Buried treasure: The splendor of the Moscow Metro system

Owen Hatherley
The Calvert Journal
January 29, 2013

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Reposted
from The Calvert Journal, a daily briefing on the culture and creativity of modern Russia.

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Post-Communist underground stations in Moscow, like the recently completed Pyatnitskoye shosse, are still, very visibly, Moscow Metro stations. Regardless of the need or otherwise for nuclear shelters, they’re still buried deep in the ground; ubiquitous still is the expensive, laborious, but highly legible and architecturally breathtaking practice of providing high-ceilinged vaults with the trains leaving from either side. There have been attempts at “normal” metro lines, like the sober stations built under Khrushchev, or the “Light Metro” finished in 2003, but they didn’t catch on. Largely, the model developed in the mid-1930s continues, and not just in Moscow — extensions in Kiev or St Petersburg, or altogether new systems in Kazan or Almaty, carry on this peculiar tradition. Metro stations are still being treated as palaces of the people, over two decades after the “people’s” states collapsed. This could be a question of maintaining quality control, but then quality is not conspicuous in the Russian built environment. So why does this endure?

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The original, 1930s Moscow Metro was the place where even the most skeptical fellow travellers threw away their doubts and surrendered. Bertolt Brecht wrote an awe-filled poem on the subject, “The Moscow Workers Take Possession of the Great Metro on April 27, 1935,” dropping his habitual irony and dialectic to describe the Metro workers perusing the system they’d built on the day of its opening. At the end, the poet gasps, his guard down, “This is the grand picture that once upon a time/ rocked the writers who foresaw it” — that is, that here, at least, a dream of “Communism” had been palpably built. It was not an uncommon reaction, then or now, nostalgia notwithstanding. The first stations, those Brecht was talking about, were not particularly over-ornamented, especially by the standards of what came later, but their extreme opulence and spaciousness was still overwhelming. Stations like Sokolniki or Kropotkinskaya didn’t bludgeon with classical reminisces and mosaics. Yet three things about the underground designs created by architects Alexei Dushkin, Ivan Fomin, Dmitry Chechulin et al were unprecedented in any previous public transport network, whether Charles Holden’s London, Alfred Grenander’s Berlin or Hector Guimard’s Paris. First, the huge size of the halls, their high ceilings and widely-spaced columns; second, the quality of the materials, with various coloured marbles shipped in from all over the USSR; and third, the lighting, emerging from individually-designed, surreal chandeliers, often murkily atmospheric, designed to create mood rather than light.

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