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Owen Hatherley on Soviet milk bars and utopian cafeterias


n+1 has an interesting excerpt from Owen Hatherley’s new book Landscapes of Communism, in which he revisits Soviet-era communal eating facilities in Russia, Slovakia, Poland, and elsewhere. Here’s a snippet:

In Poland, there is legislation that actually protects these spaces. Milk bars, an innovation of the 1960s, are still given public subsidy, although governments constantly threaten to withdraw it, and when one goes out of business it is never replaced; a similar experience can be found at the stolovayas of Russia and Ukraine. They’re seldom architectural objects in and of themselves; only a few retain their original furnishings, and most are just in the ground floors of perfectly normal buildings, though sometimes in surprising locations. Agata swears by these places and so has an encyclopedic knowledge of where you can find them, even in the most unlikely spots, from tourist thoroughfares in Kraków to side streets in Łódź. At Bar Familjny, you can get a filling meal for the equivalent of a quid on Nowy Świat, essentially Warsaw’s Regent Street; Bar Bambino on Ulica Krucza is similarly odd and welcome in its provision of fresh budget foodstuffs in a well-heeled part of town. There are a few which were specially designed, usually placed in prominent places in a microrayon. In Warsaw, there is Praga’s Bar Alpejski, with a multicolored mosaic outlining the shape of the Alps; there is a particularly bleak one in Universam Grochów, a department store complex surrounded by high rises; or, conversely, there is Bar Sady, a bright piece of Pop architecture in the once-award-winning Żoliborskie housing estate, a series of neat, almost prim low-rise blocks placed in between the retained trees of what was previously an orchard, an internationally renowned 1959 scheme by the architect Halina Skibniewska. Bar Sady has not obviously changed since the era of the Thaw, and is just a big, column-free cranked-steel roof, enclosing an airy little bar to eat your klopsy in, light, easy, and convenient.

The clientele for these Bar Mleczny is a mix of those who lost out in the “transition”—the elderly, the ill, the homeless—and a lot of students, and sometimes young people enjoying them for their downbeat, slightly kitschy “PRL” vibe and the very 1950s notions of service and convenience. Sometimes people in there are very poor indeed, and the uneasy social mix can get uncomfortable; also there are almost never toilets, something presumably dictated by the fact that these are intended just as places to stop briefly to eat next to your place of work; but it can be a problem if, like the author, you suffer from Crohn’s disease; it can’t be easy on the elderly diners either. The food is good, solid fare—barszcz, pierogi, surówka i inne jedzenie, with “kompot,” a drink made from crushed berries, offered for around tuppence, and extremely cheap even if you take relative cost of living and wages into account.

Image (via n+1): Bratislava Trade Union Headquarters.