David Knight, Cristina Monteiro and Ishbel Mull

First published in The Architectural Review, October 2017.

‘Dachaland’ first emerged in the 18th century, when dachas – summer dwellings – were gifted by the Tsar to favoured courtiers or military achievers. Since then, through post-revolutionary nationalisation and then post-Perestroika privatisation and deregulation, the dacha has evolved into a truly popular building type, a ubiquitous settlement pattern on the edges of cities and a fundamental part of the Russian urban experience. Here, the ‘town/country’ issue was resolved not through the ‘blurring’ achieved in the conventional suburb, but through maintaining the twin identities of town and country – in effect two parallel existences that today are accessible to a large part of the country’s urban population.

There is the ‘town’ existence, characterised by densely populated apartment buildings, and the ‘country’ existence, provided by the allotment garden and the dacha. As one part of this binary, the dacha does not supplant or replace urban life. Instead, together with its urban equivalent, the industrialised apartment, it can offer perhaps a better ‘best of both worlds’ than the archetypal suburb. As a practice concerned with the identity and potential of suburbia, the dacha is not only a new dwelling type to understand and design for, but is also a development pattern that could be learned from.  

DK-CM has been commissioned to design a dacha for a couple – a Russian and a Brit – on a recently purchased piece of land on the edges of Zelenogradskaya, a well-established dacha settlement close to Moscow. This invitation led to our journey into Dachaland, and soon to a finished design. Or, perhaps, to a purposely unfinished design – the dacha, as a process and product, frustrates conventional logics of building design, embodying John Turner’s notion of ‘housing as a verb’. In designing for Dachaland we also find ourselves thinking of the situation in the UK, where there is a collective failure to imagine positive, socially and environmentally progressive new forms of settlement that might form part of our response to the failures of housing delivery, and that are not simply half-hearted urban extensions or chippings-off of green belt. 

Whether in our design work, research or teaching, we are fascinated by forms of development and settlement that challenge prevailing delivery models and point to an expanded field of development in which the state and popular activity are mutually supporting. This interest has taken us, among many other places, to the suburbs of Basildon in search of built legacies of the plotlands; to the fields of Gloucestershire to explore the Whiteway Tolstoyan colony, which burned its title deeds in 1898; to the fishing communities of northern Portugal; and to the suburbs of Tokyo with Tsukamoto Lab to explore the subdivision of housing plots that occurs as families evolve.The dacha represents a re-colonisation of rural and exurban spaces, an assertion of privacy and ownership in a context where the ‘private’ always raises the possibility of nonconformity. It has evolved out of successive manipulations of norms and regulations, much of which has been concerned with carving out a viable, rural residential existence within an agricultural framework. As an example, the characteristic high mansard roof emerged because it was considered an attic rather than a second storey, allowing substantial homes to appear within rules designed to permit only humble allotment cabins.

Our first impressions of Dachaland were of high metal fencing. Once beyond this, one finds lushly planted plots, houses with steep pitches and timber cladding set far back from the fenceline, the space in front a thickly planted allotment. In sharp contrast to the perimeter fencing around the edge of the compound, there are few definite borders between individual dachas: people and produce traverse these soft borders as a matter of course. Dacha fences, writes Sheila Fitzpatrick, are ‘an emblem of possession in a world stripped of private property’ and perhaps a response of the collectivised ownership of the Soviet period. 

With their thick crusts and soft subdivisions, the compounds are a built manifestation of the modern dacha’s kooperativ nature. In places, where some space is left over between road, high fencing and forest, the public realm can expand to include playgrounds and sports pitches built in the same ad hoc spirit as the dachas themselves. These spaces are a shared endeavour and are the most public and tangible result of the settlements’ mutual quality. Lakes and other amenities exist in the same way, though for some the care of these common assets has diminished since the end of the Soviet period.

A substantial amount of Russia’s gross food production happens in an atomised manner on the plots of Dachaland, a crucial contribution to the economy. According to the Russian Statistics Service, four-fifths of Russia’s fruit and berries, two-thirds of its vegetables, four-fifths of its potatoes and half of its milk emerges from Dachaland. Its informal, distributed agriculture is therefore central to the country’s economy. Gifts of berries and squashes are a daily ritual, fresh produce making its way slowly between the houses in carrier bags and baskets. 

The design and construction of the dacha reflects its closeness to nature. The stacking of processed logs continues to be the predominant construction method, often using locally felled trees and setting them such that the harder, north-facing sides of the tree become external surfaces, and placing the house on high foundations that have a minimal impact on the ground. Building a house in this way typically involves a whole year of resting the stacked timber box before the remaining construction begins, setting up a seasonal building process that, thanks to the incredibly tough winters, will last the whole life of the building. Each summer brings a list of damage wrought by winter and a new stage in the building’s development, along with new furniture, as pieces deemed too unfashionable or old for the city find a new home in Dachaland.

Though the construction of the dacha is heavy, its cladding is usually light, with windows framed by elaborate borders that reflect the taste or competitiveness of the people living there. The patterning of cladding can follow complex geometries or it can feel patched and piecemeal, reflecting stages in the building’s life or different summers of building activity. The grammar of cladding often punches above its weight, using materials that can be picked up by one person to create elaborate Romantic, Neoclassical or Gothic forms, and then often painted in multiple colours. In this sense too, the dacha is an ongoing process and a permanent negotiation between the occupants and their surroundings. No dacha is ever complete, and any dreams of perfection will be frustrated sooner or later by a few metres of snow. 

A dacha is usually composed of a series of timber-clad pavilions, perhaps one is a larger house with living spaces and a kitchen, one a sauna, one a set of bedrooms. They often started life as a small hut set in an allotment, with a tap and room for a chair, which might have then been extended or replaced with a larger house and accompanied by small outbuildings. Even in the long term, a ‘finished’ dacha of any size is likely to experience, decades into its life, subdivision into different dwellings as inheritance comes into play. Many exist that contain rooms that are not linked to each other as different descendants have claimed chunks of the original dwelling. This practice links the dacha with Japanese suburban plots, which are typically subdivided with the generations, resulting in a complex, hard-to-read urbanism where boundaries and ownerships are muddied and different generations live separately but proximately.

Dachaland reminds us that something similar once occurred in Britain: plotland communities were piecemeal, atomised, crafted mutually by small groups to incorporate expressive, low-tech architectural forms, agricultural activity and a relationship to ‘shared’ amenity, such as beaches or hillsides. At the ‘high end’ of this popular wave of building, designers like Lutyens were engaged in the design of airy timber dwellings that could be quickly erected and involved standardisation and fabrication for the sake of economy. In the UK these plotlands were subject to widespread censure and ultimately legislated against, but in Russia the contribution of Dachaland to both the economy and to the wellbeing of the population could not be so easily dismissed. Here, we see a development form that preserves the rural quality of the places in which it sits: developed but richly cultivated and in close harmony with the surrounding forests.

In recent years, dacha construction has begun to follow more conventional building methods – bricks, blocks and in-situ concrete – as well as more traditional single house types that do not consider the possibility of incremental growth. As non-Russian architects working in this context, we are trying to look beyond this tendency and to explore the building processes that made mid-20th-century Dachaland such a distinctive environment, and which are connected to other popular building traditions. We find ourselves working with building methods and processes – tectonic and legal – that remind us of ones lost in countries more familiar to us. The dacha reminds us of the value of building slowly, having the time to consider and re-evaluate structures and revise them. 

At our plot in Zelenogradskaya, we are aware that in designing a dacha we are setting up the first moves in a developmental model that will transpire over years and decades. Perhaps we are designing the parameters of a settlement as much as, or more than, the detailed resolution of its buildings – an endlessly evolving, negotiated environment that, together with a densely populated core, is able to place its occupants in regular, close proximity to the wild and to each other.