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Architecture: Moscow's Soviet legacy

Darragh McKeon
27 January 2014

If walls could talk... Darragh McKeon takes a wander through Moscow's Soviet-era buildings

On a winter morning in 1932, Alexey Shchusev, the old master of Russian architecture, unveiled his plans for a new hotel. He designed two options for the façade of the building: one Art Nouveau, the other Soviet Constructivism. Stalin, ever impatient, immediately signed his name to the plans. Somewhat problematically, he didn't indicate a preference and signed his name in the middle of the page. Not wanting to incur the leader's wrath, Shchusev made a shrewd decision: half the façade would be Art Nouveau, half Constructivist. So it stood like that for 69 years, a testament to the schizophrenic nature of communist ideals. 

Mies van der Rohe, the famed German architect, thought of architecture as, ‘The will of an epoch, translated into space'. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Moscow. A walk through the Russian capital is a path through the contradictions of the Soviet century.

Arriving in the city, you'll immediately be ushered underground. Stepping through the barriers of the Moscow Metro, you'll find yourself immersed in a warren of marble colonnades, with cornices painted in gold leaf and rows of chandeliers. And once you get over the scale and the grandeur, you'll see the stained-glass mosaics that line the walls or direct your gaze to the ceiling. And then you'll peer a little closer and realise that the depictions are of peasant families in the fields, factory workers lugging heavy machine parts, cleaners and repairmen crowded together at a parade. All of this opulence created to celebrate the simple worker. 

Stalin was far from being the first totalitarian leader to use architecture for his own glorification, but surely no one did it with such sweeping disregard for the hypocrisy of his actions. Twelve million of those same peasants were crushed during the process of land grabs or collectivisation. As for the factory workers, an estimated 26 million of them were exiled or imprisoned in Stalin's notorious gulags, often for such woeful crimes as being late for a shift or taking a work pencil home in their shirt pocket. 

Even the chandeliers you pass under were designed to burn brightly using relatively small amounts of energy. Stalin insisted on such details, encouraging the common worker to embrace the potential of the svetloe budushchee, the ‘radiant future' that was always just around the corner. 

The Russians have their own equivalent of It's a Wonderful Life. Made in 1975 and shown every Christmas, the film The Irony of Fate is a romantic comedy of errors. Zhenya, the chief protagonist, wakes up drunk in an airport, stumbles outside for a taxi, which drops him at his apartment. He opens his door and collapses into bed. A few hours later he's woken to a scream from Nadya, a stranger, who starts telephoning the police. Nadya's apartment has the same furniture as Zhenya's: same lock, same door number, same building, same street name. But he's in a different city. 

Walk away from the central Arabat district towards the suburbs and you begin to understand why such a film appeals to the caustic Russian sense of humour. The ubiquitous Soviet tower blocks still dominate, each resembling the other, each street the same as the next. Such buildings did indeed breed individualist, interchangeable lives, instead of the fixed communities to which the authorities claimed to aspire. Even in the 1970s the number of KGB informers in the Soviet Union were estimated to be in the region of 11 million, so it's not unreasonable to estimate that there was at least one person watching and listening on each floor of each building. 

The Moskva was demolished in 2004, replaced with a full reproduction, due to open this year. Traditionalists have called it an ‘insipid pastiche of the original', the new-wave elite regard it as a sleek modern upgrade. And yes, they kept the original façade, the old oppositions lingering still.