Their palaces are for Pharaohs, but ours are for the people.
– Alexey Dushkin, Soviet architect, 1935.
On 15 May 1935, the Moscow Metro – then one 11km line serving 13 stations – was opened, much to the delight of the Muscovites. Mass celebrations flooded the streets, as citizens chanted ‘Songs of the Joyous Metro Conquerors‘; elsewhere, the Bolshoi Theatre put on a choral concert of 2,200 Metro workers. As the quotation above well illustrates, this had not been a project completed sparingly nor prudently; instead, it was a chauvinist display of Soviet superiority, and, as such, the architecture was defined by opulence and grandeur.
The achievement was hardly insignificant: Khrushchev, years later, explained that he thought it “probably easier to contemplate space flights today than it was for us to contemplate the construction of the Moscow Metro in the early 1930s”, whilst in the 2014 novel The Underground the Soviet protagonist described the Metro as “the subconscious of Soviet building; its collective unconscious, its archetype. What was left unrealised […] on the surface was achieved underground”.
Yet, despite the Metro’s enduring presence in the public psyche, the designs were not so consistent: in the 1960s, Khrushchev began to move away from the richness and splendour, favouring standardisation and minimalism; and, from the end of the 1970s, into the modern age, a ‘third way’ between the two has been pursued.
Although the degree varies from location to location, the broad focus of the Metro stations of the 1930s until the mid-1950s was to exude flamboyance and splendour – it was a style defined by rich materials, intricate details, and curved, open spaces. The designers of the time knew that they would not exceed the technological superiority of the West; instead, their victory would be aesthetic. In fact, according to a section from How We Built the Metro, Kaganovich (the project manager and main political advocate for the Metro), when asked by his architects “What kind of stations shall we make?”, responded, “Beautiful stations.”
To ensure variation and avoid monotony, in contrast to many of the stations of the West, each of the eleven stations on the first line were designed by different architects, with varying styles. And through this majesty, it was intended, the metro would instil within the Soviet populace a sense of wonderment and empowerment; as Tijana Vujosevic explained, “the peasant, the worker […] sees in the Metro a realisation of his might, of his power.” Marble columns and grand mosaics, previously reserved for the wealthiest, now littered these constructions: in fact, more marble was used in the stations of this first line – 23,000 square metres worth – than in all of the Tsar’s palaces in the period between 1867 and 1917.
It seems fitting to begin with Stalin’s favourite Metro station – Mayakovskaya, completed in 1938. Above the floor of red, grey, and black marble – well-shined and carefully composed – were arched marble columns, encasing stainless steel strips. Overwhelmingly clear was the openness and volume, intended to represent the plenty and extravagance of the wider Soviet regime. Similarly, it was hoped that the steel columns would suggest strength and durability, and the flair and intricacy of the Art Deco-inspired wall patterns and roof lights emanate splendour.
Soviet Art Deco influence does not end there, however: indeed, it can be seen in the Aeroport station, completed in 1938. A lattice of intersecting ribs extended across the curved ceiling, originating from red marble parallelograms, intended to sustain a feeling of lightness. On the walls, the colour changed from black to red to white, whilst diamond-shaped – a not-so-subtle allusion towards wealth and luxury – lights were embedded into the ceiling, replacing the chandeliers that used to hang there.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, light was a serious consideration for the early stations – Soviet planners considered marble shining in great detail, not wanting to fall short of the expected brilliance. In Elektrozavodskaya, hundreds of lights were placed in recesses in the ceiling to minimise shadow and uniformly distribute light.
Not everywhere was as otherworldly: chandeliers still hung in the more classical Komsomolskaya, a station renowned for its Baroque ceiling, which was painted a bright yellow and carried incredibly complex marble ornaments.
Between even these three stations, the extent of variation, in terms of form, design, and spaces, certainly was extreme. In fact, not all stations even included pillars, such as the Biblioteka Imeni Lenina, constructed in 1935, which could be considered the apogee of the openness so sought.
Still, the zenith of architectural flamboyance is widely seen as the early 1950s, when stations became even more extravagant in appearance. Perhaps the most convincing example of this is the 1950 station Park Kultury: the ceiling, for instance, was incredibly complex in its geometry, whilst the grey marble pillars – imported from Georgia – and ancient-Greek inspired floor were as eclectic and diverse as in the most globally-inspired of underground stations.
However, after the death of Stalin, this trend began to reverse towards the mundane and monotone. In 1954, Khrushchev condemned the “excess” in architecture as “superfluous” in an official decree, and, later that year, Leonid Polyakov was stripped of the Stalin Prize he had won only a year earlier for the Oktyabrskaya station.
Construction styles shifted towards ‘centipedes’, which were semi-standardised, shallow stations, with halls cladded with tile and marble. In the words of Owen Hatherly, the Metro became a “Berlin-style U-Bahn that could have been built in the early 1930s if the vainglorious values of Stalinism had not got in the way”.
Efficiency, both in terms of cost and space, was prioritised almost immediately: for instance, VDNKh, finished in 1958, was initially planned to be adorned with rich mosaics but instead was finished with a garish green paint. Curves and complexity, for the large part, disappeared, as can be seen in the Pervomayskaya station, finished in 1961: the muted rectangular red marble pillars, flat ceiling, and mostly monochrome tiled walls were a world away from the constructions only 10 years earlier. The repetitive rows of columns gave rise to the name ‘centipedes’, a style repeated in the stations of, among many others, Prospekt Vernadskogo, Yugo-Zapadnaya, Vodny Stadion, and Kuntsevskaya in 1963, 1964, and 1965.
The general structure was mostly unchanged: as can be seen from the design of the Arbatskaya station, constructed in 1953, long, narrow corridors with interspersed columns had long been the norm. Most of the negative changes, therefore, were the deprivation of ornaments and form of the interior.
Profsoyuznaya is perhaps the most convincing example of the mundanity of this era – its grey marble pillars were largely uninteresting, whilst the flatter ceiling created a claustrophobic and restrictive atmosphere. In addition, the walls were tiled in a diamond pattern of white ceramic tile, with no variation in colour or tone; even the floor’s colours were dull and muted.
Between 1958 and 1966, surface-level and overground stations became more prevalent amongst designs, despite the impracticality of Moscow’s winter weather. These were particularly minimalist, as can be seen in the Izmaylovskaya metro station of 1961, an austere construction of white marble pillars and canopy.
It was as late as 1970 that the conventions began to re-align, when an architectural journal, Arkhitektura Moskvy, criticised the design of the ‘centipedes’. Later that year, an official decree denouncing the absence of ‘individuality’ in recent designs corroborated the sentiment.
One of the first stations to be orchestrated and completed under the new mode-de-faire was Kutnetsky Most. This station was a column tri-vault, a style unused since the 1950s. The marble archways and patterned granite floor, too, would have been much more at home in earlier years. However, the designs had not entirely rid themselves of a certain ‘dullness’ – the colours and gleam were still markedly muted in the station, whilst the flairs and trills of the Art Deco style were notably absent.
On the whole, that was the trend: greater variation and wilder forms re-emerged, although the decor and colour schemes still fell short of the extravagance of the first few lines. Similar criticisms apply for a station finished in the same year, Pushkinskaya of the Tagansko- Krasnopresnenskaya line: while the stylised 19th Century chandeliers, white marble columns, and patterned arches somewhat harkened back to the splendour of bygone years, the dark grey granite floor, in conjunction with the grey walls and ceiling, was excessively mundane, and the decor was still very much lacking in sophistication.
Moving closer to the old trend was 1983’s Chertanovskaya, which, although rather similar in style to Kropotkinskaya (1935) with its abnormal column geometry, was, nevertheless, overflowing with mild greys and whites and therefore lacked some of the exuberance of the 1930s.
Another quasi-mimic is Babushkinskaya, which was particularly reminiscent of 1935’s Biblioteka Imeni Lenina as a single-vault station with no columns. Although quite minimalist in its decor, the lights embedded within the ceiling provided a gleam that was somewhat lacking from the ‘30s equivalent. Even though the early stations may have been an aesthetic peak, they had little practicality to their design.
Greater variation between stations made a welcome return, as can be seen in the example of the slightly avant-garde Yasenevo station from 1990. The colour scheme and rich marble are certainly closer to the loudness of the 1950s, yet the regularity of the columns and rigidness of the structures are distinctly ‘centipedal’.
Perhaps the station most likely to rival the earliest flashiness is 1979’s Aviamotornaya. Given that it showcases a floor of granite, in different shades of grey, and light-toned marble columns, it may not sound particularly intriguing. However, what set this station apart from others of its time was the roof of quadrangular gold pyramids, lighting up the central vault.
At its opening, Shchusev suggested that the “Moscow Metro can justly be called the most beautiful in the World” – an assertion clearly corroborated by others, as, according to The Times of 17 March 1936, the Metro was “hailed from the Baltic to the Pacific as though it were the work of Shakespeare and Lindbergh in one”. While that is debatable, what is certain is that the architecture had found its feet again, after some rough years under the minimalism and rigid utilitarianism of Khrushchev.
Even if there are similarities between all three styles, it’s clear that the architects do not wish to linger in the shadow of 1930s glamour, and, instead, intend to form a distinct route for future projects: whether for better or worse is subjective.
Hatherley, O., 2015. Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings. Penguin Books Limited.
Hatherley, O., 2019. Soviet Metro Stations. FUEL Publishing.
Ismailov, H., translated by Ermakova, C., 2015. The Underground. Restless Books.
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