Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Generations of Russian leaders have imposed their visions on the city's vast subway network.
The vast Moscow Metro, one of the largest and busiest subway systems in the world, is in the middle of a rapid expansion: Between 2015 and 2020, the system is adding dozens of stations. For the historians of the 83-year-old transit network, it’s a lot to keep track of. Thankfully, Nikolai Vassiliev has it covered.
The recently released Moscow Metro Architecture & Design Map (Blue Crow Media) is curated by Vassiliev, an architecture historian; it provides descriptions and photos of a little more than 40 of the system’s most architecturally notable stations. The history of Moscow’s Metro is layered with political and architectural meaning, as succeeding generations impose their own visions on the system; the ornate stations of the Stalin era have more recently given way to more utilitarian facilities. To find out more about how the Moscow Metro gets designed, and where the system’s new stations will fit into this story, CityLab asked Vassiliev a few questions via email; our interview has been condensed and edited.
For much of the world, Moscow’s Metro conjures up images of very palatial, neoclassical stations. What percentage of the system actually looks like that?
The first order of construction was primarily designed in a Soviet version of Art Deco, with some remains of avant-garde forms. Parts of the second and third orders, which opened in 1938 and 1943, are like this as well. Stations built from that point until the end of the 1950s can be described as Neoclassical with Empire-style motifs , usually for post-war projects treated as war memorials. These make up a little less than a quarter of the total stations in the system, but they are the most visited ones in the center and main line interchanges. Only 44 of total 214 stations are listed as historical monuments, including a few from the ‘50s and nothing since.
Politically, who’s in the room when it’s decided where Metro is going to expand and what it will look like?
Throughout Metro’s history that has always been a complicated process, with very high-level authorities involved. In the middle of the 1930s, roughly a quarter of the city’s budget was spent on Metro construction needs. One of Stalin’s closest fellows, Lazar Kaganovich—who was Moscow head at this time, as well as Party Secretary—curated Metro construction in its advent. After receiving a promotion as People’s Commissar for Transport, he was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who had previously served as First Secretary of the Moscow Regional Committee.
Since the 1960s, Metro construction has been nearly as important for the economy and for transit planning, but it’s not nearly as ideological. Decisions are made in the Moscow City Department of Urban Planning and Architecture. Some technical questions, like integration with other transit systems, are done through the Department of Transport.
Each period of the system’s growth seems to be attributed to whoever was running the country at the time. So what are the defining design features of a Putin-era Metro station?
We can’t organize Metro’s post-Soviet architecture so simply. From 1992 to 2010, it was all “Luzhkov Style”—named after longtime mayor Yuri Luzhkov. These stations were late-Postmodern and rather silly.
The current mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Metro director Dmitry Gayev envision a more pragmatic style focused on improving transit efficiency and making construction profitable for their affiliated contractors. The stations that have opened in the last year or two and the ones opening later this year are built in the traditional paradigm, mostly by Metrogiprotrans Institute. But a new approach contains two main aspects: to spend less on architecture and invite more young architects via competitions. They cut costs and add to the positive public image of a new urban policy by doing this, but they lose out on the expertise of older architecture and engineering professionals. Contrary to the Sochi Olympics and World Cup, this architecture has no significant political meaning, except to present a general approach to funding public infrastructure and to “calm down” Moscow’s opposition electorate.
The Putin-era style started not when he took office in 2000, but in 2010 and through 2014, with a new Moscow mayor taking office and the construction for the Sochi Olympics. A contemporary style was introduced during this period by State contracts, not private developers. For the most part, these designs are pretty neutral—even boring. But on average they show significantly improved technical quality.
How much of the attention to Metro design and planning is for convincing wealthier people to ditch their cars?
Personal car usage became such a strong marker of social success in the 1990s and 2000s in Moscow and the city [is known for its]many, many Maybachs and Porsches. It seems impossible to get the generation that is now between 40 and 55 years old to switch to public transportation.
Who are some of the younger architecture firms behind these new stations?
Some of the younger offices that won recent competitions specialize in above-ground projects like shopping malls and apartment towers but I can’t say these works are distinct. The same goes for Russia’s new airports, a few of which were built in time for the World Cup. We’re seeing a slow decline in Soviet-origin institutions and the rise of new architecture firms.
What does Metro and its architecture symbolize to the typical Muscovite today, and how has that meaning changed over the years?
For today’s typical Metro user, the modern stations prevail as the standard image of the system. But except for few recent ones made with monumental mosaics or clever forms, these stations aren’t perceived as architecture at all. The historical stations, however, still play a very special role in the city’s image, like its Stalin-era skyscrapers and pre-Revolution tenements, churches, and mansions.