Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tubeway Army

I spent a week in Moscow recently where FAT were doing a workshop at the Strelka Institute (of which more, maybe, later). I didn't have too much time for site seeing and, anyway, Owen has recently written a huge post on Moscow that included - along with much else - the one or two architectural gems I managed to see so, rather than reproduce a less well-informed imitation of that here, I've decided to focus on a just a couple of things. The first was the Moscow Metro, where ignorance turned out to be a virtue. Apparently, you're not supposed to take photographs of it but I was blissfully unaware of this fact and wandered around happily snapping away at everything.

The metro really is a thing of wonder. Much of it was built immediately pre and post the Second World War in successive waves of construction, although given the extraordinary soviet realist neo-baroque style chosen you would be hard pushed to know which century it came from. This is the thing with Stalinist era art and architecture which is more Stalinist era than anything else, a historical oddity existing outside normal time. Which is probably why someone like Aldo Rossi admired it so much. Anyway, the first station we came to was Mayakovsaya, completed in the 1930's to Alexy Dushkin's design. Untypically, it is far 'modern' looking than most of the stations, containing elements of futurism, art-deco and modernism alongside a stripped and streamlined classicism.

It has a series of deco-ish metal ribbed vaults marching along the impressive length of the platform. The stations, in general, are fantastically straightforward in relation to the counter-intuitive maze of London's tube, where east and west direction trains often depart from platforms that seem to bear no logical spatial relationship to each other. Instead, the Moscow Metro stations are like a series of giant interconnected underground churches, each with a central nave lined by arches behind which are the platforms.

The 'nave' is the excuse for outbursts of heroic artworks telling various stories about the Russian people. At Mayakovsaya, a series of beautifully lit elliptical coffers are filled with exquisite mosaics (by Alexander Deyneka) of parachuting astronauts, pole vaulting Olympians and heroic combine harvester operators, all of which seem to be flying through the air above you. Collectively they're called "24-Hour Soviet Sky".

Sculptures of Muscovite's defending the city during the war crouch within the arches of Ploschad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) station, designed by Alexi Dushkin in 1938. The sculptures are fabulous agglomerations of everyday people in vaguely classical poses but armed with various bits of weaponry. One of the sculptures includes a large dog whose nose it's lucky to stroke so that it's now polished to a fantastic sheen, always a healthy sign in an animal.

Elsewhere, equally extraordinary marble reliefs depict all sorts of scenes of communal endeavor and collective fortitude. Guns are assembled, shells polished and machinery adjusted, all rendered in a flattened, very very vaguely modernist influenced tableaux. This is architecture as explicit communication, an attempt to make a comprehensive and public language in which to tell collective stories. In some ways its similar to all forms of literal historicism. Anachronisms tend to abound as pre-modern form and figuration accommodates itself to contemporary objects and scenes.

Spanners, for some reason, take on an almost mythical significance within these narratives, appearing repeatedly throughout them as if the entire world is literally being bolted together from newly forged parts as we watch. They are symbols perhaps of a personal and direct involvement in progress, the everyday currency of industrialisation.

All this is strangely reminiscent of early 20th century American architecture, particularly the faux-medievalism of ivy league campuses and the early skyscrapers of New York, Chicago and Buffalo. A quick departure from Moscow back to New Haven illustrates this. The picture above was taken in the Stirling Memorial Library on Yale's campus. It's an amazing building, another cathedral, this time used to hold books. Inside it a vaulted cloister runs around a small external courtyard. Stone figures representing learning and study form capitals from which the ribs of the vault spring. The last one of these depicts a boy listening to a radio, a cherubic figure wearing a pair of incongruous carved stone headphones. The interesting difference is that it is information and media that is celebrated in stone in the Stirling, as opposed to industry, wartime fortitude and physical work in the Metro.

Komsomolskaya Koltsevaya Station, designed in the 1950's by Alexy Shchusev, is possibly the most over the top of all, a florid outpouring of both neo-baroque decoration and political propaganda fused into a spectacularly palatial interior. The alcoves here illustrate Stalin's famous 1941 speech raising the morale of the Russian people for defending their city against the Nazis and recalling earlier sieges. The stations have a literal defensive quality of course in that they are excessively deep and built to act as bomb shelters in the war.

A section of the speech is reproduced in a stone mural at one end of the station, featuring an enormous assemblage of weaponry represented in blocks of marble with all the formal clarity of a cartoon. Thick black outlines around the objects accentuate their inadvertent pop art qualities, like Claus Oldenburg doing Soviet Realism.

Sometimes the stations tip over into a kind of Sci-fi Baroque, a fantastic marriage between futuristic grooviness and stolid but impressive neo-classicism. Such stations have an undeniably high camp quality, theatrical, over the top and wonderful, like the sets for 2001. Underground railways and space stations share much in common in fact. Warren-like, submerged in blackness and thus, to some extent, unknowable, they are all interior, a series of corridors leading to yet more corridors and spaces where artificial lighting takes on a metaphorical significance*.

Even when more straightforwardly classical in inspiration, the stations are still full of incongruities. Into their huge ballroom-like spaces roll distinctly old fashioned trains. Uncompromisingly utilitarian backlit display signs with stylish municipal fonts are randomly juxtaposed with extravagant chandelier lighting and hung unceremoniously from the arches. The whole place is a rich and undeniably impressive mixture of 19th century architecture, twentieth century technology and Moscow's particularly 21st century form of chaotic, anarchistic capitalism. Of which more soon......

* The endless unknowability of the science-fiction interior is the subject of J G Ballard's short story Report On An Unidentified Space Station.