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Buried treasure: Owen Hatherley on the splendour of the Moscow Metro

Buried treasure: Owen Hatherley on the splendour of the Moscow Metro

At street level Moscow's new architecture can leave a lot to be desired, but its underground stations continue to maintain traditions of innovation and opulence. Owen Hatherley investigates the mysterious excellence of the Moscow Metro

29 January 2013
Text Owen Hatherley Owen Hatherley

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?

The original, 1930s Moscow Metro was the place where even the most sceptical 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.

“The stations don’t feel modern as such, but oddly dynastic, ecclesiastical, haunting. They are dream spaces which linger in the memory”

Although, unlike their successors, they didn’t quite go all the way towards neo-classical, neo-baroque and neo-Byzantine, they don’t feel modern as such, but oddly dynastic, ecclesiastical, haunting. They are dream spaces which linger in the memory. That’s even before the explicit propaganda, the statues and mosaics and majolica and stained glass, the High Stalinist style that lasts from the late Thirties to the mid-Fifties. And even these aren’t just general propaganda blare, but something more complex – themed stations, stations with narratives, or in the case of the Ring, an entire line of narrative, retelling revolution, war and the Metro’s own construction. After a brief toning-down under Khrushchev, new stations continued in this vein in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, albeit with classicism exchanged for futurism, as with the astonishing Vostok Vienna Secession ballroom at Aviyamotornaya. Similar are the Brezhnev and Gorbachev-era systems in Novosibirsk, Volgograd, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and other Soviet cities outside Russia. They share an entire, coherent aesthetic between lines and cities, all fragments of the same underground metropolis – more coherent, often, than the chaotic cities above.

It’s not difficult to work out why the Metro’s style was and is so popular, but it’s harder to discover its sources. The dreaminess of Art Nouveau or the didactic, illustrative civic palaces of Victorian Britain may be distant cousins, but the Metro is largely a completely unique phenomenon. And unlike other, similarly grandiose Stalinist schemes, it lacks the widespread Russian tendency to use spectacular facades to mask the absence of content (known in Russia as the “Potemkin” element, in honour of Count Grigory Potemkin, a favourite of Catherine the Great who built mock villages to conceal the poverty and unpopularity of Russia’s new southern colonies). The “Seven Sisters”, the ornate post-war skyscrapers built by Stalin, and the grand boulevards were expressly designed for an elite, and are frequently insubstantial and piecemeal, quickly giving way to shabbier and simpler pieces of townscape. Not so the Metro. It is what it purports to be – a public transport system raised to the status of a series of miniature palaces, aristocratic spaces for the proletariat. It’s hard to see the catch, at least if you forget that from the Thirties to the Fifties, the reckless construction methods employed under Metro bosses “Iron” Lazar Kaganovich and his deputy, and future Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev cost scores of lives.

The Metro persists as a deeply official yet unproclaimed continuous artwork. Given that most of the new stations and the extensions under construction were planned under the USSR it is in the applied art, rather than in the architecture, that you find the differences with Soviet practice. Park Pobedy, in 2003, was the Metro’s equivalent of the neo-Stalinist trend in architecture, with red marble and murals by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s favourite artist Zurab Tsereteli depicting the victories over Napoleon and Hitler – a vacuous version of the USSR’s more architecturally imaginative hurrah-patriotism. Other 1990s stations seem to sit halfway between optimistic late-Soviet futurism and something more ambiguous. Rimskaya, for instance, is in its main hall another science-fiction hangar, but examine its sculptures and you find babies atop collapsed columns, allegedly a reference to Romulus and Remus, but with an obvious pertinence to a more recently collapsed empire. Much more coherent is something like the Dostoevskaya station, finished in 2010 – here we have a narrative station again, with macabre little illustrations of scenes from Dostoevsky’s novels, executed by artist Ivan Nikolayev in a creepy, cartoonish style far from Tsereteli’s clumsy heroics. As if as a joke at the authoritarianism behind the Metro, a looming portrait of the author himself stares out at the commuter at the end of one of the vaults. Today maybe, it’s still as Brecht wrote in 1935, where “men, women and children, greybeards as well/ turned to the stations, beaming as if at the theatre”. But whether we can say, as he did, that the Metro’s “builders are the proprietors” is another matter.

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