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The Dacha

One response to urban lives characterised by work and routine is to take a break from it all. Some people retreat to their country or weekend houses, others perhaps book a hotel or have a timeshare in some foreign country. Urban living in Russia is also characterised by work and routine but Russians don’t do any of the above if they want a break from it. They go to their dacha.

The Russian word dacha (дача) is usually over-translated as country house, implying something grander than usually the case. It was once the case however, for dacha date back to the empire era. The name is said to have the same Latin root as data – that which is given – although the giving was done by a feudal landlord to people in favour. This is Utkina Dacha, the land for which was granted in the middle of the 18th century to Agafokleya Poltoratskaya and her husband Mark Poltoratsky as reward for their involvement in opera productions.

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Here’s a pre-revolution dacha I’ve mentioned before. It was designed by Simon and Leonid Vesnin before and completed a year after Greene & Greene’s 1908 Gamble House.

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As with most country houses and summer weekend houses, the historic dacha treated nature as nothing more than something refreshing to look at.

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The general population was only allowed to have dacha in Khruschev era in the 1960s. Land for this new breed of dacha was gifted by companies, from land that could be used for little other purpose.

Dacha use land that would otherwise be wasted. 

Power companies, for example, gifted land close to or below the high-voltage power lines that criss-cross the country. Railways would gift land near their tracks. Other institutions and companies might purchase land from companies such as these and distribute it. A belt of dachas follows motorways and train lines out of every major city. Dacha are rarely more than an hour away by major transportation route.

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Access is generally by train, but the trains are not commuter trains but non-express intercity trains.

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Dacha can of course be accessed by vehicle but since they exist on land that can often be used for no other purpose, the roads to access them allow for the honest use of off-road vehicles.

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The convenience of accessing dacha is what makes them work.

And work they do. The initial function of these working dacha was food production because of shortages of foodstuffs back then. Vegetables didn’t care if they were close to railway or high-voltage lines. Working dacha are in the countryside, are used on weekends, and people do retreat to them but it is wrong to think of working dacha and historic dacha as the same. 

This gifting of land for practical reasons had a political slant. In 1962 Soviet armed functionaries brutally suppressed local food riots in the event known as the Novocherkassk massacre. Giving people land shifted the onus on food production back to them. They could devote their energies to feeding themselves than rioting. In English we call this killing two birds with one stone. In Russia they say kill two hares in one shot (убить одним выстрелом двух зайцев). This history of food production is why 50% of all Russians and populations of the former Soviet Union have a dacha.

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The production of food is still a major activity. This has two important consequences.

50% of Russians still have a strong connection with Nature. 

The pattern of occupancy of dacha reflects the growing season rather than the season. The cultivation that takes place is not gardening but the growing of food to eat and share. Wild strawberries are a bonus.

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50% of Russians still have a strong connection to food production. 

The economic necessity to grow one’s own food has relaxed somewhat but it was never as if people returned to the city with a week’s worth of groceries. Economic benefits aside, it is a satisfying use of time and energy to grow vegetables as a leisure activity, and extremely satisfying to eat them afterwards,

along with all the drinking of berry-infused beverages that that entails.

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A serious amount of food is nevertheless produced. *

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Peak dacha probably occurred sometime immediately post-1990. The country moved away from apartment+hut and towards suburban house+garden. Nearly every family who desired a dacha could have one. There has been a marked drop-off in field surveying for new dacha plots.

This map shows the distribution of dacha around the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Pink is dacha largely within the 60km radius ring road (orange) but the geometry also follows high-voltage lines and railways, particularly to the south. New suburban development is in yellow and follows roads more closely than railways.

Yekaterinburg dacha belt

The working dacha is free from the tyranny of architecture.

Working dacha are pure vernacular. More often than not, the buildings are self-built from salvaged or recycled materials. There is a limited demand for inexpensive transportable and prefabricated structures as these lose their appeal above a definite economic cutoff. The feeling is Why spend all that money on something you can build yourself?

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Amongst a mosaic of huts, you’re therefore likely to see a converted bus or perhaps a railway car. Interiors are a composite of objects  valued for their continued utility.

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The working dacha has no need for architecture. Architecture offers nothing that could improve upon its vernacular intelligence and its handmade, salvaged or ad-hoc imperfections. It is liveable, practical and viable on the personal and social levels and sustainable on the ex-urban level and, as a consequence of that, the urban level.

The contemporary dacha is reverting to its historic origins as a summer weekend house for relaxing. Architects are getting involved. Owners of architecturalized dachas do not need or want to grow their own food and are unaware of themselves being cultivated by architects. You may have seen this one: “A family with two kids wanted a quiet retreat from the everyday busy life in the suburbs of Moscow.”

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This architecturalized dacha is a weekend house as we know it. Nature is nothing more than something to look at. When the dacha becomes architecture, all that is useful is lost.

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The working dacha and the architecturalised dacha are the results of opposing forces that can never be resolved. Downmarket and sensible occupy the opposite end of the spectrum to upmarket and folly, and are nourished by different atmospheres.

Fortunately, the working dacha is unlikely to disappear anytime soon if 50% of the population has one. This is a good thing because the city apartment + country hut combination has a lot more going for it than attempts to directly fuse urban living and Nature. 

1. The suburban house and garden

Working dacha are not primary residences but suburban houses are. The suburban house began with good intentions. This new housing product made possible by the convenience of train travel, took people just far enough out of the city so they could commute back to it. (In one of those twists of history, the unreliability and expense of privatised train travel in the UK is now making them less viable.)  The first suburban houses put more distance between them and urban tenements and less between the country estates further out. They were a perfect product for their times.

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One of the attractions of the suburban house was the affectation of landowner abilities and rights to grow things. Another was to not have to do it to survive. Plants such as the hybrid tea rose were grown not for sustenance but for pleasure in that abstracted cultivation known as gardening. For many people however, gardening is a chore when combined with commuting and a day job. Suburban gardens rarely live up to their historic expectations.

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Land with much potential to enhance life becomes a nuisance, and its capacity to produce either ignored or activelly suppressed.

Perhaps worse is its further abstraction into the world of ‘landscape gardening’.

2. The apartment+allotment

In the UK, an allotment is a piece of land initially allocated to the urban poor to grow food and feed themselves. The system began at the beginning of last century and, to some extent also makes use of land that cannot be used for any other purpose. These allotments are on the periphery of the factory land.

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Although beneficial in many of the same ways as dacha, there are two main failings. The first is that, at  the plots aren’t large enough. The standard size is said to be 250 sq.m which is about the size of a doubles tennis court. If continuously and intensively cultivated it might feed a family of five. (Refer to misfits’ architecture: Caories/m^3) The current average area is 154 sq.m.

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The larger problem is that habitable structures are prohibited. The land may be otherwise unusable land close to railways or liable to flooding but it is too close to the city. Allowing habitable structures could much to promote a different way of living. The British apartment+allotment has many of the advantages of dacha but does not go far enough.

3. Agricultural urbanism

Agricultural urbanism, community gardens, rooftop gardens and verge gardens are a new invention. The shared aim is to produce food on underused land in cities. Community gardens and window boxes provide visible veg. Rooftops can also be pressed into service but the shared goal of these approaches is the reconnection to food, a change of attitude and the awareness that food has to be grown somewhere by someone.

Using land leftover from inappropriate urban form is a good thing but there’s something slightly surreal about verge gardens. These are vegetables I’d definitely want to wash thorougly beforehand, even if I didn’t know that some plants are very good at absorbing and concentrating environmental toxins. Sunflowers, for example, excel at absorbing radioactive isotopes 90Sr and 137Cs. As for the plants, I can’t help thinking they would prefer to be somewhere else.

4. Vertical farming

If we want serious yields and not just herbs, garnishes and a warm fuzzy feeling then verge gardens and window boxes aren’t going to cut it. We need to upscale. Urban vertical farming has been proposed and there’s also much to recommend it. It’s battery farming for plants and, if nutritional value doesn’t suffer, then there might be a place for it. The problem is that food is still grown by someone else and comes from somewhere else, albeit via a shorter distribution system. There’s still serious infrastructure, investment, and numerous middlemen presumably taking their cut.

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5. Tall buildings in parkland

Like the architecturalized dacha, growing food is something other people do. The tall building vision was all about aesthetically modified nature – parkland. Sunlight and fresh air and open space are good. Another good thing about them is that they can be used for many things at once. It is a waste of sunlight, air and land to grow plants such as grass for visual amenity value only.

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Skyscrapers aren’t about to be placed in farmland anytime soon but, if they do, it’ll happen in China where (I forget the actual statistic) something astounding like 50 fifty-storey apartment blocks need to be brought online every week to accommodate net population increase. If land is better suited to growing food than buildings, and if buildings are better suited to housing people than plants, then the vertical village is the logical consequence.

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• • •

None of these attempts to fuse the spaces occupied by plants and people have all of the advantages the apartment+dacha combination has. Those advantages arise from connecting the two types of space rather than attempting to fuse them.  

An urban apartment and a dacha complement each other beautifully. A weekly trip to the dacha to check and maintain the plants seems to fit their cycle as well as ours. It must be psychologically healthy to take a train out of town in the opposite direction to usual, to be in a rural or semi-rural environment and do different things that have their own satisfaction and rewards, and in one’s own time. I can only imagine that, at weekend’s end, one goes back to the city and sees afresh and appreciates anew the things that apartments, cities and infrastructure have to offer.

• • •

If they were lived in full-time, dacha would be a sustainable and resilient way of life very close to what we would call off-grid living.  

  • Dacha  use land that would otherwise be wasted
  • Dacha  use existing infrastructure
  • Dacha recycle and reuse and are an ecological and sustainable use of resources
  • Dacha are used to grow food
  • Dacha have an absence of architecture

When dacha are not lived in full-time, the apartment+dacha combination is a very useful urban unit and additional benefits arise from them being separate yet linked by a short train ride. 

  • Dacha provide the population with sustaining breaks of environment
  • Dacha respect the production of food as a noble human activity
  • Dacha teach an appreciation of Nature that involves working with Nature

By offering a break from full-time urban living, dacha balance it, complement it and thus help sustain it.

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• • •

Further information:

An excellent glimpse into the world of the dacha is here on https://russianotes.com. I loved the opening sentence: “Summer passed very quickly, as it usually does in Central Russia”, and this image.

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See also: 

misfits’ architecture: Home Grown
misfits’ architecture: Calories/m^3
misfits’ architecture: Vertical Farmwash
misfits’ architecture: Food and Shelter

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