of the dominant group within a society. Power over landscape is one of the most visible and important exemplifications and visualisation of authority and supremacy. The aesthetic form is never neutral –  the meaning / power is written into the landscape through the medium of design, often used (and overused) by land(scape)lords to stress the authority and legacy (or just to be remembered).

Socialist landscaping practices

Cultural landscapes of Central European socialist regimes resulted from the historical context, social and economic structure of the region, as well as the Marxists’ vision of an ideal and politically correct landscape, infused by various efficiencies and modes of implementation. Architecture, urban planning, visual arts, together with texts and media, were seen as significant and powerful modes of expression and exemplification of ‘peoples’ power’ over the ruled masses (Czepczynski 2006 A). The process of landscape management in communist countries can be seen in two main phases.


  • Stalinistic triumphalism dominated Eastern Bloc urban landscapes in late 1940s and early 1950s. This early socialist vision of landscaping happiness was to reflect joy, delight, and pride of young, socialist societies, as well as aesthetic taste of their leaders, who often passionately called themselves ‘great constructors’. The triumphalist landscape of that early period articulated the victory of the newly establishes system, as well as deep belief in better world, it was suppose to represent (Simons 1993). Construction and cult are closely united in grand designs of ‘palaces for people’, which were the same time robust political statements and visible marks of new powers. The cultural landscapes was strictly controlled and administrated by the communist party. Nationalisation and elimination of unwanted features, including bourgeois and religious were deeply coded into the 1950s cultural landscapes, as well as aspirations of the Party’s strongmen. The meaningful landscape was split up between the official landscape of the new cult, ‘the wedding cake architecture’, and the scenery of oppression and terror (Czepczynski 2006 A). One of the most imposing soc-realistic landscape implementation, although only partly realised, is 1950s Poruba housing estate in Ostrava in Czech Republic (pic. 1).
  • Constructivist and functional projects had reflected overwhelming Corbusierism in every socialist city since 1960s.  The landscape became somehow less ideological and more functional. Mass production and mass design exploded in huge block of flats to meet growing housing demand in 1970s. The omnipotent and more and more abstract decision-makers were hidden behind central offices, planning desks and regulations. The over-regulated system created rather popular practice of circumvention, obeying the set of laws, making many exceptions, forced or persuaded by the grand power of the “red barons” of socialist industry and party. The exemplification of the grand scale modernist city is New Belgrade in Serbia (pic. 2).
  • Historicism and uniqueness characterised the late and last quests for a perfect socialist landscape. The 1980s found the communist system quite corrupt and hardly functional in many of the socialist counties, especially in Poland, while architects and planners made affords to find more human dimension of socialist landscape. Many of the buildings were somehow based on historical discourse, like in central Berlin, Gdansk or Bucharest (pic. 3), while others seemed to represent internal anxiety and unrest, including the Slovak Radio upside down pyramid in Bratislava (pic. 4).

Liberated societies – emancipated landscapes

Core landscape transformations always follow primary social evolutions or revolutions, including the 1989 collapse of the communist regimes in Central Europe. The newly liberated and emancipated societies have created new representations of cultural landscapes, which reflected their aspirations, ambitions and hopes. Emancipated landscape is a combination of reinterpreted old symbols of communism and new icons of fee market, consumption and globalization. The notion of freedom was often, especially in Poland, understood as limitless and regulation-less chaos and victory of wild and free market. The ‘velvet’ and other revolutions were chased by political transformations and disappearance of old schemes and approaches to cultural landscape. New opportunities appeared in front of hardly prepared new landscape owners and managers. New actors appears on liberated landscape scene, including rather suddenly quite powerful local governments, free media, old and new owners of real estates and land, developers and investors, including foreign, as well as NGOs and ‘focus groups’, organised and working against particular decisions and protecting their interests and habitats (Sármány-Parsons 1998; Leach 1999; Judt 2005).

Liminality is a period of transition, during which our normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behaviour are relaxed, opening the way to something new  (van Gennep 1960, Turner 1975). Concept of liminality, as well as theory of representation can be employed to describe and classify contemporary landscape transformations. In liminal state, individuals were ‘betwixt and between’: they did not belong to the society that they previously were a part of and they were not yet reincorporated into that society. Social memory and variety of older and newer heritages, as well as political preferences predisposed process of liminal landscape transformation in former Eastern Bloc countries. The fate of old socialist landscape icons can be explained in three main phases or rites, as put by Victor Turner (1975):


  • Separation of landscapes began just after first free elections in 1989 / 1990, and was based on sorting out ‘the good’ from ‘the bad’, notwithstanding subjective and various definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The new defining followed new systems of coding, which reflected political attitudes of post-communist societies and governments of Central Europe. Separation is probably the most visible and spectacular part of the liminal process and is usually detectable by a practice of ‘landscape cleansing’. Elimination of unwanted features was most intense in early 1990s, but it came back recently in right-govern Poland and Estonia. The separation of street names, monuments, functions and forms related to communist past or Soviet regime is crucial to define new, anti-communist identities. Monuments’ removal is probably most spectacular act of iconic separation (pic. 4).
  • Transition is the most typical liminal state, characterized by a ménage of meanings and representations. The old landscape is being re-interpreted and de-contextualised, while the same time new landscape is being constructed, both physically and mentally. Both types interfere and interact, often on the very same locations, creating often contradict but vivid urban mise-en-scène (pic. 6). Many iconic features are still corresponded to communist powers, structures and procedures, represented by buildings, urban settings, as well as attached texts and connotations. The same time and the same place, capitalist and anti-communist representations and well as human memory changed the social constructions, functions and then significance of old icons.
  • Reincorporation was the final rite, according to Turner (1975). The division between ‘old’ and new’ becomes insignificant and eventually disappears, while old, usually striped of the negative meanings symbols are incorporate into post-modern cultures. Many of the reincorporation in implemented by the young and demographically post-socialist generation. ‘Ostalgy’, or longing for better, saver, younger socialist past is another type or reincorporation of old symbols, connoted with happy memory of stable structures of communist state. The process is nowhere more visible then in East Germany, where picturesque head of Karl Marx on main square of Chemnitz (former Karl-Marx-Stadt), became an important symbol of the city (pic. 7), incorporated into the place marketing strategy Chemnitz – Stadt mit Köpfchen (City with head) (Wieske 2002).

Despite of Turner’s (1975) chronological sequence of liminal rites, it seems that the three phases of post-socialist liminality can happen simultaneously, and referred to various groups of landscape users and various landscape features.

Rise of new icons

Global economy, unification, worldwide rules, multinational companies and implementation of neo-liberal policy quite rapidly entered post-socialist economies and socialites. Hardly limited and controlled flows of capitals, thoughts and cultures have noticeably and severely changed the local and national orders and systems. Liberal parties introduced liberal economies, while global markets created new modes of communication and new life styles. Cultural landscape has been transformed according to new, global expansions of means and money. Post-socialist transformation has been additionally enhanced by the global challenges, including deindustrialization and globalization. The non-interventionist landscape management models and tools were often considered as the very best solutions to post-socialist administration procedures and had been widely applied in many post-socialist countries and cities (Czepczynski 2004).  Consumption, including ‘visual consumption’ of landscape and market demand for cultural landscape features, created a frame for further transformations, towards, as George Ritzer (2007) put it ‘globalisation of nothing’. ‘Best’ practices and designs copied from some successful cities reproduce icons of blue glass and steel, reproducing ‘no-places’ that could be anywhere. Freedom of competition brings vigour, but also confusion and disorder. New functions and features emerged in fast developing cities. Financial institutions, advertisements, office towers, media reshaped and changed the format of the cities, in idiosyncratic chase of ‘the better ‘West’. The development of Warsaw can be seen as a perfect example of such a practice, where tall office towers promptly grew at the western part of the city centre (pic. 8). The district administration directly applied the spatial liberty policy, and encouraged investors to build up practically whatever they wanted on the plots they acquired. The area has been transformed into the landscape of a typical American city just in few years.

The other set of practices and icons is connected with the memory of past, usually contested by communist apparatchiks. Monuments of anti-communist resistance and communist crimes have risen over the region. Grand memorials of workers uprising had been constructed in Poznan;, Gdansk and Katowice in Poland, while some of the former prisons were transformed into museums, like in Budapest House of Terror (pic. 9), Berlin’s Stasimuseum, or Jilava Memorial Museum in Romania. In parallel, new official iconography replaced the old one. Religion features and new churches facilitated the now iconography, especially in Poland (pic. 10), Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. One of the most specific aspects of new religion iconic transformation is growing official cult of Pope John Paul the 2nd in Poland. The process of rising monuments and memorials, naming streets, hospitals, university, pier, schools, as well as folkloric celebration of anniversary of his death can exemplify unique process of ‘John-Paul-the-2nd-isation’ of Polish cultural landscape.

Another process is connected with demand for historical legitimacy. ‘Archaisation’ and popularity of neo-pseudo-historical landscapes answer the social call for anti-modernist, as well as verified and proved solutions. History became one of the strongest points of reference and the most reliable anchor in post-modern, turbulent times. Learning and discovering of own, often forbidden past is connected with learning form best solutions and can been seen as re-constructing, copying, and faking chosen historical forms (pic. 11).

Lost in post-traumatic Arcadias

Foucault suggests that modern power is a dispersed set of micro-practices, many of which operate through the normalising gaze of surveillance regimes (Dovey 2001). Hundreds of practices implemented by hundreds of small to large-scale landscape managers fill the modern urban landscape jigsaw. The old and new semantic rulers transform the old icons via media, law and money, but despite their intentions and ambitions, the meaning of cultural landscape is always verified by everyday users. Difficult everyday choices and decisions force local societies to permanently reinterpret and contextualise post socialist residual and anti-socialist features. The communists’ promises of equal rights and workers’ pride have been replaced by capitalist and liberal ‘Arcadias of consumption” (pic. 12).

Societies of Central Europe are undergoing historical transformation: from masses and objects towards citizens and consumers. New fears and hopes are reflected in new or renewed features of cultural landscape. Still, after 18 years, we are in transition – not socialist any more, but also didn’t overcome all the socialism coded in cultural landscapes. Old and new icons and symbols penetrate each other; some of the old icon disappeared, new one has risen. Reinterpretation or de-construction of old geosymbols can be used as a key to interpret national and regional differentiations in post-socialist liminal transitions. Attitude towards post-socialist landscapes represents historical experiences, structures of powers, as well as social, economic and cultural transformation of a given society. Emancipated and liminal landscape of Central Europe, not socialist any more, but still not truly liberated from the old traumatic and totalitarian burdens, represents to much extend the situation of regional societies, sandwiched in between reinterpreted disturbing and/or happier past and unknown future.

The process of post-socialist liminal landscape conversion will be exemplified by a variety of urban, Central European landscapes. Post-socialist cities have faced challenges and threads of rapid multi-level transformations, all of them more then visible in urban scenery. Locally embedded city icons, based on regional history and environment are transposed against universal and comprehensive circulations, external trends and forces. The difficult compromise between globally circulating inclinations and territorial icons and symbols create unique mise-en-scène, or operation milieu, where all the economic, social and cultural activities take place (Czepczynski 2006 A). The conversion and modification of cultural landscape is an ongoing and perpetual process, which reflexes generation change, new trends and fashions, as well as shifting preferences and attitudes of local residents and decision-makers. The urban scenery will be most likely constant combination of circulations and icons, coexisting or colliding on urban scene.

List of pictures:

Pic. 1. Triumphalist development on Hlavni Trzida (former Lenin alley) in Poruba district of Ostrava, Czech Republic in 2007Pic. 2. Functionalist housing estate in New Belgrade, Serbia in 2005Pic. 3. Palace of Parliament (former Palace of People) in central Bucharest, Romania in 2005
Pic. 4. 1980s building of Slovak Radio in Bratislava, Slovakia in 2006Pic. 5. Lenin’s monument moved from the font of House of Free Press in Bucharest and left under the kitchen wall of suburban palace of Mogosai, Romania in 2005Pic. 6. Latvian World Trace Centre in building of former headquarter of Latvian Communist Party in Riga, Latvia in 2007
Pic. 7. Monument of Karl Marx on Brückenstrasse in central Chemnitz, Germany in 2007Pic. 8. View over new business centre of Warsaw, Poland in 2007Pic. 9. Former quarter of Hungarian secret police turned into private anti-communist museum on Andassy Street of Budapest, Hungary in 2006
Pic. 10. Newly constructed largest church in Poland in the village of Lichen, central Poland in 2006Pic. 11. ‘Reconstruction’ of history: the first building from the left was build in mid 1990s, the second in early 2000s, while the block is the oldest, from mid 1970s Gdansk, Poland, in 2006Pic. 12. Arcadia shopping mall in western part of Warsaw, Poland, in 2006

All pictures were taken by M. Czepczynski


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