Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The people's palace. The moscow metro as a monument to socialist construction

It is one of the wonders of the modern world,yet one which draws few tourists. Built in 1935 by Soviet governement, the Moscow Metro is more than just a public transport system. It is arguably one of the most ambitious and spectacular infrastructural projects ever undertaken.Over 7 million people use the Moscow Metro every day.

One of the many intriguing aspects of the Metro is the fact that it combines form and functionality in a truly unique way. The walls of each station, many of them curved, are covered with marble slabs while the ceilings are predominantly curved or covered by mosaics depicting the new soviet society under construction.
Mayakovskaya Metro station , for example,was inspired by the communist futurism of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The design of the Mayakovsky station is a wonderful mixture of Art Deco and soviet functionalism. The columns are elegant with stainless steel and pink rhodonite while the walls contain white Ufaley and Diorite marble. As you ascend the gigantic elevator tunnel guided by rows of elegant lanterns, the captivating opulence of the walls, columns and flooring gives way to a scene of breathtaking magnificence as you gaze upon the iridescent mosaic covering the ceiling of the foyer.

Designed by the artist Deinika, the mosaic is entitled ' A Day in the Land of the Soviets' As you ascend the elevator tunnel, the narrative of the ceiling mosaic begins to unfold: workers rise in the morning, amble happily into the fields and factories to work not labour, then as you traverse the foyer you are accompanied by an image overhead of workers returning to their beds at sunset. This is pure architectural ecstasy, an ingenius marriage of form and function, and perhaps even of ideology and reality in so far as the magnificence of the Metro's design is truly uplifting and awe-inspiring. This is the effect which Stalin and his architects Kaganovitch and Dushkin wanted to create.

The elaborate design of the Metro was intended to raise the confidence and prestige of the working classes. It would show to the common worker what could be achieved if wealth was poured back into society and co-operation for the common good replaced the ideology of personal greed.

In fact, due to its sheer sumptuosity the Metro became known as the 'People's Palaces' and there was much discourse in Russia at the time about what the Metro was meant to represent. There were even children's books based on the Metro. One such book called 'Ready! Stories and poems from the metro' tells of a peasant whose daughter is working in the Metro. When he enters the subway he remarks to hs daughter
"what a rich life the tzars lived. It's like a fairy tale. And the train goes right up to the palaces- so that's how it was set up"
His daughter laughs and replies " it isn't the tzars who live so well, papa, it is we. I have brought you underground'" The old man is so overwhelmed by the beauty of the metro that he decides to move to Moscow to join his daughter where he rides the Metro every day. The story is a striking illustration of the transformation of consciousness which the Metro engenders.

Each station of this underground city has its own palace, its own unique design and style, combining the best architectural paradigms from the past from Greek classicism to Gothic and Art Deco styles, the Moscow Metro suffuses the entire history of public space with early optimism of revolutionary soviet man. The Moscow Metro is also the deepest in the world and one of the most efficient. It was designed to serve as a shelter during aerial bombardment.

Whatever one may think about the legacy of Stalin, the Moscow Metro is unquestionably one of his most profound achievements. Perhaps for the first time in human history the working class people were infused with a belief in themselves(albeit deeply problematic) and the possibilities of a better future. Now SUVs, Mercs and Audis rule Moscow's streets, while the working classes roam Moscow's subterranean palaces, haunted by the unfulfilled promises of a lost civilisation.

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