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After a brief stroll through an Ulaan Baatar neighborhood, or any countryside town, one can’t escape considerable reflection on an aspect of modern life oft taken for granted: housing. Given the prominent position this subject has taken in public discourse in the past few years, with the American real estate bubble causing many writers and public intellectuals to rethink the modern approach to urban planning, the topic appears to warrant some attention.
Mongolian housing seems to fall distinctly and exclusively into three categories: traditional Mongolian ger (read: tents), Soviet-era apartment blocks, and modern condominiums. The first of these, the ger, is by far the most ubiquitous, if not the most common (though I hesitate to make the second claim, as sources report anywhere from 30% to 70% of the population still living in ger). The ger is a close cousin of its Central Asian relative more familiar to people in the west, the yert(in fact, though I’m sure the two are distinguishable by a fair number of characteristics, exactly howI can’t claim to know). These are circular tents made of felt or wool, designed to be either collapsed and transported or raised, wholly pitched, onto platforms and moved by pack animals. From the undeveloped countryside and villages of the Western provinces, so remote as to not even be connected to the capital by paved road, to the rail-linked Soviet towns of the North and South, to the capital itself where they cluster together forming neighborhoods at the city’s outskirts, ger are everywhere.
The second category of housing, which is by far the most common type of permanent domicile in the country (if not the most common type of permanent structure in general) is Soviet-era apartment blocks. The Russian-built towns of the Gobi Desert and (nearly) Siberian North of the country, as well as central Ulaan Baatar itself, are replete with row after row of concrete monoliths rising up out of the steppe. These Soviet apartment blocks represent the first introduction most Mongolians had to living within walls, the first introduction to a modern lifestyle. The urbanization efforts of their communist government and assistance from Russia led to a building boom which saw many Mongolians stepping, for the first time, out of a tent flap on the steppe and in through a door in a town – a loss of a traditional lifestyle, but a gain of heat and running water. However spartan and disconsolate they might seem to a Westerner today, it’s a thought experiment worth having to imagine how these apartments must have seemed to a nomad settling into one for the first time.
Tall and narrow, modern condominiums (so conspicuous next to their stout, Soviet cousins), arrived in Mongolia only with the influx of Chinese and Korean investment (and expertise) of the last five to ten years. With rare exception, the preferred shelter of the urban elite makes an appearance solely in Ulaan Baatar, where the development boom of the last decade is all but exclusively focused. Interestingly, it’s not in the central part of the city where one finds this new growth, but rather, on the outskirts, adjacent to what are euphemistically called “ger suburbs.” Land is still too plentiful and usable buildings too precious, apparently, to justify tearing down anything in the Soviet-built city center.
While it is my intent to avoid lapsing into first person opinion-based writing in this project, I feel compelled to make brief exception in the case of correcting what I now see as an unjust sentence cast upon Soviet-style planned communities. For any Westerner who has travelled through Eastern Europe, the apartment mega-blocks of the former Soviet Empire are often the object of flippant derision for their Spartan design and what it implies about the lifestyle of their inhabitants (one recalls the contempt with which the Emperor Franz Josef greeted Looshaus in Vienna, “the house without eyebrows,” an architectural antecedent of Soviet design). While the aesthetic criticism may indeed be warranted, especially considering the state of disrepair into which the Mongolian version has fallen, the assumption of a life deprived for those who dwell within seems misguided. Behind their ascetic facades, lay hidden the type of sound planning and simple amenities conducive to a lifestyle that is both community-based and ecologically friendly, the type of urban planning advocated today by contemporary Western green thinkers like Alex Steffan and Rolf Disch, who suggest that with properly designed communities we can live the “good life” without taxing ever-diminishing resources.
Built not in rows, as one often imagines, the Soviet-style apartment blocks of Mongolia are set up in clusters surrounding courtyards where one finds playgrounds, picnic tables, gazebos, shared vegetable and flower gardens, small food and sundry good shops, park-space, all the kinds common-use facilities that encourage an active community-based, public life and ensure that one doesn’t have to travel far for the basic needs of leisure and living. To top it off, these community clusters are all connected by foot and bicycle paths – automobile-grade roads being reserved for the periphery – thereby allowing residents of one cluster to share in the public amenities of their neighbors. Again, to be fair, the facilities of these communities have all seen better days, but this state of disrepair is more appropriately attributed to the Mongolian economy than the design of the buildings themselves. On the whole, the lifestyle offered by these Soviet-style planned communities seems like it would be a pleasant one, especially when contrasted with what urban poverty is like in other cities in the world, or in the case of Mongolia, when contrasted with the ger alternative (idyllic in summer in the countryside, but Mongolia’s winters are long and harsh). Indeed, I would suggest that with a little adjustment, the Soviet-built apartment blocks of Ulaan Baatar could serve as an informative model for the future of American communities.
Americans may or may not choose to look East for the planning of their future communities. Regardless, the decision of Mongolians two generations ago to look West for theirs has shaped the life Ulaan Baatar’s residents today.